Reincarnation is a Thorn in My Side

I know, I know. It’s been forever since I’ve posted. In my defense, grad school is time-consuming, and it pays better than Tarot blogging (which says more about blogging than it does about life in a Ph.D). I’m not sure how long this post is going to be, but I woke up early this morning and I have about an hour to sit down and write. I’ll ramble for an hour and post whatever comes out—and I apologize in advance for the lack of editing.

The subtitle of this post could easily be fuck Helena Blavatsky. Because, well, fuck Helena Blavatsky. For anyone who’s not familiar with H. P. Blavatsky or her Theosophical Society, it’s worth a quick Wikipedia search to familiarize yourself. She was a profoundly influential occultist who got her hooks into spiritualism and a whole host of related movements, and her thinking continues to affect occultists and Pagans to this day. However, most of the ways in which she’s affected those communities have been, I feel, more detrimental than beneficial. In particular, Blavatsky is (in)famous for introducing Eastern religious thought to the mainstream of Western occultism, and doing a terrible job of it. A lot (though not all) of the wishy-washy pseudo-Buddhism and pseudo-Hinduism that dominates the contemporary New Age sphere can be credited to Helena Blavatsky.

If I were bothering to edit this post, I would probably rewrite the above paragraph a bit in order to introduce the central topic of today’s discussion—contemporary Neopagan ideas about reincarnation and the troubles I have with them—prior to talking about Blavatsky. But alas. No editing. You just get to follow my stream of consciousness and understand that this is what it’s like inside my head all the time. May the Gods have mercy on you, dear reader, for daring to set foot where even angels will not tread.

So, yes, the topic of today’s discussion is reincarnation, because it is a thorn in my side. (That’s probably what I’ll title this post. “Reincarnation is a thorn in my side”.) Reincarnation is a fairly pervasive belief in generipagan communities, especially those influenced by Wicca. As I recall, the authors of the Gardnerians blog had a post somewhere where they mentioned, casually, that reincarnation is one of the few beliefs most Wiccans seem to share. But, well, people are imprecise in the way they think about reincarnation, and it’s driving me up the wall. Not in an angry way. I’m not offended or upset. I’m just so, so terribly confused, and I can’t find anyone who seems like they’re bothering to subject the belief in reincarnation to serious examination.

For starters, let’s take a step back and put a couple of blanket statements on the table. These statements don’t apply to everyone, certainly, but I at least get the impression that a lot of people in Pagan communities would (at least on a first pass) accept many or most of them. They include things like:

  • There is such a thing as a soul that endures after death
  • Upon death, the soul spends an interim period of indeterminate length in the spirit realm before being reborn into a new body
  • The soul has some kind of lesson to be learned or karma accrued in each lifetime; unfinished business from the life before comes to a head in the current life, and each soul learns more and more across multiple lifetimes
  • This process of learning is somehow teleological; souls start out less “evolved” and develop spiritually over the course of multiple lifetimes
  • Part of the purpose of reincarnation is for souls to experience the totality of human life: So (for example) you’ll be a white English lesbian in this life, and a heterosexual cis male Bedouin in the next, and a Congolese trans woman in the life after that
  • There is some notion of group reincarnation, so that you interact with the same people across lifetimes

There are probably some others, but this is enough to get us off the ground. Claims 3, 4, and 5 reek of Blavatsky. She popularized a bastardized version of Hindu thought in the West, introducing a notion of reincarnation colored by a Christian moral framework of reward and punishment. Blavatsky talked about the “Lords of Karma” (a term, incidentally, picked up by Janet and Stewart Farrar) more or less as divine accountants who kept track of an individual’s good and bad behavior in one life so as to dole out good or bad karma in the next life. That’s really not the picture of karma we get in Hinduism, where karma is much more explicitly connected to social and religious obligations imposed by caste. The members of each caste have specific duties to fulfill because of their social/religious status. How well they fulfill these duties affects their circumstances in the following life, not as a matter of reward and punishment, but simply as a question of cause and effect: You have (figurative, but possibly also literal) debts to pay in this life, and if you don’t pay them now, they’ll be collected further on down the line. The notion of karma is importantly social, serving to establish and reinforce social and religious institutions and norms that regulate the function of society. [I may circle back to this idea later, if I get around to talking about ancestor worship. Remind me.]

The notion of a soul’s “evolution” is a bald-faced invention of Blavatsky, and is just seriously screwed up. Like, just no. Stop. Please. First off, that’s not what evolution is. Evolution is something that takes place at the species level, not at the level of the individual.* But secondly, the idea that reincarnation would be something teleological is just… I dunno. The nicest word I can come up with is probably “weird”. The most accurate would be “incoherent” (followed by “poppycock” or “balderdash”).

I’m going to have trouble articulating myself in a more refined way than wild gesticulation and going “No-no dumb-dumb”, because (cards on the table) I find this whole notion so inane that it pains me. But I’ll give serious discussion a shot.

You see the idea of reincarnation as a progression in a couple of established religions (namely, Hinduism and Buddhism), where the goal is to get off the merry-go-round and the only way to do that is by going around and around until you figure out how to unfasten the straps that have tied you to your karmic hobby-horse. But it’s something we really don’t see in the vast majority of cultures with reincarnation beliefs. In most of the tribal cultures where we see belief in reincarnation, it’s something matter-of-fact. It’s not necessarily purposive, it’s not tied to some moral standard or to reaching a goal of enlightenment, it’s just what happens. You die, you hang out in the spirit world for a while, and then you come back. Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s mechanistic.

Sure, reincarnation has a certain religious role, but that role is largely earthly. Belief in reincarnation reinforces certain practices, particularly with regard to honoring the dead. You venerate your ancestors and give them appropriate funerary rites, because if you neglect them, guess what? They’re coming back, and they’re gonna be pissed. Similarly, if you screw someone over in this life, you’re likely to get comeuppance in the next life, but that’s not a matter of some higher force guiding your spiritual development and teaching you a lesson (nor of Lords of Karma doling out punishments). Rather, it’s that person doling out earthly justice—just taking more than one lifetime to settle whatever debt is owed. 

I’m probably rambling. The point at which I’m trying to drive is this: In the overwhelming majority of reincarnation beliefs seen across the world, there is no invisible hand that guides the process. There is no purpose or lesson to be learned. In some religions (namely, Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism), you do get a bit of a different story, but that’s because those religions have a specific theological framework that accounts for that difference. When Blavatsky popularized the notion of reincarnation for a Western audience, she gave it strong Christian overtones, suggesting that some divine bean-counters place us in new incarnations where our circumstances will teach us how to be more virtuous. And that notion of teleological development has persisted in the way we in the Pagan community (broadly construed) seem to think about reincarnation.

But Paganism, for the most part, doesn’t have a theological framework that would make teleological reincarnation make sense. There are exceptions to that blanket statement, of course, but the idea of reincarnation having a goal is just unfounded in the majority of Neopagan theology. We are not (usually) Hindus. We are not (usually) Buddhists. We are not (usually) Christians. And the idea that you reincarnate in order to learn some specific thing is, well, largely unfounded in a Pagan context.

There is nothing wrong with seeing the process of reincarnation as having some goal, so long as you’re working in a theological context that justifies that. And if someone’s Paganism is strongly informed by other religions—if they blend their Paganism with Christian views about an omnipotent God who’s trying to teach each individual person how to become better—I have no beef with that. But if we’re not making a conscious choice like that, and we’re just inheriting this Blavatskyesque Christianized pseudo-Hindu view that reincarnation facilitates some higher purpose of soul-development, well, that’s just lazy thinking on our part. And lazy thinking frustrates me.

Even if we set aside the Blavatsky (and we haven’t even talked about statement #5 on the list, the absurd idea that life experiences are to be collected like stamps), there are beliefs surrounding reincarnation that make my head hurt. For starters, as an academic philosopher I struggle immensely with the idea that there’s an underlying self that persists throughout one lifetime, let alone a soul that extends past death.** That’s a really hard boat for me to get on, and honestly I confess that the belief in an enduring self/soul is the aspect of Wicca that I struggle most with (far more than with the reality of magic or the existence of the Gods). But on a good day, I can wrangle myself into a sufficient suspension of disbelief, so we’ll put a pin in claim #1 and move on to other things.

There are lots of interesting problems with these general conceptions about reincarnation. For example, when I was in Outer Court (that is to say, pre-initiatory) training with my current coven, my High Priestess once asked me, “We invoke our ancestors at Samhain and we feel their presence. But how is that supposed to work? Haven’t they already reincarnated?” It’s a fun puzzle. I actually found her solution interesting and satisfying, but it’s not mine to share, so alas, I’ll have to leave it as an exercise for the reader.

There are a handful of other ideas tied up with reincarnation that I find maddening, confusing, and ill-defined. For example, how does reincarnation (and the concomitant belief that who we are is a product of our past lives) square with the ancestor veneration (and the concomitant belief that who we are is a product of our genetic and cultural heritage) that’s prevalent in the Pagan community? How are those two views meant to interact? Or with regard to statement #6 on my list above, how exactly is group reincarnation supposed to work logistically? If I have unfinished business with persons X and Y, who don’t know each other, and person X has unfinished business with persons A and B, who don’t know each other or me, and all of us in turn have yet further unfinished business with other people unrelated to each other, it seems like the whole business of group reincarnation would inflate uncontrollably. And I’m not saying that these questions are intractable, that good answers to them don’t exist, or that no one has given them enough thought. These are just questions that occupy my mind, to which I don’t have good answers, and about which I think our community generally doesn’t give enough careful, precise thought.

But anyway. This post is already on the long side, so I should wrap it up. I’m not sure there’s really a point or a takeaway from this post. I just have a lot of bubbling confusion and frustration because I can’t get clear on what people mean (or why they mean it) when they talk about reincarnation. I’m going to try to get back to weekly posting (but no promises). Regardless, as is my habit when I write something non-Tarot on the blog, I’ll be sure to make the next post super-duper Tarotistic.

*I’m looking at you, Pokémon.

**See Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, or Mark Johnston’s Surviving Death for just a small sampling of the literature that problematizes the notion of an enduring self.

4 thoughts on “Reincarnation is a Thorn in My Side

  1. You always make me think. I would say I can only agree with the first bullet point. I don’t hold any of the other beliefs. As for the first bullet it is more of a hope that it is a true statement. We seem to be a species that suffers from serious amnesia issues. I have often wondered if that has anything to do with the reincarnation issue. Your off the cuff here is giving me some fun food for thought. I am not a fan of blatvatsky. No idea what your PhD is in but I like the way it makes / helps you think. Now I have to go and do some serious contemplation regarding my own beliefs around reincarnation. If it is a true experience then there must be a reason we dont remember the process. Again, all I can say for sure is that I hope it’s true.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The notion of things like your ancestors having reincarnated and yet you still being able to contact them somehow would only pose a problem if you hold on to the belief that Time is a linear concept? A “One Time Only”- thing? If everything is already there, past/present/future, all existing at once, layered with different choices and direction, moving, undulating, billowing, folding in on itself… if spirit from it’s perspective could dip in and out at any chosen point…. just thinking really. But it’s interesting! Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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