Transmigration and Transformation

If you believe in the transmigration of the soul, then you believe that after death, the soul will transfer into another body. After death, the soul, ka, shade, consciousness or whatever you want to call it, migrates to another body to be reborn and live again. It’s a theory believed by many different cultures and religions including Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, the Egyptians, the ancient Greeks, and many more, and it dates beyond antiquity.

The first actual definition of transmigration came from Pythagoras, a Greek philosopher and mathematician. He taught that the soul is immortal and merely resides inside the body. It was believed that the soul must go through a series of rebirths, or, in other words, must migrate from body to body repeatedly, until it completes the sequence and is purified enough to be able to leave the cycle.

Plato, another famous Greek philosopher, agreed with Pythagoras on most points of his theory on transmigration, except for a couple variations. His theory of metampsychosis allows the soul to have a small inkling of knowledge of a past life. He taught that all learning is recollection. The process of recollection, or anamnesis, is a life long process of relearning everything you knew before, and learning new things from it all. With that in mind, in contrast to Pythagoras, Plato believed the soul is initially pure until it comes into contact with a living being, and, upon inhabiting the being, the soul becomes tainted and must be good to eliminate bodily impurities and return to its pre-existence state. Otherwise, the soul will be doomed to spend its time in Tartarus, a place of eternal damnation and believed by some to be the origin of Hell in Christian theology.

In Plato’s Symposium, Diotima speaks to Socrates that "birth is a sort of eternity and immortality." In birth, the soul is reborn and able to live and learn again. Diotima continues to argue Plato’s belief that the soul becomes impure upon contact with a living being by saying, "And this is true not only of the body, but also for the soul, whose habits, tempers, opinions, desires, pleasures, pains, fears, never remain the same in any one of us, but are always coming and going." By experiencing all the "impurities" of life, the soul takes a long time to return to its state of pre-existence. (Symposium 30)

The ancient Egyptians believed that the souls migrated from body to body and this was one of the reasons they embalmed their dead. They wished to preserve the physical body so it could accompany the ka, or soul, after death. The notion of a migrating soul developed into a way to explain family resemblancesthe soul of a deceased person would transmigrate into a new born infant of the same family and cause a similar appearance. This theory of ancestral reincarnation is also believed by the Australian aborigines.

In 533 AD, the theory of reincarnation or transmigration of the soul was declared heresy by the Council of Constantinople on the grounds that it went against the eschatological teachings, or end of the world teachings, established by the orthodox Christian doctrine. Since it is the continual rebirth of the soul, transmigration was contrary to the idea that man has one life to live to merit his heavenly reward or hellish damnation. Early Christians, such as Gnostics, Manichaeans, and Carthari, took Christ’s teachings literally when he replies to Nicodemus in John 3:5-7, "The truth is, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives new life from heaven. So don’t be surprised at my statement that you must be born again." Taken literally, Christ says you must be reborn in order to achieve passage into Heaven which is very similar to Buddhism where the soul must be reborn continuously to purify itself before it can achieve moksha, the liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth and freedom from earthly limitations.

Buddhism and Hinduism are very similar in their beliefs towards transmigration. The beliefs of Buddhism and Hinduism are that the continual rebirthing of a soul can move either up or down the ladder depending on its karmic count; good karma will move your soul up the ladder while bad karma will move you down the ladder. This is called samsara. If your soul is good and strives to purify itself, it has the ability to be reborn in its next life as something higher than it was before. Eventually, the soul will have completed the cycle and purified itself enough to experience moksha. The only difference between Buddhism and Hinduism is the former has a method of samsara that includes twelve main causes and six worlds that a karmic count leads to. The twelve causes include ignorance, volitional action, consciousness, form, six sensory organs, contact, sensation, desire, grasping, becoming, birth, and death. The worlds from most favorable to least favorable include the world of gods, demigods, human beings, animals, hungry spirits, and demons. It is undesirable to be reborn into any of the worlds except for the world of the gods.

Transmigration of the soul is a form of metamorphosis in that the soul changes throughout life to either become what it needs to become or to fall back into what it was before. During life, the soul comes across experiences that it has to relearn from a past life and how it reacts to such circumstances will cause the transformation of the soul. In David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life, Ovid speaks that "We have some power in us that knows its own ends. It is that that drives us on to what we must finally become. We have only to conceive of the possibility and somehow the spirit works in us to make it actual. This is the true meaning of transformation. This is the real metamorphosis" (Malouf 64).

In Ovid’s own works of Metamorphoses, he depicts the transformations of many people into animals. Curiously, most of the people being transformed have offended someone else in their human form and are transformed as a form of punishment. Acteon, for instance, was turned into a stag because he "Stared at the goddess, who stared at him" while she bathed in a pool (Hughes 99). His curiosity got the best of him and his soul’s body was changed. In Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, Lucius’ is transformed into an ass for his curiosity. While his soul is still his and he keeps the memories of the life he has lived so far, but his body has changed.

Social beliefs of reincarnation and transmigration usually have something to do with past lives and ghosts. However, the transmigration of a soul could be so simple a thing as the soul transforming from an earthly or willful creature into a creature of discipline and gentleness. While the soul has no beginning or end, it can transform repeatedly in order to reach its nirvana. In each new life, the soul recollects what it knew before and applies it to situations it may come across. It learns from those experiences and transforms to be ready for its next life, whatever it may be. The body may experience an end, but the soul will live on to repeat life whether it is as a human or a bird or even a tree. Everything is connected to every other thing.

So my paper was very research-y, but I found so many things interesting to me that I couldn't leave it out. Here are some websites I found concerning transmigration and reincarnation that were very interesting.

James Luchte Philosophy - Wandering Souls: The Doctrine of Transmigration in Pythagorean Philosophy

Reincarnation: TheMystica.com

Fundamentals of Buddhism: Rebirth

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