Reincarnation : When Empiricism Meets Theology

by Edward Pattillo (Ekendra das)

If one were to experimentally raise the question of life after death in a room filled with a cross section of people from different cultures and educational backgrounds it would be interesting to see what effect would be created by the difference of opinion in the individuals involved. If a child were also listening to the melange of variegated opinions how would he or she be affected by the conflicting positions surrounding this subject? How would that child’s perspective on life be affected thereafter? Could the child be resolved on the subject? In this essay I do not propose to answer questions of this sort, but am only trying to implore the reader to ponder the lack of common understanding we have as a society on the subject of death, which is universal to all.

In our experiment one could observe a certain polarization of the different views held by the people involved. To the materialist, the notion of life extending past the cessation of bodily activity could seem preposterous. The idea of no further destination beyond the mundane world might seem equally as ludicrous to the religious or spiritually inclined. Without a clear and common basis of reasoning, the gulf dividing both parties of thought can never be reconciled. Moreover, what is needed to satisfy the scientific rationale and to reach any concrete resolution is a collection of evidence that can be analysed with solid and irrefutable logic.

Until recent years, data of after death experience has been deficient due to an ironic casual emphasis placed on this subject by the scientific community (Sabom, 1986: 4). The logic of why so much time, money and collective intelligence is given towards gathering data on a plethora of relative issues and why so little prominence is given towards research regarding death, a subject which will certainly effect every living creature, is contradictory by any standard. For example, the equivalent of over two hundred thousand Australian dollars are allocated annually in South Carolina towards research into predicting fire-ant mound populations while noted researchers such as Ian Stevenson from the University of Virginia, who study life after death experiences, are virtually ignored. The worldwide death rate is one hundred percent. Shouldn’t understanding the implications of this inevitable event be of utmost concern?

In this essay I will examine current empirical evidence pertinent to life after death with specific reference to the work of Ian Stevenson supporting the reincarnation theory. I will also investigate a few theological perspectives of life after death from various persuasions. Finally, I will discuss some further implications of accepting the concept of reincarnation. This brings me to the thesis that integration and analysis of ancient philosophical doctrines with current empirical studies suggestive of reincarnation, if generally accepted, could significantly alter the paradigms that structure Western culture.

Empirical evidence for the afterlife is hard to come by. This is largely based on the fact that when most people die they take all of the evidence with them. Despite this inherent problem, there are an abundance of case studies of near-death experiences that have been documented and researched with very methodical and scientific methods. One such investigation undertaken by an American cardiologist, Michael Sabom, documents hundreds of people who have had a near-death experience. Some of the results are amazing in that the survivors are often able to recount their experiences in vivid detail. One such description from a 52-year old night watchman from northern Florida is given as he remembers seeing the physicians give his lifeless body electric shock resuscitation:

“They thumped me and I didn’t respond. I thought they had given my body too much voltage. Man, my body jumped about two feet off the table. It appeared to me in some sort of fashion that I had a choice to re-enter my body and take the chance of them bringing me back around or I could just go ahead and die, if I wasn’t already dead. I knew I was going to be perfectly safe, whether my body died or not. They thumped me a second time. I re-entered my body just like that.” (Sabom, 1982: 26)

If this were an isolated incident than it could be easily disregarded as a hoax or a hallucination. The truth is, however, that there are several examples and testimonials of medically documented near-death experiences (NDE’s).

To delve even further into the mystery of life-after-death investigation would entail research into what actually happens after death. This is what the brilliant study of Ian Stevenson into transmigration attempts to assess. Over the past few decades Stevenson has accumulated over three thousand case studies ‘suggestive of reincarnation’, as the title of his book proclaims. A noted psychiatrist and head of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia, Stevenson’s credentials are impeccable. His research, which has been solidly and academically put forward, has almost been completely ignored by most in his field for fear of ridicule.

In his studies children were interviewed who often could remember hundreds of separated and unrelated details of their previous lives. These details include remembrance of parents and family members’ names, place of residence, cause of previous death and, in many incidents, these accounts have been verified in minute detail. Stevenson’s claims are substantiated by volumes of research thereby making it difficult for the scientific community to completely dismiss his work as pure humbug.

Despite the prevailing scepticism and chagrin of theological and scriptural evidence of life after death, it would seem that the most conclusive presentation of the afterlife is presented in the texts of various religious traditions throughout the world. As Paul Davies extorts in his book ‘The Mind of God’:

“If one perseveres with the principles of sufficient reason and demands a rational explanation for nature, then we have no choice but to seek that explanation beyond or outside the physical world.” (Davies, 1992:171)

Scriptural evidence provides mankind with just such explanations.

While the Muslim tradition denies the possibility of reincarnation they certainly believe in life after death. For a Muslim to die in battle against the infidel is the highest glory and secures one passage into the heavenly realms. Unfortunately this belief is often an undercurrent in their politics and military tactics to such a degree that it incites hostility in the areas where Muslim countries are geographically located. Some Islamic traditions such as the Sufi sect claim that this zealous concept was not present in the original teachings of Mohammed.

There is a current theological debate as to whether the early Christian teachings invoked the idea of transmigration. In the Hebrew faith reincarnation became a part of the Kabbalistic teaching. The teaching occurred among the early Christians, especially the Gnostics, Manichaeans, and the Carthari, but was later repudiated by orthodox Christian theologians. The words of Saint Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa (AD 325) give evidence that the early church was more inclined towards the concept of reincarnation:

‘It is absolutely necessary that the soul shall be healed and purified, and if it doesn’t take place in one life on earth, it must be accomplished in future earthly lives.’ (Trinick 1950: 38)

Later, in AD 533, the Council of Constantinople declared reincarnation a heresy. The reason reincarnation was repudiated was because of the eschatological teachings of death and judgment which were established as orthodox Christian doctrine. In simplicity this doctrine states man has just one life in which to merit his eternal reward or damnation. However, many Christians still accept reincarnation because they believe that it was taught by Christ.

Reincarnation is a principle tenet of the Buddhist and Hindu faiths. In these doctrines it is understood that the soul travels from body to body to fulfil desires and to receive an education. The conclusions of either faith are different so a closer look at the Vedic literature, upon which both practices are more or less based, could avail an accurate understanding of the concept of reincarnation from an authoritative perspective. In the Srimad-Bhagavatam it is stated:

The mental condition of a baby is different from that of a boy, the mental condition of a boy is different from that of a young man, and the mental condition of a young man is different from that of an old man. So at death the process of changing bodies takes place due to the subtle body; the mind, intelligence and ego carry the soul from one gross body to another. This is called transmigration of the soul.”(Prabhupada 1988:560)

Whether or not we accept the idea of life after death, we are certainly forced by the laws of nature to accept the idea of death. One consistent theme in most case studies was that the life-shaking crisis the person had experienced forced them to ‘re-examine what was most important in their lives’ (Kellehear, 1996:180). The understanding we have developed of our inevitable death will instinctively and fundamentally mould our character and the decisions we make in our lives. If we hold to the concept that everything is finished at the time of death we can only look towards death with a nervous uncertainty. The logic that proceeds from this conclusion is something similar to: “Let me get whatever I want in life regardless of whom it adversely affects. After all, this life is all we have.” In this paradigm the concept of morality is obsolete unless in regard to somehow procuring some self-centred objective. The more our society is influenced by this mode of thinking then the more competitive and less peaceful we can expect to become.

On the other hand, if we understand that life extends beyond this bodily incarceration and, furthermore, that the activities we perform in this life will play some role towards affecting our future destination, the entire basis of our conscious existence is affected. We will not view the world as a place for unimpeded exploitation and sensual enjoyment. Instead, we will see our experience here as a conscientious education towards understanding the purpose of our existence. The logic that proceeds from this platform of reasoning might sound like, “If after this life I will get a different body, then who or what is it that keeps changing bodies?” In other words, “Who am I?” If we are not certain who we are then all of our deepest urges to seek happiness will be misdirected and ultimately fall short of fully giving satisfaction.

This leads to the question “Whom or what is it that we are trying to satisfy?” If it is our body then why does it instinctively look for satisfaction? Other material objects such as a desk, table or a rock do not seek satisfaction. In his book, “Closer to the Light,” paediatrician Melvin Morse wrote:

“I have re-examined a generation of scientific research into higher brain function and have found that the soul hypothesis explains many “unexplained” events. It explains out-of-body experiences, the sensation of leaving the body and accurately describing details outside of the body’s field of view. Events such as floating out of the physical body and giving accurate details of one’s own cardiac arrest – things a person couldn’t see even if their eyes were open- are virtually impossible to explain if we do not believe in a consciousness separate from our bodies that could be called a soul.” (Morse and Perry, 1990: 169)

Sabom’s statistics showed that ‘ninety-three percent of persons perceived their ‘separated self’ to be a non-material entity’ (Sabom 1982:21).

Srila Prabhupada more distinctively explains the soul’s existence in his purport to Text 17 in Chapter Two of Bhagavad-gita:

“Anyone can understand what is spread all over the body: it is consciousness. Everyone is conscious of the pains and pleasures of the body in part or as a whole. This spreading of consciousness is limited within one’s own body. The pains and pleasures of one body are unknown to another. Therefore, each and every body is the embodiment of an individual soul, and the symptom of the soul’s presence is perceived as individual consciousness.” (Prabhupada, 1972:96)

It cannot be refuted that we are conscious living entities. If science cannot provide an explanation of life after death through pragmatic verification then scriptural evidence should not discarded out of spitefulness. In light of the ever-changing theories proposed by the scientific community throughout history it would seem that our sensory perception and collective power of reasoning leave us with little to be proud of. Moreover, the paradigm shift initiated by the acceptance of reincarnation could have widespread repercussions that might invoke a deeper sense of cultural humility.

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References

Davies, Paul (1992) The Mind of God , London: Simon & Schuster

Morse, Melvin, and Perry, Paul (1990) Closer to the Light: Learning from the Near Death Experiences of Children , New York: Villard Books

Sabom, M.B. (1982) Recollections of Death , New York: Harper and Row Trinick, John. (1950)

St. Gregory of Nyssa and the Rise of Christian Mysticism, London: Shorne 1950. Kellehear, A. (1996)

Experiences Near Death: Beyond Medicine and Religion , New York: Oxford University Press Trinick, John. (1950)


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