- 1 Does some aspect of our personality survive bodily death?
- 2 The explanatory value of the Vedic point of view.
- 3 Who gives credence to this?
- 4 If reincarnation is a fact, how does it work
- 5 Why reincarnation? What’s the purpose?
- 6 What about scientific evidence for reincarnation?
- 7 Spontaneous experiences of past lives
- 8 Spontaneous past-life memories in children
- 9 Paranormal explanations are also possible.
Does some aspect of our personality survive bodily death? ∞
Some say no. But there are strong reasons for thinking it does. You’ll find some of them discussed later in this article. Meanwhile, here are the basic teachings of the Vedic philosophy, the teachings given by the ancient wisdom literature of India.
According to the Vedic literature, the psychophysical entity with which we now identify ourselves is not our true self. The true self is neither the body nor the mind, nor a combination of both. The Vedic sages tell us that the body and mind are but gross and subtle coverings of the self.
Underlying these temporary coverings, the real self is a spark of spiritual consciousness, eternal and unchanging but temporarily misidentifying itself with matter in the form of the body and mind. And this real self, the Vedic sages
tell us, survives the death of the body and lives on.
If it does survive, where does it go? ∞
Eternal heaven or hell? There are problems with that.
It implies that God is cruel—he gives no second chance. It implies that God is unfair—he stacks the deck in favor of some souls, against others. For example, a person born in a good Christian family will get every opportunity to hear about Jesus Christ, put his faith in Christ, and, according to Christian teachings, be saved. But if you’re born in an atheistic or unenlightened family—well, tough luck.
It leaves no sensible way to explain why people (or, for that matter, any living beings) are born in different circumstances.Why should one person be born rich, another poor, one healthy, another diseased? If we live only once, it seems the best you can say is “It’s just chance”—which is no explanation at all.
Or perhaps we merge into some sort of spiritual oneness.
Perhaps. But this seems to presuppose that the soul has its origin in spiritual oneness too, emerges from that oneness as a personal being, and then returns to that oneness again. This leaves many questions to be answered.
How and why, from that oneness, would personality emerge?
Why, from oneness, should a plurality of personal beings appear? Why in so many varieties? And what could determine what those varieties will be?
And why would the living being automatically return to that oneness again?
The idea that personal beings somehow spring forth from an impersonal oneness runs into problems like the ones mentioned above. But even supposing it’s true, why suppose that at death we automatically merge into oneness again?
Of course, we can speculate that only some of us do, or that we do so only under certain circumstances. But then we’re back to the original question: What happens to the rest of us, or where do we go meanwhile? That is, If personality does survive, where does it go?
The Vedic answer is that at the end of one lifetime we embark upon another. The Bhagavad-gita says, “As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.”
The explanatory value of the Vedic point of view. ∞
The Vedic teachings about reincarnation offer us an opportunity to understand our material circumstances more deeply, and those teachings answer questions that might otherwise yield no suitable answers. Why are living beings born in such a multiplicity of forms and circumstances? Not by chance but because of their previous acts.
How is it that some people have extraordinary skills, even at an early age? How is it, for example, that Mozart was composing symphonies by the age of 4? If we accept the Vedic point of view, those skills may have persisted from a previous life.
Even with ordinary abilities—some of us are good at mechanics, others at math—reincarnation offers explanatory value.
Why do some of us have particular fears, other particular objects of fondness? One contributing reason may be the circumstances of a previous life.
Why do some people feel they’ve got “the wrong gender”? Some men feel like they “should be” women, some women like they should be men. Why? Feelings persisting from a previous life offer, again, a contributing answer.
The Vedic answer also virtually solves “the problem of evil.”
Why do the innocent suffer? Why do bad things happen to good people? How can a just God permit injustice in the world? As soon as we accept the Vedic view, the problem virtually dissolves. For no longer is anyone “innocent.” None of us is merely a blank slate. Each of us has to suffer or enjoy the results of our own past acts.
Who gives credence to this? ∞
In much of the civilized world, the idea of reincarnation, or transmigration of the soul, is the prevailing point of view. More than a third of the world’s people accept reincarnation as a fact of life. And even in the West, the doctrine of reincarnation has a long list of distinguished adherents.
Pythagoras (Greek philosopher and mathematician, c.582-c.500 BC)
Socrates (Greek philosopher, 469-399 BC)
Plato (Greek philosopher, 427-347 BC)
Plotinus (Greek philosopher, founder of Neoplatonism, 204-270)
Giordano Bruno (Italian philosopher, 1548-1600)
Francois Voltaire (French philosopher, 1694-1778)
Benjamin Franklin (US statesman, philosopher and inventor, 1706-1790)
Gotthold Lessing (German philosopher and dramatist, 1729-1781)
John Adams (Second president of the United States, 1735-1826)
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (German poet and dramatist, 1749-1832)
August Wilhelm von Schlegel (German poet, critic and translator, 1767-1845)
William Wordsworth (English poet, 1770-1850)
Ralph Waldo Emerson (US philosopher and writer, 1803-1882)
Robert Browning (English poet, 1812-1889)
Richard Wagner (German composer, 1813-1883)
Henry David Thoreau (US social critic, writer and philosopher, 1817-1862)
Walt Whitman (US poet, 1819-1892)
Thomas Huxley (English biologist and writer, 1825-1895)
Leo Tolstoy (Russian novelist and social critic, 1828-1910)
Mark Twain (US writer, 1835-1910)
Gustav Mahler (German composer, 1860-1911)
Rudolf Steiner (Austrian philosopher, 1861-1925)
David Lloyd George (British Prime Minister, 1863-1945)
Henry Ford (US automobile pioneer, 1863-1947)
Rudyard Kipling (English writer, 1865-1936)
W. Somerset Maugham (English writer, 1874-1965)
Carl Jung (Swiss psychiatrist and psychologist, 1875-1961)
Sir Hugh Dowding (British Air Marshal during the Battle of Britain, 1882-1970)
George S. Patton (US general, 1885-1945)
Robert Graves (English poet, 1895-1985)
Erik Erikson (US psychoanalyst, 1902-1994)
If reincarnation is a fact, how does it work ∞
According to the Bhagavad-gita, whatever we think of at the time of death determines what sort of body we’ll take next. And of course, what we think of at death depends largely on what we thought about and what we did during our life. The process is subtle because the mind is subtle.
The Bhagavad-gita explains that the mind, at death, carries with it subtle conceptions, just as the air carries aromas. And these subtle thoughts are what shape the next body. They determine what sort of eyes one will have, what nose, ears, and tongue, what sort of hands and legs and other bodily features. These all assemble around the mind.
The Vedic writings tell us, also, that our karma—what we deserve for our past acts—proceeds not only from what we have done in the present life but from past lives as well. My present birth, then, is an outcome of what I have thought and what I have done in the past.
Are human beings always reborn as human beings? According to the Vedic literature, no. Some are, but others are promoted to still higher forms, forms beyond our present experience, and others are degraded to lower species.
Sometimes, for example, we see a person living just like a pig—dirty, sloppy, gluttonous. We may think he even looks like a pig. According to the Vedic teachings, such a person, already practically a pig in consciousness, may get the body of a pig in his next life.
The Vedic writings say that there are 8,400,000 species, most of them lower than human. In the lower species, living beings always act precisely as nature dictates. They have no choice. A horse always acts like a horse, a tree like a tree. You never see a tiger stealing oranges.
And so the living beings in lower species always advance to species higher. Slowly, one step at a time, they are promoted by nature from one species to the next.
But human life affords us greater choice. We can live in harmony with nature’s laws, or we can violate them. And accordingly, we may be promoted or degraded. The human life is therefore meant for spiritual realization and for gaining freedom from the cycle of birth and death. No other species offers us this opportunity.
Why reincarnation? What’s the purpose? ∞
Vedic literature offers two answers.
First, we’re being given a chance to live out our desires. You want to fly? Take the body of a bird. You want to swim? Take the body of a fish. You want to drink blood? The body of a tiger. Fool around and have sex all day? The body of a monkey.
Second: We’re being given repeated opportunities to attain spiritual realization, break free from material entanglement, and resume our eternal nature in the spiritual world. The Vedic writings are meant to guide us in achieving
What about scientific evidence for reincarnation? ∞
There are various sorts of empiric evidence offered in support of the idea of reincarnation. Much of it is weak or useless, some of it strong.
Perhaps we’ve all had the feeling “I’ve been here before.” Could one feel that way because of experience from a past life? Maybe, but practically speaking there’s no reliable way to know.
Channelling, or mediumistic communication
Sometimes, certain people—they may be called “mediums,” “psychics,” “sensitives,” or (a more recent term) “channels”—transmit what are purported to be messages from departed souls. The medium may speak in a trance, or his or her hand may produce writing automatically. This is a field in which parapsychologists have done an extensive investigation.
It’s a problematic field. Frauds abound.
Much of the material transmitted tends to be stereotypical. The wisdom and insights dispensed by “departed spirits” often consist of a tired litany of new-age platitudes. For discriminating minds, this doesn’t create a lot of confidence.
Most material generated by mediums or channels is unfalsifiable—there’s nothing specific enough to either prove or disprove.
Even when a material is specific and impressive and fraud seems ruled out, explanations other than communication with departed souls are available, and almost always more likely.
The channel may have acquired information normally. For example, if a “sitter”—a person consulting a medium—asks about a particular departed person, the sitter may give various clues about that person, even unintentionally.
The information may also be within the channel’s normal area of knowledge—Greek or Egyptian history, for example. Or the channel might have received information from an ordinary news item. Or from friends or acquaintances.
Sometimes the channel might have acquired the information long before, even in childhood, and forgotten it—but still have it available in his mind for access. This is called “cryptomnesia.” Reliably investigated cases show that one might unconsciously retain impressions from even a few lines of text read years before—and might unconsciously use this material to construct a “paranormal” event.
The channel may, in fact, receive information paranormally, by telepathy or clairvoyance. That is, one might pick up the information from the mind of another living person, or by remotely “seeing” an existing object—the page of a book, for example. Whether these abilities exist, and to what extent, are also subjects of controversy. But if one assumes they exist, they provide alternative explanations to communication with departed souls.
This doesn’t mean that all mediumistic communication or channelling can be dismissed as worthless. Some carefully investigated cases do seem to hold up under scrutiny and show evidence for possible survival of bodily death.
But those cases are rare.
And even if there were genuine communication with a departed spirit, this wouldn’t in itself prove reincarnation. The spirit might presumably be communicating from heaven, from hell, or from some sort of limbo, without any “succession of births.”
For that matter, even if a “departed soul” tells us there’s reincarnation, how do we know he’s telling the truth? When people here in this world can be such liars, why not people “there”?
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Past-life regressions under hypnosis
A person under hypnosis may remember what might seem to be a former incarnation or re-experience events from a “former life.”
Sometimes the memories or experiences are dramatically vivid. For example, a woman remembering a trial and punishment for witchcraft may show signs of genuine terror.
And what the hypnotized subject says may be rich with little-known but accurate historical facts, or facts that “only such-and-such person could have known.”
Still, many of the problems afflicting cases of mediumship or channelling pertain to past-life regressions as well. And regression cases have other problems of their own.
A core feature of hypnosis is the tendency of the hypnotized subject to respond compliantly to suggestions. In response to hypnotic suggestions, even ones not deliberately given, a subject in trance may subconsciously construct a fictitious past life.
To do this, he may draw on information he has gained normally, or perhaps even paranormally.
In some cases, researchers have found that the rich, dramatic details of a “past life” match those of this or that historical novel, a novel the hypnotized subject must have read and then forgotten.
Hypnotized subjects may creatively draw on their inner resources to dramatize imagined experiences, and may thoroughly believe them true, even after the trance is over.
Regression to a “past life”—so-called past-lives therapy—may have therapeutic effects, even if that past life is fictitious. A skilled professional therapist, therefore, may knowingly invoke such regressions as a therapeutic technique.
Less discriminating therapists may themselves be overimpressed by the fictions they themselves have invoked and join their clients in believing them. The more discriminating will know better.
Among other such therapeutic techniques, by the way, are the deliberate creation of a fictitious childhood, one more comfortable and useful for the client than his true one. Another technique is hypnotic progression, in which the client experiences a time in the future—for example, seeing himself in a time when an issue troubling him has been resolved. The client may “experience” this imagined future as vividly and dramatically as an imagined past.
“Past lives” experienced in a hypnotic trance are therefore unlikely to be objectively real. As evidence of reincarnation, nearly all such cases are scientifically worthless.
A few cases have shown features that make them more worthy of scientific consideration. But such cases are the rare exception, and the evidence they provide is far from conclusive.
If you’re interested in past-life regressions, there’s something else you should know: The “experiences” from a past life, however fictitious, may profoundly upset the person experiencing them and cause him emotional distress or confusion even after the trance is over. In some few cases, also, the hypnotically invoked “former personality” has spontaneously returned and resisted the usual suggestions to disappear. Like hypnosis in general, “past-life regression” should not be used as a plaything.
Dr. Ian Stevenson offers a further discussion about hypnotic regression to previous lives.
Spontaneous experiences of past lives ∞
Sometimes an adult not under hypnosis may experience what seem to be memories of a past life.
Again, there may be rich details and sincere conviction. And again, almost always, these cases are easily subject to normal explanation and are scientifically of little or no value.
How can we know that the “memories of a past life” haven’t really been generated from this one? Nearly always, most likely they have.
A few exceptional cases are notable—for example, cases in which a person shows the ability to speak a foreign language he seems not to have normally learned. (This may also be a feature of cases hypnotically invoked.) Such cases are rare, and reincarnation is not the only possible explanation for them.
Spontaneous past-life memories in children ∞
Here we come to the scientific evidence for reincarnation that is most interesting and persuasive.
Sometimes a child, perhaps at the age when he first begins to speak, will talk about a “past life.” He may give details about that life, sometimes enough to enable one to identify a particular deceased person as the “former personality” whose life the child seems to remember.
The child may yearn to go back to his “former home.”
He may show interests, habits, mannerisms or skills characteristic of the “former personality.”
He may show knowledge of personal matters that few but the previous person would have known.
He may show fears that match the cause of the previous person’s death—;for example, a child who speaks of having been killed by a lorry may have a particular fear of lorries.
If the child is brought to the town or village where the previous person lived, he may be able to lead the way to that person’s house. And there he may show signs of recognizing the former person’s friends and relatives. He may show strong emotions towards them, emotions fitting for the previous person. He may act towards them in ways suitable for the relationships that the former person had—like a son towards that person’s parents, like a parent towards that person’s child.
When the subjects of such cases are small children, many of the normal explanations that could apply to adult cases are unlikely, if possible at all.
Small children have not learned anything from newspapers or novels. They cannot draw upon years of adult experience in the world. Their contacts with other persons and places are limited.
Fraud is a possibility, and may sometimes take place. But cases in which fraud seems ruled out, cases carefully investigated by scientists on the lookout for fraud, now number in the thousands.
When children speak of past lives, their parents often discourage them. And the parents, far from seeking to profit from the unusual circumstance, are sometimes reluctant for the case to become known.
Discrepancies in investigative technique? These are also possible. But merely alleging them is not enough. There are too many published cases in which the techniques and reporting appear meticulous.
Normal explanations may still be possible, of course, but they become harder to come up with and support.
Paranormal explanations are also possible. ∞
A child might have powers of telepathy or clairvoyance and might use them to create and dramatize a fictitious past life corresponding to that of an actual deceased person. But why should he do this? And would the extent of the powers this would require—amounting to “super-ESP,” as it’s called—be any more likely than reincarnation?
Another possible explanation is that the child has been “possessed” by a disembodied spirit. For some cases, this explanation may in fact seem a better fit. But for others it seems to offer no explanatory advantage.
Particularly interesting are cases in which a child shows special skills characteristic of the previous person. Knowledge, it might be argued, could be passed normally to a child from some other person, or accessed by the child
himself by super-ESP. But skills are forms of learned behaviour. How could a child, without training, acquire the skills that another person had?
Cases of what seem to be spontaneous past-life memories in children have been extensively investigated for more than thirty years by Ian Stevenson, M.D., formerly Carlson Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Division of Personality Studies at the University of Virginia.
He called his first book on the subject Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. Years later, with some 3,000 cases on file, he felt justified to call a later, multi-volume work—reporting cases in India, Burma, Turkey, Alaska, and elsewhere—Cases of the Reincarnation Type.
Apart from the particulars of the individual cases, his collection of cases shows statistical regularities that strengthen confidence in the collection as a whole. For example, in 51% of the cases the “previous person” underwent a violent death. A tendency for the purported memories to appear in early childhood and fade as the child grows older are another statistically regular feature.
Dr. Stevenson’s published research, it should also be said, is notable for its rigour. Cross-verification, searches of medical records, and reporting of discrepant testimony are standard in his work. Dr. Stevenson points out the weaknesses in his cases as well as their strengths. Also worth noting is the extent to which he discusses other possible explanations, both normal and paranormal, as alternatives to the hypothesis of reincarnation.
Other researchers with established professional credentials have independently studied similar cases.
Dr. Stevenson’s most recent contribution to studies of cases of the reincarnation type is an examination of cases in which birthmarks or birth defects seem to correspond to physical features of the “former person,” often to fatal wounds. An unusual birthmark, for example, might correspond in shape and position to a previous person’s knife wound. Or severe and unusual birth defects in a person’s legs, defects in the form of ropelike constrictions, might correspond to the injuries of a previous person tied by the legs and killed.
A child, one may suppose, might fantasize a previous life, with help from normally acquired knowledge or from what he has learned through ESP. Or adults might wishfully persuade themselves that a child’s statements were more accurate than they were. Or conniving adults might use a child to put up a hoax.
But how is it, we might ask, that a child would show severe and statistically rare birth defects corresponding to wounds verified by medical records to have been inflicted on the body of a person whose life he seems to remember?
Such are the questions dealt with in Dr. Stevenson’s two-volume work Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects, a collection of case histories, with analysis, amounting to more than two thousand pages.
Dr Stevenson has also dealt with this research in a more accessible summary, Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect.
In short: Most of what is put forward as empiric evidence for reincarnation can and deserves to be dismissed. But some of it commands attention and is difficult to set aside.