Karma and rebirth portrayed in
by D. Amarasiri Weeraratne
In this article I wish to survey the idea of rebirth as a theme in English prose literature. Let me therefore discuss briefly some of the English novels in modern times in which the idea of rebirth has found a prominent place.
A novel entitled "The Nazarene"! was published by Scholemasch in 1939. It was a widely read story which became popular. This is a serious lengthy and scholarly narrative woven round the life and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The first paragraph of the book touches on the subject of rebirth and memories of previous lives. Let me quote it.
"Not the power to remember but its very opposite, the power to forget is a necessary condition of our existence. If therefore the transmigration of the soul is a true one, then those between their exchange of bodies must pass through a sea of forgetfulness. According to Jewish view we make the transition under the overlordship of the angel of forgetfulness. But it sometimes happens that the- angel of forgetfulness sometimes forgets to remove from our memories the records of the former world; and then our senses are haunted by fragmentary recollections of another life.)'
The Jewish view that Asch refers to is not that of orthodox Judaism but the secret teaching of the Kabalists a splinter group of Jewish mystics.
Pan Viadomsky an old Polish scholar accepts a young Jew as his assistant in the translation of an ancient Hebrew document which he has discovered. The old man confides to his assistant one of the intimate secrets of his life - he remembers his previous life in Jerusalem as a Roman official. As a result he is tormented by the role he played in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. While listening to this story the young man feels his own memories being revived for he too had lived in the-same period and environment. He too begins to write down the recollections of his former life that come flooding into his mind. He also helps Viadomsky to translate the document which turns out to be the Gospel written by Judas Iscariot.
"The Razor's Edge" was published by Somerset Maugham in 1943. It had a great influence on the English reading public. It reached a wider audience than "The Nazarene", because it was screened as a film in the cinemas. The crux of the story hinges on the fact that young Larry Darell, its hero found the answer to the quest of his life in the Vedanta philosophy of India, a fundamental tenet of which is Karma and Rebirth. At the end of the story he is asked the question "Do you believe in reincarnation?)'
Larry replies, "That is a very difficult question to answer. I don't think it possible for us accidentals to believe in it as implicitly as the orientals do. It is in their brood and bone. With us it is only an opinion. I neither believe in it nor disbelieve it." But he confesses to having a strange experience one night while meditating on the flame of a candle. He had seen the vision of human figures one behind the other each of whom he had felt was his own self in a previous life.
Somerset Maugham in a work of nonfiction entitled "The Summing Up" admits his interest in the problem of suffering and says, "I think that the only explanation of evil that could make the many tragedies of life bearable is Reincarnation and Karma".
The Theosophical Society published its books "Isis Unveiled" and ".The Secret Doctrine" in 1875 and 1877. They were the first books in English propounding the doctrines of Karma and Rebirth. The Irish literary revival with its harking back to the mythology and folk-lore of Ireland was a result of Theosophical influence. George Russell and William Butler Yeats were the leaders af that revival and were also members of the Theosophical Society; Dublin. Theosophical ideas have influenced contemporary literature to a large extent.
Max Muller published his translations from "The Sacred Books of the East" between 1881 and 1910. There have been a few dramas which spotlight the reincarnation theme. "The Retum of Peter Grimm" by David Belso and published in 1911 is a noteworthy work. "The Reincarnation of Peter Proud" was a film shown in the Sri Lanka cinemas for nearly a month some years ago. It depicted the story given in a novel by that name. The entire picture depicted - the reincarnation theme and its verification by means of painstaking research.
The idea of portraying a series of lives of an individual has been used by several novelists e.g. A. E. D. Mason who in his "The Three Gentlemen" depicted three successive lives of a person. In a novel by Warwick Deeping entitled "I Live Again" he depicted a series of four lives of a person. In a novel by Jack London entitled "The Star Rover" we get the portrayal of a person who remembers three or four previous lives.
Rider Haggard in a novel entitled "She" writes of a woman who gained memories of her previous life after bathing periodically in a supernatural flame of life deep in an underground African cave.
"Flight from Youth" by Wilson E. Barret is a romance connected with a previous life. In this charming story a young man who has never studied flying feels a strange urge to walk into an aerodrome, enter a plane and fly it. He knows instinctively what to do in the air. Suddenly in this setting he gets recollections of his previous life where he was an airman flying over France during the course-of which his aeroplane was shot down..
J. D. Salinger published a story in 1948 called "Teddy". Teddy is a ten year old American boy who spends part of his time daily in meditation. He has some unusual E. S. P. Powers, and clearly remembers his past life as a Hindu yogi. This portrayal is not a strange thing in view of the fact that Salinger was known to be a student of Yoga and Zen Buddhism.
Talbot Mundy was a writer who was firmly committed to the belief in Karma and Rebirth. "A Journey from this World to the Next" was written by Henry Fielding (1907-54). It narrates the story of one- who has just died and is on his way to heaven. He meets numerous souls returning to earth life. In 1874 Mortirner Collier published his three volume novel "Transmigration. "
Allusions to rebirth are found in passages of many more authors. Joan Grant's novels have caused considerable comment and wonder. Her novel "Winged Pharoah" was written without scholarly studies. Therein she disclosed an unusually accurate knowledge of life in Egypt during the Pharoahs. In a prefatory note to her autobiography "Far Memory" she said that the details are based on memories of her former life in Egypt during the times concerned.
Allusions to memories of previous lives can be seen in the works of the following authors:
Sir Walter Scott "Guy Mannering", Charles Dickens "David Copperfield", George Elliot "The Spanish Gypsy", G. B. Shaw "Back to Methuselah", H. G. Wells "The Dream", Walter de La Mare "The Return", Hugh Walpole "The Adventures of the Imaginative Child",J. B. Priestly', "I have Been Here Before."
For further details on Western thinkers on reinicarnation I would like to refer readers to "Reincarnation - An East West. Anthology" compiled and edited by Joseph Head and S. L. Granston. (Theosophical Publishing House London 1962). This is an encyclopaedic compilation of quotations from eminent philosophers, theologians, poets, scientists and other thinkers of every period of Western culture.