Even in the West – where Christianity and the scientific-materialist world view compete for dominance – fascination with the prospect of life after death is widespread. According to The Reincarnationist, a collective blog on the topic, there are currently about 26 million people who believe that reincarnation is a fact of (after)life.
Novelist MJ Rose created The Reincarnationist as a marketing tool for her new historical suspense novel by the same name – a spicy tale of a photojournalist who begins to remember a life lived as a pagan priest in ancient Rome. It seems as if former advertising executive Rose may have written the book – rife as it is with sex, murder, and historical drama – with the intention of giving Dan Brown a run for his money. Regardless of the somewhat tacky pop-occult feel of the book project, the blog offers readers a good introduction to current thinking about reincarnation – a concept that is fascinating, and truly mystical.
Hinduism and Buddhism have had the idea of reincarnation at the core of their belief system and spiritual practice for thousands of years. In Hindu mythology, the gods and goddesses are sometimes reborn in different human bodies, usually as a form of punishment or because of a curse by a demon. In Buddhism, all the bodhisattvas and spiritual figures are believed to reincarnate, and these rebirths can be tracked and recorded from one physical manifestation to another. The spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, is considered to be in his fourteenth incarnation on earth.
There is also a long list of Western historical figures who believed in reincarnation, including Carl Jung, Albert Einstein, Napoleon, Mark Twain, Voltaire, Henry Ford, Friedrich Nietzsche, Emily Dickinson, Rudolph Steiner, and Aldous Huxley. Before the philosophical reign of modern Christianity, Gnostic Christians and pagans believed in reincarnation, partly due to the influence of the Mystery schools of Eleusis, Dionysus, Mithras, and Osiris which initiated people into their esoteric knowledge of the eternal nature of reality and the existence of the human soul after death.
Metaphysicians like Edgar Cayce and Rudolph Steiner claimed access to the Akashic Records: a cosmic database containing detailed information about peoples' past lives. Cayce did more than twenty-five hundred of these past-life readings for people during the course of his work. Steiner wrote a book tracing his accounts of famous peoples' past lives, and gave several lectures about reincarnation. There has also been scientific interest in the idea: the late psychiatrist and reincarnation researcher Ian Stevenson documented many cases of children who spontaneously remembered verifiable details of their past lives. The quantum physicist Amit Goswami's book Physics of the Soul: The Quantum Book of Living, Dying, Reincarnation and Immortality describes the possibility of reincarnation interpreted through quantum physics.
While the question of life after death may never be definitively answered for us, perhaps the experience of death lies somewhere in our collective memory, in the twilight landscapes and liminal zones, the transitional phases in our lives when we experience loss, die to ourselves, and are reborn into joy.
Image: "Light Spell" by pbo31, Creative Commons.
Tristan Gulliford is a writer, dreamer, and aspiring myth-keeper who makes electronic music under the name "Dreamcode". He is currently attending the University of Colorado at Boulder.Tweet