For and Against is a new series in which two well-known commentators with opposing views on a particular spiritual or philosophical topic debate the issue. To kick off this series, Roy Stemman and Leslie Price get stuck into the thorny issue of reincarnation.
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“Reincarnation is a fungus on Spiritualism,” warned Emma!
How did reincarnation get into Spiritualism? Some people might blame Allan Kardec in France, who compiled The Spirits’ Book (circa 1857).
The more sceptically inclined could say that Kardec’s mediums reflected back to him his own prior belief in reincarnation.
In a recent study by John Warne Monroe, Laboratories of Faith, Mesmerism, Spiritism and Occultism in Modern France (Cornell University Press 2008), Monroe notes, “Kardec’s spirits appeared to have borrowed their notion of reincarnation and their critique of eternal damnation from the works of Fourier and Jean Reynaud” (p.109).
But Kardecism had limited impact on Spiritualism in the English-speaking world. More widely influential was Modern Theosophy. However, the Theosophists did not teach reincarnation until Colonel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky arrived in India in 1879.
A famous medium had already proclaimed reincarnation from the platform in London. This was Mrs Cora Tappan, later Mrs Richmond, whose twelve lectures were printed in Medium and Daybreak. She may have received the teaching in Washington as early as 1870. The teachings appeared in book form as The Soul: its nature, relations, and expressions in human embodiments (1887). Almost unknown today, Cora was immensely influential, not just as a trance orator, but as a supporter of President Lincoln and a founder of the NSA.
It was Emma Hardinge Britten who responded to Cora, in a two-part 1875 article for the newspaper Spiritual Scientist on ‘The Doctrine of Reincarnation’. This outstanding article has just been reprinted online by Marc Demarest at www.ehbritten.org. Emma pointed out that Spiritualism was based on the evidential facts of communication through mediumship and was threatened if it admitted theoretical speculations not supported by evidence.
Nothing had been said about reincarnation by such mediums as Cora in their youth. The spirits who communicated through Cahagnet’s carefully researched somnambules in France before Hydesville denied reincarnation, as did the later American communicators. Emma uses very strong language, speaking for example of “obnoxious and repulsive side issues ruthlessly engrafted on the pure and fruitful soil of spiritualism”, “this fungus” etc.
Emma had recognised that reincarnation undermined the authority of the majority of spirit communications which denied it. But the teaching spread through Spiritualism, being taken up for example by W.J. Colville, an English-born student of Cora who had moved to America. In 1904, James Peebles made an attempt to reverse this in his book A Discussion of Reincarnation based on articles in Banner of Light. He was able to cite support from Lyceum pioneer Andrew Jackson Davis who claimed “he has given reincarnation another death blow”.
After the First World War, reincarnation was taught by a number of British trance mediums, whose guides included Silver Birch, Red Cloud and White Eagle. The identity of these guides is unclear. White Eagle had a definite link with Theosophical masters, Red Cloud was an Egyptian, and Silver Birch was not a North American Indian and his actual name was not disclosed. But Arthur Findlay was among many who stood firm against reincarnation.
The evidence is compelling
I have no argument with Emma Hardinge Britten’s view that Spiritualism is threatened if it admits theoretical speculations not supported by evidence.
I would probably have expressed the same opinion in the late 1800s. But in recent times, a number of scientists have made it their business to research cases suggestive of reincarnation and, for the most part, they have produced evidence that many people find compelling. I certainly do and on that basis I believe Spiritualism can happily embrace reincarnation.
Before discussing the evidence for past lives, let me make a more general observation. What the reincarnation debate tells us, as far as Spiritualism is concerned, is that we should not treat what spirit guides say as ‘gospel’. As Leslie rightly points out, the spirit entities who communicated with Allan Kardec and the spirit guides Leslie also names taught the reality of reincarnation. But there were and are others who do not.
Why? Some suggest that these guides are at different levels of spiritual understanding or on different planes of existence. This doesn’t make any sense to me: if those on the ‘lower’ level have limited understanding of the laws relating to the mechanics of life, death and the hereafter, why are they setting themselves up as ‘teaching’ guides? But how are we to know which spirit guides are on the ‘highest’ level and are likely to have greater spiritual knowledge? It’s impossible. It’s like trying to decide which of the world’s numerous religions is closest to the truth (if any!).
Fortunately, researchers like Professor Ian Stevenson, who have looked at the evidence, have approached the subject scientifically, unencumbered by religious doctrine other than, perhaps, to compare how particular cases may have been influenced by dominant religions.
What they have found is that cases in which a person claims to recall a past life follow a pattern, regardless of the country in which they occur or the beliefs of the community into which they are born. For example, memories of that earlier existence are talked about almost as soon as the child can speak, often voicing dissatisfaction with the new life or even the parents with whom he or she is now required to live.
Typically, these memories fade during childhood and are usually forgotten or buried by the age of twelve. Children appearing to recall a past life are sometimes so strongly drawn to that previous existence that they try to run away from home in order to search for their previous family. Some parents are supportive and even take the child to the village or town named, and there have been a number of cases where the child has led them to the former home and the family inside recognise the details he or she has given about the person whose life is being recalled.
In the years I worked for Maurice Barbanell at Psychic News I regularly witnessed the spectacle of his spirit guide Silver Birch proclaiming the concept of reincarnation whilst, out of trance, Barbanell – a non-believer – would write in the newspaper’s columns that every case of reincarnation could be explained as spirit possession rather than rebirth.
However you choose to interpret such cases, my view is that, at the very least, they demonstrate the continuing existence of personality after death, either able to be reborn or to possess or overshadow a physical person. In my judgement, reincarnation is the explanation that best fits the facts. And I’m sure if Emma Hardinge Britten were on earth today – perhaps she is! – she would be equally impressed with the abundant evidence that has been amassed since she gave her view on the subject.
Dr Stevenson’s study of children who remember previous lives, extending over 40 years, is the longest research project in parapsychology, but apart from papers by one or two of his colleagues, there has been little replication of his findings so far.
Stevenson’s cases suggest a short interval between incarnations, whereas many other occult sources teach an interval of centuries between lives. Moreover, there are occasional anomalies in the Stevenson cases, such as lives that appear to overlap, and communities where reincarnation is always into the same sex… Many of the Stevenson cases have been collected in communities where it was necessary to rely on interpreters.
Roy mentions overshadowing as a possible explanation of the experience of past life recall – in less benign cases, one might speak of obsession, especially in cases where the previous personality died violently and is not at peace. There may also be a role for the group soul, or soul group.
Stevenson put reincarnation on the map as a serious scientific hypothesis – but where are his successors?
Reincarnation is best explanation
It is true that very few parapsychologists have specialised in reincarnation research, and that Dr Stevenson’s work stands head and shoulders above the rest. But aspects of the huge body of evidence he compiled have received corroboration from his colleagues and those who now follow in his footsteps since his death in 2007. The Division of Perceptual Studies, which he founded at the University of Virginia as part of its department of psychiatry and neurobehavioural sciences, continues to explore a range of paranormal topics relating to consciousness and Dr Jim Tucker has taken over Stevenson’s role in investigating reincarnation cases.
Others who have explored claims of remembered past lives include Icelandic researcher Dr Erlendur Haraldsson (who was at Stevenson’s bedside when he passed on), Jürgen Keil of the University of Tasmania, Australia, Antonia Mills of the University of Northern British Columbia, Canada, and Dr Satwant Pasricha, National Institute of Mental Health & Neurosciences, Bangalore, India.
I’m surprised that Leslie says there has been little replication of Stevenson’s findings. He produced joint papers with both Keil and Haraldsson that reinvestigated cases and confirmed the stability and similarity of features over many years. Tucker, who has developed a scale to measure the strength of children’s claims of previous lives, has worked with Keil on investigating cases where written records were made of a child’s statements before the previous personality was identified. This replicates a similar study carried out by Stevenson and it silences the sceptics who claim such cases can be explained by false or biased reporting of facts by interpreters. Keil has also published results of a limited field study replication of some aspects of Stevenson’s research, applied to cases in Burma, Thailand and Turkey, and Mills has carried out similar replication studies in Northern India.
Even if none of these studies had been carried out, young children around the world would still continue to make statements about what they claim to be a previous life and to behave in a way that disturbs their relatives. It is a global phenomenon and one which appears to have a paranormal cause – whether it be the child’s acquisition of information beyond normal means or the actual transfer of a soul from one body to another. There are anomalies, of course, but they may also be clues as to what is happening and provide us ultimately with a better understanding of the nature of consciousness.
Stevenson discovered that many of these children had birthmarks or birth defects coinciding with wounds or deformities on the persons they claimed to have been in a previous existence. The evidence is contained in his monumental work, Reincarnation and Biology: a contribution to the etiology of birthmarks and birth defects. This illustrated, two-volume, 2,268-page study, published in 1997, examines more than 200 cases, most personally investigated by Stevenson, showing striking similarities in physical features between the deceased subjects and individuals who claim to be their reincarnations. Birthmark cases have taken the research to another level and reincarnation is the explanation that best fits these cases as far as I am concerned.
It was, incidentally, books on Theosophy and Madame Blavatsky in his mother’s library, which he read as a child, that inspired Stevenson’s active involvement in parapsychology. He would, therefore, have been familiar with the words of Mahatma Koot Hoomi in a letter to A.P. Sinnett, which are appropriate to a debate on Spiritualists’ attitudes to reincarnation: “Bear always in mind that there are exceptions to every rule, and to them again and other side exceptions, and be always prepared to learn something new.”
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Professor Ian Stevenson’s book Children Who Remember Previous Lives: A Question of Reincarnation is available from the Spirit of PN Shop, along with other books by him.
Roy Stemman’s book One Soul, Many Lives: First-Hand Stories of Reincarnation and the Striking Evidence of Past Lives is also available from the Spirit of PN Shop, as is the latest reprint of Allan Kardec’s The Spirits’ Book