By Roozbeh Gazdar
Many religious traditions and cultures have propounded the idea that this one life is not the only one there is. Could it be possible that death is not the end, but just one chapter in the book of life? We examine the evidence that supports reincarnation
The whole world is as impermanent as clouds in an autumn sky. Birth and death are like the movements of a dancer.
—The Buddha Is death the final end? After life has been snuffed out and breathing stops, do we simply cease to be, enduring only as memories in the hearts of our loved ones? What is the purpose of the relationships we nurture and the bonds we forge, the efforts we invest and the aspirations we foster, if all is simply to fizzle out like foam in the receding tide of life?
Surely we have all, at some time or the other, asked these questions. And even the most hard-boiled rationalists have nursed the hope that this life is not all there is. That death is but the close of one chapter, with many more to go in the book called life. While the concept of rebirth—that only the body dies while the soul is reborn again—is deeply rooted in certain cultures, today this phenomenon is coming under the serious scrutiny of science.
Law of karma
In India, reincarnation forms the backbone of our religious philosophy. Moksha, the spiritual ambition of devout Hindus, Buddhists and Jains alike, is in fact liberation from samsara, the endless cycle of successive births and deaths that the soul goes through in its quest for perfection. This, incidentally, is diametrically opposed to the Judaic idea, which also dominates Christianity and Islam, of heaven and hell and the final resurrection.
Explains Dada Vaswani: “Hinduism believes that life is endless. Only the body dies, but the soul, jiv-atman is immortal. After death in the physical plane, the soul rests in the astral world, later progressing to the causal world. After some time in this state, the jiv-atman again returns to the astral state and then reincarnates by taking birth in another body. Reincarnation is controlled by the law of karma, with which it is closely interconnected.”
The concept of karma infuses a sense of order in what would otherwise seem to us a ruthless, chaotic, Kafkaesque world. How otherwise do we explain the glaring disparities that distinguish individual destinies from birth? How do we explain children born blind, deaf or crippled? Or people condemned to life in destitute households, impoverished nations or repressive regimes? If one life is all we get, why don’t we start on equal terms? And, by what divine roulette are our lots then drawn?
Dada Vaswani explains karma as the ‘law of seed’. “Every thought, word or action is a seed sown in the field of life. Sooner or later, in this present life, the next life or even a hundred births later, these seeds are bound to sprout and bear fruit in the form of the circumstances of birth and life. Bitter or sweet, the fruit has to be eaten by the person who has sown the seeds,” he says.
An important concept in Mahayana Buddhism is of the bodhisattva—an enlightened being who chooses to be reborn to help others still trapped in samsara. Tibetan Buddhism however, carries this doctrinal notion even further into the socially important institution of the tulku, or the incarnate lamas.
Sogyal Rinpoche, in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, explains: “In Tibet a tradition of recognising such incarnations or tulkus began in the 13th century and continues to the present day. When a realised master dies, he (or she) may leave precise indications of where he will be reborn. One of his closest disciples or spiritual friends may then have a vision or dream foretelling his imminent rebirth. In some cases his former disciples might approach a master known and revered for having the ability to recognise tulkus, and this master might have a dream or vision that would enable him to direct the search for the tulku. When a child is found, it will thus be the master who authenticates him.”
While divine signs and rituals are employed in the search for tulkus, the potential candidate is verified by his remarkable memory of people, objects and events from the previous life. In My Land and My People, the Dalai Lama says: “It is common for small children who are reincarnations to remember people and objects from their previous lives. Some can also recite scriptures, although they have not yet been taught them.”
According to Sogyal Rinpoche, great care is taken in the upbringing of the tulkus. However, their demanding training belies the fact that the child is bringing past knowledge with him. He explains from his own experience: “What is interesting is that the wisdom continues. From a very young age, I had a natural grasp of the teachings. Intuitively I began to understand things without learning the deeper philosophies…It was later, when I came to study them, that I realised, ‘Oh yes, that’s all it is, I already knew that’.”
In his autobiography Freedom in Exile, the Dalai Lama has justified this system. He says: “The business of identifying tulkus is more logical than it may at first appear. Given the Buddhist belief that the principle of rebirth is fact, and given that the whole purpose of reincarnation is to enable a being to continue its efforts on behalf of all suffering sentient beings, it stands to reason that it should be possible to identify individual cases. This enables them to be educated and placed in the world so that they can continue their work as soon as possible.”
That wisdom carries through successive lives is also used to explain child prodigies. Mozart began composing mature works at age five. Bobby Fischer at age six competed with other chess grandmasters. At two and a half, Ravikiran surprised an audience by identifying over 325 ragas and 175 talas; by five he had a repertoire of over 500 compositions. Other savants display advanced mathematical, literary or scientific abilities of a level that defies logic. Could it be that they are just picking up from accomplishments in an earlier lifetime?
Sogyal Rinpoche has made an interesting observation. He writes: “I believe that this process of reincarnation is not limited to Tibet, but can appear in all countries and at all times. Throughout history there have been figures of artistic genius, spiritual strength, and humanitarian vision who have helped the human race to go forward. I think of Gandhi, Einstein, Lincoln, Mother Teresa, of Shakespeare, St. Francis, Beethoven, Michelangelo. When Tibetans hear of such people, they immediately say they are Bodhisattvas.”
More baffling is Xenoglossy—an ability to speak or write a foreign language that one has never learnt. Dr Morris Netherton, a reincarnation researcher, has recorded the case of a blond, blue-eyed boy, who under hypnosis, spoke in the dialect of a forbidden religion of Ancient China. An Igarot Indian from a remote region in the Philippines, described by author Lyall Watson, could speak fluent Zulu while in trance, a language he would never have even heard. Investigators researching this phenomenon offer two explanations—spirit contact or past life knowledge.
While Xenoglossy is rare and normally exhibited under hypnosis, far more common is past life memory. Many young children seem to remember previous lives, giving details about people, places and events—knowledge that they could not have acquired in this life.
Dr Ian Stevenson, director of the Division of Personality Studies, University of Virginia, USA, is probably the world’s foremost scientific authority on reincarnation. Over the years he has painstakingly documented past life memories of thousands of individuals over the world, some of which have been published in his seminal work Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation.
A case study
Swarnlata Mishra from Madhya Pradesh is a typical Stevenson subject. Born in 1948, at age three when she was travelling more than 100 miles from her own home, she pointed to a road “to my house” near the town of Katni. Soon after, she revealed details of her life as Biya Pathak, who she said, had died of a ‘pain in her throat’. Prof H.N. Bannerjee, a colleague of Dr Stevenson’s, travelled to Katni in 1959 and found the house solely on the basis of Swarnlata’s description. By interviewing the family, he verified the story about Biya Pathak, who had died in 1939, and ascertained that neither the Pathaks nor the Mishras knew each other.
Biya’s husband, son and brother travelled to Chhatarpur, Swarnlata’s town, without revealing their identity. Swarnlata instantly recognised them, calling them by familiar names. She even reminded her ‘husband’ of a theft of Rs 1200, and he had to admit this fact was known only to the couple.
Later, when Swarnlata visited Katni, she noted changes to the house since Biya died and recognised other members of the household, contradicting those who tried to mislead her. Interestingly, her memory was limited to happenings before 1939, when Biya died, drawing a blank about later events.
Research into rebirth
A meticulous and exacting researcher, Dr Stevenson’s method is now standard for anyone researching rebirth. When confronted with a case, he first attempts to ‘solve’ it by identifying and locating the deceased person (he uses the term ‘previous personality’) with whom the child’s description matches. Only after rigorous investigation to absolutely reject ‘fraud’ or any ‘normal’ explanation for the child’s knowledge is the case considered ‘verified’. Stevenson has verified more than 800 cases, and even sceptics are compelled to agree that the best, if not only, explanation for these is reincarnation.
A startling fact to emerge from Dr Stevenson’s research are the close similarities between birthmarks and birth defects in children, and wounds (often fatal) received by the previous personalities; more than 200 of these cases are illustrated in his book Reincarnation and Biology.
In India, similar research is being conducted by Dr Satwant Pasricha, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bangalore. Interesting facts have emerged from her and Dr Stevenson’s work.
Where death was violent, children retained a deep fear of its cause, like knives, blades, bullets, fire or water. Many children specified their own and other people’s names, from their previous life. A tendency to inquire or worry about their spouse or children from the past life was also observed. Children were found to have the same or different gender in the earlier life
While cases are found all over the world, they are observed more in societies that accept reincarnation, such as South East Asia, India, Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka. This could be because people in other societies may be less adept at handling such cases.
In an interview posted on the internet, Dr Stevenson says: “I don’t think it (reincarnation) replaces our understanding of genetics or environmental influences, but I think reincarnation offers a better explanation for some unusual behaviour that occurs very early in the life and often persists throughout life. This is behaviour that is unusual in the person’s family. He could not imitate it from other members of the family or inherit it from them. So I think reincarnation is a possible explanation for such behaviour.”
If Dr Stevenson’s surmise is correct, knowing one’s past life could be an invaluable key to arriving at a deeper knowledge of oneself. This is just the truth that Brian Weiss, a clinical psychotherapist, stumbled upon quite by accident. In Many Lives, Many Masters, Dr Weiss who is Chairman Emeritus of Psychiatry at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami, US, describes the unexpected experience he had while treating a patient he calls Catherine.
Catherine was living a life of fear and anxiety. She feared water and the fear of choking made it impossible for her to swallow pills. She feared flying, the dark and death. Frequent nightmares and sleepwalking made it difficult for her to sleep. Crippled with panic attacks and phobias, she was forced to seek treatment. When 18 months of psychotherapy yielded little result, Dr Weiss tried hypnosis, telling her to “go back to the time from where your symptoms arise”.
What happened next is a fantastic story that would be suspect if it came from someone with a lesser reputation than Dr Weiss, as he describes: “In a series of trance states, Catherine recalled ‘past-life’ memories that proved to be the causative factors of her symptoms. She also was able to act as a conduit for information from highly evolved ‘spirit entities’, and through them she revealed many of the secrets of life and of death. In just a few short months, her symptoms disappeared, and she resumed her life, happier and more at peace than ever before.”
During hypnosis, Catherine experienced various past lives, in ancient Egypt and Greece, as a prostitute in Spain, an Air Force pilot in Germany, switching genders, roles and occupations. Some of the people in her previous lives were people she knew in her current life; Weiss himself was her master in ancient Greece.
In between past lives, Catherine spoke words of deep wisdom that did not seem to come from her. Weiss writes that according to Catherine, this information came from spirit guides, ‘the Masters’. His experience was a turning point for him. “My life changed almost as drastically as Catherine’s,” he writes. “I have become more intuitive… My values and life goals have shifted to a more humanistic, less accumulative focus…. I have become more patient more empathic, more loving…more responsible for my actions.”
Though Weiss did not discover past life regression therapy, his book certainly contributed towards the popularity that this form of therapy is fast gaining. But, does that prove reincarnation?
Says Mumbai-based psychiatrist Dr Dayal Mirchandani: “Sometimes during hypnosis we do get cases where a patient recounts episodes as if from a previous life.” In some cases, he explains, it could be the result of an overt suggestion given during hypnosis, but concedes that this is not always the case. He says: “What I am really concerned about is that it does work. But whether it is really a past life or something more symbolic has not been resolved. I just keep an open mind.”
Malathi Kuppaswamy, a past life regression therapist, differs. “People have accurately described verifiable historic events about which they had no knowledge in this life.” Rejecting the assumption that it could be imagination, she asks: “How can you imagine something so accurately, unless you have it in your memory?”
“All of us have been through a number of previous lives,” she says. “If their memory were to always be with us, it would be impossible to function normally. Even under hypnosis, sometimes there is no memory if the mind decides that it is not the right information or the right time to activate it. However, it is an excellent therapy for phobias, trauma or even diseases, which have their roots in a previous lifetime.” While the debate over whether reincarnation is fact or fantasy may continue, the odds do seem to weigh heavily in its favour. But, if rebirth seems too outlandish a belief for some, how less profound is the mystery of this present life itself? To quote Voltaire: “After all, it is no more surprising to be born twice than it is to be born once.”
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The 16th Karmapa (left) and his reincarnation the 17th Karmapa are modern-day examples of the Tibetan tulku system