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TRANSMIGRATION denotes the process by which, after death, either a spiritual or an ethereal, subtle, and thinly material part of the personality, leaves the body that it previously inhabited; it then "migrates" to enter (i.e., is reborn in) another body, either human or animal, or another form of being, such as a plant or even an inanimate object. Other terms often used in this context are rebirth, especially in connection with Indian religions, palingenesis (from Greek palin, "again," and genesis, "birth,"), metempsychosis (from Greek meta, "again," and psychê, "soul") and, increasingly in modern popular parlance, reincarnation (from Latin re "back" and caro, "flesh"). Manichaean texts in Syriac use the expression tašpikha or tašpikha denafshata, corresponding to Greek metangismos (from Greek metangizesthai, "pour from one vessel into another one, decant"; similarly, Latin transfundi ) and conveying the underlying notion of a transfusion or change of vessel whereby the soul is "poured" from one body into another. The Latin church father Augustine of Hippo (354430) in his anti-Manichaean writings also uses the noun revolutiones and the verb revolvi, which happen to be identical with the later qabbalistic technical term gilgul : the soul "revolves" (i.e. rotates) through successive bodies. Earlier qabbalistic terms were sod-ha-ʿibbur ("the mystery of transition") and haʿtaqah ("displacing, changing place"), the latter equivalent to the Arabic tanasukh.

It is obvious that the notion of a non-physical entity (soul) existing separately from the physical body is assumed by most beliefs that posit an afterlife. The detailed elaboration of other cultures' views of afterlife and transmigration depends on the psychology and anthropology of those cultures, explicitly or implicitly. Thus the word soul may mean the whole human minus the body or a special substance or collection of substances non-physical in nature. In the former case, it is the whole albeit disincarnate person that survives (and goes on, for example, to the underworld, the land of the dead); in the latter case it is a specific soul-substance that persists and returns to its ancestral or heavenly home or haunts the living or is reborn. Many belief systems, especially among non-literate societies, know of multiple souls, but the idea is also not uncommon in literate societies: examples include the ba and ka of the ancient Egyptians, the oldest Greek psychê and thymos, and the fivefold division among contemporary Jewish qabbalists (nefesh, ruah, neshamah, hayyah, yehidah ).

Unfortunately, contemporary knowledge of most small-scale indigenous cultures is often based on the information of single informants and passing travelers, but rarely on the sustained investigation of an anthropologist remaining in a culture for many years. The once-predominant idea among anthropologists that a single informant could be sufficient to "decode" a culture has proved to be a profound mistake, and it should be noted while using such sources that much of the information is incomplete. Even the material from older literate civilizations is not always that easy to analyze. The fragmentary character of the texts and the modern, often Christian and philosophically influenced ideas about the soul and the body tend to color interpretations and should preclude facile conclusions. Last but not least, scholarly approaches often tend to present a uniform picture (the Christians believe, the Buddhists believe, etc.), whereas especially in eschatological matters people often have their own private ideas. One final point is the appropriateness of the terminology of reincarnation or rebirth. Although it is used here in order not to complicate an understanding, it must be stressed that the terms regularly, especially in Africa, do not presuppose that the ancestors now leave the area of the dead, or how the afterlife is imagined. On the contrary: ancestors may reincarnate but they often do stay present in the world of the dead as well. In other words, among many communities there is a belief that the ancestors have a multiple presence, in this world and the world hereafter.

Origin of Concept

Edward Tylor (18321917), one of the fathers of social anthropology, was perhaps the first modern scholar of transmigration, but he still interpreted his material in an evolutionary key, starting with the birth of the concept of the soul. Yet that stage in human history is unrecoverable and speculations in that direction are rarely fruitful. A modern approach should look at the geographical spread, the nature, and the functions of transmigration in society. This survey will examine first non-literate societies and progress to the major literate cultures and modern Western society.

Cross-Cultural Overview of Non-Literate Societies

The acceptance of the belief in some form of transmigration or return of the dead person to terrestrial life is a widely occurring concept that is evident in many cultures. Whereas older studies often claim that there is little evidence of belief in transmigration in most non-literate societies to the extent that they have been reliably and systematically studied by ethnologists, contemporary studies have uncovered a wealth of evidence to the contrary. This new research has been especially successful in America, where evidence suggests that such beliefs once were present among all North American Indian tribes. The first notices go back to the earliest stages of contact with European arrivals to the continent. For example, it was recorded in 1636 that the Hurons believed a human soul can return into the body of a child, as evidenced by the child's strong resemblance to a deceased person. The prevalence of this belief among the Northwest Coast Indians and the Inuit strongly suggests that here was the development of an ancient cultural complex, which may have been introduced by the first American immigrants who came via the Bering Strait. There is less evidence of this in Middle and Latin America, and the evidence becomes even scarcer in investigations into the cultures of the southernmost region of Latin America.

About Africa, there are mentions of reincarnation ranging from quite extensive reports to mere scattered observations. Not surprisingly they seem to be limited to the south of North Africa where the adoption of Christianity and Islam likely prevented the survival of older beliefs in this direction. It seems that in West Africa, especially, the belief in reincarnation was prevalent. The beliefs can assume various forms. In many instances, there is the belief that a recently and honorably deceased ancestora warrior, for exampleis reborn in a baby, although the connection with the ancestor becomes weaker as the child grows. There also seems to be a gender aspect to the belief, for some tribes, like the Konkomba, stress that women reincarnate, too. The Nigerian Yoruba believe that every living person is a reincarnation. Apparently, the encroachment by Europeans even incited some Akan to formulate a belief in a return as white people, as the Dutch traveller Willem Bosman (b. c. 1672) noted.

The existence of a belief in reincarnation among the Australian Aranda (Arunta) was the subject of a vigorous debate in the early 1900s between Baldwin Spencer and Frank Gillen, on one side, and German missionary Carl Strehlow, on the other, who disputed the findings of the former. Yet the outcome seems to be that here, too, reincarnation existed, even though rather by mythical ancestors than by "real" people. The fact that several neighboring tribes mention a reincarnation of ancestors supports the interpretations of Spencer and Gillen.

In the area of Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia, many tribes tell about reincarnation, but the best information comes from the Trobriand Islands, where Bronislaw Malinowski (18841942) carried out detailed investigations in the framework of his interest in the islanders' sexual lives. As he noted, the inhabitants explained pregnancies as the reincarnation of ancestors.

There is more information regarding Siberia, the Arctic and the subarctic circle, where the belief in reincarnation was virtually ubiquitous. Here shamanistic "theology" even stressed that shamans could remember their former lives and some were able to show scars of their former lives. Among the Jakuts it was rather exceptionally believed that one could be reborn even outside one's own tribe. In general, it is the ancestors who were believed to return.

From this survey, it follows that the belief in reincarnation is evidently very old. It is less easy to understand, though, why it was originally absent from Egypt and the ancient Near East, from ancient Japan and China as well as from the Indo-European peoples. Unfortunately, contemporary knowledge of the roads by which beliefs have traveled in prehistory are so obscure that explanations of this geographical spread can only be speculative.

There is more certainty about the nature and function of this belief in reincarnation, however. Firstly, there is a distinction between the transmigration of a deceased person into an animal and the reincarnation into a person. The former is much less current than the latter, but it is well attested. Among some Alaskan Inuits, for example, it was believed that the souls of the dead migrated into their dogs. On the other hand, the most frequent belief is that the birth of a new child signifies the rebirth of an ancestor. From the ancestors, it is nearly universal that it is usually a deceased grandparent who is the favorite incarnated person, as is also indicated by the identity of the name; in West Africa the identity between ancestor and reincarnated child seems particularly marked. Through the reincarnation the young child becomes incorporated, so to say, in the ancestral line, which reinforces or creates new kinship relationships; reincarnation is very much a social process. This identity between ancestor and young child often is so strongly linked in some cultures that corporal punishment of children was prohibited out of respect for the ancestors. At the same time, the ancestor functions as a kind of guardian spirit for the youngster.

In addition to being evidence of an older ancestor, a newly born baby is sometimes perceived as the reincarnation of a previously deceased young child. It is plausible that this belief has originated in an attempt to comfort parents regarding the loss of an earlier child.


The notion of transmigration and reincarnation is a pivotal aspect of the general socio-religious belief system in India. In the Hindu religious tradition, the concept of transmigration is a vital aspect of the cultural milieu and has played a dominant role in shaping the actions, ethics, and ideologies of the people. Thus, the Indian subcontinent and the cultures influenced by it are dominated by the notion of sasāra, "what turns around forever," the wheel of birth and death. Whereas in the West the idea of reincarnation was always felt to be something exotic, strange, and at any rate required special justification, in India it came to be an accepted presupposition of life.

The history and development of this notion are not yet quite clear. However, there is consensus that the weary round of sasāra is not yet part of Vedic religion. The locus classicus of Indian reincarnation can be found in two parallel passages of the oldest Upaniads (Brhad Aranyaka Upaniad 6.2 and Chandogya Upaniad 5.310), which mention reincarnation and salvation. The fact that the notion was taken for grantedand indeed even made the basis of their respective doctrines of salvationby Jainism and Buddhism suggests that by the sixth century bce it was already widespread in India. Among the presuppositions of this doctrine is the notion that space and time are endless. The identity of the self depends on (moral) karmic determinants. Life is an unending, eternal, weary round of suffering, governed by an automatic causality of reward and punishment (kamma ) that takes the soul from one existence to another through all six spheres of being, from that of the gods to that of "hungry spirits" and demons.

In Indian religious sensibility the emphasis is not so much on the duality of life/death as on birth/dying. The problem about rebirth is that of necessity it also implies "re-dying," that is, death recurring ad infinitum, unless a person succeeds in escaping from the vicious circle of sasāra (also depicted iconically as the monstrous wheel of unending existences, the bhavacakra, and described graphically in the Buddhist Avadana and Nidana literature) into ultimate liberation (Hindu moka, Buddhist nirvāa ). It should be emphasized that the ultimate goal (artha ) is release and escape; the heavens (svarga ) are still part of the samsaric world. Doctrinal differences of opinion relate to the method of liberation (yoga, mortifications, the "middle path") as well as to the precise definition of the liberated state.

The descriptions in the Brhad Aranyaka Upaniad 6.12.15f. (cf. also Kausitaki Upaniad and Mundaka Upaniad ) still exhibit a somewhat mythological character. Those who have achieved perfection and have realized their true self go, after death, the "way of the sun," namely, the path of the gods (devayana ): they enter the abode of brahman (brahmaloka ) never to return again. Those who have not achieved ultimate self-realization but have lived a life of sinless piety and devotion, through sacrifices, penance, and charity, go along the path of the ancestors (pitryana ) to the world of the moon, where they become rain and subsequently food: "Gods feed on them, and when that passes away from them, they start on their return journey to the reborn as human beingsThus do they rotate." Evildoers are reborn as insects and vermin. According to the Chandogya Upaniad 5.10.7, they are reborn as dogs and pigs. As has been noted above, heaven too is part of the samsaric cycle, and hence gods too are reborn, even as human beings can be reborn as devas, to be subsequently reborn once again.

What or who exactly is it that is reborn? Unorthodox sramanic teachings as well as Upanisadic speculation provide a varied technical vocabulary (atman, jiva, purusa ) to deal with the questions of empirical ego, real self, and so forth. Some systems of thought conceive also of spiritual entities in terms of a subtle, ethereal matter; one such example in Western history would be the Stoics.


In the Jain system, the living entity is called jiva (the eternal "soul" or "life"), and it is doomed to unending rebirths as long as it is covered and encumbered (as if by a thinner or thicker film) by kamma, which is conceived as a kind of fine matter. The generation of new kamma must be stopped, and the accumulated kamma already present must be removed if liberation is to be achieved. That such liberation can be achieved is demonstrated by the line of jinas (lit., "conquerors").


The Buddha left no writings himself. Because Buddhist teachings were written down much later, the oldest stage of Buddhist teaching about transmigration is unknown. The fascinating problem of Buddhist doctrine concerning karmic rebirth arises from the fact that Buddhism denies the existence of an atman that is, self, or ego-substance beyond the empirical ego, which is a transitory combination of "heaps" of "elements" (skandhas ). Regardless of whether the anti-Brahmanic doctrine of anatman ("no-self") was already explicitly taught by the Buddha himself or was developed later, it is a central concept of historical Buddhism. It is clear, though, that reincarnation did not yet occupy a position of prime importance in the teachings of the Buddha himself, but was elaborated in minute detail only by his later pupils, as in the Abhidharma Pitaka of the Pali-canon.


The application of the doctrine of rebirth in Tibet, a culture decisively shaped by one particular form of Buddhism, deserves special mention because of its relevance to the social system and its political institutions. Buddhism was established late in Tibet, not before the seventh century ce. However, it would last to the fifteenth century before the characteristic connection between the worldly and spiritual powers started to receive its well-known contemporary form. Whereas initially it was only the leader of one of the many monk communities whose rule was determined by reincarnation, in the seventeenth century Mongolian support stabilized the rule of the Dalai Lama, which endured until the Chinese conquered Tibet in 1951 and eliminated the theocracy. The influence of the exile of the renowned fourteenth Dalai Lama on the Tibetan ideas of reincarnation still remains to be properly assessed.

Greek Religion

Reincarnation in ancient Greece was "invented" by Pythagoras, an aristocrat from Samos, who came as an exile to Croton in southern Italy around 530 bce. Here he developed his teachings about reincarnation that are only vaguely known, due to the fact that no writings of Pythagoras himself have been preserved and his community was almost completely massacred in the middle of the fifth century bce. Yet his contemporary Xenophanes of Colophon (sixth century bce) (fragment B 7, ed. Diels/Kranz) already told the following, uncomplimentary anecdote: "And once, they say, when he passed by a dog which was being maltreated, he pitied the animal and said these words: 'Stop! Don't beat him! For he is the soul of a friend whom I recognized straightaway when I heard his voice.'" Regrettably, it is not known how often Pythagoras thought of a reincarnation, but both Pindar (fragment 133, ed. Maehler) and Plato (Phaedrus 249a) speak of three times, of which the first reincarnation has been occasioned by a mistake in the underworld. Aristotle (384322 bce) notes: "as though it were possible, as in the tales of the Pythagoreans, for just any soul to clothe itself in just any body." Apparently, Aristotle thought that Pythagorean reincarnation went from body to body, but the mid-fifth-century philosopher Empedocles clearly taught differently, as he wrote: "already I have been a boy and a maiden, a bush and a bird and a fish jumping up from the sea" (fragment B 117, ed. Diels/Kranz). This process could last an extremely long time, as Empedocles speaks elsewhere of wandering "thrice ten thousand seasons" (fragment B 115, ed. Diels/Kranz). The origins of Pythagoras's views are unknown. Earlier generations of scholars liked to connect him with Buddhist views as he was nearly a contemporary of Buddha, but the down dating of the Buddha (above) has made this improbable. It seems possible, however, to isolate a few factors that may have played a role to a smaller or larger degree.

First, reincarnation could only come about when the Greek concept of psychê had developed into humankind's immortal self. It seems indeed that Pythagoras was also the first Greek to develop this particular idea of the soul. Second, the aristocratic Greeks were historically more interested in group survival than in personal survival. Yet at the end of the archaic period, there seem to be signs of an increasing interest in a more personal form of survival. Reincarnation can be seen as a more radical answer to this general development. Pythagoras's loss of political power around 500 bce may have been an extra stimulus for developing the doctrine of reincarnation, since the survival of the soul singled out those reincarnated from those who were not. In other words, the doctrine may have been a kind of comfort to those of his pupils and friends that followed him into his exile. It might echo in the thesis of Max Weber (18641920), which posits that the rise of religions of salvation, such as Christianity, was also the consequence of the depoliticization of the educated classes.

It was probably only a short while after Pythagoras that somebody in southern Italy developed a new set of doctrines and practices which were promulgated not under their own name but that of the most famous singer of the Archaic Age, Orpheus. The so-called Orphics introduced vegetarianism, and modified existing Bacchic mysteries. At the same time they also produced new teachings (1) on the coming into being of the cosmos, gods and humankind; (2) on eschatology; and (3) reincarnation. Pindar (fragment 133 Maehler) already declares that the best roles in future reincarnations will be for those "from whom Persephone accepts compensation for ancient grief (viz. because the Titans had killed her son Dionysos)" and this "ancient grief" is also alluded to on recently found Orphic Gold Leaves. On an Orphic bone tablet that was found in Crimean Olbia c. 400 bce, the terms "life-death-life: truth; Dio(nysos)-Orphik(?oi)" are legible, and in his Meno (81a) Plato (c. 428348 or 347 bce) attributes the doctrine of reincarnation to "priests and priestesses who try to give an account for the functions of their activities," that is, to wandering Orphics. It is part of this doctrine that the body is looked at rather negatively and considered to be the "prison of the soul."

As with Pythagoras, there are few particulars about Orphic reincarnation, but it is certain that Plato used Pythagoras and the Orphics. His views on reincarnation have to be deduced from his dialogues, whose temporal order still is debated. It seems that in his oldest dialogues Plato still is not completely convinced of the reality of reincarnation, but in the middle ones (Phaedo, Phaedrus and the Republic ) the doctrine has become an important part of his eschatological views, even though the content varies depending on the dialogue. It is important to note that Plato's Phaedo gives evidence of the important process of ethicization, to use the term employed by Gananath Obeyesekere (2002), in which the bad receive a bad reincarnation (into animals) and the philosophers go to the gods.

Plato's ideas were rejected by some of his pupils and Aristotle, but the Pythagoreans carried them into later antiquity. The doctrine is found with philosophers like Plutarch (before 50after 120 ce), the Corpus Hermeticum, and the so-called Chaldaean Oracles, but it became far more influential among the Neoplatonists like Plotinus (205270 ce) and Porphyry. Unlike Plato, the former even considers a reincarnation into plants a possibility. Moreover, Plotinus clearly had precise thoughts about the different stages of reincarnation. Whereas the first rebirth is seen as an entry, the subsequent ones he calls metensōmatōsis, or "re-enbodyment"; people can remember their previous lives, and there is no liberation from the cycle of rebirths. Later philosophers had much difficulty with the thought of a transmigration into animals and it is striking that in the second half of the sixth century, Olympiodorus, one of the last Neoplatonists, rejected the doctrine of reincarnation.


According to Caesar in his Gallic Wars (6.14) the Druids believed that souls did not perish but wander after death; for this reason Clement of Alexandria (Stromateis 1.15) already compared them with the Brahmans. As reincarnation was clearly not part of Indo-European traditions and there is little reliable evidence about such views in medieval Celtic literature, the Druids may well have taken over Greek views, perhaps via Massilia (Marseilles). Unfortunately, there are no further detailed sources, and this intriguing possibility remains an unsubstantiated one.

Early Christianity

The early Christians firmly believed in the resurrection of the body and therefore opposed the doctrine of reincarnation. Although there were a few exceptions that were prepared to consider its validity, such as Origen, even he came to a negative conclusion. In the second and third centuries ce, especially, church leaders tried to refute the belief, but around 400 ce reincarnation no longer played a role in the internal and external Christian debates. Apparently, this decline in polemics went hand in hand with the loss of pagan interest in reincarnation.

It was different with the Gnostics. They opposed the idea of resurrection, and thus it is hardly surprising that some of themin particular the Carpocratianswere more sympathetic to reincarnation, even though they limited its numbers. It seems possible that the Gnostics had reinterpreted the older Greek beliefs in a more optimistic way, but the fact that the Gnostics are viewed in this respect only through the prism of Christian theology makes every interpretation a somewhat dubious affair.


Manichaeism is the only world religion that has disappeared. It was founded by Mani, who was probably born on April 24, 216. He was may have been descended from Persian aristocracy but certainly grew up in a Jewish-Christian group, the Elcasaites, and died in 277 in a Persian prison. His followers carried his beliefs to the West, where they found in Augustine a temporary convert, and to the East, where they were more successful. Via the Silk Road, Manichaean faith traveled to China, where the last Manichaeans probably died in the sixteenth century. Mani worked in a geographical area that was influenced by Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian and Buddhist views and this plurality makes it difficult to isolate the precise origin of many of his ideas. The difficulty is compounded by the need to reconstruct the Manichaean doctrines from a whole series of languages, ranging over many centuries from Latin and Coptic until Sogdian and Chinese.

The Elcasaite community in which Mani grew up practiced vegetarianism, which in antiquity often went concomitant with a belief in reincarnation. Indeed, a Christian source reports that one of the Elcasaites, Alcibiades, taught that Christ had experienced already many a rebirth before being born from the Virgin Mary. This information points to a Greek origin rather than an Indian one, as later Arab historians suspected.

The Manichaeans taught that the soul could be reborn in humans, plants and animals. The aim was to be reborn in an elite Manichaean, a so-called electus, and in this way to become liberated from the cycle of rebirths. It is clear that the Manichaeans dreaded their rebirths, as they could become birds, mice, or even grass.


From the eighth century ce onward, Islam received a clear impetus regarding the doctrine of reincarnation from the Manichaeans and Neoplatonists. Yet whereas conventional Islam strictly rejected reincarnation, "heretical" currents embraced the doctrine, in particular the Syrian Alawites, the Lebanese Druze, and the Anatolian Alevites. Their heretical position explains why they kept their teachings highly secret. It was only in the nineteenth century that apostate Alawites started to publish some of their texts. These show that reincarnation is meant to enable the light souls to ascend to heaven through their reincarnations. The believers can reach this goal in seven times, but the non-believers have to die and be born again a thousand times. Particularly bad is the transmigration into an animal or plant. It seems that the doctrine also helps to explain human misfortune as a penalty for misdemeanors in previous lives.


Like normative Christianity and Islam, normative Judaism also rejected reincarnation, and it is not mentioned in the texts of biblical and rabbinical Judaism. The first exposition of reincarnation in a primary Jewish source occurs around 1200 ce in the book Bahir, which was probably written in southern France. It is a typically Jewish touch that the cycle of rebirths ends with the Messiah, who himself stands outside the cycle. Allusions to and discussions of reincarnation can be found before Bahir and go back at least to the eighth century ce. This suggests a possible influence from Islam, but a Neoplatonist and/or Manichaean background cannot be excluded either, given that some Manichaeans were still present in Mesopotamia around that time.

Since the thirteenth century the notion of gilgul has been a central qabbalistic tenet, which also found a place in the most influential qabbalistic text of that era, the Zohar by Moses de Léon (d. 1305). After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the doctrine of reincarnation went with them to other areas where Jews were living. This meant that via Galilee Safed in sixteenth-century Galilea it eventually reached eastern Europe, where Hasidic leaders regularly tried to legitimize their position by claiming to be a reincarnation of previous great rabbis and scholars. This tradition largely ended after the upheavals of World War II and the Holocaust.

Western Christianity

Around the same time as Bahir, if not already a few decades earlier, reincarnation can be found among the Cathars of southern France. The best information comes from the protocol of interrogations in the Pyrenees by Bishop Jacques Fournier (12851342). Cathar belief was strongly dualistic: people had a good soul in a bad body. Souls traveled from body to body until they finally, if they had become a Cathar, could return to heaven. It is in this final body also that the resurrection will take place. The Cathars clearly admitted to a transmigration into animals and, as a rule, seemed to have limited the number of reincarnations to about seven. Although all kinds of solutions have been offered to the question from where the Cathars derived their doctrinefrom Jewish, Islamic or "heretical" Christian traditionsit is only fair to say that none has been demonstrated in a satisfactory manner.

The Romans had not been overly interested in reincarnation, but it was Publius Ovidius Naso (4317) who, through Book XV of his Metamorphoses, kept the memory of Pythagoras and his teachings alive through the Middle Ages. This meant that the doctrine was regularly discussed and always rejected. Even during the Renaissance and the immediate successive centuries, followers of the doctrine are extremely hard to find. Giordano Bruno (15481600) was a rare exception to this. Yet it is only in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that evidence arrives of a renewed interest in the doctrine, undoubtedly favored by the growing questioning of normative Christianity by leading intellectuals amongst whom Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (17291781) played a leading role.

Theosophy, Anthroposophy, New Age

Despite a growing interest in reincarnation among European intellectuals in the nineteenth century, the continuing rejection by normative Christianity meant that it was only in alternative circles that the doctrine of reincarnation could gain a permanent position. The source of all modern views is the Theosophical Society, which was founded by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (18311891) in 1875. This imaginative dilettante found traces of reincarnation even in Egyptian sources and the Bible, where previous scholars had not. It was her encounter with India that led her to develop her views on reincarnationwhich, however, were filled with typically European ideas, in particular the evolutionary development of the personality. Blavatsky was still trying to come to terms with the combination of Asian and European concepts, but Rudolf Steiner (18611925) attempted especially in the last years of his life, to make reincarnation one of the central tenets of his anthroposophy. Steiner was much impressed by the scientific progress of the nineteenth century and tried to make his views on reincarnation acceptable to a public that admired the latest insights of science. His views, however, must be gleaned from his voluminous writings, because he never succeeded in delivering a systematic exposition. The reincarnation, according to Steiner, starts in prehistory where the soul arises from a kind of sea "of the spiritual (German: des Geistigen )" and where it also ends. In the time between the reincarnations, which may last on average between 1,000 to 1,300 years, the souls wait on one of the planets. During this period the soul keeps its memory and before reentering a body it looks for an appropriate pair of parents. Steiner himself usually concentrated on male reincarnations and was not averse to speculations about his own historical "ancestors."

Over the course of the twentieth century, the idea of reincarnation gained increasing popularity, in particular among adherents of what is loosely called New Age religion, and is even accepted by some Christian theologians. It is also not unusual to find acceptance of the belief that people choose their own incarnation. Yet contemporary believers are less interested in the physical rebirth than in the progressive spiritual evolution through successive "realities." They often no longer think of a surviving mortal "I" but rather prefer to believe in a True Individuality or Higher Self, which constitutes the link between this life and the previous or coming ones. Some New Age sources even claim that reincarnation transcends space and time and that past and future lives coexist with the present lives. But such views occur especially in authors who tend to theoretical speculations and often have a science-fiction background.

Recovery of the past lives can now also be used for therapeutic purposes. In a twist that is not altogether surprising, a belief that once was typically religious is used to achieve psychological improvement.

See Also

Orpheus; Pythagoras; Reincarnation.


All previous general expositions have now been supplanted by the brilliant, erudite and balanced survey by Helmut Zander, Geschichte der Seelenwanderung in Europa (Darmstadt, Germany, 1999); note also Gananath Obeyesekere, Imagining Karma. Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist and Greek Rebirth (London, 2002). For the non-literate cultures see Michael Bergunder, Wiedergeburt der Ahnen (Münster, Germany, 1994). For the earliest Indian stages see H. Bodewitz, "The Hindu Doctrine of Transmigration. Its Origin and Background," Indologica Taurinensia 2324 (199798): 583605. For Greece and the Cathars see Jan N. Bremmer, The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife (New York, 2002). For the Celts see Helmut Birkhan, "Druiden und keltischer Seelenwanderungsglaube," in Johann Figl and Hans-Dieter Klein (eds.), Der Begriff der Seele in der Religionswissenschaft (Würzburg, Germany, 2002) 143158. For New Age see Wouter J. Hanegraaf, New Age Religion and Western Culture (Albany, N.Y., 1998). A Rosicrucian approach can be found in Édouard Bertholet, La réincarnation (Lausanne, Switzerland, 1970). Other works of merit are La Réincarnation: Théories, Raisonnements et Appréciations, ed. Carl-A. Keller (Berne, Switzerland, 1986); Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions, ed. Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, (Berkeley, Calif., 1980); Hans-Peter Hasenfratz, Die Seele (Zürich, Switzerland, 1986), and Hasenfratz, "Seelenwanderung," in Gerhard Krause, Gerhard Müller, et al. (eds.), Theologische Realenzyklopädie, vol. 31 (New York, 2000), pp. 14.

R. J. Zwi Werblowsky (1987)

Jan N. Bremmer (2005)


views updated May 18 2018

trans·mi·grate / transˈmīˌgrāt; tranz-/ • v. [intr.] 1. (of the soul) pass into a different body after death.2. rare migrate.DERIVATIVES: trans·mi·gra·tion / ˌtransˌmīˈgrāshən; ˌtranz-/ n.trans·mi·gra·tor / -ˌgrātər/ n.trans·mi·gra·to·ry / -grəˌtôrē/ adj.


views updated Jun 27 2018


The term transmigration, from the Latin transmigrare (to migrate across or over), means to pass from one condition, place, or body to another. Transmigration is usually identified with the Greek word metempsychosis (change of soul), the "transmigration of souls" drawing on the Greek Orphic mysteries. In South Asian religions, transmigration is related to the karmic cycle where one's moral action determines the condition of the soul and the quality of its rebirth. In Hinduism, the cycle of rebirth is eternal unless the soul is liberated (moksha ) by knowledge or arduous effort (Yoga). In Buddhism the soul and transmigration are ultimately illusory (maya ), being passing emergents from samsara, the eternal, undifferentiated stream of being.

See also Karma; Life after Death

ernest simmons


views updated May 14 2018

transmigration †removal of the Jews into captivity at Babylon XIII; passage from one place to another XIV; passage of the soul at death into another body, metempsychosis XVI. — late L. transmigrātiō, -ōn- change of country, f. transmigrāre, whence transmigrate XVII (pp. XV); see TRANS-, MIGRATE, -ATION.


views updated May 14 2018

transmigration (tranz-my-gray-shŏn) n. the act of passing through or across, e.g. the passage of blood cells through the intact walls of capillaries and venules (see diapedesis).


views updated May 18 2018

Transmigration: see REBIRTH.