Reincarnation is the idea that a living being starts a new life in a different physical body or form after each biological death. Another term for reincarnation is transmigration, meaning the migration from one life or body to another, this can also be called rebirth. Reincarnation is found in all major Indian religions, namely Buddhism and Hinduism. The idea of reincarnation is found in many ancient cultures, and is found in many tribal societies around the world, in places such as Australia, East Asia, Siberia, and South America. Different cultures believe that when a person is reincarnated they are reborn as a newly born human being or animal. People can also be reborn as a plant, or spirit, or as a being in some other non-human realm of existence.
Trying to trace back when the idea of reincarnation first came about is not an easy task. It is thought that the idea started in India sometime between 1500-500 BC. Early Buddhist and Hindu texts share the idea that a person is reborn based on their karma. Karma is the spiritual principle of cause and effect. The idea of karma is where intent and actions of an individual influence the future of that individual. If you do good, then good things will happen, and if you do bad or wrong, then bad things will happen. Some believe that karma follows you from life to life when you are reborn, and also effects what you are reborn into. It is thought that you are reborn until your karma reaches a certain level, and at that point you reach the level of the Gods and are no longer reincarnated.
Different traditions within Buddhism have presented different theories on what is means to reincarnate and how the process of reincarnation happens. One theory states that reincarnation occurs through a stream of consciousness upon death, which reincarnates into new life. An example of this is the flame of a dying candle lighting up another (Kalupahana D. 1975). The consciousness in the reborn is not identical and at the same time not completely different from that in the deceased. The consciousness from the reborn and deceased form a causal stream in this Buddhist theory. Reincarnation is influenced by a being's past karma. A person will be reborn until they reach a full level of awakening and awareness. At the point they reach the full level of awakening, they will not be reborn anymore and will reach the level of nirvana. “The concepts of karma as cosmic justice and nirvana as the quenching of an endless cycle of rebirths are rejected in their traditional form, and recast in a within-world sense. Karma, for instance, has been translated into the interdetermination of choice and character; nirvana has been described as reaching awakening or human ﬂourishing within this life” (Verhaeghen P 2015).
In the Hindu tradition, the body may die, but the soul does not. The soul is seen as eternal and indestructible. In Hinduism, all living things are connected and are composed of the soul and the body, in whatever form that may be. Current Karma impacts the future circumstances in this life, as well as the future forms and realms of lives (Christopher C. 1986). You can be reborn in a heaven or hell like place, or on earth as a human or an animal. In heaven or hell, when past karma runs out, a soul gets another chance of being reborn on earth. Reincarnation continues until one embarks on a spiritual pursuit, apprehends self-knowledge, and gains mokṣa, the final release out of the reincarnation cycles (Jacobsen, K 2012). This release out of the reincarnation cycle is thought to be a state of utter bliss, much like nirvana in the Buddhist religion. “Whereas Buddhists reject the notion of a transmigrating entity often described as a soul, most Hindus from the Common Era onwards have believed that a trans-empirical substrate of the individual self, known as the li˙nga-´sar¯ıra, survives bodily death. Within this substrate, the accumulating karma of an individual karmic chain determines the characteristics of the next existence. It is sometimes also called the s¯uks .ma-´sar¯ıra or subtle body, and is essentially a mechanism for storing and transferring accumulated karma from one life to the next. The notion of li˙nga-´sar¯ıra makes it possible to allow for a time-lapse to occur between death and rebirth in the soul’s search for an appropriate body to inhabit. (It also allows for offerings to be made that will improve the prospects of the soul before re-embodiment.) “Self” or “spirit” is usually denoted by ¯atman” (Gosling D. 2013).
There have been many reincarnation researchers and case studies. One of the more well-known researchers is psychiatrist Ian Stevenson, from the University of Virginia. Over a period of forty years, Stevenson conducted more than two thousand and five hundred case studies. He also published fourteen books and three hundred papers that were suggestive of reincarnation. Stevenson investigated many reports of young children who claimed to remember a past life. Most children who claimed they remembered their past lives where between the ages of two and seven years old. Stevenson’s research into reincarnation started in 1960 when he learned of a case in Sri Lanka where a child reported remembering a past life. “He thoroughly questioned the child and the child's parents, including the people whom the child recalled were his parents from his past life. This led to Dr. Stevenson's conviction that reincarnation was possibly a reality. That same year, Dr. Stevenson published two articles in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research about this child who remembered having a past life. The more such cases he discovered, the greater became his ambition to scientifically quantify the possibility of reincarnation - one of the world's greatest mysteries - which had been virtually ignored by science in the past” (Williams K. 2014). In each study that Stevenson conducted he meticulously documented each of the children’s statements. Stevenson would then identify the deceased person that the child identified with and compare the person’s life with the child’s memory. He would also compare birthmarks and birth defects to scars and wounds on the deceased person.
In 856 cases, 576 of those cases Stevenson considered solved. By solved Stevenson means that he has matched a deceased person with the claims the child is making of a past life. The rest of the cases that were performed are considered to be unsolved, there were 2500 cases of reincarnation that were looked at. Out of 684 cases looked at, 494 cases mention the how the person the child remembers died. Among 536 of the solved cases, 274 cases state the person died a violent death, 262 cases state that the person died a natural cause (Stevenson I. 1990). “In 35% of cases he investigated, children who died an unnatural death developed phobias. For example, if they had drowned in a past life then they frequently developed a phobia about going out of their depth in water. If they had been shot, they were often afraid of guns and sometimes loud bangs in general. If they died in a road accident they would sometimes develop a phobia of traveling in cars, buses or lorries” (Williams K. 2014). Stevenson had the idea that some children who claim to remember past lives, have phobias from the lives that they remember. Because of Stevenson’s strict methods of research, he believed that he rules out all other explanations for the child’s memories. He did report that a great majority of the reported cases he examined took place in Eastern societies where the dominant religion accepted the idea of reincarnation. “In 1977, the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease devoted most of one issue to Dr. Stevenson's work. In a commentary for the issue, psychiatrist Harold Lief described Dr. Stevenson as "a methodical, careful, even cautious, investigator, whose personality is on the obsessive side." He also wrote: "Either he is making a colossal mistake, or he will be known . . . as 'the Galileo of the 20th century' " (Shroder T. 2007).
Objections to claims of reincarnation consist of the fact that most people do not remember their previous lives. “Dr. Stevenson himself recognized one glaring flaw in his case for reincarnation: the absence of any evidence of a physical process by which a personality could survive death and transfer to another body” (Shroder, T 2007). Stevenson also goes on to explain that in some cases there are reports of children remembering past lives, but some of those cases turn out to be fantasy.
There are many religions around the world that do not believe that reincarnation could be real, and do not acknowledge the idea of it. Because there is no way to confirm or deny reincarnation one-hundred percent, there is no right or wrong view on the topic. There has been a decent amount of research done on the topic, but more needs to be done. Reincarnation might be impossible to completely prove, but only time will tell the progress that will be made. There are many people and religions around the world that believe in reincarnation, in one way or another.
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Stevenson, I. Phobias in children who claim to remember previous lives. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 4, 243-254. 1990
Cadoret, R. Book Review: European Cases of the Reincarnation Type. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 2005
Verhaeghen, P. Contemporary Buddhism. Vol. 16 Issue 1, p43-54. 12p. DOI: 10.1080/14639947.2015.1006802. (2015)
Shroder, T. "Ian Stevenson; Sought To Document Memories Of Past Lives in Children". Washingtonpost.com. 2007
Kalupahana D. Causality: The Central Philosophy of Buddhism. University Press of Hawaii. ISBN 978-0-8248-0298-1. (1975)
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Christopher C. Karma and creativity, State University of New York Press, ISBN 0-88706-251-2, pages 60-64 (1986)
Jacobsen, K. Three Functions Of Hell In The Hindu Traditions." Numen 56.2–3 (2009): 385–400. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. (2012)
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