This blogpost follows on from the article Reincarnation and Christianity.
One frequent objection to belief in reincarnation is that there is no recollection of previous lives. One can immediately counter this by asking, is there any reason why we should remember? For example, Professor William Knight says: “Forgetfulness of the past may be one of the conditions of an entrance upon a new stage of existence. The body which is the organ of sense-perception may be quite as much a hindrance as a help to remembrance”¹. He seems here to be adopting what is known as the Transmission Model, following the American psychologist William James, in which the brain is seen as a limiting organ. (I have discussed this in a previous article Consciousness and the Brain.) The neo-Platonist teacher Plotinus expressed this idea more dramatically: “Body is the true river of Lethe (oblivion); for souls plunged into it forget all”².
Believers in reincarnation sometimes offer an even more dramatic explanation, namely that the painful trauma of birth erases, at least temporarily, the memories of past lives, and that if one relives one’s birth, one has access to memories from previous incarnations. I remember reading this somewhere in the works of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. (He is seen as a cult figure, often the object of contempt and derision, but I’ve found many of his writings impressive and insightful.) Confirmation of this idea can be found in the work of LSD therapist and Transpersonal Psychologist Stanislav Grof, whose patients, having relived their births, frequently go on to relive incidents from past lives relevant to their current problems. Further confirmation was given to me when the only person I’ve ever met who said she had relived her birth in therapy, even though she wasn’t previously familiar with this idea, revealed that past-life memories had indeed started to float up afterwards, and that she had made “extensive notes”.
If all the above is true, it is hard to see why anyone would remember their past life. Even though such cases may be relatively rare, however, there are some children who do seem to remember details from their past lives and, insofar as this is possible, their stories have been verified by investigators.
The best known researcher in this field is Ian Stevenson, who began work in the 1960s, then published Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation³. He describes “an almost conventional pattern. The case usually starts when a small child of two to four years of age begins talking to his parents or siblings of a life he led in another time and place. The child usually feels a considerable pull back toward the events of that life and he frequently importunes his parents to let him return to the community where he claims that he formerly lived. If the child makes enough particular statements about the previous life, the parents (usually reluctantly) begin inquiries about their accuracy. Often, indeed usually, such attempts at verification do not occur until several years after the child has begun to speak of the previous life. If some verification results, members of the two families visit each other and ask the child whether he recognises places, objects, and people of his supposed previous existence. On such occasions the case usually attracts much attention in the communities involved and accounts reach the newspapers”⁴.
Stevenson further says: “The child claims (or his behaviour suggests) a continuity of his personality with that of another person who has died. …in a few cases the identification with the previous personality becomes so strong that the child rejects the name given him by his present parents and tries to force them to use the previous name. But in most cases, the subject experiences the previous self as continuous with his present personality, not as substituting for it”⁵.
He openly admits that his cases are not definite proof of reincarnation, as in his title merely suggestive. He nevertheless states that some of the cases furnish “considerable evidence” for reincarnation, and that “about thirty others are as rich in detail and as well authenticated as the ten best cases of the present group”⁶. He is aware of nearly six hundred cases, of which he and his colleagues have investigated about a third.
He considers alternative explanations: fraud, cryptomnesia, genetic memory, ESP, and possession. Although theoretically possible, he does not find these convincing in the best cases he is discussing — the reincarnation hypothesis seems more credible.
To give a flavour of what we are talking about, here is the beginning of Stevenson’s first case history: “In April, 1950, a boy of ten named Nirmal, son of Sri Bholanath Jain, died of smallpox in his parents’ home in Kosi Kalan… On the day of his death he had been delirious and irritable. He said twice to his mother: ‘You are not my mother. You are a Jatni. I will go to my mother’. As he said this he pointed in the direction of Mathura and another smaller town in the same direction called Chhatta, but he did not mention either town by name… Shortly after making these strange remarks, he died.
“In August, 1951, a son was born to the wife of Sri Brijlal Varshnay in Chhatta whom they named Prakash. …he showed no unusual behaviour until the age of about four and a half. At that time he began waking up in the middle of the night and running out of the house to the street. When stopped, he would say he ‘belonged in’ Kosi Kalan, that his name was Nirmal, and that he wanted to go to his old home. He said his father was Bholanath” (p20). The account continues with further interesting details.
In a later book⁷, Stevenson makes an even more extraordinary claim, that birthmarks or birth defects on a person correspond to wounds or death blows from a previous incarnation. He says that such marks “provide an objective type of evidence well above that which depends on the fallible memories of informants. We have photographs (and occasionally sketches) which show the birthmarks and birth defects. And for many of the cases, we have a medical document, usually a postmortem report, that gives us a written confirmation of the correspondence between the birthmark (or birth defect) and the wound on the deceased person whose life the child, when it can speak, will usually claim to remember. …the birthmarks and birth defects in these cases do not lend themselves easily to explanations other than reincarnation” (p2).
He says that he is “well aware of the seriousness — as well as the importance — of such a claim” that “a deceased personality — having survived death — may influence the form of a later-born baby”, but “can only say that I have been led to it by the evidence of the cases” (p2). He believes that this is “a better explanation than any other now available about why some persons have birth defects when most persons do not and for why some persons who have a birth defect have theirs in a particular location instead of elsewhere”. He agrees that there are other causes for such marks, yet thinks that these “account for less than half of all birth defects” (p3).
We can easily understand why Stevenson is “aware of the seriousness” of this claim, since it deals a fatal blow to the philosophy of materialism; how on earth could a ‘memory’ of a wound from a previous life be represented on a later body according to the rules of orthodox science?
Stevenson makes further astonishing claims regarding:
1) Dreams. There are announcing dreams “in which a deceased person appears and expresses an intention to be reborn to particular parents… The dreamer is usually a woman who will be the mother of the baby in whose body the announcing deceased personality intends to reincarnate”. There are also departing dreams in which “a person who has died appears to a member of his or her family and tells the dreamer in what family he or she will reincarnate or perhaps has already reincarnated. In a few cases, the information thus conveyed has enabled the family of the deceased person to locate and meet the newborn baby said to be the reincarnation of that person” (p4).
2) Phobias: “nearly always related to the mode of death in the previous life, occur in about 35% of the cases. A child remembering a life that ended in drowning may be afraid of being immersed in water; one who remembers a life that ended in shooting may show a phobia of guns and loud noises… These phobias often manifest before the child has begun to speak. There is no model for them in other members of the family, and the child has undergone no experience since its birth that could account for the phobia; hence the possibility that it derives from the previous life, as the child, when it can speak, says it does” (p7).
3) Philias: “a desire or demand for particular foods (not eaten in the subject’s family) or for clothes different from those customarily worn by the family members”. There are also “cravings for addicting substances… and other drugs that the previous personality was known to have used. A few subjects show skills that they have not been taught (or sufficiently watched others demonstrating), but which the previous personality was known to have had” (p7).
Erlendur Haraldsson carried on Stevenson’s work, and reports on his results in I Saw a Light and Came Here: Children’s Experiences of Reincarnation⁸. In it there is a foreword by Jim Tucker, who says of Stevenson, that once he began looking for such cases, he found hundreds more”. “He quickly saw that details the children gave could often be verified to match ones belonging to the life and death of one particular deceased person”. A review in the Journal of the American Medical Association said that “in regard to reincarnation he has painstakingly and unemotionally collected a detailed series of cases… in which the evidence is difficult to explain on any other grounds”. Tucker says of Haraldsson that he shows “the same dogged attention to detail that Stevenson did” (all quotes Pxi).
Haraldsson has some interesting chapter titles:
- Between Death and Rebirth
- Between the Two Realms: Deathbed Visions
- Near-Death Experiences
- Spontaneous Contact with the Departed
- Contact Through Mediums
- Memories of Birth and Life in the Womb.
1. quoted in Reincarnation: a Study of Forgotten Truth, E. D. Walker, University Books, 1965, p48
2. ibid. p49
3. University Press of Virginia, 2nd edition 1974
4. as footnote 3, p16
5. ibid., p359
6. ibid., p2
7. Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect, Praeger, 1997
8. White Crow Books, 2016