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  Columnist: William B Stoecker

Image credit: Jeroen van Valkenburg

What reincarnates ?

Posted on Tuesday, 26 May, 2009 | 6 comments
Columnist: William B Stoecker

More and more people in Western nations are beginning to believe in reincarnation, as opposed to a spiritual afterlife, although it is not clear whether that belief is motivated by some kind of revelation at a spiritual level, or by rational analysis, or simply a rebellion against more traditional Western religions and a fascination with the foreign and the exotic.

In general, in the past a belief in reincarnation was more common in the Eastern religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism (an offshoot of Hinduism). The oldest known references are in the Vedic writings of ancient India; these may actually date back far earlier than generally supposed. Hindus believe that we have a lower self, which dies, and a higher self, or atman, which reincarnates. People can reincarnate as animals, or on other planets, or in alternate universes, and they accumulate karma, positive and negative, from good deeds and attitudes or from bad deeds and attitudes. It is generally believed that bad deeds lead to reincarnation in a worse life and good deeds in a better one, and that, ultimately, the soul escapes the cycle of reincarnations and merges with the universal soul in a state of eternal happiness. Another way to look at it is to imagine that, at a higher level, we are, all of us, already connected together into one great universal mind, and that it is the total realization and acceptance of this that leads to eternal happiness. And this does not necessarily mean the total end of "self," but an end to selfish and imperfect lower selves that suffer unhappiness as a result of their nature.

Buddhism was supposedly founded by the Buddha, who had been a Hindu or at least lived in India and been exposed to the teachings of Hinduism, so it might be thought of as a kind of offshoot of the older religion. Traditional Buddhists believe that there is no such thing as a self, which, to those of us who are unenlightened, seems to make no sense. If there is no self at all, what reincarnates? Yet they believe something does, and people can reincarnate on Earth, sometimes as animals, or in various hells (Tibetan Buddhists believe that these hells are intermediate states between incarnations). Eventually, souls achieve nirvana, a state free of desire, suffering, and rebirth, which sounds almost identical to the Hindu belief.

In the West today, many new agers and some pagans believe in reincarnation, but so, apparently, did members of some of the ancient mystery schools like the Orphists and Pythagoreans of ancient Greece, and the philosopher Socrates, and followers of the Hermetic tradition. They apparently influenced the Platonists, who believe that we all began in a happy celestial realm, but sinned and were reincarnated here on Earth, and that we must reform ourselves before we can return to the higher state. Later Neoplatonists, influenced by the Hindus, had beliefs similar to those in India. Among the Muslims, some of the Sufi mystics believe in reincarnation, but all other Muslims believe in a heaven and a hell.

It may come as a surprise to many people, but some Jews and early Christians have believed in reincarnation, like the Rabbi Isaac Luria and some orthodox Jews (although the Talmud makes no mention of rebirth) and some of the early Gnostic Christians. Of course today Christians and most Jews believe in a spiritual afterlife, although the Jews do not emphasize it in their teachings.

There are accounts of past life regression through hypnosis that supposedly prove reincarnation, but hypnotized people can often imagine things and believe them to be real, especially if the hypnotist, perhaps unintentionally, gives them suggestions. Most (but not all) of the people so regressed give accounts of lives in well-known historical times and places, like ancient Egypt, and sometimes give clearly innacurate details about events and daily life in those times; in addition, a large number of them claim to have been prominent and famous people, like Cleopatra or Ann Boleyn. One would think that there might be more Anatolian peasants, Cambodian carpenters, and Bolivian potato farmers.

One of the earliest and best known accounts of hypnotic regression was the hypnotism of Colorado housewife Virginia Tighe by Morey Bernstein; in his book, to protect her privacy, he gave her the name "Ruth Simmons." She remembered a past life as an Irish woman named Bridey Murphy, who supposedly lived from 1798 to 1864, spoke with an Irish accent under hypnosis, and gave convincing details of life at that time. But researchers discovered that there were no records of her birth, marriage, or death, despite the fact that churches in Ireland kept detailed records, and these still exist. Nowehere do they mention Bridey Murphy.

Very young children sometimes seem to remember past lives, although this happens almost exclusively in India, where most people believe in reincarnation. Some have given convincing details about their prior families, many of whose members were still living, and supposedly these details were verified, and there seems to be no conventional way the children could have acquired this knowledge. But while this may be evidence of reincarnation, it could just as well be evidence of telepathy, or communication with the spirit of a recently departed person, or tapping into a universal mind. Reincarnation also may explain cases of deja vu, child prodigies, people born with certain strong likes, dislikes, and phobias, and even some birthmarks (thought to be caused by wounds in the past life). But, again, all of these may have other explanations, even if some of the explanations are just as unconventional as reincarnation.

And near death experiences and hauntings seem to indicate a spiritual afterlife, rather than reincarnation. Some of the near death experiences are particularly convincing. Most of those who have "died" report a kind of heaven, and most of the accounts of this are remarkably similar, involving a place of beauty and light, departed friends and relatives, and contact with a loving spirit believed to be God, or, in the case of many Christians, Christ. A few people report a descent into hell, although there is some evidence that this may be a temporary state, more like a purgatory, and the nature of this hell varies widely from one account to another, suggesting that in some way it may be less "real" or at least more subjective than heaven. But, for all we know, this afterlife may be intermediate between reincarnations here on Earth...it is generally impossible to prove a negative proposition like the nonexistence of God or the impossibility of reincarnation.

A problem for most of us is understanding why seemingly good people suffer; if they were evil enough in their past life to accumulate bad karma, how were they born as good people in this life? If a personality can magically change from evil to good, what is the point of their suffering, and how can we say that it is the same person at all? It may be that they are suffering the consequences of evil deeds two or more lives ago, and have been gradually reforming all along. And how is it that most of us cannot remember our past lives? The self is in large measure the result of accumulated experiences and memories; if these memories are wiped out, again, how can we say that it is even the same person?

The explanation may lie in the Hindu belief in a higher and a lower self. A little introspection should reveal that none of us is exactly the same person at the age of, say, forty, as at the age of four. A little more introspection should also reveal that we all, to some extent, have multiple personalities, for example, an angry self lacking in self control, and a calmer self that regrets outbursts of anger and wishes to change for the better. Certainly we are in a sense different people under the influence of alcohol and other drugs, or while sleeping...and here may lie a way to understand all of this. When we dream, we are not the same person as when awake; we tend to be less conscious and aware, and have little memory of our waking lives. It is difficult while in one dream to remember details of another, and fairly difficult when "awake" to remember all of our dreams. Reasoning by analogy then, we can think of our waking lives here on Earth as dreams (often nightmares) caused by our own flaws and our inability to truly awaken. Our dream self is our lower self, and, once someone truly awakens, they are now their higher self.

But this, also, neither proves nor disproves reincarnation. Using much the same analogy, our lives here could be a sort of dream; when we die we may descend to a more terrible dream (a hell or purgatory) or awaken to reality (a heaven). Once again, I can offer no answers...only questions. Everything is a mystery we try and (so far) fail to solve.

William B Stoecker

Article Copyright© William B Stoecker - reproduced with permission.

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