Reincarnation - Does it Make Sense?
Reincarnation – Does it Make Sense?
I was seven years old, a little girl who lived nearby was playing in the street
one summer evening, like most kids did in those days, when tragically she was
knocked down by a bus and killed. I still remember wondering at the time if the
little girl had gone to heaven. But what if she had been naughty that
afternoon? Would God forgive her – she was only four years old, after all – or
would the Supreme God cast her into the Fires of Hell for her sinful ways? But
if the little girl had survived to become a sceptical unbeliever, but otherwise
decent and caring adult who died in old age, the Supreme God most definitely
would cast her into the Fires of Hell; at least according to the dogma of
certain fundamentalist Christians.
On the other hand, what sort of Supreme God might allow
another aged adult, one who may have led a life of selfish decadence or
criminality, to be welcomed into Heaven for eternity on the strength of a
death-bed repentance, no matter how sincere? One can only be astounded at the
injustice of such a belief. Christians, of course, reject the only alternative
view of an afterlife that provides the most logical and sensible explanation to
the enigma of life and death – that of reincarnation. Reincarnation is not
biblical, we are told; it is not part of Christian teaching.
There is, however, a curious passage at the beginning of the
ninth chapter of John’s Gospel that puts a question mark over that assertion.
One day the disciples were walking with Jesus when they came upon a blind man
at the roadside. The disciples turned to Jesus and asked him who had sinned;
the man or his parents that he was born blind. To a Christian the question is
nonsensical. If the man had been born blind how could he have been
responsible for his own handicap? Despite the question making no sense from an
orthodox Christian perspective, Jesus does not denounce it; instead he simply
replies that neither the man nor his parents were to blame, but that he had
been born blind so that the works of God could be made manifest. We are then
told that Jesus healed the man.
That rather cryptic passage in John’s Gospel raises the
question as to whether pre-existence in some form or another might have
featured in the more guarded teachings of Jesus; one that the Established
Church was either ignorant of, or keen to erase for its own vested interests.
By the fourth century AD serious attempts had been made to standardise
Christian belief in line with Rome under the control of Emperor Constantine,
though certain Christian Gnostic groups remained faithful to their traditional
teachings only to be branded as heretics under the new dogma. We know from the
gospel narrative (Luke 8:10) that esoteric knowledge was kept from the masses.
Speaking to his disciples, Jesus tells them that only they have been granted to
know the secrets of the Kingdom of God, but others have only parables, so that
they may look but see nothing and hear but not understand.
Pagans, however, do not base their world-view on so-called
Holy Writ or sacred books, which are open to a variety of contradictory
explanations; hence the vast number of sects and denominations that vehemently
disagree with one another. Instead pagans look at Nature and what they see in
Nature are never-ending cycles of death and rebirth. With the arrival of autumn
the lush greenery of summer begins to wither, the leaves on the trees turn
brown and die. Such barrenness can seem almost permanent during the long winter
months when skeletal trees stand dark against a leaden sky. But then comes
spring with its promise of new growth, and that which appeared to be dead comes
alive again. And so it must be with all living things.
When we consider rebirth as a feature of human life we have
to consider also the concept of karma. The two are inextricably linked in human
affairs. Unfortunately the term ‘karma’ is often misunderstood, partly because
there is no suitable counterpart of the term in the English language. ‘Karma’
is a Sanskrit word, which in the West is rather clumsily interpreted as the
‘law of cause and effect’. Taken at its most simplistic level karma is
perceived as a means of punishing bad behaviour and rewarding good behaviour,
if not in this life then the next.
It is not only in the West that karma is misunderstood in
this way. In the East where reincarnation and karma is a feature of most
religious teachings many are taught that their lowly station in life is a
punishment for wrongdoings in a previous life. Those who belong to a higher caste,
on the other hand, assume their privileged life is a reward for good deeds
undertaken in a previous life.
This view poses a few difficulties, not least the political
advantages to be gained from it. But furthermore, this stance encourages the
illusion that privilege and spirituality often go hand in hand, when experience
and observation frequently confirm the opposite. As someone once cynically put
it: “God can’t have much respect for money because he always gives it to those
who least deserve it”. A cursory glance at many who enjoy high social status,
fame and fortune in this world suggests a curse upon them rather than a
blessing. Material benefits are not
necessarily a sign of good karma they may indeed be a sign of bad karma.
Interest in reincarnation today has given rise to what is
known as past-life regression therapy, the assumption that under hypnosis one
can recall incidents from an earlier life. However, it has to be said that such
a phenomenon can be explained in terms of natural amnesia, or cryptomnesia as
it is sometimes known. Cryptomnesia is the power of the mind to vividly recall
under certain conditions information long forgotten at a conscious level. As to
whether one is able or not to tap into prior life memories depends entirely on
one’s personal view on the issue.
The rarity of past-life recall, however, suggests that
remembering a previous life poses a potential handicap. It is essential to keep
in mind that we are here to deal with our present lives rather than become
preoccupied with the past. Supporters of past-life regression therapy argue,
however, that to learn and evolve then surely it is an advantage to remember
our past-life experiences – consider the futility and perversity of
reprimanding a child on Monday for some misdemeanour it had committed the
However, if changing our own behaviour is only motivated by
a desire to avoid unpleasant repercussions, then our motives are suspect. This
would imply that Nature is employing a form of aversion therapy to encourage us
to keep to the straight and narrow. To some extent such a tactic would
undoubtedly modify our behaviour, but it would fail to effect any fundamental
change at a deeply spiritual level. We would no longer be governed by purity of
intent, but by a desire to avoid the karmic lessons that life has to teach us.
Another objection, and one often posed by fundamentalist
Christians, is the ‘fixed number of souls’ argument. This argument maintains
that if there are only a fixed number of souls then how has the world
population increased. Part of the problem with this argument lies with the word
‘soul’, which tends to be perceived in a literal way and assumes that ‘soul’ is
something each of us possesses, rather like a pair of shoes. If, however, we
consider a row of light bulbs drawing their power from a single source and one
bulb goes out, where has its light gone? If we had never seen a light bulb
before, then we might start looking around the room for the missing light.
We would look in vain, of course, because the bulb’s light
is not something that can be identified independently of the bulb, even though
the absence of the light suggests it is somehow separate from the bulb. The
spiritual essence of each individual is rather like a light bulb. When a person
dies, that which we call ‘soul’ simply ceases to manifest through the medium of
the physical body. Rather than ‘soul’ being something we possess, ‘soul’ is
what we generate.
Another criticism, this time postulated by materialist
sceptics, maintains that belief in reincarnation is based on the fear of
personal extinction; believers simply are unable to accept the reality of their
own mortality, so the argument goes. Attractive as it might be to some, the
thought of living as the same individual forever is a more terrifying prospect.
But rebirth does not necessarily imply the survival of the Self. When we accept
the fact that an individual is a product of genetics, cultural and other
temporary features, then we have to accept also that individual identity
disintegrates at the point of death.
Individual identity is basically an illusion fostered by our
dependence on self-awareness. It is ego driven. This school of thought is more
in keeping with Buddhism, which sometimes draws an analogy between an ocean wave
and one’s spiritual identity. A wave appears to have identity as it moves
towards the shore, which is why surfers tend to give names to the ‘same’ wave.
However, when the wave reaches the shore it breaks up and the sea consumes the
wave’s former identity. The process is repeated when the same wave seems to
reappear, but it now consists of different water molecules. The same analogy
can be applied to a tree when its leaves whither and die in autumn but reappear
in a new molecular structure the following spring. It would seem that the
‘spiritual energy’ generated by each individual human being operates on a
According to materialist science animal life depends
entirely on electrical activity within the brain. When that ceases, the central
nervous system and other physical functions grind to a halt. Death ensues,
proclaim the sceptics. Despite the progress that has been made in neurology,
there is no conclusive evidence that the brain is the source of consciousness.
Rupert Sheldrake, for example, takes the view that conscious awareness might
not be located within the brain – but actually operate outside or beyond it.
Rather than the brain being a transmitter, so to speak, the brain functions as
a receiver in a similar way to a TV set, which is not the source of the images
and sounds it produces.
Rupert Sheldrake coined the term ‘Morphogenetic Field
Theory’ to describe such a phenomenon. This idea is not dissimilar to Carl
Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, which postulates that memories and
experiences can be shared by the human race as a whole. As already pointed out
in this article, pagans look to Nature to see how the world operates. Consider
inertia, which is a basic feature of physics. Inertia is a natural property of
matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or motion unless
changed by an external force. With a
pair of evenly balanced scales the moment the slightest weight is applied to
one scale resistance to the external force occurs and the scales tip.
The scales are a microcosmic reflection of Nature as a
whole. Nature operates in terms of balance. Every thought and action that
humans generate has repercussions. Sooner or later some will come back to benefit us; others will have utterly negative effects upon us. Nothing within
Nature can be destroyed, only transformed. In view of all this, reincarnation,
or rebirth, does make sense.