I think whatever afterlife belief you learned young, from parents or friends or the culture around you, it becomes very deeply ingrained. It’s very difficult for me to imagine any other possible scenario for after death than reincarnation. Yet for many people growing up in America, the default is heaven and hell, but they know there’s this neat and exotic idea out there about living again.
Clearly people want to believe that life continues in some way after death. It is a rare and strong individual who is comfortable with the idea that there is no soul or consciousness that continues on to some next step (one reason why I have a lot of respect for my atheist friends). To me, rather than look down on people who so strongly want to believe that there is something after we die, I think that is a sign that there really is. I think it is programmed into us to want and believe in something beyond this one life. My parents used to tell me that we know in our hearts that we are immortal, but we get confused and think that this body or this particular life is supposed to be immortal, and that is a mistake.
Unlike the heaven/hell concept of afterlife, reincarnation is more organic and motivating. It isn’t that we have this limited amount of time to get everything right and if we screw it up, we’re punished for all eternity. We may enjoy life and want to do it again, but we also become motivated to figure out how to break the cycle of life and death because eventually we all realize that there’s a lot of pain and struggle in life. Once you realize that you can go to a state of pure bliss, of course you try to get to that state. You have all the time in the world to do it, but the sooner you do, the less you have to deal with the pain, loss, and heartache that is a part of living within maya.
I’ve had this understanding of life and death for as long as I can remember. When my father’s cat died when I was a toddler, I was told that if he had been a very good cat (i.e., fulfilled the duties inherent in being a cat), he might get a chance to be reborn as a human (the only embodiment for whom enlightenment/moksha is possible). When my grandfather died, I was told that I might meet him again one day, though I wouldn’t know it was him.
Reincarnation actually makes a lot of sense as a theory of life and death. If consciousness is an energy, then it cannot just disappear when we die. The body dies, but that conscious energy has to go somewhere. That’s the law of conservation of energy. To me it makes a lot more sense for that energy to go into a new body rather than going to a place, a heaven that’s filling up with who knows how many “souls.” Once the energy is clarified, it can merge with the greater consciousness that keeps the world running and that is the goal.
To people who haven’t grown up with that idea, perhaps it sounds as strange to them as the idea of heaven and hell sounds to me!
Here are some issues and questions that I hear people have about it…
Why is it that everyone thinks they were Cleopatra or some other famous person in a past life?
It is very rare for people to remember their past lives. Considering that we have already had thousands of them (this IS the Kali Yuga, after all!), it would be super confusing if we maintained memories of all our previous lives. Some people do seem to be able to remember at least bits of the previous one sometimes. But if you’ve gone to a medium or some person who says they can help you recover past life memories and they suggest to you that you were someone who changed history, chances are it’s a scam. They are just feeding into your desire to feel special. You were a regular person, just as you are now. But that doesn’t mean you’re not special!
Reincarnation helps explain why there is such variety in people. We are all the product of thousands of years of experiences. Some have suggested that I may have been Indian in a recent past life and maybe that’s why I have a strong affinity for India and its culture. My father says that when you hear on the news about someone who has been horrifically cruel to another human being, that person is most likely new to a human embodiment and still has a lot of animal instincts in them.
Why are there more people now than there used to be?
You have to think more globally than that. Every single living being is a soul. That includes the trees that are being cut down every day. Humans are appearing and meanwhile, bees are disappearing. Planets have a soul. Consciousness is flowing all around the universe and it’s not possible to count it up in individually packaged units.
Reincarnation is not an “exotic” idea that some weird other people believe in. It isn’t limited to a handful of people smoking pot and a bunch of strangers in India. It’s a very reasonable explanation for the data that we see around us. I have no memories of past lives, but I see clues and hints of experiences I had in past lives. The theory that children come into this world a blank slate has been debunked by mothers the world over, who marvel at the different personalities their children have from nearly the moment of their birth. We don’t need to necessarily know the details of past lives, just know that some of our unexplained fears or passions may derive from that past.
I haven’t read this particular book, but I’ve read some accounts of people who say they remember past lives and the stories are always really interesting. It stretches our minds to see some of the amazing things that do happen in the world, that we might have considered impossible.
This book makes the intriguing case that Jesus believed in reincarnation (ask someone who believes in reincarnation about Jesus rising from the dead and they won’t be nearly as impressed as someone who doesn’t believe in reincarnation!)
And, of course, I loved the new movie Cloud Atlas too.
What questions about reincarnation do you wonder? What questions have you heard people ask?