Past Lives: Can they be discerned from the chart and if so is it meaningful to do so?
Discerning a past life from the birth chart has become increasingly popular over the last few decades. The methods are highly questionable from the standpoint of those with a more scientific approach to astrology. While a materialistic scientific point of view has no place amidst the study of astrology, empiricism does. This term is often wrongly defined by those who use it. Empirical actually means knowledge derived through experience. When we conduct a scientific study based on empirical observation it is still grounded in our subjective experience of the material we are analyzing. However the important part in any sort of study is that it also be undertaken in a manner that the proofs can be verified by others. If intuition is to have any real value then multiple people who claim a high degree of intuition should be able to derive the same thing from a birth chart concerning the past life of the person. So far I do not believe such a study has been done, yet it would be of great value if one could be so conducted. There are stories in which multiple enlightened masters agreed upon the past life of a person (such as in Tibet where it is very common for great Lamas to be reborn and to possess detailed memories of their past. Their claims are then copiously researched by either other Lamas or the Guru himself who may already possesses an intuitive insight into the situation). I see no reason why we shouldn't approach the study of reincarnation in a scientific manner as the Tibetans do. But I digress.
What do great masters say about the subject?
Sri Aurobindo (The Life Divine, Book Two, Part Two, chapter 22):
"But if a constant development of being by a developing cosmic experience is the meaning, and the building of a new personality in a new birth is the method, then any persistent or complete memory of the past life or lives might be a chain and a serious obstacle: it would be a force for prolonging the old temperament, character, preoccupations, and a tremendous burden hampering the free development of the new personality and its formulation of new experience. A clear and detailed memory of past lives, hatreds, rancours, attachments, connections would be equally a stupendous inconvenience; for it would bind the reborn being to a useless repetition or a compulsory continuation of his surface past and stand heavily in the way of his bringing out new possibilities from the depths of the spirit. If, indeed, a mental learning of things were the heart of the matter, if that were the process of our development, memory would have a great importance: but what happens is a growth of the soulpersonality and a growth of the nature by an assimilation into our substance of being, a creative and effective absorption of the essential results of past energies; in this process, conscious memory is of no importance. As the tree grows by a subconscient or inconscient assimilation of action of sun and rain and wind and absorption of earthelements, so the being grows by a subliminal or intraconscient assimilation and absorption of its results of past becoming and an output of potentialities of future becoming. The law that deprives us of the memory of past lives is a law of the cosmic Wisdom and serves, not disserves its evolutionary purpose".
Sri Yukteswar (Quoted from the Autobiography of a Yogi):
"Forget the past. The vanished lives of all men are dark with many shames. Human conduct is ever unreliable until anchored in the Divine. Everything in the future will improve if you are making a spiritual effort now."
H.P. Blavatksy (from Letters That Have Helped Me, by William Quan Judge):
“The accounts of other incarnations are not useful nor reliable; they will do no good in the end, but may lead to vanity and gloom; and therefore, they are to be avoided. I never knew a case yet where such were followed or relied on that had not bad consequences. And the only Adepts I ever knew refuse to tell of one’s past life: it is a rule of occultism that relations of past lives shall not be indulged in, similar to the rule against relating your progress in the higher life in this life. A study of spiritual philosophy as found in Bhagavad Gita will shed light on all possible events, which are mere motions and unreal apparitions, hiding the truth from our perception.”
The point being illustrated by those quoted above is that even if it were possible to dig up accurately accounts of one's past life from a birth chart, or another source, such accounts are very often merely a distraction to spiritual growth. The reason being is that they tend to reinforce the ego (the sense of being "I") rather than aid in any kind of meaningful spiritual growth. More facts and mental musings about oneself only reinforce the identity and the reality structure. All wisdom traditions and great masters speak of moving beyond the confines of the rational mind and into direct perception (The Wisdom or Gnosis) of the truth that naught is separate and that all is one or whole. This is spiritual development; this is self realization. The memory of a past life is inconsequential to such a realization*.
*On a side note there are people who do benefit psychologically from what is called past life regression, yet this is much different than using free association to discern a past life from a birth chart as it is a direct experience on the part of the client. Now whether or not the past life vision is objectively true or just a set of meaningful imagery which aids a person in overcoming a psychological malady is another story. I won’t explore this here but I am inclined to take the stance that both situations occur in past life regression therapy.