The idea that the SOUL returns after death to a new body to live another life. Belief in Reincarnation is not limited to the higher religions of the East, but is found in tribal societies around the world. It is also common in the West.

According to a poll taken by the Gallup organization in 1981, almost a quarter of the U.S. population believes in Reincarnation. Although the Gallup poll did not go into the details of the belief, it is likely that most Americans’ ideas on the subject are derived from Hinduism or Buddhism, perhaps by way of Spiritualism, Spiritism or Theosophy. What many do not realize is that Hindu ideas (out of which the Buddhist ideas developed) grew out of a set of beliefs characteristic to the indigenous tribal peoples of India. These latter beliefs formed part of a belief system about spirits and souls that create the widespread worldview of ANIMISM, which has been called the world’s earliest religion.

Animistic soul beliefs are more complex and varied than Western beliefs. Different tribal societies hold different beliefs, which, however, may be seen to be related to the same general set of ideas or principles. This indicates that probably there was once a universal set of beliefs from which the various beliefs found today have diverged over time.

One common characteristic of animistic beliefs about Reincarnation is that the spirit of a deceased person undergoes a division after death, one part of it traveling to the Land of the Dead (see Afterlife) where it becomes an ancestral spirit, while another part of it returns to earth to animate a new body. Some tribal peoples believe that each person has more than one soul, and in this case, one of the souls may reincarnate, while another becomes an ancestral spirit.

A person’s name is often believed to have spiritual qualities in tribal societies, to the point that it even becomes a type of soul. Many Inuit groups have what has been called a “name soul,” which means that the soul is an inherent part of a name, and in naming a child, one also gives it a soul. If a child cries incessantly, this indicates that he or she has been wrongly named, and once the proper name is found and given to the child, the baby will calm down. Shamans may be called in to divine the identity of the ancestor believed to be crying for its name.

The idea that a child who will not stop crying has been wrongly named has been reported in many other societies in the Americas and in Africa, and the intentional inducement of crying is sometimes used as a way of determining which ancestor has been reincarnated in a newborn baby. A baby is made to cry (perhaps by splashing water on it), and the names of deceased relatives are called out, until the infant stops bawling. The Nandi of East Africa blow snuff up a baby’s nose to make him or her cry and expect the baby to sneeze when the correct name is called out. The name is then given to the baby so that it has the same name as in his or her previous life.

Crying tests are not the only method used to determine the past life identity of a child. Very often one of the parents has an “announcing dream” that seems to predict that a certain person will be reborn to them. In many societies, babies are checked for birthmarks or birth defects that might indicate who they were, and sometimes corpses are marked with the intention of providing a way of tracking the deceased into his or her next life. In West Africa, mutilation is especially common with children who die in infancy, particularly if the same family has lost two or more children in a row. This is believed to be the same child returning again and again, but intentionally dying young each time, as a torment to his or her parents. By marking the body of one of these children, it is believed, their spirits will be rendered unattractive to their fellows, who will therefore allow them to remain living when they are reborn the next time around.

Reincarnation may be facilitated or impeded through burial practices (see FUNERAL RITES AND CUSTOMS). Children are sometimes buried beneath the floor of the home, with the idea that this will make it easier for their souls to return to their mothers. Adults, whose spirits are stronger and thus both more dangerous in their after-death state and better able to find their way back home, are less often buried in the home but may instead be buried on the outskirts of the village. In Africa, some tribes have been reported to have another means of manipulating the Reincarnation process: persons who are undesirable for one reason or another are simply thrown into the bush. They are thus discouraged or prevented from taking rebirth in the community.

Human beings may be reborn not only as human children, but, in many societies at least, also as animals. Occasionally one finds the belief that the soul transmigrates through a series of different animal forms before it ceases to exist. However, one also finds the belief that at the end of this series, or perhaps after a single animal life, a person is reborn as a human being. In the animistic system, many different animal species are believed to have souls. For Native Americans, animals allow themselves to be hunted and killed by human beings so long as this is done properly and humanely. Proper hunting procedures also ensure the Reincarnation of the animals’ spirits and the continuation of the species in the following season.

Of the several ways animistic Reincarnation beliefs differ from those typical of Hinduism and Buddhism, the most important is the concept of karma. Karma, which has been called a “moral law of cause and effect,” refers to the idea that the circumstances of one’s present life are molded by one’s actions (good and bad) in previous lives and, in a complimentary way, that what one does in this life will help to determine the course of one’s destiny in future lives. This idea, which for many persons is inextricably associated with the idea of Reincarnation, was part of the development of animistic beliefs into the familiar doctrine of Hinduism. The concept of karma is absent from animistic beliefs about Reincarnation.

This differentiation is significant, because good evidence of karma is lacking in the Scientific studies of Reincarnation made by Ian Stevenson and others. Stevenson specialized in the study of children who claim to remember previous lives. significantly, many of Stevenson’s cases include not just verbal claims by the children, but many of the same “signs” of Reincarnation recognized by tribal peoples, such as announcing dreams or apparitions in which a birth is foretold, birthmarks and birth defects, and phobias that relate to some previous life trauma (such as a death). Moreover, cases of children who remember previous lives reported by anthropologists closely resemble Stevenson’s in form. It may thus be said that Scientific investigation supports the animistic type of belief better than the Hindu and Buddhist one.

Stevenson’s work showed how important beliefs about Reincarnation are to the Reincarnation process. For example, cases in which children claim memories of being people of the sex opposite to their present self are common in cultures in which this is believed possible, but rare in cultures where it is believed impossible. In animistic cultures, it is expected that a person will generally reincarnate in the same family or clan, and this is what cases show to occur in those cultures, unlike in Hindu and Buddhist ones, where the Reincarnation process is thought to be due to karma and there are relatively few “same family” cases. Of course, it may be that beliefs influence the reporting of cases, or even help to shape the cases as they occur, but the large number of universal features—such as the fact that the children almost always forget their memories by age five, the high percentage of cases involving violent death and the prevalence of announcing dreams—suggests that these cases represent a genuine phenomenon.

Whether the phenomenon is indeed Reincarnation is still open to question, although the Scientific case for Reincarnation is today much stronger than it was 30 years ago, when Stevenson began his work. The main problem facing the idea of Reincarnation today is the problem of relating the evidence to established Scientific data, especially in biology. In a mammoth study of birthmarks and birth defects in child Reincarnation cases published in 1997, Stevenson tried to show how a discarnate spirit might affect an embryo in the process of formation, arguing that Reincarnation should not be conceived as an alternative to inheritance, but rather as supplementary to it. He also advanced the idea that memories, behaviors and physical marks might be carried from a deceased person to a new body by a type of astral body.

Reincarnation implies Survival After Death and gains plausibility from the congruities between it and other types of evidence for survival. Reincarnation claims figure in some APPARITION and Poltergeist cases, and the accounts of children who claim to remember events between lives are similar to Out-of-Body Experience and NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE. Mediums also sometimes relate communications from persons who claim to have known sitters in previous lives. Together these several types of cases suggest that some part of a person is able to survive death, interact with the physical world as a poltergeist, be seen as an apparition, communicate through a medium and eventually return to the world in the body of a child.


  • Bendann, Effi e. Death Customs: An Analytical Study of Burial Rites. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, and Trubner, 1930.
  • Berger, Arthur, and Joyce Berger. Reincarnation: Fact or Fable? London: The Aquarian Press, 1991.
  • Gallup, George, Jr. Adventures in Immortality: A Look Beyond the Threshold of Death. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982.
  • Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. Tales of Reincarnation. New York: Pock et Books, 1989.
  • Head, Joseph, and S. L. Cranston. Reincarnation: The Phoenix Fire Mystery. New York: Julian Press, 1977.
  • Matlock, James G. “Past Life Memory Case Studies.” In S. Krippner, ed., Advances in Parapsychological Research, vol. 6. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1990, pp. 184–297.
  • Mills, Antonia, and Richard Slobodin, eds. Amerindian Rebirth: Reincarnation Belief among American Indians and Inuit. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1994.
  • Shroder, Tom. Old Souls: The Scientific Evidence for Reincarnation. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.
  • Stevenson, Ian. Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1974.
  • ———. Children Who Remember Previous Lives: A Question of Reincarnation. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1987.
  • ———. Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997.
  • Tylor, Edward Burnett. Religion in Primitive Culture. New York: Harper & Row, 1956.


The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007

To read another article about this subject click on the next page