Reincarnation - Does it Make Sense?
When 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 previous Wednesday.
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 wither 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 similar principle.
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.