Its meaning and consequences
by Ernest Valea
Past-life recall as modern proof for reincarnation
Hypnotic regression as proof for reincarnation
Spontaneous past-life recall by children as proof for reincarnation
Metaphysical reasons for rejecting past-life recall experiences as proofs for reincarnation
Many people who accept reincarnation in the West today claim that it can be scientifically proven. They usually ground their belief on past-life recall experiences, which represent the ability of certain persons to recall facts of alleged previous lives. This phenomenon occurs under two distinct forms. One is observed under hypnosis, while regressing certain persons beyond the date of birth. The other is produced by some children who spontaneously remember a previous life identity, amazing their neighbors with specific details that match those of the life of a deceased person. Could these experiences really be proofs for reincarnation?
Hypnotic regression as proof for reincarnation
Hypnosis can be defined as a method of inducing an altered state of consciousness, which causes a person to become very receptive to the hypnotist’s suggestions. This method has been used in psychoanalysis for treating psychic diseases by evoking the painful events which caused them in the past (especially during childhood) and then by transmitting suggestions meant to heal them. Although there are some encouraging results in using it as a psychiatric therapy, it is a fact that hypnosis can mix fantasy with real memories or that it can even create entirely fictitious episodes. In deep states of hypnosis, some subjects have had out-of-body experiences and claimed to have traveled in mysterious spiritual realms. Others have had a mystical experience of oneness with the universe.
Hypnotic regression started to be used as a past-life recall method in 1952, when Ruth Simmons from Colorado, USA, was regressed "back in time" beyond the date of her birth. Suddenly she started to talk using a specific Irish accent, claiming that her name was Bridey Murphy and that she lived in Ireland in the year 1890. The few details she produced seemed to describe accurately the Irish society of the late 19th century. It was therefore believed that a scientific proof for reincarnation had been found. As a result, a growing number of hypnotists started to use the method in order to get information about alleged previous lives of their patients. Recently the method has gained a scientific aura, being used as therapy for releasing patients' fears and explaining certain personality tendencies as results of past-life experiences. By simply being asked to go back in time beyond the date of their birth and describe their impressions, some patients tell impressive stories in which some characteristics match those of past and distant cultures of human history. They usually adopt a totally different personality, with a changed voice, behavior and facial expression. All the information they produce is the result of a dialog between the hypnotist and his patient, in which the questions have to be easy and clear in order to get a proper answer. Since the information they produce couldn’t have been normally learned during their lifespan, it is supposed that they really recall past lives. However, this conclusion raises some difficulties, as there are other possibilities to explain how the "novelties" are produced, without accepting the past-life recall hypothesis.
One possible explanation is cryptoamnesia. As hypnosis can be used in refreshing forgotten memories of one’s past, facts that are no longer available to the conscious memory, in the same way can it be used for evoking information heard from other people, read in books, or seen in movies, in which the subject of hypnosis is involving himself as participant. His subconscious memory has kept this information stored and hypnosis determines its use in a completely fictitious scenario. Ian Stevenson, one of the important researchers of this phenomenon, mentions such a case:
See also an article that suggests that past-life recall might be tied to memory errors.
An intriguing aspect of the testimonies recorded under hypnosis is the fact that they depend heavily on the already existing data in current historic knowledge. In many cases, although the information corresponds to generally acknowledged historical data, further archaeological discoveries contradict them, casting serious doubts on the veracity of "past lives." Ian Wilson, another important researcher of this phenomenon, describes several such cases in his book Reincarnation (p. 88-90). One of them refers to a person who lived during the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses III. Instead of indicating the name No for the capital city, he used the name Thebes, given by the Greeks much later. Moreover, a true ancient Egyptian could not have known the pharaoh’s name by a number, as the numbering of pharaohs was adopted by Victorian Egyptologists during the 19th century. Another fault was mentioning the use of the sestertius coin, which was introduced by the Romans a thousand years later. Another case reported Vikings making a landfall in North America in the 11th century. According to the description, they were wearing helmets with horns. In recent years, however, scholars have proved that this idea is false, as Vikings in fact wore conic, close-fitting caps. Horned helmets were worn only in religious ceremonies by individuals of high rank. This and other cases prove that past-life recall experiences depend heavily on the historical knowledge existing at the time the hypnotic regression was performed, and are often contradicted by later discoveries.
How could it be possible that the present personality could influence that of its "previous lives," some predating it by hundreds or thousands of years? How could people who lived four thousand years ago use the BC (before Christ) year numeration system? How can it be that some hypnotists can even "recall" future lives of their patients (which are obviously influenced by current science fiction literature)? These facts indicate that the alleged previous lives are culturally and religiously conditioned, casting serious doubts on their veracity. This is why writers who are favorable to rebirth stories usually avoid mentioning very specific data.
Another possible explanation that could overrule the veracity of past-life recall is the influence of the hypnotist, whose suggestion ability is a sine qua non for the effectiveness of hypnosis. The other necessary factor is the receptivity of the patient to the hypnotist’s suggestions. Although the two conditions determine the success of hypnosis when used as psychiatric treatment, when expecting to get information from alleged past lives, the suggestion ability of the hypnotist becomes an important hindrance in obtaining true information, since it can contaminate the patient’s story. Ian Stevenson states:
Under hypnosis, the subject is ready to accept all kinds of distortions, having his reality shaped according to the hypnotist's beliefs. Since in most cases the hypnotists expect confirmation of the reincarnation theory, at least subconsciously, they can, together with verbal suggestions inducing relaxation and different phases of regression, transmit their own convictions concerning past lives and custom scenarios of this kind. In many cases it is easy to discern the religious convictions of the hypnotists in the stories told by their patients.
The risk of inventing completely fictitious scenarios through hypnosis cannot be ignored. It actually has happened many times. Many cases have been reported of women who came for hypnotic treatment for their common problems, and over the course of therapy "discovered" incidents of sexual abuse by parents during childhood which proved to be false. Sigmund Freud abandoned hypnosis as a treatment method when he discovered so many cases of false memories. More than that, it was observed that the memories "discovered" under hypnosis can replace true memories after the hypnotic session is over and so completely distort one's personal life. This is called the false memory syndrome. Courts of law know these dangers and most do not accept testimonies produced under hypnosis or from witnesses that have previously been hypnotized. The same way as alleged sexual abuses in childhood discovered through hypnosis have been proved false, past lives (as well as "extraterrestrial abduction" stories) can also be fake scenarios.
Another compromising factor in getting true "past-life stories" is the preparation the patient undergoes before hypnosis. One is informed about its purpose, which induces in him or her a high expectancy state. The conscious desire to know the content of "previous lives" undoubtedly influences the response under hypnosis.
A third possible explanation of testimonies from alleged previous lives is given by psychiatry. The phenomenon of multiple personality is known as dissociative personality disorder. It causes somebody to exchange in a short period of time up to twenty distinct personalities, as if playing successive roles. These contradicting personalities have different mentalities, behaviors, voices and even sexes than the real person. Usually it happens that one of them knows and observes the acts and thoughts of the others, and is even able to speak in the name of all.
From a psychiatrist's point of view, past-life testimonies may be the result of inducing dissociative personality disorder through hypnosis. This has actually happened in several cases of schizophrenia. Used to uncover covert personalities and reintegrate them with the main personality, many cases of hypnosis have produced new personalities that didn't manifest previously in one's normal state. They first appeared during hypnotic treatment, and then remained active after the session was over. So it really is possible to create new personalities through hypnosis and call them instances of "past-life recall".
However, there still remains an enigma to which the above naturalist-scientific interpretation doesn’t have a satisfactory answer: How are the "past-life" personalities distributed in their roles, or who decides which one will be next in the show? It cannot be a random process. Ian Wilson writes in his book: "Somewhere, somehow, the show must have a ‘director’. It is like watching a puppet show; we can see the puppets, see some of the strings by which they are made to work, but cannot see the puppet master." Who could be this hidden director of the multiple personality show? The naturalistic explanation says that it must be in the person’s mind, where consciousness is divided into separate entities, one of them taking the role of the director. The data supporting it is that under hypnosis a certain part of the mind stays conscious, continuing to receive data from the real world. But the unsolved problem concerns the motivation that such an entity (that remains conscious in the person’s mind) could have to act like that. Why would it fool us about past lives?
Thus we come to another possible explanation of past-life recall. In parapsychology it is called channeling - the phenomenon of transmitting information generated by spiritual entities which are external to our world. They act through certain persons called mediums while they are in altered states of consciousness. The annihilation of normal consciousness through hypnosis creates optimal conditions for contacting such external entities, who can present themselves as personalities of one’s past lives. The only reason for rejecting this hypothesis is the presumption that the entity which is communicating through the medium has no reason to lie when it claims to be a former personality and not an external spirit. However, channeling hasn't proved to be a reliable source of information about anything.
In conclusion, the only criterion left for establishing the veracity of "past-life recall" is our faith in the hypnotist and his reincarnationist interpretation.
Spontaneous past-life recall by children as proof for reincarnation
Another category of experiences credited as proofs for reincarnation are cases of children, almost all under the age of 10, who spontaneously recall events of alleged past lives and insist that they are someone else who lived in the past. The details they mention concerning places, persons and happenings of the past, about which they could not normally know anything, prove to be true when investigations are performed in the indicated area. The extensive research of Dr. Ian Stevenson and his books on this topic are well known. Although the cases of spontaneous past-life recall by children are much fewer than testimonies produced under hypnosis, they seem to be more convincing. The cases of the Indian girls Swarnlata and Shanti Devi are two of the most famous. At the ages of 3 (Swarnlata) and 4 (Shanti Devi) they both started to claim that they had lived previous lives as wives and mothers of two children, in a distant village. The most astounding element is that they mentioned specific facts about their alleged previous lives that have been verified by investigators. Imagine the scene: A married woman with several children dies and after four years a little girl knocks at the door and introduces herself as the deceased mother and wife. Emotional disturbances often develop in such cases. Stevenson comments: "These children become embroiled in divided loyalties. In many cases children have rejected their parents, saying they are not their real parents and have often started down the road toward their so-called real homes. In other cases, they insist on being reunited with their former husbands, wives, or children. One Indian boy was passionately attached to the woman he said had been his former mistress and was trying to get her back, causing himself and her real distress" (Omni Magazine 10(4):76 (1988)).
However, such stories can be explained in an alternative way, not necessarily as proof for reincarnation. There is the possibility that these children are contacting external spirits through channeling. In this case the medium would be the child, without necessarily being conscious of it. But since children lack the skills of mediums, a particular kind of channeling is required in their case. It is called possession of these children by external spiritual entities. In such cases the human person is forced to transmit the messages of a spirit without having any conscious contribution to the whole process. Spiritual possession as explanation for past-life recall by children is suggested by the fact that almost all such cases are produced by children who manifest them between the ages of two and five, when their spiritual discernment is almost nonexistent. As the children grow up, the entities lose their power of influence upon them, which could explain why the past-life memories are lost after the age of 10.
Cases that confirm the possession hypothesis are instances in which the possessing spirit enters the child’s body a long time after he was born, and then produces a past-life recall experience which interferes with the already present personality of the child. There are enough such cases described in literature. Here is a brief description of two mentioned by Ian Stevenson, in his book Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation:
First, there is the case of an Indian boy named Jasbir, aged three and a half, who was very ill and lapsed into a coma which his family temporarily mistook for death. He revived a few hours later, and after several weeks displayed a completely transformed behavior, claiming to be a Brahmin named Sobha Ram, who died in an accident while he (Jasbir) was sick. Since Sobha Ram died when Jasbir was already three and a half years old, his "past-life recall" obviously cannot be a proof of reincarnation. More than that, the "reincarnation" of Ram’s soul must have taken place even before he had physically died, according to the timing of his accident and the illness of Jasbir. For the previous 3.5 years both persons lived physically in nearby villages. While speaking through Jasbir, the "reincarnated Mr. Ram" said that he was advised by a saint to take cover in Jasbir’s body. As a result, at a certain moment there were present two personalities in Jasbir’s body: the one of the child and the one of Mr. Ram. This suggests that it cannot be a case of reincarnation, but rather a possession of Jasbir’s body by the so-called spirit of Mr. Ram.
Second, there is the case of Lurancy Vennum, a one-year-old girl who began to display the personality of Mary Roff when she (Mary Roff) died. This situation lasted several months, while Mary Roff claimed to have occupied the vacated body of the little girl. After this period Mary Roff departed and Lurancy Vennum resumed control. The overlapping of personalities and messages displayed during that period are strong indications of possession, excluding any possibility of reincarnation. Ian Stevenson admits in his book that "other cases of the present group of 20 cases may be instances of similar ‘possessing influences’ in which the previous personality just happened to die well before the birth of the present personality’s body" (p. 381).
Third, there is the case of a Buddhist monk, Chaokhun Rajsuthajarn, who was born a day before the death of Nai Leng, the personality he claimed to have been in his previous life. Stevenson commented in an interview: "I studied this case with much care but couldn't find an explanation for the discrepancy" (Omni Magazine 10(4):76 (1988)).
Spirit influence could also explain another "proof" for reincarnation that is becoming increasingly popular: the correspondence between wounds that caused a person to die or other kinds of scars and birthmarks on children who are seen as being the reincarnation of that particular person. Not that a spirit influence could induce such physical abnormalities, but it could "suggest" a special origin to those who are born naturally with birthmarks and birth defects, especially in cultures where most physical and behavioral peculiarities are attributed to happenings in past lives (Southern Asia, the Druze in Lebanon, or Indians in North America). In the Western world birthmarks often are taken as a starting point in one's quest for finding his or her 'true' identity. As there is an increasing interest in reincarnation, the interpretation of birthmarks is often channeled towards acceptance of previous lives and as a personal proof of it.
A further indication for interpreting spontaneous past-life recall experiences by children is the fact that they are culturally dependent. Most cases are reported in India and other South Asian countries, where reincarnation is fully accepted. The Asian cases are always richer in details than the Western ones. Western children who have such experiences give only poor details that could permit verification. When checking some verifiable details is possible, they usually turn out to be past experiences of other members of the family. Cultural conditioning certainly plays an important role in these phenomena.
In the conclusion of his research, Ian Stevenson admitts in his book Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation that the cases he studied, as the very title indicates, are only suggesting reincarnation and cannot be considered proofs for it. Stevenson admitts: "All the cases I've investigated so far have shortcomings. Even taken together, they do not offer anything like proof" (Omni Magazine 10(4):76 (1988)).
Metaphysical reasons for rejecting past-life recall experiences as proofs for reincarnation
Even if hypnotic regression and spontaneous recall of past lives by children were free of any contradiction, there still would be another major argument against their veracity: According to the classic doctrine of reincarnation, the entity which reincarnates is the impersonal self (atman or purusha), accompanied by the subtle body. Any psycho-mental element that defines personhood does not belong to the self or to the subtle body, and therefore ceases to exist at physical death. Memory is such an element. It acts only inside the limits of a physical life and vanishes at death. If things were different, if memory could pass to further lives through reincarnation, it could establish the veracity of reincarnation in less problematic ways.
The vehicle that carries the psychic impressions from one life to another is said to be the subtle body (sukshma sharira in Vedanta) or the karmic deposit (karmashaya in Samkhya-Yoga). Although some say that this vehicle acts as a kind of unconscious memory of previous lives, it cannot represent a third ontological category (different from both the self and the psycho-mental realm), which could play the role of a carrier of personal memory from one life to another. As mentioned in the previous article, the subtle body stores hidden tendencies or impressions (samskara) imprinted by karma that act as seeds which generate future behavior and personal character. This kind of deposit merely serves as a mechanism for adjusting the effects of karma in one’s life. According to Samkhya and Yoga it dictates in an impersonal and mechanical manner the new birth, the length of life and the experiences that must accompany it. Karma represents an impersonal and mechanical law which functions with mathematical precision, so it cannot justify one’s state at a certain moment. One cannot know his or her own karma, but only speculate what it could be, based on actual situations in life. Karma is simply pushing the self into a foreordained scenario, which one has to accept and adjust to.
Even though some special meditative techniques are mentioned which are said to provide limited information about past lives (for instance Yoga-Sutra 3.18 mentions the possibility of knowing the previous birth through practicing samyama), they are available only to the advanced Yogi. But even so, the veracity of the information acquired in altered states of consciousness is doubtful. (Click here for more information.)
One’s karmic debts could at best be imagined intuitively. For instance, it is supposed that a man who was murdered took his just reward for a murder he committed himself in a previous life. Past-life recall experiences do not provide any information about the "sins" one committed in a previous life, but only lead one to draw conclusions from when he or she allegedly was a victim or a simple observer of life. These kinds of experiences do not attempt to prove the justice of karma, but only that past lives are real. In other words, the "recalled" scenarios do not indicate which facts of the previous life produced the present incarnation, but only try to prove that we lived previous lives, that reincarnation is true and has to be acknowledged.
Because of the metaphysical difficulties mentioned above, most Eastern masters do not consider experiences of past-life recall as valid proofs for reincarnation. At the time Stevenson was carrying out his studies among Indian children who remembered previous lives, he met an Indian swami of the Ramakrishna order. He commented on these cases: "Yes [reincarnation] is true, but it does not make any difference, because we in India have all believed in reincarnation and have accepted it as a fact, and yet it has made no difference. We have as many rogues and villains in India as you have in the West" (Venture Inward Magazine, September/October, 1995). These stories are appreciated mostly by Westerners, probably as a result of misunderstanding the original doctrine of reincarnation and also because of their pseudo-scientific outlook. A more important argument for reincarnation in the East has another nature and will be analyzed next.