I like to think that in a past life I was a monk in the Middle Ages, then in the 17th Century I was a witch at the Salem witch trials. My reasoning for aforementioned beliefs? When I listen to monks sing I get goose bumps, and I am the proud owner of a book of spells, not exactly watertight evidence I think you’ll agree. I’ve always been interested in reincarnation and past-life regression, and my interest has only intensified in researching this article. Do you believe in life after death? Do you believe that we have only one chance on earth and must make the best of it, or do you consider it possible that after death we are reincarnated into another body to do it all over again? You may change your mind by the end of this article…
In December 2009 the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that a quarter of Americans (24%) believe in reincarnation, with young people being most likely to support the notion. Janet Cunningham, president of the International Board for Regression Therapy attributes this increased popularity to the growing accessibility of Eastern traditions in the Western world. She compares this to the situation 30 years ago, and states that at that time reincarnation was associated with the occult and was not openly discussed, ‘it felt sneaky’. Indeed this is most certainly not the case now, in India people pay upwards of $300 per session to discover details of their past lives, which often they are confident took place. Professional psychologists and psychiatrists now offer past life regression therapy alongside traditional counselling treatments.
So, what is the general consensus amongst supporters of reincarnation? According to Gadadhara Pandit Dasa, Columbia University’s first Hindu chaplain, after an indefinite number of tries, the eternal soul eventually achieves perfection, and then goes to live with God…
The most influential researcher with the most convincing evidence is undoubtedly Dr Ian Stevenson of the University of Virginia. He dedicated 40 years of his life to the investigation of past life memories of children around the world. One of the most intriguing cases recorded by Dr Stevenson in his book ‘Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation’ was that of Swarnlata Mishra, born in Pradesh, India in 1948.
At the age of 3, Swarnlata was travelling with her father 100 miles from home in the town of Katni, when suddenly she asked the driver to turn down a road to take them to ‘my house’ for a cup of tea. In the time that followed Swarnlata related more memories of her life in Katni, all recorded by her father. She declared that her name was Biya Pathak and that she was married with 2 sons. Swarnlata related specific details about the house in which she lived, it was located in Zhurkutia, a district of Katni, white with black doors, a railway line in front and a girls school behind, and that the family owned a motor car. The car was a particularly significant claim as cars were rare in India in the 1950s and especially before Swarnlata was born. Swarnlata told her father that Biya had died from a ‘pain in her throat’ and was treated in Jabalpur. When Swarnlata was 10 years old, her story reached researchers and they came to see if her claims could be verified. Using only the notes taken by her father, they were able to locate the house 100 miles away, and it was exactly as described by Swarnlata. He interviewed the Pathak family who lived there only to find out that Biya Pathak had indeed lived in the house, with her husband and 2 sons, and had died in 1939. The Pathaks knew nothing of the Mishra family, and vice versa! If you think this is impressive, it gets better…
In the Summer of 1959, Biya’s husband, son and eldest brother travelled to Swarnlata’s home to test her, they enlisted the help of 9 townsmen and all paid a visit to the house. Swarnlata immediately recognised her brother and greeted him with his pet name, she named her husband and acted according to Hindu tradition in lowering her eyes in greeting him, and she also recognised her son who was only 13 years old when she had died. She knew secrets that only Biya and her husband knew, she knew intimate details such as the room in which Biya died, and that she had gold fillings in her front teeth. Swarnlata’s memory was frozen at the time of Biya’s death; she was unaware of developments in the family and changes to the house after that time. The Pathak family accepted Swarnlata as Biya reborn and continued to visit each other for years to come. They were even consulted on her choice of husband! Stevenson reports that when he asked her years later she said ‘sometimes, when she reminisced about her happy life in Katni, her eyes brimmed with tears and, for a moment, she wished she could return.’
Not all Dr Stevenson’s cases involve such happy memories, he specialised in the study of birthmarks and birth defects in children that correspond to wounds on the deceased person they believe they once were. 35% of children that remember having experienced previous lives have birthmarks and/or defects that they attribute to wounds, usually fatal on the deceased. Stevenson investigated 210 of these cases, using post-mortem results he verified many claims, the birthmarks and defects were so specific that for those past lives that had ended by gunshot wounds, the wounds corresponded to entry and exit of the bullet, small and large respectively.
Left: an Indian youth who, as a child, said he remembered the life of a man, Maha Ram, who was killed with a shotgun fired at close range. Right: Maha Ram’s post-mortem document showing gunshot wounds.
If you didn’t recall a previous life as a child, not to worry there’s still time… Jeffrey Keene was born in America on September 9, 1947 and it wasn’t until May 1991 that the first indication of him having a past life was revealed. Keene was with his wife on holiday when they stopped to visit Sharpsburg in Maryland where the Civil War Battle of Antietam was fought. It was his first visit and he was unaware of its history, having never researched the Civil War. Whilst walking through a field called ‘Sunken Road’, he experienced a bizarre reaction, “A wave of grief, sadness and anger washed over me (…) Burning tears ran down my cheeks. It became difficult to breathe. I gasped for air.” A year and a half later whilst reading through a magazine that he purchased on the day of the visit to Maryland, Keene came face to face with the man that he now believes he lived as in a previous life, General John Gordon.
Keene went on to discover many parallels between himself and General Gordon. They shared similar physical appearances, personality traits, writing styles, and habits. It was at Sunken Road that Gordon fought and was severely wounded in the face, the battle took place on the date of Keene’s birthday, September 9; he was aged 30 at the time. Keene at the age of 30, years before his realisation, experienced a prolonged unidentifiable severe pain in his jaw that specialists could not explain but eventually disappeared. Keene has 3 birthmarks on his face in the exact same locations where Gordon was wounded in the Battle of Antietam, historical photographs confirmed their match.
The evidence is convincing, but does it prove that reincarnation does occur, or could there be another explanation? In regression therapy, critics argue that memories are much more vivid under hypnosis, and that the subjects simply create the narrative of their past lives from subconscious memories, their imagination and suggestions from the therapist. Bogdan, Gallo and McNally (2009) studied false memory propensity in individuals who reported having memories of a past life. They tested participants using the DRM paradigm, subjects are given lists of words that are all associated with a theme, but the theme is not included in the list. For example, if a participant is presented with a list of words relating to trees; leaves, trunk, branch, oak, fir etc, and are then asked to recall as many as they can, they may falsely recall the word ‘trees’ because of the semantic association, despite the word not being present on the list. The study found that individuals who report past life memories exhibit greater false recall in the DRM paradigm than those who only lived once. The researchers believe that this suggests that ‘people with false memories of past lives are less able to discriminate between imagined and real events, both inside and outside the laboratory’.
In my humble opinion I believe that spontaneous past life recall cases, like that of Swarnlata Mishra, go beyond reasonable doubt in supporting the phenomenon of reincarnation. Dr Stevenson carried out his research in such a way that ‘his strict methods applied so systematically (…) rule out, one by one, all possible “normal” explanations for the child’s memories.’ In contrast, I am sceptical about the concept of paying huge sums of money to find out about past lives. Jason Overdorf’s article in the Global Post last month focused on the growing trend for past life regression in India and he asks, are some of these ‘past life gurus’ ‘simply exploiting Hindu tradition and India’s anxieties about the mental health profession to make a quick buck?’ I am inclined to agree. That’s not to say that some individuals don’t benefit from treatment, for example in cases of paralysing phobias that are completely unexplained, if finding the cause of the phobia through therapy cures it then clearly this is worthwhile.
The European Values Survey explores basic social values across Europe. From data collected between 1999-2002, the survey found that for the 15 combined countries of Western Europe, the percentage of believers in life after death stood at 59%. 37% of those who believed in life after death also believe in reincarnation, going against the teachings of the dominant Christian faiths. Gadadhara Pandit Dasa believes that Western religions are failing to satisfy particularly young people, and they are looking further afield for inspiration. As an albeit non-practicing Catholic, reincarnation is not part of my expected beliefs, though I do find myself drawn to some Eastern values, particularly the Buddhist animal-loving and non-killing of insects… Stephen Prothero, Professor of Religion at Boston University, suggests that fascination with reincarnation is related to prosperity. ‘Modern Americans, in their optimism and material success, see reincarnation as a chance to postpone eternity for another day.’ I’m not entirely sure how I feel about reincarnation. Being reborn into a different life, with different loved ones, away from those I have and love now is not something I relish. Especially, as in the case of Swarnlata, it is possible to vividly remember this life and yearn to be back there. Alas, I think I am happier with the idea of Heaven as I imagine it, where we all sit on clouds and are reunited with our loved ones and pets, and we gather around a gigantic dining table having extravagant feasts with God, Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
I did however for the purposes of the article complete a couple of quizzes, with the results as follows:
‘You were female in your last earthly incarnation. You were born somewhere in the territory of modern Siberia around the year 1175. Your profession was that of a librarian, priest or keeper of tribal relics.’
‘You’re going to be an Octopus in your next life. Almost 45% of people will be reincarnated as a higher form of life than you. You’re not perfect, but you’ve led a better life than most. With a few changes now, your next life could be even better.’
Find out yours!