Modern reincarnation and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s prophecy of The Third Testament

“A more influential attempt to formulate a melioristic view of reincarnation was undertaken by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) toward the end of his theological and philosophical essay Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechtes, published in 1780.”, Lessing sees the history of mankind as a story of ever greater insight and perfection. Earlier religions had merely been didactic instruments, preludes to a truly humanitarian faith. Historically, Judaism and Christianity have been the two great educating influences on mankind. However, the next step in the spiritual evolution of humanity would soon take place. This tripartite scheme of history resembles that of Joachim of Fiore and the Joachimites, and Lessing implicitly credits them with the theory of three ages. Soon to have an influence also on Blavatsky.”

Michael Cremo mentions extraterrestrials ala Zechariah Sitchin and reincarnation. Mikey Brass who has written a good critiques on part of Michael Cremo‘s palaeontology, on the other hand states that he provided material for a book on “a forgotten Race” and reincarnation in our time. The book with a chapter titled “Big Bang Was a Dawn of Brahma,” suggests advanced souls incarnated and the laws of universal karma dictated they should perish. With this new trend  in popular archaeology it is worthwhile to look at the history of these modern pseudo-scientific myths.

Several polls carried out in North America and Europe show that the professed belief in reincarnation is widespread. A mere century ago, reincarnation belief was marginal. The two main bastions of this creed were the spiritist subculture in France and the membership of the Theosophical Society. If one goes back another century, to the turn of the nineteenth century, belief in reincarnation was almost unknown in the West.

The fact that reincarnation is designated by the same label as reincarnation doctrines of Oriental or other provenance should not obscure the fact that the various beliefs display considerable differences.

The belief in reincarnation prevalent in certain in Neoplatonism, was largely eclipsed during centuries of Christian hegemony, and reentered the Western history of ideas with the revival of interest in the Kabbala.

The transmigration of souls or gilgul became a major doctrinal element with the sixteenth century school of Isaac Luria (1534-1572). Lunia’s own doctrines were basically an esoteric teaching reserved for the initiated, and were set down in writing by his disciples. Lurianic texts were translated from Hebrew into Latin by Christian Knorr von Rosenroth as part of his Kabbala denudata, published in three volumes, the first two in 1677-78 and the last in 1684. Francois Mercure van Helmont (1614-1699), believed that the doctrine of transmigration of souls could be made the cornerstone of a universal Christianity: by this means, the souls of individuals who had lived in the wrong time and place to have heard of the Gospel would have a chance of salvation. Van Helmont in turn influenced Anne Conway who openly defended transmigration.

A more  influential attempt to formulate a melioristic view of reincarnation was undertaken by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) toward the end of his theological and philosophical essay Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechtes, published in 1780.”, Lessing sees the history of mankind as a story of ever greater insight and perfection. Earlier religions had merely been didactic instruments, preludes to a truly humanitarian faith. Historically, Judaism and Christianity have been the two great educating influences on mankind. However, the next step in the spiritual evolution of humanity would soon take place. This tripartite scheme of history resembles that of Joachim of Fiore and the Joachimites, and Lessing implicitly credits them with the theory of three ages. Soon to have an influence also on Blavatsky.

Belief in reincarnation soon took the leap from the pages of Enlightenment philosophers to the seance rooms. Thus by 1790, a small proto-spiritualist circle in Copenhagen led by the brother-in-law of the Danish king Christian VII, prince Karl of Hessen-Kassel, had been instructed in a reincarnationist doctrine resembling that of Kant and Lessing by a voice speaking from a white cloud. The wife of the Danish minister of foreign affairs, Auguste von Bernstorff, who was one of the five members, was proclaimed to be an incarnation of Mary Magdalene. It would take another six decades before the belief in reincarnation spread from such small groups of occultists and freethinkers to a somewhat larger audience of religious seekers. The basic mechanism of belief-the intervention of spiritual entities-would remain remarkably unchanged for another century.

Jean-Baptiste Willermoz conducted sessions with a talented somnambule, asking her questions to which, with the aid of the spirit world, she was able to give authoritative answers which were recorded in detail. The first documented afterlife beliefs of the mesmerist milieu are notes dating from 1785, which are infused with Christian mythology: the dead go to heaven, hell or purgatory; or alternatively, their destiny will be decided on the day of judgement. (N. Edelman Voyantes, guerisseuses et visionnaires en France 1765-1914, 1995, p. 23. ff)

Kardec adopted the method introduced by Willermoz, Le livre des esprit’s was reprinted in numerous editions, other spiritists adopted his beliefs, and reincarnation became part of the canonical doctrines of the French spiritist movement.

Two discursive strategies are central to Kardec’s work. The first is the reliance on revealed truth. Kardec’s book of more than 470 pages does not refer to a single contemporary printed source or spokesperson. At most, the reader that belief in reincarnation has existed since times immemonal among the Pythagoreans, Hindus and Egyptians.

The rhetorical strength behind this strategy is hardly in doubt: every last detail recorded in Le livre des esprits is directly taken from the dictation of the spirits. The form of the book reflects this method: it is basically a pastiche of Christian catechisms, with Kardec’s questions followed by the spirits’ answers in quotation marks.

His position is an innovation compared with earlier speculations: deceased spirits can never regress-, at worst, their progress towards God is merely halted temporarily. In short, Kardec lets the spirits elevate a morally justified hope to the status of revealed truth.

To strengthen his case, Kardec resorts to a second strategy, scientism. Already, the first mesmerist or somnambulist sessions were conceived of as methods of empirically exploring invisible dimensions of the cosmos. Spiritism uses the same rhetorical move to gain legitimacy. Thus, Kardec repeatedly and explicitly refers to his method as a new science.

Several elements of what would become theosophical reincarnation doctrine were already in place. The human soul reincarnates in order to progress spiritually. Incarnations take place not only on earth, but also on other planets. However the English channel was a formidable barrier to the spread of Kardecist theories of reincarnation, which did not gain much influence in the Anglo-American world until around 1880. (Godwin “Theosophical Enlightenment”)

The first link to Theosophy was lady Caithness, she became the recipient of a series of mediumistic revelations from sources as diverse as Mary Stuart and the archangel Gabriel. These messages were set down in writing and, over a period of twenty years, grew into a series of books. The second link, Anna Kingsford, made the acquaintance of lady Caithness while studying medicine in Paris.

Kingsford, which in other English, was the creator of a religious worldview clearly based on Kardec’s and the other French spiritists’ melioristic beliefs. In her main work, The Perfect Way or the Finding of Christ, published in 1882, she explains in typically evolutionist language how the soul aspires to progress from plant to animal to human, and finally to leave the physical body behind. Anna Kingsford herself claimed to have once lived as Mary Magdalene. In Kingsford’s view, physical existence is an evil to be overcome.

Upon her return to London, Kingsford joined the British section of the Theosophical  Society. A few British spiritualists had already adopted the doctrine of reincarnation. However, it appears that the publication of The Perfect Way, which attracted a great deal of attention, was crucial in achieving a critical mass for the controversial doctrine. Coincidentally or not, theosophical writings began to mention reincarnation as a spiritual truth for the first time around this same year 1882.

Blavatsky had claimed that the transmigration of souls was “an exception, a phenomenon as abnormal as a fetus with two heads.” As noted above, around 1882, Blavatsky had changed her mind. Since both the earlier and the later teachings were allegedly received from the same group of ascended Masters, the discrepancy became quite embarrassing. As recent as late 1876 Blavatsky had written  in her scrapbook: “Mind is the quintessence of the Soul-and having joined its divine Spirit Nous-can return no more to earth. IMPOSSIBLE.”

Also Olcott’s letter of May 20, 1876, to M.A. Oxon gave testimony of this. On the Barones von Vay’s wanting to join the Theosophical Society: “If she wants to come in with us she can-but she must scrape off her Reincarnation shoes at the door; there’s no room for that in our Philosophy.”

Exegetical treatises followed Blavatsky’s lead in adopting reincarnation. In chapter 5 of Sinnett’s Esoteric Buddhism, the author explains the destiny of man after death. Of the seven components that make up our persons, the three lower pass away at the moment of physical death.

If earlier theories on life after death were largely based on privileged knowledge, in the Mahatma Letters, and even more in Sinnett’s book, the discursive strategies of science and tradition were mobilized. The description of life after death increasingly rested on a number of Sanskrit terms, which, just like the title of his book, define the positive Others. In a style that will later be typical of other major theosophical movement texts, these Orientalist references are interspersed with appeals to contemporary science, including nineteenth century pseudo-sciences such as mesmerism. Thus, from their existence in Devachan, souls can appear to spiritualist mediums and magnetic somnambules because the spirit of the sensitive getting odylized, so to say, by the aura of the spirit in the Devachan, becomes for a few minutes that departed personality, and writes in the handwriting of the latter, in his language and in his thoughts as they were during his lifetime. Thus  what is called rapport, is, in plain fact, an identity of molecular vibration between the astral part of the incarnate medium and the astral part of the discarnate personality. (Sinnett “Esoteric Buddhism”, pp. 146 f.)

The belief in reincarnation advanced from being a minority view to becoming one of the core elements of the arguably most influential esoteric movement of the late nineteenth century.

A fundamental discursive strategy, legitimizing not only the belief in reincarnation but also the theosophical myth as a whole, is the construction of tradition. The Secret Doctrine is allegedly based on an ancient manuscript, the Book of Dzyan.

Blavatsky claimed that this palm leaf manuscript from Atlantis contained the true core of all the great religions. Implicitly, reincarnation had passed in six years from being a controversial innovation to becoming a central tenet of all the religious traditions of the world-or at least of the esoteric aspect of each of these traditions….

Blavatsky’s reincarnation doctrine builds on elements deriving from several different sources. Due to the inherent difficulties in harmonizing historically distinct traditions, her reincarnation doctrine is not free from contradictions. At times, she seems to draw on the purported roots of the “ancient wisdom religion” in a generalized Buddhism. Thus, Blavatsky can refer to “the great truth that reincarnation is to be dreaded, as existence in this world only entails upon man suffering, misery and pain.” (SD I:39)

Nevertheless, following a view that could be either Hindu or Platonic, but certainly not Buddhist in any orthodox sense, she claims that there is a unique individuality that incarnates again and again. In a reminiscence of an earlier Western esoteric tradition, the individual is said to reincarnate after a stay in the astral plane.” Another echo of the frequent esoteric preoccupation with the number seven, the individual is said to be composed of an aggregate of seven entities that part ways at physical death. A quote such as the following is closer to a Lurianic kabbalistic view than to the “Esoteric Buddhism” that Sinnett wrote of:

The Monad emerges from its state of spiritual and intellectual unconsciousness; and  gets directly into the plane of Mentality. But there is no place in the whole universe with a wider margin, or a wider field of action in its almost endless gradations of perceptive and apperceptive qualities, than this plane, which has in its turn an appropriate smaller plane for every “form”, from the “mineral” monad up to the time when that monad blossoms forth by evolution into the DIVINE MONAD. But all the time it is still one and the same Monad, differing only in its incarnations, throughout its ever succeeding cycles of partial or total obscuration of spirit, or the partial or total obscuration of  matter-two polar antitheses-as it ascends into the realms of mental spirituality, or descends into the depths of materiality.” (Secret Doctrine I:175)

The construction of tradition, the bricolage from bits and pieces of such originally distinct historical sources, masks the novelty of Blavatsky’s overall conception. Essentially, the theosophical view of the transmigration of souls is not so much Oriental or Platonic, as a typically nineteenth century construction.

Three key ideas run through Blavatsky’s description of the chain of rebirth. The first is the fact of Orientalism itself. The frequent references to India and the East rather than to e.g. Plotinus or Paracelsus are in themselves a phenomenon of the post-Enlightenment era.

The second is the placement of reincarnation within the arguably most overarching meta-narrative of the nineteenth century: evolutionism.

The third element is the synthesis of these ideas with another meta-narrative of the nineteenth century: the view that humanity is divided into races and peoples with clearly definable properties. A closer look at the purported ancient wisdom religion shows it to be a mythologization of ideas characteristic of late nineteenth century Europe.

Past life therapy is one of a set of similar, non-mainstream methods aimed at enhancing faded memories. However, a considerable body of scholarship has demonstrated the fundamental flaw of these methods. Contrary to a widespread contemporary legend, hypnotic techniques do not enhance memory.

Their main effect is to increase the hypnotic subjects’ propensity to confabulate, their willingness to accept the hypnotist’s suggestions, and their conviction that the essentially spurious memories created in the therapeutic setting are real. Dissenting voices that present such experimental research are, for obvious reasons, never allowed to speak out in the Esoteric and today’s pseudo-scientific texts.

Third-person and second-person narratives affect the experience of past life memories in a manner analogous to that discussed by Steven Katz in connection with the loftier mystical experiences: “Images, beliefs, symbolism, and rituals define, in advance, what the experience he wants to have and which he then does have, will be like.” However, by masking prescriptive leads behind a descriptive language, this state of affairs is effectively hidden from the reader.

The effect of modernity on reincarnationist belief can be discerned in many ways. Perhaps the most obvious effect of Enlightenment thought is the risk one takes as the spokesperson for an Esoteric position, or indeed for any other new religious movement with controversial doctrinal contents. As the belief in reincarnation has become more widespread, a naturalistic critique has also been formulated. Thus, alleged past life experiences are explained in terms that differ sharply from those invoked by the believers, perhaps in terms of socio-psychological factors or cognitive illusions.

Some spokespersons embrace Enlightenment rationality, claiming that reincarnation is part and parcel of a rational world-view. Besides Michael Cremo and the book on reincarnation Mikey Brass has been contributing to. An example is Tad Mann, the author of an apologetic book on the subject entitled The Flements Reincarnation. Mann attempts to link belief in reincarnation with Jung’s theories of the collective unconscious, with the discovery of the DNA molecule, and with Rupert Sheldrake’s vitalistic theories. If the evidence is as powerful as Mann would have us believe, why are more conventional scientists so unimpressed? Mann has a ready answer. With the exception of a few radical scientists, it is still common to deny the reality of  the spiritual worlds. Mainstream science is depicted as overly conservative, whereas controversial minority positions are described as progressive.

Frederic Myers and Ian Stevenson

Frederic Myers and others in the early days of psychic research, i.e. the late nineteenth century, to find evidence of life after death. The best known present day rationalist apologist for reincarnation is Ian Stevenson. Stevenson has recorded hundreds of narratives in which small children are said to remember past lives. In some cases, children as young as two to four years old tell their parents that they live somewhere else, that they have a different set of relatives. His latest publications record even more striking cases.

A child born with deformed fingers is claimed to be the new incarnation of a man who had his fingers damaged in an accident. A boy with a rare genetic defect that has atrophied his outer ears is claimed to be the incarnation of a man who died after being shot in the side of the head.

Stevenson’s work is a distinct product of the modern age. What is normally seen as a religious question.

One could of course interject that: Firstly, the transfer of distinctive bodily features from one person to another presupposes a mechanism that has no Counterparts in any other known area. Neither science nor common sense offers any clue as to how characteristics that are similar seen from the perspective of a human subject. but have entirely distinct underlying causes, could possibly be transmitted from one individual to another.

Secondly, the material is statistically odd. Subjects from India usually remember past lives in near-by villages. Westerners seem to be considerably more prone to change location drastically in time and space.

Thirdly, ethnic groups unknown to the average Westerner are seldom mentioned in reincarnation narratives. Few if any subjects claim to have been Illyrians, Sogdians, Tocharians or Urarteans.

Fourthly, interviewing small children is a problematic undertaking. The boundaries between reporting, inventing or following the cues ‘given by adults – parents. relatives, interviewers, interpreters, etc.) are fluid. Finally, critics have also noted that Stevenson has conducted some interviews through interpreters with documented reincarnationist belief, has been incorporated into the rationalist framework of modern society.

The progress of secularization has made it possible to combine questions of faith with the rhetoric of science. Within this rhetorical framework, there are certain given elements.

Stevenson’s work reminds the reader-and is probably intended to remind the reader-of the style of normal science. It is the subject rather than the methodology that may strike one as unusual.

Whereas previous generations could construct entities such as “science” and “faith” as opposites, the rhetoric of scientism gradually effaces such contrasts, at least in the eyes of the believers. “Spirituality” is said to point at the same truths that can be discerned with a higher and better form of science. Any conflicts are due to the negative attitude of conventional, mechanistic scientists unwilling to open their minds enough to accept the truth.

The hypnotically induced memories of Virginia Tighe or other subjects who have figured prominently in New Age texts tell dramatic stories of their previous lives-storlies that in the eyes of skeptics have seemed remarkably close to the plot structure of historical fiction.

Believers, however. Always appear to be one step ahead. Once one narrative has been debunked, interest in the cultic milieu gravitates towards new narratives.

Some of the most successful reincarnation stories in recent years have been written in a generalizing style. No names or dates are given, purportedly in the interest of protecting the privacy of the protagonists, but also effectively precluding confirmation or disconfirmation. ( example E.g. Weiss “Only Love is Real”) One suspects that belief is more important than evidence.

An important component in the rise of modernity is the ambivalence vis-a-vis rationality. Rationality was a central part of the Enlightenment project. However, the Enlightenment ended with a flood of non-rational alternatives: mesmerism, rosicrucianism and spiritism, among others.

Since then, non-rationalist projects have coexisted alongside the main, rationalist current. By choosing some examples of criteria of rationality as a roster through which Esoteric doctrines can be observed, one can see how Esoteric positions, especially later ones such as anthroposophy as well as various versions of New Age thought, lean on both rationalist and non-rationalist persuasive strategies.

Rational argumentation is occasionally invoked to support reincarnationist doctrines. One can choose to refer to Ian Stevenson’s studies and base one’s claims on a syncretism between faith and science that is characteristic of the modern era. Within the Esoteric literature on reincarnation, one also finds the opposite: a trust in revealed information, in the wisdom of authorities. Believers can rely on the veracity of claims found in dozens of texts received through psychic means, i.e. channelled texts in which reincarnation is taken for granted. Regardless of which entities are said to be the source of revealed wisdom-archangels, Egyptian priests, ascended Masters, dolphins or extraterrestrial beings from the Pleiades-they all seem to have adopted turn-of-the century theosophical doctrines of the steady progress of the soul through successive lives.

Nineteenth century belief in reincarnation generally rested on classical religious motifs: the belief in messages revealed from suprahuman sources. Knowledge of the afterlife state was imparted to prophetic figures, to mesmerist and spiritist mediums, or to religious virtuosi such as H.P. Blavatsky. The details of reincarnation were presented in abstract myths or through the imaginary lives of significant individuals. With time, both the doctrines and their legitimizing strategies have changed. Tradition has gained considerable weight in texts that discuss reincarnation. The theosophical legend that the earliest Christian communities believed in the transmigration of souls would hardly have been so resilient in the face of contrary evidence if it did not serve an important purpose. Part of the process of secularization consists in the realization that there are many religious faiths. As long as one is only aware of a single tradition, its doctrines and rituals may seem self-evident.

Once one gets to know several conflicting stories, one’s own set of beliefs risks being demoted to the status of one option among many. If one becomes aware of the fact that modern reincarnation belief is largely the product of a nineteenth century French author of schoolbooks, this knowledge might contribute to fostering a hermeneutic of suspicion.

Universalism becomes an effective remedy against doubt. If in the ultimate analysis, all religious are merely variations of a philosophiaperemis, the differences between Hindu, Christian or Spiritist beliefs are simply details. The question whether present-day reincarnation beliefs, as set out in the latest texts, were actually created or discovered) by Allan  Kardec, Helena Blavatsky or some nameless Oriental sage becomes a matter of no great concern.

An the believer does not need to rely on blind faith alone. There are supposedly rational reasons for accepting reincarnation. For those who wish to take the next step in their interest in the afterlife, past life experiences are a “proof” freely available to anybody. The therapeutic practices that have sprung from past life beliefs are widespread today; those interested in investigating purported past life memories can do so with little practical difficulty. Rationalists may find it obvious that experiences are ambiguous and can sometimes even be directly misleading.

For large segments of the pseudo-scientific cultic milieu. it seems equally obvious that personal experiences are faithful maps of underlying reality. Herein lies a deep contradiction within post-New Age religiosity. Overtly, its texts commonly invoke a democratic ideal. according to which nothing needs to be taken on faith, and which insists that the readers’ spiritual experiences are by far more important than any opinions that the author might entertain.

These experiences, however, are molded by the expectations of the most influential spokespersons of the movement. It might even be argued that earlier forms of authority, depending on claims to clairvoyance or contact with spiritual masters from Tibet, were easier to see through than the subtler strategies of the last few decades.

The doctrine of reincarnation has, at least overtly, also become democratized. The believer does not need to rely on blind faith alone.

There are supposedly rational reasons for accepting reincarnation. For those who wish to take the next step in their interest in the afterlife, past life experiences are a “proof” freely available to anybody. The therapeutic practices that have sprung from past life beliefs are widespread today; those interested in investigating purported past life memories can do so with little practical difficulty. Rationalists may find it obvious that experiences are ambiguous and can sometimes even be directly misleading. For large segments of the cultic pseudo-science milieu. it seems equally obvious that personal experiences are faithful maps of underlying reality.

Herein lies a deep contradiction within post-New Age religiosity. Overtly, its texts commonly invoke a democratic ideal. according to which nothing needs to be taken on faith, and which insists that the readers’ spiritual experiences are by far more important than any opinions that the author might entertain. These experiences, however, are molded by the expectations of the most influential spokespersons of the movement. It might even be argued that earlier forms of authority, depending on claims to clairvoyance or contact with spiritual masters from Tibet, were easier to see through than the subtler strategies of the last few decades.

Esoteric pseudo-scientific texts appear as the result of ongoing de- and recontextualizations that allow new synthesis between different notions to take place.
Even if the post-New Age is expressed in the style and strategy of modernism, its conceptualizations coincide with those of Romanticism and a reaction to the enlightenment project.
One of the questions this web site will explore is how various religious phenomena are adapted to the conditions of the modern world.

As seen in part one the belief in reincarnation advanced from a minority view to becoming one of the core elements of the post-theosophical movements, and today (Oct. 2002) is utilized even in pseudo archeological books that will claim “advanced incarnating souls” -are the driving force behind humankinds intellectual and cultural development during the same period; and that therein lies the explanation of a forgotten, golden age in the human past.”
Presented with the argument  that there is “anecdotal evidence” for reincarnation one could of course argue that even humans  today, might be  tricked by the fact that the mammalian part of our brain wants us to hold onto magical ideals.

At first it may seem plausible to maintain that we have two kinds of personal identity bodily continuity and memory. This is suggested by the fact that in daily life we sometimes use the one and sometimes the other. However, the memory criterion presupposes that of bodily continuity while the converse does not hold.

Another fundamental discursive strategy, legitimizing  the belief in reincarnation and pseudo-archeological myths, is the construction of tradition. The Secret Doctrine was allegedly based on a palm leaf manuscript  from Atlantis, “the Book of Dzyan.” The Secret Doctrine and “The Mahatma Letters” therefore can be seen as a peak of modern mythmaking and rest on the privileged and unreproducible experience of Madame H.P. Blavatsky herself.

Next dozens of creative spokespersons have positioned their own doctrines in relation to the Blavatskian framework. The fundamentals are common to most if not all of them: the theory of melioristic evolution, the existence of spiritually evolved beings, the fundamentals of esoteric historiography and, not least, the doctrine of reincarnation. The individual positions within the discourse are created by adjusting, adding or replacing details which may seem trivial to outsiders but are of central concern to the spokespersons who accept the rules of the discourse.

Blavatsky’s particular view of reincarnation gave rise to a number of modern legends. Besides personalized legends which I will discuss next in this article.
Blavatsky’s particular view of reincarnation gave rise to a modern legend.

The earliest movement texts -e.g. The Mahatma Letters, Esoteric Buddhism or The Secret Doctrine say nothing on the matter that “Christianity once did include he belief in reincarnation.” Neither does lady Caithness in texts devoted specifically to the theosophical interpretation of Christianity and the Bible.”

The earliest textual occurrence of the legend hat links Christianity with reincarnationist beliefs appears to be in a book published in 1888 by theosophist E.D. Walker, Reincarnation: A Study of Forgotten Truth. A few years later, William Q Judge’s The Ocean of Theosophy, published in 1893, would  popularize the mythology.

Blavatsky on the essenes, cf. SD 11: 11 In.; on druids, see SD 11: 760.

Interestingly, earlier Lurianic Christian kabbalists also attempted to harmonize the Bible with reincarnation, but details differ as to what is harmonized and how t is done. Thus, Anne Conway quotes scripture to “prove” the Lurianic idea that seemingly inanimate objects will progress into sentient beings. Conway 1982: 219.

Caithness 1887, ch. 10 and 11.

Then Walker 1888 claims that  after Jesus the doctrine was taught in the church until the council of Constantinople.

This legend proved to be quite robust and was adopted by several other Esoteric positions.

Edgar Cayce and the circle of adepts around him elaborated on the theosophical explanation and transmitted it to a larger audience. In 1967, an anthology of commented readings on reincarnation was published by the Association for Research and Enlightenment. This book anchors the legend in Scriptural passages and quotes from the church fathers, fleshing out the bare-bones theosophical version of the story with numerous details. Nevertheless, this elaborate form of the legend still rests on the same three pillars as Judge’s original argument: passages in the Bible that equate John the Baptist with Elijah, references to Origen and to the second church council at Constantinople in the year 553.

Reincarnationist pattern recognition builds on passages such as Matthew 11:14, where Jesus is reported to say, “And if ye will receive it, this [i.e. John the Baptist] is Elias, which was for to come. Likewise, in John 3:3 Jesus is quoted as saying, “I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

These passages are interpreted in a very different way by non-esotericist Christian commentators. There are other scriptural quotes used to contradict the notion of reincarnation. Thus Hebrews 9:27 reads “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgement.” Second Corinthians 5:8 claims that at death the Christian immediately goes into the presence of God, not into another body, while Luke 16:19-31 explains that unbelievers at death go to a place of suffering. Another scriptural passage employed to a similar end is Matthew 25:46 in which Jesus teaches that people decide their eternal destiny in a single lifetime, some “shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.”

The Ascended Master group CUT  is a contemporary position which rests its case  heavily on the constructed tradition that Christ taught reincarnation. An entire 300 page volume is devoted to the purported missing teachings. Another 400 page volume details how the missing years were allegedly documented. (Prophet The Lost years of Jesus”1984, and The Lost Teachings of Jesus 1986.)

Further the legend is found in numerous New Age books even today. Hanegraaff has followed the legend as far as the writings of Shirley MacLaine, who added a new twist to it by confusing the council at Constantinople with the council in Nicaea.” Books more recent than those in Hanegraaff’s corpus continue to reproduce the legend. Thus, hypnotherapist Brian L. Weiss based on Theosophists Cranston and Head “Reincarnation in World Thought” claims that his research into the origins of reincarnation beliefs have shown how the doctrine was considered destabilizing by the worldly authorities under the emperor Constantine and was therefore banned in the sixth century. (Weiss “Through Time and Healing”)
Personalized Legends

Several post-theosophical spokespersons were to contribute with a distinct change in the basic model of reincarnation. They participated in a shift from the abstract to the concrete. Charles Leadbeater, the main ideologist of the Theosophical Society after the death of Blavatsky, was instrumental in the move toward personalized reincarnation legends. His claims to precise knowledge of past lives resulted in the elaboration of long lists in which members of the Society were traced back, sometimes hundreds of thousands of years. The psychic method and its results have been described in decidedly unflattering terms in scholarly as well as critical literature.

The lists of past lives were published in such works as Rents in the Veil of Time, in the appendix to Man: Whence, How and Whither, and in Lives of Alcyone. Many individual theosophists’ identities were masked behind code names such as Mars, Ulysses, Herakles, Beatrix, Erato and Gemini. Only the inner circle surrounding Leadbeater knew who was who.

More prominent members are identified in a list. Thus, Krishnamurti’s code name was Alcyone, Annie Besant was known as Herakles and Leadbeater gave himself the designation Sirius. Given Leadbeater’s central role, these claims were increasingly used to buttress power struggles. Those who supported the controversial Leadbeater were recorded as having had important roles in the past, while his opponents were depicted as villains.

Sections of Steiner’s anthroposophy seem directly taken from the pages of Leadbeater’s writings. There are distinct similarities between the detailed discussion in Leadbeater‘s “The Inner Life and the slightly scholastic tone in Steiner’s fine grained picture of the interval between death and  rebirth.

But where Leadbeater merely assured his readers that he knew the difference between observation and imagination, Steiner presents extremely detailed arguments as to why we should believe him. Everything he writes of, from the climate on Atlantis to the role of the archangel Michael in history to the mechanisms of reincarnation, builds on the foundations of an alternative science, objective visions achieved through the use of spiritual sense organs. The topics of reincarnation and karma are of central concern to Steiner, and recur periodically throughout his written output.

Steiner, a doctor of philosophy, writes extensively on the precise mechanisms that rule rebirth. Leadbeater, who enjoyed titles, pomp and ceremony, waxes eloquent on the various classes of individuals who reincarnate according to a meticulously detailed hierarchical plan.

Steiner’s “Esoterische Betrachtungen Kannischer Zusammenhaenge” are a series of eighty speeches collected in six volumes and published in 1924. Especially speeches 1-6 are concerned with the mechanisms of karma and reincarnation; in Leadbeater-like fashion, many of the others give the details of the previous incarnations of individual persons in the Anthrophososphic Society, people in his audience.

As in Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine Steiner’s Geisteswissenschaft or “spiritual science” every individual participates in a cosmic history. After eons of descent during which spirit became increasingly embodied in matter, we have passed the turning point, thanks to the death of Christ on the cross. We are on our way to a more spiritual mode of existence, an ascending curve that reincarnation allows us all to participate in. The highest hierarchies of spiritual beings choose a hereditary stream in which the being’s karmic potentials can be fulfilled. Steiner however confronted a problem that Blavatsky, being anticlerical and anti-Christian, probably did not experience as troublesome. Steiner primary aim is rather to harmonize two overtly conflicting doctrines, karma and atonement, both of which he claims to be correct.

Like his near-contemporary Leadbeater, Steiner claimed that the Akashic record could give him and other clairvoyants access to the minutest details of the previous lives of individual people.

Client-Centered Legends

Leadbeater’s and Steiner’s karmic insights created person-centered] legends out of the abstract mythology of theosophy. From the 1920s onwards, these personalized legends became available to ordinary people in their attempts to cast their personal histories in narrative form. Leadbeater and Steiner restricted their occult investigations to a small set of carefully chosen exemplars. They retained the essentials of the myth, but created a large set of personalized legends.

Edgar Cayce had similar claims to revelatory insight, but democratized this status yet another step by making esoteric knowledge available to anybody who enlisted his services.

Ordinary careers as a housewife or employee were enriched with new dimensions of meaning by being linked with Atlantis or ancient Egypt. Problems in the present could be explained by referring to unpropitious destinies hundreds of years earlier.

Weiss in “Many Lives, Many Masters” and Redfield “Celestine Vision” what  is normally hidden to us, can be unveiled by psychically gifted individuals.

A  latent element can be traced back to the days of the mesmerists and somnambules, and becomes an overt part of reincarnation doctrines, probably due to the strong influence of the Bridey Murphy case: knowledge of our past lives is not reserved for an elite of psychics, but can potentially be accessed by us all.

In the late 1960s, rather than merely telling the clients about their past existences, the expert could let them actually experience scenes from these lives. The 1970‘s saw a surge of interest in alternative religions. The therapeutic and pop psychological components of the nascent New Age were highly visible components of the spiritual landscape. Several of the most popular alternative therapies were born or gained in popularity.

By the 1990s, the metaphysically complex versions seem to have largely faded  while the experience-based versions have fared quite well.

Therapists opened consulting-rooms. A few spokespersons gained prominence within the circle of practitioners.

Since the 1970s, past life therapy has passed through several characteristic phases. The early, experimental stage was replaced by a period of establishment, centred around the doctrines and practices of the leading spokespersons. This was gradually followed by a phase of professionalization. Organizations were formed, magazines published, catalogues of practitioners appeared, and consumers’ information became available. Most importantly, within a few years, personal experience had become one of the most important discursive strategies buttressing reincarnationist claims.

In successful hypnotic sessions, the clients’ present problems are revealed to be the result of traumatic experiences in previous lives. In a sense, these unorthodox claims are extrapolations of the more common psychotherapeutic claim that present problems are rooted in repressed or subconscious childhood.

But according to a widely accepted psychological theory, memory does not function as an archive but consists of an active reconstruction of the past that at times can be rather free. At the same time, these free reconstructions are interpreted according to the archive model, and are thus believed to be retrieved reminiscences of actual events. The result is an overconfidence in what might be partly spurious recollections.

The ultimate step in democratizing past life experiences is to teach techniques whereby readers can conjure up the appropriate imagery themselves. Ted Andrews is a prolific writer of do-it-yourself manuals on the paranormal. From a sociocognitive perspective, his books (and other similar texts) can be seen as frameworks within which mundane experiences can be reformulated in order to meet certain given expectations by  means of gaining access to past life memories without needing to resort to the services of a regression therapist or hypnotist.

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Originally from Olav Hammer’s “Claiming Knowledge: Strategies of Epistemology from Theosophy to the New Age”