Reincarnation, literally "to be made flesh again", is a doctrine or metaphysical belief that some essential part of a living being (in some variations only human beings) survives death to be reborn in a new body. This essential part is often referred to as the spirit or soul, the "higher" or "true" self, "divine spark", or "I". According to some beliefs, a new personality is developed during each life in the physical world, but some part of the self remains constant throughout the successive lives.
Belief in reincarnation has ancient roots. This doctrine is a central tenet within the majority of Indian religious traditions, such as Hinduism (including Yoga, Vaishnavism, and Shaivism) and Jainism. The idea was also entertained by some ancient Greek philosophers. Many modern Neopagans also believe in reincarnation as do some New Age movements, along with followers of Spiritism, practitioners of certain African traditions, and students of esoteric philosophies such as Kabbalah, and Gnostic and Esoteric Christianity. The Buddhist concept of Rebirth although often referred to as reincarnation differs significantly from the Hindu-based traditions and New Age movements in that there is no unchanging "soul" (or eternal self) to reincarnate.
During recent decades, a significant number of people in the West have developed a belief in reincarnation. Feature films, such as Kundun, What Dreams May Come and Birth, contemporary books by authors such as Carol Bowman and Vicki Mackenzie, as well as popular songs, regularly mention reincarnation.
Some researchers, such as Professor Ian Stevenson, have explored the issue of reincarnation and published evidence of children's memories of earlier lives in peer-reviewed journals and elsewhere. Skeptics are critical of this work and say that more reincarnation research is needed. Thomas Huxley, the famous English biologist, thought that reincarnation was a plausible idea and discussed it in his book Evolution and Ethics and other Essays. The most detailed collections of personal reports in favor of reincarnation have been published by Professor Ian Stevenson, from the University of Virginia, in books such as Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation and "Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects Volume 1: Birthmarks" and "Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects Volume 2: Birth Defects and Other Anomalies".
Stevenson spent over 40 years devoted to the study of children who have apparently spoken about a past life. In each case, Professor Stevenson methodically documented the child's statements. Then he identified the deceased person the child allegedly identified with, and verified the facts of the deceased person's life that matched the child's memory. He also matched birthmarks and birth defects to wounds and scars on the deceased, verified by medical records such as autopsy photographs.
A boy in Beirut spoke of being a 25-year-old mechanic, thrown to his death from a speeding car on a beach road. According to multiple witnesses, the boy provided the name of the driver, the exact location of the crash, the names of the mechanic's sisters and parents and cousins, and the people he went hunting with – all of which turned out to match the life of a man who had died several years before the boy was born, and who had no apparent connection to the boy's family.
Stevenson believed that his strict methods ruled out all possible "normal" explanations for the child’s memories. However, it should be noted that a significant majority of Professor Stevenson's reported cases of reincarnation originate in Eastern societies, where dominant religions often permit the concept of reincarnation. Following this type of criticism, Stevenson published a book on European cases suggestive of reincarnation.
There are many people who have investigated reincarnation and come to the conclusion that it is a legitimate phenomenon, such as Peter Ramster, Dr. Brian Weiss, Dr. Walter Semkiw, and others. Professor Stevenson, in contrast, published dozens of papers in peer-reviewed journals.
Some skeptics, such as Paul Edwards, have analyzed many of these accounts, and called them anecdotal. Philosophers like Robert Almeder, having analyzed the criticisms of Edwards and others, suggest that the gist of these arguments can be summarized as "we all know it can't possibly be real, so therefore it isn't real" - an argument from personal incredulity.
The most obvious objection to reincarnation is that there is no evidence of a physical process by which a personality could survive death and travel to another body, and researchers such as Professor Stevenson recognize this limitation.
Another objection is that most people do not remember previous lives. Possible counter-arguments are that not all people reincarnate, or that most people do not have memorable deaths. The vast majority of cases investigated at the University of Virginia involved people who had met some sort of violent or untimely death.
Some skeptics explain that claims of evidence for reincarnation originate from selective thinking and the psychological phenomena of false memories that often result from one's own belief system and basic fears, and thus cannot be counted as empirical evidence. But other skeptics, such as Dr Carl Sagan, see the need for more reincarnation research.
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- Tucker, Jim B. (2005). Life Before Life: A Scientific Investigation of Children's Memories of Previous Lives, p.186.
- “This confirms that the doctrine of transmigration is non-aryan and was accepted by non-vedics like Ajivikism, Jainism and Buddhism. The Indo-aryans have borrowed the theory of re-birth after coming in contact with the aboriginal inhabitants of India. Certainly Jainism and non-vedics [..] accepted the doctrine of rebirth as supreme postulate or article of faith.” Masih, page 37.
- Karel Werner, The Longhaired Sage in The Yogi and the Mystic. Karel Werner, ed., Curzon Press, 1989, page 34. "Rahurkar speaks of them as belonging to two distinct 'cultural strands' ... Wayman also found evidence for two distinct approaches to the spiritual dimension in ancient India and calls them the traditions of 'truth and silence.' He traces them particularly in the older Upanishads, in early Buddhism, and in some later literature."
- Gavin D. Flood (1996), An Introduction to Hinduism, Cambridge University - Press : UK ISBN 0521438780 - “The origin and doctrine of Karma and Samsara are obscure. These concepts were certainly circulating amongst sramanas, and Jainism and Buddhism developed specific and sophisticated ideas about the process of transmigration. It is very possible that the karmas and reincarnation entered the mainstream brahaminical thought from the sramana or the renouncer traditions.” Page 86.
- Padmanabh S. Jaini 2001 “Collected Paper on Buddhist Studies” Motilal Banarsidass Publ 576 pages ISBN 8120817761: "Yajnavalkya’s reluctance and manner in expounding the doctrine of karma in the assembly of Janaka (a reluctance not shown on any other occasion) can perhaps be explained by the assumption that it was, like that of the transmigration of soul, of non-brahmanical origin. In view of the fact that this doctrine is emblazoned on almost every page of sramana scriptures, it is highly probable that it was derived from them." Page 51.
- Govind Chandra Pande, (1994) Life and Thought of Sankaracarya, Motilal Banarsidass ISBN 8120811046 : Early Upanishad thinkers like Yajnavalkya were acquainted with the sramanic thinking and tried to incorporate these ideals of Karma, Samsara and Moksa into the vedic thought implying a disparagement of the vedic ritualism and recognising the mendicancy as an ideal. Page 135.
- "The sudden appearance of this theory [of karma] in a full-fledged form is likely to be due, as already pointed out, to an impact of the wandering muni-and-shramana-cult, coming down from the pre-Vedic non-Aryan time." Kashi Nath Upadhyaya, Early Buddhism and the Bhagavadgita. Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1998, page 76.
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