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No Religion Higher Than Truth

Gnostics and Reincarnation

BNet Newsletter
by Reed Carson
September, 2006

Dear Member of Blavatsky Net,

Recently BN has mostly switched to a less expensive server. For the last newsletter there was some question as to whether copies of the newsletter were sent to all members. So this newsletter is a very brief one. Immediately after sending it I will again ask the bnstudy talk list (which operates on a different server) if anyone did Not receive it. So apologies for the short issue while this gets tested.

Hopefully you will find this brief note on reincarnation in Gnosticism interesting. It of course bears further research.

Reincarnation seems to have been an important feature of the teachings of the school of Carpocrates. (Some feel that reincarnation is implicit in the teachings of all Gnostics schools; it is, however, explicit in that of Carpocrates.) When we extract the venomous commentary that Irenaeus attached to this teaching, we get an interesting picture of the Gnostic concept of reincarnation. A spirit is born on earth again and again because it is not yet free from the constraints of the world-building superphysical powers. To acquire autonomy from these powers, the human spirit must pass through every kind of activity and condition. Thus becoming acquainted with all that earthly existence has to offer, consciousness becomes disenchanted with the attractions of this lower world. To use Buddhist imagery, the “thirst” of the soul for embodiment gradually dies out. This is the necessary precondition for liberation.

Irenaeus implies that, according to the followers of Carpocrates, the Gnostic could conclude this process in one life, making further reincarnations unnecessary,. Irenaeus was probably drawing his information from a manuscript of the school of Caropcrates, and thus he was able to quote from it the saying “Agree with thine adversary quickly,” along with the comment “lest the adversary again cast the soul into prison.” This interpretation is in accord with numerous passages in Pistos Sophia that seem to advocate a similar stratagem to end reincarnation. Irenaeus’s exegesis of this teaching, however, is little short of preposterous; he says that since to be liberated one has to go through all manner of experiences, the followers of Carpocrates had to commit every vile and horrible act possible in order to be free from such acts and consequently from the world!

On this idea G. R. S Mead, the great translator of Gnostic and Hermetic texts, comments:

Irenaeus, however, immediately afterwards add that he does not believe that Carpocratians actually do such things, although he is forced to deduce such a logical consequence from their books. It is, however evident that the whole absurd conclusion is entirely due to the stupidity of the Bishop of Lyons, who, owing to his inability to understand the most elementary facts of the doctrine of reincarnation, has started with entirely erroneous premises, although the matter was as clear as daylight to a beginner in Gnosticism (Fragments of a Faith Forgotten 297) (Gnosticism by Stephan A. Hoeller p 103-4)

Here may be the exact quote from Irenaeus that is causing the issue – preserved all these years.

So unbridled is their madness, that they declare they have in their power all things which are irreligious and impious, and are at liberty to practice them; for they maintain that things are evil or good, simply in virtue of human opinion. They deem it necessary, therefore, that by means of transmigration from body to body, souls should have experience of every kind of life as well as every kind of action (unless, indeed, by a single incarnation, one may be able to prevent any need for others, by once and for all, and with equal completeness, doing all those things which we dare not either speak or hear of, nay, which we must not even conceive in our thoughts, nor think credible, if any such thing is mooted among those persons who are our fellow-citizens), in order that, as their writings express it, their souls, having made trial of every kind of life, may, at their departure, not be wanting in any particular. It is necessary to insist upon this, lest, on account of some one thing being still wanting to their deliverance, they should be compelled once more to become incarnate. They affirm that for this reason Jesus spoke the following parable: — “Whilst thou art with thine adversary in the way, give all diligence, that thou mayest be delivered from him, lest he give thee up to the judge, and the judge surrender thee to the officer, and he cast thee into prison. Verily, I say unto thee, thou shalt not go out thence until thou pay the very last mite. (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. Bk. I, Ch. 25, 4)

There is still much more in the field of Gnosticism that is of interest to Theosophy. Here is one quote found on the internet that is expresses a common idea.

Gnosticism is loaded with Buddhism and other Eastern religions and also takes a negative view of the world and searches for “inner truth.” There is also a great deal of neo-Platonism in both Gnosticism and Christianity in general. ( http://www.sullivan-county.com/id2/gnosticism.htm )

Reed Carson

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