THEOSOPHY, Vol. 43, No. 7, May, 1955
(Pages 309-313; Size: 17K)


[Part 22 of a 29-part series]

THE word metempsychosis suggests a special sort of "puzzle" in the context of theosophical literature, and recommends itself for discussion on the grounds that analysis of the various shades of meaning involved in the concept of reincarnation are of considerable importance -- as indicated in earlier discussions of this series dealing with the words "belief" and "hypothesis." [Note: Articles number 6 and 15 in the series.--Compiler.] It was then argued that it is easier to think about reincarnation and other similar tenets than to believe in them. For this reason various controversies revolving around H. P. Blavatsky's preference for metempsychosis over reincarnation at the time of writing Isis Unveiled are provocative. Since she adopted use of the word reincarnation in her later books and articles (note particularly, her Five Messages to the American Theosophists), it seems likely that this less philosophical word was finally utilized -- with good grace -- because "reincarnation" fitted more naturally into a markedly unphilosophical language -- English. [Note: For those who would like to read them, once you have finished reading this article, I've placed a link to HPB's "Five Messages" at the end of this one.--Compiler.]

Metempsychosis is invariably equated in dictionaries and encyclopædias with both transmigration and reincarnation. Though authorities differ slightly, one gathers that the source meaning of metempsychosis is "a passing beyond of the soul." (Meta sometimes means "beside," sometimes "across," sometimes "after," sometimes "beyond," sometimes "over" -- see Webster's International and Joseph Shipley's Dictionary of Word Origins.) The most common usage for metempsychosis has been in representing the idea of "the passing of the soul after death of the body," but the implications of metempsychosis do not stop here. Whenever the soul passes "beyond" any of its former conditions, a metempsychosis has taken place. That is, whenever a state of mind has been transcended and replaced with a better one, whenever man secures release from the influences of a debilitating psychic condition, the soul has also "passed beyond." Since theosophical doctrine, as H.P.B. so often intimated, is primarily psychological, this subtle dimension of the word metempsychosis is of great importance. During employment of this term, perhaps, one is less likely to conceive of reincarnation as a purely mechanical process, and, interpreted as a living process going on all the time in the inner nature of men who strive for enlightenment, metempsychosis brings one close to what might be regarded as the esoteric meaning of the Third Fundamental Proposition of The Secret Doctrine. "Meta" is more important than "re," simply because passing beyond a state in which one has existed is a more inspiring idea than simply returning to a former condition.

With the background of these speculations in mind we may turn to passages in Isis which have perplexed so many Theosophical students. On page 351, Madame Blavatsky wrote:

We will now present a few fragments of this mysterious doctrine of reincarnation -- as distinct from metempsychosis -- which we have from an authority. Reincarnation, i.e., the appearance of the same individual, or rather of his astral monad, twice on the same planet, is not a rule in nature; it is an exception, like the teratological phenomenon of a two-headed infant. It is preceded by a violation of the laws of harmony of nature, and nature's original design to produce a perfect human being, has been interrupted. Therefore, while the gross matter of each of these several entities is suffered to disperse itself at death, through the vast realm of being, the immortal spirit and astral monad of the individual -- the latter having been set apart to animate a frame and the former to shed its divine light on the corporeal organization -- just try a second time to carry out the purpose of the creative intelligence.

If reason has been so far developed as to become active and discriminative, there is no reincarnation on this earth....

As those familiar with the history of the Theosophical Movement will recall, a number of prominent Theosophists, including Col. H. S. Olcott, maintained that Madame Blavatsky "didn't really know" about reincarnation in 1875, and that the quoted passage above proves this beyond any doubt. A careful rereading of passages on the subject of metempsychosis -- and H.P.B. suggests the necessity of such careful reading in her opening sentence -- makes Olcott's opinion seem peculiarly ill-founded. Early in the first volume she writes that "if the Pythagorean metempsychosis should be thoroughly explained and compared with the modern theory of evolution, it would be found to supply every 'missing link' in the chain of the latter." Now, there is no doubt as to what "the Pythagorean metempsychosis" entails; every dictionary and encyclopædia lists Pythagoras as the earliest western philosopher who believed in reincarnation, and who thus repeated an ancient Indian teaching. H.P.B. mentions Pythagoras in the following sentences:
The doctrine of Metempsychosis has been abundantly ridiculed by men of science and rejected by theologians, yet if it had been properly understood in its application to the indestructibility of matter and the immortality of spirit, it would have been perceived that it is a sublime conception. Should we not first regard the subject from the stand-point of the ancients before venturing to disparage its teachers? The solution of the great problem of eternity belongs neither to religious superstition nor to gross materialism. The harmony and mathematical equiformity of the double evolution -- spiritual and physical -- are elucidated in the universal numerals of Pythagoras.
In another passage (p. 351), she provides at least partial explanation of her negation of reincarnation:
There was not a philosopher of any notoriety who did not hold to this doctrine of metempsychosis, as taught by the Brahmans, Buddhists, and later by the Pythagoreans, in its esoteric sense, whether he expressed it more or less intelligibly. Origen and Clemens Alexandrinus, Synesius and Chalcidius, all believed in it; and the Gnostics, who are unhesitatingly proclaimed by history as a body of the most refined, learned, and enlightened men, were all believers in metempsychosis. Socrates entertained opinions identical with those of Pythagoras; and both, as the penalty of their divine philosophy, were put to a violent death. The rabble has been the same in all ages. Materialism has been, and will ever be blind to spiritual truths. These philosophers held that men have two souls, of separate and quite different natures: the one perishable -- the Astral Soul, or the inner, fluidic body -- the other incorruptible and immortal -- the Augoeides, or portion of the Divine Spirit; that the mortal or Astral Soul perishes at each gradual change at the threshold of every new sphere, becoming with every transmigration more purified. The astral man, intangible and invisible as he might be to our mortal, earthly senses, is still constituted of matter, though sublimated.
Comparing these two passages, the student can easily determine that H.P.B.'s preference for the word metempsychosis lay in the fact that it suggested a universal principle, applicable in many ways and at all times. Her objection to "reincarnation," on the other hand, lay in the fact that the spiritualists wished to believe that the purely personal self passed intact beyond death, and was able to continue to live as such. If the spiritualists had been encouraged to incorporate the idea of reincarnation with their own partial theories, the concept would certainly have become mutilated in the extreme; denizens of the "spirit world" -- the personalities of the departed -- would have been conceived as simply "on vacation" from the earth, due to come back with the same psychic construct. Later, when the spiritualists had followed their own dubious pathway beyond the portals of philosophy -- without entering -- the dangers of the misuse of the reincarnation theory were considerably minimized. Another argument in favor of the actual philosophical superiority of metempsychosis over reincarnation is that many who favor the broad principle underlying both terms attempt to "prove" rebirth by those rare instances where an actual reincarnation of the same astral monad has taken place -- which, according to H.P.B., "happens only when the latter, seeking to restore its disturbed equilibrium, violently throws back into earth-life the astral monad which has been tossed out of the circle of necessity by crime or accident. Thus, in cases of abortion, of infants dying before a certain age, and of congenital and incurable idiocy." Readers of THEOSOPHY familiar with the reincarnations of Shanti Devi and Katsugoro will recognize that such instances are, indeed, "exceptions."

It is quite possible that the new avenues of speculation opening up in psychical research and psychotherapy will some day lead to the revival of the term "metempsychosis." Certainly, scholars are apt to prefer a word not too closely associated with Theosophy, since Theosophy has, unfortunately, acquired a host of sectarian implications. At the opening of Chapter 2 in Isis, H.P.B. states a cardinal article of faith which may well become a postulate of the psychological sciences of the future. "It is," she writes, "our decided impression and conviction, that to become a genuine spiritual entity, which that designation implies, man must first create himself anew, so to speak -- i.e., thoroughly eliminate from his mind and spirit, not only the dominating influence of selfishness and other impurity, but also the infection of superstition and prejudice." What is needed is to gradually come to see that the real meaning of life can only be described in terms of the progressive evolution of the soul towards higher psychological states; in time this awareness may lead to the speculative application of the same principle to a continuing life after death. When and if this happens, we may expect that the value of Madame Blavatsky's distinctions as between metempsychosis and reincarnation will be thoroughly appreciated.

Like Buddha, H.P.B. tried her utmost to avoid oversimplification of doctrine, save in those instances where the mind of the philosophically immature student would be in psychic or moral peril unless provided with a simple concept to which to cling. An insufficiency of the philosophical spirit among the members of the old T.S. apparently made it impossible to immediately carry out the subtleties of a thorough theosophical educational program. But H.P.B.'s original intent is clear -- she at first declined providing a simple "yes" or "no" on the subject of "reincarnation" as commonly considered, and wrote much more extensively about metempsychosis. The Glossary provided in Isis, "Before the Veil," carries nothing on reincarnation but the following, which, in the context of our discussion, is especially to be noted:

Metempsychosis. -- The progress of the soul from one stage of existence to another. Symbolized and vulgarly believed to be rebirths in animal bodies. A term generally misunderstood by every class of European and American society, including many scientists.
The statement of H.P.B.'s Third Fundamental Proposition of The Secret Doctrine, after referring to the acquirement of individuality, continues with the sentence: "The pivotal doctrine of the Esoteric Philosophy admits no privileges or special gifts in man, save those won by his own Ego throughout a long series of metempsychoses and reincarnations." Why, we may well ask, does she use both terms here? Perhaps because metempsychosis, as indicated in Isis, connotes "the progress of the soul," while reincarnation, in this sense a lesser word, merely signifies re-embodiment of the soul in flesh. The metempsychoses gained through reincarnation, then, are the primary concern of Theosophical teachers.

(NOTE: The foregoing quotation also appears in H.P.B.'s Glossary, plus a sentence of opposite implication -- a reading of which might cause any dutiful reader to wonder if the whole argument of the "Word Puzzles" article is not overdrawn. The sentence omitted reads as follows: "Metempsychosis should apply to animals alone." The "puzzle" occasioned by the contradiction between this statement and all other passages quoted in the foregoing article has before occasioned comment and discussion, and, in this case, had something to do with selection of Metempsychosis as a topic for the series. To the present editors of THEOSOPHY the explanation seems simple enough; a typographical omission. The word "not", we believe, was intended to precede "apply." At least, there seems no easier way to account for the discrepancy, especially in view of what is recorded in H.P.B.'s statement of the Third Fundamental Proposition of the Secret Doctrine.)

[Compiler's Note: I just want to alert you here to the fact that this important subject is very informatively continued in the 25th article of this series. You may want to go to it right now, from a current continuity point of view, while these ideas are fresh in your mind, because the second article on this overall subject wasn't planned by the Editors, but came about because of responses by their readers. Of course you may simply want to continue on in sequence and read the 23rd and 24th articles in this series first -- but I wanted to lay the circumstances and the choices out for you to consider.]

[Note: Here's the link to HPB's "Five Messages to the American Theosophists", that were mentioned in the above article by the Editors.--Compiler.]

Next article:
[Objective. Psychological & Philosophical Connotations.
Scientific Method. Scientific Ideal. Objectivity.
Material Plane. Lower Nature. Biases.
Higher Self. Impartial Reason. Intuition.
Impersonal Quest for Truth. Fair Appraisal.
Psychotherapy. Semantic Literature. Objectification.
Developing Objectivity. Abstract. Facts. Inferences.
Judgments. Tools. H.P.B.. Temporary Illusion.
Objective Idealism. Subjective Accomplishment.]
[Part 23 of a 29-part series]

Back to the
series complete list of articles.

Back to the full listing containing all of the
"Additional Categories of Articles".

Main Page | Introductory Brochure | Volume 1--> Setting the Stage
Karma and Reincarnation | Science | Education | Economics | Race Relations
The WISDOM WORLD | World Problems & Solutions | The People*s Voice | Misc.