Monday, January 9, 2012

Reincarnation/Rebirth: In a way, we never cease to be!

                                        In a way, we never cease to be!
-          Rashmi Ghatwai
 “Mummy, I used to run a roadside eatery (Dhaba).I had three sons." said a one year old girl in Noida, sitting atop the kitchen platform, while her mother made preparations for the evening meal. Her mother was taken aback. The child was engrossed in playing with the ladles and spoons, pots and pans, as usual. Without batting an eyelid, the little girl, barely able to speak, told her mother that she had lived not far from their house and that she used to run a roadside eatery with the help of her three sons and used to cook the food. Her mother was speechless upon hearing all this from her daughter. On another occasion, when they had gone out, the child pointed out in a certain direction and told her mother that she had stayed there along with her three sons. Too scared to find out the details, her mother decided never to take the child in that direction. She feared she would lose her beloved daughter to that family, if it turned out to be true.
"I stayed in Calcutta but then I fell from the rooftop." a one year old child declared matter-of-factly to her parents. This family lived in New Delhi, away from the eastern city of Kolkata, and they were completely taken aback at the young child’s confident assertions.
“I knew about the possibilities of reincarnation and what a wonderful, mysterious phenomenon it was but when it happens right in your drawing room, you really have no clue about what you  do about it!” the mother said to me once. She went on to describe a still more intriguing event that occurred soon after. She took the child to the hairdresser, and the child was her usual playful self on the way. As soon as the hairdresser took out her scissors, the child became hysterical. She started to yell out for help. “The child was convinced that her life was in danger. That was no ordinary tantrum. She sounded much, much older in the way she pleaded for help. Ours isn’t the soap watching family either so I don’t know where she picked that style of talking from either” the mother tells me. 
The child did not allow the hairdresser to cut her hair or even hold the scissors near her. The parents knew that the child might have well lived in Kolkata in her previous life and something horrible could have happened, because of which she had developed fear for scissors. But they did not know anyone from that place to verify what the child had said.
The children in both these cases are known to me. Our present knowledge of birth, death and rebirth is limited and restricted since the human lifespan is lesser than the time required for carrying out a precise scientific research in a subject dealing with many human life-spans spread out. 
When we look at the ground from the first floor of a building, we get limited view as compared to the view from the seventh floor. The view from eleventh floor would be even better. Some hundred years ago, nobody would have believed that messages, pictures and files could be sent instantly to people in different parts of the world, at the mere push of a button. Earlier, scientists had to face a lot of difficulties in convincing people that the earth was spherical and not flat; and that it was the earth which revolved around the Sun and not the sun that revolved around the earth. Similarly, it is difficult to prove the concept of rebirth or reincarnation empirically, at present. But we do have our Indian scriptures which tell that the cycle of birth, death and rebirth is an ongoing phenomenon.
"For one, who has taken his birth, death is certain; and for one, who is dead, birth is certain. Just as a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul accepts new material bodies, discarding the old and useless ones. The soul is invisible, inconceivable, immutable and unchangeable. The soul can never be cut up into pieces by any weapon, nor can it be burned by fire, nor moistened by water, nor withered by the wind. For the soul there is neither birth nor death. Nor, having once been, does it ever cease to be. It is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying and primeval. It is not slain when the body is slain.” The Bhagwad Gita states in Chapter 2.
Does the belief of incarnation transcend all religions? 
Most of the western and the Islamic cultures do not believe in reincarnation. 
In the west, a systematic study of past live memories, near death experiences and reincarnation has been carried out extensively, in the face of the sordid opposition of those who brandish it as a pseudoscience. 
The quest to understand reincarnation as a science was taken up by the late Dr. Ian Stevenson, M.D., a prolific writer of the subject. He was a Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Division of Personality (now Perceptual) Studies at the University of Virginia. Dr. Stevenson and other investigators at the University of Virginia studied about 2500 cases of individuals who showed signs of remembering their past life in one way or the other.  He does not approach reincarnation as an exotic science with religious ramifications. On the contrary, his method is investigative and empirical. Having braved the cries of his many detractors, his courageous work deserves to be all the more commended.
During my visit to Charlottesville, I had the opportunity to read many of Dr. Ian Stevenson’s books. His presence is very much felt through his research work on individuals, who recounted memories of their past lives and in many cases, gave details about the people, places and events related to their 'previous personalities'. He has several documentary films, interviews, hundreds of articles and 15 books to his credit, on this topic. Among these are 'Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation', 'European Cases of the Reincarnation Type', ‘Children Who Remember Previous Lives: A Question of Reincarnation', 'Reincarnation and Biology : A contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects'. 
He also discovered in few cases the innate ability to speak a foreign language without attempting to learn it. He defined this as Xenoglossy and wrote the books ‘Xenoglossy: A Review and Report of a Case'(Stevenson, 1974)’ and 'Unlearned Language: New Studies in Xenoglossy' (Stevenson, 1984)’ based on its study. 
Dr. Stevenson notes in his ‘European Cases of the Reincarnation Type'’ that cases of reincarnation appear to occur less frequently in Europe compared to parts of Asia. However, according to others, this assertion cannot be proved since there has been just one systematic study regarding the prevalence of cases. This study had established that 1 person per 450 claimed to remember a previous life in a district of Northern India.
One such case that Dr. Stevenson investigated in India was that of Kumkum Verma Kumkum was born in an affluent family but when she was about 3.5 years old, she started making claims that she had lived in Darbhanga. She even named the district of the city where she had lived. She would furnish many details about her previous life; the names of her son, grandson and the town where her father would stay and the use of the hammer for their livelihood.  Later, it was found out that indeed there had lived a woman, a blacksmith’s wife in Darbhanga who had died  5 years before Kumkum was born and whose live perfectly fit into the details that Kumkum had given. 
In 'European Cases of the Reincarnation Type', Dr. Stevenson states the systematic approach with which he studies these cases. He required at least one older relative, generally a parent or a sibling, to testify what the subject had said and done during his/her early childhood. He required the adults to remember some details of what the subject said. His interviews were seldom brief and he preceded and followed-up these interviews with letters asking about the details. He learnt about the subject's further development in more than fifty percent of the cases that began in the early childhood because he had either arranged to have follow- up interviews when the children had grown up or he met the subject first when he or she was already an adult.
Dr. Stevenson gives the story of a boy called Graham, born in London on October 31, 1984. While he was still a toddler and barely able to speak, he suddenly declared coherently and confidently that he had died in his last life in an airship that had caught fire. He told Dr. Stevenson that people onboard were screaming, some of them spoke in a different language but some were English and he remembered many of them jumping out of a hole.  He stated that in his previous life he was called ‘Graham’.Later, Graham’s mother explained the nature of their choice of name for their son that she wanted him to be called Kieran but her husband wanted a more English name and so they compromised on Graham. 
In 1937, the English airship R.101 was consumed by fire. Dr. Stevenson judges Graham’s statements in that context; arriving at the conclusion that most important specifying detail regarding the R.101 is the name of the cook, Eric Graham. Because of it and because of other details consistent with the R.101 disaster, it is plausible that the person whose life Graham remembered was Eric Graham, the cook of the ill-fated airship.
He also explores the occurrence of birthmarks in many of his cases. A minimum of three percent of children are born with birth marks. Most fade and disappear as the child grows but have been seen to persist into later childhood and beyond in 5% of the cases. From some of the cases it appears that the birthmarks derive from the previous life.  
In 'Reincarnation and Biology: A contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects', considered widely to be his Magnum Opus, a 2268-page, 2 volume work, he documents over 200 cases, one of which is the extraordinary story of a girl born with malformed fingers who distinctly remembered her past life as a man whose fingers had been cut off. Another such boy was born with stubs for fingers on his right hand and he was known to talk about some boy in another village who had lost the fingers on his right hand in a fodder chopping machine.
And so, during my visit to Charlottesville, it was my great honour and pleasure to meet Dr. Jim B. Tucker, the famous child psychiatrist and Medical Director of the Child and Family Psychiatry Clinic at the University of Virginia Health System. Dr. Tucker works on American cases of children with past life memory.  He gave us his precious time and a wealth of knowledge on life before life, children's claims of past life memories and reincarnation. The informal chat had an undercurrent of thrill that comes with discussing reincarnation!
In his book Life Before Life – Children’s memories of previous life, Dr. Tucker observes that in several cases, the child and the previous personality belong to the same family. In many others, the child and the previous personality lived in the same village or neighboring villages. The subjects are usually young children. In a typical case, the child would begin describing his/her past life at the age of two or three and would stop doing so at the age of six-seven. Remarks regarding the past life are spontaneous. The lives described are recent, i.e., the median interval between the death of the previous personality and the birth of the child is 16 months. The children in these studies often describe ordinary lives in their past birth, generally in the same county. They also talk about out of the ordinary things – the mode of death. In 70% of the cases, death had come about by unnatural means.
"If a person dies violently or dies young, chances are greater that a child will one day report memories of that life”, Dr. Tucker tells me in a one-on-one interaction." Children give specific details. Whether the children are accessing a record of information or it is the same individual that has come back to life, we really don't know the answer to that. But we do know that for the children, in the strongest cases, the experiences are very real to them.  From their perspective, these were events that happened to them before.  It is not just accessing information, but the experiences are from the point of view of one particular person.  How those memories might be carried over, that we don't know." 
I ask him if the children have ever told about being different animals in their previous lives. 
"Occasionally, a few children have said that they were animals before, but their claims have been unverifiable." Dr. Tucker tells me.
I ask him if he had come across any cases where children had told him about the life after death and near death experiences.
"Well, in some of the cases they have. Some of the children talk about events between their lives. In fact we wrote a paper about that. About 20 % of the children will talk about the things that happened after death and they vary. Some of them will just talk about hanging around here(on earth) but then others will talk about going to other realms like heaven.  Some of the American children will use the word heaven." he says.
'So they told you about heaven! What is their perception of heaven?" I ask him. 
"Well it varies. And there seems to be a cultural variability. Some American kids will talk about seeing God, while in other countries they may talk about guardian angels, figures in white" Dr. Tucker tells me.
I ask him if the children have ever mentioned hell.
"Well, some report unpleasant experiences." he says.
They have developed a scale to measure the strength of Children's Claims of Previous Life. Analysis of 799 cases with the 'Strength-Of-Case-Scale' (SOCS) indicated that the strength of a case correlated with the economic status of the child but not his or her social status or caste. It did not correlate with the initial attitudes of the child's parents toward the case, but did correlate with an early onset of statements about the previous life, the amount of emotions shown by the child when recalling the past life and the amount of facial resemblance between the child and the deceased individual.
Dr. H.S.S. Nissanka from Sri Lanka, has written one such story of possible reincarnation in his book “The Girl Who Was Reborn-A Case Study Suggestive of Reincarnation” (Originally published as ‘Nevatha Upan Deriya’in Sinhala, in 1964, translated later in 1968, in English, by his wife Rukmani Nissanka).He stated that since 1960, more than 250 cases of alleged recollection of previous lives had come to public notice. Prior to 1960 there had not been any news of any rebirth story in Sri Lanka. The case of Gnanathilaka was the first.
Gnanathilaka claimed to have lived a previous life of a boy named Turin Thillekratna who was born on 20 Jan 1941 and had died on 9th November 1954.Born on 14th February 1956, Gnanathilaka Kumudini Baddevithana claimed that her parents lived in Talawakele where her parents owned a house and she lived in Talawakele during the time when Queen Elizabeth II had visited Sri Lanka. The Queen had traveled by train and while her mother watched her through a window, she and her sister stood by the roadside to see the queen pass by. When Dr. Nissanka further investigated all her claims and the accounts of people and places, most of them came out to be true. The girl had recognized the mother and teacher of the previous personality she claimed to have lived.
Dr. Nissanka writes that the correct identification of the personalities of the past life indicate that memories, habitual mistakes as well as emotions such as love, hate seem to continue to the next life. Dr. Ian Stevenson considered Gnanathilaka’s case as one of the best in the world. He also independently studied this case.  
Buddha has spoken of three factors necessary for a conception to take place. In several discourses such as Kutadantha and Samannaphala Suttas, he has shown the importance of memories in collecting previous lives. Buddha himself has declared the Enlightenment gained by him under the Bodhee tree at Gaya in India in 527 BC, consisted of three branches of knowledge.-Pubbenivasanussati gnana-the ability to recall previous lives,Cutu-uppada gnana-ability to see how death and birth of a being takes place and Ashrava ksyakara gnana-the knowledge that rids one of all mental defilements.

Modern science has not come to a conclusion on re-incarnation. As far as the scientific world is concerned, consciousness ends when the brain dies but all these vastly interesting investigations indicate otherwise. Our scriptures tell us that everything in this material world is nothing, but an illusion!

And in a way, we never really exist!

In a way, we never cease to be!


-Rashmi Ghatwai


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