The Theosophical Forum — October 1943

OUR PAST LIVES — Gertrude W. van Pelt

Why do we not remember our past lives? This is the question an average person of the West asks on first hearing of the archaic teaching of Reincarnation. In the East, where is included the majority of souls on our globe, it is accepted as one of the simple facts of nature. But for this civilization, minus the growing number of intuitive exceptions, this loss of physical memory settles the question in the negative. How shall we answer this natural inquiry?

First, the miracle indeed, would be, if we could, in the ordinary way, remember a past life. Can we, even now, recall at night every act and thought of the day just past? How much can we remember of last year, twenty years ago, or even last month? And as these years pass and we reach old age, forgetfulness is proverbial.

These questions recall to mind a series of articles entitled Reincarnation and Memory which appear in The Path, Vol. IV, written by "Harij." On page 342, we find:

All that we know of the brain shows it to be the organ of physical memory, and shows, moreover, that any change of its structure or perversion of its function impairs or obliterates memory. Cases of disease have been known from which individuals have recovered with complete oblivion of nearly all the past. Adults previously well-educated have forgotten even how to read, and have had to begin all over again like children.

All this may happen in any one life, while we have the same brain, but at physical death this brain, as a combination of elements, is destroyed forever. Further, it is part of the archaic teaching that life in the unseen world, or world of effects, is, on an average, one hundred times as long as earth life. And although when the same ego returns to earth, the atoms of his old brain will seek their old attractions, they will have been changed and rearranged, so that practically the brain in the next life is a new creation. How then, could this ordinary brain memory be possible?

On page 246-7 from the article above referred to, Harij writes of the after death state as follows:

The ego now enters on a new phase of existence, in the world of causes, but where it has to work out, or "experience," the effects of its recent life on earth. When these have run their course and become exhausted, let us say that it returns to life on earth. Nothing remains of its former life save only precipitated results. The former body is destroyed, and the senses of its former life changed beyond recognition. In other words, nothing remains of the former personality. The precipitated results as impulses to new activities belong to the individual life, or to the real ego. Thus the personal and the individual memory differ as do the elements of a compound from the precipitated result in life's alembic.

Thus the link between incarnations exists in the higher, more permanent and real nature of man, in his Ego, his essential being, his character. Throughout eternity, in no two moments of time is a man exactly the same. Every thought, every emotion, every act or experience alters him, infinitesimal or great as the change may be. It is a solemn fact that every day finds him a little advanced on his eternal journey, or a little behind, perhaps on the edge of dangerous pitfalls. At any period, a man is an epitome of all his past. He is himself his own creator.

Quoting again from the same article on page 272:

Reminiscence as compared with physical memory is in no sense a loss, but a far higher result. No knowledge that could possibly be derived from the study of the uncombined elements oxygen and hydrogen could ever pre-suppose water, and nothing short of analysis would show that water is a union of these two substances. Oxygen and hydrogen seem to have disappeared altogether, and something entirely different to have taken their place. . . . Even so are memory and reminiscence related. The details of experience as the result of sensation and consciousness, when precipitated as resultants, become motives, causes, instead of results, and so color all future experiences. These having become part of the ego, are carried along with it; not as accretions, but as essences. Here is the logical basis of intuition, as rational as anything we know of physical memory. In the long journey of the soul, even during one incarnation, it is not lumbered up and loaded down with the accretions of memory. In place of the carloads of ore we have the portable ingots of bright metal. We learn by experience; not by the mere record of its facts, but by the potency of its results. If the record were all, it would soon become, indeed, a lost record of a dead language, a shadow upon the wall, leaving its own trace, but presently so overlaid by other shadows, so confused and blended, as to be past all recovery. Reminiscence is to memory what the spirit is to the physical body, — that which alone gives it life and renders it immortal.

However there is somewhere in the higher nature a scroll of time, which one who lives in this higher nature consciously may learn to read. It is said the Masters can unroll this scroll, but they seldom care to do this. It is too painful. Do we, even in this one life find it pleasant to recall our mistakes, perhaps our cruelties, our neglect of golden opportunities? (1)

Reincarnation is a noble, inspiring teaching, embodying justice, incentive to action in the right direction, evoking courage. If this archaic teaching is ignored, what other theory can answer the eternal question: how did I come here? The theory of special creation besides outraging our inherent sense of justice is absurd, explains nothing and is contrary to all we know of nature's ways.

In H. P. Blavatsky's Lucifer is a suggestive article on this subject entitled, Memory in the Dying, (2) wherein it is likewise emphasized that the brain is the organ of memory only on this earth plane and that therefore permanent memory really inheres in the Reincarnating Ego. She writes:

Not the most trifling action of our lives can disappear from the "Soul's" (3) memory, because it is no MEMORY for it, but an ever present reality on the plane which lies outside our conceptions of space and time. — Vol. V., p. 128.

And again:

The fact is that the human brain is simply the canal between two planes — the psycho-spiritual and the material — through which every abstract and metaphysical idea filters from the Manasic down to the lower human consciousness. — Ibid.

And then referring to the teaching that immediately after physical death the whole of the past life passes in review before the consciousness, she says:

May this not be due . . . simply to the fact that, for a few seconds at least, our two memories (or rather the two states, the highest and the lowest state, of consciousness) blend together, thus forming one, and that the dying being finds himself on a plane wherein there is neither past nor future, but all is one present?


1. See also Questions We All Ask by G. de Purucker, 1st Series, pp. 724-5. (return to text)

2. Republished in THE THEOSOPHICAL FORUM, July, 1943. (return to text)

3. The Soul is here used to mean the Reincarnating Ego. — G. v. P. (return to text)

The Theosophical Forum