Plus a Few Twists of Lime
Updated June 1, 2003
Were you an animal? Not last weekend, but in a previous life? Many proponents of reincarnation assume that such is a logical progression. In fact, the so-called ancient wisdom of the East thinks in terms of a Great Chain of Being, wherein the soul incarnates first as a mineral, then a plant, then an animal, and finally as a man. In more poetic form, Jalalu’ L-Din Rumi has written:
“A stone I died and rose again a plant,
A plant I died and rose an animal;
I died an animal and was born a man.
Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?”
In similar fashion the Barddas of Celtic antiquity thought of the soul passing through every phase of material embodiment before becoming human. The Rosicrucians, an ancient mystical order, maintain that every mineral contains a “jewel of light” or soul. Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, in their book, The Secret Life of Plants, point to various experiments which they claim show plants have all the attributes of a soul, as well as being living, breathing, communicating creatures, even to the point of being endowed with personalities.
People who talk to their plants may agree. People, whose plants talk back to them, we may want to avoid.
It must be noted that modern proponents of such a scheme, such as Manly P. Hall, president/founder of the Philosophical Research Society of Los Angeles, point out that only the physical aspects of minerals, plants, and animals are individualized, their entity and mind being collective. In effect those species of subhuman types develop through group consciousness, instead of the individualized progression of humans. In this way, the sheer numbers problem of their being countless grains of sand as compared to the human population can be averted.
The evidence that might suggest such a genesis is minimal. Many aspects of society tend to be animalistic, however, and this might give some credence to the idea. For example, when we refer to “herd instinct,” or accuse someone of “being an animal,” one might begin to wonder. As one wit put it: “We must realize that many souls which are currently sojourning on the planet are new souls; in other words, they were animals in the previous life. It is then clear why they are still behaving like animals; it’s their first time as humans and they haven’t quite gotten the hang of it yet.”
Dr. Helen Wambach, in regressing patients into a variety of past lives, has sometimes inadvertently found her subjects seeing themselves on four legs, whereupon they look down and see furry little paws. Dr. Morris Netherton says that his patients often report an animal wound or death when searching for the earliest source of a patient’s particular problem. Netherton has found his patients to report previous lives as everything from rodents to insects to prehistoric creatures. Other therapists have found similar reports from their patients under regression analysis.
Obviously, some of these patients, need therapy!
An inescapable, logical product of this theory is the question of whether or not a human could become an animal in a future life? Here again, the ancients seem convinced. One way or the other. (Which is always the way.)
Plato thought that a human soul might go from a beast to a man in a succeeding incarnation and vice versa. His perspective was that the evolution of birds and animals derived from the deterioration of human souls. As previously noted, Pythagoras was said to have exclaimed on seeing another man beat a puppy: “Do not hit him, it is the soul of a friend of mine. I recognized it when I heard it cry out.”
The Neoplatonist, Plotinus, went so far as to specify:
“Those who have sought only to gratify their lust and appetite pass into the bodies of lascivious and gluttonous animals.... Those who have degraded their senses by disuse are compelled to vegetate in the plants. Those who have loved music to excess and yet have lived pure lives, go into the bodies of melodious birds. Those who have ruled tyranically become eagles. Those who have spoken lightly of heavenly things, keeping their eyes always turned toward heaven, are changed into birds which always fly toward the upper air. He who has acquired civic virtues becomes a man; if he has not these virtues he is transformed into a domestic animal, like a bee.
“The experience of evil produces a clearer knowledge of good, particularly in the lives of those who cannot, without such experience comprehend what is best.”
This view corresponds to Manu, a legendary Hindu legislator and saint who lived over two thousand years ago. In his Laws of Manu, he listed a multitude of crimes for which the punishment was inevitably a rebirth in an appropriate, but disagreeable form. An unfaithful woman, for example, would be born in the womb of a jackal, a thief of meat would return as a vulture, a thief of grain as a rat, and so forth.
The ancient Brahmin priests found such laws to be a great convenience in enforcing caste practices—the threats of subhuman rebirth being a marvelous tool in encouraging strict obedience to any manmade law. Modern Hindus do not necessarily take the Laws of Manu quite so literally, and in many respects argue neither plants nor animals are capable of degenerating into a lesser species, and that humans can never be less than human.
The fact the Laws of Manu and Plotinus’s views were, in some instances, used as a means of enforcing manmade laws might make us pause. A principal argument against Christianity’s lack of support for reincarnation is that the Fifth Ecumenical Council of the Church in 553 AD denounced reincarnation as an anathema, as a means of encouraging discipline among the masses. The self-reliance of those believing in reincarnation can in fact be a virtual thorn in the side of those authorities who seek greater control over the populace.
When the Laws of Manu are used as a similar means to control the masses of reincarnation believers, the same argument would strongly suggest such strictures are no more reasonable than the 553 AD council’s denouncement of reincarnation. If we are to use philosophy as a means of control or enforcing adherence to temporal law, the odds are very good that we are dealing with a lousy philosophy. The fact that such philosophies continue to be expounded today, makes them no better.
Rodney Collin, in his book, The Theory of Eternal Life, goes to considerable effort in formulating a theory that equates hell with a rebirth or return to mineral form. At one point, Collin makes the argument that the tortures of hell may be thought of, not as punishment or retribution, but as a means of breaking down an otherwise indestructible soul. In his view, criminals and the like have become petrified or hardened to the point where they must in fact be assigned to the rock pile -- only in this case, as the rocks, and not the prisoners attempting to break up the rocks! In effect, these hardened criminals have loss the power to change or respond -- thus they are fossilized.
Collins not only consigns the “hardened criminal” to the rock pile, but also emphasizes the need for suffering. Collins goes on to argue that one can cheat nature and death by suffering and by demonstrating one’s power in separating their will from the body. In so doing, one prepares for an independent existence in the afterlife.
The implication seems to be suffering allows us to become immortal and thus escape the “rock pile”, where we will pay for our transgressions. While this “solid” philosophy may be a bit extreme, the other schemes whereby the good ascend, the moderately-good get another chance at being human, and the evil fall prey to an animal existence (or worse), do not seem a great deal better.
For if we assume the possibility of human failures returning as animals, is it not logical that the soul newly arrived from the animal kingdom would be the most likely one to fail as human and thus return to the animal kingdom? Is that fair? Is that just? Is that even relevant?
While it may be logical to assume a progression upward from mineral to plant to animal to human, there seems absolutely no justification for the view that the evolution of our souls may occasionally require disciplinary sojourns as lesser beings. On the other hand, and despite the fact that only God can make a tree, maybe you’d like to be a giant redwood next time. [A potential flaw is this goal is that choosing to be a giant redwood is a very long commitment.]
Reflecting on Past Lives
Many people may find highly objectionable the idea they perhaps once lived a life as an animal. The corollary that they may revert to an animal in a future life is perhaps even more disquieting. But we should ask if it really makes that much difference. Is the question of possible transmigration among species all that important?
Perhaps not. It is not necessary to dwell on, nor for that matter, even be concerned with one’s past lives. Rather, the ideal should be to live this one in the best way possible. We should be aware that emotions and attitudes from a past life may very well influence this life, and therefore we may wish to learn of our past lives in order to better understand and live the current life. A knowledge of past lives should not be used in order to provide us with excuses for our current situation, but should be used rather as a means of coping and growing. Concentrating on past lives as a crutch for today’s problems is not helping anyone, especially oneself.
Accordingly it may not be all that relevant as to whether or not one has lived as a mineral, plant, and/or animal. Instead, more significance should perhaps be placed on not living this life as a mineral, plant, and/or animal. Of course, if you think that your deceased grandmother may have become a cow, this may effect your dietary habits.
Which is a sneaky way of arriving at our next subject.
Vegetarianism is in part a belief that living creatures are infused with a soul and therefore should not be consumed by human beings. The classic example of this is the refusal of Hindus to slaughter their cattle for fear the animals might be the reincarnation of their ancestors. This view of possibly looking out for Grandma has been taken to extremes by the Jain monks of India, who wear masks to prevent the accidental inhalations of living creatures and carefully whisk away all insects from their path lest they be squashed inadvertently.
Burmese fishermen, whose livelihood runs contrary to their nation’s religious beliefs, do not kill their fish (and thus risk the wrath of a retributive rebirth), but instead place the fish on the riverbanks in order to dry. They are, of course, grieved to find that all too often the poor creatures die for lack of water. However, these unfortunate deaths are not done by the fisherman’s hand.
Modern proponents of vegetarianism, with supposedly greater sophistication, take a different tact: Instead of the more extreme positions of the Jains and Burmese, modern vegetarians believe you are what you eat. Such a view is perhaps a bit more defensible.
The most noteworthy prohibition of vegetarianism is the refusal to eat red meat. Others draw the prohibition line to include meat of fowl, and in some other cases, fish. Others may include eggs, based on the idea that an egg is a future fowl.
A reasonable, if not esoteric view, is that the prohibition against eating red meat is predicated on the alleged adverse effect of the digested food on the physical, mental and emotional well-being of the consumer. Red meat is said by some to carry “bad vibes”, or the seeds of fear. The animal’s death may presumably raise a strong fear response, which can then be transmitted to the consumer by a chemical change in the meat at the time of death. It is on this basis that some vegetarians, in their efforts to avoid the chemical constituents of fear, avoid such meat.
If this latter observation has some basis, then the slaughtering of cattle (and other animals) using some form of euthanasia, might noticeably improve the local butcher’s product. While such an idea may have little or no appeal to our average vegetarian, it might also be worth noting the argument that this form of vegetarianism could be an illusion, if only because the “death screams” of a carrot are simply much too soft to be heard.
All kidding aside, there are some definite arguments on both sides of the question. Unfortunately, they tend to deteriorate to the point where many nutritionists argue that red meat protein is essential for proper development of the physical and mental abilities, while vegetarians insist that they feel fine, and are as smart as ever. [The latter dependent clause being included at the insistence of my editor, who happens to be a vegetarian.]
In the Theory of Eating, an article from Utne Reader was referenced in which one author -- after trying every conceivable, allegedly healthy diet known to modern man -- came to the conclusion that: “It is better to eat pizza with friends, than to eat tofu alone.”
Importantly, there appears to be no reason for a belief in reincarnation to imply the necessity to being a vegetarian. There may be many valid reasons to restrict oneself to meatless (or selected meats only) diets, but being a vegetarian purely in order to avoid eating an ancestor or deceased brethren does not appear to carry much weight.
Pardon the pun.
Chapter Four: Adding a Few Spices
Chapter Six: Birth Experiences
2003© Copyright Dan Sewell Ward, All Rights Reserved [Feedback]