More people in the West are becoming interested in the concept of reincarnation. They are attracted to the idea that the human spirit lives on beyond death. I suspect they have lost patience with two specific doctrines of traditional Christian religion.
Instead of reincarnation, final destiny according to actions in one life
The first of these is that one’s soul is judged to eternity on the basis of how one behaved in one’s short life on earth. Given the unequal range of hereditary and environmental influence, on the face of it, there seems to be too short a time in one life to provide sufficient opportunity for one’s destiny to be decided.
Instead of reincarnation, final destiny according to beliefs in one life
The second doctrine is that one can be judged as deserving eternal damnation because of lack of belief about Jesus Christ. It smacks of a God of condemnation rather than one of love. The first doctrine seems unjust and the second abhorrent.
Reincarnation as not a final judgment
In contrast, the Eastern religious idea of reincarnation is that the soul or spirit of a person returns to live in one or more new bodies, giving us more than one life-time to be purified of our weaknesses and failings. It does seem more reasonable to suppose that a gradual improvement of the individual spirit takes place rather than a sudden change.
Swedenborg’s account of the spiritual world as an alternative to reincarnation
However, there is an alternative way of thinking to that of reincarnation that takes account of these problems. This is to do with Emanuel Swedenborg’s account of the spiritual world.
If you believe everything that is alive in the body belongs strictly to the soul (or spirit), then it follows that the spirit is the actual person. In line with this is the experience of Swedenborg that when a person’s body is separated from his spirit at death, he or she is still a person — still alive having a spirit body and retaining a complete personal memory.
This would mean the continuation of your personal identity in a spiritual world and thus no loss of your present personality in any new incarnations in the physical world. You wouldn’t have to keep repeating the whole process of childhood, teenage and adult mental and emotional growth. Nor could you be blamed for any impairments or deformities as signs of past wrongdoing in a previous life which is a problem with the doctrine of reincarnation.
Swedenborg says he has psychically observed how individuals in the next life continue to spiritually develop; a growth that depends on the character they have formed on earth. This observation is in line with the idea of karma that what one does in this present life will have its effect in the next life: what we sow we will reap.
Retention of individuality
He indicates that after death spirit people retain their individuality and pass through stages something similar to what we might say are different kinds of psychotherapy. He claims this will involve you firstly in self-exploration: secondly in a stage where any attitudes, desires or habits of thought, that are out of line with your basic character, are removed: and thirdly in a situation where you will be able to learn more about spiritual life if you so wish. In other words, as long as you are genuinely sorry about your wrongdoings, these can be forgiven and set aside.
Phenomena apparently supporting reincarnation
One phenomenon, apparently supporting the conclusion that one has had a previous existence, is that of déjà vu – sometimes finding a place or person familiar although not actually previously seen and thus knowing what to expect. Another phenomenon that seems to support reincarnation is the memory of past life as revealed in regressive hypnosis.
My own view is we should try to distinguish between this evidence and its interpretation. I do believe these actually are evidence of past lives — but not the individual’s own past lives.
Swedenborg testifies from his psychic journeys that all spirits in the spirit world are men and women who once lived on our physical plane when they were in the body. I am persuaded by his experience that there is a psychic presence of these spirits of dead people with all of us on earth. It’s just that we cannot ordinarily see them. I cannot see or hear them but I believe that their desires and thoughts come into my heart and mind; feelings and ideas that I mistakenly assume to be my own. Swedenborg says I am free to choose which one’s to ignore and which one’s to listen to and act on.
He writes that these spirits are normally not permitted to communicate from their own memories. However, for some reason, that admittedly is not clear to me, he says it does sometimes occur and, when it does the person recollects something he or she has never seen or heard.
So the explanation of the experience of past lives that I offer, is of an occasional overstepping of the boundaries by spirits associated with people leading them to believe they must have lived before.
Instead of thinking of reincarnation in terms of human souls reincarnating in new physical bodies, we could think of the Source of all life repeatedly reincarnating through each new created soul. We could also think of this Creative Source being reborn again and again within each person who is willing to receive the Divine inspiration during an eternal process of personal regeneration in this life continuing in a next world of spirit.
Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems
One question we’re asked frequently at the Swedenborg Foundation is, “Did Swedenborg say anything about reincarnation?”
In his writings, Swedenborg gives detailed descriptions of the afterlife—including heaven, hell, and the world of spirits in between—and the stages of development that a person’s mind and soul experience during life on earth and in the spiritual realms after death. He describes a linear process of spiritual growth in which people are born, live on earth, and then continue living and growing eternally in the afterlife.
None of this suggests that Swedenborg would be sympathetic to the idea of living multiple lifetimes on earth. And in fact, in one of his rare explicit references to reincarnation, he depicts a philosopher in the afterlife first arguing in favor of reincarnation and then, having been enlightened by the Lord, disavowing the notion as “insane” (True Christianity §79:6, 8). In True Christianity §171, Swedenborg goes even farther, comparing a particular belief about Jesus to “the absurd notion that someone’s soul can cross over into someone else.” (See the postscript to this article for more on how Swedenborg might have understood the concept of reincarnation.)
In Heaven and Hell §256, he offers an explanation for why it might appear that some people remember past lives:
Angels and spirits actually have memory just as we do. If a spirit were to talk with us from her or his own memory, then it would seem to us entirely as though the thoughts were our own, when they would really belong to the spirit. It is like remembering something that we have never seen or heard.
This is why some of the ancients were of the opinion that after some thousands of years they would return to their former life and all its deeds, and that they had in fact returned. They gathered this from the fact that sometimes a kind of memory would come up of things that they had never seen or heard. This happened because spirits had flowed from their own memory into the images of these people’s thoughts.
Clearly, Swedenborg wouldn’t have supported the idea of a person’s soul being reborn in another earthly body. However, when discussing the process of spiritual growth and rebirth, or regeneration, Swedenborg develops a complex model of how the soul travels through different spiritual states and how those states relate to each other. There are some striking parallels between Swedenborg’s descriptions of this process and Hindu teachings on reincarnation that suggest that maybe the two philosophies aren’t as far apart as they seem.
Hinduism is a religion of diverse beliefs and practices, but speaking very broadly, Hindus believe that we consist of a gross (physical) body and a subtle body. The subtle, or astral, body is defined in different ways by different sources, but it’s often divided into these common elements: the organs of perception, the organs of action, the vital breath (prana), the intellect or wisdom (buddhi), the mind (manas), and the ego (ahamkara). It is this subtle body that survives after death and goes to another spiritual world or plane of existence (loka). There are manylokas, usually divided into seven higher and seven lower; the higher ones are states of spiritual bliss, while the lower ones are states of spiritual suffering. People stay in these lokas until they have expended their good or bad karma, and then they are reborn on earth. This process repeats until a person is good or pure enough to achieve moksha, a release from the cycle of death and rebirth.
The following is a description from Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, a well-known American Hindu teacher, that appeared in the magazine Hinduism Today.
Life does not end at the death of the physical body. The body dies but the soul does not. It lives on in a counterpart of the physical body which is called the astral body. The astral body is made of astral matter and resides in a world not unlike this one, called the Devaloka or Second World. In other words, in order to perfect itself, to spiritually unfold and evolve, the soul lives on in another body after death, the astral body. At the right time, according to its karma, it is reborn into a flesh body. Thus the astral body, with the soul within it, enters a new physical body. This same cycle is repeated many times until the soul spiritually unfolds and reaches a certain state of perfection or mature evolution.
A belief in an afterlife that can offer states of joy for the good and suffering for the evil is common to many cultures. But Swedenborg describes in very similar terms to the Hindus the spirit that passes to the afterlife after our body dies: he emphasizes that we are in a human spiritual body after death (see especially Heaven and Hell §§453–454) and that our thoughts, memories, and spiritual senses remain with us (§§461–462). Like Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, Swedenborg describes the soul as living in the spiritual world and continuing to learn and perfect itself (§512).
Swedenborg also, significantly, makes distinctions between the soul (vital energy), the spirit, and the mind:
The soul is nothing more nor less than our life, while the spirit is the actual person, and the body is an earthly thing we carry around in the world. It is only an agent through which our spirit, the actual person, acts in a way that is adapted to the natural world. (Heaven and Hell §602)
Our earthly mind is made up of both spiritual substances and earthly substances. Our thinking results from the spiritual substances and not from the earthly substances. These latter substances fade away when we die, but the spiritual substances do not. So when we become spirits or angels after death, the same mind is still there in the form it had in the world. (Divine Love and Wisdom §257)
Where Hindu scriptures describe an ascending series of higher worlds that a spirit can inhabit (which in some branches are also interpreted as ascending states of consciousness), Swedenborg describes the world of spirits—a plane of existence close to earth but existing on a spiritual rather than a material level—with a series of three heavens above it. These three heavens could also be perceived in terms of being closer to or farther from the center, which is God. “It needs to be quite clear that it is the inner nature of angels that determines which heaven they are in,” Swedenborg writes. “The more the deeper levels [of their minds] have been opened, the more inward the heaven they are in” (Heaven and Hell §33).
But the path of spiritual growth is not a linear one. Hindu texts say that a person can just as easily be reborn in a lower loka as a higher one: if a person incurs bad karma by pursing worldly desires and ignoring their spiritual duties, he or she must live out a lifetime as a lower being in order to learn the lessons they need to move forward. “Life’s ultimate goal is not money, not clothes, not sex, not power, not food or any other of the instinctive needs,” writes Sivaya Subramuniyaswami. “These are natural pursuits, to be sure, but our real purpose on this earth is to know, to love and to serve God and the Gods.”
Swedenborg also describes the occasional step backward as part of an angel’s spiritual life. He says that angels occasionally experience states where their love of God diminishes and they may even fall into a depression. “[The angels] go on to say that the Lord does not produce these changes of their states, since the Lord as the sun is always flowing in with warmth and light, that is, with love and wisdom. Rather, they themselves are the cause, since they love their sense of self and this is constantly misleading them” (Heaven and Hell §158).
For Hindus, the end point of all incarnations is moksha, a word that has its roots in the idea of release or liberation. Again, within Hinduism there are many views of moksha, but the Hindu American Foundation defines it this way:
Moksha is characterized by the overcoming of spiritual ignorance; the complete elimination of material desires and attachments; the perfected ability to live in the present moment and experience absolute peace; and most importantly, the awakening of pure compassion towards all. Moksha also translates to liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth (samsara). Someone may attain moksha during his or her lifetime or upon the death of his or her physical body.
Swedenborg describes the final state of regeneration in similar terms:
None but those who have experienced a state of peace can appreciate the nature of the peaceful tranquility that the outer self enjoys when there is an end to struggle, or to the disquiet of burning desires and misconceptions. That state is so joyful that it surpasses all our notions of joy. It is not simply an end to our struggles but a vibrancy welling up from deep-seated peace, affecting our outer being beyond the capacity of words to describe it. (Secrets of Heaven §92)
To be sure, there are significant differences between Hindu beliefs on reincarnation and Swedenborg’s concept of regeneration. But fundamentally, both systems describe a long and gradual process of self-directed spiritual development that has as its highest possible end state a release from material desires and a resulting state of deep peace and joy. Where Hinduism teaches that this process takes place through multiple rebirths on earth, Swedenborg sees our earthly life as a seed-state for a much longer and richer existence in the afterlife.
Postscript: Swedenborg’s Understanding of Reincarnation
Today, our ideas about reincarnation are largely shaped by eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Europeans were in regular contact with Asia during Swedenborg’s lifetime, and it’s possible that he was aware of these concepts from eastern philosophy. However, reincarnation was also a widely held belief in ancient Greece, and Swedenborg’s references to reincarnation suggest that this is what he was thinking of when describing this concept in his writings.
For example, in True Christianity §79:6, which contains Swedenborg’s recollection (“memorable occurrence”) of an experience in the spiritual world:
Another philosopher said, “I’ll grant you that the individual forms made out of ether in the highest realm were countless. Nevertheless the number of people born since the world was created has exceeded the number of forms. How then could there be enough of these ethereal forms? So I thought to myself that the souls that go out through people’s mouths when they die come back to the same people after several thousand years. The people go back, therefore, and live a similar life to the one they had before. As we know, many of the wise believe in reincarnation and things like that.”
The concept of an eternally begotten Son of God who later comes down and takes on a human manifestation is like the ancient nonsense about human souls created at the beginning of the world that enter bodies and become people. It is also like the absurd notion that someone’s soul can cross over into someone else.
The references in the above passages to “ethereal forms” that came into being at the time of creation and become the souls of human beings were most likely drawn from Swedenborg’s reading of Plato. Plato’s work The Myth of Ercontains his most extensive references to reincarnation, although he also mentions reincarnation in his works Phaedrus and Timaeus. While modern scholars question whether Plato himself believed in reincarnation, the concept of reincarnation reappears in both Greek and Roman literature up until the advent of Christianity