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Theosophical Encyclopedia


One of the principal doctrines of modern theosophy. It is sometimes termed “metempsychosis,” literally meaning “animated again.” The latter term is defined by Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary as “the passing of the soul into another body either human or animal,” which is a definition usually associated with “transmigration.” A much less common word is “palingenesis,” literally “born again,” usually equated with transmigration. Theosophists and most other people use the term “reincarnation” to refer to a process in which the soul once in human form never reverts to incarnate in an animal body; in other words the term is generally associated with the idea of evolution. In Sanskrit, the term used is samsāra which is sometimes translated “reincarnation,” but more literally means “wandering.” An earlier Sanskrit term is punar janma, literally “again born.” Many Hindus and Buddhists interpret these two terms to mean transmigration, i.e., the possibility that one may be reborn as an animal — or even, in extreme cases, as a tree or a vegetable. There are passages in the Upaniads (e.g., Br. Upaniads 6.2.16) which seem to imply that possibility, although the passages are ambiguous, so that may not be their intention. Some Hindus eschew eating beef because they consider a cow might be the rebirth of that person’s grandmother — an idea theosophists completely reject as impossible.

The doctrine of reincarnation is generally associated with its “twin” doctrine of karma. The Sanskrit word karma literally means merely “action,” but has now come to denote the reaction of one’s action; in Sanskrit, such reaction is called phala, literally “fruit.” There is considerable discussion of both reincarnation and karma in theosophical literature, some of which claims to indicate a relation between one’s present situation in life and the actions one did in a past life (cf. the four vol. set edited by C. JINARĀJADĀSA, The Soul’s Growth through Reincarnation). Whether or not one accepts those claims, the implication is that whatever occurs to a person is just, therefore there is no undeserved suffering or unmerited benefit. It is also stated in theosophical literature that the subject of reincarnation and karma is extremely complex and cannot be oversimplified. In fact, Edgar Cayce, who was not a theosophist, in his own approach to the subject suggested that karma sometimes worked in other than “literal” ways, for example that a person who deliberately turned a blind eye to the truth metaphorically in one life might be born literally blind in a future life (see, e.g., Edgar Cayce’s Story of Karma ed. by Mary Ann Woodward).

A belief in reincarnation (or one of its related doctrines) is much more widespread than many Westerners are aware of. It is well known that most Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs accept the idea. It is less well known that there is a Hasidic sect of Judaism which also accepts the idea. Rabbi Yonassan Gershom, a member of that sect, published a book, Beyond the Ashes: Cases of Reincarnation from the Holocaust (ARE Press, 1992), in which he recounts stories he had heard from Jews who remember in their present life being killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust in their previous life. It is also a central notion in the kabbalistic tradition of esoteric JUDAISM. Many early Christians, such as Justin Martyr (ca. 100-165), Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-220), Origen (185-254), and Synesius (ca. 370-430) held the belief, causing later Church Fathers, especially Tertullian (ca. 160-230) and Irenaeus (ca. 125-202), to argue against the belief and declare those Christians who accepted it to be heretics. Reincarnation, in fact, was labeled “fabulous” in a minor council of Constantinople in 553 A.D. in which anathemas were issued against Origen, although there is some question as to whether that council was, in fact, legitimate. In the Middle Ages, the Cathars (also called Albingensians) of southern France, who accepted the idea, were exterminated in the Inquisition, partly because of their belief; this is detailed in The Cathars and Reincarnation: the Record of a Past Life in 13th century France by psychologist Arthur Guirdham (1970, Quest paperback ed. 1978). Although most Christians today do not accept the idea, some do, interpreting Matt. 11.7, 14-15, 16.13-14, and 17.12-13, among several other passages, to indicate that Jesus himself taught the doctrine.

Reincarnation, while rejected, often rather vehemently, by most Muslims, is accepted by Alevi Muslims of Turkey, Druse Muslims of Lebanon and Syria, and by many if not most Sūfīs. Druses call it taqamos, literally “changing one’s shirt.” An often quoted poem in Jalal-ud-din Rumi’s Mathnawi explicitly indicates that he accepted the idea. Several African tribes, e.g., the Igbo of Nigeria, accept the idea of rebirth as do older natives of northwest America (Tlingit, Haida, Kuchin, Athabaskin, Aleut, Tsimsyan, and Eskimo). Many noted Westerners, as well, have individually accepted the idea of reincarnation, among them being Pythagoras, Plato, Jacob BOEHME, Goethe, Richard Wagner, Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Gen. George Patton — to name just a few. All these views, and many others, are described in a series of books edited by Head and Cranston, the first being Reincarnation: an East-West Anthology (Julian Press, 1961) and the latest being Reincarnation: the Phoenix-Fire Mystery (Julian Press, 1977). The interested reader should consult those books for further details.

Probably the most persuasive literature on the subject is a series of books by Ian Stevenson, a professor at the University of Virginia, in which he describes and documents his careful investigation of cases of people, usually children, who recall their immediately previous incarnation. (See the bibliography below for titles.) The interesting feature of the Stevenson material is that it is almost clinical in its details, making for rather boring reading. Yet, when one is finished reading even a few of his cases, one is left with no other plausible explanation for the memories these children have. Stevenson has been assisted in northern India by Satwant Pasricha, whose several journal publications are listed in the bibliography of Stevenson’s Children Who Remember Previous Lives. Another useful book is Yesterday’s Children by Jenny Cockell (Piatkus, 1993; several reprints) in which the author describes her memory of her immediately previous life as well as her efforts to get in touch with her children from that life. Less well known is the work of an English woman who claimed to remember a previous life in ancient Egypt. As a result of her memory, she abandoned the country of her birth and went to live in Egypt, changed her name to Om Seti, and often assisted archeologists in translating Egyptian hieroglyphics which she claimed to remember from that previous life. There are also several books describing a hypnotic age-regression process which seemed to trigger memories of a previous life, perhaps the most noted being The Search for Bridey Murphy by Morey Bernstein (Doubleday, 1956; Lancer reprint, 1965). Most often, however, memories claimed by this technique were not verified, and in at least one instance (Helen Wambach, Reliving Past Lives: the Evidence under Hypnosis, 1978; Barnes and Noble reprint 2000) the claims seemed unreliable if not completely unbelievable. It is well-known that when one is under hypnosis, one’s personality becomes what psychologists term “labial,” in other words willing to tell the hypnotist whatever he or she might want to hear.

The theosophical explanation of the reincarnation process presupposes its theory of the human constitution as septenary: physical body, its etheric double, astral (or emotion) body, lower mental body, higher mental body (called kārana-śarīra, literally “causal body” in Sanskrit), buddhic or intuitional body, and Self (ātman in Sanskrit). Terminology varies among different writers, but is generally derived from the Indian analysis which identifies various bodies or vehicles of consciousness as koas (literally “sheathes”), called respectively annamaya-koa (lit. “food-made-sheath”), prānamaya-kośa (“sheath made of vital energy”), manomaya-kośa (mind-made-sheath”), vijñānamaya-kośa (intellect-made-sheath”), and ānandamaya-kośa (bliss-made-sheath”). Note that in this Sanskrit classification the “mind” is described as having emotions as well as specific thoughts, hence is equivalent to what is termed kāma-manas (“desire-mind”) or “astral” in theosophical literature.

The actual seat of human individuality, i.e., the entity which reincarnates, is the “causal” body, sometimes referred to as the soul. Upon the death of the physical body, its etheric double usually dissipates or disintegrates fairly quickly, although in some cases it may persist for a period of time and be the source of “ghost” sightings, since it retains all the characteristics of its physical counterpart, although in a rather mechanical form. A period of time is then spent on what is called the “astral plane” in theosophical literature during which the person relives his or her emotional life. If that life had been generally pleasant, it would be a happy time; if strong sexual, violent, or antagonistic feelings had prevailed in one’s life, the time on the astral plane could be quite unpleasant — equivalent to what people call “hell.” Eventually, however, both happy and unhappy emotions wear off, and a second death occurs in which the astral body is shed. The person then enters what is termed devachan in theosophical literature. This is equivalent to what Christians term Heaven. This latter state can last, for the average person, 500 to 1000 or more years, after which the process of rebirth begins. One first acquires a mental vehicle, then an astral body, then enters a womb in which the physical body and its etheric double develop prior to actual physical birth. It is said in some theosophical literature that the etheric double acts as a mold or form which helps shape the physical body, although other sources indicate that those two bodies develop together. It is also stated that the mother’s thoughts, emotions, diet, and personal habits (religious devotions, smoking, etc.) play a role in forming (or deforming) both the etheric double and the physical body of the infant. This is just a general outline, of course, and may vary considerably from person to person depending on that person’s karma and emotional, intellectual, and spiritual development.

For people who die relatively young, however, the process can be quite different. Sometimes, the rebirth in a physical body can take place after a very short period of time — days, months, or just a few years. In one case described in Stevenson’s material, probably relatively rare, it would seem that the fetus was actually conceived and started developing in the mother’s womb prior to the death of the person who then inhabited it. In those cases, the new personality retains the astral and mental bodies of the previous incarnation, so it may be possible for the person to recall the previous incarnation, although this depends largely on whether the environment would stimulate those memories, since recognition, as psychologists put it, is stronger than recall. However, it is extremely rare for a person who went through the normal rebirth cycle, as described above, to have what Stevenson terms “imaged” memories of a former incarnation. This partly accounts for the fact that extremely few people have such imaged memories of a former incarnation — thus it is easy for them to reject the theory.

It should be noted, however, that there are different kinds of memory. Stevenson terms the two main types as “imaged” memory and “behavioral” memory. There is also a third type, using the term “memory” more loosely: it may be called “physical memory.” The first type, imaged memory, actually has at least three different subcategories: episodic or “pictured” memory in which one can recall events or persons in terms of actual mental images; semantic or linguistic memory in which one can recall that one did or knew certain things, even though one cannot picture them; and recognition-stimulated memories caused by seeing persons, places, or objects which one knew from one’s previous life. This latter plays an important role in the Tibetan process of identifying a reincarnation of a noted lama. Behavioral memories are also of at least three types. The first is phobias (i.e., fears) or philias (i.e., preferences) relating to the previous incarnation, such as fear of something which caused one’s previous death or a strong attraction for something (or someone) which (or whom) one liked in one’s previous incarnation; there are several striking instances of both of these in Stevenson’s cases. The second is more dramatic and involves talents or sometimes even skills related to something one did or learned in a previous life but which one had not learned in the present life. This could account for child prodigies, for instance. But it could also account for why one child in a family will show great musical, mathematical, or sports abilities, for example, whereas another in the same family shows none — or shows completely different interests. Again, there are examples of these in the Stevenson material. A third type of behavioral memory would be certain idiosyncratic behavioral traits which other members of the person’s family do not have.

Most dramatic in the Stevenson material are what might be termed “physical” memories, such as birthmarks corresponding to a death wound or an operation scar in the previous personality, birth defects relating to something which happened in one’s previous incarnation, or proneness to certain illnesses, etc. which one had in the previous life. Some of these are described in Stevenson’s earlier books, but the best account is in his latest two volumes dealing specifically with birthmarks and birth defects (see bibliography below).

When people reject reincarnation because, they say, they do not remember past lives, it is important to keep in mind that they are thinking of memory only in its “imaged” form. Clearly, if the usual process of reincarnation as described in theosophical literature is correct, most people have not only a new physical brain, but also a new astral body (i.e., new emotional predispositions) and a new mental body as well. It would be extremely unusual, under those circumstances, to be able to remember anything from a past life in an “imaged” sense of the term. One would have to raise one’s consciousness sufficiently to focus it in one’s causal body in order to bring such memories down into the physical brain and that would require years of sustained yogic training. Obviously, very few people are even aware of the need to do so — or, even if they were aware, are willing to invest the time and energy involved. Furthermore, one’s physical environment would have changed so dramatically over even a few centuries that there would hardly be anything capable of stimulating recognition. Think, for instance, of the vast difference between the environment in ancient Greece or Medieval England, for example, and one’s present environment in America, Europe, Australia, etc. It is little wonder that extremely few people have imaged memories of a past life. And if a past life happened not to be particularly pleasant, it is undoubtedly a good thing that most people cannot remember it! As the saying goes, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Furthermore, consider how little most of us recall even of past events in our present lives. Almost no one has an imaged memory of learning how to walk, yet daily we demonstrate behaviorally that we did. And almost no one can remember a dinner one had even a year ago. We tend to have “imaged” memories of events that have some emotional content, whether pleasant or extremely unpleasant.

In fact, behavioral memory may be the most significant way we have of getting in touch with a past incarnation. Consider preferences. Some clearly can be traced to our family or social environment. But some are not so readily explained. Consider people we are immediately attracted to — or feel repelled by. Again, some of that behavior can be explained by things that happened in the present life. But not all can be so easily dismissed. Consider our attraction to certain ideas, people, countries, activities, or foods — or our prejudice against them. Family upbringing certainly plays a role in forming those attractions and prejudices. But not all of them. Even those which could be explained, at least partially, in terms of one’s family or environment, may have a deeper stimulus as well from a past incarnation.

Whatever one’s attitude toward the concept of reincarnation may be, one can see that it gives us a broader perspective on life — and expands our concept of time. It makes suicide ridiculous, since one cannot escape the consequences of one’s actions by killing one’s body. It should minimize one’s identification of oneself in terms of gender, age, race, skin color, nationality, or religious affiliation, therefore conduce to greater tolerance toward others. It ought to make us realize that those differences are distinctions which enrich the human condition rather than are sources of prejudice. It should give us a greater sense of individual responsibility for our actions, knowing that we cannot leave problems of prejudice, war, pollution, etc. to a future generation to solve — because we will be that future generation. It eliminates the rather immature idea of vicarious atonement; we realize that we must, under the law of karma, eventually pay for our own mistakes. And, finally, it eliminates the so-called “Problem of Evil” which is such a difficult thing to solve for people who reject reincarnation. Why is one person born in ease and luxury while another faces constant difficulties? Why is one born with a crippled or severely handicapped body while another is born a natural athlete? How, it is asked, can a just God do such things? For the person who accepts the concepts of reincarnation and karma, there can be no injustice, since everyone gets exactly what they deserve in terms of what they did — or failed to do — in past lives. Of course, that does not mean we should neglect to help those in need, perhaps gloating over the fact that “they deserve it.” To have such a mind set merely indicates that we will have to suffer similarly in the future! Furthermore, we must realize that we may have been placed in connection with that person precisely in order to help him or her. Nor can we put off our spiritual progress until a “more favorable incarnation,” since we would not get that “favorable” incarnation unless we strive for it in our present lifetime.

From the theosophical point of view, therefore, reincarnation is both a hopeful and a mature doctrine. But more than that, as indicated above, there is a great deal of evidence to support it.


Bernstein, Morey. The Search for Bridey Murphy. Doubleday, 1956; Lancer reprint, 1965.

Cayce, Edgar. Edgar Cayce’s Story of Karma, ed. Mary Ann Woodward. Berkley, 1972.

Cockell, Jenny. Yesterday’s Children. Piatkus, 1993; several reprints.

Head, Joseph and Sylvia L. Cranston. Reincarnation: An East-West Anthology. Julian Press, 1961. ——-. Reincarnation in World Thought. Julian Press, 1967. ——-. Reincarnation: the Phoenix-Fire Mystery. Julian Press, 1977.

Grant, Joan. Winged Pharoah. (Barker, 1937); also her autobiographical Far Memory (Harper, 1992).

Gershom, Rabbi Yonassan. Beyond the Ashes. ARE Press, 1992.

Guirdham, Arthur. The Cathars and Reincarnation: the Record of a Past Life in 13th Century France. Guirdham, 1970; TPH Quest paperback, 1978.

Howe, Quincy Jr. Reincarnation for the Christian. Westminster Press, 1974; TPH Quest paperback ed., 1987.

Leadbeater, C. W. The Soul’s Growth through Reincarnation, ed. C. Jinar€jad€sa (4 vols.: TPH, 1941, 1946, 1948, 1950).

Story, Francis. Rebirth as Doctrine and Experience: Essays and Case Studies. Buddhist Publication Society, 1998.

Stevenson, Ian. The Evidence for Survival from Claimed Memories of Former Incarnations. American Society for Psychical Research, 1960. ——-. Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. U. of Virginia Press, 1966; rev. ed., 1975. ——-. Cases of the Reincarnation Type. [all pub. by University of Virginia Press]: vol. 1: 10 Cases in India (1975). vol. 1: 10 Cases in Sri Lanka (1977). vol. 3: 12 Cases in Lebanon and Turkey (1980). vol. 4: 12 Cases in Thailand and Burma (1983). ——-. Children Who Remember Previous Lives. (1987). ——-. European Cases of the Reincarnation Type. (2003). ——-. Reincarnation and Biology: A contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects. U. of Virginia Press,1997; vol. 1 on birthmarks, vol. 2 on birth defects.

Walker, E. D. Reincarnation: A Study of Forgotten Truths. Houghton Mifflin, 1888.

Wambach, Helen. Reliving Past Lives: The Evidence Under Hypnosis. (1978; Barnes and Noble reprint 2000).


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