Twice Born Again


Given that this is Holy Week in the Christian tradition, it seemed like an appropriate time to look at some of the other instances of the idea of re-birth, of being born again.  It is of course almost a cliché in Christianity, but it appears in other traditions also.  The common theme is that the twice-born is given special knowledge which brings about his rebirth, his  new life.

The first known instance appears in Homer’s Odyssey.  Odysseus is journeying home with his crew, and makes a year-long stop on the island of Circe, a beautiful goddess.  They are living the good life, but finally his crew convinces him it is time to leave again for Ithaka.  Circe agrees but tells him “you must first complete another journey, and come to the house of Hades and dread Persephone, to seek soothsaying of the spirit of Theban Teiresias, the blind seer, whose mind abides steadfast.” (10.490-3)  This does not sit well with Odysseus, but after some reassurances from Circe, he sets off for the Underworld.


Odysseus in Hades with Teiresias, by Johann Heinrich Füssli

I won’t go into the whole episode of the visit, which I’ve dealt with in the book The Journey Back to Where You Are, except to say that he is given special instructions by Teiresias that will bring about his full release from his strife-filled association with Troy, and create for him a new life in which he sees only the One.

When they return to Circe’s island, she congratulates them on their achievement, and starts them off with some new knowledge for dealing with the coming trials:

And the beautiful goddess stood in our midst, and spoke among us, saying: “Rash men, who have gone down alive to the house of Hades to meet death twice, while other men die but once. Nay, come, eat food and drink wine here this whole day through; but at the coming of Dawn [25] ye shall set sail, and I will point out the way and declare to you each thing, in order that ye may not suffer pain and woes through wretched ill-contriving either by sea or on land.”  (12.20-27)

So this visit to Hades, to receive instructions from Teiresias that lead to his “dying while living” is a crucial turning-point in his nostos, his return to light and life.

Another example occurs in the Indian text Manu Smriti, or Laws of Manu, which have been generally dated to within a couple of hundred years on either side of the beginning of the Current Era.  While it does not describe a conversion experience, it commonly refers to the “twice-born,” as in these passages:

But the birth that a teacher who has fathomed the Veda brings about according to rule by means of the Savitri verse–that is his true birth, that is not subject to old age and death. (2.148)

Twice-born men belonging to all these four orders (student, householder, forest hermit, ascetic) must always observe the ten-point Law diligently.  Resolve, forbearance, self-control, refraining from theft, performing purifications, mastering the organs, understanding, learning, truthfulness, and suppressing anger: these are the ten points of the Law.  Those Brahmins who learn the ten points of the Law and, after learning, follow them, attain the highest state. (6.91-93)¹

Now the “modern mind” can find much with which to argue with these laws, starting with the strict caste system it delineates, and the second-class status of women it implies.  (The twice-born is always a “he.”)  I would only say that these do not need to be taken literally, and that like Plato’s imperfect societies, all people embody all these traits and what is being given is a method for overcoming their limitations–their adjectives.  Each human is an expression of the Absolute, the Ideal, and by following the ten points of the law, each human can come to the realization of that true identity.

Finally we come to the statement best known usage, that of Jesus in the Gospel according to John:

There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:
The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.
Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?
Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and [of] the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.
The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. (John 3.1-8)

For a more thorough exploration of the symbolism used in this passage I can only recommend The New Man by Maurice Nicoll.²  Jesus himself remains the most enduring example of someone who is twice-born.  And may we all use this time of year–or any time–to work towards our own rebirth.

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¹The Law Code of Manu, trans. Patrick Olivelle, Oxford 2004

²  I don’t know anything about that published this online, but they have done a great service.