Reincarnation - the transmigration of the soul after death to another living body - is one of the oldest and most widely held of mankind's spiritual beliefs and still forms a central part of the doctrines of Eastern religion. In its most primitive form the concept was independent of any moral teaching, but in more modern times, the idea of reincarnation is associated with reward and punishment, and with a continuity of moral consequences in successive lives. In Hinduism for example, reincarnation is associated with retribution and the law of karma. In Tibetan Buddhist teachings, the cycle of death and rebirth continues until earthly desires are extinguished and enlightenment is achieved. The term 'rebirth' rather than reincarnation is often used in Buddhist religion, to imply only the continuation of life without the continuation of personal identity.
Even among cultures which accept reincarnation, beliefs about it differ. It is, for example, important for the Tlingit of Alaska to be reborn into the family of one's mother, but for the Igbo of Nigeria to be reborn into one's father's family. In some cultures birthmarks are attributed to some injury in a previous life and may help to identify a baby's previous personality. Not surprisingly, when cases of supposed reincarnation do occur, they reflect these differing beliefs.
The idea of reincarnation is attractive to many people either because the concept of karma seems to offer an explanation for the inequalities of life or because it suggests that there is a meaning and purpose to life. For others, the idea of a 'past life' feels intuitively right because it helps to explain feelings, empathies, abilities, which seem to have sprung from some quite inexplicable source and for which there seems to be no logical explanation.
Belief in reincarnation does not require that previous existences can be remembered. However a few people do claim to have such memories, and past-life memories seem to occur regardless of any cultural or religious belief.. Typically, a child may start to talk about a past life when they are very young, as soon as they are able to talk. Usually the memories seem to fade between the ages of five and eight although some adults do retain these childhood memories. Others have spontaneous flashes of such memories for the first time in adulthood, sometimes triggered by a place or a person who seems unaccountably familiar. Under hypnotic regression most people seem able to recover apparent past-life memories.
Attempts to 'prove' the validity of a past life are very seldom successful, largely because such memories are usually so scanty or non-specific that it is impossible either to prove or to disprove them. A few researchers, notably Professor Ian Stevenson and Professor Erlendur Haraldsson, have reported some persuasive and well documented cases. A more fruitful approach to past-life research may be that of Professor Haraldsson; to try to find common characteristics amongst children who have such memories.
For most past-life memories, especially those retrieved under hypnosis, there are rational explanations, for example cryptomnesia (the emergence of forgotten memories) suggestibility, fantasy or imagination, hysterical dissociation, wishful thinking or self-delusion. A few, especially those of very young children, seem to defy rational explanation. Whether reincarnation provides that explanation remains debatable. The fact remains that a few such cases do seem to offer evidence for the transfer of information independently of a brain. The search for a mechanism for such extra-cerebral information transfer continues.
Stevenson, Ian., Children who Remember Previous Lives University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville. 1987. ISBN 0 8139 1154 0.
Probably the best scientifically argued account of the case for reincarnation. Stevenson reviews the history and world-wide extent of belief in reincarnation and presents summaries of 12 of the most compelling cases he has studied, the majority Asian, but including a few Western examples. Stevenson sometimes fails to give enough weight to the cultural and social factors which may be involved in 'proving' a past life, but many of his cases are convincingly argued and all make interesting reading.
Stevenson, Ian. Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiolgoy of Birthmarks and Birth Defects. (Two volumes). Praeger Publishers, Westport CTO6881, USA 1997. ISBN 0 275 95282 7 and,
Stevenson, Ian, Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect Praeger Publishers, Westport CTO6881, USA 1997. ISBN 0 275 95188 X
The latter book is an abbreviated version of the former, which is Ian Stevenson's impressive two volume work on reincarnation. In many of the cases he has studied, violent death has played a part, and the main thrust of this work is to establish a correlation between birthmarks and birth defects in children and marks of violent death in a supposed previous life. Stevenson is a conscientious and meticulous researcher; all of his data is interesting and much is very persuasive. He is, however, no more successful than anyone else in suggesting a credible mechanism for the transfer of memories in apparent reincarnation, or in explaining how physical characteristics of a dead person could become imprinted on an unborn fetus. Essential reading for anyone interested in reincarnation.
Stevenson, Ian. Unlearned Language: New Studies in Xenoglossy University Press of Virginia. 1984.
Xenoglossy, the ability to speak and understand a language that has apparently never been learnt, is one of the most fascinating, and unusual phenomena of apparent reincarnation. In this book Stevenson explores two of the most interesting and well documented such cases on record; Dolores Jay, who under hypnosis manifested as 'Gretchen', a German speaking personality, and Uttara Haddur, who over a fifteen year period of her life, was repeatedly taken over by the personality of 'Sharada' a young 19th Century Bengali - and Bengali speaking - woman.
Fenwick, Peter and Elizabeth. Past Lives Headline, 1999. ISBN 0 7472 1841 2.
A good overview of the topic, it re-examines many of the most interesting and best-attested cases on record, and also analyses over a hundred first hand British accounts given to the authors by people who believe they have memories of a past life. The Fenwicks discuss how far a Western scientific framework can explain these memories, and where we might look for answers outside such a framework.
Cockell, Jenny, Yesterday's Children. London, Piatkus Books, 1993. ISBN 0 7499 1246 4.
Throughout an unhappy childhood Jenny Cockell was haunted by dream memories of an Irish woman called Mary, her death in her mid-thirties, and the eight children she left behind. As an adult she underwent a hypnotic regression in which she seemed to recover sufficient details about her family and her circumstances to try to trace them. The book is a personal account, describing her successful search for the family she felt she had abandoned in a previous life. Jenny's transparent honesty and her total conviction make her story worth reading, whether or not one accepts it in its entirety. Her later book, Past Lives, Future Lives (Piatkus, 1996) extends her story.
Pasricha, S. 1990 Claims of Reincarnation: An Empirical Study of Cases in India. Harman Publishing House, New Delhi.
Satwant Pasricha is an associate of Ian Stevenson's,. and has independently investigated Indian cases of children than any other Indian researcher. She describes 45 such cases and compares them with cases studied in other countries. The main weakness of her cases is one that applies to many such cases - the child's statements are seldom recorded at the time they are made, and have often been contaminated by the passage of time and the rewriting of history that tends to happen when a family makes its own attempts to 'solve' a case.
Rogo, D. Scott The Search for Yesterday, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, 1985.
The first book by a parapsychologist to examine the evidence for reincarnation. A popular, journalistic, rather than an academic book, it identifies the few good hypnotic regression cases, but under-estimates and sometimes misjudges Ian Stevenson's work in the field.
TenDam, Hans Exploring Reincarnation, London, Arkana, 1987. ISBN 0 14 019204 2.
An excellent book for the serious student. Comprehensive and dispassionate, it begins with a consideration of the hypothesis and its history, moving on to experiences, including spontaneous recall, prebirth memories, regression and experiences around death. The third section is an extensive philosophical discussion of various possible views of the topic.
Woolger, Roger Other Lives, Other Selves, London, Crucible, 1987. ISBN 1 85274 084 1.
One of the best books on hypnotic regression and its implications for psychotherapy. The author, originally a sceptic, is trained in Jungian analysis. Here he expands Jungian theory beyond childhood events and offers a holistic approach to altering destructive emotional patterns. With the help of case histories, he explores the connection between past life illness and current life fitness - both emotional and physical. He documents a number of psychological conditions that have responded to this approach.
Bowman, Carol Childrens' Past Lives, Shaftesbury, Element, 1997. ISBN 1 86204 149 0.
Extends Woolger's work into children. The author recounts the discovery of the ostensible past life source of her own children's phobias - her son's phobia of loud noises completely disappeared after remembering an experience from the Civil War. The first part reports many new cases, the second gives guidance to parents and the third reports on children's insights into the nature of life and death.
Weiss, Brian L. Many Lives, Many Masters, London, Piatkus, 1994. ISBN 0 7499 1378 9.
The first in a series of three books by psychiatrist Dr. Brian Weiss, in which he documents his own astonishment when he tried hypnosis on a young patient and she began to channel messages about his own life that only made sense within a larger metaphysical framework than that acquired in medical schools. These are followed up by Through Time to Healing (Piatkus, 1992) and Only Love is Real (Piatkus, 1996), which are also well worth reading.
Leggett, D.M.A. and Payne, Max A Forgotten Truth, Pilgrim Books, 1986. ISBN 0 946259 14 3.
The title refers to the hypothesis of serial existence and the book is a rigorous and scholarly treatment of the theme. Part 1 looks at the question of evidence and scriptural references, framing a hypothesis that life can be likened to a school. Some fascinating philosophical reflections follow from an alleged discarnate Teacher. Part 2 considers the implications for science, religion and society. A searching study.
Head, Joseph and Cranston, Sylvia Reincarnation: The Phoenix Fire Mystery. New York, Julian Press, 1977. ISBN 0 517 528932.
A comprehensive historical anthology bringing together thoughts about reincarnation across cultures and history. A sourcebook that should be in every library. Cranston's follow-up book Reincarnation: A New Horizon in Science, Religion and Society (with Carey Williams, Julian Press, 1984) gives further material from scientists and religious teachers, while also taking a look at some perennial social issues from a reincarnation viewpoint. Both books advocate a reincarnation view and do not consider possible objections. For a critical discussion from a Christian angle, see Hick, John, Death and Eternal Life (Collins, 1976), chapters 16-19. Geddes McGregor's book Reincarnation in Christianity (Theosophical Publishing House, 1978).
Elizabeth Fenwick is co-author, with Peter Fenwick, of The Truth in the Light, Past Lives and The Hidden Door.