Why do we not remember Our Past Lives?

The Key to Theosophy, 123-133. H. P. Blavatsky

ON RE-INCARNATION OR RE-BIRTH
WHAT IS MEMORY ACCORDING TO THE THEOSOPHICAL TEACHING?

ENQ. The most difficult thing for you to do, will be to explain and give reasonable grounds for such a belief. No Theosophist has ever yet succeeded in bringing forward a single valid proof to shake my scepticism. First of all, you have against this theory of re-incarnation, the fact that no single man has yet been found to remember that he has lived, least of all who he was, during his previous life.

THEO. Your argument, I see, tends to the same old objection; the loss of memory in each of us of our previous incarnation. You think it invalidates our doctrine ? My answer is that it does not, and that at any rate such an objection cannot be final.

ENQ. I would like to hear your arguments.

THEO. They are short and few. Yet when you take into consideration (a) the utter inability of the best modern psychologists to explain to the world the nature of mind; and (b) their complete ignorance of its potentialities, and higher states, you have to admit that this objection is based on an a priori conclusion drawn from primÔ facie and circumstantial evidence more than anything else. Now what is "memory" in your conception, pray?

ENQ. That which is generally accepted: the faculty in our mind of remembering and of retaining the knowledge of previous thoughts, deeds and events.

THEO. Please add to it that there is a great difference between the three accepted forms of memory. Besides memory in general you have Remembrance, Recollection and Reminiscence, have you not? Have you ever thought over the difference? Memory, remember, is a generic name.

ENQ. Yet, all these are only synonyms.

THEO. Indeed, they are not -- not in philosophy, at all events. Memory is simply an innate power in thinking beings, and even in animals, of reproducing past impressions by an association of ideas principally suggested by objective things or by some action on our external sensory organs. Memory is a faculty depending entirely on the more or less healthy and normal functioning of our physical brain; and remembrance and recollection are the attributes and handmaidens of that memory. But reminiscence is an entirely different thing. "Reminiscence" is defined by the modern psychologist as something intermediate between remembrance and recollection, or " a conscious process of recalling past occurrences, but without that full and varied reference to particular things which characterises recollection." Locke, speaking of recollection and remembrance, says: " When an idea again recurs without the operation of the like object on the external sensory, it is remembrance; if it be sought after by the mind, and with pain and endeavour found and brought again into view, it is recollection." But even Locke leaves reminiscence without any clear definition, because it is no faculty or attribute of our physical memory, but an intuitional perception apart from and outside our physical brain; a perception which, covering as it does (being called into action by the ever-present knowledge of our spiritual Ego) all those visions in man which are regarded as abnormal -- from the pictures suggested by genius to the ravings of fever and even madness -- are classed by science as having no existence outside of our fancy. Occultism and Theosophy, however, regard reminiscence in an entirely different light. For us, while memory is physical and evanescent and depends on the physiological conditions of the brain -- a fundamental proposition with all teachers of mnemonics, who have the researches of modern scientific psychologists to back them -- we call reminiscence the memory of the soul. And it is this memory which gives the assurance to almost every human being, whether he under-stands it or not, of his having lived before and having to live again. Indeed, as Wordsworth has it:

"Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting,
The soul that rises with us, our life's star,
hath elsewhere had its setting,
And cometh from afar."

ENQ. If it is on this kind of memory -- poetry and abnormal fancies, on your own confession -- that you base your doctrine, then you will convince very few, I am afraid.

THEO. I did not "confess" it was a fancy. I simply said that physiologists and scientists in general regard such reminiscences as hallucinations and fancy, to which learned conclusion they are welcome. We do not deny that such visions of the past and glimpses far back into the corridors of time, are not abnormal, as contrasted with our normal daily life experience and physical memory. But we do maintain with Professor W. Knight, that "the absence of memory of any action done in a previous state cannot be a conclusive argument against our having lived through it." And every fair-minded opponent must agree with what is said in Butler's Lectures on Platonic Philosophy -- " that the feeling of extravagance with which it (pre-existence) affects us has its secret source in materialistic or semi-materialistic prejudices." Besides which we maintain that memory, as Olympiodorus called it, is simply phantasy, and the most unreliable thing in us. [footnote: "The phantasy," says Olympiodorus (in Platonis Phad.), "is an impediment to our intellectual conceptions; and hence, when we are agitated by the inspiring influence of the Divinity, if the phantasy intervenes, the enthusiastic energy ceases: for enthusiasm and the ecstasy are contrary to each other. Should it be asked whether the soul is able to energise without the phantasy, we reply, that its perception of universals proves that it is able. It has perceptions, therefore, independent of the phantasy; at the same time, however, the phantasy attends in its energies, just as a storm pursues him who sails on the sea." end of footnote] Ammonius Saccas asserted that the only faculty in man directly opposed to prognostication, or looking into futurity, is memory. Furthermore, remember that memory is one thing, and mind or thought is another; one is a recording machine, a register which very easily gets out of order; the other (thoughts) are eternal and imperishable. Would you refuse to believe in the existence of certain things or men only because your physical eyes have not seen them ? Would not the collective testimony of past generations who have seen him be a sufficient guarantee that Julius Caesar once lived ? Why should not the same testimony of the psychic senses of the masses be taken into consideration ?

ENQ. But don't you think that these are too fine distinctions to be accepted by the majority of mortals?

THEO. Say rather by the majority of materialists. And to them we say, behold: even in the short span of ordinary existence, memory is too weak to register all the events of a lifetime. How frequently do even most important events lie dormant in our memory until awakened by some association of ideas, or aroused to function and activity by some other link. This is especially the case with people of advanced age, who are always found suffering from feebleness of recollection. When, therefore, we remember that which we know about the physical and the spiritual principles in man, it is not the fact that our memory has failed to record our precedent life and lives that ought to surprise us, but the contrary, were it to happen.

WHY DO WE NOT REMEMBER OUR PAST LIVES?

ENQ. You have given me a bird's eye view of the seven principles; now how do they account for our complete loss of any recollection of having lived before?

THEO. Very easily. Since those "principles" which we call physical, and none of which is denied by science, though it calls them by other names, [footnote: Namely, the body, life, passional and animal instincts, and the astral eidolon of every man (whether perceived in thought or our mind's eye, or objectively and separate from the physical body), which principles we call Sthula sarira, Prana, Kama rupa, and Linga sarira (vide supra). end of footnote] are disintegrated after death with their constituent elements, memory along with its brain, this vanished memory of a vanished personality, can neither remember nor record anything in the subsequent reincarnation of the EGO. Reincarnation means that this Ego will be furnished with a new body, a new brain, and a new memory. Therefore it would be as absurd to expect this memory to remember that which it has never recorded as it would be idle to examine under a microscope a shirt never worn by a murderer, and seek on it for the stains of blood which are to be found only on the clothes he wore. It is not the clean shirt that we have to question, but the clothes worn during the perpetration of the crime; and if these are burnt and destroyed, how can you get at them?

ENQ. Aye! how can you get at the certainty that the crime was ever committed at all, or that the "man in the clean shirt" ever lived before?

THEO. Not by physical processes, most assuredly; nor by relying on the testimony of that which exists no longer. But there is such a thing as circumstantial evidence, since our wise laws accept it, more, perhaps, even than they should. To get convinced of the fact of re-incarnation and past lives, one must put oneself in rapport with one's real permanent Ego, not one's evanescent memory.

ENQ. But how can people believe in that which they do not know, nor have ever seen, far less put themselves in rapport with it?

THEO. If people, and the most learned, will believe in the Gravity, Ether, Force, and what not of Science, abstractions "and working hypotheses," which they have neither seen, touched, smelt, heard, nor tasted -- why should not other people believe, on the same principle, in one's permanent Ego, a far more logical and important "working hypothesis" than any other ?

ENQ. What is, finally, this mysterious eternal principle ? Can you explain its nature so as to make it comprehensible to all?

THEO. The EGO which re-incarnates, the individual and immortal -- not personal -- "I"; the vehicle, in short, of the Atma-Buddhic MONAD, that which is rewarded in Devachan and punished on earth, and that, finally, to which the reflection only of the Skandhas, or attributes, of every incarnation attaches itself. [footnote: There are five Skandhas or attributes in the Buddhist teachings: "Rupa (form or body), material qualities; Vedana, sensation; Sanna, abstract ideas; Samkhara, tendencies of mind; Vinnana, mental powers. Of these we are formed; by them we are conscious of existence; and through them communicate with the world about us." end of footnote]

ENQ. What do you mean by Skandhas?

THEO. Just what I said: "attributes," among which is memory, all of which perish like a flower, leaving behind them only a feeble perfume. Here is another paragraph from H. S. Olcott's "Buddhist Catechism" [footnote: By H. S. Olcott, President and Founder of the Theosophical Society. The accuracy of the teaching is sanctioned by the Rev. H. Sumangala, High Priest of the Sripada and Galle, and Principal of the Widyodaya Parivena (College) at Colombo, as being in agreement with the Canon of the Southern Buddhist Church. end of footnote] which bears directly upon the subject. It deals with the question as follows: -- "The aged man remembers the incidents of his youth, despite his being physically and mentally changed. Why, then, is not the recollection of past lives brought over by us from our last birth into the present birth ? Because memory is included within the Skandhas, and the Skandhas having changed with the new existence, a memory, the record of that particular existence, develops. Yet the record or reflection of all the past lives must survive, for when Prince Siddhartha became Buddha, the full sequence of His previous births were seen by Him. . . . and any one who attains to the state of Jhana can thus retrospectively trace the line of his lives." This proves to you that while the undying qualities of the personality -- such as love, goodness, charity, etc. -- attach themselves to the immortal Ego, photographing on it, so to speak, a permanent image of the divine aspect of the man who was, his material Skandhas (those which generate the most marked Karmic effects) are as evanescent as a flash of lightning, and cannot impress the new brain of the new personality; yet their failing to do so impairs in no way the identity of the re- incarnating Ego.

ENQ. Do you mean to infer that that which survives is only the Soul-memory, as you call it, that Soul or Ego being one and the same, while nothing of the personality remains?

THEO. Not quite; something of each personality, unless the latter was an absolute materialist with not even a chink in his nature for a spiritual ray to pass through, must survive, as it leaves its eternal impress on the incarnating permanent Self or Spiritual Ego. [footnote: Or the Spiritual, in contradistinction to the personal Self. The student must not confuse this Spiritual Ego with the "HIGHER SELF" which is Atma, the God within us, and inseparable from the Universal Spirit. end of footnote] (See On post mortem and post natal Consciousness.) The personality with its Skandhas is ever changing with every new birth. It is, as said before, only the part played by the actor (the true Ego) for one night. This is why we preserve no memory! on the physical plane of our past lives, though the real "Ego " has lived them over and knows them all.

ENQ. Then how does it happen that the real or Spiritual man does not impress his new personal "I" with this knowledge ?

THEO. How is it that the servant-girls in a poor farm-house could speak Hebrew and play the violin in their trance or somnambulic state, and knew neither when in their normal condition ? Because, as every genuine psychologist of the old, not our modern, school, will tell you, the Spiritual Ego can act only when the personal Ego is paralysed. The Spiritual "I" in man is omniscient and has every knowledge innate in it; while the personal self is the creature of its environment and the slave of the physical memory. Could the former manifest itself uninterruptedly, and without impediments, there would be no longer men on earth, but we should all be gods.

ENQ. Still there ought to be exceptions, and some ought to remember.

THEO. And so there are. But who believes in their report? Such sensitives are generally regarded as hallucinated hysteriacs, as crack-brained enthusiasts, or humbugs, by modern materialism. Let them read, however, works on this subject, pre-eminently "Reincarnation, a Study of Forgotten Truth" by S. D. Walker, F.T.S., and see in it the mass of proofs which the able author brings to bear on this vexed question. One speaks to people of soul, and some ask "What is Soul?" "Have you ever proved its existence?" Of course it is useless to argue with those who are materialists. But even to them I would put the question: "Can you remember what you were or did when a baby? Have you preserved the smallest recollection of your life, thoughts, or deeds, or that you lived at all during the first eighteen months or two years of your existence ? Then why not deny that you have ever lived as a babe, on the same principle?" When to all this we add that the reincarnating Ego, or individuality, retains during the Devachanic period merely the essence of the experience of its past earth-life or personality, the whole physical experience involving into a state of in potentia, or being, so to speak, translated into spiritual formulae; when we remember further that the term between two rebirths is said to extend from ten to fifteen centuries, during which time the physical consciousness is totally and absolutely inactive, having no organs to act through, and therefore no existence, the reason for the absence of all remembrance in the purely physical memory is apparent.

ENQ. You just said that the SPIRITUAL EGO was omniscient. Where, then, is that vaunted omniscience during his Devachanic life, as you call it ?

THEO. During that time it is latent and potential, because, first of all, the Spiritual Ego (the compound of Buddhi-Manas) is not the Higher SELF, which being one with the Universal Soul or Mind is alone omniscient; and, secondly, because Devachan is the idealized continuation of the terrestrial life just left behind, a period of retributive adjustment, and a reward for unmerited wrongs and sufferings undergone in that special life. It is omniscient only potentially in Devachan, and de facto exclusively in Nirvana, when the Ego is merged in the Universal Mind-Soul. Yet it rebecomes quasi omniscient during those hours on earth when certain abnormal conditions and physiological changes in the body make the Ego free from the trammels of matter. Thus the examples cited above of somnambulists, a poor servant speaking Hebrew, and another playing the violin, give you au illustration of the case in point. This does not mean that the explanations of these two facts offered us by medical science have no truth in them, for one girl had, years before, heard her master, a clergyman, read Hebrew works aloud, and the other had heard an artist playing a violin at their farm. But neither could have done so as perfectly as they did had they not been ensouled by THAT which, owing to the sameness of its nature with the Universal Mind, is omniscient. Here the higher principle acted on the Skandhas and moved them; in the other, the personality being paralysed, the individuality manifested itself. Pray do not confuse the two.