Marooned in a waiting room, I picked up a magazine and started reading a sensational article about reincarnation. The article speculated on the past lives of some enormously famous celebrities I’d never heard of. The author appeared to believe that every media celebrity must be the reincarnation of a past media celebrity, a theory that runs into problems as soon as you get back a couple of generations to the time before media celebrities were invented.

The idea of reincarnation is one of the most appealing and at the same time one of the silliest of all human fancies. But, if we set aside the logical and metaphysical problems, there’s no denying that it has an awful fascination. The belief in reincarnation emerged way back in the mists of antiquity, and it may be one of the oldest human beliefs. Life was pretty rough a million years ago, and it was only natural for our ancestors to imagine another and better life. They probably got the idea by looking at their cats, sleeping by the fire at the back of the cave. Reincarnation was absorbed into various eastern religions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism and, in our addled age, it has reappeared as a significant part of quasi-religions like Spiritualism, Scientology, and various so-called “New Age” therapies such as past life regression. According to the Gallup Poll, twenty-five per cent of all Americans believe in reincarnation.

It’s easy to understand why. We don’t want to just disappear when we die, and we don’t want to do the same thing all over again. It’s exciting to imagine that we might come back as something or somebody completely different.

The catch, of course, is that there’s no knowing what or who we might be in a future life. We might come back as anything at all – a bear, a broccoli plant, or a bug. I quite like the idea of being a bear, because I wouldn’t have to make many changes in my lifestyle. But the sting in the tail of traditional reincarnation doctrine is that it has a moral dimension. We come back as the thing we deserve to be, whatever that is. If we haven’t lived well in this life, our next one could be pretty nasty. On the other hand, if we have lived well through many lives we achieve Nirvana. We escape the endless wheel of rebirth and enter a kind of disembodied state of eternal bliss, much like retirement in Florida. Most people find this uncertainty about the future disturbing. They prefer to focus on their past lives.

Putting people in touch with their previous lives has become a major therapeutic industry. Oddly enough these past incarnations were all rather splendid. Everybody was famous, powerful, and beautiful. Nobody, it seems, was ever a scullery maid or a dirt farmer in a previous life. When you talk to people who believe in reincarnation, which is always a surreal experience, they always talk about the important characters they used to be. Napoleon and Cleopatra seem to be popular choices. They don’t seem to reflect that this descent from glory to obscurity must have resulted from some pretty bad behavior in their previous incarnations.

One version of reincarnation doctrine suggests that when you die you are reborn at once, which means that your previous incarnation must have died on your birth date, if you follow me. This immediately sent me to the genealogy pages to discover who had in fact died on my birth date. I found a lot on nonentities, a decorated Major General from the Boer War (I can’t have been him) and, to my amazement, the remarkable Pope Pius XI – and I don’t think I could have been him either.

If you really believed in the moral purpose of reincarnation it would keep you on your toes. Nobody wants to come back as a carrot or a cockroach. But I don’t believe there’s any justice in this life, or the last, or the next. Why couldn’t I have been reincarnated as Sean Penn, or even better Catherine Zeta Jones? My life would be quite different, to say nothing of my wardrobe. So what exactly did I do to deserve this?

The only really strong argument in support of reincarnation is the existence of cats. If you are owned by one or more cats you know, you just know, that they have lived not just nine but hundreds of lives over thousand of years. Their wisdom and cunning are infinite. They like to pretend that they were aristocratic princes and princesses in their previous lives. But that’s just a cat joke: they have more sense. Cats always arrange to be reborn on the very highest step of the ladder of reincarnation, as cats.

Copyright: David Bouchier