Michiel Hegener is a Dutch journalist who has kept his personal memories of reincarnation to himself for many years. He immediately sensed , and is now in a position to confirm from his own and his interviewees’ experience, that openly expressing a belief in reincarnation can damage one’s career. His book Leven op herhaling (in Dutch: “Living in repeat mode”) started as a journalistic search into the truth of reincarnation which the leading Rotterdam daily NRC refused to publish.
The writer looks at the existing proof for reincarnation. This proof is mainly the spontaneous testimony of children, the testimony of adults brought into trance by regression therapists, and the procedures of the Tibetan Tulkus and others who consciously deal with reincarnation. He does not hesitate to map out their weak points, but concludes nonetheless that what remains is still very persuasive: memories from past lives are a fact, and reincarnation is this fact’s most credible explanation.
Persuasive proof is for instance provided by the case of James Feininger, an American child of Christian parents who at first set out to disprove his reincarnation “fantasies”. He reported many facts, which were all verified, about the life of fighter pilot James Huston, shot down by the Japanese in World War 2. His parents Bruce and Andrea Feininger devoted the book Soul Survivor to the long and tortuous process of verification and their conversion to reincarnation belief. Many cases of children reporting past lives have been studied by Ian Stevenson and his successor Jim Tucker, and by the Indian woman researcher Satwant Pasricha. Adult cases of regression have been tested and largely or fully verified by the Australian researcher Peter Ramster, such as the case of the Australian housewife Gwen McDonald who reports having lived in 18th-century Britain, by the Icelandic researcher Elendur Haraldsson, and a few others. US police inspector Robert Snow documented how he discovered and fully verified how he lived in the 19th century as the painter Carroll Beckwith.
No two people remember the same life, which would have been an argument against reincarnation and for a lesser paranormal explanation such as telepathy. Two large samples of adults both show an almost equal division of past lives as man or as woman, which is an argument for their testimonies’ veracity.
The writer also cites some Tulkus (consciously reincarnating Lamas) such as Gyalwang Karmapa, Dutch regression therapist Lowie de Bie, and researcher Titus Rivas. Finally, he crosses swords with the skeptics Steve Hales (student of reincarnation researcher Robert Almeder) and Rob Nanninga.
In particular, he reports rather negatively on an article on reincarnation research by the leading Dutch skeptic Rob Nanninga. Skeptics have this knee-jerk reaction of alleging fraud. They are paranoids living in a world full of deceivers eager for money. Indeed, they are very money-oriented. They will say, for instance, about natural diets that “they don’t make you lighter, except your wallet”. From my experience in the New Age world, I have found there are far more deluded people than outright frauds, who don’t believe what they say but make others believe it. At any rate, the allegation of fraud is a serious affair, and should only be made if you can provide positive proof, not as an automatic alternative when a real explanation of unexplained facts is lacking.
But the good side of the hostile attitude of the skeptics and of the Western establishment is that nothing but the best evidence is good enough. The sloppy evidence common among internet Hindus, who claim to have “proven” reincarnation where it turns out that from their armchairs they have only argued that it is more rational and just than Christianity’s eternal afterlife (which plays upon the fond expectation that the world is just after all), will not do. Here, the anomalies are so strong that a explanation other than reincarnation becomes very unlikely. The interpretation of a karmic connection between lives, already disputed and practically undiscussed in this book, is much harder to prove, and is at any rate very different from the mere fact that we reincarnate. The Hindu-Buddhist belief in karmic reincarnation is now perhaps the best-known version of the reincarnation theory in the West, but is by no means universal. Some peoples believe that reincarnation is desirable, not something that must be ended (as Buddhists believe), or that it is simply a fact of life.
One thing that strikes me, as an Orientalist and decennia-long student of Hindu-Buddhist traditions involving reincarnation, is that this book, like every regression therapist or reincarnation researcher that I have heard lecture or with whom I have talked, treats reincarnation without encountering any fact that points to karma. There seems to be a continuity between lives, e.g. birthmarks are at the spot where the earlier incarnation suffered wounds, and an obvious tendency is reported to be reborn in roughly the same neighbourhood, family or circumstances. But there seems to be no evidence of reward or punishment, of being born blind as a punishment for past sins.
There is only little reference to existing ethnic beliefs about reincarnation. The Tibetan Tulkus are merely cited for their practice of “recognizing” new incarnations, not for their doctrines. Even the selection of interesting cases strongly discriminates against people from nations that already have a widespread belief in reincarnation. This is done on purpose: the numerous cases reported in India would be shot down by skeptics as cases of encouragement by the environment, which applauds recognized cases of reincarnations as prestigious or at least as welcome. In the West, and especially in atheist, Muslim and militantly Christian circles, claims of reincarnation are resolutely disbelieved, so cases are reported which were actually discovered by people who were at first out to disprove reincarnation.
Among the implications of reincarnation are a far greater attention to children’s rights. We are our children or grandchildren. Thus, children should not be given lifelong bodily interventions such as circumcision. They should not be forced into a religion. Of course, if reincarnation is recognized as a fact, it will be very harmful for the religions that deny it. So, this research has an inherent bias against Christianity and Islam, unless it concludes negatively.
Meanwhile, the belief in reincarnation should also stimulate interreligious tolerance. Those against whom we now fight on the streets (or otherwise hate), might be a community to which we once belonged ourselves. In India, 19 cases of reincarnation in a sample of 387 turned out to have changed religion between lives. But again, such a scenario is anything but religiously neutral: it confirms a widespread (though not a defining) Hindu belief and refutes the official Muslim position.
Another implication is ecology. We must leave the earth in good condition to future generations, because we ourselves are the future generations. A related issue is animal welfare, to whom Hindus and Jains pay so much attention:. That cow you see on the streets, or in the meadow, may (at least according to some reincarnation researchers) be the temporary abode of a soul normally incarnated in humans.
The writer is inclined to the oft-heard position that we shall never fully know, but that is to be doubted. Isaac Newton formulated the law of gravity, which became just another line in textbooks, then died in 1727. Two centuries later, people were applying his finding by flying in airplanes. Later, they set foot on the moon, and now satellites form an important and irreplaceable part of our telecommunications. If reincarnation proves to be true, our gaining of knowledge will be accelerated by more generous funding (the main problem so far) and a larger focus on this line of research. Even without those, we will soon investigate such questions as: what is the relationship between successive lives (maybe there is karma after all)? Is reincarnation in non-human life forms possible? What is the beginning of this cycle and how does it end? Know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.
Michiel Hegener: Leven op herhaling. Bewijzen voor reïncarnatie, Ten Have 2012.