Continuing with my series of articles about reincarnation, I would like to examine the ideas and written opinions of an occultist named René Guénon, and particularly, the article entitled “The Case Against Reincarnation,” written by Joscelyn Godwin, which appeared in the Winter 1997 edition of the Gnosis magazine. Some occultists have lionized Guénon’s writings, and others have considered him quite a pompous, arrogant and opinionated man. I have collected several of his translated works and have found them somewhat difficult to read, which might be due to the fact that the translations are more accurate than actually readable. Mr. Godwin’s translations and analysis of Guénon’s writings, particularly on this topic, seem to better represent his thoughts in an accessible manner. You can find the entire series of Guénon’s books translated into English and republished through the imprint “Sophia Perennis.”
Also, I wanted to comment briefly on a few remarks that one or two individuals have made regarding my previous articles in this series. First of all, I am not at all making light of anyone who ardently believes in reincarnation. If anything, I am challenging the typically accepted ideas that surround a belief in reincarnation. I haven’t said that reincarnation is impossible (although Guénon does make this statement, as we shall see), but I am just questioning the logic and built in assumptions associated with the popular belief in reincarnation. As occultists, no belief system should be accepted without some critical thinking and analysis.
While I may make light of what I consider to be the more abusive aspects of a belief in reincarnation (such as someone making unjustified claims of having been someone famous), I do respect the overall assumptions and personal beliefs that someone might have who believes in reincarnation. If my words have found offence or have disturbed some of my readers, then all I can say in my defense is that I have approached this analysis with the same critical thinking skills that I have successfully used in my own occult work. All I ask is that those who read this series of articles ask themselves some questions and do a bit of self examination after reading them.
French Occultist René Guénon
René Guénon (1888 - 1951) was a French author and intellectual who continues to be influential in the study of metaphysics and occultism, having written on topics ranging from metaphysics, sacred science and traditional studies to symbolism and initiation. (See the Wikipedia article for a thorough biographical examination of René Guénon - you can find it here.)
René Guénon not only expounded on the religious systems of Hinduism, Taoism and mystical Islam in his various books, but he had actually received initiations and instruction within these traditions as well. He was one of the earliest Europeans initiated into a lineage of Shankaracharya (Indian Vendanta) and he also received a consecration in Jules Doinel’s French Gnostic church. He was fluent in a number of languages, and declared that spiritual traditions must be handed down from teacher to student in order to keep those traditions relevant and alive within the culture that gave them their meaning. He was against borrowing terms and concepts from one culture to be used in another, and believed that the West had lost its valid esoteric traditions because of materialistic science and religious intolerance. He was often at times an opponent of the Theosophical movement and an ardent critic of the popular occultism of his day. His voluminous writings were first written in French, but were later translated into over twenty languages. He died in Cairo, having become something of an adopted Egyptian and a follower of mystical Islam.
In the article “Against Reincarnation”, Joscelyn Godwin had located the original source of René Guénon's opinions and theories about reincarnation in a single a book entitled “L’Erreur Spirite” (The Spiritist Fallacy) published in 1921, which, I might add, was one of the few books at the time that had not been translated into English. Godwin took the responsibility of distilling and paraphrasing the contents of this book into the salient points used in his article, stating that a mere translation of the work would be too difficult, since Guénon had a tendency to “extreme wordiness and philosophical abstraction,” which would distract the reader from its inherent and important message. However, that book has since been translated into English, and I have found it readable, although quite wordy with long and uninterrupted paragraphs. By the way, this book was written by Guénon to counter the popular beliefs and practices of Spiritualism, which had impacted much of occultism in the late 19th century. It was the proponents of Spiritualism who brought the concept of reincarnation into the popular imagination, only to be later picked up by theosophists and western occultists.
Ostensibly, the proponents of reincarnation believe that the same being can be born more than once in a human body while Guénon holds that it cannot occur. This is because he emphatically states that a human existence is only one of a myriad of possible manifestations through which the totally of being, which he calls the Universal Being, can manifest. The individual “beingness” of a human being is only the outer manifestation of this Universal Being, and only that greater entity re-manifests itself after the life of the individual human being perishes. If we value the individual human manifestation of life too greatly, then we misconstrue the nature of that Universal Being, which through its greater perspective cannot have such a bias. We also function as beings trapped in the web of space and time, and perceive events in our lifetime, as well as all lives in general, as sequential occurrences; but this would be considered an illusion from the point of view or perspective of the Universal Being.
If we recall that Guénon had been trained and initiated into a sect of the Vendanta tradition in India, and that followers of Vendanta (especially the Advaita sect of Shankara) believe that the individual spirit called Atman is undifferentiated from the absolute Godhead called Brahma, then we can easily understand where he is coming from. Guénon believed that the indestructible element of an individual human being was essentially the same as the absolute Godhead, therefore it must exist in a state that profoundly transcends the individual self and its associated ego-body structure. This individual and internal Atman would not be limited by space, time or any aspects of the material world. Guénon believed that this absolute attribute of the individual was the only thing that could survive death, and in fact, he believed that it was completely untouched by the occurrence of death and mortality. If this is true, then it would explain his apparent hostility towards reincarnation and spiritualism. So this is what Guénon was referring to when he discussed the concept of the Universal Being; he was referring to the transcendental Atman.
In the book “The Spiritist Fallacy,” Guénon shapes his arguments against the possibility of reincarnation, stating unequivocally that it defies the concept of a trans-temporal, trans-personal inner Godhead which has no limitations. If we can agree that the universe has an infinite number of worlds, and that the material world is just one of an infinite number, and that life is not limited to this single planet but extends throughout the multiverse, then it does seem absurd that the individual Godhead incarnating as a human being would limit itself to just a series of sequential human lives instead of engaging with a multiverse of possibilities. As Guénon so succinctly puts it in his book, The Spiritist Fallacy, with the following quotations:
“[U]niveral and total Possibility is necessarily infinite and cannot be conceived otherwise because, including all and leaving nothing outside itself, it cannot be limited by anything whatsoever.”
“Only within a finite set can one return twice to the same element, and even then that element would not be rigorously the same except on condition that the set in question is a closed system, a condition that is never effectively realized.”
“[I]n universal existence, a return to the same state is an impossibility. In total Possibility the particular possibilities, which constitute the conditioned states of existence are necessarily defined indefinitely multiple; to deny this is also to limit Possibility. This must be admitted on pain of contradiction, and suffices to establish that no creature can pass twice through the same state.” (See “The Spiritist Fallacy,” p. 180, translated by Alvin Moore, Jr. and Rams. P. Coomaraswamy Sophia Perennis 2003)
Godwin follows up with his own estimation of this perspective, which implies that a human incarnation is likely to occur only once for any individual spirit.
“In an infinite series, such as that of integers, each term appears but once. Likewise, in the infinite variety of the universe, experienced in its totality by every being, no single state need or can be repeated. The being contains (or to use the bead metaphor, passes through) them all, without singling out any particular state for special treatment through repetition.” (See “Against Reincarnation,” p. 30, para. 2)
What Guénon and Godwin have both said is that a single lifetime is unique and unrepeatable, which agrees with what I had often thought about the uniqueness of the genetic and temporal footprint of a living being. However, Guénon goes further to state that the essential nature of that being also cannot be repeated. This claim, if true, would go against almost all theories of reincarnation, and most particularly, the popular notion of reincarnation that he encountered in France in the 1920's, proposed by contemporary occultists and theosophists. As we discussed earlier, the issue of reincarnation is principally a question of what actually gets reincarnated, and according to Guénon, only the totality of being can and does re-manifest itself, but never in the same manner or through the same individual being. Godwin explains this logical pronouncement with the greatest of ease and efficiency.
“Guénon’s language and dry logic may obscure the grandeur of his view. Human life, he seems to be saying is not such a special and unique thing that beings are clamoring to experience it again and again. Beings including you and me are tremendous things, with unlimited vistas of lives in modes we cannot begin to imagine.” (See “Against Reincarnation,” p. 30, para. 3)
Thus from this viewpoint we can deduce that Guénon believes that corporeal life is but one of a myriad possibilities, and that to insist that a being should always be manifest in a material and human guise is so limiting as to be astonishing. As Godwin states: “With ‘indefinite possibility’ before it, it is absurd to imagine a being forever imprisoned in the closet of the physical universe, as the materialists do; or ever returning there, as the reincarnationists do.” As for the beliefs in reincarnation held by the Hindu religion and by Buddhism, Guénon states that they are misinterpretations of two completely different processes, which are metempsychosis and transmigration.
As Godwin points out in his article: “From the point of view of the essential being, so-called ‘death’ is nothing but a change of state, which might just as well be called ’birth into a new state’ inevitably a non-material one, if one follows Guénon’s principles. This manifestation of a being from state to state is called ‘transmigration’, although in fact the being has nowhere to migrate to. It is more a case of innumerable lives manifesting [due] to the being’s mere existence.” (See “Against Reincarnation,” p. 31, para. 8)
Godwin goes on to point out that the serial manifestation of lives, seemingly sequential and having causal links to each other, and comprising of an evolutionary chain is illusory. Godwin also states that Guénon’s constant assault on reincarnation is because he feels that it obscures the real fact that “this unchanging self which sustains all the myriad states and who conscious attainment is the summum bonum.” The realm of the ego, which acts as the center of a human life is transitory, illusory and ephemeral. It is a grave mistake to elevate this transitory shadow of the true self and then to project it into the past and future as the self that is reborn in other bodies. As Godwin puts it so eloquently: “As soon as we die, we leave the human species behind forever.”
Guénon attributes the first appearance of the popular Western notion of reincarnation not with the advent of Theosophy or even Spiritualism, but to the French Socialists of the early 19th century, such as Charles Fourier and Pierre Leroux, who found it a tidy explanation for human inequality. While I am not able to thoroughly examine this claim, I was able to look up these two individuals in Wikipedia. Charles Fourier was an important French utopian socialist and philosopher of the early 19th century, and Pierre Leroux was a French philosopher and political economist from around the same period. Of these two individuals, only Leroux was reputed as believing in metempsychosis, who made it a part of his social theories (which were more in line with propaganda than scholarship),so I can at least verify the credibility of Guénon’s claim.
If metempsychosis was a popular notion amongst European intellectuals in the early 19th century, then it could have had a powerful impact on how reincarnation was defined by later organizations such as the Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, who both lionized and developed this belief into a complex system. From those organizations this doctrine passed into the sentiments and beliefs of the common populous. However, as we examine reincarnation from its historical sources, we will see more clearly where the origins of the theosophical theory of reincarnation came from as well as the digression of the popularly held belief.
Guénon's book also contained some theories that explain the occurrence of anecdotal evidence of reincarnation, as well the occurrence of ghosts and other paranormal phenomena. These phenomena are caused by what Guénon calls “psychic residue,” which are the energies or subtle parts of one's organic being. These energies are then separated or jettisoned from the body when a person dies, and while they slowly disperse and decompose, they can seemingly take on a life of their own. These residues can take the form of the body that they once inhabited, thus forming apparitions or ghosts, and they can also be picked up by individuals, sensed in dreams, manifesting as visions or even cause individuals to be possessed. Guénon also discusses in his book that some of these psychic residues are also passed down from parents to children in a kind of psychic heredity.
Since these energies are not unified through a physical body, they generally appear in a fragmentary manner, like the broken shards of a personality that once lived in another body in another time. However, without the constant renewal supplied by the physical body, these energies slowly dissipate; but they can and do continue to exist for long periods of time. Yet such a partial or fragmented entity, even though it is sensed and perceived in dreams and visions, and seems real and meaningful to the observer, it does not originate from one's own self. The apparition, however seemingly real, is only the fragmentary residual energy of a completely different person who happened to live in another time and place. Ghostly phenomena are the effects of mindless and soulless entities, since the true self or being that acted as the core of such an entity was retracted back into the Universal Being upon the death of the physical body.
Guénon defined this process of residual association that seems to influence individuals and cause them to believe in reincarnation as a form of metempsychosis. This definition is somewhat different than the classical definition of metempsychosis, which has its origins in ancient Greece (we will fully examine this topic below). However, Guénon wanted to differentiate the illusions of past lives and ghostly apparitions from the transmigration of the true self.
According to Guénon, metempsychosis occurs when the psychic residues associated with past incarnations appear in association with another being, human or animal. “Sometimes this gives the impression of reincarnation, as when a being contains identifiable psychic residues from the past. In such a case, one may remember past lives, but in the deepest sense they are not one’s own. They are an inheritance from other beings who will never reappear on the earthly scene.” This explanation would account for all of the anecdotal accounts and proofs for reincarnation, and it would further explain why the child who would become the current Dalai Lama was able to remember some things associated with the previous Dalai Lama, but could not gather together all of the memories and abilities that the previous mature individual possessed into the body and mind of the young boy.
We have covered all of Guénon’s views about and against reincarnation and its associated phenomena, and we can now make the following points about these views, assisting us in building an alternate theory to that which is defined by the Theosophical Society or held in the popular imagination.
- The true self, representing the indelible and immutable part of an individual being, is actually a vestige of the Universal Being, temporarily incarnating as a human being. The Universal Being is unlimited and ‘indefinite’, or infinite, while individual human beings are limited and definite, both in their characteristics and in their physical manifestation in the space time continuum.
- In the infinite variety of the Universal Being, no single state is ever repeated, which is to say that the true self that emanates from that universal state will incarnate as a human being only once, and then never revisit that state ever again, since it has an infinite variety of states in which to manifest itself.
- Death is but a rebirth into another state, and that the true self engages in a form of transmigration from state to state, never repeating the same state twice, although this is illusory, since from the standpoint of the Universal Being, all states are co-existent or ‘co-present’, meaning that they do not occur in a sequential or serial manner. There is no time and space from the perspective of the totality of being, there is only the eternal now.
- Reincarnation asserts that the true self is continually manifested in a corporeal body, but this would actually be against the odds, since corporeality is only one of an infinite series of possibilities for manifestation. Reincarnation also assumes the primacy of incarnating into a human body, which Guénon has shown is an absurd bias for human centric thinking that must be rejected.
- Anecdotal evidence for reincarnation can be explained as a process of ‘psychic residue’ left over from previous incarnations, and that dreams and impressions of previous past lives can be explained as a function of metempsychosis. The action of ‘psychic residue’ also explains the occurrence of ghosts, apparitions, and a sense of familiarity that one might find with places and events in the near or distant past.
- The belief in reincarnation in the Hindu and Buddhist religions is vastly different than the way they are held in the West. The popular belief in reincarnation as proposed by occultists and New Age adherents is the product of sentiments and ideas that have their origin in 19th century Utopian Socialism, progressive theories of social equality, and modern concepts on spiritual evolution rather than Eastern religious philosophies or Greek Philosophy. (We will prove this point in the paragraphs below.)
What remains is for us to examine the historical precedents for reincarnation, and also examine this belief as it is held in the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism to make our point that the current belief as held in the West is neither ancient nor concurrent with Eastern beliefs. It is, in fact, a very recent and modern creation, fashioned to give comfort to occult intellectuals who fear the oblivion of death; but it has also been responsible for propagating misinformation about the nature of the true self. This sentiment has also fostered a kind of false sense of personal immortality, in some cases allowing individuals to complacently delay their search for pathways to individual enlightenment. This is because they have subscribed to the belief that enlightenment takes many lifetimes, instead of it being available to everyone in this lifetime.
(To be continued..)