Reincarnation And Possession

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It is written:

Matthew 8:28-When He had come to the other side, to the country of the Gergesenes, there met Him two demon-possessed men, coming out of the tombs, exceedingly fierce, so that no one could pass that way.

One of the interesting experiences which I have encountered over the years in working with friends from a background of pagan belief deals with the past-life memories of people who believe they have been reincarnated. This is, of course, something which is commonly well-known and others have had a great deal of experience with, especially past-life researchers. However, the Bible is clear that reincarnation is not true (cf. Hebrews 9:27). So this leaves the question of what may account for these examples of past-life memories.

Years ago, Dr. Ian Stevenson (a renowned scholar who spent his lifetime studying reincarnation) pointed out that one thing which may account for some examples of past life-recall is possession by a hostile spirit upon the living.

“But in considering the cases we must not take them at face value or allow the subjective report of experiences to become the sole criterion for distinguishing them. It may turn out that cases of the reincarnation type are in fact instances of the Thompson-Gifford type in which (a) the deceased personality died after the birth of the “possessed” personality, and (b) the possessing influence goes farther than it did in the Thompson0-Gifford case so that there occurs a complete and sustained sense of continuity with the previous personality. This hypothesis will explain nearly all the facts and it jumps over all the difficulties which the theory of extrasensory perception plus personation encounters in trying to account for the features of personation in the cases suggestive of rebirth.” (Ian Stevenson, Twenty Cases Suggestive Of Reincarnation, 376-377; Charlottesville and London; University Of Virginia Press)

Stevenson later voiced his objections to the idea that possession may occur for the vast majority of reincarnation cases:

“I have come now to possession. For several centuries the idea that a discarnate personality might take over or “possess” a living person has been unfashionable in Western intellectual circles, but from time to time this idea has been proposed as an explanation for cases suggestive of reincarnation. 18 Possession seems to me an important alternative explanation for the cases with anomalous dates (of death and birth), to which I briefly referred in chapter 5. There are also some cases, such as those of Ravi Shankar Gupta and Sujith Lakmal Jayaratne, in which the subject’s mother was two or three months pregnant when the previous personality died. If we believe that conception and early embryonic development require the association of some discarnate mind or soul with the developing physical body, we could also subsume these cases under possession. I do not, however, favor the interpretation of possession for the standard cases suggestive of reincarnation.” (Ian Stevenson, M.D., Children Who Remember Previous Lives: A Question of Reincarnation, 161 (Kindle Edition); Jefferson, NC; McFarley & Company, Inc., Publishers)

What is interesting, however, is a book I have been reading written by a companion and friend of Dr. Stevenson’s, who documents a few cases where possession seems to be the best explanation for a few cases.

Tucker has noted:

“The dates were anomalous in that the child’s date of birth was before the previous person died. The implication of a child developing memories of a person who died after the child had already been born is that a soul came into a young child and pushed out the soul that had been there before. Or perhaps the souls had an ongoing tug of war. Juta’s family said his behavior had gone back and forth when he was younger, wanting alcohol on some days and not others. Perhaps two souls were battling for supremacy.” (Jim B. Tucker M.D., Return to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children Who Remember Past Lives, 25 (Kindle Edition); New York, N.Y.; St. Martin’s Press)

Later, Tucker writes of a woman named Uttara:

“Uttara had been hospitalized due to several health issues when a yogi came to the hospital and gave instructions on meditation, including breathing exercises that induced a somewhat altered state of consciousness. Though Uttara had meditated in the past without incident, her behavior changed drastically this time, as she alternated between times of excitement and periods of silence. She would wander away from the hospital. Oddest of all, she began speaking in another language that her doctor thought was Bengali, the language from the Bengal area of India, which Uttara did not know. The doctor said his hospital could not take care of a patient behaving so strangely, and he instructed Uttara’s parents to take her home. This meant that they had to manage their daughter, who not only was acting very strangely but was no longer able to converse with them. She spoke a language they didn’t know, and she could no longer understand Marathi, their native language. They initially had to communicate with her using gestures. They found Bengali-speaking people to talk with her and eventually picked up some Bengali words themselves. She said her name was Sharada. She gave many details of what she said was her life in Bengal. Though she apparently thought that life was ongoing, she seemed to come from another time, as she appeared completely unfamiliar with any tools, appliances, or vehicles developed after the industrial revolution. She did not recognize Uttara’s family or friends. Sharada stayed “in control” for several weeks before Uttara returned to her normal personality. But her family was not done with Sharada. She continued to emerge intermittently for years. Ian and Satwant found out that Sharada appeared twenty-three times during the first three years. Most of the Sharada phases only lasted a day or two, but some were much longer, including one that went on for seven weeks. In addition to discussing various locations in Bengal, including five obscure villages, Sharada gave the names of a number of people she said were her family members. The names were traced to a family that lived in West Bengal in the early nineteenth century. The names and relationships she gave for her father and six other male members of the family all matched a male genealogy of a family that was discovered. This genealogy had been published sixty-five years before in a Bengali magazine with a local circulation, but as Uttara had never visited that state, Ian and Satwant were confident she had never seen it. Since it only included the names of the men, they did not find conclusive proof that Sharada had existed as a real person, but her statements about her family were confirmed. It appeared that Uttara’s body had been taken over by this personality named Sharada, a woman who had lived in another part of the country 150 years before. Regarding Sharada’s ability to speak Bengali, Uttara and her family said she had never learned it, other than taking a few high school lessons in reading Bengali script from a teacher who himself could not speak the language. One of the researchers’ associates, Professor Pal, had four long talks with Sharada in Bengali, and he and five other native Bengali speakers all agreed that despite some imperfections in her speech, she had a solid command of the language. Ian and Satwant published a paper on the case, and four years later, Ian also wrote it up for a book. In the latter report, he noted that Uttara had been accused of having learned to speak Bengali in school, though the evidence for that was meager. He had also asked a linguist to listen to two recordings made of Sharada speaking and singing. The linguist said that based on the recordings, he did not hear indications of archaic speech that others had heard in conversation with her. He also said her accent was not native Bengali…Was this a case of possession by a Bengali spirit using the imperfect instrument of a woman who had never spoken Bengali? (Jim B. Tucker M.D., Return to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children Who Remember Past Lives, 25-28 (Kindle Edition); New York, N.Y.; St. Martin’s Press)

Tucker provides yet another powerful example of this type of situation:

“The second case involved a young woman named Sumitra. Ian and Satwant studied this one along with another psychiatrist, Nicholas McClean-Rice. Sumitra began experiencing episodes, lasting from a few minutes to an entire day, in which she would appear to go into a trance with her eyes rolled upward and her teeth clenched. During a couple of these, she seemed to be taken over by different personalities, one who said she had ended her life by drowning herself in a well and another who said he had been a man in another part of India. These culminated in a time when she lost consciousness and then, by all appearances, died. She stopped breathing and had no pulse for at least five minutes. As Sumitra’s family began grieving around her, she somehow revived. She initially appeared confused and said little for the next day. After that, she didn’t recognize the family and friends around her. She said her name was Shiva and that she had been murdered by her in-laws in a place called Dibiyapur, some sixty miles away. She gave many details that were found to correspond to the life of one Shiva Divedi, who was unknown to Sumitra’s family and who had died violently in Dibiyapur two months before Sumitra’s transformation. On the day of her death, Shiva had been quarreling with her in-laws and told her uncle that her mother-in-law and one of her sisters-in-law had beaten her. The next morning, her body was found on the train tracks. Her in-laws said she had killed herself by jumping in front of a train, but when her uncle saw her body, he thought it was suspicious that her head appeared to be the only part of her that was injured. He asked Shiva’s in-laws to hold off cremating her for four hours until he could bring her father there. They ignored his request, and Shiva’s body was ashes by the time her father arrived. When Sumitra was later shown a picture of Rama Kanti, Shiva’s sister-in-law, she said, “This is Rama Kanti, who hit me with a brick.” Sumitra, still calling herself Shiva, rejected her husband (and his amorous advances) and her son for some time and asked to be taken to Shiva’s two children. Her family initially thought she had gone crazy and later that she had become possessed. They made no efforts to verify what she was saying. Eventually, Shiva’s father heard a rumor that his daughter had taken possession of a young woman in a distant village. Three months after Sumitra’s revival, he visited her. Sumitra recognized him and said she was his daughter. She ultimately recognized twenty-three people from Shiva’s life, either in person or in photographs. Sumitra’s transformation also included changes in her behavior, as the researchers put it, “from that of a simple village girl to that of a moderately well-educated woman of higher caste and more urban manners, who could now read and write Hindi fluently.” She wrote letters to Shiva’s father, demonstrating writing ability somewhere between Sumitra’s previously limited abilities and Shiva’s educated ones. A letter found during a follow-up investigation (by Antonia Mills and Kuldip Dhiman) included lines like, “Papa I do not like it here … God is bad as he has dumped me here.” A year after her revival, Sumitra once seemed to resume her original personality for a few hours. Otherwise, she had remained Shiva constantly for two years when the initial investigation was completed. Indeed, as the follow-up study determined, she remained Shiva all the way until the time of her death, thirteen years after her revival. Everyone, including Sumitra, seemed to gradually adjust to the new reality after her transformation. She warmed up to her family and presumably her husband, as she had two more children. Shiva’s family stopped visiting after a while and let Sumitra live her life. Satwant began investigating the case a month after Sumitra first met Shiva’s father. She and Ian ultimately interviewed twenty-four members of the two families, along with twenty-nine other individuals for background information. Unless the case is an elaborate fraud perpetrated by a large number of people for no apparent purpose, the researchers seem to have documented a case of possession. In discussing this possibility, they wrote: “Although we do not dogmatically assert that this is the correct interpretation of this case, we believe much of the evidence makes it the most plausible one.”” (Jim B. Tucker M.D., Return to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children Who Remember Past Lives, 28-30 (Kindle Edition); New York, N.Y.; St. Martin’s Press)

One thing which may account for at least some cases of people experiencing past-life “memories” is influence from a demonic spirit. I do not believe that such are necessary to explain the vast majority of these cases. It is important here to reiterate where our ultimate faith comes in to play here as children of God. The Christian hope is not found in the dubious theory of reincarnation, but in the certain fact of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:1-8).

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.

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