Definition: Synonymous with transmigration, metempsychosis, and palingenesis1, reincarnation is the belief in continuity of life through the rebirth of the soul in a new body2.

The idea of reincarnation first appears in Hindu texts, written about 700 B.C.3, 4 The Bhaģavad-Gita, the holy text of the Hindus, says
"…as the dweller in the body experiences childhood, youth, old age, so passes he on, to another body."

Hinduism and Buddhism share a belief in samsara (the wheel of life) and karma (the idea that future incarnation depends on the way the individual lived in his/her past life). The good are reborn into better lives and those who have not lived moral and charitable lives are reborn into lesser social classes or as animals. Those who achieve the highest state of spiritual development escape samsara, the cycle of birth and rebirth, and enter nirvana4.

By the 5th Century B.C.E., many notable Greeks adopted the idea of reincarnation. Pythagoras believed that souls were reincarnated in various bodily shapes.5 His ideas, along with the later teachings of Plato formed the Ancient Greek beliefs about reincarnation, that souls originated in a celestial world, but through sin became human. Only through the purification of reincarnations could the souls return to their former state of purity3, 4.

Neither Christian nor Judaic religions accept the idea of reincarnation. Yet, St. Augustine (354–430 C.E.) posed the question,
"Say, Lord…did my infancy succeed another age of mine that died before it? Was it that which I spent within my mother's womb?…and what before that life again, O God…was I anywhere or in any body?"

Although Jewish theologians and philosophers reject belief in reincarnation, the Hebrew term gilgul neshamot describes the passage of the soul into other forms–human, animal, and inanimate. The Hebrew word gilgul comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for cycle and the word neshamot means souls, making the pair synonymous with the samsara, the wheel of life6.

Tribal Beliefs about Reincarnation

Although their beliefs are unwritten, many tribal peoples around the world express a belief in reincarnation.

In the 19th Century, the belief in Theosophy, a doctrine conceived by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) helped promote belief in Reincarnation3. Theosophy maintains that all religions are attempts by higher spirits to help humanity in evolve to perfection.

Looking for Proof of Reincarnation

In the 20th Century, researchers began looking for evidence of reincarnation.

Some researchers look for proof of Reincarnation through hypnotic regression. History credits amateur hypnotist Morey Bernstein with the first documented instance of hypnotic regression. In 1952, Bernstein hypnotized housewife Virginia Tighe who suddenly began speaking with an Irish accent and claimed her name was Bridey Murphy, born in Cork County Ireland and living there in the year 1890. Because Tighe seemed to give an accurate description of 19th Century Ireland, it appeared that her regression offered scientific proof of Reincarnation.

However, later it became apparent that many individuals under hypnotic regression gave inaccurate descriptions of their time. One possible explanation for those inaccuracies is cryptoamnesia. Facts no longer available to the conscious memory are "refreshed" by hypnosis and people relate forgotten facts, such as what they have read in books, seen in movies, or heard from other people. Sigmund Freud abandoned hypnosis as a treatment because of these cases of false memories.

While chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia, in 1961, Ian Stevenson began researching the cases of toddlers who spoke spontaneously about another life. Between 1961 and 2002, Stevenson documented over 2500 cases of children who spontaneously recalled past lives.

Although other explanations have been proposed for their "memories", one element of Stevenson's investigations remains unexplainable. In over one-third of the cases, the child was born with a birthmark that distinctly resembled a wound received by the person whose life they recalled. These cases suggest the possibility that reincarnation may involve more than just the rebirth of the spirit and include physical features as well as memories, emotions, and past identity7.

Reincarnation - Explaining Life's Mysteries

Whether or not reincarnation can be substantiated by evidence, the belief offers solace to believers in explanation of many of life's mysteries as well as the incentive to lead a charitable and moral life.

1. Andrew M. Colman. “palingenesis .” A Dictionary of Psychology. Oxford University Press, 2001. 9 Sep 2008 <http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1O87-palingenesis.html>.
2. John Bowker. “Rebirth .” The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. Oxford University Press, 1997. 9 Sep 2008 <http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1O101-Rebirth.html>.
3. Ernest Valea. “ Reincarnation in world religions.” Comparative Religion 1999. 9 Sep 2008 <http://www.comparativereligion.com/reincarnation.html>.
4. Ed. John M. Wickersham. “Reincarnation.” Myths and Legends of the World. Macmillan-Thomson Gale, 2000. 9 Sep 2008 <http://www.enotes.com/myths-legends/reincarnation>.
5. “transmigration of souls .” The Columbia Encyclopedia. Columbia University Press, 2008. 9 Sep 2008 <http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1E1-transmig.html>.
6. “How the Major Religions View Reincarnation .” Gale Encyclopedia of the Unusual and Unexplained. The Gale Group, 2003. 9 Sep 2008 <http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G2-3406300022.html>.
7. Jim B. Tucker. “Reincarnation.” Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. The Gale Group, 2002. 9 Sep 2008 <http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G2-3407200239.html>.