Return Engagements

Exploring the Traditions and the Evidence for Reincarnation

Do you believe in reincarnation? Have you lived before? Will you come to live again in another physical body after you die? Several of the major world religions and cultures around the world have some belief in reincarnation. By some estimates, as many as a quarter of people worldwide hold such beliefs.

How would you respond if your child began telling you a story about who he had been ‘before’ and included a list of very specific details, including names and places, about his previous life. For example, Kemal, a child in Turkey, told his parents details of his previous life since he was around two. He claimed he had lived in Istanbul, 500 miles away. He said his family name had been Karakas, that he’d been a wealthy Armenian Christian who lived in a large, three-story house. He also named his neighbor and stated that his house had been on the water where boats were tied up and was next to a church. Kemal gave many more details about his life.

How would you respond if you heard such a story? Parents in more materialistic societies believe their children’s stories are playful daydreams, vivid imaginary tales, or news stories the children are repeating from television. Some parents, who come from cultures where belief in reincarnation is more common, listen to their children’s tales and take them at their word. Sometimes they even have enough information to seek out the family in the location where their child says he has lived before.

Simply put, reincarnation is the belief that souls can be reborn in different bodies at different times and places. Many different faiths embrace reincarnation, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, as well as the beliefs of numerous indigenous groups. People who believe in reincarnation see it as normal part of the progression and development of the spirit, whereby an individual soul evolves through different lives. Many faiths say this same process occurs with animals and other forms of life.

Historically, writings about reincarnation show up around the fifth or sixth century BC in East Indian, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions as well as in Greece. Pythagorus believed that the soul of humans was spiritual and eternal, only temporarily residing in the body, and surviving physical death. Plato also supported this idea and suggested that if a person lived a good life, he would progress to a more spiritual state. The Hindu belief in karma proposes a much more elaborate correlation between how our activities in one life affect how we are reincarnated in the next, proposing a progress from lower to higher and more realized forms of embodiment.

There is also evidence that reincarnation may have been believed in much earlier in human history. There are reports that the early Druidic practices embraced the idea. Some of the early records in Egypt show the path of the soul leaving the body and becoming embodied again. Also, since there is widespread belief in reincarnation among indigenous cultures, it is reasonable to suggest that as soon as early, primitive cultures adapted more elaborate rituals at death, the existence and movement of the soul was part of human thought.

The majority of modern Christian and Muslim practitioners reject reincarnation. Though early Christian believers did embrace reincarnation, in AD 553 it was officially stigmatized as heresy and effectively removed from church doctrine. Modern theologians though have suggested that reincarnation would not conflict with the teachings of the church, and some Islamist sects accept the idea. Now with the prevalence of scientific materialism which does not allow for consciousness being separate from the body, there is less belief in the phenomenon worldwide. Modern surveys suggest that only 25 to 35 percent of people believe in the possibility of the soul’s rebirth in another body.

Yet, even today, the idea of rebirth is very strong in some cultures. In Tibetan Buddhism, for example, it is believed that the souls of great Lamas will be reborn. When a great Lama dies, a search begins for the new incarnation of that soul. Close friends and other Lamas will watch for visions and intuitions of the individual’s re-embodiment. As time passes, others in the community will watch for certain characteristics to be displayed by young children. As potential prospects grow older, they will have to pass certain tests to convince other Lamas that they are in fact the reincarnated individual, such as identifying personal affects, displaying similar personality traits, to even having similar body markings. This is a volatile issue in China and Tibet and is seen as a way China is trying to subvert the independence of Tibet. If China claims a Lama is reborn in China, they can then control the child and his education and, consequently, control the Tibetans more effectively.

The Indian holy man Satya Sai Baba, who only recently died, stated that he was the reincarnation of the Indian holy man, Sai Baba of Shirdi. He also said for his third incarnation he would be reborn in Gunaparthi, in the Mandya district of Karnataka, in India. Not only holy people have made these kinds of predictions. There are numerous reports, in cultures where these beliefs are more prevalent, of individuals stating that they were going to come back and what kind of life they were going to live.

Is it possible to prove a soul can reincarnate? Those who believe consciousness is a phenomenon of the material physical brain claim such a proposal is simply impossible. Those who are open to considering the idea, yet still rely on the tangible facts, are right in claiming that it is very hard to prove reincarnation.

One of the most common encounters a Western person has with reincarnation is with hypnosis. In New Age circles, trauma from a past life can be blamed as a cause for physical illness or for a wide range of emotional and psychological difficulties within the person’s current life. Using hypnosis, individuals claim to have vivid rememberings of past lives. Yet, these hypnotic memories have clearly been shown to be subject to a wide variety of errors and wishful thinking. The ‘memories’ can easily be influenced by the hypnotist or the subjects desires. Many skeptics disregard all hypnotically generated material as suspect, even though some spontaneous experiences in hypnosis may be genuine past-life recall.

There is a body of research about reincarnation that is becoming more and more accepted. As with the story of Kemal at the beginning of this article, there are now thousands of documented reports of children sharing details of their previous lives. The most convincing reports are those where the researchers recorded the children’s stories and then were able to track down the location, friends, and family of the deceased individual. In these cases, there is often an amazingly accurate corroboration of the facts.

In Kemal’s story, his parents didn’t know anyone in Istanbul, yet they listened to his story. When researchers heard all the information the child had shared with his parents, they had enough details to be able to track down the family, the friends, and the house where the child said he had lived. All of the information Kemal provided proved accurate.

This is one story that is described in Jim Tucker’s book, Life Before Life. Tucker has been conducting research with Dr. Ian Stevenson, who is perhaps the most well known researcher of these childhood experiences. Since 1958, Stevenson has compiled over 2500 cases that are recorded in the Division of Personality Studies at the University of Virginia. Though many of these cases come from countries where the belief in reincarnation is stronger, such as Turkey, Myanmar, India, Lebanon, and Sri Lanka, there are also cases from the United States and other Western countries. Tucker has outlined the rigorous, scientific approach researchers use to gather and collect their data. To be registered, each case has to meet at least two of the following criteria:

Prediction of rebirth, with identifying details.

An announcing dream.

Birthmarks or birth defects related to the previous life.

Statements about the previous life.

Recognitions by the subject.

Unusual behavior by the subject relating to the previous life.

Dr. Stevenson has focused his research on cases with birthmarks and birth defects, since these physical properties provide tangible evidence that supports the claims of the children. These birthmarks are often correlated with amazing accuracy to wounds or traumas received when the person died, such as the entrance and exit wounds of a fatal bullet. These physical signs may also include birth defects that relate to the previous individual’s serious illness or traumas that occurred earlier in his life. The children often describe with accuracy how they were killed and who killed them. In some cases, these crimes have been reported and verified.

One interesting twist to the physical signs is that of intentional marking. In some Asian countries, people practice what Stevenson calls “Experimental” marking. Usually a family member or a close friend will place a mark on a dying person’s body with some kind of soot or paste while invoking a prayer and a suggestion that the dying person take that mark with them to their next life. Stevenson documents cases where this seems to have occurred; a child will be born with the same mark on her body. Later on the child will demonstrate some of the other criteria.

When most of the criteria are present in a case, it makes for an impressive confirmation of the theory of reincarnation. How one responds seems to depend largely on preexisting beliefs. Skeptics still argue that there are flaws and that it couldn’t be so; believers argue that that the evidence is overwhelming and may want to discover their own past lives.

Skeptics argue that a person in a culture that believes in reincarnation can convince himself that his child had another life. Parents might exaggerate the child’s story and change it to fit the details of a deceased person. This seems harder to explain when cases are ‘solved’, meaning the previous life is found, after the child’s statements have been recorded. This explanation seems less likely when a child describes a life that occurred at some distance, even in a different country. It is also harder to explain a child’s story and behavior when they go against the wishes of the family, as when a child displays culturally taboo behavior such as behaving like the opposite gender or requesting cigarettes or alcohol at a very young age.

Dr. Stevenson claims that the cultural beliefs of the dying person determine the possibility of reincarnation and how it occurs. In some countries for example, it’s believed that you can only reincarnate as the same sex. Thus, those are predominantly the cases that are reported. In the United States very few cases are reported, although there is great interest in the phenomenon with adults in New Age circles. Stevenson suggests, in the case of the non-believing country, it’s not just that parents of reincarnating souls wouldn’t take them seriously, it’s also that the children themselves may not believe it is possible and wouldn’t speak of it or wouldn’t remember their other lives.

There are also a range of different cultural conceptions of the soul and how souls can reincarnate. Among the Gitxsan tribe of Northern British Columbia, an individual may be able to come back several times and even embody several different bodies simultaneously. In Tibet, there is a similar belief that one Lama can come back as multiple people. Other North American tribes believe that part of the soul stays with the body and part always stays in the other world even when reincarnated. There is even the possibility that the path of the soul may not follow the linear flow of time. A person may be reborn at a time before they died. The notion of one soul, one body, and a linear flow of time may be a limited, Western view which is based in Newtonian-Cartesian science.

One interesting variable in these cases is that there is a typical window of time when children usually remember. They start sharing as soon as they are verbal, as early as the age of two. Then, typically, somewhere around ages six or seven, they begin forgetting, so that when they are older they may have no memory of the previous life or even of talking about it. Memories can come at other ages though, if there is a particular experience that triggers a memory.

Often, when a young child tells of a traumatic death, she may be very emotionally upset and agitated, perhaps even having disturbing dreams. Yet, when they tell the story to their parents, and the parents are receptive, the emotions subside over time. Through sharing, the child is able to desensitize and even forget the trauma and get on with her life.

A similar process is used with past-life occurrences in hypnotherapy. For example, when helping a client release a fear of water, a therapist might induce a trance and ask the client to remember the first time he remembers experiencing the fear. This may be done with only a suggestion that the experience may have happened earlier in life. Then the individual might spontaneously describe an experience of drowning and being a different person. As the client experiences the feelings along with the imagery and memories, he is able to release the fear or trauma he is holding. Frequently, it doesn’t matter to the individual if it can be proven to be a past life. Yet, framing in that context, which he may do himself without any prompting, allows him to understand his experience and get on with his life without his previous fear.

Skeptics wonder, if reincarnation is real, why we don’t all remember previous lives. One explanation may be psychological. As growing children develop egos, they forget the parts that don’t relate to their personality. Everybody does this in some way, shutting out parts of themselves that are in conflict with their image of themselves or what’s acceptable. It may be that most people, even if they are coming in from another life, focus on their being in this life. Even the children who do remember tend to forget as they develop a more individual personality.

Yet, when these kinds of experiences occur, they may reinforce a cultural belief in a larger multi-life development of a soul that is valuable. These values influence how people behave. If you believe in a cycle of karma influencing reincarnation, you will act differently in this life. If you believe all beings, including animals, are evolving through a larger life cycle, it will change how you view their importance in this world.

One other interesting aspect to reincarnation is that some children’s stories, as well as cases from hypnotic regression, tell of the intermediary places beings go between lives. Brian Weiss talks about this in his book, Many Lives, Many Masters. Children have also described places of transition, with guides, lessons to be learned, and a perspective that comes of a larger reality beyond this physical life. Stories from different Native American tribes tell of another world and choosing to make a journey to this world for another life. These choices often relate to a particular purpose the soul wants to undertake. Perhaps it is a gift to all of us when a child expresses a relaxed attitude towards death and a trust that there is something more after death. Perhaps when we sense a young child is an ‘old soul’ we can truly listen to what she has to say and remember the parts of ourselves that are larger than the dream of this physical world.

Patrick Marsolek is the director of Inner Workings Resources. He is also a clinical hypnotherapist and the author of A Joyful Intuition. See www.InnerWorkingsResources.com for more information.

BY PATRICK MARSOLEK

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