By Ruwan M. Jayatunge -
“Reincarnation contains a most comforting explanation of reality by means of which Indian thought surmounts difficulties which baffle the thinkers of Europe.” - Albert Schweitzer
Reincarnation is a popular belief among many people, and it is a fundamental basis for many religions. The general idea of reincarnation is the belief that when a person dies he is reborn again. Is there a life after death? The clinical evidence for reincarnation is subjective and arguable. Belief in reincarnation has ancient roots.
Pre Historic Concepts on Reincarnation
Neanderthal traits appeared in Europe as early as 350,000 years ago. The first signs of religion are found in gravesites of Neanderthals in Eastern Europe. These gravesites were found to have very clean fossils, with flowers, dyes, and later, pottery placed around the body of the deceased. The Neanderthals had unusual funeral rituals, which can be interpreted, as they believed in some form of existence after life.
The Egyptians and Transmigration of the soul
The Egyptians Pharos believed in transmigration of the soul. This means their immortal souls travel through the valley of Nile until it meets the next existence. They thought the soul transmigrate from body to body. The Pharos built mighty Pyramids to provide provisions and other necessities to their next extramundane voyage.
The Ancient Greek Philosophers on Reincarnation
The Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras taught that the soul was immortal and the soul goes through a series of rebirths. Plato too shared similar views as Pythagoras. Greek Platonism asserted the pre-existence of the soul in a celestial world and its fall into a human body due to sin. In order to be liberated from its bondage and return to a state of pure being, the soul needs to be purified through reincarnation. The Greek philosopher, Socrates declared, “I am confident that there truly is such a thing as living again, that the living spring from the dead, and that the souls of the dead are in existence.”
Reincarnation in the Upanishads
In India, the concept of reincarnation is first recorded in the Upanishads. The Upanishads were the first writings to move the place of one’s “second death” from the heavenly realm to this earthly world and to consider its proper solution to be the knowledge of the atman-Brahman identity.
Reincarnation in Hinduism
Hinduism teaches that the soul goes on repeatedly being born and dying. At the time the Vedic hymns were written, the view on afterlife was that a human being continues to exist after death as a whole person.
In the Bhagavad Gita, which is a part of the Mahabharata, reincarnation is clearly stated as a natural process of life that has to be followed by any mortal.
Reincarnation in Buddhism
According to Buddhism, there is no permanent and unchanging soul. The Buddha taught a concept of rebirth that was distinct from other religions. The Buddha used the term Punarbhawa to explain reincarnation – an endless process that is connected with the Sansara Chakra. Buddhism denies the existence of a permanent soul that reincarnates from one life to the next. The Buddha responded that only karma is passing from one life to another. To explain this Buddha used the metaphor of the light of a candle, which is derived from another candle without having a substance of its own.
Buddhism edifies that what is reborn is not the person but that one moment gives rise to another and that that momentum continues, even after death. In the Milindapanho – a dialogue between the king Menandar and the Buddhist Monk Nagasena deeply analyze the concept of reincarnation.
Modern Research in Reincarnation
In the last decade of the 18th century, many scholars in the Western World began to speculate on reincarnation. Father Leadbeater and Madam Helena Blavatsky of the Theosophical society saw reincarnation as a form of evolution and their writings and speeches made a profound impact on the Western World about life after death. Numerous universities in the West started gathering data on this subject. Comprehensive research on reincarnation started mainly after the World War 2. The Western researchers explained the reincarnation in terms of para-psychological phenomenon. Among the researchers, Dr Ian Stevenson was prominent.
Reincarnation and the western World
Reincarnation has captured the imagination of a significant number of people in the West. A large number of Westerners are interested in reincarnation and a number of movies like “The Reincarnation of Peter Proud” (Directed by J . Lee Thompson, starring Michael Sarrazin and Jenifer O’Neal ) , Heaven Can Wait (starring Warren Beatty & Julie Christie) , Birth( Nicole Kidman) ,Ghost (Patrick Swayze & Demi Moore ) and Darren Aronofsky’s movie The Fountain captured mass popularity. According to a survey done in the USA nearly 60% of Americans believe reincarnation is possible.
Case works of Dr. Ian Stevenson
Ian Stevenson was the former head of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia who devoted many years to the scientific documentation of past life memories of children from all over the world (Dr Stevenson investigated 16 cases from Sri Lanka) and had over 3000 cases. Ian Stevenson published his research article titled The Explanatory Value of the Idea of Reincarnation, which made a huge impact on the scientific community. His book Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation that was published in 1974 became a best seller. Dr. Ian Stevenson’s case works provide rigorous scientific reasoning to explain reincarnation. His methodology was unique and Stevenson evaluated the spontaneous narrations of the children who spoke of their previous lives, then interviews, often repeated, with the subject and with several or many other informants for both families. However, these methods led critics to question the credibility of his research technique. Some have criticized Ian Stevenson for being confirmation bias.
Skills & Past life
Some children show enormous talent in language, memory and skills. These children could not acquire aptitude within their relatively short life years. There are many reports of Child prodigies and their cognitive talents. Mozart played a symphony at the age of seven, Carl Friedrich Gauss made his first inventive mathematical discoveries while still a teenager, John von Neumann was able to divide two 8-digit numbers in his head at the age of six, Alexander Pope was a child prodigy as a poet, the famous Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan mastered advanced trigonometry by the age of 12. Have these people had certain exposure before?
Déjà vu experiences
The term Déjà vu experience was coined by Emile Boirac to explain the uncanny feeling of having already seen or experienced something that is being experienced for the first time. One could explain déjà vu experiences by claiming that they were memories of past lives. Experiential evidence show that certain people find familiar in unfamiliar places, proverbial in meeting unknown people for the first time in their lives and so forth. Medical experts argue Déjà vu experiences are evident in epilepsy.
Neurophysiologists point out that the déjà vu feeling is triggered by a neurochemical action in the brain that is not connected to any actual experience in the past.
Theories opposed to reincarnation (Selective thinking and False Memory Syndrome)
Some disbelievers of reincarnation explain that claims of evidence for reincarnation originate from selective thinking – a process that one focuses on favorable evidence in order to justify a belief, ignoring unfavorable evidence and sometimes following the psychological phenomena of false memories. In false memory syndrome, person’s identity and relationships are affected by memories, which are factually incorrect but are strongly believed. False memory syndrome may account for the memory construction process, which leads people to “remember living a past life.
Confabulation is defined as the spontaneous production of false memories: either memories for events, which never occurred, or memories of actual events that are displaced in space or time. These memories may be elaborate and detailed. Confabulation is a form of memory disorder that may occur in patients who have sustained damage to both the basal forebrain and the frontal lobes, as after an aneurysm of the anterior communicating artery.
Hysteria reactions misinterpreted as Reincarnation
Children suffering from dissociative disorders (hysteria) sometimes give vivid descriptions under hypnotic trances and these expressions are misinterpreted as the evidence of past lives by inexperienced hypnotherapists who have no clinical background. A typical case was analyzed by Professor Carlo Fonseka (Rebirth or Hysteria Island news paper 4th of January 2010) of a 14 year old girl with fainting attacks. Many reincarnation stories reported in countries like Sri Lanka and India have much to do with disassociation. In addition, some newspapers too fabricate and exaggerate stories in order to capture the attention of the readers who lack rational thinking. In the past few decades, some Sri Lankan newspapers reported reincarnations of the popular artist Rukmani Devi, film actor Vijaya Kumaratunge and President Ranasinghe Premadasa. These stories were found to be bogus and inflated.
Psychological trauma and a belief in reincarnation
A number of modern researches identified a possible link between psychological trauma and a belief in reincarnation. Jonathan R. T Davidson from the Dept. of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, Duke University Medical Center, Durham USA has extensively studied the beliefs in karma and reincarnation among survivors of violent trauma in the general US population. According to Davidson, personal experience of trauma may be associated with greater acceptance, as well as certain demographic and health-associated variables. The importance of holding belief in reincarnation, which may represent an important way of coping following violent trauma, Carl Jung & Collective Unconscious
Certain psychologists openly argued that past life memories are merely a result of collective unconscious. According to them when exceptional numbers of children recall people and places which is not connected to their present life people believe these memories are linked to their past lives. These psychologists disagree with the reincarnation phenomena. To explain this they introduce Carl Jung’s famous expression “collective unconscious.
Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist Carl Jung who founded analytic psychology coined the term collective unconscious. The collective unconscious represents a form of the unconscious common to mankind as a whole and originating in the inherited structure of the brain. It is distinct from the personal unconscious (explained by Sigmund Freud) which arises from the experience of the individual.
Jung saw the collective unconscious as being made up of so-called “archetypes”. These archetypes being potentialities, or proclivities, that can find a channel of expression in the finding of a mate, religion, art, myth, and even in the eventual facing of death. Jung’s collective unconscious has been described as a “storehouse of latent memory traces inherited from man’s ancestral past, a past that includes not only the racial history of man as a separate species but his pre-human or animal ancestry as well.
Following were the words of Carl Jung in which he elucidated his belief in life after death
“My life often seemed to me like a story that has no beginning and no end. I had the feeling that I was an historical fragment, an excerpt for which the preceding and succeeding text was missing. I could well imagine that I might have lived in former centuries and there encountered questions I was not yet able to answer; that I had been born again because I had not fulfilled the task given to me.”
Reincarnation and Edgar Cayce
American mystic Edgar Cayce better known as the Sleeping Prophet promoted the theory of both reincarnation and karma. Cayce was deeply concerned about reincarnation. Cayce did over 16,000 readings during his lifetime. The exceptional book Many Mansions written by Gina Cerminara disclosed the patients who were treated by Edgar Cayce and their past lives. Cayce explained the symptomatology of these patients in a broad context of Karma. According to Edgar Cayce, the illnesses that his clients had were due to karmic repercussions.
Based on modern investigations of Edgar Cayce’s readings medical experts say that Cayce frequently connected illness to the mental and emotional states of the patients and he disregard the etiology of certain illnesses. His clients predominantly had cancer, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, arthritis, gallstones, kidney stones, hay fever, mental and psychological problems, digestive problems, epilepsy, hemorrhoids, ulcers, psoriasis etc and according to Cayce karmic repercussions had do with the symptoms. Cayce had stated that people suffer from epilepsy as a result of adultery that they had committed in their past lives. But modern neurophysiology explains the genesis of epilepsy that has organic courses in the brain.
The famous Sri Lankan case study of Gnanathilaka
Well-known Sri Lankan reincarnation case study “The reincarnation of Gnanathilaka” ( Navatha Upan Dariya) done by Dr H.S.S Nissanka along with Rev Piyadassi in early seventies became world famous. Gnanathilaka a young child articulated strange facts about a person named Thilakaratne believed to have lived in Aranayaka in the Central Province of Sri Lanka. She claimed that in her previous life she lived in Aranayaka and forced her parents to take her there. The local research team took the child to Aranayaka and she recognized her mother, sisters, brother, and teachers in the previous life.
Thilakaratne had seen the Queen Elizabeth when she first visited Sri Lanka in 1954. Gnanathilaka could vividly recall this incident. In her present life, she had never seen the ocean. When queried she could give specific details of the ocean and seashore.
Thilakaratne died as a teenager at the Arnayaka Government Hospital under strange circumstances. Dr. Abraham Kovoor of Minnesota Institute of Philosophy USA and the leader of the rationalist movement who openly denounced the supernatural and life after death claimed that the death certificate of Thilakaratne produced by the research team was not a genuine and the investigation was biased and non scientific. Although Dr. Abraham T Kovoor challenged the credibility of this local reincarnation research Dr Ian Stevenson accredited the reincarnation case of Gnanathilaka. (According to the information provided by Dr Darmasiri Herath , Gnanathilaka now a grown woman and working as an Aurvedic practitioner.)
The Search for Bridey Murphy
The story of Bridey Murphy created a mass speculation in the West. Morey Bernstein’s bestselling book The Search for Bridey Murphy tells about hypnotic regression. Morey Bernstein a skillful hypnotist in Colorado, once hypnotized a housewife named Virginia Tighe. In the hypnotic session Bernstein probed Tighe’s memories back to childhood and then, as it seemed, to an earlier life. During the hypnotic regression Virginia Tighe stated that in her previous life she lived in Ireland and her name was Bridey Murphy. She mentioned the street in Ireland where Bridey Murphy believed to have lived, a name of a laundry near her previous residence, several names and other information.
A group of lawyers conducted an independent investigation on Bridey Murphy case. They found more than century old facts about a woman named Bridey Murphy in Ireland. It was revealed that Bridey Murphy was not a fictitious character. She truly lived in Ireland in the 19 th Century. Those who opposed Bridey Murphy case argued that Virginia Tighe came out with childhood memories during the hypnotic session. Also they pointed out that Virginia Tighe had an Irish nanny when she was small. Also they highlighted on the facts that the 19th century Irish poems which Virginia Tighe uttered during hypnosis could have learnt from her Irish nanny.
Past Life Therapy
Past life therapy is based on the argument that some people carry in their subconscious mind memories of unpleasant events of their past lives and these subconscious memories adversely affect them in their present lives. By hypnosis they can be regressed beyond their birth to their previous lives. Past life therapists assure many ailments, all types’ phobias and even certain physical ailments can be cured by such hypnotic regression. Past life therapy has now become a standard western medical treatment for such ailments.
Dr. Brian Weiss and Past Life Therapy
Dr. Brian Weiss was one of the first doctors to explore the past lives of his patients as a means of therapy. A graduate of Columbia University and Yale Medical School, Brian L. Weiss is the Chairman Emeritus of Psychiatry at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami. His revolutionary book “Many Lives Many Masters” opened an unexpected door into the astonishing realm of past-life regression. Dr. Brian Weiss gives an astonishing case study of Katharine who had past-life traumas that seemed to hold the key to her recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks.
Hypnotic regression and Reincarnation
Hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness and heightened responsiveness to suggestions. It is a trance state characterized by extreme suggestibility, relaxation and heightened imagination. During regressive hypnotherapy, a person is guided into a deep state of relaxation and/or trance by way of hypnosis. In theory by entering this state, the conscious mind, which is responsible for processing information, can be by-passed. Thus, the sub-conscious mind can be accessed. Some hold the belief that the hypnotic regression as a proof for reincarnation. Those who oppose hypnotic regression declare that in a Hypnotic regression, repressed childhood memories come in to action it if wrongly interpreted as evidence of past life.
Dr. Raymond Moody & Near- Death Experience
Dr. Raymond Moody is recognized as the father of NDE research. He has chronicled and studied many of these experiences in several books. Dr. Raymond Moody, in his innovative book “Life After Life,” coined the term “near- death experience.” Dr. Moody was the first person to document the core experience of an NDE.
A near-death experience (NDE) is the perception reported by a person who nearly died or who was clinically dead and revived. The experience often includes an out-of-body experience. The phenomenology of an NDE usually includes physiological, psychological and transcendental factors. Typically the experience follows a distinct progression, starting with the sensation of floating above one’s body and seeing the surrounding area, followed by the sensation of passing through a tunnel, meeting deceased relatives, and concluding with encountering a being of light (Morse, Conner & Tyler, 1985).
Dr. Raymond Moody‘s book Life After Life appeared in 1975. Dr. Ray Moody described an elderly woman’s account of her near-death experience so accurate that she even correctly reported the colors of the instruments used on her. What is especially impressive about this example is that she had been blind for over fifty years. In another account, from a proactive Dutch NDE study, a nurse removed the dentures of an unconscious heart attack victim, and was asked by him after his recovery to return them (van Lommel et.al, 2001).
On Death and Dying – Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was a Swiss-born psychiatrist who became a pioneer in the field of thanatology (the study of death and dying). Her first book On Death and Dying in 1969 made Kübler-Ross an internationally renowned author. On Death and Dying examines the attitudes of the dying and the factors that contribute to society’s anxiety over death. Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross once stated that “Death is simply a shedding of the physical body like the butterfly shedding its cocoon. It is a transition to a higher state of consciousness where you continue to perceive, to understand, to laugh, and to be able to grow”.
Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross believed that death is a highly creative force. The highest spiritual values of life can originate from the thought and study of death. In the later part of her career she believed that death is not an end. Dr. Kubler-Ross implied there may be another dimension after death.
Reincarnation is an unknown phenomenon that needs more research and investigation. The tools and technology that we use today may not be advanced enough to discover a natural phenomenon like reincarnation. For instance, 500 years ago people had no means to prove the existence of radioactivity in the environment. Time and human progression had solved many natural mysteries in the past. Perhaps the mystery of reincarnation will be resolved within another few decades with the advancement of science and technology. Until such time it remains an enigma and a debatable subject.
These were the words of Professor Carl Sagan of Cornell University about reincarnation and paranormal activities.
At the time of writing there are three claims in the ESP field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study: (1) that by thought alone humans can (barely) affect random number generators in computers; (2) that people under mild sensory deprivation can receive thoughts or images “projected” at them; and (3) that young children sometimes report the details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any way other than reincarnation.