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Gnosticism and reincarnation

The Orouboros, the dragon eating its tail, symbolizes The Wheel of Karma in Gnosticism

Gnosticism was a religious philosophical dualism that professed salvation through secret knowledge, or gnosis. Gnosticism  is the best  explained as a syncretic cross religious movement that started with the Hellenic  Philosophical Syncretism.  Scholars have attributed the origins of gnosticism to a number of sources:

·        the Greek mystery cults;

·        Zoroastrianism;

·        the Kabbalah of Judaism; and

·        Egyptian religion.

 In that sense it existed long  before Christianity.  But it got a push with the resurrection of Jesus  when it syncretised Christianity with Platonic thoughts.  This danger always remained within Christianity especially as Christianity became a successful religion based on individual rebirth.  Gnostic  groups apparently became very strong within Christianity and they use Christian titles, as  well  as the Jewish/Christian scriptures. The movement reached a high point of development during the 2d century AD in the Roman and Alexandrian schools founded by Valentius. In fact a large number of Gnostic scriptures based on the life and teachings of Jesus came to be written.




The Gnostic Gospels are a collection of about fifty-two ancient texts based upon the teachings of several spiritual leaders, written from the 2nd to the 4th century AD. These includes: Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Truth (Nag Hammadi Library) Gospel of Philip (Nag Hammadi Library) and  the Gospel of Judas.

The early Christians considered Simon Magus (Acts 8:9 - 24) as the founder of gnosticism.  Important early Gnostics include Simon Magus, Cerinthus, Carpocrates,  Basilides, Mani, Marcion, Theudas, Nicolas of Antioch (the Nicolaitans of Revelations) and Jezebel of Thyatira.  Bardaisan or Bardansanes, was a contemporary or immediate forerunner of Mani. He was a Valentianian at one point but later rejected them and returned to Orthodox Christianity. The prophet Mani founded a religion called Manicheanism but also described himself as "the apostle of Jesus Christ".  Mani's ministry was instrumental in the Syncretic Gnostic religion known today as Hinduism.  In fact Bardesanes after his return to Christianity defeated Mani in a confrontation which took place in Ranni, Kerala, India which saved Kerala and kept it Christian until the seventh of eighth century AD.

Infiltration of these syncretic forces in to America and Europe appears today as New Age which finds lots of followers. It defines itself as "a spirituality without borders or confining dogmas" that is inclusive and pluralistic. Gnostic Churches around the world, Martinist, Masonic, Rosicrucian, Theosophical  Societies all today provide these impetus.

 It is difficult to define Gnosticism since it has no borders or defined dogmas.  But the following are the basic beliefs:

·        The notion of a remote, supreme monadic divinity, source – this figure is known under a variety of names, including "Pleroma" (fullness, totality) and "Bythos" (depth, profundity);

·        The world is a dual system consisting of Good and Bad

·        The material world is bad, the spirit world is good. The material world is under the control of evil which is nothing but ignorance of who we are.

·        A divine spark is somehow trapped in some (but not all) humans and it alone, of all that exists in this material world, is capable of redemption.

·        Salvation is attained when individuals realize the spark of the divine in themselves and come to know themselves, their origin and destiny. 

·        There will be an ongoing cycle of lives until this is realized.

Gnosticism came into Christianity to produce a powerful heretic community. The Manichaeans, the largest Gnostic denomination in history that thrived across the world for centuries, universally believed in reincarnation. In Against the Manichaeans and Against the Donatists (p. 40), Saint Augustine’s description of the Manichaean attitude on reincarnation is similar to the Hindu notion of spirits transmigrating into life forms other than human, depending on their amassing of Gnosis. Augustine wrote:

‘They believe that the herbs and the trees are alive and the life that is in them is endowed with sensibility and able to suffer when hurt. This is why no one can sever or pluck anything without inflicting suffering upon it.’

Curiously, Augustine also claimed that the Manichaeans believed that they may be reborn into certain vegetation like melons or cucumbers as a step up from being a human.

The Cathars, who flourished between the 11th and 13th Centuries in Southern France, also held a strong belief in reincarnation.

‘Cathars believed that the soul would go through many lifetimes before it achieved salvation…The importance of reincarnation was that it gave the soul repeated attempts at attaining freedom from this world and hence salvation and a return to the true God. According to the Cathars, the soul transmigrates from one body to another, including animal bodies.’( Andrew Phillip Smith: The Gnostics (p. 169))

 Manichaen evangelized India and brought changes in the reincarnation thoughts of the Jains and the Buddhists as it is today as a detailed science in Hinduism.