Modern scientific research into the field of reincarnation first began in the 1960’s when Dr. Ian Stevenson, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of Virginia published a ground-breaking article in the Journal of American Psychical Research: « The Evidence for Survival from Claimed Memories of Former Incarnations”. The fallout from this first article, and his subsequent contribution to researching this phenomena is immense. In the Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases, from September 1977, Dr. Harold Lief was quoted as saying the following about Stevenson: “Either he is making a colossal mistake or he will be known as the Galileo of the 20th century”. Over his forty year career, Dr. Stevenson published 10 books and countless peer reviewed articles, for a total of over 3000 cross-cultural case studies, suggestive of the survival of our individual consciousness, through the process of reincarnation. In his massive body of work, Ian Stevenson suggests 3 arguments to support the reincarnation thesis.
First, the presence of certain gifts having to do with the child, that couldn’t be transmitted through heredity. An example of this is the case of Parmod, a 3 year old child who remembers having been a lemonade salesman in a past life. In front of amazed onlookers, the little boy operates a very complex lemonade machine, without adult assistance.
The second argument brought forth is that of birth marks. For Stevenson, who cites numerous cases in his book Reincarnation and biology, these birthmarks constitute even more objective evidence. One such example is that of Mung Sein Win, a Burmese child who remembers having been a Japanese soldier in a previous life. He was allegedly killed in northern Burma, by machine gun fire from a plane flying overhead, during the Second World War. The little boy had two birth marks, one small round one over his chest and one much larger one over the upper part of his back, that resembled a scar. The multiple examples, all corresponding to the manner of death in the previous lifetime, sometimes with supporting autopsy pictures from the previous life, offers powerful evidence in favour of the reincarnation hypothesis.
Thirdly, memories of the theatre of a previous life, including locations and people further substantiate the reincarnation hypothesis. I will cite here the case of Prakash. Born in 1951 in Chhatta, Uttar Pradesh province, India, starting at 4 and a half years of age, the young child exhibited a strange behaviour that lasted for more than a month. The boy would awaken in the night and run out into the street. When caught by his parents, he explained that his name was Nirmal Jain, that he came from Kosi Kalan, a small town some ten km. away and that he wanted to go back to his old house. His memories were very clear. In addition to his former name and the name of his former father, Bholanath, Prakash was later able to supply the name of Nirmal’s older sister, Tara, upon visiting Kosi Kalan in 1961. He shed tears of joy upon seeing Tara, as well as Nirmal’s parents, whom he instantly recognized. Furthermore, Prakash was able to supply the names of the neighbours, whom he correctly identified as Tek Chaud, Ramesh and Narain, not to mention the exact location of their respective shops. He accurately named his father’s line of work, a shirt salesman, as well as accurately saying that he owned four stores. Upon seeing Devendra, Nirmal’s younger brother and Jagdish, Nirmal’s eldest brother, Prakash correctly identified them as his brothers. Furthermore, upon seeing Chameli, Nirmal’s aunt as well as Chiranji, another aunt, Prakash referred to them as “auntie”.
In the Jain’s house, Prakash correctly identified Nirmal’s bedroom, who died of smallpox, at age ten. He recognized the diamond chain, having belonged to his grandfather as well as the toy cart that Nirmal was so fond of playing with. Lastly, Prakash recognized the family doctor present that day, by saying “It’s the doctor” when asked to identify the man standing in front of him. Of all the information supplied by the young boy that day, everything was accurate, save for one thing. He wrongly named Memo, one of Nirmal’s sisters by the name of Vimla. But this mistake was entirely explainable since it turned out that Nirmal did in fact have a sister named Vimla, only Memo, the girl he incorrectly named, was born after Nirmal’s death.
A last characteristic that would support the reincarnation hypothesis is that of xenoglossy (or the ability to speak a language with which one is not familiar) After all other explanations have been investigated – such as fraud, genetic memory, telepathy and cryptomnesia (the remembering of a foreign language learned earlier), xenoglossy is taken as evidence of either memories of a language learned in a past life or of communication with a discarnate entity— a spirit.
There are literally thousands of xenoglossic cases, many hundreds of which have been documented. They involve modern and ancient languages from all over the world. Dr Ian Stevenson used scientific method to illustrate xenoglossy and claims that there are only two possible explanations—either spirit contact or past life memory – both of which are evidence for the afterlife.
Dr Stevenson has done specialized research into xenoglossy and his book Xenoglossy, published in 1974, is one of the leading scientific studies in this area. In it he documents a study he made of a 37 year old American woman. Under hypnosis she experienced a complete change of voice and personality into that of a male. She spoke fluently in the Swedish language—a language she did not speak or understand when in the normal state of consciousness. Dr Stevenson’s direct involvement with this case lasted more than eight years. The study involved linguists and other experts and scientists who meticulously investigated every alternative explanation. Fraud was ruled out for a number of substantive reasons which Stevenson outlines in his study.
Dr. Joel Whitton, another psychiatrist and past-life researcher, cites the case of Harold Jaworski who under hypnosis wrote down twenty-two words and phrases which he ‘heard’ himself speaking in a past Viking life. Working independently, linguists identified and translated ten of these words as Old Norse and several of the others as Russian, Serbian or Slavic. All were words associated with the sea (Whitton and Fisher 1987: 210). Cryptomnesia—the recollection of a foreign language learned in the earlier years of a person’s life was also ruled out.
Finally, I would be remiss in my overview of reincarnation research if I did not mention the important contribution of psychiatrist Dr. Brian Weiss. A pioneer in reincarnation research, using past-life regression, through hypnosis, Dr. Weiss has authored 7 books on the subject, since 1980. His most well-known book, Many Lives, Many Masters, speaks of the story of his first past-life patient, Catherine. In spite of 18 months of intense psychotherapy, Catherine’s many fears, including the fear of water, of choking, of the dark and of dying only intensified until, with the use of hypnosis, Dr. Weiss instructed Catherine to go back to the time from which her symptoms first arose. What came next, was a complete shock to this empirical doctor. Catherine spoke of a life lived in 1863 B.C. as an Egyptian woman named Aronda, who when progressed to her death in that life, reported drowning, by chocking on water, from a tidal wave that hit her village. A week after this startling past life regression, upon her next visit, her symptoms had miraculously disappeared. What 18 months of intense psychotherapy had failed to do, just 1 past-life regression session had permanently resolved.
These exceptional cases would be considered anecdotal, were they isolated, but as mentioned, over 3000 case studies documented by Dr. Ian Stevenson alone, are strongly suggestive of the cyclical nature of our souls, from the physical to the non physical and back again. But even were there to be only one such reported case, that case alone would be worthy of scientific examination, for no other reason that it confounds the traditional materialist paradigm. As the great American philosopher and psychologist Henry James remarked: “It is sufficient to produce one white crow in order to prove that not all crows are black”.
In the debate on reincarnation, it is helpful to remember that “ it is a foible of human nature to stoutly defend an established position despite overwhelming evidence against it”. (Power vs. Force, p.213) I will close with the words of Dr. Stevenson who had this to say in response to a skeptic interviewer: “One can believe in reincarnation, if they so wish, based on the evidence.” I hope that this 2 part article will have been helpful, in putting reincarnation back into its proper historical context and in summarizing that supportive evidence for the cyclical journey of the human soul.
You might want to read: Reincarnation Part 1