Transmigration in the Perspective of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy
Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy ((“AKC”) 1877-1947) was among the greatest minds of the 20th century and was probably the most erudite and profound expositor of the philosophia perennis of his time. He was an accomplished polyglot, and read Pāli and Sanskrit, Latin and Greek with such mastery that he reviewed and corrected glossaries and translation dictionaries of contemporaneous scholars of those languages. In 1907 he joined the Theosophical Society with the sponsorship of Annie Besant and published various articles in The Theosophist, but within several years parted ways with the TS and pursued his own teachings as a sort of jñāna yogi.
Among the central theses of his published writings–being 914 entries of original articles and books in his bibliography–was what he termed “transmigration.” This was his preferred term–and to a lesser extent “rebirth”–by which he meant “…the natural order of Becoming, [which] is the communication of this flame [of corporeal existence] from one aggregate of combustible materials to another.” These two terms, transmigration and rebirth, while passing muster in the vocabulary of AKC, were in sharp contradistinction to the term “reincarnation,” which he took pains to distinguish from the former terms as being misguided and misinformed.
This paper explores the differences in AKC’s writings, and perspective, of the terms and meanings between human (i) transmigration and (ii) reincarnation, and how he regarded and described the latter. In addition, while AKC’s views of transmigration are not in any way inconsistent with that doctrine of the philosophia perennis, what he did not describe the process from death to rebirth and the post-mortem states is as significant as what he did describe.