The great philosophic body that formed a bridge, as it were, between
the Old World and the New was the famous School of Alexandria, founded
about the second century of our era by Ammonius Saccas and closed in
the year 429 A.D. through the intolerance of Justinian. Theosophical
in its origin, this school had received from Plato the esoteric
teaching of Egypt and the East, and the dogma of Rebirth was secretly
taught in its entirety, though its meaning may have been travestied by
the ignorance of the masses to whom only the grosser aspects of the
teaching were given.
"It is a dogma recognised throughout antiquity," says Plotinus,
"that the soul expiates its sins in the darkness of the infernal
regions, and that afterwards it passes into new bodies, there to
undergo new trials."
"When we have gone astray in multiplicity, we are first punished
by our wandering away from the path, and afterwards by less favourable
conditions, when we take on new bodies."
"The gods are ever looking down upon us in this world, no reproach we
bring against them can be justifiable, for their providence is
never-ending; they allot to each individual his appropriate destiny,
one that is in harmony with his past conduct, in conformity with his
The following is a quotation from the same philosopher, dealing with
metempsychosis, and which, when compared with the foregoing sentences,
appears strangely absurd. We make no comment here, as this obscure
question will be dealt with a few pages farther on.
"Those who have exercised human faculties are reborn as men; those who
have lived only the life of the senses pass into animals' bodies,
especially into the bodies of wild beasts if they have given way to
excesses of anger ... those who have sought only to satisfy their lust
and gluttony, pass into the bodies of lascivious and gluttonous
animals ... those who have allowed their senses to become atrophied,
are sent to vegetate in trees ... those who have reigned tyranically
become eagles, if they have no other vice."
"The souls that are not destined for the tortures of hell
(Tartarus), and those that have passed through this expiation, are
born again, and divine Justice gives them a new body, in accordance
with their merits and demerits."
The following remarkable lines are from Iamblichus:
"What appears to us to be an accurate definition of justice does not
also appear to be so to the Gods. For we, looking at that which is
most brief, direct our attention to things present, and to this
momentary life, and the manner in which it subsists. But the powers
that are superior to us know the whole life of the Soul, and all its
former lives; and, in consequence of this, if they inflict a certain
punishment in obedience to the entreaties of those that invoke them,
they do not inflict it without justice, but looking at the offences
committed by souls in former lives: which men, not perceiving, think
that they unjustly fall into the calamities which they suffer."
Proclus gave out the same teaching; he affirmed that he had been
incarnated in Nichomachus, the Pythagorean.
In his commentary on the Golden Verses of Pythagoras, Hierocles
expresses himself thus:
"The ways of the Lord can be justified only by metempsychosis."
Damascius and Hermias, as also their masters, proclaimed their belief
Here a short explanation must be given of what has been said regarding
transmigration or metempsychosis, in order that all misunderstanding
may be removed.
Neither Pythagoras nor Plotinus nor any of the great Teachers of the
past believed in metempsychosis, as it has been described; all their
disciples have affirmed if, and these affirmations, set over against a
line of teaching which seems to contradict them, because it is
incomplete and intended for the less intelligent portion of society at
that time, ought to have reminded its opponents that there might be
hidden reasons capable of explaining the paradox.
We must first remember that a veil of strictest secrecy was flung over
the noblest and most sublime spiritual teachings of the day. According
to Bossuet, the teaching of the immortality of the soul seems not to
have been deemed suitable for the Hebrew race, and, indeed, it is easy
to understand that no double-edged truth should be taught except under
conditions that would safeguard it. Ptolemy Philadelphus exiled
Hegesias, whose eloquent fanaticism had caused some of his
disciples to commit suicide, at Cyrene, after a lesson on immortality.
Ptolemy ordered those schools of philosophy to be closed which
continued teaching this doctrine, for in the case of a people
insufficiently developed, the instinct which binds to physical life,
and the dread of the torture that awaits guilty souls in the
Hereafter, are preferable to doctrines of immortality deprived of the
safeguards with which they should be surrounded.
The doctrine of Rebirths called for even stricter secrecy than that of
immortality, and this secrecy was accorded it in ancient times; after
the coming of the Christ, it grew less rigorous, and the
Neoplatonists, though obliged to keep the esoteric teaching to
themselves, were permitted to throw light on certain points.
Timaeus of Locris, one of the masters of Plotinus, hinted at the
existence of a more profound doctrine in the following words:
"Just as by the threat of punishment imperfectly evolved souls are
prevented from sinning, so the transmigration of the souls of
murderers into the bodies of wild beasts, and of the souls of unchaste
persons into the bodies of swine, was taught; and the previous
punishment of these souls in the infernal regions was entrusted to
Certain modern commentators--though imperfectly instructed in the
teachings of palingenesis--have also seen that the masters of
philosophy in the past could not possibly have made a mistake which
less far-seeing minds would have avoided. Dacier says:
"A sure token that Pythagoras never held the opinion attributed to him
lies in the fact that there is not the faintest trace of it in the
symbols we have left of him, or in the precepts his disciple, Lysis,
collected together and handed down as a summary of the master's
Jules Simon also speaks as follows regarding Plotinus:
"Here we have the doctrine of metempsychosis which Plotinus found all
around, among the Egyptians, the Jews, the Neoplatonists, his
predecessors, and finally in Plato himself. Does Plato take
metempsychosis seriously, as one would be tempted to believe after
reading the Republic? Did he mention it only to ridicule the
superstitions of his contemporaries, as seems evident from the
"However important Plato may have considered metempsychosis, it can
scarcely be imagined that Plotinus took it seriously.... Even granting
that this doctrine were literally accepted by Plotinus, the question
would still have to be asked whether the human soul really does dwell
in the body of an animal, or simply enters a human body, which, in its
passions and vices, recalls the nature of that particular animal."
The reasons mentioned by Dacier and Jules Simon form only a trifling
portion of the whole explanation, but if they are added to the
constant protests raised by the disciples of the Masters of the
Pythagorean and Platonic traditions, against those who said that their
instructors taught metempsychosis in all its crudeness, they assume
considerable importance, and show that, although the restrictions of
esoteric teaching travestied by the ignorance of the masses may have
caused it to be believed that the contrary was the case, none the less
the Initiates, from the very beginning, denied that human
transmigration into the bodies of animals ever took place.
On this question many of them have frequently said that it is the soul
which, in such cases, changes its nature, and assumes the passions of
animals into which, as is said exoterically, it transmigrates, though
it does not enter into their bodies.
"He who believes that he transmigrates, after death, into the body of
a beast or a plant," says Hierocles, "is grossly mistaken; he is
ignorant of the fact that the essential form of the soul cannot
change, that it is and it remains human, and only, metaphorically
speaking, does virtue make of it a god, and vice an animal."
"A human soul," adds Hermes, "cannot go back into the body of an
animal; it is preserved from such pollution, for all time, by the will
of the gods."
Mrs. Besant says as follows in a letter dealing with Theosophy and
Reincarnation (The Theosophist, April, 1906):
"Even with the wealth of detail given in the Hindu Shastras, thousands
of facts of the invisible world are omitted, because their statement
would hopelessly bewilder the public mind.
"If all the details are given, ere the main principles are grasped,
hopeless confusion is caused to the beginner.
"When an Ego, a human soul, by vicious appetite or otherwise, forms a
very strong link of attachment to any type of animal, the astral body
(Kamarupa) of such a person shows the corresponding animal
characteristics, and in the astral world, where thoughts and passions
are visible as forms, may take the animal shapes; thus, after death,
in Pretaloka, the soul would be embodied in an animal vesture,
resembling or approximating to the animal whose qualities had been
encouraged during earth-life. Either at this stage, or when the soul
is returning towards reincarnation, and is again in the astral world,
it may, in extreme cases, be linked by magnetic affinity to the astral
body of the animal it has approached in character, and will then,
through the animal's astral body, be chained as a prisoner to that
animal's physical body. Thus chained, it cannot go onwards to
Svarga, if the tie be set up while it is a Preta; nor go onwards
to human birth, if it be descending towards physical life. It is truly
undergoing penal servitude, chained to an animal; it is conscious in
the astral world, has its human faculties, but it cannot control the
brute body with which it is connected, nor express itself through
that body on the physical plane. The animal organisation does not
possess the mechanism needed by the human Ego for self-expression; it
can serve as a jailor, not as a vehicle. Further, the "animal soul" is
not ejected, but is the proper tenant and controller of its own body.
S'ri Shankaracharya hints very clearly at the difference between this
penal imprisonment and becoming a stone, a tree, or an animal. Such an
imprisonment is not "reincarnation," ... the human Ego "cannot
reincarnate as an animal," cannot "become an animal."
"In cases where the Ego is not degraded enough for absolute
imprisonment, but in which the astral body has become very animal, it
may pass on normally to human re-birth, but the animal characteristic
will be largely reproduced in the physical body--as witness the
"monsters" who in face are sometimes repulsively animal, pig-faced,
dog-faced, &c. Men, by yielding to the most bestial vices, entail on
themselves penalties more terrible than they, for the most part,
realise; for Nature's laws work on unbrokenly and bring to every man
the harvest of the seed he sows. The suffering entailed on the
conscious human entity, thus cut off from progress and from
self-expression, is very great, and is, of course, reformatory in its
action; it is somewhat similar to that endured by other Egos, who are
linked to bodies human in form, but without normal brains--those we
call idiots, lunatics, &c. Idiocy and lunacy are the results of vices
different in kind from those that bring about the animal servitude
above explained, but the Ego in these cases also is attached to a form
through which he cannot express himself."
"True reason," says Proclus, "affirms that the human soul may at
times find lodgment in brutes, but that it is possible for it to live
its own life and rise above the lower nature whilst bound to it by the
similarity of its tendencies and desires. We have never meant anything
else, as has often been proved by the reasoning in our commentaries on
There is a note in the Vahan on a passage from Phaedrus which
sheds all the light that can be shed on the question of
metempsychosis; in the space of a few lines everything is said that
may be publicly revealed, without trespassing on forbidden ground.
After stating that, on returning from the internal regions, the soul
passes into the "life" of a beast, and that if it were human
previously, it afterwards goes into another human body, the note
"We must not understand by this that the soul of a man becomes the
soul of a brute, but that by way of punishment it is bound to the soul
of a brute, or carried in it, just as daemons used to reside in our
souls. Hence all the energies of the rational soul are absolutely
impeded, and its intellectual eye beholds nothing but the dark and
tumultuous phantasms of a brutal life."
This passage contains the explanation of what might be called the
metempsychosis of certain human souls at the present time; we once
heard a great Teacher fully reveal this mystery to a chosen group of
Hindus, but it must for some time to come remain a mystery to the
western world. All that can be said on the matter is that it has
nothing to do with the incarnation of a human soul in the body of an
animal, but rather with a certain temporary karmic bond, in the life
Hereafter, between a human soul and an animal one, a bond intended to
teach many a hard lesson to the one who has brought upon himself so
unpleasant an experience.
Metempsychosis included many other facts in human evolution, facts
that were plainly taught to the disciples in the "inner circles" of
the ancient Schools and passed out to the confused medley of public
The astral body, for instance, of a man of an exceedingly passionate
nature, when the soul leaves the physical body, sometimes assumes
forms resembling those of the animals which represent these passions
on the physical plane, and so the disincarnate soul of an assassin has
been said to pass into the body of a wild beast.
Metempsychosis, properly so-called, that is to say, the passing of a
human soul into the body of a brute, did however exist during the
infancy of the human race, when highly developed animal souls were
becoming fit to enter the human kingdom. The bodies of these
newly-born human souls were coarse and rudimentary in their nature,
showing scarcely any difference in form and organic function from the
bodies of the higher animals of that period, for these instruments
were very similar to one another. The improvements subsequently
effected by human bodies did not then exist; the difference, or
distinction, which has now widened into a gulf, was scarcely
perceptible, and in the early incarnations of these rudimentary human
souls back-slidings and falls were so frequent that some of them, thus
enfeebled, might find it to their advantage to become incarnate,
at times, in highly-developed animal bodies. But that was always an
exception, and the exception has long ago become an impossibility.
We think these explanations, along with those given in other portions
of this work, will throw as much light as is permitted publicly on the
subject of metempsychosis--a subject frequently discussed and one that
has hitherto been so obscure. Such illumination as is here given is
due to the teachings of theosophy.
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