Isn’t there something just a little probable about life after death?
Is reincarnation the biggest and most intelligent con pulled on mankind? Hindus have always believed in the cycle of births, as have other eminent people like Henry Ford and General Patton. But I have always been a bit sceptical. It explains away all of life’s injustices in one stroke with an answer that you cannot verify, yet cannot disprove. You did something really bad in your past life, and that’s why you are getting buggered for no apparent reason in this one. It brings peace and acceptance and a stoic outlook. In fact, in this life, you may also be more tempted to be a good person and not hurt other people. Stability is maintained, anger of the poor and the oppressed contained, rebellion and insanity averted. Life goes on.
But the theory of reincarnation also allows people to exploit other people with impunity, even profiteer. A friend of my father’s had a severely disabled child. There are centres all around India which claim to possess ancient manuscripts that trace people’s stories through their various lives. My father accompanied his friend to such a centre in Amritsar. My father’s friend told the man there his story. He listened gravely, then went inside the house. After an hour, he emerged with what looked like an ancient manuscript, written in the Devnagari script, but in a language or dialect that neither my father nor his friend could figure out.
Apparently, the reason for the tragedy my father’s friend was enduring was this: Many years ago, there was a good king. But his son was evil and he connived with the king’s minister to poison his father. The prince had now been reborn as the father and the minister as the disabled son, so both were suffering for the crime they had committed. But God was also forgiveful. At the age of 18 (the boy was then ten or so), he would become well and would then lead a normal life. I cannot bear to describe the hope with which the boy’s parents waited for him to be 18 and well, the despair when nothing at all happened. If there ever was a crime against humanity, it was what that heartless charlatan in Amritsar had committed.
But if reincarnation is a con, how does one explain the rare cases of people who seem to remember their past lives? I don’t know whether such cases have been scientifically investigated and proved, but I myself once met a man who told me that, as a boy, he could remember bits of his earlier life. But, he said, as he grew older, the memories faded, and by the time I met him, he could remember nothing at all. All he had was his parents’ word for it. I believed him, because, one, if he was pulling a stunt, he would not be claiming that he had forgotten everything, and two, he avoided talking about this side of himself as far as possible, and never brought up the topic on his own. So how do I explain that?
Let me try, and you can throw your rotten tomatoes at me freely. All matter, including our bodies, is made of the same building blocks of creation. Even our brains are, which means that at the fundamental level, our memories too are made of the same building blocks. When we die, over time, our bodies are reduced to those building blocks, which, then, would come together to build other, newer things: trees, metals, water, other human bodies.
Now think about it this way. Take an audio CD, crush it into a million pieces, and glue all the pieces back together to form another CD. There is a clear probability—however remote—that when you put together the second CD, some of the pieces that were adjacent to one another in the first CD would find themselves in the same order in the new CD. As a result, a part of one song—however short, maybe just three seconds—would sound exactly the way it sounded on the destroyed CD. That is the memory of past life.
Sounds plausible? Probable? We’ll perhaps never know. That’s the invulnerable beauty of the rebirth theory.
Sandipan Deb is an IIT-IIM graduate who wandered into journalism after reading a quote from filmmaker George Lucas — “Everyone cage door is open” — and has stayed there (in journalism, not a cage) for the past 19 years. He has written a book on the IITs.