New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. xii + 215 pp., hardcover, $105.
For a long time, Theosophy was an object of contempt for academic scholarship, but that has changed over the last thirty years. Each year more and more books and articles appear about Theosophy and the Theosophical Society, treating them with respect and to a great extent with accuracy.
Several of these scholars, including Julie Chajes of the University of Tel Aviv, have concluded that in essence there were two Theosophical Societies. The first one, founded in New York in 1875, was inspired by Western esoteric influences such as Platonism and Hermeticism. The second, dating from the arrival of H.P. Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott in India in 1879, shows many more reflections of Hindu and Buddhist influence. Isis Unveiled, published in 1877, presented the earlier version; The Secret Doctrine, published in 1888, promoted the second.
In this book, Chajes focuses on one aspect of the shift between these two Theosophies—their attitudes toward reincarnation.
As Chajes shows, the first Theosophy, reflected in Isis Unveiled, published in 1877, was by no means sympathetic to reincarnation. It did speak about concepts such as “transmigration” and “metempsychosis,” but it did not teach that individuals would be reborn on earth, “the doctrine of transmigration of souls referring only to the progress of man from world to world, after death” (Chajes, 49; emphasis Chajes’s).
This first Theosophy taught that the human entity was composed of three parts: the body, the soul, and the spirit. The body is of course mortal; the spirit, immortal. The soul, which mediates between the two, is immortal merely in potentiality; it can attain this state only through purification. “This purification, through which the soul could become ‘a copy of the spirit’ was achieved through learning to separate the soul from the impure physical body, that is, through astral travel, a prominent practice in the early Theosophical Society,” Chajes writes. Otherwise, as HPB writes in an 1877 letter, “the soul or ego of the former man has unavoidably to dissolve in time, to be annihilated” (emphasis HPB’s).
Recapitulating this theory, Chajes writes, “Most individuals are annihilated at death, having failed to achieve immortality.” This statement is somewhat misleading. As she shows, the soul was only provisionally immortal, an end that it achieved only if it had managed to identify itself sufficiently with the spirit. But Chajes fails to emphasize one point (although she quotes texts that make it clear): that the “Augoeides, or portion of the Divine Spirit” is “incorruptible and immortal” (Isis Unveiled, 1:12).
There is an ambiguity here. There is, on the one hand, the monad, “the portion of the Divine Spirit,” which is immortal and indestructible. The soul may be so only in potentia. But which of these is the “individual”? Is it the personality, what we normally equate with individual identity? Or is it properly the monad? I believe that Chajes should have given more attention to this point in her discussion.
The second Theosophy—which is what most Theosophists would recognize as such today—also teaches that the monad, “the portion of the Divine Spirit,” is immortal. But its vehicles, the physical, etheric, and astral bodies, are invariably mortal. As HPB writes in The Key to Theosophy (100), “the body, the life, and the astral eidolon (linga-sharira), all . . . disperse at death,” although they may survive for some time as shells or what HPB liked to call “spooks.”
As Chajes indicates, Blavatsky refined her portrayal of the human entity. Instead of being subdivided into merely three parts—body, soul, and spirit—in her later Theosophy she portrayed the human entity as a saptaparna, an entity consisting of seven parts: the physical body; the etheric body or life force; the astral body or linga-sharira; the animal soul or kama rupa; the manas or mind; buddhi or “intellect”; and the atman, the monad per se. Of these, only the last two were immortal. The manas was divided into two sectors: the lower, being oriented toward the carnal, and the higher, being oriented toward the spiritual. If it is sufficiently developed, the higher manas clings to the buddhi and atman and eventually reincarnates in a more evolved state.
Blavatsky did correlate the saptaparna with the earlier three-part model. She equated the lower two principles—the physical body and the etheric body—with the “body” of her previous system. The next two, the astral body and the kamarupa, equated to the “soul.” The last three, manas, buddhi, and atman, constituted the “spirit.” (Chajes, 77n, citing Secret Doctrine 2:602–03).
If this equation is correct, then the later Theosophy holds only to the principle of the immortality of the spirit per se (because the spirit equates to the three highest principles). The “soul”—the astral body and the kamarupa—are not immortal and have no hope of being so.
These points are extremely subtle, and it is easy to get lost in them. To make some sense of all this, we could posit that the Self—that which says “I” or “I am”—is immortal. And one can never lose one’s connection with it, because it is what is most truly the Self. But the lower parts of the human being—the personality, the desires—all perish with the body or soon after. If there is any hope for survival of the personality, it is the extent to which it is able to identify itself with its own higher aspects.
In any event, the chief difference between the first Theosophy and the second is that the first denied that the Self would reincarnate a second time on earth, while the second version affirmed this idea.
In this later Theosophy, HPB emphasized that reincarnation on earth took place only after a huge stretch of time—at least a thousand years. (This may or may not be case: many number of cases of apparent reincarnation suggest that the time frame was much shorter.) But Chajes suggests that Blavatsky took this position as a way of distancing herself from the Spiritists—followers of the French mystic Allan Kardec (a movement that is very little known in the English-speaking world, though it still has many followers today, especially in Brazil). Like the spiritualists of America, Kardec claimed to be in contact with the spirits of the dead, but he also claimed that they reincarnated on earth very soon after death. By contrast, Blavatsky insisted that (1) these “spirits of the dead” were nothing but astral shells, and that (2) the monad only reincarnates over an enormous period of time.
In her later chapters, Chajes spells out resemblances and contrasts between Theosophy on the one hand and spiritualism, Platonism, science, and Hindu and Buddhist thought on the other. Of these, the chapter on science is the least satisfying, for reasons that are probably not the author’s fault. As she demonstrates, scientific and quasi-scientific positions in the nineteenth century were very slippery and tended to glide into one another or to insist on differences between them where none actually existed. Chajes also shows that a purely materialistic position was rather hard to conceive of: even those who thought of themselves as materialists tended to invoke nonmaterial factors in their theories. (This is surely a sign of the fundamental weakness of materialism as a whole.)
Recycled Lives is a learned and expert treatment of HPB’s ideas on reincarnation—ideas that evolved over the course of her career, and which moreover she did not always state clearly. Some Theosophists may be troubled by the idea that the perennial secret doctrine may change, but the doctrine never exists in a fixed or rigid form. To use today’s academic lingo, it is always embedded in a particular culture and in particular individuals. If its core remains the same, this may not be true for all of its details—particularly about the greatest mystery of all, which is what happens to us after death.
One final note: it is unfortunate that Oxford University Press has contracted from European publishers the loathsome habit of overcharging for its books. Until recently, Oxford hardcover titles ranged around $30–40 price, which was comparable to those of trade publishers. I see no reason that this book should cost $105. It has no illustrations, is not finely bound (or even sewn), and it presents no more difficulties in production than any other academic text. I hope Oxford will change its mind about this extortionate practice very soon.
Richard Smoley’s audio and video series The Truth about Magic, also available in book form, will be published by G&D Media in February 2021.