Who were you in a previous life? This question is now so popular that many westerners accept that they must have lived before. Believing in the phenomenon of Reincarnation, it is almost a spiritual system in itself.
But what is the reality to reincarnation? I don’t know. Maybe it is exactly what people believe. But it is also possible to place other mechanisms upon the subject, and even place it in a totally new paradigm.
A CASE STUDY
To understand the subject in western terms, we need to know just what ‘evidence’ there is for it. Well, very little really. But we do have case studies. Here is a typical one.
Nicola Peart shocked her mother when, as a little girl, she was given a dog. Calling it Muff, she said it was the name of her other dog, yet Nicola had never had a dog before. Questioning her about this, Nicola suddenly wanted to know why she was a girl this time. It seems Nicola used to be a boy, whose mother, Elsie Benson, lived in a grey stone house in nearby Howarth and her father had worked on the railways .
Nicola was later taken to Howarth, where she recognised the house, and parish records showed that a John Benson had been born there in 1875 to a railwayman and his family.
WHAT IS REINCARNATION?
The above is a classic case of supposed reincarnation – the idea that when we die our soul is reborn into another body. As old as history, the idea is fundamental to many religions, most notably Hinduism, which is steeped in the Samsara, or wheel of rebirth. Whether a person is reborn to a lower or higher form is dependent upon karma, a principle which states that deeds in this life decide your place in the next.
It is easy to dismiss reincarnation as impossible, but recent polls in the west show that between 25 and 40% of people believe they have been born before. One of the most famous believers is the Dalai Lama of Tibet. He has to believe for he is the thirteenth incarnation of the original Dalai Lama who came to the Lion Throne in 1391.
MORE REINCARNATED CHILDREN
A typical case of reincarnation is that of twins, Jennifer and Gillian Pollock, born in 1958 in Hexham, England. The previous year, their mother’s two children had been killed in a car crash.
Moving to Whitley Bay in the early sixties, Mrs Pollock re-visited Hexham and the twins seemed to recognise the place. Later, sorting out some old toys, the twins recognised and named their dead sister’s dolls . It wasn’t long before they began discussing the crash – an event they supposedly knew nothing about.
Equally puzzling is the case of Jonathan Pike, who, at the age of three, began talking about his wife, Angela, following a family move from Hull to Southend. On a bus in the town, he pointed to a house he lived in with Angela, and also the garage where he used to work .
On a later trip he burst into tears, recognising the location where his daughter had been killed in a car crash. A long serving policeman remembered the case of the little girl being knocked down at that very location.
Sometimes such remembrances can have life changing effects. Consider the case of Dorothy Eady. When she was three she was knocked unconscious. Following this she began to have dreams featuring a temple and gardens in ancient Egypt.
She eventually became convinced she was the lover of the Pharoah, Sety. So all consuming was the feeling that Dorothy moved to Egypt, spending her life, right up to her death in 1981, in a primitive village close to Sety’s temple.
One of the most convincing cases of supposed reincarnation concerned Mary Lurancy Vennum, a thirteen year old girl who lived in Watseka, Illinois in 1877. Having an epileptic fit she became unconscious for five days.
Coming round, she claimed to have met her dead sister. Describing her, a family friend recognised the girl as his dead daughter Mary Roff. Soon after this, Mary was hypnotised by a Dr Stevens. The day following, Mary became Mary Roff, and remained so for four months.
DR IAN STEVENSON
Several researchers have studied reincarnation in minute detail. Principal among them is Dr Ian Stevenson, whose 1966 book ‘Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation’ is a classic. Researching some fascinating cases, he noted that often, any addiction such as alcoholism in a past life could reflect itself in the present.
In some two hundred cases he noted birthmarks in the same place as wounds in previous lives. Such evidence led Stevenson to conclude that human personality may go ‘… much further back in time than conception and birth.’
FROM INDIA WITH LOVE
Many cases came from the east, such as Kumari Shanti Devi, born in Delhi in 1926. At four she claimed to be the wife of Kedar Nath Chaubey from Muttra, one hundred miles away, who had died ten years ago.
Eventually, Kedar Nath visited her. She flung her arms around him. On a visit to Muttra she knew other relations, even knowing where his wife had kept her precious things.
Jasbir Lal Jat, a three year old Indian boy, offers similar evidence. Nearly dying of smallpox, when he came round from unconsciousness his personality had changed, claiming to have previously lived in Vehedi.
He had died when he fell off a cart and fractured his skull. In 1957 a Brahmin lady from the town visited his village. He recognised her as his aunt. Knowledge of his past life came out, including his name, Sobha Ram.
GETTING TO GRIPS
The most convincing cases come from the east, except for one damning problem. Steeped in belief in reincarnation, such cases come from societies which practice the caste system, where a person is condemned to always remain in their class.
Interestingly, most cases of reincarnation, here, involve a past life from a higher caste, offering incentive for collusion.
Should we accept the above cases as proof of reincarnation, or could other factors be involved? Perhaps, rather than speak of reincarnation per se we should think in terms of the person being somehow possessed.
If we do so, we can place psychological ‘mechanisms’ upon the phenomenon. I won’t go into great detail of these mechanisms, here, as I’ve written about them elsewhere on this blog. But basically, they are thus:
There is an ability of the mind to retrieve information of books and other media from the unconscious that the person has forgotten. It is known as cryptomnesia. Often including historical detail, it can be mistakenly seen as coming from a previous life.
A further phenomenon is multiple personality, where the mind can seem to fragment into many separate characters, taking it in turn to ‘occupy’ the host. If such a phenomenon attaches to the idea of reincarnation, characters can appear to come from a previous life.
BIRTH OF THE SOUL
I have quickly skirted over these ‘mechanisms’ because they are not the central purpose of this essay. Rather, bearing in mind that these mind-functions can occur, I want to analyse past culture and mind anomalies to try to grasp where the idea of reincarnation came from.
Early spiritual expression seemed to revolve around two central ideas. The first was animism, where the world was perceived as being split into a physical world, and a spiritual world existing parallel to it. Through the spiritual world, everything in the world had a ‘spirit’, thus animating the physical.
The most likely cause of this belief was the ability of the prehistoric human mind to easily hallucinate, literally living their dreams as technology had not yet occupied the mind to an extent it later did. But regardless of this, the idea gave our early ancestors the idea that supernatural spirits existed, including the existence of a spirit reflection of man in the soul.
MYTHS OF ANCESTORS
The second thread of spiritual expression was that of ancestor worship. For instance, we can imagine that, if early man experienced his dreams more easily, and mistook them for evidence of the supernatural, then he would easily dream, and possibly see, his dead ancestors about him.
In this way, a specific form of ancestor worship was birthed. In effect, the dead became early gods to ancient peoples. But they also became much more than this.
The residue of ancestor worship is with us today, in the way we remember, and try to emulate, figures from the past. So we can imagine that, in early times, this reverence for the ancestors would give the impression that those ancestors lived on in those alive.
From here, it is a small step for an acceptance that the soul survived death, and was reborn in another person, confirming that the ancestors are with us still.
We must now turn to the human mind.
We like to think of ourselves as individuals, yet the more I look into human behaviour, the more it becomes obvious that we are not. Rather, we seem to be an amalgam of three types of influence. These are the archetypal, emotional and situational.
Jung was one of the central theorizers of the archetypal. He noted that we seemed to have a collective unconscious which held within it universal shared symbols. In terms of personality, these included the child, sage, trickster, hero, mother and various other character archetypes.
In effect, these are the various stages and character influences of the human mind. We can therefore argue that ‘personality’ is not specific to the individual, but is an inevitability of shared psychology.
Emotions work in a similar way. We can exhibit various emotions by degrees and to specific responses, but the emotion, once exhibited, is not so much personal as shared by all. It is as if we exhibit emotion as individuals, but in doing so, we dip into a communal pool of exact emotions.
The situations we find ourselves in can also have a communality about them, rather than individuality. This can be understood by reading a great storyteller such as Shakespeare.
The beauty of the Shakespearean tale is that it outs the ideosyncracies of the human mind, rather than place. His plays can, quite literally, apply equally to any culture at any time. This is because there are only a certain number of situations a person can find himself in. The individual or cultural expression may vary, but the basic influence of a situation does not.
A NEW MODEL OF THE INDIVIDUAL
The crux of what I am saying is that what we call individuality is not personal, as such, but a specific mix of particular archetypal, emotional and situational influences that are inherently communal.
A classic case is falling in love. The situation is boy meets girl. The emotion is love. The archetypes involved will invariably revolve around the hero and seductress. This situation is common to most people in all times. It is only personal to the individuals involved. The actual amalgam of influences is communal to the species.
If the above model of the individual can be seen as possible, then we can look to reincarnation in a new way. We can argue that an ‘individual’ is a basically false concept, and people through all time have reflected the influences you have in your life today.
The attractiveness of the idea is that you are, therefore, not that much different from a person from the past, so in effect, just a small change in your psychology could, metaphorically speaking, turn you into that person from the past.
If this is so, all that is needed is a tiny snippet of information, had through cryptomnesia, to turn even a child into an ‘entity’ from another time – in a psychological sense, at least.
So okay, this isn’t reincarnation as popularly believed, but if the amalgam of influences is correct, then it can be seen as a universal soul within everyone. And a vehicle through which ‘characterisations’ from the past can find expression in the present.
So tell me, who do you want to be today?
© Anthony North, December 2007
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