How much can we rely on past-life recall as proof that we lived before?
Here is one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction stories you sometimes hear about. On Christmas Day, 1986, Anne McDonnell was at home in Larchmont, a New York City suburb, when a muted knock came on her front door. She opened the door and lo! there stood her husband, who had mysteriously disappeared fifteen years before.
Jim McDonnell looked much older than when she’d last seen him, in March 1971, but Anne readily recognized him. After she got over the shock of seeing Jim, Anne cried tears of joy. Then she listened in awe to Jim’s story.
In the weeks prior to his disappearance, Jim had had a series of mishaps in which he badly bumped his head four or five times. A few times he fell down, and one time he suffered a concussion when he sneezed and his car went out of control and hit a utility pole. The concussion put him in the hospital for three days.
The evening he disappeared he had returned a borrowed car and had set out for home fifteen minutes away on foot. When he hadn’t shown up at home an hour and a half later, Anne got worried and called the police.
The search for Jim McDonnell lasted months. Jim’s wallet, with all his identification cards, was found in the borrowed car, but Jim had vanished without a trace. Regular searches at the morgues produced nothing. As the months turned into years, Anne all but gave up hope of ever seeing her husband again.
What had happened to Jim? On his way home that fateful evening in 1971, fifty-year-old Jim McDonnell blacked out. When he came to, he could remember nothing of his past. The present was his only reality. He had no clue to his identity or his home.
Somehow Jim ended up in Philadelphia, a city he had never visited. There he took a name—James Peters—off a billboard. He landed a job as a short-order cook in a luncheonette. After a year he joined the Knights of Columbus and the American Legion and became an active member of the Catholic Church. The years rolled by. Jim’s new friends wondered about his past, but out of consideration they didn’t pry. One friend concluded that he was either an ex-priest or an ex-criminal.
Then, on December 22, 1986, three months shy of fifteen years since he’d left home, Jim fell and bumped his head. The next day he fell and bumped his head again. On the next day, Christmas Eve, Jim awoke elated. His memory was back. He knew who he was—a postal worker from Larchmont, New York, the husband of Anne McDonnell. On Christmas Day he ended the journey he’d started fifteen years earlier.
Jim’s story is not a first. There are others like it on record. I chose to tell it here because stories like his help answer a question people often raise about reincarnation: “If I lived before, why can’t I remember my previous life?”
This question is usually raised by persons dubious of the soul’s existence, persons who believe that we are these material bodies. They have no understanding of the difference between the soul and the body. They can’t understand that the “I,” or the self, is different from the body, that while the body undergoes constant change from infancy to childhood, youth, old age, and finally death, the self remains unchanged.
Neither can they accept Krishna’s statement that when the body dies, the deathless soul simply changes bodies, just as we discard old garments and put on new ones.
They want proof of reincarnation, and if they could recall a certifiable past-life memory, that would be sufficient proof for them. A proven recall would leave no margin for doubt that they lived a previous life.
My point, however, is that on this important question people give undue emphasis to the role of memory. No doubt having conscious recall of a previous life would pave the way for conviction about reincarnation, but not having past-life recollections is no proof that we didn’t have previous lives. For fifteen years poor Jim experienced total loss of memory in this very life. His story is proof that one’s inability to dredge up certifiable past-life memories is no argument against reincarnation.
I’ve met people who cling to this point about not remembering their past lives as if memory were a fail-safe faculty we all have. The truth is, few of us, if any, can remember exactly what we were doing at this time a year ago, what to speak of producing a moment-by-moment account of the entire year or ten years ago or the first two years of our life or the months we lived in the womb. Why then should we expect to remember events even prior to that?
It’s true that a growing number of people claim to have revived past-life memories by using hypnosis, and some of these memories are quite sensational. But there are a number of alternative explanations for that phenomenon. In fact many careful researchers believe that past-life memories apparently revived under hypnosis are nothing more than combinations of thoughts, memories, and fantasies lodged in the subconscious.
More compelling, but extremely rare, are accounts by persons who claim to have past-life memories in their normal waking state of consciousness. Some of these accounts have been carefully documented. Although these cases have been too rare to sway the majority, twenty-three percent of American adults and twenty-seven percent of British adults believe in reincarnation.
Why are there so few cases of persons who have past-life memories in their ordinary consciousness? No one really knows for sure. There could be a variety of reasons. Srila Prabhupada gave one. He said that the trauma of birth erases our memories of the past, or at least buries them so deeply in the subconscious that we can’t revive them on the conscious level. After hearing how Jim’s trauma erased his memory, one can see the merit in this explanation.
Ultimately, whatever the reasons we may not recall our past lives, if we could realize once and for all that not having a past-life memory does not disprove reincarnation, we could more easily understand the scheme of reincarnation. And understanding reincarnation is important, because rejection of reincarnation is tacit rejection of the soul’s existence: indirectly one asserts that the material body is all in all. But this doesn’t hold up when one applies logic and reason.
Everyone knows that matter is inert, lifeless. If you start with an atom and keep adding atoms, building and building, on up through the most complex combinations of molecules and compounds, at no point will you find a particular combination that generates the phenomenon we call consciousness or life.
Even without sophisticated scientific degrees, we can understand this because we all know it—matter is lifeless.
So where does life come from? What is it?
The logical answer is that life is anti-material, or spiritual; it is not material. Though we may not know all the details about the spiritual nature, still, by process of elimination, once we admit that life cannot be the result of chemical combinations, we must conclude that the spiritual nature exists.
Naturally, we can’t expect to apply material procedures to learn more about the antimaterial nature. After all, why should we assume that the antimaterial nature would play by the same set of rules that govern the material nature?
For hundreds of years we in the West have relied on material science to either verify or disprove the spiritual nature’s existence; we’ve been ignorant of the alternative to material science: spiritual science.
Besides being unaware of the spiritual science, some of us have an almost unreasoning faith in material science, a faith similar to the unreasoning and revolting kind some people in the religious community display. We’re so dependent on science and so conditioned by it that any thought of deviating from or disagreeing with its claims scares us, even in areas where the mundane scientific world view cannot apply. Some of us have lost our free thinking to it. We’re afraid to shrug off its dogmas, step outside of its hold, and take a look for ourselves. We’re afraid to use our own intellects and come to our own conclusions. For many of us, that’s too heretical to consider.
That’s why some people, rather than admit the logic that consciousness is a non-material phenomenon, believe that given time scientists will manufacture life in their labs. These people have not really given deep thought to the matter. Their faith in science is automatic, blind.
That’s one reason why many people aren’t even mildly interested when there’s an opportunity to learn something about the spiritual science—about the soul, reincarnation, and the possibility of becoming deathless or going to the spiritual world. “Spirituality is a myth,” they say. “It’s not scientific. No one has seen the soul.”
But of course no one has seen the soul; it’s not a material object. Nevertheless we can understand something about it by its symptom—consciousness. Just as in the early morning, even before we can see the sun, we see evidence of it by seeing the sun’s rays on the horizon, similarly when we perceive consciousness—the “rays” of the soul—we can understand that the soul is present.
Of course, it’s a simple matter to adamantly deny the spiritual nature and not allow even the theoretical possibility that an antimaterial, or spiritual, nature can exist. An owl could do the same with regards to the sun. Such blind disbelief, however, is no improvement over blind faith, as they both stem from unreason.
But—and this is a significant point—are we prepared to go all the way on the path of denial and write off the testimony of all the great saints in history as mere hysterical babble, or perhaps pathological lying?
No doubt some of us will say yes, preferring to remain card- carrying skeptics, cynics, and atheists. But some of us will not. In the interest of such virtues as humility and modesty and wisdom, and in the face of good reason, and in some cases out of a practical consideration that it’s better to be safe than sorry, some of us will take to practicing the spiritual science of Krishna consciousness.
For those people, as they progress on the path of spiritual realization, and as they become professors of the spiritual science, it will become more and more apparent that reincarnation, as Lord Krishna teaches it in Bhagavad- gita, is the only system consistent with a definition of material nature as temporary and the soul as eternal. For them, the presence or absence of past-life memories will hold no significance.