The teachings on reincarnation posit that after a number of rebirths, the soul will attain human perfection and be freed from the necessity of being born again into a physical body. Two questions arise: first, what is the average time gap between incarnations, and second, how many reincarnations will the soul have before attaining perfection?
Duration between Lives. According to theosophy, the duration between lives appears to vary according to a number of factors: normal reincarnation, death by violence, death while still a child, congenital idiots, and advanced souls.
The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett state that the period between lives can be subdivided into three periods: (1) kāma-loka or desire-world, which can last from a few minutes to a number of years; (2) gestation period, which can be very long, but “proportionate to the Ego’s spiritual stamina”; and (3) in the rūpa-loka (form-world) of devachan, which will last according to the good karma of the individual (ML, p. 194).
According to Helena P. BLAVATSKY, the average span between lives is 1,000 to 1,500 years. The more mature and spiritual the person is, the longer is the “rest” period in DEVACHAN. Plato, for example, who lived 2,500 years ago, is said to be not reincarnated yet. One who claims to be a reincarnation of Joan of Arc, on the other hand, would be mistaken, since “the time period that has passed since the death of Louis XV and even of Joan of Arc is too short according to our calculations, which are mathematically correct” (CW V:45).
Charles W. Leadbeater and Annie Besant, as a result of their clairvoyant investigation of the past lives of many people, postulated that the average time between lives was, for two different groups of people, either 700 or 1200 years, although an analysis of their data does not seem to support that claim. The duration between lives varies considerably and seems to depend on several factors: (1) the length of the previous incarnation, (2) the spiritual, intellectual, and emotional development of the soul in its previous life or lives, (3) karmic conditions (e.g., the need for certain people to incarnate together), and (4) the will of the person to incarnate quickly (as in the Tibetan practice called tulku). Furthermore, Besant and Leadbeater suggest that so-called “young souls” reincarnate more quickly — after, say, 50 years — than “advanced” souls, which might have 2000 or more years between incarnations.
The same is true of some victims of violent death (accident or murder), as mentioned in The Secret Doctrine (SD II:303). In the latter case, however, as well as in the case of suicides, both called “premature deaths,” the vital energy which determines the duration of one’s incarnation had not been exhausted, so it is said that the person remains in the astral world for the remainder of what would have been his or her normal life span before continuing on to devachan or reincarnating. Apparently, however, this varies from person to person. In some cases in which the person was murdered or died a violent or accidental death the reincarnation occurs shortly after the death of the previous physical body.
Children and congenital idiots, on the other hand, are said to be reborn quickly because they have not accumulated experiences that would entitle them to a devachanic state. Then there are those victims of violent death (murder or accident) who are born immediately (this category is mentioned in The Secret Doctrine, II:303). These are cases of “premature deaths” wherein the person is not yet really “dead” because the latent vitality is not yet exhausted. Only the physical body is destroyed. The person will remain conscious and “alive” in the astral world for the rest of the duration of their normal life span.
The researches of Dr. Ian Stevenson and others have confirmed that many of these “premature deaths” reincarnated quickly without waiting for the normal period of ten centuries or more. In such cases, it is common that the reincarnated person can remember the details of the immediate previous life, together with the emotions, reaction patterns and biases associated with those memories. Even the physical deformities or wounds of the previous life are carried forward in the succeeding incarnation. The gap between lives in these cases can be a few days to several years.
Another special case mentioned would be reincarnation of Nirmanakāyas, or those who forego the normal after-death processes such as devachan, and get reincarnated immediately. They are said to be high initiates who choose to incarnate in order to help the world (SD I:132n).
Number of Incarnations. The total number of incarnations of a human being before perfection is achieved is discussed in theosophical literature but not definitely answered. This number is related to the theosophical view of the field of the ROOT-RACES of mankind through which all individuals must pass. (See CHAINS, PLANETARY; ROOT RACES; ROUNDS.) The Mahātma Koot Hoomi stated that:
. . . one life in each of the seven root-races; seven lives in each of the 49 sub-races — or 7 x 7 x 7 = 343 and add 7 more. And then a series of lives in offshoot and branchlet races; making the total incarnations of man in each station or planet 777. (ML, p. 175)
In the same letter, he mentions that there are other factors and information which should be considered in such calculations:
Should you indulge in any calculations do not forget that we have computed above only full average lives of consciousness and responsibility. Nothing has been said as to the failures of Nature in abortions, congenital idiots, death of children in their first septenary cycles, nor of the exceptions of which I cannot speak. No less have you to remember that average human life varies greatly according to the Rounds. Though I am obliged to withhold information about many points yet if you should work out any of the problems by yourself it will be my duty to tell you so. Try to solve the problem of the 777 incarnations. (Ibid.)
© Copyright by the Theosophical Publishing House, Manila