Reincarnation: The Truth About Past Lives

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.

You Only Live Infinite Times

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.

Learn More:

This movie has a great way of looking at reincarnation and how it might work. It’s both funny and deeply touching.

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This is a book that I had and LOVED as a child about the process of a soul choosing his new life:

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.

My parents had a book similar to this one showing quotes and essays from people in a variety of religions and belief systems about reincarnation:
 And another similar one:

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?


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About Ambaa Choate

Ambaa is an American woman of European ancestry who is also a practicing Hindu. She is fascinated with questions of philosophy, culture, and the meaning of life. Join her in the journey to explore how a non-Indian convert to Hinduism experiences her religion.

  • http://www.deafdrummer.org Stephanie Ellison

    “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.”

    ———————-

    I have wondered about that. In another one of your posts, I wondered, “I’m not a Hindu, and I don’t know that I can ever be fully one, or even
    partially anything, BUT, there is something, way back there, that feels
    like something that was just “left hanging” a long time ago. Like I
    remember something. When I read something about India or something
    cultural, I feel there is something running through it as a vague, but
    familiar thread of something that gets my attention every time.”

    • Ambaa

      And, you know, even if you were Hindu in a previous life, it doesn’t mean that you have to be one now. In the end, the label can limit you and I think it’s best to identify as your heart in the present calls you!

      • http://www.deafdrummer.org Stephanie Ellison

        (Remove foot from my mouth) I forgot to say that if I was a Hindu at one time, then I still am. Only I have forgotten that. However, the thing I really struggle with is the core within me, which is very much alive and very strong. I can still feel the language-less, the lack of social strictures, and the lack of knowledge of religion. I can still remember what it was like to be totally in that state, the pre-lingual state in the Deaf Years. This “me” doesn’t want to compromise or change, very much like the situation that if you are normally sexually extroverted or very open-minded about different kinds of relationships, but you find yourself romantically involved with someone, and you forget to check early in the relationship whether this person is open to these things, only to find you must dress conservatively or you must damn the relationships that s/he doesn’t accept. It has to agree totally with me, or there’s no “go” in it. We must be mindful of the trap many people get into. Often we find ourselves lonely (maybe because we haven’t learned to be “good company” for ourselves yet), looking for that something that connects ourselves to a group of people who have ideals “kinda-sorta like ours.” Maybe I’m doing that now, living out in the country on a property owned by a man who must be in his FIRST LIFETIME EVER ON EARTH! Gah, the lack of everything that espouses Sanaatana Dharma! I’m usually alone the entire weekend, and I might see his grand kids or himself once or twice. BUT, I knew this was going to happen, and I’ve done this for years, not talking to people in person for days at a time when I lived in the big city. And BUT, I do it because I am looking for like-minded people, not a cult to join just because I can’t stand being alone. The deeper we go in, the more compromises we make until we end up completely unlike we were at the beginning of the journey into this group of people, and there’s that deep flash of awareness just on the periphery that nudges you ever so softly and says, “These people are good and fun to be around, but IS THIS what you REALLY believe in?” We either acknowledge that our own individual beliefs match or don’t match theirs, and we decide whether we can coexist (as in Universal Unitarianism without claiming to be one), or we cannot (as in various Christian denominations that don’t agree with one another). So, here is where I am, attempting to bridge that huge gap between my pre-lingual senses and that of today’s modern-civilized peoples.

      • http://www.deafdrummer.org Stephanie Ellison

        Dhanyavaad… I would like to add that I am a big archaeology fan, especially that of Egypt, the Middle East, and South Asia. For the last 9 or 10 years, I have been on the look out for “something” in excavation reports from various digs in these regions. It’s like some place, some thing is calling out to me. Whatever it is, I’m still searching… The way archaeological history is set up feels wrong to me, like every structure they find is assumed to be a temple, or they assign a religious connotation to various objects, when really, we have no idea because none of us were there in this present lifetime.

        Another thing I do is play jigsaw puzzles when I need to calm down or reach that place in my mind. I have an account at jigidi.com, and I always look for particular photos, like “women in India,” “hindu holidays,” “mandir/temples,” etc. I’ll get the largest of them to create big puzzles with around 500 or more pieces and upload them to jigidi. They have software that will “jigsaw” your photo to whatever level of complexity you want, and you can play and pause at anytime, which is saved in your account. I have lots of puzzles like this, and they help me feel that place that is inside me, a memory, a sense. Something is there.

        Something is happening. It’s like I’m finding my way along, but on what feels like a solitary path. Almost like I’m looking to Sanaatana Dharma for something, some sign posts to guide me back to those places I was at before. It isn’t time for moksha yet. Something was left hanging.

        See, I sometimes get the feeling that all of civilization since that time was created specifically to make it possible for me to find my way back. I had the feeling about 10 years ago that “Finally, we have arrived. We have this knowledge, this technology, this capability, yet I feel bad about all the things that had to happen to bring me to this point. Given all this, it is time to use the awareness of a distant time to dig up all the records in the ground and determine what went wrong when I died in that time frame.” I wonder if the jigsaw puzzle thing is another tool to help me jog my memory…

        I have a language that I created nearly 30 years ago, and I learned recently that it is similar to an abugida, which is a type of writing system that languages like Hindi, Sanskrit, Urdu, etc. are based on. AND, I create words using an encoding method used somewhere in the Middle East thousands of years ago. Because this was 30 years ago, I had no access to books on languages like these. ???

  • zzizek

    I really do like the Buddhism as a mental training which shows how illusional we are and how we see thing fabricated from our mind’s stories point of view. Though, at the same time one asks isn’t idea of a rebirth also a mental fabrication? I think it might have something to do with wanting to find “truth”, and this basicly means “not being here”, because you are dweling on something. You are truly “here” only when you are aware of the proccess of how you create your own thoughts, so … in some kind of a way, this is the true Kingdom. The True Kingdom is seeing how many stories we made up to not see the truth. And this basicly because of emotions, which are too hard to feel and we represses them but then they want to show up. Sometimes they also show up trough a defense such as depression, which means lack of hope, because we have so much grief and anger we were not allowed to feel that at some point we fell into the “existental crises”. We might have repressed joy, too. And because we are not being able to feel the full scale of our emotions, our life is pretty much one-colour – black. And so this is basicly just a derivate steaming inside of was, showing itself in some other way. Basicly everything is just as it looks at the first sighn most of the times – people wearing black are sad even if not aware of it (well, sometimes not really, and they just think they must wear it, but in most of the cases, this is the case), people doing drugs hate life – meaning there is repressed anger … and so on, and so on. So in most of the cases, it has something to do with emotions and OUR point of view … our mental fabrications and our true motives for those fabrications. Looking from this point of view, meditation is the most spiritual thing as you are being honest with yourself and look at your own story and slowly put it “apart”. Well, what is left, then, if we unrail everything? First of all, it never happens, second of all, it is a question steaming out of desperate thinking … I started psychoanalysis and meditation, plus listening to dhamma talks. I’m not sure when will I reach the goal, but somehow I feel it – it is happiness – feeling the full scale … being able to cry, and being able to feel more joy. So, yeah, basicly that’s what I’m after. And somehow I feel I will be through when I will stop thinking about the “meaning”, etc., and just enjoy my life, though in a true responsible way. But later isn’t the same as “rules for live”. We already know love, we just forgot it because of all the rules and mental fabrications being passed on because of the hurt that wasn’t allowed to be felt since thousands of years and so it was carried on trough generation … Regards.

    • zzizek

      Conciousness thing is an interesting thing to dwell on. It has bothered many religions, I think. How does one become concious and where does it come from. This is where I come the closest to believing in “spirituality” – here I think it might have something to do with the universe. It is said we become concious at 6 months or something, don’t take me for granted.

      But at the same time, I don’t think this has anything to do with the rebirth. I think we have this burden of emotional pain passed on and we feel the pain and emotions of our ancestors. It all remains in our genes. So from this point of view some kind of deja-vus might have something to do with someone like our grand-grand-grand-grand-grand father for example, leaving in a barock or something. Maybe some have better intuition (or intuition for the “truth” (emotional) in overall sense), and some that are more logical don’t have it, because there a defenses blocking those senses for everything to be felt. So I kind of think we are still born “pure” and would be more intutional if we wouldn’t learn how to repress emotions or would have less trauma moments for example.

      • zzizek

        http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0456340/ – Very interesting movie about past lives being felt trough hyponis. Though mostly she doesn’t get it into the conciousness, that’s why Freud stop doing it, because you might very well feel the emotions that are being repressed, but you must put them (express them) into conciousness.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zesLSfSgWm4 – Meditation secret Hindu (correct me if I’m wrong, but if my memory serves me right, I don’t remember this video disscusing about rebirth as for example you die and you born with the same history somewhere else or something like that …)

        Not there is 3rd interactive thing I remember being watched – it is “I Origins” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2884206/?ref_=nv_sr_1). Now this one is talking about this very option of being death and being reborn with the same (emotional) history (eyes, in fact) …

  • chris

    Wonderful article what you say makes allot of sense to me :)

  • KMGuru

    Reincarnation
    is a property of the Universe…whether you believe it or not. The reason, we do
    not know that is because our laws that can cause serious issues. American
    Indians knew that and enjoyed the path. So. Perhaps in 500 years you will have
    full recall of the past lives and understand the very nature. This is because
    the Universe has to grow and hence Reincarnation works for all Life forms….some
    are combined like Plant Life and others are individual. Enjoy it.

    Oh! It is not really necessary for humans to know their past activities, unless they did some really smart stuff. Then again, if you are a doctor this time and an engineer last time, what can you learn from your activities. The only thing you can do is to feel nice that you had certain knowledge in the past. But for the universe, it is important since it builds up your knowledge bit by bit and allows you to do amazing things in the long run. That is how the Civilization grows over time. But if you act like an idiot, then it is called Dying Civilization or Collapse. Perhaps you may want to know what you did before to progress.