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The Writings of Annie Besant

Annie Besant

 (1847 -1933)


The Law of Rebirth


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THERE is, perhaps, no philosophical doctrine in the world that has so magnificent an intellectual ancestry as that of reincarnation-the unfolding of the human spirit through recurring lives on earth, experience being gathered during the earth life and worked up into intellectual faculty and conscience during the heaven-life, so that a child is born with his past experiences transmuted into mental and moral tendencies and powers. As Max Muller truly remarked, the greatest minds humanity has produced have accepted reincarnation. Reincarnation is taught and illustrated in the great epics of the Hindus as an undoubted fact on which morality is based, and the splendid Hindu literature, which is the admiration of European scholars, is permeated with it. The Buddha taught it and constantly spoke of his past births. Pythagoras did the same, and Plato included it in his philosophical writings. Josephus states that it was accepted among the Jews, and relates the story of a captain who encouraged his soldiers to fight to the death by reminding them of their return to earth. In The Wisdom of Solomon it is stated that coming into an undefiled body wins the reward of 'being good'. The Christ accepted it, telling His disciples that John the Baptist was Elijah. Virgil and Ovid take it for granted. The ritual composed by the learning of Egypt inculcated it. The Neo-Platonic schools accepted it, and Origen, the most learned of the Christian Fathers, declared that 'every man received a body according to his deserts and his former action'. Though condemned by a Roman Catholic Council, the heretical sects preserved the old tradition. And it comes to us in the Middle Ages from a learned son of Islam: '1 died out of the stone and I became a plant; I died out of the plant and 1 became an animal; 1 died out of the animal and I became a man; why should I fear to die? When did I grow less by " dying? I shall die out of the man and shall become an angel.' In later time we find it taught by Goethe, Fichte, Schelling, Lessing, to name but some among the German philosophers. Goethe in his old age looked joyfully forward to his return; Hume declared that it was the only doctrine of immortality a philosopher could look at, a view somewhat similar to that of our British Professor McTaggart, who, lately reviewing the various theories of immortality, came to the conclusion that reincarnation was the most rational. I need not remind anyone of literary culture that Wordsworth, Browning, Rossetti and other poets believed it.


The reappearance of the belief in reincarnation is not, therefore, an emergence of a belief of savages among civilised nations, but a sign of recovery from a temporary mental aberration in Christendom, from the de-rationalisation of religion which has wrought so much evil and has given rise to so much scepticism and materialism. To assert the special creation of a soul for every fresh body, implying that the coming into existence of a soul depends on the formation of a body, inevitably leads to the conclusion that with the death of the body the soul will pass out of existence; that a soul with no past


THE LAW OF RE-BIRTH                                                          


should have an everlasting future is as incredible as that a stick should exist with only one end. Only a soul which is unborn can hope to be undying. The loss of the teaching of reincarnation-with its temporary purgatory for working out evil passions and its temporary heaven for the transmutation of experience into faculty-gave rise to the idea of a never-ending heaven for which no one is good enough, and a never-ending hell for which no one is wicked enough, confined human evolution to an inappreciable fragment of existence, hung an everlasting future on the contents of a few years, and made life an unintelligible tangle of injustices and partialities, of unearned genius and unmerited criminality, an intolerable problem to the thoughtful, tolerable only to blind and foundationless faith.




There are but three explanations of human inequalities, whether of faculties, of opportunities, of circumstances: 1. Special creation by God, implying that man is helpless, his destiny being controlled by an arbitrary and incalculable will. II. Heredity, as suggested by science, implying an equal helplessness on man's part, he being the result of a past, over which he had no control. III. Reincarnation, implying that man can become master of his destiny, he being the result of his own individual past, being what he has made himself.


Special creation is rejected by all thoughtful people as an explanation of the conditions round us, save in the most important conditions of all, the character with which and the environment into which an infant is born.


Evolution is taken for granted in everything except in the life of spiritual intelligence called man; he has no individual past, although he has an individual endless future. The character he brings with him-on which more than on anything else his destiny on earth depends-is, on this hypothesis, specially created for him by God, and imposed on him without any choice of his own; out of the lucky bag of creation he may draw a prize or a blank, the blank being a'doom of misery; such as it is, he must take it.


If he draw a good disposition, fine capacities, a noble nature, so much the better for him; he has done nothing to deserve them. If he draw congenital criminality, congenital idiocy, congenital disease, congenital drunkenness, so much the worse for him; he has done nothing to deserve them. If everlasting bliss be tacked on to the one and everlasting torment to the other the unfortunate one must accept his ill fate as he may. Hath not the potter power over the clay? Only it seems sad if the clay be sentient.


In another respect special creation is grotesque. A spirit is specially created for a small body which dies a few hours after birth. If life on earth has any educational or experimental value that spirit will be the poorer forever by missing such a life, and the lost opportunity can never be made good. If, on the other hand, human life on earth is of no essential importance and carries with it the certainty of many ill doings and sufferings and the possibility of everlasting suffering at the end of it, the spirit that comes into a body that endures to old age is hardly dealt with, as it must endure innumerable ills escaped by the other without any equivalent advantage, and may be damned forever.




THE LAW OF RE-BIRTH                                                          


The list of injustices brought about by special creation might be extended indefinitely, for it includes all inequalities, it has made myriads of atheists, as incredible by the intelligence and revolting to the conscience. It places man in the position of the inexorable creditor of God, stridently demanding: 'Why has thou made me thus?'


The hypothesis of science is not as blasphemous as that of special creation, but heredity only explains bodies; it throws no light on the evolution of intelligence and conscience. The Darwinian theory tried to include these, but failed lamentably to explain how the social virtues could be evolved in the struggle for existence. Moreover, by the time the parents had acquired their ripest fruition of high qualities the period of reproduction was over; children are for the most part born in the hey-day of physical vigour while the intellectual and moral qualities of their parents are immature. Later studies have, however, shown that acquired qualities are not transmissible, and that the higher the type the fewer the offspring.


'Genius is sterile', says science, and thus sounds the knell of human progress if heredity be its motive power. Intelligence and reproductive power vary inversely; the lower the parents the more prolific are they. With the discovery that acquired qualities are not transmissible science has come up against a dead wall. It can offer no explanation of the facts of high intelligence and saintly life. The child of a saint may be a profligate; the child of a genius may be a dolt. Genius 'comes out of the blue'


This glory of humanity, from the scientific standpoint, seems outside the law of causation. Science does not tell us how to build strong minds and pure hearts for the future. She does not threaten us with an arbitrary will, but she leaves us without explanation of human inequalities. She tells us that the drunkard bequeaths to his children bodies prone to disease, but she does not explain why some unhappy children are the recipients of the hideous legacy.


Reincarnation restores justice to God and power to man. Every human spirit enters into human life a germ, without knowledge, without conscience, without discrimination. By experience, pleasant and painful, man gathers materials, and as before explained, builds them into mental and moral faculties. Thus the character he is born with is self-made, and marks the stage he has reached in his long evolution. The good disposition, the fine capacities, the noble nature are the spoils of many a hard-fought fight, the wages of heavy and arduous toil. The reverse marks an early stage of growth, the small development of the spiritual germ.


The savage of today is the saint of the future; all tread a similar road; all are destined to ultimate human perfection. Pain follows on mistakes and is ever remedial; strength is developed by struggle; we reap, after every sowing, the inevitable result; happiness growing out of the right, sorrow out of the wrong. The babe dying shortly after birth pays in the death a debt owing from the past, and returns swiftly to earth, delayed but for brief space and free of his debt to gather the experience necessary for his growth. Social virtues, though placing a man at a disadvantage in the struggle for existence, perhaps even leading to the sacrifice of his physical life, build a noble character for his future lives and shape him to become a servant of the nation.




THE LAW OF RE-BIRTH                                                          


Genius inheres in the individual as the result of many lives of effort, and the sterility of the body it wears does not rob the future of its services, as it returns greater on every re-birth. The body poisoned by a father's drunkenness is taken by a spirit learning by a lesson of suffering to guide its earthly life on lines better than those followed in the past.


And so in every case the individual past explains the individual present, and when the laws of growth are known and obeyed a man can build with a sure hand his future destiny, shaping his growth on lines of ever-increasing beauty until he reaches the stature of the Perfect Man.




No question is more often heard when reincarnation is spoken of than: 'If I were here before, why do I not remember it?' A little consideration of facts will answer the question.


First of all, let us note the fact that we forget more of our present lives than we remember. Many people cannot remember learning to read; yet the fact that they can read proves the learning. Incidents of childhood and youth have faded from our memory, yet they have left traces on our character. A fall in babyhood is forgotten, yet the victim is none the less a cripple. And this, although we are using the same body in which the forgotten events were experienced.


These events, however, are not wholly lost by us; if a person be thrown into a mesmeric trance, they may be drawn from the depths of memory; they are submerged, not destroyed. Fever patients have been known to use in delirium a language known in childhood and forgotten in maturity. Much of our subconsciousness consists of these submerged experiences, memories thrown into the background but recoverable.


If this be true of experiences encountered in the present body, how much more must it be true of experiences encountered in former bodies, which died and decayed many centuries ago. Our present body and brain have had no share in those far-off happenings; how should memory assert itself through them? Our permanent body, which remains with us throughout the cycle of reincarnation, is the spiritual body; the lower garments fall away and return to their elements ere we can become reincarnated.


The new mental, astral and physical matter in which we are reclothed for a new life on earth receives from the spiritual intelligence, garbed only in the spiritual body, not the experiences of the past, but the qualities, tendencies and capacities which have bee"n made out of those experiences. Our conscience, our instinctive response to emotional and intellectual appeals, our recognition of the force of a logical argument, our assent to fundamental principles of right and wrong, these are the traces of past experience. A man of a low intellectual type cannot 'see' a logical or mathematical proof; a man of low moral type cannot 'feel' the compelling force of a high moral ideal.


When a philosophy or a science is quickly grasped and applied, when an art is mastered without study, memory is there in power, though past facts of learning are forgotten; as Plato said, it is reminiscence. When we feel intimate with a stranger on first meeting, memory is there, the spirit's recognition of a friend of ages past; when we shrink back with strong repulsion from another stranger,

memory is there, the spirit's recognition of an ancient foe.


These affinities, these warnings, come from the undying spiritual intelligence which is ourself; we remember, though working in the brain we cannot impress on it our memory. The mind-body, the brain, are new; the spirit furnishes the mind with the results of the past, not with the memory of its events. As a merchant, closing the year's ledger and opening a new one, does not enter in the new one all the items of the old, but only its balances, so does the spirit hand on to the new brain his judgments on the experiences of a life that is closed, the conclusions to which he has come, the decisions at which he has arrived. This is the stock handed on to the new life, the mental furniture for the new dwelling-a real memory.


Rich and varied are these in the highly evolved man; if these are compared with the possessions of the savage, the value of such a memory of a long past is patent. No brain could store the memory of the events of numerous lives; when they are concreted into mental and moral judgments they are available for use; hundreds of murders have led up to the decision 'I must not kill'; the memory of each murder would be a useless burden, but the judgment based on their results, the instinct of the sanctity of human life, is the effective memory of them in the civilised man.


Memory of past events, however, is sometimes found; children have occasional fleeting glimpses of their past, recalled by some event of the present; an English boy who had been a sculptor recalled it when he first saw some statues; an Indian child recognised a stream in which he had been drowned as a little child in a preceding life, and the mother of that earlier body. Many cases are on record of such memory of past events.


Moreover, such memory can be gained. But the gaining is a matter of steady effort, of prolonged meditation, whereby the restless mind, ever running outwards, may be controlled and rendered quiescent, so that it may be sensitive and responsive to the spirit and receive from him the memory of the past. Only as we can hear the still small voice of the spirit may the story of the past be unrolled, for the spirit alone can remember and cast down the rays of his memory to enlighten the darkness of the fleeting lower nature to which he is temporarily attached.


Cinder such conditions memory is possible, links of the past are seen, old friends are recognised, old scenes recalled, and a subtle inner strength and calm grows out of the practical experience of immortality. Present troubles grow light when seen in their true proportions as trivial and transient events in an unending life; present joys lose their brilliant colours when seen as repetitions of past delights; and both alike are equally accepted as useful experiences, enriching mind and heart and contributing to the growth of the unfolding life.


Not until pleasure and pain, however, have been seen in the light of eternity can the crowding memories of the past be safely confronted; when they have thus been seen, then those memories calm the emotions of the present, and that which would otherwise have crushed becomes a support and consolation. Goethe rejoiced that on his return to earth-life he would be washed clean of his memories, and lesser men may be content with the wisdom which starts each new life on its way, enriched with the results, but unburdened with the recollections of its past.


Annie Besant

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