One Journey, Many Lives



Last revised: 5 April 2008

Must we attain enlightenment in this one life?

One reason why universal redemption does not sit well with some people is that they believe that we have only one life to achieve salvation. In this chapter, we hear the masters say that we lead many lives, gradually moving towards a culmination, for everyone, in enlightenment or redemption.

I must say from the outset that I have difficulty imagining how a Mozart could become such a virtuoso in only one lifetime. He was a genius at an early age. Or how an Einstein could become an overarching genius. The distance covered was too great to traverse in only one life.

I also find it strange that so many books on sale today originating in different ages and climes tell us about life in the world beyond and yet we still resist the reality of life after death. (1) Moreover, we resist that knowledge though many people testify to out-of-body and near-death experiences. But we shall hear survival of bodily death and reincarnation discussed again and again in these pages.

It is said in Christian circles that discussions of reincarnation were removed from the Bible at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. I know very little about the subject and cannot comment.

Theosophist Annie Besant felt that “the doctrine of reincarnation [was] rather taken for granted in the New Testament than distinctly taught.” (2) There is in fact that quality about some discussions of reincarnation in the New Testament, as one can see from this exchange between Jesus and his disciples over the prophet Elijah, an exchange that could not be understood apart from reincarnation.

And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with [Jesus]. …

And his disciples asked him saying, Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come?

And Jesus answered them and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things.

But I say unto you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. …

Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist. (3)

I am convinced that Jesus is saying here that John was Elijah in a previous life. (4) Certainly the sight of Elijah and Moses with Jesus is an undeniable proof that we survived bodily death. Besant's point makes sense here. There is an apparent "taking of reincarnation for granted" in this passage. The disciples knew that, when Jesus spoke of Elijah, he was referring to John the Baptist in this lifetime. They didn't discuss it with him. There seems to have been no need to.

Two deaths and two resurrections

Many people today believe, in a relatively vague manner, that we sleep after death until a trumpet sounds on the final day of the world. The fact that the Bible was spoken and written in a code has often made it difficult to understand the "dark sayings" of the wise. (5) The interpretation that we all sleep after death does not help us to understand other comments made by him and Jesus.

For instance, unless we acknowledge that the spirit goes on living after the body's death, how are we to interpret the passage in Mark where Jesus, on the cross, "cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost"? (6) What is this ghost that left him but his undying spirit?

How are we to interpret Jesus' teaching in Matthew that "God is not the God of the dead, but of the living"? (7) In Mark, Jesus is quoted as saying "as touching the dead, that they rise…." (8) In Luke he says, “now that the dead are raised….” (9) God is not the God of the dead body, but of the living spirit. The dead that rise are the physically-deceased who leave their bodies and continue into the afterlife.

In fact, we shall find Jesus (and his disciple, St. Paul), referring to two types of "death" and two types of "resurrection." The first is ego death and is followed by the resurrection of enlightenment. The second is physical death and is followed by the resurrection of the afterlife. They often do not tell us when they are referring to the first and when to the second, a practice which may sometimes prove confusing.

For example, Jesus said to a would-be disciple: “Let the dead bury their dead.” (10) Here he uses the word "dead" to cover two situations. The first is the situation of the unenlightened; all of us who are not alive in the resurrection of enlightenment. The second is the situation of the deceased, those whose physical bodies are dead but who are alive in the resurrection of the afterlife. If we were to put his teaching another way, we might say, let the unenlightened, who believe in physical death, bury the bodies of those they think have died.

As a second example, St. Paul in Ephesians says:

Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light. (11)

I think he is referring to people who are unenlightened as "thou that sleepest." They are asked to rise from their worldly concerns ("arise from the dead"), following which "Christ shall give thee light" (i.e., they shall be enlightened).

Interestingly, another enlightened master, alive at the same general time as Jesus, was explicit in his acceptance of reincarnation. The Greek master, Apollonius of Tyana, appeared before the Emperor Domitian, in much the same manner as Jesus did before Herod and Pontius Pilate, accused of inciting the people against the emperor.

In his written notes for his defence, Apollonius discusses the past lives of his master, the mystic Pythagoras. He too refers to reincarnation as if assuming that his auditors took his points for granted.

[Pythagoras] derived many advantages from his purity, above all that of perceiving his own soul [i.e., enlightenment]. He had been born [as Euphorbus] in the time when Troy was fighting on behalf of Helen, and he was the most beautiful of the sons of Panthus and the most beautifully equipped. He died so young as to give Homer a subject for a lament, and passed into several bodies according to the law ... whereby souls migrate. Finally he ... was born the son of Mnesarchides of Samos [i.e., his present incarnation], so that he became a wise man who had been a barbarian, an Ionian who had been a Trojan, and a man so immortal that he did not even forget that he had been Euphorbus. (12)

After proving himself innocent, Apollonius disappears from the courtroom to emphasize to the emperor that he could not have been tried unless he willed it. (Jesus also disappeared from the midst of his questioners in the synagogue and told Pontius Pilate that he could not have been tried unless it was fated. Apollonius in fact performed many of the same miracles as Jesus did, but remains little known.)

God has ordained that all will be enlightened in some lifetime. When they are, as St. Paul says:

When this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.

O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? (13)

When we become enlightened, we will put an end to this cycle of birth and death; we shall have “put on immortality.” Then shall we be victorious over death. Where the will the sting of death be then? How will the grave ever win again against us?

Remember that Jesus said: "He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.” (14) “Overcoming” the ego is followed by enlightenment, which causes us not to be hurt by the second death of the body. Paramahansa Yogananda explains how this can be:

In the drama of life and death, when beheld with Divine understanding [i.e., when seen from the vantage point of enlightenment, the first death], there can be no pain in death [i.e., the second death], but only the showing or stopping of the motion picture of life at will without physical or mental pain. (15)

Thus Jesus says that Elijah was John the Baptist in a previous life. We reincarnate again and again, whether by choice, as is likely with John, or by necessity, as with us. We have seen that other people alive at the time of Jesus, like Apollonius of Tyana, recognized reincarnation. Educated Jews of Jesus' time would doubtless have been aware of it as well.

Reincarnation in Eastern teachings

When we enter classical Eastern teachings, we find less need to write in such a complicated code as appears in the Bible.

Hindus, for instance, speak plainly of an endless cycle of birth and rebirth. In the course of their teaching on the subject, they reveal profound spiritual truths.

Reincarnation is explicitly taught in the Bhagavad Gita. When Arjuna feels himself unstrung at the prospect of fighting his own relatives, Sri Krishna assures him that no one really ever dies:

Your words are wise, Arjuna, but your sorrow is for nothing. The truly wise mourn neither for the living nor for the dead.

There never was a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor any of these kings. Nor is there any future in which we shall cease to be. (16)

Sri Krishna is a divine Incarnation and remembers all his lives on Earth. Arjuna is under the veil of maya and remembers none.

You and I, Arjuna,
Have lived many lives.
I remember them all.
You do not remember. (17)

Just as the dweller in this body passes through childhood, youth and old age, so at death he merely passes into another kind of body. The wise are not deceived by that. ...

Bodies are said to die, but That which possesses the body is eternal. It cannot be limited, or destroyed. (18)

St. Paul made a similar distinction between “celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.” (19) The celestial -- the living soul -- is not destroyed by death. It inhabits the body terrestrial for a short time, leaves it to experience the afterlife, and reincarnates again on the road to enlightenment.

Throughout the universe, the body celestial continues assuming a body terrestrial until the individual is illumined. Said Sri Krishna: "All the worlds ... are subject to the laws of rebirth.” Only one exception occurs: “For the man who comes to me, there is no returning." (20) Physical rebirth or reincarnation ends when we reach vijnana.

I believe that God Himself has entered the divine drama numerous times and demonstrated that He Himself also incarnates. Sri Ramakrishna has shown that to my satisfaction when he lay on his deathbed, reduced to a skeleton by throat cancer.

At that moment, his beloved disciple Naren, later Swami Vivekananda, had a stray thought. If his master now, under these extreme conditions, could acknowledge his identity with Sri Krishna, Naren would accept that he was an Avatar, an Incarnation of the Divine. Sri Ramakrishna slowly rolled over in his bed and whispered to Naren: “He who was Rama and Krishna is now, in this body, Ramakrishna.” (21) Here Sri Ramakrishna is confirming that God has reincarnated as Rama, Krishna, and Ramakrishna. In my view, God has Himself shown, by His own example, that reincarnation, re-embodiment, is an intentional Design Feature of His Plan.

Sri Ramakrishna taught that “it takes a long time to achieve liberation. A man may fail to obtain it in this life. Perhaps he will realize God only after many births.” (22) What Sri Ramakrishna meant by “liberation” was liberation from the need to be physically reborn. It means moving from a situation where we need to reincarnate – to be born and die in the world of matter – to a situation where, in Jesus’ words, we need “go no more out.” (23) Liberated from the wheel of birth and rebirth, for us there is "no more death.” (24)

Here are the masters on God’s intention that we reincarnate until we are free from ignorance.

Sage Vasistha

As long as the highest wisdom does not dawn in the heart, the person revolves in this wheel of birth and death. ... Not until the supreme being is realized will the dreadful miseries of birth and death come to an end. (25)


When your heart is free from ... ignorance, there will no longer be any possibility of your rebirth. You will reach immortality. (26)

Realize Brahman [that is, God], and there will be no more returning to this world -- the home of all sorrows. (27)

The Koran

Allah has brought you forth from the earth like a plant, and to the earth He will restore you. Then He will bring you back afresh. (28)

It is Allah who has created you and given you your daily bread. He will cause you to die hereafter and will then bring you back to life. (29)

Paramahansa Yogananda

"Him that overcometh will [I] make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out (i.e., shall reincarnate no more)." (30)

Omraam Michael Aivanhov

Busy yourselves ... with the mission that God gave mankind: to become perfect like Him. And, as you cannot possibly accomplish that in one short existence, you will have to come back on earth to continue your work.

When Jesus said, "Be ye perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect," he meant after several reincarnations. He who was so wise and clairvoyant, would he have asked humans to become perfect in a single lifetime? Reincarnation makes everything possible. (31)

Notice that we are already immortal. This spirit that we are already survives bodily death as Jesus, Paul, and Sri Krishna have pointed out. But, when we achieve the level of enlightenment called vijnana, we end the need to reincarnate physically. Enlightenment is the end of reincarnation in this world of matter as well as the fulfillment of the purpose of life.

Die before you die

The masters urge us to die the first death of the ego before dying the second death of the body. These physical lifetimes are given to us to raise corruption into incorruption, to teach us, to mould us. We can only realize God while we are in a physical body; this too is a Design Element of life. Say the Upanishads: "If a man fails to attain Brahman before he casts off his body, he must again put on a body in the world of created things.” (32) It is God's Plan that we continue to don Earthly vestments until we realize that He is all there is.

We must “die before dying," as Ibn Arabi urges us. (33) Lao Tzu puts it this way: “Long life it is to die and not perish.” (34) The individual who experiences ego death before physical death "dies and does not perish." That person attains "long life"; that is to say, that soul achieves Paul’s victory over death.

What happens if we fail?

What happens if we fail to die the death of the ego before dying the death of the body? What then awaits us who have sought God with a loving heart and yet have not entered the Kingdom of Heaven as a result of it?

According to Sri Krishna:

No one who seeks Brahman ever comes to an evil end. Even if a man falls away from the practice of yoga, he will still win the heaven of the doers of good deeds, and dwell there many long years. (35)

And the future lives of such a person, who has once asked the way to God? Sri Krishna says that such an individual will receive significant help in coming lives to complete the journey to God-realization.

He will be reborn into the home of pure and prosperous parents. He may even be born into a family of illumined yogis. But such a birth in this world is more difficult to obtain.

He will then regain that spiritual discernment which he acquired in his former body; and so will strive harder than ever for perfection. Because of his practices in the previous life, he will be driven on toward union with Brahman, even in spite of himself. For the man who has once asked the way to Brahman goes farther than any mere fulfiller of the Vedic rituals. By struggling hard, and cleansing himself of all impurities, that yogi will move gradually toward perfection through many births, and reach the highest goal at last. (36)

We reincarnate endlessly on the journey to God. We cannot escape the wheel of birth and death. But, when we know God, when we come Home to Him, we shall reincarnate no more. If we fail to reach Him in this lifetime, He bestows many blessings on us that we might reach Him in the next.

And where is the end of the journey to be found? Is there such a thing as “full” or “final” enlightenment?


For full details on these sources, see “Bibliography.”

(1) See my book New Maps of Heaven on the subject.

(2) AW, 31

(3) Matthew 17:3 and 10-13. See also Mark 9:4 and 11-13.

(4) Which leads to the speculation: could Jesus have been Elishu, who asked for a double portion of Elijah's spirit? A comparison of their sayings and miracles produces many interesting parallels.

(5) Proverbs 1:6.

(6) Mark 15:37.

(7) Matthew 22:32.

(8) Mark 12:26.

(9) Luke 20:37.

(10) Luke 9:60.

(11) Ephesians 5:14

(12) LA, 212.

(13) I Corinthians 15:54-5.

(14) Rev. 2:11. I realize that the “second death” is a phrase that is also used to refer to an event that occurs on the mental plane, in which the spirit drops the astral body and finds himself or herself in the mental body. See here.

(15) AY, 421.

(16) BG, 36. Also cf. Levi: "Time never was when man was not. ... man himself is not the body, not the soul; he is a spirit and is part of God." AGJC, 17.

(17) BG, 50.

(18) Ibid., 36.

(19) I Corinthians 15:40.

(20) BG, 76.

(21) GSR, 72.

(22) Ibid., 98.

(23) Rev. 3:12.

(24) Rev. 21:4.

(25) CYV, 31.

(26) CJD, 59.

(27) Ibid., 69.

(28) KOR, 22.

(29) Ibid., 190.

(30) AY, 421n.

(31) AQU, 25, 21.

(32) UPAN, 23.

(33) KK, 37.

(34) WOL, 33, 86.

(35) BG, 69.

(36) Loc. cit.