Exploring the History of Reincarnation Beliefs

March 5, 2024
IONS Communications Team

Do you believe in reincarnation? The answer to that question varies vastly across individuals and religions. 

It’s commonly known that Buddhism and Hinduism have reincarnation as a key pillar, although the views differ slightly between the two. In this article, we will focus on less known views on reincarnation, and touch upon how they have affected mainstream views today. Let’s dive in and explore beliefs throughout the globe.

Do African cultures believe in reincarnation? 

There are many cultures and traditions on the African continent. The African Kôngo tradition has been shown to stem from the solar religion that characterized ancient Egypt, so we will use that as an example. 

The African Kôngo (also called Bukôngo) worldview does not believe in reincarnation the way Hinduism does. Instead, Bukôngo believes in the law of the progression of the dead toward higher planes of existence. 

Transmigration of spirit vs. reincarnation of the soul

Another key difference between Bukôngo and Eastern traditions is that the former believes in the transmigration of the spirit rather than the reincarnation of the soul. Transmigration of spirit means that the attributes and abilities of one person are projected onto another. An important distinction from reincarnation is that a person doesn’t need to die for their qualities to be passed on. 

Besides, there can be several receivers of the spirit. Transmigration of the spirit causes no depletion in the sender.

The Bomitaba tradition is an African tradition central to the Republic of Congo. They believe in the transmigration of spirit and have a particular application of it: When a baby is born, the parents are in no rush to find a name. Instead, they are looking for what ancestors “came through” the child. This is usually announced in a dream of a family member.  

The Luo people (Kenya/Uganda/Tanzania) share this custom. They also believe that the ancestors choose a person to whom they “pass on” parts of their spirit to accomplish a specific mission that helps humanity.

The ancestor who came through keeps being “alive” in the spirit world instead of transforming into the newborn. This is the main difference from reincarnation beliefs. The ancestor becomes the protector of the child, who in turn is expected to inherit their attitudes and qualities. One can imagine it’s quite some pressure to live up to! 

The Esan is the culture of a Southwestern Nigerian people. They believe only ancestral spirits can reincarnate and may do so in more than one child. Like the Bomitaba, they think the personality or character will be seen in the newborn.

The Igbo people in Nigeria also believe in a splitting of the soul, such that many people can inherit different qualities from a deceased person.

That said, reincarnation still exists in African traditional religions – but it’s quite rare. It supposedly happens when the deceased fails to cope with the demands of the higher plane of existence or chooses to reincarnate to accomplish a mission here. 

Reincarnation beliefs in Europe

Reincarnation beliefs in Europe date back to Ancient Greece and the pre-Christian Mediterranean world. The concept of metempsychosis (rebirth) is mentioned in the gold tablets of the Orphic tradition. In this context, “psyche” refers to the soul regarded as superior to the physical body. 

It was believed that one could escape the “wheel of birth” by participating in rituals and living a disciplined life.

Plato’s theory of rebirth

Many pre-Socratic philosophers theorized about reincarnation. Plato developed a cosmological theory of rebirth. He suggested that each soul needs to discover love as a mingling of pleasure and pain, fear and anger, “and other paired emotions”. This can be interpreted as realizing that emotions are just energies and can make us see the world through a distorted lens, while love is the truth. 

If the person managed to conquer the emotions through love and lived a “proper philosophical life”, they could return to the star from which they originated.

On the contrary, if passions took over and governed their life, they would be reborn in human or animal form. The goal according to Plato’s cosmological theory was to escape from rebirth.

A common theme among philosophers in this epoch was that one must live a pure life devoted to prayer and rituals to transcend the death-rebirth cycle. 

Rebirth in Christianity

Greco-Roman theories of rebirth were also present in Christianity. It was believed that souls could incarnate in one or several bodies. However, this view was banned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. Despite this, diverse Christian groups have continued teaching it: the Paulicians, Bulgarian Bogomils, and French Cathars. Only through dedicated ascetic practices can one escape rebirth. 

Another well-known text is Pistis Sophia, which describes how souls who sinned were led to the Virgin of Light, who determined the body it would get in the next life. The soul was then given to the receiving spirits who induced forgetfulness and cast it into a certain type of body “worth of the sins it had committed”. Fear runs as an undercurrent through many reincarnation views, and it’s easy to see how rebirth could be used to motivate obedience. 

Throughout the Renaissance, reincarnation theories lived on. We once again see the fear-based narrative: it was said that those led by pleasures and bodily desires got stuck in the cycle of rebirth. Only upon releasing the carnal desires could one ascend and discover the “ancient and original unity” beyond bodily forms, and attain true knowledge (gnosis) and union with the One. 

Giordano Bruno (1600) was burned at the stake for his ideas on reincarnation. His theory is less fear-based and considers reincarnation a neutral and natural process of soul development rather than a punishment. Bruno has been regarded as a martyr of science, and a proponent of free thinking and free speech. 

The Jewish tradition of Kabbalah mentions reincarnation through the concept of gilgul neshamot (cycle of souls). Many works and texts have been written on the topic by Jewish and Christian writers. 

The first English books on reincarnation 

The German esotericist Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont (d. 1698) wrote the first book-length work on reincarnation in English. He saw “soul evolution” as inseparable from human progress. He believed that each soul has an upper limit of 12 reincarnations over 1000 years, with sometimes long periods of rest between incarnations used to perfect the soul. 

The book, released in 1684, is called Two Hundred Queries Moderately Propounded Concerning the Doctrine of the Revolution of Humane Souls, and Its Conformity to the Truths of Christianity. In the book, eternal heaven or hell are depicted as irrational. The book was put together by George Keith, who was passionate about the topic. They met through a mutual acquaintance, and Keith went on to bring this view of reincarnation to America in 1690. 

Native American views on reincarnation

Long before the Europeans came, most native groups believed in rebirth based on indigenous theories of soul life. These are complex theories, but they all encompass a post-mortem existence, including cognitive awareness and the ability to be reborn. 

The concept of the soul has multiple parts, each returned to its respective domain after death (for example, the breath is believed to return to the stars). Like in the African traditions, reincarnates are given many names connected to the previous life. They are expected to live up to the accomplishments of the ancient soul. 

A disincarnate soul could be born into many bodies at once. People with the same name were believed to originate from the same soul. 

In short, there are 3 major perspectives on reincarnation among Native Americans:

  1. Post-mortem existence after death is similar to life here and now. 
  2. Individuals can choose between staying in the Village of the Dead or reincarnating.
  3. The naming process plays a central role and is believed to affect the destiny of the newborn.

How reincarnation was received in the US 

When Keith arrived in the US in 1690, the concept of reincarnation was met with mixed reactions. There was a split between believing in reincarnation (which only a smaller group of people did) and rejecting it (as the majority did). The concept mainly gained support among well-educated people, especially New England Transcendentalists like Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe. 

Emerson created early American metaphysical beliefs by blending enlightenment rationalism with Asian influences and the perfectibility of the individual. 

His reincarnation beliefs were inspired by Hinduism and Bhagavad Gita, but free from religion. He said the “completed soul” requires multiple human lives to allow it “to drink the healing waters of illumined thought”. Reincarnation is part of the “metempsychosis of nature” in which everything expands and evolves toward its higher potential. It is not a constant upward motion: souls can slip back into previous stages or get stuck in cycles. 

Furthermore, according to Emerson, incarnation cycles follow the laws of nature, so each life is a product of past lives. The goal is not to transcend human life but to embrace physical life as embodied consciousness. Around this time, intellectuals came forth sharing recounts of past lives, taking reincarnation from theory into becoming more “alive”. 

Afro-Caribbean influences 

As we previously saw, the beliefs around some aspect of a person passing on are strong across Africa, particularly in West Africa. The role of ancestral souls is crucial just like for the Native Americans. To become an ancestor, one must live a long life, instill respect, and serve as a role model for others. After death, ancestors are celebrated through ceremony. 

It is believed that the transmigration of spirit often skips a generation and is thus passed on from grandparent to grandchild. The identity of the departed lives in the soul realms, while their attributes and personal qualities are distributed into the lives of one or more individual(s). To be given an ancestral name increases the social status of a person.

African-American slaves believed that they returned to their home country after death. Transcultural religions (creole) believe in a variety of soul aspects making up a person, some of which could be reincarnated. To be reincarnated, one needs to fulfill their destiny, not engage in crimes, and live long. 

Late 1800s – Early 1900s: Spiritism and beyond

In the late 1880s, mediumship and the study of psychic phenomena gained popularity. The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) was formed in the UK in 1882. The lines between science and parapsychology/psi phenomena were much more blurred during this epoch, as we shall see. 

Reincarnation is central to Spiritualism/Spiritism. Allan Kardec (d. 1869) made the link between Spiritism and reincarnation through physical mediumship. He formed an explicit Spiritism where reincarnation is central. The soul is seen as an embryonic seed that keeps getting purified with each incarnation, until it becomes a pure Spirit. It is rare to reach that state. The purpose of reincarnation is to attain perfection by contributing to the evolution of humanity. It is believed that the soul can choose their parents and body/gender. 

In 1875, the Theosophical Society in New York took on the bold task of establishing “universal laws” for occult phenomena. They mixed ideas from Mesmerism, New Thought, Spiritism, European Esotericism, and Asian religions. One of its founders, Helena Blavatsky, believed that the soul reincarnates seldom (every 1500-3000 years). She believed that human development and perfection occur in stages of incarnations over a long period of time. Contrary to Spiritism, regression to previous stages was not possible. Other theosophists incorporated evolutionary theory based on scientific principles in use today. 

In 1904, James Hyslop founded the American Institute for Scientific Research and incorporated the American Society for Psychical Research (1885) into it. A beautiful mix of the natural and “paranormal”! He formed a separate section studying “all claims to supernormal abilities”, including reincarnation. Hyslop was inspired by Plato and ancient Greek philosophers, claiming that “substance is imperishable and passes from generation to generation constituting the matter out of which the individual is made”. The theory of imperishable substance was postulated as a universal law in Greek philosophy. It was believed that no individual survived, just a newly formed entity without memory of previous incarnations. Around this time, reincarnation gained popularity in paranormal research. 

In the late 1800s, texts on reincarnation came alive with personal accounts coming forth. The American Rosicrucian orders formulated the most consistent writings on reincarnation, promoting multiple human rebirths. 

Paschal Randolph published a work on the afterlife and rebirth entitled Dealings with the Dead (1862). It contains vivid accounts of the afterlife and transmigration allegedly based on his own experience. Every “soul seed” is seen as an immortal monad from the “Eternal Heart” or Divine Mind. Each of these seeds goes through stages of unfolding through multiple forms and species tracked in the soul memory. According to this theory, we’ve all been incarnated as minerals, plants, animals… Throughout these lives, the divine nature is intact, but it can only be known in its human form. The highest stage is one of full self-awareness, where this divine nature blossoms. When this stage is reached, it’s not necessary to return into human form after death. Those who lack conscious awareness must reincarnate. 

Max Heindel and H. Spencer Lewis both developed teachings where reincarnation was considered central to human development. Heindel wrote in 1909 about a complex cosmology with many incarnations in different worlds. The body is accompanied by several psychic entities or “higher bodies”: the vital-etheric body, the desire body, the mind, and the Ego. The Ego has forgotten its divine origin and must go through several lives to remember the divine nature of the soul’s origin. 

Lewis believed that the cycle of the soul (from birth to rebirth) has 2 phases: the Mundane (on Earth) and the Cosmic (post-mortem). At birth, the soul is a mix of all its previous personalities. Out of this, a “present personality” emerges, based on past experiences and skills. New experiences, beliefs, and attitudes are formed for the evolution of the soul. At the moment of death, the soul is absorbed into the Oversoul, keeping a record of the mind, memory, and personality. It lives in one of the 12 mansions of the soul, receiving knowledge and divine benedictions. According to the Law of Compensation, it needs to return to incarnations to actualize progressive soul development. 

Asian reincarnation influences in the US

From the mid-1850s onwards, texts were published in the US about the influence of Asian cultures. A complete breakdown is beyond the scope of this blog, but worth mentioning is the impact Paramahansa Yogananda had in spreading Indian views on reincarnation. He founded the Self-Realization Fellowship (1920) and was one of the first Indian teachers to live in the US, where he stayed for 30 years. His popular book Autobiography of a Yogi remains a best-seller today. 

Yogananda shares the teachings of his guru, Sri Yukteswar, on reincarnation: after physical death, the body takes on an astral form. The “power of unfulfilled desires” is the glue connecting the three bodies: physical, causal, and astral. The physical desires are fulfilled by sensory pleasure. Focusing on one’s astral and causal desires, something much more abstract, turns you into a co-creator with the divine. The ultimate goal is to transcend the causal body and reach a state of desirelessness. That’s when one can merge with the One Cosmic Ocean, the Ineffable Ever-Existent. Reincarnation is necessary to fulfill this goal. 

Buddhism believes in a cycle of reincarnations until one reaches Nirvana. Some esoteric interpretations of Buddhism that have become widely popular are, for example, Henry Steel Olcott’s Buddhist Catechism from 1881. Olcott believes the primary motivation for reincarnation is an “unquenched thirst for physical existence”. He also believes that how well you did in a previous life determines the quality of your next one. 

Manly Palmer Hall wrote Reincarnation: The Cycle of Necessity in 1999 and shared an interesting observation: while Western traditions see reincarnation as an unfolding of the individual, Eastern see them as a way of eliminating the individual, since the ultimate goal is to break the cycle and merge with something bigger.


There are many different views on reincarnation throughout history. It’s safe to say that there’s no consensus in the US today. 

Reincarnation beliefs differ in that some schools of thought see rebirth as a punishment, while others consider it a natural evolution of the soul. Living a morally questionable life is sometimes believed to cause a soul to “slip back” into less evolved life circumstances, while others believe it’s a constant upward motion. Some believe there’s an end goal like Nirvana, or to dissolve from an individual soul into one consciousness, while others think it’s an endless journey of expansion. 

While no one source may provide a convincing argument for reincarnation, together they strongly suggest a continuity of consciousness after physical death. A thought that can bring solace and help us enjoy this life more.

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