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The modern concept of reincarnation

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Gati or existences - Jainism(The drawing illustrating how the soul travels to any one of the four states of existence after the death depending on its karmas, according to Jainism.)


It was towards the end of the nineteenth century that reincarnation is rediscovered in the West, under the influence, first, of a renewed interest in the occult and the esoteric, and partly thanks to the systematic study of religions from India (Hinduism and Buddhism) by Western anthropologists and philosophers (including Schopenhauer).

Several esoteric groups put reincarnation (or at least a Western version of reincarnation) in the heart of their teachings. Among these include the Theosophical Society founded by Helena Blavatsky in 1875, or the Anthroposophical Society founded by Rudolf Steiner in 1913.

Moreover, the spiritualist doctrine, codified by Allan Kardec in The Book of Spirits in 1857, is partly based on the belief in reincarnation. The Antoinist cult whose founder Louis Antoine was interested in the works of Kardec, also teaches reincarnation after the death in a human body only, meant to reflect the degree of spiritual elevation of the individual. This one does not remember his past lives but can make spiritual progress to achieve the divine state issued from the cycle of reincarnation.

Today, the continuation of this tradition is also reflected in part in the New Age movement.

Works of the psychiatrist Ian Stevenson

The Canadian psychiatrist Ian Stevenson is known to have sought and analyzed suggestive cases of reincarnation – more than formally proving in his words – about young children that still could have the memory of their past life, with 210 cases of children who claim to remember their previous life and have a birth defect in which the researcher says there is a correlation with an injury to the deceased.

These works are widely accepted by the scientific community because it is based on evidence and that he could be deceived by families, the influence of translators and their beliefs, the bias of the members of his team, his propensity to confirmation bias – Stevenson has not published the results contradictory to the hypothesis – or his credulity. His xenoglossy of case studies have been criticized by linguists as lacking enough solid evidence: the subjects studied (in a state of hypnosis) have low vocabulary (one hundred words) and do not form complex sentences in response to questions put to them, limited to a few words.

Stevenson, however, found defenders and even admirers, like the Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm or the Buddhist historian Dominique Lormier. According to researcher J. Gordon Melton, Stevenson’s research on the xenoglossy provide substantial evidence for reincarnation and he considers that to date (in 2007) no one produced a convincing refutation of his work.

Radical increase in life expectancy and artificial reincarnation

It was suggested that a form of artificial reincarnation (without actual death) could be created. This is one of the ideas to qualify the one that says that life expectancy greatly increased (or immortality) is synonymous with boredom. This idea is part of the transhumanist current.

The memories of a living being could be totally or partially deleted. He might then discover again what he forgot willingly, perhaps even from the point of birth. He could then live a new “life”.

Scientists are already interested in treatments to forget specific experiences (traumatic events), and current research on amnesia gradually reveal the mechanisms of oblivion.

In the futuristic context of the transfer of the mind on the computer, erasing selected memories would likely be a mere formality. All of this is of course, for now, the field of science fiction and speculation.


Other authors criticize reincarnation as an unorthodox or non-traditional doctrine, from a poor understanding of ancient texts by authors who confused the symbol with the thing symbolized.

Arthur Schopenhauer

In a philosophical approach marked by a radical existential pessimism – a true “philosophy of boredom” – Arthur Schopenhauer sees reincarnation as a metaphor to explain the necessary identification of the individual with all creatures, with all life, haveing the same “will to live” that alone is transmitted, unlike the soul or intellect. Thus demarcating spiritualists and “absurdities that accompany the doctrine of the transmigration of souls,” he does not believe in personal reincarnation, but, following the “esoteric Buddhism”, he develops the idea of palingenesis, not without blame the passages from Judaism and Christianity having rejected reincarnation, “this primitive and consoling conviction for humanity.”

For Denis Müller, the approach of Schopenhauer’s interest back to the Eastern sources of reincarnation, putting the antithesis of a Western optimistic, progressive and evolutionary  “reincarnationism” to modern incarcate by G. E. Lessing or Rudolph Steiner.

Ramana Maharshi

Ramana Maharshi:

– Auditor: “But then, reincarnation? ”

– Maharshi: “Reincarnation exists only within the limits of your ignorance. There is no reincarnation, there never was and there never will be. That’s the truth.”

– Auditor: “But what then becomes the ego?”

– Maharshi: “The ego appears, disappears. It is ephemeral, transient, while the Self remains permanent. Although in truth you are actively Self, you still identify the real Self with the false Self, the ego. “.

Rene Guenon

In 1923, Rene Guenon says in his book The Spiritualist Error that reincarnation is impossible otherwise to all the teachings of orthodox traditional doctrines: “The term reincarnationmust be distinguished from two other words at least, that have meaning entirely different, and which are those of metempsychosis and transmigration; these are things that were well known to the ancients, as they still are to Orientals, but that modern Westerners, inventors of reincarnation, are absolutely unaware. […] The former, in fact, have never considered such a transmigration (the man in animal or vice versa), no more than the man in other men, as might define reincarnation.”

In The symbolism of the cross and in The multiple states of being, Guenon says that our world is not a state among an indefinite other currently inaccessible worlds. Body mode (the one that capture our senses and is studied by science) in all its possible extension, fully including the time and space, is only one plane of reality in an indefinite succession of other worlds that must pass through our superior personality. At death all that is subject to this world and characterizes an individual is dissolved (including memory and the vital or psychic force) and mind is going into another world, with no memory of the previous. In this endless chain go through the same state (the same world) is a metaphysical impossibility. For this author transmigration and “rebirth” which countless sacred text never speak perform twice in the same world. Upon dissolution after death, some psychological complex abandoned by the death can be picked up by new emerging individuals. Like certain memories or certain physical or intellectual abilities, it also explains all the exceptional phenomena that proponents of reincarnation, when they are in good faith, offer as proof of their theory.

Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy

For Ananda Coomaraswamy, reincarnation comes from a popular misunderstanding of the doctrine of transmigration and not part of the doctrines of Hinduism, “although the old and recent writings and ritual practices of Hinduism have been studied by European scholars for over a century, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that we could perfectly give an accurate description of Hinduism as a categorical denial to most of the statements that have been made, as by European scholars and by Hindus trained in modern ways of thinking and skeptical evolutionists. For example … The concept of “reincarnation” in the ordinary sense of rebirth on earth of dead people, only represents a misunderstanding of the doctrines of heredity, transmigration and regeneration.”

“It is quite contrary to Buddhism, as well as to Vedanta, to thinkourselvesas to randomly wandering beings in the fatal vortex flow of the world (samsara). Our immortal Self is anything but a individuality that survives. It is not this man, a so and so who returns to his home and disappears from view, but the prodigal Self who remembers himself.”

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