Transmigration (a passing over), in the theological acceptation of the term, means the supposed translation of the soul after death into another substance or body than that which it occupied before. The basis of this belief being the assumption that the human soul does not perish together with the body, it can belong only to those nations, which believe in the immortality of the soul. But in proportion as such an idea is crude or developed, as it is founded merely on a vague fear of death, and a craving for material life, or on ethical grounds, and a supposed causal connection between this and a future life, the belief in transmigration assumes various forms. The notion, dating back to a remote antiquity, and being spread all over the world, seems to be anthropologically innate, and to be the first form in which the idea of immortality occurred to man.
1. India. It was in India where the problems of metaphysics and ethics as connected with ontology and the destiny of the soul were elaborated to the last degree on a theistic basis that metempsychosis was most ingeniously and extensively developed. The Hindus believed that human-souls emanated from the Supreme Being, which, as it were, in a state of bewilderment or forgetfulness allowed them to become separate existences and to be born on earth. The soul thus severed from the real source of its life is bound to return to it, or to become merged again into that divine substance with which it was originally one. But having become contaminated with sins it must strive to free itself from guilt and become fit for its heavenly career. Religion teaches that this is done by the observance of religious rites and a life in conformity with the precepts of-the sacred books; philosophy, that the soul will be reunited with Brahman, if it understands the true nature of the divine essence whence it comes. So long, therefore, as the soul has not attained this condition of purity. it must be born again after the dissolution of the body to which it was allied; and the degree of its impurity at one of these various deaths determines the existence which it will assume in a subsequent life. So closely was the account of a soul's misdeeds kept that it might pass thousands of years, or kalpas (aeons), in one or other of the heavens, as a reward for good deeds or self-inflicted suffering, and yet be obliged to return to earth or hell to expiate as an animal, man or demon certain sins. To us the details of the soul's migration, as described in the religious works of the Hindus, are only interesting as they afford a. kind of standard by which the moral merit or demerit of human actions was measured in. India (see Manu, Code of Laws, bk. 12). A more general doctrine of the transmigration of souls is based by Hindi philosophers on' the assumption of the three cosmic qualities of sattwa, i.e. purity or goodness; rajas, i.e. troubledness or passion and tamas, i.e. darkness or sin, with which the human soul may become endued. On this basis Manu and other writers built an elaborate theory of the various births to which the soul may be subject. Manu teaches that "souls endued with the quality of sattwa attain the condition of deities; those having the quality of rajas the condition of men; and those having the quality of tamas, the condition of beasts." The Buddhistic belief in transmigration is derived from that of the Brahmanic Hindus, and agrees with it in principle, though it differs from it in the imaginary detail in which it was worked out. To enlarge here on this difference is not necessary, and yet it will not be superfluous to point out one great difference which separates the notions of one class of Buddhists from those of the rest, as swell as from those of the Brahmanic Hindus. While other Hindis believe that the same soul appears at the several births, the Southern Buddhists teach that the succession of existences is a succession of souls; that when the body dies the soul is "extinguished," and nothing remains but the good and bad acts performed in life; the, result of these acts becomes the seed of a new life, which soul is the necessary product of the soul of the former life. This dogma is illustrated by various similes, e.g. "One lamp is kindled at another; the light of the former is not identical with that of the latter, but, nevertheless without this the other light could not have originated."
2. Egypt. — According to the doctrine of the old Egyptians, the human race originated after the pure gods and spirits had left the earth; and this they did because the daemons, who inhabited the earth, had revolted against them, and tainted it with guilt. In order that the daemons might purify themselves, the gods created human bodies, so that in them they might expiate their guilt. These earthly bodies united to the daemons, are the human race, and human life is merely intended as a means of purifying the soul. All the precepts regulating the course of life are laid down by the Egyptians for this end, and the judgment after death in the palace of Osiris decides whether it has been attained or not. If it has not, then the soul must return to the earth, to renew its expiations either in a human body, in the body of an animal, or in. a plant. Matter was believed to be a substantial reality; and the material form that was once united with spirit in the one being of man was believed to maintain that connection so long as the material form remained. Hence the Egyptian practice of embalming the dead, to arrest the passage of the soul into other forms.
3. Persia. — The transmigration of souls was also a tenet of the Persian religion before the time of Zoroaster, and was derived, with the language. of Avesta, from Indian sources. Pherecydes of Syros who lived before the age of Zoroaster, taught the doctrine, and Pythagoras received it in Babylon from the Magi (q.v.).
4. In Greece, the doctrine of transmigration did not become the belief of the people, but was confined to the mysteries and tenets of philosophers, who probably received it from Egypt or India. According to some, Thales was the first Greek philosopher who propounded it; according to others, Pherecydes the teacher of Pythagoras. It was subsequently greatly developed by Pythagoras and Plato. The Greek mysteries were in fact, not only a school in which metempsychosis was taught, but an indispensable grade or lodge through which all of the aspirants must pass before they could be purified and go on to higher stages of existence. In the system of Plato transmigration had a remedial function, and the soul could attain to divinity only by a varied probation of ten thousand years. The Epictureans denied it, but it appears to have been generally inculcated as one of the deepest doctrines of the mysteries. The Neo-Platonists, who believed in magic, assumed the doctrine of metempsychosis as a natural inheritance.
5. Among the Jews the doctrine of transmigration the Gilgul Neshamoth- was taught in the mystical, system of the Cabala (q.v.). "All the souls," says the Zohar, or Book of Light, "are subject to the trials of transmigration and men do not know which are the ways of the Most High in their regard. They do not know how many transformations and mysterious trials they must undergo; how many souls and spirits come to this world without returning to the palace of the divine king.... The souls must re-enter the absolute substance whence they have emerged. But to accomplish this end they must develop all the perfections, the germ of which is planted in them; and if they have not fulfilled this condition during one life, they must commence another, a third, and so forth, until they have acquired the condition which fits them for-reunion with, God. On the ground of this doctrine it was held, for instance, that the soul of Adam migrated into David, and will come into the Messiah; that the soul of Japheth is the same as that of Simeon, and the soul of Terah migrated into Job. Modern Cabalists for instance, Isaac Loria have imagined that divine grace sometimes assists a soul in its career of expiation by allowing it to occupy the same body together with another soul, when both are to supplement each other, like the blind and the lame. Sometimes only one of these souls requires the supplement of virtue, which it obtains from the other soul, better provided than its partner. The latter soul then becomes, as it were, the mother of the other soul, and bears it under her heart as a pregnant woman. Hence the name of gestation-or impregnation is given to this strange association of two souls.
6. Of the Druids, it is told by classical writers that they believed in the immortality of the soul, and in its migration after a certain period subsequent to death. Little is known of the manner in Which they imagined such migrations to take place; but, to judge from their religious system, there can be no doubt that they looked upon transmigration as a means of purifying the soul and preparing it for eternal life
7. Norse. — A very poetical form of belief in transmigration is found in Germanic mythology, according to which the soul, before entering its divine abode, assumes certain forms on alternate certain objects, in which it lives for a short period-as a tree, a rose, a vine, a butterfly, a pigeon, etc.
8. Among the early Christians, Jerome relates, the doctrine of transmigration was taught as a traditional: and esoteric one, which was only communicated to a select few. Gnostics and Manichaeans welcomed it, and the more speculative or mystical of the Church fathers found in it a ready explanation of the fall of man and the doctrine of evil spirits. This considerable step towards reconciling the existence of suffering with that of a merciful God was distinctly set forth by Porphyry and Origen, and passed, in all probability, with all the strange heresies of "Illumination," through such institutions as the Cairene House of Sight and the Knights Templars, into the-wild doctrines of the obscure sects of the Middle Ages in Europe. The Taborites, an extreme branch of the Hussites, are said to have accepted the doctrine.
One great philosopher, at least, of modern times, G. E. Lessing, accounted for human progress by a species of transmigration. He argues that the soul is a simple being capable of infinite conceptions, which are obtained'' in an infinite succession of time. The order and measure of the acquisition of these conceptions are the senses. These, at present, are five; but there is no evidence that they have always been the same. Nature, never taking a leap, must have gone through all the lower stages before it arrived at that which it occupies now.... And since nature contains many substances and powers which are not accessible to those senses with which it is now endowed, it must be assumed that there will be future stages at which the soul will have as many senses as correspond with the powers of nature.
9. Modern Savages. — Probably the lowest forms of this belief are those found among some of the tribes of Africa and America, which hold that the soul, immediately after death, must look out for a new owner, entering, if need be, even the body of an animal. Some of the Africans assume that the soul will choose with predilection the body of a person of similar rank to that of its former owner, or a near relation of his. They therefore frequently bury their dead near the houses of their relatives in order to enable the souls of the former to occupy the newly-born children of the latter, and the princely souls to re-enter the princely family; and sometimes holes are dug in the grave to facilitate the soul's egress from it.
In North America some tribes slaughter their captives to feed with their blood such souls in suspense. The Negro widows of Matamba are especially afraid of all, souls of their husbands; for at the death of these they immediately throw themselves into the water to drown their husbands souls, which otherwise, they imagine, would cling to them. The natives of Madagascar seem to have invented a kind of artificial transmigration; for in the hut where a man is about to die they make a hole in the roof in order to catch the outgoing soul and to breathe it into the body of another man at the point of death.
See Metempsychosis by. a Modern Pythagorean, in Blackwood's Mag. 19:511; Confessions of a Metepsychosian, in Fraser's Mag. 12:496; Blunt, Dict of Hist. Theology, s.v.; Chambers's Encyclop. s.v.; Delitzsch, Biblical Psychology, p. 645; Gardner, Faiths of the World; Hendrick, Christianity'; Hardy, Buddhism, art. a "Metempsychosis;" Ueberweg, history of Philosophy (see Index).