Omni: Why do most Westerners ridicule the idea of reincarnation?
Stevenson: It’s hard to find any single explanation. Some southern European Christians believed in reincarnation until the Council of Nice banned such beliefs in 553 A.D. In The Republic, Plato described souls about to be reborn as choosing their future lives. Schopenhauer took it seriously, and Voltaire’s observation that it is no more surprising to be born twice than once is wellknown. Yet most scientists nowadays do not believe in survival after death. I suppose Darwinian ideas contributed to a sort of dethroning of the soul. Reincarnation may be particularly uncongenial because it’s so much identified—mistakenly I think—with the Hindu and Buddhist ideas of being reborn as an animal.
Omni: Your new book discusses some misconceptions about the idea of reincarnation. What is the most common?
Stevenson: The idea that reincarnation must include what Hindus call Karma, especially retributive Karma. Omni: Retributive Karma being the idea that whatever bad you do in this life is paid for in the next by having the same amount of evil done to you? Stevenson: Something like that. It can be more specific, so that if you put out someone’s eyes, you will be blinded. There is no evidence for the idea of retributive Karma.
Omni: Scientists usually dismiss reincarnation as some sort of wishful thinking. Yet William James noted that our desire to believe in survival after death does not automatically negate its possibility. We do want to believe in it, don’t we?
Stevenson: No, in fact we don’t. That’s a misunderstanding concerning Hindus and Buddhists. They believe in it, but they don’t particularly want to. Hindus see life in terms of a constant cycle of births in which we are doomed to struggle and suffer until we have reached perfection and can escape. Fear of death is almost universal; and some two thousand years ago Patanjali, an Indian sage, said it was due to our fear of having to undergo a postmortem review of our lives, to be judged and presumably be found wanting.
When I talked to Ramakrishna Swami in Chandigarh, he asked me what I was doing, and I replied with a certain enthusiasm. After a long silence he finally said, “We know that reincarnation is true, but it doesn’t make any difference because here in India we have just as many rogues and villains as you have in the West”