Reincarnation Beliefs and Cases of Animistic Tribal Peoples

I’d like to say something about the reincarnation beliefs and cases of animistic tribal peoples and how these differ from those found elsewhere.

Not many people realize how widespread animistic beliefs are—cross-cultural studies have found them in between one third and one half of tribal peoples living today (or at least when they were studied, usually sometime in the 20th century). The beliefs are found on every inhabited continent and in most culture areas of all continents except Europe.

There is every reason to think these beliefs are quite ancient and they have been the original reincarnation beliefs. They are different in some respects from other beliefs, and some of the patterns of tribal cases are also different, although interestingly, they are associated with the very same signs—announcing dreams, birthmarks, phobias, peculiar behaviors, memories of previous lives, etc. This makes sense to me, if the cases reflect something fundamental about human biology and psychology (reincarnation), but the beliefs regarding the process are the products of philosophical and religious thinking and theorizing.

One of the biggest ways animistic ideas differ from other ideas is in the absence of any notion of juridical karma, by which I mean the Indic idea that what we do or think determines the circumstances under which we are reborn and can impact us in various ways in this life or our next lives as a sort of natural law external to ourselves. Juridical karma is associated by many Westerners with reincarnation, but actually, there are other beliefs systems—the ancient Greek and Roman, for instance, and those of heterodox Shia sects like the Druze—that do not include this idea of karma either.

Animistic peoples also have a somewhat different idea of the spirit or soul. They do not think of the soul as something unitary and eternal, but rather changeable and potentially duplicatable or divisible. Typically, the spirit may also continue in the afterlife at the same time it—or an emanation from it—has been reincarnated in one or more children.

Their reincarnation cases closely resemble those found elsewhere, but some of the case patterns are different—an usually high percentage are in the lineage are clan and are classified as “family” or “same-family” cases. The cases may fall predominately on one side of the family or the other, however, depending on a society’s kinship structure—almost all cases from the patrilineal Igbo of Nigeria occur on the father’s side, but almost all those of the matrilineal Tlingit of Alaska occur on the mother’s side.

Reincarnation is very closely associated with lineal structures and with certain associated practices, such as cross-cousin marriage, and it is also tightly linked with naming practices and inheritance patterns. Why should that be? I argued in a journal paper that it is because these societies are set up to take advantage of reincarnation and the best way to assure that someone will have again what he had before is for him to reincarnate in the same clan and receive the same name, because names are considered clan property and are linked to property, rights and privileges. I found further support for this idea in my M.A. thesis, which tested various hypotheses about reincarnation in relation to social practices against a sample of 30 tribal societies.

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Do We Change or Evolve Between Lives?

Do we change or evolve between lives? That we do is a belief that goes back to the classical Greeks in Western culture. Plato believed that there was 1000 years between lives, during which time we did penance for our sins before reincarnating. But many investigated cases of past-life memory suggest that this may not be true and that we make the most progress while embodied, not between lives.

Wijeratne was a Sri Lankan boy born with a stunted right arm which he blamed on his having used his arm to kill a girl to whom he was betrothed when she decided against going through with her marriage with him. The man whose life Wijeratne recalled had been tried for the crime, found guilty, and hung, 18 ½ years before Wijeratne was born. But Wijeratne had not made peace with his crime during this period. He spent much of his youth in and out of mental hospitals, diagnosed with schizophrenia, the episodes brought on by contact with young women he identified with the woman he had killed in his previous life. Eventually he did work through his conflicts, however, and settled down into a happy marriage.

A Burmese girl who was born with a severe case of ichthyosis, or plaque psoriasis, recalled the life of another girl afflicted by the same disease. This girl had recalled the life of a monk who had died in a monastery fire. The girl who was the subject of the case believed that she had carried over the disease because she had not come to terms with it. She determined to do that in her present life, and the condition gradually lessened, to the point she believed it would not reoccur in her next life.

Young children often display personality traits and behaviors related to the previous life when young, then grow away from them later. So it seems that the intermission period may not be a time when we necessarily grow and change, despite what we often hear. It appears that it can happen, though, perhaps depending on the individual. I have heard of an Indian case in which a man had a series of dreams about a friend who died tragically in an auto accident. In these dreams, his friend told him that was now healed and was ready to return as his son. That has not yet happened, so we don’t know whether these are true announcing dreams or not.

Individual variation might explain why we see influences from past lives carried forward more profoundly in some cases than others and is another indication that reincarnation is fundamentally a psychological process.

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Unfinished Business and Past-Life Memory

In this post I want to describe a common feature of past-life memory, especially in the cases of children who remember premature natural deaths (usually from disease), and that is some sort of unfinished business left over from the previous life. There are various types of unfinished business and they form part of a larger category of continuing (or ongoing) business. For instance, some children recall the lives of women who died leaving young children in need of care. Jenny Cockell’s Irish life is a famous example of this. Several boys have shown the previous person’s widow where they left buried treasure that no one had known about. Other children recall having left debts that need to be paid or collected.

Memories classified as involving continuing business are often those of merchants or other entrepreneurs who died in the prime of life. In these cases, it is as if the unfinished or continuing business made the memories especially salient and helped to force them into the child’s conscious awareness so that they could be acted upon. Ian Stevenson noted that almost all his natural-death cases featured some sort of continuing business. They also appear in many cases with violent deaths.

An example of a case with unfinished business is a Syrian Druze case from Wortabet’s Researches into the Religions of Syria (pp. 308-309), published in 1860. It is the earliest detailed account of the sort of case we study today to be published in English.

 “A child, five years old, in Djebel el A’ala, complained of the life of poverty which his parents led, and alleged that he had been a rich man of Damascus; that on his death he was born in another place, but had lived only six months; that he was born again among his present friends; and desired to be carried to that city [Damascus]. He was taken there by his relatives; and on the way astonished them by his correct knowledge of the names of the different places they passed. On reaching the city he led the way through various streets to a house which he said had been his own. He knocked, and called the woman of the house by her name; and on being admitted told her that he had been her husband, and asked about the welfare of their several children, relatives, and acquaintances whom he had left. The Druses of the place soon met to inquire into the truth of the matter. The boy gave them a full account of his past life among them, of the names of his acquaintances, the property which he had possessed, and the debts which he had left. All was found to be strictly true, except for a small sum which he said a certain weaver owed him. The man was called, and on the claim being mentioned to him, he acknowledged it, pleading his poverty for not having paid it to the children of the deceased. The child then asked the woman who had been his wife, whether she had found a sum of money which he had hid in the cellar; and on her replying in the negative, he went directly to the place, dug up the treasure, and counted it before them. The money was found to be of exactly the amount and kind of specie which he had specified. His wife and children, who had become considerably older than himself, then gave him some money, and he returned with his new friends to his mountain home.”

Some sort of unfinished business turns up so often in reincarnation cases that I think it must be an important factor in why the lives are recalled. It is as if the need to express the memory is retained in the subconscious mind after reincarnation and this helps it to make its way into the conscious awareness of the subject. Associational triggers are often evident on the subject’s side, but unfinished business appears to be an important—perhaps a crucial—factor on the previous person’s side.

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Pregnancy Cravings in Reincarnation Cases

 

Unusual food cravings and behaviors are fairly common during pregnancy and most have no discernible reincarnation connection. However, when the children born of those pregnancies crave the same foods, one has to wonder if they were influencing their mothers in some way while in the womb. The phenomenon becomes even more intriguing when the children recall previous lives that can be verified and it turns out that the people whose lives they remember were fond of those foods.

In one case Ian Stevenson studied, that of a Thai boy named Bongkuch Promsin, not only was the Bongkuch fond of a certain noodle dish that his mother had craved during her pregnancy,  it turned out the previous whose life he recalled had been fond of the same dish—and that person’s mother had had the same craving when she was pregnant with him. It looks as if the liking for this dish was so strong that it has persisted over at least three lives, influencing two pregnancies! In another of Stevenson’s cases, a woman whose son recalled the life of an alcoholic had an intense desire for alcohol during her pregnancy, controlled only with great difficulty.

It is not just food preferences that may impact pregnant women. Some women become intensely interested in certain activities while enceinte, and those things turn out to be interests of their children later and also of the people whose lives they recall. One woman experienced an increased interest in music during her first three pregnancies and her children showed an aptitude for music, then with her fourth child she was intensely interested in sewing and cooking, which turned out to be concerns of that child.

Pregnant women may also show aversions for things they normally enjoy, but which are disliked by their children after birth and turn out to have been disliked by the previous persons also. One woman normally enjoyed gambling at cards, but not while she was pregnant. Not only was the child born of that pregnancy opposed to the games that resumed after she was born, but she remembered having been a woman with strong religious attitudes and moral dislike for such activities.

I describe in my forthcoming book with Erlendur Haraldsson, I Saw a Light and Came Here: Children’s Experiences of Reincarnation, how an American woman from Philadelphia, Patricia Stein, experienced an intense craving for hot and spicy foods while she was pregnant with her first son, Stephen. Patricia did not much care for these foods, had not eaten them before her pregnancy, and after she delivered Stephen, they went away.

It turned out that Stephen was very fond of them, however. The discovery came about by accident one evening when he was 3 years old, and Patricia and her sister took him to a Mexican restaurant. Since Patricia and her husband did not enjoy these foods, this was the first time Stephen  had had the opportunity to eat them, but he liked them so much that after that he was treated to them on birthdays and other special occasions. Now in his 30s, he still enjoys Mexican foods.

That night at the Mexican restaurant when he was 3, Stephen also revealed something else. He and his mother and aunt were seated at a booth at the back of the room, where there was a large map of Mexico on the wall. While Patricia and her sister talked, he was studying this map. When their waitress came up, he pointed to a small town in the north-central part of the country and said that is where he was from. He pronounced the name perfectly, according the waitress, a Spanish major in college, and she asked Patricia if she teaching him Spanish. She was not and did not know the language herself. She had studied German and her sister French. Stephen’s father  had studied French and Latin. No one in their family had any acquaintance with Spanish and Stephen had had no exposure to the language.

Phenomena like these are among the signs of reincarnation researchers look for, though they are reported in only a few cases. We need better studies of these influences in relation to cravings and aversions in general to better understand how they might relate to reincarnation. But when they are related to reincarnation, how would this work? We know from many cases that beliefs, preferences and various personality traits can carry over from life to life, but how are these transferred to mothers from within the womb? Are the children influencing their mothers psychically? Perhaps. While Patricia Stein was pregnant with Stephen, she felt impelled to give that name to her baby, although it was not one she and her husband had been considering. I have heard of another case in which a pregnant woman became impressed with a name that turned out to be the name of the deceased person whose life her daughter later recalled. That, however, is a subject for another post.

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The Major Signs of Reincarnation

This site, my Facebook group and my online course are all called Signs of Reincarnation. Why is that? What does the name mean?

By Signs of Reincarnation I mean to signal that I will be talking about the evidence for reincarnation, most of which comes from people’s spontaneous memories of previous lives. That evidence in turn has everything to do with a set of recurring signs, which can be grouped into three or four major classes:

(1) Imaged memories and their associated statements and recognitions of people, places or things related to the life recalled;

(2) Behaviors consistent with the previous person, including personality patterns and skills, including sometimes language skills, and also emotional carryovers, such as phobias relating to the way the previous person died;

(3) Physical signs such as birthmarks commemorating death wounds, but also things like stature, facial characteristics, even internal diseases and birth defects; and

(4) Phenomena relating to the period between lives, the intermission, such as dreams of pregnant woman in which a spirit seems to announce its intention to be reborn to her (announcing dreams), pregnancy cravings relating to the food preferences of the person whose life the child will recall later, children’s memories of choosing their parents, etc.

All of these things turn up again and again in cases that have been well documented and in which the previous person spoken about has been identified, what we call “solved” cases, but they also appear in unsolved cases. I will discuss these signs in more detail in other posts.

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