Reincarnation is the idea that we live many lives on earth and that in any life we are what we have made ourselves in former lives -- under the law of cause and effect or karma. Our blemishes we have indulged and made a part of our personal self, our strengths and talents we have earned and unfolded. Similarly, what happens to us in life -- if we believe in law and not in chance -- is also of our own making. In other words, we are ourselves, and from day to day and from life to life we are making ourselves into what we will one day become, in this and in future lives.
There are rather telling arguments against the notion that we inherit ourselves from our parents. Souls are attracted to parents with whom they have karma to work out, previous associations, deep, intimate, wonderful relationships. Incoming souls select from the gene potentials of their parents-to-be that which is necessary to express what their selves already are, modified by karma. There is no chance involved. Thus the ten children of a large family will be ten different people, talent-wise, character-wise: ten different souls coming to birth, each with his or her own characteristics. There may even be a wide diversity in appearance.
All this presupposes that there is an enduring part that lives in each person, something that survives and gradually unfolds through repeated reimbodiments, something within -- a higher self or reincarnating ego -- in which is stored the wisdom of experience. Evolution, thus, is the process by which the potentials of this divine essence may unfold. We humans have unfolded that which makes us human; we are at the human stage of our evolution. The animals have unfolded that which makes them animals, and so forth.
Human races are like streams. The individuals of the race are coming and going constantly -- being born and dying. The substance of the race is coming in and going out without pause. Yet the race retains its stamp, its marked characteristics. While the race may change slowly, rise to power and sink into obscurity, it retains a certain individuality. There is no such thing as a pure race. All the world's races are mixtures. In the last two centuries this mix has been even further augmented; in recent decades, many cultures have been enriched even further. In the long ran such mixtures will constitute our real strength -- for we are a genuine brotherhood of mankind.
We must have been in past lives what we now call the ancients. When we look back these older peoples may seem strange to us, with different customs and life-styles, yet they must have been very much as we are. They had their loves and hates, their trials, responsibilities, and problems; and they did the best they could with what they had.
If, as science maintains, our evolution is genetic, from parent to son to grandson, one would think there would be a continual rise in civilization. But instead we find all cultures are born, rise to a zenith, then gradually decline, die, or are overrun by another people that may be far less civilized. Why these ups and downs of civilizations? When a civilization is born or a nation emerges, it attracts to itself those souls that have the karma and those particular abilities to express. When it is time for pioneering, those types come in: hardy souls like those in the United States who worked their way across the wilderness. The administrators come in at the appropriate time by karma -- the law-givers, artisans, artists, the military -- and creative efforts begin to flower. In time the nation reaches its zenith of power and influence. The citizens no longer have to struggle for their ideals and freedoms. They may suffer from a surfeit of worldly things. A new type of soul comes to birth, softer, more effete. Gradually the seeds of decline set in, and in due course the nation will ebb away and sink into obscurity.
Every stage in the unfoldment of a civilization offers opportunities for the development or expression of the souls coming into incarnation. Souls with great creativity will naturally be drawn to eras when they may express that creativity, unless karma prevents it for one reason or another. In each era people express what they are, and thus each age assumes the tone and characteristics of the people in it who are expressing what they are. If the preponderance of souls is primitive, it will be a primitive age, and so forth. An age is the people living in it, and the destinies or karma they are working out. The great souls of the Periclean Age in Greece are what made the Periclean Age.
Mankind consists of a wide variety of souls. We have those who are perhaps below the norm, even depraved -- some of these may in the past have been involved in violent karma. There is the great run of average people, which includes most of us. Then the forerunners, who are geniuses in a variety of fields, science, literature, the arts. And above these are those developed in an all-round fashion: the Goethes, Schweitzers, von Humboldts, and a host more who may be said to have had a world view of human and terrestrial life. There are spiritual philosophers such as Plato, Pythagoras, and Plotinus, to name a few from our Western tradition; and others in all parts of the world whose ideas have affected their own and succeeding ages in a profound manner. Above these are the world teachers, those superb examples of human evolution: Buddhas and Christs, who represent what each of us may one day achieve in the far, far future, in the course of many incarnations of evolution -- in the spirit of the words of Jesus that, "These things that I do, ye shall do also, and even greater things." It is difficult to imagine what the fate of mankind would have been if these compassionate ones had not given of their essence for the sake of us all. There are many types of souls connected with the human race.
Civilizations simply cannot continue to rise and rise, for very good reasons. Relatively large numbers of the human race may have been willingly involved in violent and cruel acts; they may have sowed seeds of violence. Now these human souls (who may have followed their cruel leaders) will reincarnate, and when they do, they bring with them their karma. If civilizations continued to rise and rise, where would be the place for these types of souls with different brands of karma? That is why the world is fragmented at times: here a high civilization, there more violent types expending themselves.
The Western classical world, for example, had its flowering first in Greece, then in Alexandria, and finally in the Roman Empire. As Rome declined the light of civilization gradually died, culminating in the onset of the so-called Dark Ages, a period which, by comparison with what had gone before, was dark indeed insofar as human achievement, education, artistry, and creativity were concerned. From civilization into abject ignorance, where is the evolution in that?
Reincarnation sheds a wonderful light on this subject, because at every stage in the development of a nation the souls come in whose destiny is such as to fulfill the destiny of the nation at that point. This applies also to its decline. In the decline of Rome some of the Caesars were actually depraved. Of course Rome was so well built that it took a long time on the way down, centuries.
Evolution from the theosophic point of view extends through repeated reimbodiments, not only for human beings, but for animals, plants, even atoms and worlds. It is not scientific heresy to describe the sun as eventually dying. The only heresy might be asserting, as we do, that the sun will in time be reborn, with its worlds visible and invisible, just as a human being has his visible and invisible parts. For this is a living universe, and we humans are living parts of it.
It is my understanding that although there is a finite number of human souls belonging to the family of man, only a relatively small number is in incarnation at any one time. The vast majority are undergoing their afterdeath states, which may last many, many times longer than the years spent in incarnation. From age to age the population of earth varies considerably though within certain limits. At present, souls appear to be crowding in, which may continue for a while. At other times large portions of the earth may lie fallow and mankind be reduced in numbers.
We have to be very careful not to stand in judgment upon peoples whose life-style may seem to us to be lacking in many of those comforts and other niceties which we consider necessary today. They may indeed be living in what to us might seem to be a primitive condition; but we must not fall prey to the erroneous presumption that they are somehow genetically inferior to ourselves. This is simply not true. One has only to read some of the books written by Laurens van der Post about the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert in southern Africa to realize that in spite of their primitive life-style, in all the qualities that make human life sane and beautiful -- such as honesty, generosity, kindness, and a sense of humor -- these people are wonderfully civilized. It is not necessary to own a large home and drive frenetically to work every day in an expensive automobile to be civilized!
Mankind is very, very old indeed, many millions of years. Human civilizations stretch back into legendary times. If we would study comparatively the myths and epics of mankind and give some credence to them we would find these old accounts describing civilizations on continents now sunken. They contain many types of suggestive material that should be taken seriously; not always literally, but the spirit of them, the essence. These legends are the only memory we have of these older periods obscured by intervening catastrophes, natural and human. They have survived with all the races by oral tradition. Any written records would have been destroyed in the often violent periods that have intervened. H. P. Blavatsky held that the old myths were designed by spiritual teachers, adepts, who wove into them the teachings of the ancient wisdom. They may therefore be interpreted on many levels.
If our universe is a living being, and our sun and earth also, we then see ourselves as children of the living cosmos, blood of its blood, life of its life. If man enshrines a divine spark, we can truly believe we were present when the earth was born and the morning stars sang together, as it says in the Book of Job. We would realize that hierarchies of beings superior to us -- gods -- form the inner fabric of the cosmos. Without their guiding and sustaining influence, nature would become a meaningless chaos. They instigate or ideate the design of nature's working, and are the forces behind its inbuilt healing system, its ineluctable return to harmony, termed karma. Fortunately evolution in its larger meaning is in wiser hands than ours. This does not, however, excuse us from our responsibilities.
Each human being is a deathless entity which, over the course of many thousands of years, has been building for itself more stately mansions -- to use the imagery of the American poet, Oliver Wendell Holmes. And to quote from the English poet laureate, John Masefield, "These eyes of mine have blinked and shone / In Thebes, in Troy and Babylon." The substance of history is the souls of mankind that appear again and again, reaping and sowing from life to life, from age to age. The future of man is to become more truly human. Even more: for each person to bring into his life the wise influence of his innate divinity. The examples of the Christs and Buddhas illustrate what we too may one day become.
(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, April/May 1992. Copyright © 1992 by Theosophical University Press)