By Rajeev Dalvi

Part II – The Middle Ages and the Renaissance
Going further, we come across this period of chaos in Western History. Under circumstances that to this very day remain shrouded in mystery, the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 553 A.D. banned the teachings of preexistence of the soul from the Roman Catholic Church. During that era, numerous Church writings were destroyed, and many scholars now believe that references to reincarnation were purged from the scriptures. The Gnostic sects, although severely persecuted by the church, did, however, manage to keep alive the doctrine of reincarnation in the West. (The word gnostic is derived from the Greek word gnosis, meaning “knowledge.”)

It was at this point when one of the most revolutionary periods evolved in Western history, most famously known as the period of Renaissance. During the Renaissance, a new flowering of public interest in reincarnation occurred. One of the prominent figures in the revival was Italy’s leading philosopher and poet Giordano Bruno, who was ultimately sentenced to be burned at the stake by the Inquisition because of his teachings about reincarnation. In his final answers to the charges brought against him, Bruno defiantly proclaimed that the soul “is not the body” and that “it may be in one body or in another, and pass from body to body.”

Because of such suppression by the Church, the teachings of reincarnation then went deeply underground, surviving in Europe in the secret societies of the Rosicrucians, Freemasons, Cabalists, and others.

Part III – The Age of Enlightenment
During the Age of Enlightenment, European intellectuals began to free themselves from the constraints of Church censorship. The great philosopher Voltaire wrote that the doctrine of reincarnation is “neither absurd nor useless,” adding, “It is not more surprising to be born twice than once.”

One may be surprised to note, however, that several of America’s founding fathers were fascinated by and ultimately accepted the idea of reincarnation, as interest in the subject made its way across the Atlantic to America. Expressing his firm belief, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Finding myself to exist in the world, I believe I shall, in some shape or other, always exist.”

In 1814, former U.S. President John Adams, who had been reading books about Hindu religion, wrote another ex-president, “the sage of Monticello,” Thomas Jefferson, about the doctrine of reincarnation. After revolting against the Supreme Being, some souls were hurled, Adams wrote, “down to the regions of total darkness.” They were then, the statesman said, “released from prison, permitted to ascend to earth and migrate into all sorts of animals, reptiles, birds, beasts, and men, according to their rank and character, and even into vegetables, and minerals, there to serve on probation. If they passed without reproach their several graduations, they were permitted to become cows and men. If as men they behaved well… they were restored to their original rank and bliss in Heaven.”

In Europe, Napoleon was fond of telling his generals that in a previous life he was Charlemagne. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, one of the greatest German poets, also believed in reincarnation and may have encountered the idea in his readings in Indian philosophy. Goethe, renowned as a dramatist and scientist, as well, once remarked, “I am certain that I have been here as I am now a thousand times before, and I hope to return a thousand times.”

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