Do we reincarnate? Is there really life after death? Do we actually carry the seeds of past lives and karmas into the present birth? I explored this in detail in the April 2001 issue of Life Positive
I was pushed on to a quest frequently. Every time I encountered a problem, with a capital P, I wanted to know why it had come to haunt me. It was this quest, which had me knocking at a past life therapist’s door in Delhi, India. A few relaxing breaths, some visualization and I was deep into a semi-hypnotic state. The therapist regressed me until I encountered my first birth. Two hours later, and after a search for solutions, she brought me back. So was I reborn to fulfill or pay for the deeds of yesterday? Do the dead actually return?
Well, it reminds me of a fable in the Mahabharata, the Indian epic. Amba is reborn as Shikhandi to avenge her humiliation by Bhishma and paves the way for his death. And Vishnu incarnated nine times in different forms to fulfill different roles and we are still waiting for his tenth incarnation—Kalki.
The Sanskrit word for rebirth or reincarnation is ‘punarjanam’ and ‘samsara’ (the round of births and deaths or transmigration of the soul).
Writes S. Rajmohan, research scholar at the Ramakrishna Mission, Chennai, India, in Tattvaloka (June-July 1995): “For death is nothing but the dissolution of the body, which is a mere cage for the jiva (soul). At the time of death, the self entrapped in the snare of the five elements leaves one body and enters another.”
The scriptures further clarify that death is a mere point in the soul’s journey to the ultimate goal of life—moksha or liberation from the cycle of life and death. Thus, this transmigration of the soul is defined as “the passage after death of the human or animal soul from a mortal body to a new incarnation in another body of the same or another species”, in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics edited by James Hastings.
But this network of life is not limited to fables and fantasies. There is documented evidence of children remembering their past lives. However, the scientific community is unimpressed. “Reincarnation cannot be proven scientifically,” says Delhi-based psychiatrist Dr Kulin Kothari. “It is a belief propagated by the spiritual and metaphysical schools.”
So we have skeptics on one hand and on the other, those who do not need any evidence of reincarnation because they are rooted in a culture that believes in reincarnation. In between are researchers who try to analyze the claims of rebirth through a scientific approach.
Karma & Reincarnation
To understand reincarnation, we must know its origins. The Bhagvad Purana states: “Just as commodities like gold and other articles change hands, a jiva (soul) wanders from one species of existence to another.” So we are reborn and get a life in accordance with our past karmas or deeds.
A little skeptical about this theory, filmstar Suresh Oberoi says: “I don’t know about past lives, but I do agree that karma rebounds. Karma is action and just as whatever seed you sow becomes a plant of that species, so whatever action you perform must give its results. When it will materialize is very difficult to say.”
Writes Swami Jyotirmayananda in Tattvaloka: “Though the Sanskrit word ‘karma’ literally means ‘action’, it implies the impressions of action that exist in the subconscious and the unconscious depths of the mind. Therefore, for every reincarnating spirit, there is a storehouse of karma from the past lives. All karmas don’t bear fruit in the same life. Certain karmas continue to exist as seeds and may fructify in future lives.”
But the law of karma does not bind you to fate or destiny. It is the propeller to surge you ahead in the evolution cycle. In The Problem of Life and Death, Swami Parmananda of Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai, India, writes: “On the contrary it (karma) declares that no condition is permanent, but if man wishes to escape from the present fruits of his actions, he has only to direct his energies steadily in another channel and he will counteract the results of his past errors.” For instance, if you have a bad habit such as smoking, you just have to fix your goal to a higher purpose to get rid of this habit.
Swami Vivekananda is even more emphatic on the role of free will. He wrote: “We have the power to be what we are, and whatever we wish to be, we have the power to make ourselves. If what we are has been the result of our past actions, it certainly follows that whatever we wish to be in future can be produced by our present actions; so we have to know how to act.”
But most of us forget our past lives. Why? Wrote Sri Aurobindo in The Life Divine: “The law that deprives us of the memory of the past lives is a law of the cosmic wisdom and serves, not disserves, its evolutionary purpose… A clear and detailed memory of the past lives, hatred, rancor, attachments, connections would be a stupendous inconvenience; for it would bind the reborn being to a useless repetition or a compulsory continuation of his surface past and stand in the way of his bringing out new possibilities from the depths of the spirit.”
According to J. Bruce Long, it could be the fear of transference of karma. “As written in the Mahabharata, the transference of karmas, good or evil, is more prevalent in families. The chaste wife can release her husband from sin. Like all negatives, this too has a negative, so to destroy a man, destroy his wife,” he writes in Karma and Rebirth in Indian Classical Traditions.
Most Buddhist sects agree with reincarnation. The Tibetan Book of The Dead describes the soul’s passage after death and how it comes back to human form. The story of the Dalai Lama is the best example of children’s past life memory. Each of the Dalai Lamas, over many centuries, since the birth of the first in 1351 AD, followed the same line; each one was an incarnation of the last, retaining the spiritual wisdom acquired over many lifetimes.
THE SCIENTIFIC TEMPER
An international guru of reincarnation research is Dr Ian Stevenson, former head of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia, USA, where he was Director of the Division of Personality Studies. He has collected over 3,000 cases, most of them children, in the past 40 years. His studies reveal convincing scientific evidence, ‘if not proof’, of reincarnation. (Dr Stevenson passed away in 2007)
In each case, Dr Stevenson methodically documents the child’s statements. Then he identifies the deceased person the child remembers being, and verifies the facts of the deceased person’s life that match the child’s memory. He even matches birthmarks and birth defects to wounds and scars on the deceased, verified by medical records.
His assistant in India, Dr Satwant Pasricha, additional professor at the Department of Psychology, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bangalore, follows the same methodology. Over two decades, she has researched over 500 cases. In her book, Claims of Reincarnation: An Empirical Study of Cases in India, she writes: “In each case I recorded the testimony of as many witnesses as were available. Also, I conducted a second interview (or more). We did not give prior notice of our arrival also.”
However, scientists discount reincarnation. They attribute reincarnation claims to:
Fantasy: Work of imagination to avoid some unpleasant situation such as an unhappy home.
Fraud: Where either the child or the family fabricates a case to achieve some personal goal.
Genetic memory: The claimed memories of previous life are passed onto him through genetic transmission.
Cryptomnesia: The subject’s knowledge about previous life is not in question, but he may have come by it normally.
Paramnesia: A memory disorder in which a person on seeing a new place or meeting a stranger feels that he has been to the place or has met the person before.
In fact, Dr Anil Aggarwal, Professor of Forensic Sciences at Maulana Azad Medical College, Delhi says: “Nowadays you have test tube babies, so where is the soul involved in this? Moreover, if you look into cloning, this totally washes out the theory of rebirth.”
Men of science demand proof. Elucidates Dr Aggarwal: “We can’t see air, but we can measure it by instruments. So even if we can’t see the soul, we should at least be able to check its presence with something. Until you can prove the concept of the soul, you can’t prove rebirth.”
However, Dr Pasricha’s methodical research has an answer. In an interview with The Week (April 1999), she elucidates: “How can you teach a small child and what could be the motivation for doing it? Money? In most cases the family has not gained monetarily. The publicity, too, is momentary, moreover, one cannot teach a child to have birthmarks or birth defects.”
ONE MAN, TWO LIVES
Researchers have found that memories of past lives are most active during childhood, mainly between the ages of three and five. I was, therefore, surprised when Delhi-based Air Commodore (Retd.) Jagdish Mittal Seth, 73, contacted me, talking about his past life. He reveals that he was the father of seven sons in his previous birth and even knows where one of his sons from the previous life is.
“He is a prominent person today. However, I have never brought it to light or even informed him because people would judge it otherwise, thinking I have an axe to grind,” says Seth.
He then reminiscences: “I was born near Jhelum in Punjab, now in Pakistan. My father, a civil engineer in the Irrigation Department, was second in command. The canal colony, where we lived, was located about 10 km from the town of Jhelum. Both my father and his superior Martin, a British, were good friends. When I was about four, I remember telling him to ‘take me to my home’. At first he ignored these ramblings, but one day he inquired where I wanted to go. Promptly, I replied: ‘Where my seven sons live and where my cloth shop waits for me.’ Not only he, but the servant also burst out laughing.
“But on one visit to Jhelum, we went to a big cloth shop. And as I saw the man attending us, a flash of recognition came and I rushed to him, calling him by his name. Meanwhile, two more men appeared whom again I recalled. These were my sons from the previous life.
“Everybody was shocked. The elderly shop owner was puzzled by what was happening. Then my father informed him calmly that I remembered my past life. I also revealed to them how I had died, very naturally, sitting on a chair.
“When we returned, my father discussed the matter with Martin, worried how this would affect my life. After all, this wasn’t a normal situation. Martin verified all the records to check the facts and it was true. I was the father of seven sons in my previous birth.
“We had contact with the family till the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. This episode has made me more aware of my existence.”
The interesting thing about this family is that the youngest daughter, Babita Seth Mishra, a doctor in the Armed Forces, also remembers her previous birth.
Says Seth: ‘She was my uncle of this birth who died due to a dog bite. Some of her habits are similar to this uncle. When she was a child, she would keep talking about her wife. So we decided to test whether she was actually my uncle, reborn. We took her to my old aunt. But first we called some other ladies also and then asked my aunt to come. My daughter immediately addressed her by name and hugged her.”
Though the uncle, Sant Singh, had no marks, Babita had the strange habit of scratching her stomach all the time. “When a dog bit my uncle, he had developed cancer in the stomach and it used to itch all the time. Moreover, my uncle had this habit of saying ji after everything. And till date, she also has this habit. My uncle was a professor of English at St Stephen’s College, Delhi and when my friend S.P. Madan came to our house, both my daughter and he were talking about their days in college!’
There are other cases too. Uttara Huddar of Nagpur, India, became aware of her previous life as Sharada when she was in her 30s. The memories changed her personality and she spoke a language unfamiliar to her (a phenomenon known as xenoglossy). One day the unmarried Uttara assumed the personality of a married Bengali woman, calling herself Sharada and spoke only Bangla.
During her Sharada phase, Uttara could not recognize her own relatives and spent her time singing bhajans, devotional songs. She showed complete unfamiliarity with modern gadgets such as gas stoves, electrical appliances or fountain pens. Her remarkable knowledge of places in undivided Bengal as well as of Bengali food and customs impressed investigators. Equally impressive was her knowledge of the early 19th century genealogy of the Chattopadhyay family into which Sharada said she was born.
The case, reported in Pasricha’s book, Claims of Reincarnation, was unusual in many ways. Uttara went into a trance while narrating her past experience, a phenomenon not usually seen. Moreover, the intermission between the death of a person and the rebirth usually does not exceed four to five years but Uttara was born 110 years after Sharada’s death.
More convincing evidence cited by researchers is the appearance of birthmarks on a person similar to injury marks suffered at the time of death in the previous birth. Meenu, an 18-year-old girl who said she was Sudha in her previous birth, had a scar on her forehead. Her doctor husband in Kanpur had murdered Sudha. Sudha’s family and an independent investigator of rebirth cases, Dr Kirti Singh Rawat, claim that Meenu’s scar is exactly at the same spot where her husband hit Sudha.
Rawat has worked with Stevenson and heads the International Center for Survival and Reincarnation Research and claims to have set up the first website on reincarnation research in India.
In fact, Dr Stevenson presented a paper on such birthmarks and defects at the ‘Eleventh Annual Meeting’ of the Society for Scientific Exploration held at Princeton University, USA, in June 1992. After investigating 210 cases, he found that birthmarks were usually areas of hairless, puckered skin; some were areas of little or no pigmentation; others were areas of increased pigmentation. In cases in which a deceased person was identified, the details of whose life unmistakably matched the child’s statements, a close correspondence was nearly always found between the birthmarks and/or birth defects on the child and the wounds on the deceased person.
In 43 out of 49 cases in which a medical document (usually a post-mortem report) was obtained, it confirmed the correspondence between wounds and birthmarks.
Does this confirm the theory of reincarnation? That, again, would be open to debate. One thing is certain, however, as the Bhagavad Gita says: Jatasya hi dhruvo mrityuh—for one who is born, death is certain.
Perhaps what Manu wrote in Manusmriti could serve as the definitive answer: “He who possesses true insight (into the nature of the world) is not fettered by his deeds, but he who is destitute of that insight is drawn into the circle of births and deaths.’
In the Manusmriti, Manu considers karma and samsara (transmigration), on one hand, and different systems of reincarnation on the other hand.
In the first system, Manu introduces a threefold origin of karma:
Mental action: coveting the property of others, thinking in one’s heart what is undesirable, adherence to false doctrines.
Verbal action: abusing, speaking untruth, detracting from the merits of all men, talking idly.
Bodily action: taking what has not been given, injuring without the sanction of law, having criminal intercourse with another’s wife.
Each of these three types leads to a special form of rebirth:
Sinful mental action: a low caste
Evil mental action: a bird or a beast
Wicked bodily action: something inanimate
In the second system, Manu talks about the three gunas: sattva, rajas, tamas (goodness, passion and darkness) and how transmigration results from them.
Sattva: the state of god
Rajas: the state of men
Tamas: the state of beasts
It is also suggested that rajas and tamas gunas are more subjected to transmigration.
In the third system, he writes, “On consequence of attachment to (the objects of) the senses and in consequence of the non performance of their duties, the lowest of men reach the vilest of births.”
However, the guilty of any, the four mortal sins—killing a brahmin, drinking (the spirituous liquor called) sura, stealing the gold of a brahmana, aduluerty with a guru’s wife–will spend large number of years in dreadful hell, and at the end of it enters into transmigration, hundreds and thousands of times.
In the fourth system, 30 types of theft, are enumerated and their consequent rebirths given. For instance, thief of grain is reborn as a rat, someone who steals meat is a vulture in the next birth.
Women guilty of theft are reborn as female animals.
The fifth system approaches birth from specific duties of the four varnas or classes—Brahmins, Kshtariyas, Vaishyas and Shudras.
If any belonging to a particular class fell short of their duties given in the law of that class, they would migrate into despicable bodies and become servants.
(Excerpted from Karma and Rebirth In Classical Indian Tradition, edited by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, published by Motilal Banarsidass, 1983)
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