Everyone knows that many eastern religions have the doctrine of reincarnation at their core. It is not explicitly found in ancient Vedic texts, although their high philosophy can be somewhat obscure at times, and some scholars argue that the idea would have been present in general Vedic thought—because it is certainly a cornerstone of the Hindu religion that sprang from it. By contrast, when the Buddha took his teachings outside of the Hindu mainstream he was deliberately vague about the idea, arguably in an attempt to take his followers away from their reliance on the tight strictures of the Hindu caste system, and the assumption that they would always be reborn into the same caste. Unfortunately his vagueness subsequently became enshrined in the doctrine of anatta or “no self/soul,” whereby one’s karma was thought to be added to the universal “pot” after death, but the individual soul did not survive as a distinct entity.
Despite this setback, Western esotericism has a long history of reincarnatory belief—as I discuss in my second book, Genesis Unveiled. It was fundamental to both Hermeticists and Neoplatonists—although not, interestingly, Gnostics or even the ancient Egyptians from whom much of this later thought was supposed to be derived. And to this day it continues to thrive as a cornerstone of Qabalism—although again the Judaism from which this sprang does not explicitly incorporate it—and also of the Rosicrucian movement.
But all of these worldviews effectively rely, just as any of the major religions, on the “revealed wisdom” of their sacred texts. And I think many people in the modern world have come to realize that revealed wisdom can contain horrible distortions, however much the disciples of any given worldview might insist otherwise in relation to their own. So, at the start of the twenty-first century, do we have to continue to rely on such ancient revealed wisdom in our search for spiritual truths? The answer is an emphatic no.
There are two major sources of modern research into reincarnation. The first is past-life regression, and the second children who spontaneously remember past lives. And before anyone of a more skeptical bent accuses me of sprouting new-age nonsense by using this material, I should emphasize that I too had assumed that it would be easily dismissed by proper, rigorous, scientific investigation. But when I investigated properly myself, I found I could not have been more wrong. In fact, materialist explanations for these phenomena are inadequate and reductionist, and concentrate on the weak cases without ever attempting to tackle the stronger ones. I should also emphasize that the professionals who pioneered the research in each area in the sixties and seventies were all scientifically trained psychologists and psychiatrists, most of who were initially of a skeptical or atheist persuasion.
The key thing about using past-life regression as proof of reincarnation lies in cases that fall into two categories. The first, and most obvious, are those in which historical details emerge that are not only verifiable, but also so obscure that they could not have been obtained by any normal means—and in which the possibility of deliberate deception, which is about the only materialist explanation that might have held water in these cases, is so remote as to be negligible. Three examples should serve to make my point.
Gwen McDonald, an Australian woman who had never been abroad before, was regressed by the pioneering psychologist Peter Ramster. She remembered obscure details of the eighteenth-century life of a girl called Rose Duncan, who lived in Glastonbury. When brought to England under controlled conditions by an Australian documentary crew, these details were all verified by local historians and residents—including obscure or obsolete names of places and people, obsolete elements of local dialect, and details of houses and other buildings as they had existed in the eighteenth century. Most stunning was her insistence that she had been taken to a cottage in which the floor stones had been stolen from Glastonbury Abbey, one of which had an obscure carving on it that she had sketched while still in Sydney. When she led them to what was now a dilapidated chicken shed, and the decades of droppings were swept away, there was the carving exactly as she had drawn it.
Another of Ramster’s subjects was Cynthia Henderson, who was brought over to France by the same documentary team. She remembered the life of an aristocratic girl called Amelie de Cheville in the eighteenth century. Not only did she lead them to a ruined chateau in the country outside Flers in Normandy—which she had accurately described as her home before leaving Australia—but in trance she spoke in the fluent archaic French of the period, with a perfect accent, as verified by a local man employed specifically to test this hypothesis. Out of her trance, she was unable to recall more than a few basic words of French gleaned from no more than two months of study at the age of twelve.
The third case involves a Welsh housewife called Jane Evans, who was regressed live on television by Arnall Bloxham. She recalled a life as part of a persecuted Jewish community in York in the twelfth century, which resulted in a number of them taking refuge in the crypt of a local church, but where they were discovered and massacred. Professor Barrie Dobson, an expert on Jewish history at York University, was called in to investigate, and from her descriptions established that the church she was referring to must have been St. Mary’s, Castlegate. But there was just one problem—it had no crypt. It was only some months later that workmen renovating the church discovered there was a crypt that had been sealed off, and when they broke it open they discovered human remains dating to that period.
The other way in which past-life regression provides impressive proof of reincarnation is in those cases that involve dramatic therapeutic benefits. Many of the pioneering past-life therapists discovered the technique more or less by accident, often when regressing patients back into their childhood. Imprecise commands are taken literally by those under hypnosis, and when asked, for example, to “go back further” they suddenly began describing events that could not have related to their current life. Intrigued, the pioneers experimented further, and found that severe psychological and psychosomatic disorders that had often remained virtually untouched by years of conventional therapy were completely alleviated, sometimes after only a few sessions of past-life therapy—and irrespective of whether or not the patient, or for that matter the therapist, believed in reincarnation. It was this universal experience that convinced all of the pioneers that this was no mere placebo effect, and that reincarnation is a reality.
If we turn now to children who remember past lives spontaneously, as opposed to under hypnosis, the American psychologist Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia pioneered this research almost single-handedly for several decades, and is only now starting to achieve the recognition he so richly deserves. Many of his cases also involve verifiable details that are so obscure they could not have been obtained by normal means, unless deliberate collusion and deception was involved, and his methodology has been deliberately designed to spot this and other suspect motives.
To take just one of his impressive cases, from an early age Swarnlata Mishra spontaneously recalled details of the life of another Indian girl called Biya Pathak, who had lived in a separate town some way away from her present home, and whose family was eventually traced. Stevenson found that in all she made forty-nine statements about her previous life, only a few of which could be regarded as in any sense inaccurate, and eighteen of which were made before there had been any contact whatsoever between the two families. These statements included identifying former family members, sometimes while being actively misdirected, coming up with little known nicknames, and even disclosing to her former husband that he had taken 1200 rupees from her money box—something known only to the two of them.
There is one potential paranormal explanation for all this evidence that would not involve reincarnation, which is that all these subjects are tapping into some sort of universal memory or consciousness, and that the past lives accessed in this way do not belong to the individual concerned. But there are two extremely strong reasons to suppose this is not the case. First, therapeutic results could never be obtained if this were what was happening. And second, most cases of past-life regression show clear karmic linkages between lives that are personal and individual. Nowhere is this more evident than in the most unusual cases investigated by Stevenson, those of children born with unusual birthmarks and defects. By investigating post-mortem reports and so on, he found that in a number of these cases they corresponded exactly to the wounds that killed the previous personality the child claimed to have been, and for whom other verifiable data had been given.
The other possibility often mentioned, albeit that it does rely on reincarnation, is that all these subjects are tapping into ancestral memories passed on in their genes. But again this theory does not hold water, for two good reasons. The first is that many past lives are found to be close together and yet to involve different continents or even races, at a time when people were generally not particularly mobile. The second is that many of Stevenson’s cases involve lives separated by only a few years, in which the two families involved are demonstrably not genetically linked.
How does all this modern evidence relate to the revealed wisdom of the past? Of course, the key corollary concept to that of reincarnation is that of karma, and the one thing that all reincarnatory approaches, both ancient and modern, are agreed upon is that we reincarnate repeatedly in order to progress our karma sufficiently to break free from the “earthly karmic round” and “reunite with the source.” In other words, to reach the point where we have learned and experienced everything we can from earthly life, so no longer need to incarnate in physical form—although souls who have advanced to this stage can of course volunteer to come back again to help humankind in general to progress.
One of the interesting things that modern research can tell us about is the nature of the ethereal realms themselves, and what exactly we mean by reuniting with the source. Because we find that subjects who have been regressed not just into past lives but also into the “interlife” between incarnations—again by a number of pioneering psychologists and psychiatrists operating largely independently—have much to offer in terms of consistent spiritual wisdom. And remember that these are ordinary people, drawn from all walks of life, who do not hold themselves out as spiritual gurus and who have no religious or political ax to grind.
They report that there is a huge, rich and varied amount of activity occurring in the ethereal realms. Souls at different levels of advancement are in training for all kinds of specialist work, from learning to be a spirit guide to other souls to experimenting with “creating life” by adapting existing blueprints for different environments. Of course, implicit in all this is that there are many other inhabited planets throughout the universe, some more “physical” than others. So, for example, we might advance enough to “reunite” with the earthly source or logos, but we would still have a massive way to go before we could even begin to appreciate, let alone reunite with, the ultimate creative source or power of the universe as a whole. We might also need to gain different types of experience by incarnating on other planets.
This is rather more complex that the relatively simplistic idea in most reincarnatory worldviews that once we have finished with earth, the ultimate source immediately awaits us. Of course, some esoteric worldviews discuss hierarchies of angels and demons and different layers of heaven and hell and so on, and Qabalism incorporates brave attempts to show that the ethereal realms are many layered. But they tend to represent somewhat rigid and hierarchical approaches, whereas the modern evidence is practical and relatively down-to-earth, and removes a great deal of what—at risk of being controversial—is arguably no more than idle speculation from the process.
But to be even more practical in our approach, we need to understand what karmic advancement really means, and how we go about achieving it. Again, reincarnatory approaches from the past have adopted different views on this subject. For example, some of the more rigid philosophies have suggested that any sort of karma, whether “good” or “bad,” creates a reaction that must be fulfilled—so the trick is to lead a life of such asceticism and to reject the physical world to such an extent that one creates no more karma. Fortunately, modern research suggests this is complete nonsense. And the reason for that is the questionable historical premise that karma is about “action and reaction.”
Nowhere is this principle more in evidence than in the Hindu view that, for example, people who are disabled are being punished for some misdemeanor in the past. But can this really be true? If we return to Stevenson’s cases of birthmarks and defects, we find they give us a significant clue, even though their importance as pointers to karmic dynamics has not been properly picked up on before. The subjects find themselves with what appears to be a physical “punishment” in their current life, and yet they were usually quite innocent victims in the previous one. How can that represent a karmic process of “action and reaction”? The answer, I have concluded, is that it does not.
Modern interlife research shows that more advanced souls not only conduct detailed reviews of their past lives, but also plan their next ones. And even when they choose adverse circumstances such as physical disability or financial or emotional deprivation, they do so to progress their karma as part of a learning experience. But this research also shows that less advanced souls often ignore all review and planning advice in the interlife, and as a result their lives tend to exhibit repetitive patterns. However, even when as a result they repeatedly face similar adverse circumstances, it is to give them another opportunity to learn the lesson that has escaped them in the past—and not because of some sort of karmic punishment, or dynamic of action and reaction. The most crucial test is to properly assimilate strong negative emotions of hatred, fear, jealousy, revenge and so on, either during incarnate life or in the interlife, so that they no longer hold their restrictive karmic charge. The unfortunates in the birthmark and defect cases seem, arguably through having no proper interlife experience, to have retained rather than diffused emotions of such power from their last life that they were imprinted on their next body—although these might serve constructively as reminders that they have emotions from the past that need sorting out.
So my strongest conclusion from my analysis of the modern evidence is that karma and karmic progression is all about learning, and experiencing both sides of every coin. There is no karmic law of action and reaction, and in fact this aspect of the revealed wisdom of the past is not just misleading but positively harmful.
Another area in which much of the revealed wisdom of the past is brought into question by modern evidence is the latter’s revelation of the extent to which we create our own surroundings in the ethereal realms, based on our expectations and level of karmic advancement. And nowhere is this view more controversial than when we turn to ideas of hell and demons. Although a very few of the modern pioneers concentrate specifically on demonic possession, most find that their subjects are unanimous in the following view: that such ideas are merely human psychological constructs. This does not mean that they are not “real” to some people, and certainly those with a strong expectation that they will encounter demons and hellish states in the interlife might do so. But these will be psychic manifestations of their own making, with no permanent or underlying validity. The implication is that if, both individually and collectively, we stop feeding them with psychic energy, and they will wither and fade.
I appreciate that some people might suggest that this is all very fine as far as it goes, but that in itself this modern research and analysis is reductionist, and fails to capture the real essence of spiritual experience and esoteric wisdom. I accept that to some extent this may be true. Certainly more advanced spiritual practitioners might well be exploring avenues beyond this relatively simple analysis. But even those who experiment constructively with powerful hallucinogens, or are experienced in entering altered states of consciousness by meditation alone, would be well advised to remember the extent to which they may be experiencing or even creating psychic constructs based on their own preconceived ideas, which therefore may have limited objective or underlying validity. Moreover, in a more practical sense, if they have been working from a false premise about the workings of karma, for example, then I would argue that even these people might want to go back to the drawing board and re-evaluate their approach somewhat.
I have a strong belief that this new rational spirituality that modern research has now made available to us can have a massively empowering effect on us as individuals. And that if enough of us take its main precepts on board, we have the genuine chance of altering the future of humanity for the better.
© Ian Lawton 2005. Lawton is a researcher specializing in ancient history, esoterica and spirituality and author of The Book of the Soul, containing all the detailed modern evidence and analysis discussed in this article, which is available either from the magazine or via Ian’s website: http://www.IanLawton.com.