REINCARNATION – Fact or Fallacy

by Douglas Lockhart

Reincarnation rests on the belief that the soul survives death and is reborn into another body in accordance with the merits, or demerits, acquired during its previous lifetime. There is a balance sheet of liabilities and assets written into the soul of each individual. A person who lives a virtuous life builds what is termed good ‘karma’, while a person committed to wrongdoing builds bad karma. In the course of its successive rebirths the soul slowly rids itself of its accumulated and inherited impurities and evolves towards the goal of perfection. Such ideas are at present attracting increasing interest in the West where for many they have a stronger appeal than orthodox Christianity.

Reincarnation crops up in the beliefs of primitive peoples all over the world, and is of particular importance in highly developed religious systems such as Hinduism and Buddhism. The ancient Hindu sacred writings state that if the soul enters a heaven or a hell after death, it is only for a temporary period. Hindu belief also allows for regression to animal forms, a view not generally accepted in the West. Westerners who accept reincarnation tend to believe that once a soul has reached the human stage in its evolution it never returns to animal form.

Many people feel there is a direct connection between the theory of evolution and the theory of reincarnation, for if human beings have progressively advanced from lower animal forms to their present state of intellectual and moral development, then further progress in another life seems likely.

Roman writers record that a belief in reincarnation was prevalent among the Gauls and Druids, and several Greek schools of thought, notably the Orphics and Pythagoreans, subscribed to it. In his Republic , Plato relates the legend of Er the Pamphylian, son of Armenias. Killed in battle, he was brought home for cremation but suddenly came back to life again. According to Er (who had full recall of what happened after his death) the soul was given a chance to select the form of its next incarnation, but the choice was hampered by its own short-comings. Whether it chose wisely or foolishly depended on the insight and wisdom it had acquired during its past life. On having chosen, the soul then drank of the river situated in the Plain of Forgetfulness so that all memory of the past was forgotten.

Chinese Buddhism speaks of Meng Po, the presiding goddess of the underworld, who makes all souls assigned to her dread domain between incarnations partake of a drink of broth before they go back to earth. This broth is both bitter and sweet and causes all that happened before to be forgotten. It is because they have drunk deep of forgetfulness that human beings do not remember their previous existence.

But there have been individuals who claimed to remember past lives. The Greek philosopher Empedocles, who lived in the 5th century BC, is said to have remembered himself as a fish, a bird, a maid and a youth, and several other thinkers among the ancients made similar assertions. Pythagoras apparently had full recall of living as Euphorbus, who was killed at the siege of Troy, and Napoleon insisted that he was a reincarnation of Charlemagne.

Some modern exponents of the theory of reincarnation also claim to remember their past lives. The Theosophist Annie Besant believed that she had lived as the female Neoplatonist martyr Hypatia (415 AD), and as the philosopher and martyr Giordano Bruno (1600). Jiddhu Krishnamurti, a spiritual teacher of international repute, believed that he had had a number of previous lives on earth, and claimed that he could remember them in detail.

The Tibetans believe to this day that their Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of a highly evolved being called Avalokitwsvara, and that each successive Dalai Lama is the embodiment of that particular being. When a Dalai Lama dies his soul does not wait in the underworld as do the souls of lesser mortals, but immediately occupies the body of a child born at the precise moment of his death. It is then the task of a special committee of Lamas to find that child. This can sometimes take years. The process of reincarnation, described in detail in the Tibetan Book of the Dead prompted the psychologist C.G. Jung to suggest that these wise old monks might have twitched the veil from the greatest of life’s secrets.

The doctrine of reincarnation was adopted by the Essenes, Pharisees and other Jewish and semi-Jewish religious groups at the time of Christ. The Jewish historian, Josephus, says that the main sects of Israel believed in reincarnation, the Sadducees being the only group to reject the idea. The Old Testament contains numerous references to reincarnation. Moses is thought to have been the reincarnation of Adam’s son, Abel, and Adam himself was expected to be reborn as the Messiah. The closing words of the Old Testament predict the rebirth of the prophet Elijah, and the Gospel of Matthew mentions Elias reborn as John the Baptist. Reincarnation was a belief held by many Christians for over five hundred years after Christ, but was eventually declared a heresy by the Catholic Church.

Many of the early Church fathers accepted reincarnation. St Jerome said that reincarnation was taught among the early Christians, but only communicated to a select few. The most influential of the early Church fathers, Origen, is known to have taught reincarnation theory. Held in high esteem as a thinker by St Jerome and St Gregory, Origen accepted the philosophy of reincarnation as taught by the early Greeks.

Some scholars believe they can detect traces of reincarnational theory in the writings of St. Augustine, St Gregory and even in St Francis of Assisi, and that in spite of the fact that the belief was condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in the sixth century. From then on Christian Europe blazed with holy bonfires in France, Spain, Bulgaria and elsewhere – the Inquisition was up and running. For centuries groups of individuals continued to believe in reincarnation in spite of the Church’s injunction to desist, the Cathar and Bogomil sects of the Middle Ages being savagely suppressed by the Church for that and a host of other reasons.

Painters, writers and poets have always found the idea of reincarnation appealing. Shopenhauer, Goethe, Heine, Thoreau, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Maeterlinck, Victor Hugo, Balzac, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Louisa May Alcott, Edgar Allan Poe and others have written of their belief in reincarnation. The Irish poet W B Yeats summed up the notion of reincarnation in his poem Under Ben Bulben by saying: ‘Many times man lives and dies, between his two eternities.’ The American poet, Walt Whitman, similarly expressed his faith in just two lines: ‘I pass death with the dying, and birth with the new washed babe, And am not contained between my hat and my boots.’ Salvador Dali was equally convinced that reincarnation was a reality, and said that he had once lived as the Spanish mystic St John of the Cross. He claimed to remember his life as St John, his monastery and many of his fellow monks!

Philosophers and psychologists from William James onwards have taken reincarnation seriously, as have industrialists, including Henry Ford, and scientists such as the British physicist Sir Oliver Lodge. The American inventor Thomas Edison was also a believer.

Benjamin Franklin, writer, statesman, pioneer of electricity and inventor of bi-focal spectacles believed that he had lived before. Among the first to comprehend the Law of Conservation of Matter, Franklin knew that matter changed its form but could never be entirely lost, and this fitted in with his belief that on dying we were reborn. A modern scientist to endorse Franklin’s analogy between reincarnation and the laws of physics was the American astro-physicist Dr Heber D. Curtis. Curtis found it difficult to accept that human life could end at three score years and ten. And in the last century, a courageous Unitarian Minister, the Reverend William R Alger, devoted himself to a study of reincarnation, concluding in 1860 that the idea was a plausible delusion and unworthy of belief. After a further fifteen years of research, however, he changed his mind.

At the invitation of BBC television producer Jeffrey Iverson, the journalist/broadcaster Magnus Magnusson was persuaded to do a programme on Arnall Bloxham, a hypnotherapist in Cardiff who claimed that scores of his patients under hypnosis remembered and experienced a previous incarnation. The results were astonishing. Case after case was meticulously investigated, each fact checked and cross-checked with historians, archaeologists, archivists and psychologists. To Magnusson’s bemusement Arnall Bloxham’s patients seemed irrefutably genuine and capable of delivering, under hypnosis, an amazing variety of historical details which checked out on almost every occasion.

Dr Anthony Storr, a psychologist interested in such claims, was not convinced. He was of the opinion that the Bloxham Tapes were examples of cryptomnesi (fantasies based on some forgotten historical novel or magazine article), and one of the Bloxam case histories did in fact turn out to be of that nature. According to Storr most of us have a B movie running around in our heads most of the time.

A well-known example of cryptomnesia concerned a woman under hypnosis who described scenes from the reign of King Richard II of England. The principal difference between this woman’s apparent memories of a past life and that of Bloxam’s subjects, was that she felt no compulsion to actually assume the identity of any of the characters she was talking about. Eventually, still under hypnosis, she revealed her source as the historical novel Countess Maud, which she had read at the age of twelve.

The essayist Owen Barfield also tackles the problem of reincarnation. His premise is that one cannot have the evolution of objects without subjects. Modern man, he says, believes in slow evolution rather than in instantaneous creation, and by definition this must include individualised consciousness. We cannot, in any proper scientific evaluation of human evolution, separate the human body as an object from the human appreciation of the self as subject. After consciousness of self had taken root in Homo sapiens, the species evolved not only physically, but also psychically, and the psychic component, although presently distinguished from the physical, cannot and should not be divorced from it. In this view, individuality has taken the place of species as the main component, and as such suggests the continuity of individuals throughout the ages.

On the question of not remembering past incarnations, Barfield is equally adventurous. Personality, he points out, ceases to exist during sleep, or at least to manifest itself, but the ego core does not cease to exist. He then notes that some psychologists think experiences undergone during sleep may be more important than ordinary waking experience because we are not conscious of them–memory of ourselves as an individual personality is not the primary factor in our individuality.

In Barfield’s terms, it is a mistake to maintain that we only exists so long as we are aware of ourselves as personalities. Our felt existence as a person is not dependent on our remembering ourselves. Our ability and capacity to act depends on the gaps and interruptions (including the interruptions of sleep) that break up the smooth flow of memory. Our ability to initiate action depends on our forgetting, not on our remembering. It is because of the fleeting nature of our thoughts, perceptions and memories that we are not determined by them, but are free to choose between them. Because of this we remain more than a piece of stimulated behaviour.

To not remember a past life, or lives, is therefore no indication that we have not had them, merely a pointer to the fact that memory of ourselves as a personality is not ultimately important. To remember past lives in our present psychological condition would be to know too much.

Jeffrey Iverson thinks it interesting that our ancestors determine our physical appearance, and that we are governed, at least in part, by instinct. It might just be that we are recipients of much more from the past than any of us realise, for it is a past which extends beyond birth, and in a curiously inverted manner, beyond death.