Are we born again? We can divide humanity into two major groups—believers and non-believers in rebirth. The third minority is indifferent to the whole issue. What makes people believe or not believe, accept or reject the doctrine of rebirth? We find that the majority do not do their own thinking but accept the ideas formulated by Science or Religion.
Some non-believers argue: If we have lived before, why do we not remember our past lives? Why have we not made progress? Then there are those—weighed down by the misery of the present life—who are frightened by the idea of one more life of misery and would rather believe in the bliss of eternal heaven. However, the truth or falsehood of the doctrine of rebirth does not depend upon human sentiments or beliefs.
Dr. J. Paul Williams observes in his essay, "Belief in a Future Life," that the arguments regarding rebirth revolve around the fundamental question: What is man? There are three possibilities. (1) Is man just a body? (2) Is he a body that has a soul? (3) Is he a soul that has [or uses] a body? Our everyday experience shows that man is not just a body. If we accept that man is a soul, then what is the relation between the soul and the body? William James pointed out that we can say that body produces life [soul], or, that the body reflects life. He gives an analogy. Light is produced by a candle; if the candle is put out, its light disappears. But light is reflected by a mirror; if the mirror is taken away the light still continues. So also we may suppose that the body reflects the soul, therefore it is rational to believe that soul can exist apart from the body. We may argue that we do not have a direct experience of the soul existing independent of the body. So also, we have no direct experience of electrons and protons in an atom.
Yet, there are innumerable instances of people who have had OBEs [Out-of-the-Body-Experiences]—in which they describe rushing out of the body, observing the body from a distance and re-entering-it—showing that soul can exist independent of the body. We must distinguish between the possessor and the possessed, i.e., Individuality and Personality. Just like a person throws away old, worn-out garments and puts on new ones, so also the soul takes up a new body at every birth, teaches the Gita. There is an immortal "I" which is the possessor of body, mind, feelings, etc., but cannot be equated with them. Mr. Judge writes, "Unless we deny the immortality of man and the existence of soul, there are no sound arguments against the doctrine of preexistence and rebirth." (The Ocean of Theosophy, p. 84)
The doctrine of rebirth is one of the most ancient doctrines. The ancients have tried to convey it through the language of symbols and myths. For ages, the symbol of symbols for rebirth has been the phoenix. It is a mythical bird of great beauty which is fabled to live for 500 to 600 years, then to burn itself on a funeral pile and rise from the ashes to live through another cycle of years. It is said that when it burns itself to ashes, one glowing spark, signifying the immortal spirit, remains, and from it new life is evolved. The immortal spark undergoes pilgrimage in the drama of evolution. A Kabalistic aphorism describes this pilgrimage thus: "A stone becomes a plant, a plant an animal, an animal a man, and man a god."
We can see that such a great sweep of evolution must necessarily involve not just many years but many lives. We are a long way off from becoming a Buddha. It takes up many years to master even one branch of knowledge, be it music or art or mathematics or computer science. Then again it is no easy task to improve our nature. To overcome a single defect in our character or develop a single virtue takes enormous effort and time. The Buddha said: "Far hath he gone whose foot treads down one fond offence." This partly answers the objection that if we have lived many lives, how is it that we have not advanced? Mr. Judge explains in The Ocean of Theosophy that "Mere death confers no advance." The mere act of dying will not produce elimination of wrong tendencies and development of virtues, powers and faculties. We must not equate reincarnation with progress. Rebirth only provides an opportunity for progress. The same idea is beautifully conveyed in the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The seagull, Jonathan, who is trying to achieve perfection in flying and to rise above the ordinary flock, is told about the difficulty of the task in these words:
(To be concluded)