The following discussion is NOT meant to imply that reincarnation does not take place. Looked at in its entirety, the evidence for reincarnation is strong, and several cases of children in the USA who have exhibited strong memories of verifiable past life identities are difficult to dispute. (As an example, see the case of James Leninger). There is, however, another paranormal explanation for these memories which has to be thoroughly aired to make the discussion complete.
Looked at objectively, much of the evidence presented by past life researchers like Ian Stevenson may in fact, be evidence of possession or obsession by aggressive earthbound spirits. It is possible that his reincarnation cases actually constitute what one might call a spiritual hijacking of a newly created body meant for a new soul. Keep in mind that there is very real evidence for the ubiquitous role that spiritual obsession and possession appears to play in the lives of so many living people (See chapters 9 -12).
For instance, why do the newly reincarnated seem to show no sign that they have made any spiritual progress in their new lives when compared to their old lives? Keep in mind that the reason that reincarnation is such a popular hypothesis among New Agers and spiritists is the belief in a “just universe”. The modern doctrine of reincarnation implies karmic justice, meaning that circumstances in future lives should reflect the good or evil that the soul did in previous lives. This, however, doesn’t seem to be the case. Stevenson himself wrote:
“In the cases that I have investigated, I have found no evidence of the effects of moral conduct in one life on the external circumstances of another. When I examine the cases that include the feature of a marked difference in socioeconomic status between the families concerned, I can discern no pattern indicating that the vicious have been demoted in this respect and the virtuous promoted.”
There are other problems as well. Why do spirits reincarnate into the same family in native Alaskan tribes, but almost never In India? Why are so many of the cases of reincarnation reported by Stevenson clustered in cultures with a preexisting belief in reincarnation? Why would an entire cluster of Japanese soldiers killed in Burma during the Second World War reincarnate in Burmese children born after the Japanese occupation had ended, as opposed to reincarnating in their native Japan, or virtually any other place in the world? It seems more likely that they were simply “hanging around” the place they died waiting for a chance to “reincarnate”.
The Burmese case is especially interesting and evidential because the children not only reported memories of the occupation from the viewpoint of the Japanese occupiers who had died before the birth of the children, but they displayed behaviors that were unusual for Burmese children. These included things like wanting to wear Japanese attire rather than traditional Burmese clothing, wanting to eat raw or partially cooked fish instead of the spicy Burmese food, and personality features that were more consistent with the occupying Japanese soldiers than with normal Burmese children including cruelty, harshness and a level of industriousness unusual in a child.
The evidence Stevenson presents is undoubtedly of a paranormal nature, however, why would these particular children exhibit adult behavior unlike the other “normal” children who presumably also have souls that have lived numerous past lives, perhaps as previous personalities from distant lands and cultures? If the mechanism implied by this sort of reincarnation were a universal human trait, why don’t all, or at least most children have past life memories and exhibit exotic adult preferences?
This doesn’t mean that personal reincarnation doesn’t happen. Perhaps Stevenson’s cases are just aberrations while most reincarnated souls don’t have conscious memories of their past lives or display these unusual behaviors.
On the other hand, we learned in chapters 10, 11 and 12 that there are literally millions of earthbound spirits hanging around the transitional plane. They also tend to hang around the locations of their deaths, and because they are usually poorly evolved spirits, they are always looking for ways to return to a physical life so they can continue their old habits, or mistakenly think they can enter a new life. In cultures which encourage the belief in reincarnation, infecting the aura of a vulnerable child would give them the illusion that they are doing just that.
The cruel and harsh Japanese soldiers who died in Burma would have been good candidates for the narcissistic type of earthbound spirit who would haunt the place of their death and obsess immature and vulnerable children in order to relieve the negativity of their spiritual environment. Stevenson mentions in passing the Ainu of Northern Japan. The Ainu is a tribe of people whose religion includes reincarnation. Although Stevenson doesn’t specifically mention a relationship between the Ainu and the reincarnated Japanese soldiers, it is reasonable to hypothesize that the Japanese soldiers’ religious background contributed to the need for their spirits to obsess Burmese children.
Spiritual possession can also explain the “reincarnation location” question. The Alaskan Tlingit culture stresses reincarnation into the same family, and indeed, Stevenson finds that this is the case. But in India, reincarnation cases rarely happen in the same family. Although their cultural beliefs stress reincarnation, many families believe that rebirth into the same family brings bad luck or an early death. There, the reincarnated personality most often is reborn into a family with no connection to its original clan. The rebirths may even be in far distant locations and only come to light because a mutual acquaintance knows the history of both families. Cultural beliefs affect the dead as well as the living. The spirits of the dead naturally behave according to the beliefs of their culture, and if the cultural beliefs involve reincarnation into the same family that is just what a recently deceased soul from that culture is likely to try to do.
Another discrepancy in Stevenson’s data is the case distribution problem. Stevenson found that reincarnation cases were easiest to find in areas with a preexisting belief in reincarnation such as India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Brazil, the Tlingit tribes in Alaska, the Native American tribes in the American Northwest and the Druze regions in Lebanon. On his first trip to India in 1960, he was there for four weeks and saw 25 cases. Likewise, he visited Ceylon for a week and found seven cases. In India and Sri Lanka, cases like this are fairly common. On the other hand, finding cases of suspected rebirth in the US, Europe and other western countries is more difficult because of their relative scarcity.
If the type of reincarnation documented by Stevenson were a universal spiritual property, why would Stevenson have found so many more cases in India than in the non-native areas of the US? Indeed, assuming that this type of reincarnation is a universal spiritual property, there should be a substantial number of cases in the US, Canada, Australia, Europe and other outposts of Western civilization, and many examples should have come to Stevenson’s attention long before he went abroad.
According to a 2020 survey, 51% of adults all over the world and 25% of Americans believe in reincarnation, and one would think that parents with this belief would be quite interested in a child who spoke of a past life. Even if, as some claim, most western parents are prone to ignore adult behaviors and alien memories in their two or three year old children, universal reincarnation still should have produced a huge number of cases too obvious to ignore, rather than the relatively few scattered and often equivocal cases that Stevenson and his researchers actually found.
In fact, spirit possession (spiritual infection) explains Stevenson’s case distribution discrepancy quite well. It must be remembered that more people in India and Sri Lanka die believing that they will reincarnate than in the US and Europe where the belief in reincarnation is not part of the religious background of the nation. Because their cultures encourage a belief in reincarnation, low order, ignorant (earthbound) spirits from Hindu, Tlingit and Druze cultures are likely to believe that obsessing a child amounts to the same thing as reincarnation. Their main posthumous objective would be to live a new life in a new body. Because of their belief that they should reincarnate, they would assume that it was normal to try to enter the body of an infant or even a fetus.
Western civilization certainly has its share of low order spirits, however, in western countries, belief in reincarnation is not the norm, and low order spirits would be less inclined to infect children and more inclined to infect adults who indulge in the habits they most want to relive. The spirits of dead alcoholics infect drunk, living alcoholics, spirits of dead sex addicts prefer living sex addicts, and spirits of dead criminals would look for living hosts with habits similar to their own when they were living.
None of the above actually argues against the possibility of reincarnation per se. In fact, spiritual enthrallment or outright spiritual infection offer a reasonable alternative to explain much of the mystifying evidence presented by Stevenson and his team. There is even a distinct possibility that BOTH hypotheses are correct. Perhaps most people are born with newly minted souls as “original equipment” while some are born with “used souls” with full spiritual permission to inhabit a new body. In other words, perhaps reincarnation and spirit possession exist side by side and together explain the evidence which Stevenson explains by reincarnation alone.
It’s possible that Stevenson’s reincarnated children are old souls in new bodies. However it’s equally possible that Stevenson’s “previous personalities” are really just confused earthbound spirits who have temporarily hijacked an infant’s body, (or even a fetus) from its rightful owner. All of Stevenson’s reincarnated children forget their childhood memories as they age past five or six. It’s possible that by that age, the original soul has simply gained enough. strength to gradually reclaim his or her own life