LAST MONTH, THE DALAI LAMA, THE spiritual leader of the Tibetans, appeared in a public ceremony with an eight-year-old boy in tow who he announced as a reincarnation of the former deceased Mongolian head of their tradition. There was an irony in it. He is himself believed to be a reincarnation like all Dalai Lamas going back more than half a millennia. And yet, he has not confirmed whether there will be a successor after him. Last year, after rumours that there would be no further reincarnations, his office issued a denial stating that he would live until 113 and that there was plenty of time to address the question. The reason for such circumspection is that the Chinese are propping up their reincarnations to take over the tradition and that is a danger that the Dalai Lama, as also their political leader, must guard against. But then, what about the idea of reincarnation itself? Can it be discretionary? In his belief system, there is a way round it because of the different categories of reincarnation. He wrote a post in 2011 on his website where he explained reincarnation happens mostly without choice by the force of karma, but certain beings reincarnate of their own volition moved by compassion. He said he would decide on a reincarnation occupying his position when he became 90 (he is 87 now) by consulting with others, including the public and leaders of the faith. “If it is decided that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama should continue and there is a need for the Fifteenth Dalai Lama to be recognised, responsibility for doing so will primarily rest on the concerned officers of the Dalai Lama’s Gaden Phodrang Trust,” he wrote. But should it be decided otherwise, it seemed to suggest that there would be no reincarnation, or even if there was, they would just not seek him out.
The Dalai Lama wrote a post in 2011 on his website where he explained reincarnation mostly without choice by the force of karma, but certain beings reincarnate of their own volition moved by compassion. He said he would decide on a reincarnation occupying his position when he became 90 (he is 87 now) by consulting with others, including the public and leaders of the faith
Share this on
In human history, reincarnation had a utility, as the institution of the Dalai Lama itself shows. It would be an answer to perplexing questions. For instance, the idea of justice. If someone can do all the evil in the world and continue to lead a prosperous free life, and another person is an exemplar of virtue but roiling in poverty and pain, there is no right in it. Unless, of course, you don’t just perform actions in just this birth. If you are being punished or rewarded, then it is because of what you did in previous lives. Everything fits into a neat moral grid that is even good for the present because if you don’t want to suffer in the lives to come, then you better behave now. Another problem that reincarnation solves is the fear of death. All beings, from cells onward, are hardwired to survive and reproduce, but human beings have an additional layer of consciousness that makes dying even more ominous. But if it was not final and just a part of a continuum, then it is possible to face it. Reincarnation also serves to meet the loss and the deaths of those who are close because of the possibility of reunification. It can have extremely complex variations between cultures. Some keep it to a closed loop where all kin get reincarnated within themselves, while others believe that it can be as plants and animals and not just human beings.
But in the modern world, reincarnation is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition. Its presence and persistence can be understood anthropologically but a rationalist lens can find no merit in it. For one, there is the fundamental problem of who is being reincarnated. In the long life of a human being, which point exactly is it that is coming back? People who have advanced Alzheimer’s have no conception of who they are. They have no memories remaining and their personalities have been denuded. Who then is being reborn? You can get around the problem by postulating a soul but there is no evidence for it. The numbers don’t add up either if you believe that only humans get reincarnated as humans. In the last two centuries, the population has gone up from around 1 billion to 8 billion. How does one account for the extra seven billion? Even if you suppose that humans, animals and plants, and bacteria can all go back and forth as incarnations, why should this radical increase happen now? We know that industrialisation and modern medicine have meant more prosperity and health, leading to population rise. How then would reincarnation be inserted into this explanation?
People still believe in reincarnation because they silo their religious beliefs while being rational in other areas of life. But there have been researchers who did attempt to study reincarnation using the tools of modern science, mainly by recording claims in detail and cross-verifying them when possible. A study of 2022 in Science Direct analysed papers in this field published in journals and zoned in on 78 of them. It said: “The peak of publications occurred from 1990 to 2010 (45%), and Asia was the most investigated territory (58 studies); most of the investigations were related to children (84%) and case report was the predominant study design (60%). Interview was the predominant methodological approach (73%), followed by documental analysis (50%). Claimed past-life memories (100%), unusual behaviors (74%), and birthmarks/defects (37%) were the most investigated variables.”
THE PIONEER IN this field was Dr Ian Stevenson, a psychiatrist who founded the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia. Beginning in the 1950s, he became interested in reincarnation and started tracking cases of people with memories of earlier lives. Initially, these were what had appeared in the media and he published a paper in 1960 with 44 cases. He then began to actively go in search of cases himself. When he came to India and Sri Lanka, he found a fount of them. In just over a month, he had more than 30 cases before him. Children claiming to have past lives’ memories, he found, were much more common than assumed. By the end of his life, Stevenson had made detailed reports of thousands of cases, including not just memories that children had but physical marks on their bodies said to correspond to earlier lives. Despite the disapproval of peers, he remained committed to his study and when he died in 2007 at the age of 88, the New York Times said in his obituary: “Dr. Stevenson was internationally famous for his research into what he sometimes called ‘survival of personality after death,’ popularly referred to as reincarnation. In his view, reincarnation, along with heredity and environment, offered a possible explanation for a range of personality traits, including phobias, unusual abilities and gender dysphoria…For his part, Dr. Stevenson emphasized that the information he collected was meant only to suggest that reincarnation was possible, not to prove it beyond doubt.”
People still believe in reincarnation because they silo their religious beliefs while being rational in other areas of life. But there have been researchers who did attempt to study reincarnation using the tools of modern science, mainly by recording claims in detail and cross-verifying them when possible
Share this on
Presently, a researcher most associated with the study is Jim Tucker, a child psychiatrist who heads the perceptual studies division at the University of Virginia that Stevenson had founded. Most memories of past lives are found in children and in an interview with NPR, Tucker recounted the case of a two-year-old in the US who started having nightmares about a plane crash. The boy claimed to have been the pilot who had taken off from a boat. “And his dad asked him the name of it, and he said Natoma. And he said he had been shot down by the Japanese; that he had been killed at Iwo Jima; and that he had a friend on the boat named Jack Larsen. Well, it turns out that there was an aircraft carrier called the USS Natoma Bay that was stationed in the Pacific during World War II. In fact, it was involved in Iwo Jima. And it lost one pilot there, a young man named James Huston. James Huston’s plane crashed exactly the way that James Leininger had described—hit in the engine, exploding into fire, crashing into the water and quickly sinking. And when that happened, the pilot of the plane next to his was named Jack Larsen,” he said. Such cases, Tucker found, were hard to explain because a two-year-old just couldn’t get the information and the father himself took years to confirm it. Asked about what he was trying to reveal or prove, Tucker said: “Well, I don’t know that I’m necessarily trying to prove anything, but I’m trying to sort of find out for myself what seems to be going on here. And I think these cases contribute to the body of evidence that consciousness—at least, in certain circumstances—can survive the death of the body; that life after death isn’t necessarily just a fantasy or something to be considered on faith, but it can also be approached in an analytic way, and the idea can be judged on its merits.”
Others debunk such studies altogether. They say it lacks scientific rigour and have many biases in them. For example, a lot of children who have past life memories are in families that believe in reincarnation. Or, just because memory cannot be explained does not make it evidence of a past life. And it is suggested that most of these cases don’t get falsified because genuine researchers just don’t take it seriously enough to do it. Reincarnation’s appeal however has little to do with what the scientific community feels about it. It is a component of religion and thrives separate from science. It provides fertile material for expression and storytelling, a reason for its influence on the world of art and culture. Bollywood, for instance, has been regularly feeding off reincarnation for decades with movies like Karz and Om Shanti Om that the audience love. Like many human constructs, reincarnation can be both—real even when not true.