In reading Jeffrey Iverson’s book In Search of the Dead, the trigger for my earlier post on psi, I was again brought up against something I have always preferred to ignore – the possibility of reincarnation.
When I was studying psychology in my 30s, and unconsciously searching for a deeper meaning in life than was currently on offer within divisive politics, mainstream religion and modern science, I began to learn meditation. I went to the Buddhist Centre, the home of the Buddhist Society, in Eccleston Square. There I was taught the basics of following the breath, which I still use to this day.
As a ‘lapsed Catholic,’ as it was described then and maybe still, and, as a thwarted activist, having become disillusioned with left-wing politics as well as the politics in general, I felt a bit rudderless. I began seriously to consider becoming a Buddhist. The depth and sophistication of its understanding of psychology and the mind struck me as centuries ahead of anything so-called scientific psychology seemed to have discovered: I was studying an academic way of thought that, though strongly appealing to me because of its subject matter, was still in its infancy while pretending to be almost grown up.
During my investigations of Buddhism, as I tried to decide, I found myself in a large hall – exactly where I can’t remember now – to hear a talk by a Tibetan monk. A diminutive man in maroon and yellow robes walked slowly to the platform, sat down and spoke in a low voice, pausing for the translator to convey his thoughts.
I can remember nothing of what he said except for his conviction that reincarnation involved the possibility of returning as an animal of some kind. I have always found the idea of metempsychosis repellant. For a start, I hadn’t turned my back on a faith that preached eternal hell fire, as did the Catholicism of my boyhood, to adopt one that suggested I might come back as rat. Also, I could see that in cultures that had faith in this doctrine, there is a temptation to explain current hardships, including poverty and physical handicap, in terms of transgressions in a previous life, making it somehow the fault of the sufferer and therefore exempt from compassion.
I left the hall stunned by how this, to me, superstitious version of reincarnation doctrine could hold sway in the minds of those who followed what was in other respects such a subtle and penetrating path.
I continued to meditate but, even though I recognised that reincarnation did not necessarily entail accepting the idea we can come back as an animal, for this and other reasons explored elsewhere, I stepped back from committing myself fully to Buddhism. Becoming a Bahá’í some years later did not involve my accepting reincarnation in this or any routine sense, or my believing in an incredible concept of God either, for that matter.
In the meanwhile I have often stumbled across evidence strongly suggestive of reincarnation. This latest encounter suggests to me that I need to examine more closely how I can accept the genuineness of the evidence while still experiencing such difficulty in accepting the doctrine it seems to point towards.
What does Iverson convey in his depiction of the evidence he examines?
I’ll look briefly at three examples along a continuum of intensity, giving his take on what they show, before explaining my own position.
The most common pattern seems to involve a young child’s believing (s)he is the reincarnation of a recently dead person. Investigations involve checking the story they tell against the facts of the family, often some distance away, whose lost relative is apparently returned in the body of the child.
The programme checked the story of a boy who was born with no fingers on his right hand (pages 151-152). He claimed he was injured by a fodder chopping machine his father was using when drunk. He was still, at the age of 18, faintly aware of the old identity. The family of the dead man accepted his account because of the few convincing details he was able to give. The conclusion of the investigators was cautious though (page 152-3):
Dr Pasricha told [Iverson] the researchers had found no similar case of deformity in the village. Accidents with fodder chopping machines were few. They had also researched back some generations into the two families and could find no examples of deformed hands. The weaknesses of case, she said, where the relative proximity of the two families and the fact that as a child the boy had given few details of his previous life. The strength of the case was obvious to all – the stark testimony of that mutilated hand!
In this kind of case the child, as (s)he grows up, loses the memories of the past life. Also, often temporarily, sometimes longer, (s)he maintains a sense of two identities without completely identifying with that of the past life. In this particular case, the young man ‘treats both houses as his home’ and in that sense lives with both identities.
Cases of possession are more extreme even than this (pages 156-160). The person is totally identified with the old identity, and refuses adamantly to adopt or even partially accept the new one.
Sumitra is the case Iverson cites. She seemingly died in July 1985 but recovered to insist that she was someone else, A woman who had been murdered two months previously – ‘Don’t call me Sumitra. I am Shiva.’ Her detailed account of her previous life was found to be accurate. The investigators concluded (pages 157-58):
Is it possible the whole story is a hoax, a pretext got up by these peasant farmers, perhaps based upon newspaper accounts of the death of Shiva and the prosecution of her in-laws?
Dr Pasricha thinks it unlikely. One newspaper is delivered to the village and is available for anyone to read. Newspaper reports of Shiva’s death have been analysed and Sumitra has given sixteen correct items of information not carried in press reports:
How then could Sumitra have acquired her information about Shiva’s life? One would need a private detective in Etawah or several accomplices to put together a plot for which no clear motive has emerged in the past five years. The idea of an elaborate con-trick gives a sophistication to simple villagers this is ridiculous to anyone who has been to this inaccessible spot and met them.
There are two issues to note here at this point. First of all, facts were confirmed that Sumitra would not have been likely to access by normal means. Secondly, she was adamant that she was no longer Sumitra and identified completely with her new self. Both these aspects are in need of coherent explanation.
The case of Shanti Devi (pages 167-175) seems to fall in-between these two ends of the spectrum. When she was eight years old she surprised the world with a credible and confirmed account of reincarnation. She claimed to be the dead Lugdi Devi returned to life. Her claims had been investigated by a committee of solid citizens and she displayed remarkable knowledge of the dead woman’s life in the full glare of the public gaze, so far had the news spread of her remarkable story. This knowledge included the place where the dead woman had hidden a cash box. The widower was convinced, by this and other knowledge, that she was indeed his dead wife returned.
Iverson was unable to meet her. She died two months before he got to Delhi in 1988.
I am placing this as somewhere between a ‘routine’ reincarnation experience and ‘possession,’ whatever that may be, because (page 175):
[T]he child told her questioners that because of her experience as Lugdi Devi, she would never remarry. When Shanti died a few years ago, in her early 60s, she was still a spinster. And her brother told me she retained to the end her total conviction of having lived before as Lugdi Devi.
In fact, I am not really sure that it was not ‘possession.’ Iverson does not categorise it as such, perhaps because she adopted the identity as a child rather than being taken over by it as an adult, and seemed to acknowledge her current identity to some degree at least.
The Original BBC Programme
The video below is of the episode of the original programme that focused on reincarnation. It may help to take a look at this before reading the next post which focuses on a possible explanation of the data which does not involve reincarnation.