Reincarnation, Modernity and Identity

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Tony Walter. Department of ...... London: Hutchinson. ... Biographical note: TONY WALTER is Reader in Sociology at the University of Reading, where he.
Sociology Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 21–38. Printed in the United Kingdom © 2001 BSA Publications Limited

Reincarnation, Modernity and Identity Tony Walter Department of Sociology University of Reading ABSTRACT A significant minority of Westerners believe in reincarnation, even though they do not belong to religions that teach it. What is the relationship of their belief to personal identity? In areas of the world where reincarnation is accepted, one can identify three forms of pre-natal and/or post-mortem identity: the continuing self/soul, the dissolution of the self, and family identity. Comparable concepts within the contemporary West might be labelled modern, postmodern and kin-based. The article considers three forms of evidence from Britain: everyday conversation, the personal stories to be found in Reincarnation International magazine, and an interview study of thirty adults and twenty children. It is concluded that (1) the understanding of A as the reincarnation of close family member B, found in several American and African tribes and in popular Hinduism, may be unusual in Britain; (2) in so far as people play with past identities, this cannot easily be squared with postmodern theories of the self; (3) the past identities constructed bear strong resemblance to current identities, and may be considered part of the modernist project of the self.


identity, modernity, postmodernity, reincarnation, self

Belief in reincarnation – coming back time and again in different bodies – characterises Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and many tribal religions, and is not generally regarded as part of the Judaeo-Christian tradition.1 Numerous surveys, however, find that around 20 per cent of the population of Western countries answer ‘Yes’ to the question ‘Do you believe in reincarnation?’ (Ashford and Timms 1992; Gallup and Proctor 1982:137–8; Harding et al. 1986:46–7). Some studies have found figures around half this (for example, Davies 1997; Donahue 1993), but this still far exceeds the proportion of Hindus, Sikhs or Buddhists in these countries – currently around 2 per cent for Britain (Davie 1994:48). Whether believers in reincarnation are currently on the increase is difficult to tell, but they seem to have increased substantially since the middle of the twentieth century when British surveys found figures of 4 per cent (Mass Observation 1947:29–32) and 5 per cent (Gorer 1955: 259–61). The 1990 European Values Survey (EVS) found 24 per cent of the British saying they believe in reincarnation. There is no dramatic relationship to social class or age. However, there is a slight tendency for reincarnation to be believed in by Britons aged 25–54 (27–28 per cent of whom say they believe in reincarnation) rather than by



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younger (19 per cent) or older (20–23 per cent) adults. This differs from other afterlife beliefs, such as heaven and resurrection, which increase steadily with age. The 1981 EVS showed more in social classes D and E answering yes (33 per cent) than in classes A and B (19 per cent), though the 1990 survey showed no class differences. Two things, however, are consistently clear. Reincarnationists (like most religious believers) are more likely to be female – 29 per cent female against 19 per cent male (1990 EVS). And the EVS also shows them to be more rather than less religious on a number of conventional indicators, such as churchgoing; this is confirmed by my colleague, Helen Waterhouse (1999), who found that white British reincarnationists do not necessarily associate themselves with Eastern religions or the New Age. In our study, we found not so many people who would categorically affirm they believe in reincarnation, and rather more who seriously entertain the idea, and it may be this category – of entertaining the idea – that the statistics represent. All this indicates that reincarnation is not an exotic, fringe belief, but an idea that is being explored by a significant minority of otherwise conventional people. If there is an archetypal reincarnationist, it is a middle-aged female churchgoer. If a Westerner who does not adhere to an Eastern religion entertains the idea that they have lived before and will live again on this earth, what does this say about their sense of self? In his book on the self, Harré (1998:128) suggests that ‘Serial re-embodiment, belief in which is widespread outside the boundaries of the Christian/Judaic/Muslim world, is an interesting claim and the grammatical devices used to express it would be well worth studying.’ Indeed they would, and this article begins this task; but one need not go outside the Judaeo-Christian world in order to study it. That around a fifth of Westerners appear to entertain the idea of serial reembodiment indicates that we have here a cultural formation that may well illuminate contemporary Western theories of the self. Concepts of self

As part of a culturally rooted, shared belief system, reincarnation is found in a number of Eastern religions, and also in several tribal religions. In each, a rather different concept of self is involved, and I will discuss these as a prelude to asking what concepts of self might be embraced by Westerners who entertain the idea of reincarnation. In India, the notions of reincarnation, rebirth and the transmigration of souls have a long and complex history (Parrinder 1976). Hinduism tends to assume a soul that, driven by the law of karma, manifests itself in successive incarnations. Buddhism tends to deny the existence of any continuing entity between incarnations, a concept that is difficult for Westerners to grasp. But in both religions, the ultimate aim is to get off the wheel of suffering altogether: to be an embodied self, contra much modern Western thought, is not a desirable condition.2 For this reason,

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Morris (1972:2), along with others, observes that: ‘Belief in reincarnation (in the Asiatic and Eastern tradition) virtually excludes individuality in the Western sense, for each person is but a manifestation of the life within him, which will be reborn, after his apparent death, in another form.’ DuPertuis (1987:102–3) argues that North Americans who embrace the Hindu concept of reincarnation usually fail to grasp the Hindu horror of time and have difficulty distinguishing the Atman, the divine essence of consciousness, from their everyday, time-bound sense of self. Mellor’s (1991) study of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (one of many Buddhist groups in the West) likewise describes how a religion which in the East denies the existence of an individual soul has become transformed into a strategy for the development of the self. Other Western Buddhists, for example Batchelor (1997:104–5), use Buddhism to critique the Western notion of self, arguing that clinging to self is a major obstacle to growth: ‘This notion of a static self is the primary obstruction to the realisation of our unique potential as an individual being. By dissolving this fiction through a centered vision of the transiency, ambiguity, and contingency of experience, we are freed to create ourself anew.’ This question of self/no self is central to the encounter between Western modernity and traditional Eastern religions. In many tribal societies, notably in Africa and North America, belief in reincarnation is tied up not with individual but with group, often kinship, identity. Thus among the Yakutat Tlingit of North America ‘every baby born is believed to be the reincarnation of some maternal relative who has died, and each individual nearing death is consoled by the prospect of a future incarnation, while the relatives anticipate his return again as a baby’ (Laguna 1972:498). This is particularly common in Africa where reincarnation returns a man’s vital force to his descendants – unlike in Asia where the aim is to escape the wheel of reincarnation (Parrinder 1956). Among the Shona of Zimbabwe,3 if person X bears the physical or personality traits of forebear Y, then X is related to as though they were Y. If the similarity is manifest as a baby, the baby may be addressed by name as Y (see also Jenness 1935:110, Schaden 1962:140). Similar thinking is reflected in the Tlingit’s terminology, in which the word for the reincarnated spirit can also mean ‘picture’, ‘shadow’, ‘someone’s picture’ or ‘my photograph’ (Laguna 1972:766). (This is similar, linguistically, to when Westerners refer to X as the spitting image of Y, but they are more likely to relate this to genetic inheritance than to reincarnation.) Another study of the Tlingit considers that this ‘lively sense of ancestral reincarnation, expressed primarily in the giving of the ancestral names to the young’ enables people not only to realise their own identities but also their connection with the generations that have gone before (Irvan 1985:191). In several societies, the spirit is deemed to be reincarnated if a baby is born shortly after a death in the community, so the evidence is not physical similarity but immediacy (e.g. Reichel-Dolmatoff 1951:191). In some societies, parental love is



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reinforced by the idea that children are loved beings who return from the other world (e.g. Reichel-Dolmatoff 1951:191; Schaden 1962:82). Among the Nandeva, ‘in the case of reincarnation, it is always the spirit of a dead child that is reborn by the same mother, the conception taking place either at the time of death or later, without need of sexual relations’ (Schaden 1962:139). Popular Hinduism (Firth 1997:47) can entertain similar ideas. We have then in traditional thinking about reincarnation at least three concepts of personal identity: (a) an individual self or soul progressing through successive incarnations, (b) the self as an illusion, and (c) identity rooted in kin relationships and in one’s descendants. Corresponding with these, and tying in with contemporary sociological theorising, we can suggest three ways in which Western individuals construct their identity; each could have its own elective affinity with entertaining the possibility of reincarnation. (a) The modern hypothesis The modern Western world is heir to centuries of individualism, so the contemporary person either has a strong sense of his or her individual self or – in the face of the complexity and impersonality of modern life (Weber’s iron cage of rationality) – is searching for that self. The notion of having led previous lives on earth can be linked with the therapeutic search for the self. The fragmentation of modern society and the need to balance diverse roles makes a strong sense of self both necessary and yet not so easily attained (Berger et al. 1974, Lash and Friedman 1992:7); hence what Giddens (1991) terms ‘the reflexive self ’ and the lifelong attempt to identify and understand ‘who I really am’. Since Freud, millions have looked back to childhood in this search for self-understanding: to understand why I am like I am now, I must identify what happened to me as a child. This is a fraught and potentially expensive enterprise, and liable to throw up a can of worms, especially if I conclude that I was abused as a child by parents who are still alive. It may be safer to go one stage back and get re-birthed, that is, to identify present problems in terms of the birth trauma, for which my mother is perhaps less blameworthy. Safer still is to get regressed to a past life whose traumas explain my present neuroses or phobias. Those to be blamed are long dead, and were not in any case related to my present family; and nobody is around to contradict the story. Past biographies can be constructed without any need to worry about whether they are historically true. Modern people, then, are likely to use the idea of reincarnation in order to search for the self, or at the very least to affirm the indestructibility and continuity of the self. Certainly, this is what some past-life hypnotherapists (Talbott 1987:181) teach: If you find that the picture of reality you discover in states of past-life awareness is different from the one you have grown accustomed to in your waking state, do not be too disturbed that you cannot hammer the two together. Parts of them may overlap, and other parts may not. Accept only the useful parts of each and don’t worry about the rest.

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We may therefore predict that the identities people construct in either past or future lives will have significant continuity with their present identity – at the very least they will be human rather than non-human identities, and more specifically will have personalities broadly consistent with their perceived present personality. (b) The postmodern hypothesis Other theorists posit a much more fluid self. For them, it is not so much a matter of finding oneself, as of choosing one’s lifestyle, one’s sexuality, one’s self. Such choices can always be later changed because they have no meaning beyond the present. Postmodern consumers have no desire for a stable self, instead they reinvent themselves at will, depending on which theme park, drug, therapy, cult or virtual reality is currently on offer. Postmoderns relish irony and engage in life playfully; they live with inconsistency, indeed do not even notice it. In a fast-changing world, a stable identity becomes a liability; therapy no longer helps clients ‘find themselves’, but empowers them to become active choosers (Bauman 1997). Batchelor (1997) has made links between this postmodern deconstruction of the self and Buddhism’s deconstruction of the self. A postmodern hypothesis might therefore suggest that the idea of reincarnation provides wonderful opportunities for people to play with entirely different identities – witness the number of people who claim to have led highly exotic past lives, notably as Egyptian princesses. The British comedian Victoria Wood (1991) ended a one-woman television show with a song about twentieth-century reincarnation in which she sings about how we would like to be many more people than we are, so why not dream about being other people, some of them famous, some of them the slobs we dare not be. Wood is the postmodern, playful reincarnate. The sociologist of postmodernity, therefore, might predict that past and previous lives will be varied and possibly dazzlingly different from the person’s current life. Playfulness rather than the serious business of identity construction will characterise the postmodern reincarnate. (c) The kin hypothesis To believe that one is reincarnated in other family members might be as attractive in modern Western as in many other societies. Despite the ‘disembeddedness’ of late modern life (Giddens 1992) and the ‘normal chaos’ of marital relationships (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 1995), for millions of people personal identity is still vested in family relationships (Berger and Kellner 1964). To extend family identity construction before birth and after death may hold attractions for some, both for explaining the origin of personal characteristics and for explaining what happens when we die. These three hypotheses are my own. Writers on modernity and postmodernity have paid very little attention to reincarnation or indeed to any afterlife beliefs, even



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though such beliefs all explicitly address the question of body and self (Davies 1997; McDannell and Lang 1988; Walter 1996). Even lack of belief in an afterlife (or prelives) can say much about a person’s sense of body, self and identity. Though only a quarter to a fifth of the population entertain the idea of reincarnation, it is the one afterlife belief that has increased in a post-Christian West, and therefore may reflect wider trends in notions of body, self and identity. Empirical investigation of talk about reincarnation can illuminate sociological debates about identity, self, modernity and postmodernity – debates that currently rely perhaps too heavily on more this-worldly and youthful data. This article uses – somewhat unevenly – four kinds of evidence to explore these three hypotheses. Since the data may not be representative of Westerners who entertain the idea of reincarnation, the discussion is suggestive rather than definitive.

1. Everyday conversation

Potentially, the best form of evidence is everyday conversation. Unfortunately, it is by far the most difficult to gather and record. The topic of reincarnation comes up every now and then in everyday talk, but few sociologists have the time to hang around for thousands of hours waiting for the odd throwaway sentence about maybe having once been a frog. Occasionally, however, I strike lucky, as when a friend – a churchgoer and a scientist – was telling me about his rocky but passionate marriage: Sue and I sometimes talk of ourselves being together in a future life as a pair of swans.

This is a playful fantasy, but it is not random fantasy – like much play, it has a purpose. It envisages a life without the storms of their real marriage, a calm and elegant lifelong fidelity; it is a statement of hope. Other couples may use the idea of having been together in previous lives in order to affirm their belief that they are truly soulmates. Friends and colleagues know of my interest in reincarnation, and sometimes volunteer statements that have this same quality of purposeful playfulness: Neither Joan nor I believe in reincarnation because we are agnostic, but she does joke about her earlier life as a pussycat! [University lecturer, referring to his cat-loving wife]

At first sight, this joking statement might appear postmodern, playing with another reality. But this is no random other reality, for it affirms a central part of Joan’s personality: her love of cats. And here is another academic colleague talking about her six-year-old son: Sam believes in reincarnation. When his grandad died, he volunteered ‘I think he’ll come back as a woman next time.’ It probably came from our having been in Bali and gone to a

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funeral there earlier in the year. When Sam came out with this some time later, we didn’t want to disabuse him, because it probably helped him come to terms with his grandad’s death.

Maybe there is intellectual indulgence here because of the child’s youth, but there is also a willingness to play with (what the mother sees as) a fantasy in order to address a serious reality. Another mother adds: My seven-year-old is really into death with questions like ‘How am I different from the cat?’ Imagining what it would be like to come back as the cat is a good way for him to explore such issues.

Earlier generations of parents might not have been so willing to let their children entertain such notions, which for many would in any case have been countered by Christian dogma, if not at home then in Sunday school. We cannot draw strong conclusions from such anecdotes from a handful of academic friends, but what is clear about them compared to the other data discussed below is, first, their playfulness and, secondly their willingness to entertain a future or past existence as a member of a non-human species. Quite why cats frequently appear in these conversations I do not know. Their combination of savage wildness and intimate affection may possibly provide a platform for exploring marital relations. Cats are, of course, commonly believed to have nine lives, a privilege apparently denied other species. Although postmodernism is characterised by playfulness and irony, this does not mean that playfulness or irony necessarily indicate postmodernism. In Don Marquis’s archy and mehitabel (1953), first published in 1931, archy the cockroach, by jumping about on the keys of an old typewriter he has found, writes about the past and present lives of himself, mehitabel the cat and other residents of the dusty room they inhabit (archy never found the shift key on the typewriter, hence no capitals). Marquis’s playing around with cognate identities (mehitabel was once Cleopatra; cats often seem regal) may have nothing do with an early postmodernism, and may be simply a form of discourse appropriate to any humans trying to get their heads around having been someone else at another time. From my limited sample of everyday conversation, this kind of playful exploration seems to characterise two groups in particular: firstly, lovers; and secondly, children struggling to work out what makes them different from another person or from their pet, where they come from and what happens when people die. It may be that reincarnation has always offered possibilities for the playful exploration of self, and that in post-Christian times when there is no offence in entertaining nonChristian dogma, more adults rather than fewer engage in such explorations (and allow their children to). In sum, one does not need to postulate postmodernism in order to account for the playfulness apparent in much everyday speech about reincarnation.



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2. Reincarnation International magazine

Reincarnation International is a quarterly magazine started in 1994, published in the south of England and retailing for £2.95. Claiming to be the world’s only magazine solely devoted to the study of reincarnation,4 it aims ‘to put the case for and against reincarnation in a readable and entertaining way which leaves you, the reader, to draw your own conclusions’ (‘Statement of Policy’, No.1, p. 2). The vast majority of the articles, however, are for rather than against; indeed the majority of contributors are true believers. Following a survey finding that readers would prefer a wider spread of articles, the title changed with Volume 16 in 1999 to Life and Soul; the magazine now includes articles on extrasensory perception, near-death experiences and healing, but the central focus remains reincarnation. As of April 2000, the print run is 5,000, and there are 3,500 subscribers, this number slowly but steadily increasing. The magazine has not researched its subscribers’ socio-economic status, age, etc., but the majority are ‘Mrs’, suggesting that the magazine appeals to middle-aged and older women.5 This age and gender pattern fits the profile of believers in reincarnation indicated by the European Values Survey. Most subscribers are from Britain, though the magazine’s website at may encourage more global interest. Most articles are by British authors (with English-sounding names, hence presumably white), and some by Americans; pictures of authors also confirm them to be typically white. Major articles have been written by Christians, Jews and Spiritualists, and by psychologists and hypnotherapists. The topics of the articles have ranged much wider, including Spain, Russia, the Aztecs, the Cathars, Tibet, India, Ancient Egypt, Buddhism and the Druse of Lebanon. Numbers 1–17 (January 1994–July 1999) have been scrutinised. The typical article provides a case history or personal story strongly suggestive of reincarnation, either in the UK or abroad. The most common types are (a) past life regressions under hypnosis, (b) childhood experiences. Apart from two letters in No. 14, p. 31, there is no suggestion of rebirth in other members of the family (my third hypothesis). Accordingly, I will look in this section at the other two hypotheses, namely the extent to which the magazine reflects ‘modern’ or ‘postmodern’ identities. A number of hypnotists and other therapists offer past-life regression therapy. The client may ask for this just out of curiosity, but in the many cases reported in the magazine the client is either seeking general self-understanding or to cure a specific problem or phobia, the latter leading to dramatic case histories. In an article entitled ‘I Died on the Titanic’, Monica O’Hara, a housewife from Liverpool, tells of her irrational fear of the sea which led her to consult a leading hypnotherapist. The article concludes (No.2, page 6): I’m convinced that I died in that previous life as a victim of the Titanic sinking. But reliving the experience under hypnosis has certainly greatly diminished my fear of the

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sea. Since I was little I was never able to swim and just looking at the sea filled me with dread. Now, I’m quite happy to go on a ferry and am learning to swim at my local leisure centre.

A medium, Doris Collins, reports that she was told by a psychic from New Zealand that I had died in the Great Fire of London and this, he explained, was why I have always been petrified of fire. And he is absolutely right. I am terrified of fire. [No.3, p. 23]

This genre of story operates within the modernist therapeutic framework of seeking and healing the self. Typically, the past life that is constructed is one that is not only consistent with the present-day self, but sheds light on it, and may even help change it in a desired direction. A past life that had no relation to the present, as used by Victoria Wood, might have difficulty performing this therapeutic task. One hypnotherapist, Jim Alexander (No. 3, pp. 24–25), refuses to label regression memories as definite past life experiences … but for ease of telling his story he speaks as if they were real … In many cases, evidence of a past-life is secondary to dealing with problems his subjects have in this life.

Clients seek help with the present, not evidence for reincarnation, and Alexander is not alone among therapists in being more concerned with assisting the client to become happier with their present self than making philosophical claims about past selves. Other writers contend that, though clients may get the historical facts of their previous lives wrong, the traumatic emotional experiences they recall (a) happened, and (b) affect their current life (No. 3, pp. 13–15). The main way in which presumed past lives are very different from the subjects’ present lives is the often violent nature of their deaths. The number of soldiers dying in battle is remarkable. The magazine’s editor (No.1, page 3) suggests that this is most likely because lives that end peacefully can rarely be recalled, whereas violent death ruptures the natural memory block between lives – and may also lead to problems and phobias in the present life. Thus, the previous violent death is presented as intimately connected to key aspects of his or her present life and personality. The second kind of story is of a child with a strong sense either of déjà vu or of having been another person or indeed several other people. As the child grows up, it typically forgets it had such experiences. Again, this does not appear as postmodern playfulness, since the child does not choose the aliases, and cannot simply drop them at will. If there is any playfulness, it is that of childhood not of postmodernism. Time and again in the magazine, the past identities fit, or amplify, the present identity. Pop singer k.d. lang sees herself as the reincarnation of country singer Patsy Cline (No. 1, p. 4): I am a reincarnation of Patsy Cline … I’m not tired of talking about it – but I am tired of people thinking it’s a put-on. Somehow I’ve inherited her emotions, her soul’.



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PR doyenne, Lynne Franks explains (No. 1, p. 7): I have been told that in another life I was a female shaman, like a tribal spiritual leader, banging drums around a village. I’ve never thought about it before, but that’s it. I’m a drum beater! … So I’m not going to stop beating drums; I’m going to be beating a different message.

Pop singer Tina Turner, a powerful woman in this life, wonders if she may have been even more powerful some millennia ago as Hatshepsut Maat-ka-Ra, the Egyptian queen who reigned from 1473 to 1458 BC (No. 1, p. 5). One reflective supporter of reincarnation identifies the particular sense of self with which it is associated in the West (No. 2, pp. 12–13): The doctrine of rebirth generally and vaguely held in the west is somewhat as follows: There exists a permanent core of human personality – call it soul, spirit, what you will – that continues from life to life. Any individual looking back on his present life is aware of a continuum, an ‘I’, that was present from infancy to his present age and remains … The adult knows that he is today what he is because of abilities (walking, personal hygiene, reading, writing) inculcated into him during quantities of time which he has completely forgotten. He can therefore accept that his personality at birth has been developed, enriched, perhaps warped by previous lives, which no more need to be remembered than do the educative processes of infancy.

In other words, Western belief in reincarnation is rooted in thoroughly modern, Western, post-Freudian notions of the individual, not in Eastern notions of the person nor in postmodern deconstructions. Certainly this analysis fits the vast majority of the case histories in Reincarnation International.

3. Status and gender

An obvious question is whether reincarnates change sex, colour or social class from one life to the next. Are people more likely to think that in a past life they were more exotic or of higher status than they are now? The modernist might predict consistency from one life to the next, whereas the postmodernist would predict a playing with other genders, colours and statuses. Two studies may shed a little light on this. Wambach (1979:ch.8), a Californian psychologist, hypnotised 1,100 people and found an equal number of males and females in their presumed previous lives, irrespective of the gender of the person hypnotised. She also found a distribution in the previous incarnations of 5–10 per cent upper class, 20–35 per cent middle/artisan class, and 60–80 per cent lower/peasant class. Most of the past lives reported were rather mundane. Wambach takes all this as evidence that what her subjects reported really does represent some kind of past life. This conclusion of hers is not relevant to our discussion here, but her data indicate neither playing with exotic identities, which should lead to a high proportion of upper-class past lives; nor consistency –

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from one purported life to the next – of class and gender. Neither my ‘modern’ nor my ‘postmodern’ hypotheses would predict her findings. In a completely different society, namely India, Pasricha (1990) replicated the work of Stevenson (1974, 1975) by investigating forty-five cases, mainly young children, who had not only a sense of being or having been someone else, but also extraordinary knowledge about that person. She found that only one of the forty-five had changed sex, and in the vast majority of cases, both present and past identity were Hindu (pp. 41–2). In terms of caste and economic status, there was a statistically significant tendency for people to be downwardly mobile from one life to the next (pp. 44–6). Here one is reminded of the many people who entertain the idea that they were someone rather exotic in past lives, and of archy who in Marquis’s (1953) story introduces mehitabel’s past life as Cleopatra with ‘maybe she got jealous of my prestige’. It is unusual for people to want to be downwardly mobile within this life, but they may have different aspirations when it comes to past lives. The mangy alley cat or the suburban housewife gains kudos by having once been Cleopatra. The little Indian boy finds a payoff in having been a Brahmin. But in both India and the West most of those who believe in reincarnation – unlike mehitabel, Wambach’s subjects and the characters in Reincarnation International – have no memory of any past life or lives. A survey of members of the Society for Psychical Research found 78 per cent of those who believe in reincarnation had no specific memories. Without such specific memory, how does believing in or entertaining the possibility of reincarnation link to one’s sense of personal identity? To explore this, I now turn to my final source of data. 4. An interview study

In the first half of 1997, thirty taped unstructured interviews were conducted (by my colleague Helen Waterhouse) with adults who had expressed interest in being interviewed on the subject of reincarnation; also three group interviews were conducted with twenty-one schoolchildren aged 11, 14–15 and 17–18 respectively. Most of the interviews took place in and around Bristol, Bath and Taunton in the West of England, with interviewees being recruited from a number of sources, including personal contacts, a call for volunteers on local radio, and a certain amount of snowballing as one interviewee led to another. The ages of the adult interviewees were as follows: three were under 40, seven in their 40s, three in their 50s, seven in their 60s, eight in their 70s, two in their 80s. Concerning social class, eleven were A/B, thirteen C1 (including several nurses), three C2, and two D/E. Two-thirds of the adult respondents were female; a third were churchgoers. Our sample is reasonably typical of reincarnationists (as identified by the European Values Survey) in respect of gender and conventional religiosity, but somewhat over-represents the older age groups and considerably over-represents the higher social classes. The intention,



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however, was not to assemble a representative sample, but to record the range of meanings given to the idea of reincarnation; to this end, the interviews were unstructured, and care taken to let interviewees speak in their own terms. We deliberately excluded Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists – we were not interested in the meanings given to reincarnation by people who believe it because their religion tells them to. For the same reason, we did not seek out obvious New Agers. Most of our respondents seriously entertain the idea of reincarnation, though only a minority categorically believe in it, and even fewer could talk about an actual past life or lives. The basic findings of the study are reported in Walter and Waterhouse (1999); in this section, I discuss the material in so far as it sheds light on the question of identity. Human or animal? The few who did talk of a definite previous life talked of a human life – though of course, it is unclear whether someone who thought they had lived before as a non-human species would have the words to describe it! The few who contemplated being able to move from one species to another did so in an abstract way that discussed the nature of animals or solved arithmetical problems as to where all the souls go. If we have all been through scores of incarnations, how is it that the global population was so much smaller not so long ago? This question exercised a number of respondents. Others contemplated the relationship between animals and humans. You can come back to this world be it as an insect or an ant, because my imagination goes that there is not enough room wherever we go for the millions that must occupy that place – so there’s a turnover. [No. 28. Retired female clerical worker] Animals have a group soul and, as it were, there’s a pool of experience which accounts for evolution in those kingdoms and there are some of the more highly domesticated animals that begin to have individual qualities. That’s the sign of a sort of budding off of this sort of life energy into what we would recognise as an individual human. [No. 30. Middle-aged Anglican clergyman]

Both these speakers seem to be playing with ideas and concepts, but their musings have no obvious connection with the speaker’s own personal identity. Personal identity Many of the respondents presume continuity between their present and past or future selves. The emphasis is on the continuity of self, rather than on differences between successive incarnations: I come back as me and I carry on as me and until such time as my final end comes. [No. 2. Middle aged female college lecturer] Many religions think that you are what you appear to be, a bag of skin, which possesses an

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immortal soul. I think my intuition and cosmology would reverse that and say I am an immortal soul, which temporarily has a body as an instrument of training. [No. 18. Retired educationalist, male]

Both these respondents describe a strong sense of self. Others speculate about possible previous existences, with the same kind of serious playfulness I discussed in the section on everyday conversation. Suggestions from mediums, clairvoyants and personal intuition are tweaked to fit the person’s existing self-concept: I’ve been everywhere on my [motor]bikes and I really think that I have been a gypsy because at school I always played with the gypsies. [No. 7. Retired unskilled female]

This woman constructs an imagined past life that fits her present sense of self. The next respondent is unsure about the gender of her past lives, given her current mix of male and female personality characteristics. She goes on to muse about her baby’s stage on the ladder of incarnations, relating this to his present personality. Musing about the past is intimately tied up with internal and external conversations in which both her and his present identities are constructed. Past lives are tentatively constructed from personal knowledge of present identity. A clairvoyant … saw me as a nun, but a very proud nun, who had sort of fallen if you like. I don’t know. I don’t know. I’ve just got a feeling that I was probably female. But I could have been a male because I’ve a lot of boyish, a lot of mannish qualities … I think Freddie (seven-week-old baby) is probably an old soul – he’s a contented baby. [What do you mean by an old soul?] Well, I think he’s come back and back a long time, for a very long time. He’s probably had lifetimes of coming back. [No. 17. Female primary school teacher in her 40s]

Those few who had a more definite idea of who they were in a past life could often fit this in with their present life, and they often used the idea that knowledge of past lives can be therapeutic for present problems: The second [group regression] was in the medieval times and in that period I was some sort of lady and I could heal. I was into herbal medicine which could explain why I’m into herbs and healing today … the basic idea with regression in church is that you will be led back to something which will be significant to help you go forward in this life, something that may have been left unresolved or that may help to explain like why you are holding back on emotion or why you resent certain types of people, and you can say well that was to do with a past life and it’s time to get over that and you can move on, which is very therapeutic. [No. 9.Young female university student, member of Spiritualist church] I was a Japanese woman and I was in all my finery … and behind this curtain there was a man sat and I was on my knees bowing to him and I gave him some food and I was going back on my knees and doing this, bowing, and all of a sudden I realised what had been wrong in our marriage. That in a previous life we’d been together and I was perhaps his wife or some servant to him and I was always bowing and scraping. And do you know



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what now, since that time you don’t do it mentally … and that doesn’t bother me in my marriage and my marriage is now much more … in fact if he tries to do it now I just go, yes sir, yes sir (bowing), and he laughs. [No. 12. Retired female nurse]

No. 12 was in fact our only respondent whose story was so specific and with such a clear moral that it would be publishable as a case history in Reincarnation International. Some respondents were aware of a past life that they could not square with their current personality or circumstances. Such past identities were simply noted and left. One respondent was not keen on the idea of reincarnation precisely because he likes who he is now and does not want to be anyone, let alone anything, else: I suspect I’d be a little bit frightened about it. I mean I like my life the way it is. I don’t know … I mean I have no recollection of being somebody in the past or somebody in the future … To think that I may come back as a slug or an ant is not very appealing. Alternatively, if I thought I was going to come back as a future king or queen, that’s not appealing either. I like life the way it is. I love it. [No. 8. Middle-aged truck driver, male]

This was not the only respondent who was interested in reincarnation even though it might prove personally inconvenient. To conclude this section, we found few, if any, Victoria Woods playing with identities in the way they might try on new clothes just to see how they felt in them. We found a lot of thoroughly modern people accepting, playing with, or rejecting reincarnation in order to confirm or amplify their sense of self. It is possible, of course, that this is a function of age. Only two of our thirty adults were under 40. In Britain belief in reincarnation is buoyant across all age groups, and it is possible that younger reincarnates use their belief to deconstruct their personality. But this is not the case with the over 40s we interviewed. Family identities There were only four respondents who placed reincarnation within a family context or who used reincarnation to help resolve the very personal mysteries of birth and death. Two were in the group of 15-year-old schoolchildren: With each person who dies you just think that there’s a new baby been born. My grandad always used to make up stories and things. He used to say that, like his friends used to die, he used to say there’s a baby being born to represent him. I don’t know. I don’t know. He used to call that reincarnation.

Later, another member of the group came back to this question, but cynically and within the framework of biological inheritance: When like a baby is born if they’re saying like it’s a spirit from another life then how come a lot of the time they’re like their two parents?

Reincarnation, Modernity and Identity

The two adult instances are more specific. One interviewee had longed for a child, became pregnant but miscarried; her next door neighbour then fell pregnant and did not want the child: One day we were shopping, we were walking up, and she said,‘Do you know, Shirley,’ she said,‘I’ve an uncanny feeling about this baby’. I said,‘What do you mean?’ She said,‘It’s not my baby I’m carrying, it’s yours. I’m carrying this child for you. I keep getting this feeling that this child is yours not mine.’ She came in one day and she said,‘What are you going to do about it?’And I said nothing. I don’t know. She said,‘Will you take it?’ and after a lot of … well, we did, we took it. That’s my son. He’s 32 now. [No. 12. Retired nurse, female]

It is not clear whether No. 12 thinks the baby born next door is the reincarnation of her own miscarried baby, or just one given by fate for her to adopt. Another respondent, however, definitely made the connection with reincarnation. His grandson was born five years after his wife died: My son’s daughter was very, very shy with me when she was born, almost seven years. It gradually got so she would come over to me quicker but I can only say that when my son’s son was born, my grandson, there was something, when you met his eyes when he was only just born, there was almost – and I don’t know how to put it really – almost a sign of recognition. Now that boy comes to me as easily and has always been able to smile when he sees you. And I honestly feel if there is such a … I will accept there is reincarnation, I can’t accept it fully but it’s almost as if my wife was there. And she was saying I’m here again. [No. 27. Retired postman]

This personal story comes nearest the tribal concept of family/community reincarnation.


This article has explored current meanings of reincarnation in relation to three kinds of identity: • • •

tribal: identifying with the kin group modern: a strong sense of individuality postmodern: the deconstruction of individual identity

It could be easy to assume that the buoyant interest in reincarnation is postmodern, associated with the New Age and with a consumerist approach to belief in which individuals can pick and mix beliefs from a world religious supermarket. Though there is undoubtedly a degree of picking and mixing going on, the data analysed in this article suggests that interest in reincarnation can be, and typically is, associated with a modern, rather than a tribal or postmodern, concept of identity. Late



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twentieth-century reincarnation, rather than assisting in the fragmentation of the modern self, is used to extend the coherent self back before birth and forward after death, and is therefore better seen as an extension of the post-Freudian search for the sources of the self. A more representative, and in particular more youthful, sample may have included ironic, playful postmoderns, so the conclusions of this article are not definitive. Yet our middle-aged and elderly sample should not be discounted: 69 per cent of those believing in reincarnation in the 1990 EVS were aged over 35. Nor do we find much evidence, as far as the question of identity is concerned, of Eastern influences.6 In Christianity, the individual is called by name, and has an individual identity in heaven, even though heaven is also seen as a city and as a community. The Western world – since the Reformation and the Renaissance (Burckhardt 1960) if not earlier (Morris 1972; Macfarlane 1978) – has emphasised the individual. In Hinduism the ultimate aim is to dissolve individual identity – as a drop of water becomes part of the ocean – though at a popular level Hindus may talk of individual identity in heaven. In Buddhism, individual identity is simply not important. Few if any of our interviewees or the contributors to Reincarnation International or those I have overheard in everyday conversation are at all keen on the dissolution of individual identity. The idea of reincarnation has probably been entertained by human beings throughout history, whether or not it is part of the official belief system of their society; the meanings given to the idea, however, are likely to be culture-specific. Many who entertain the idea of reincarnation in late twentieth-century Britain link it to a self-identity that is individualistic, coherent and reflexive. It is, in this sense at least, a thoroughly modern phenomenon, and testimony to the enduring appeal of modernist concepts of the self. acknowledgement I would like to acknowledge suggestions and criticisms made by several members of the BSA Sociology of Religion group, notably at the group’s conferences at Lincoln in April 1995 and Strawberry Hill in April 1996. Eileen Barker, Marion Bowman, Ole Riis and Helen Waterhouse have been particularly helpful. Acknowledgement is also made to the University of Reading Research Endowment Trust, which funded this research.

notes 1. The idea, common in New Age circles, that Jesus taught reincarnation though this was later anathematised by the church, is to me implausible. But whatever one’s interpretation of early Christian teaching, it is certain that reincarnation has not been part of mainline Christian teaching for at least 1,500 years. See the symposium ‘Reincarnation and Christianity’ in Reincarnation International 15 (June 1998):23–9. 2. In practice, of course, some Hindus may find rebirth a comfort (Firth 1997:45). The Japanese, while subscribing to Buddhist funeral rites, may find less comfort in reincarnation than in the knowledge that they will become an ancestor. 3. Personal communication, Kingston Kajese, 1996.

Reincarnation, Modernity and Identity

4. A journal with a slightly different orientation is the Journal of Regression Therapy, published by the Association for Past-Life Research and Therapy, California. 5. Information from Danny Lee at the magazine’s office, April 2000. 6. Concerning karma, however, our interviews do show strong Eastern influences (Walter and Waterhouse 1999). references Ashford, S. and Timms, N. 1992. What Europe Thinks: A study of Western European Values. Aldershot: Dartmouth. Batchelor, S. 1997. Buddhism Without Beliefs. New York: Riverhead Books. Bauman, Z. 1997. Postmodernity and its Discontents. Oxford: Polity. Beck, U. and Beck-Gernsheim, E. 1995. The Normal Chaos of Love. Oxford: Polity. Berger, P., Berger, B. and Kellner, H. 1974. The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness. London: Penguin. Berger, P. and Kellner, H. 1964.‘Marriage and the Construction of Reality’. Diogenes 46:1–25. Burckhardt, J. 1960. The Civilisation of the Renaissance. New York: Mentor. Davie, G. 1994. Religion in Britain since 1945. Oxford: Blackwell. Davies, D. 1997.‘Contemporary Belief in Life After Death’, pp. 130–42 in P. Jupp and T. Rogers (eds.), Interpreting Death. London: Cassell. Donahue, M. J. 1993.‘Prevalence and Correlates of New Age Beliefs in Six Protestant Denominations’. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 32:177–84. DuPertuis, L. G. 1987.‘American Adaptations of Hinduism’. Comparative Social Research 10:101–11. Firth, S. 1997. Dying, Death and Bereavement in a British Hindu Community. Leuven: Peeters. Gallup, G. and Proctor, W. 1982. Adventures in Immortality. New York: McGraw Hill. Giddens, A. 1991. Modernity and Self-Identity. Oxford: Polity. Giddens, A. 1992. The Transformation of Intimacy. Oxford: Polity. Harding, S., Phillips, D., and Fogarty, M. 1986. Contrasting Values in Western Europe. London: Macmillan. Harré, R. 1998. The Singular Self: An Introduction to the Psychology of Personhood. London: Sage. Irvan, M. 1985.‘My Grandfathers Build the House: The Tlingit Potlatch as a System of Religious Belief ’. Stony Brook: State University of New York, unpublished thesis. Jenness, D. 1935.‘The Ojibwa Indians of Parry Island: Their Social and Religious Life’. Bulletin of the Canada Department of Mines, 78. Ottawa: National Museum of Canada. Laguna, F. de 1972. Under Mount Saint Elias: The History and Culture of the Yakutat Tlingit. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology, 7, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press. Lash, S. and Friedman, J. (eds.) 1992. Modernity and Identity. Oxford: Blackwell. McDannell, C. and Lang, B. 1988. Heaven: A History. New Haven: Yale University Press. Macfarlane, A. 1978. The Origins of English Individualism. Oxford: Blackwell. Mass Observation 1947. Puzzled People: A Study in Popular Attitudes to Religion, Ethics, Progress and Politics in a London Borough. London: Gollancz. Mellor, P. 1991.‘Protestant Buddhism? The Cultural Translation of Buddhism in England’. Religion 21:73–92. Morris, C. 1972. The Discovery of the Individual 1050–1200. New York: Harper and Row. Parrinder, E. G. 1956.‘Varieties of Belief in Reincarnation’. Hibbert Journal, 55:260–7. Parrinder, E. G. 1976.‘Religions of the East’, pp. 80–96 in A. Toynbee and A. Koestler (eds.), Life After Death. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Pasricha, S. 1990. Claims of Reincarnation: An Empirical Study of Cases in India. New Delhi: Harman.



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Reichel-Dolmatoff, G. 1951. Los Kogi: Una tribu de la Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Columbia.Vol. 2. Bogota: Editorial Iqueima. Schaden, E. 1962. Aspectos Fundamentais da Cultura Guarani. Corpo e Alma do Brasil 6. Sao Paulo: Difusao Europeia do Livro. Stevenson, I. 1974. Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. Stevenson, I. 1975. Cases of the Reincarnation Type: Volume 1. Ten Cases in India. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. Talbott, M. 1987. Your Past Lives: A Reincarnation Handbook. New York: Harmony Books. Walter, T. 1996. The Eclipse of Eternity: A Sociology of the Afterlife. Basingstoke: Macmillan. Wambach, H. 1979. Reliving Past Lives: The Evidence Under Hypnosis. London: Hutchinson. Waterhouse, H. 1999.‘Reincarnation Belief in Britain: New Age Orientation or Mainstream Option?’ Journal of Contemporary Religion, 14:97–109. Wood,V. 1991. Victoria Wood Sold Out, ITV and video. Walter, T. and Waterhouse, H. 1999.‘A Very Private Belief: Reincarnation in Contemporary England’. Sociology of Religion 60:187–97. Biographical note: TONY WALTER is Reader in Sociology at the University of Reading, where he directs the MA in Death and Society. Recent publications include The Mourning for Princess Diana and On Bereavement: The Culture of Grief. Address: Department of Sociology, University of Reading, Reading, RG6 6AA.