Claims of Reincarnation: An Empirical Study of Cases in India, by Satwant K. Pasricha

Reviewed by KM Wehrstein

Satwant K Pasricha, former head of the Department of Clinical Psychology at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bangalore, India, is best known in parapsychological circles as an accomplished reincarnation researcher who learned a great deal about the field from the man who founded it, Ian Stevenson, as she assisted him extensively with his Indian cases. The core of this book is the thesis with which the author earned her doctorate from Bangalore University in 1978. Updated and expanded to include investigations into reincarnation, possession and near-death experiences that Dr Pasricha conducted in the subsequent decade, it was first published in 1990. Now it has been given a much-welcomed 2019 republication by White Crow Books.

What I found most interesting about this book is the way it is subtly different from every other book on reincarnation research that I have ever read, even though Pasricha adheres to the same methodological rules. They were all written by Westerners who were raised in a culture which, for both religious or scientistic reasons, dismisses reincarnation as an exotic Eastern or New Age superstition, an imaginative sop to those whose fear of death is unbearable—and who therefore have had to struggle with their own belief systems to accept what their investigations found. Pasricha is no less scientifically rigorous and takes no fewer pains to strengthen her evidence, but her preceding belief and cultural immersion in reincarnation imparts differences in approach, emphasis and tone. In short, the Western default baseline in interpretation is that reincarnation never happens and evidence for it is extraordinary and challenging, while the Eastern default, or at least Pasricha’s, is that reincarnation happens as a matter of course, evidence is confirmatory, and the question of real interest is its nature.

A Western researcher, for instance, would be unlikely to produce a passage such as this:

A person who says that he remembers a previous life rarely has any doubt that he has in fact remembered one.  For him, his memories of the previous life are matters of which he claims to have direct, reliable knowledge, and they have the status of certainty, just as memories of childhood have for other persons (p. 4).

For one thing, Western adults who remember past lives in fact tend to be plagued with doubts, wrestling internally even after multiple verifications, so you can see Pasricha is talking about people who are normal in her milieu: Indians, or at least people from cultures in which reincarnation is accepted. More examples will follow.

Pasricha’s doctoral fieldwork was comprised of two projects: a series of investigations of individual spontaneous reincarnation cases in northern India, of which she studied 45 closely, and a 137-respondent survey on reincarnation belief comparing two groups of respondents: those who had been witness to at least one reincarnation case either directly or indirectly, and those who had not, to see what differences such experience might make. (In the West one would have a hard time forming these two groups in equal size.) These two studies are the main meat of the book, but there is plenty more to chew on.

In her introduction in Chapter One, Pasricha summarizes parapsychological and reincarnation research previous to her own and sets out how the book will be structured. Chapter Two is a more thorough review of the history of reincarnation research, divided into categories: use of drugs to induce past-life memories, past-life readings by psychics, use of hypnosis to induce past-life memories, and spontaneous past-life memories. In agreement with Stevenson and the other researchers who have followed in his footsteps, Pasricha holds that spontaneous memories produce the best evidence both for individual cases and for reincarnation as a whole. She reviews studies of such cases starting in the 1890s, including several Indian works in the early 20th century that I had not heard of previously, working forward to Stevenson’s peerless amassing of cases that would eventually total some 2,500 by the time of his death in 2007, and his methodological innovations. She also reviews the history of surveys on reincarnation belief, and explores thought on reincarnation both from Western philosophers and Indian scriptures, drawing from Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh sources.

In Chapter Three the reader is greeted with something rarely seen except in pseudoskeptical commentaries on Stevenson’s work: a blunt list of weaknesses in it, though of course she does not draw the same conclusion they do, that the baby should be thrown out with the bath water. The weaknesses listed are: long intervals between case occurrence and investigation, use of interpreters, and short, superficial interviews both with mothers and subjects. It is clear that Pasricha sees herself as linguistically well-positioned to correct these in her own Indian investigations, and she is arguably right.

The systematic-minded author goes on to describe her method in such detail that I think this portion of the book in combination with contextualizing works such as Stevenson’s Children Who Remember Previous Lives (Stevenson, 2001) and James G Matlock’s Signs of Reincarnation (Matlock, 2019) would provide an excellent core curriculum for budding reincarnation researchers. There are sections, for instance, on the difficulties researchers might face before reaching a case, such as tracing the relevant persons, traveling to their communities and not being attacked by ‘dacoits’ (bandits), as well as difficulties once arrived, such as villagers treating them with suspicion, uncooperative informants, uncooperative record-keepers, and possible repercussions of murder cases (as if the ‘dacoits’ haven’t already made you feel enough like a character in an adventure movie). She frankly points out the dangers inherent in the interview method—different types of informant and investigator errors—and their remedies. She even gives a summary of her own reincarnation investigation practicum, undertaken over five years.

Simultaneous to her case investigations, Pasricha administered the reincarnation-belief survey to members of the two families in each case (that of the subject, that is, the person remembering a past life, and that of the previous personality), as well as her control group.

Chapter Four present the results, including seven sample cases described in detail. Four show the typical features of child reincarnation cases that will be entirely familiar to those who have read Stevenson’s writings, and three are unusual: an apparently-fraudulent case, a case of apparent possession in which the reincarnation took place prior to the death of the previous personality, and an adult case of a schizophrenic convinced he was his grandfather returned. Pasricha’s culturally-influenced acceptance of reincarnation as a reality is apparent again in this last case; while a Western researcher would likely reject the subject’s past-life claims entirely just on the grounds of the psychiatric diagnosis, she writes: “It is quite possible that Suresh had some fragmentary but correct memories of a previous life which were distorted due to his mental illness” (p. 112). Reincarnation being treated as separate from mental illness rather than as mental illness is refreshing.

The sample cases are followed by statistical analyses of the 45 cases on 53 measures, including the parents’ level of education, distance between the two families’ location, ages of subject when they first mentioned past lives and when they stopped, mode of death of previous personality, how accurately it was remembered, intermission length (the period of time between death and rebirth). Pasricha goes on to present what for me is another highlight of the book: a comparison of her 45 cases with 50 of Stevenson’s, on the same measures. She found no statistically significant differences in 44 out of the 53 and has reasonable explanations for the remaining nine, suggesting a successful replication and thus further evidence for the existence of reincarnation as a genuine natural phenomenon.

The results of the reincarnation-belief survey reveal some easy-to-predict patterns, such as cultural notions of karma and metempsychosis, and confirmation of Pasricha’s prediction that bearing witness to reincarnation cases bolsters belief in reincarnation. But exposure to real cases seems also to educate people; the case-exposed group, for instance, was better able to identify sudden death, violent death and unfinished business as factors that facilitate recall of a past life, matching the findings of Stevenson and others.

I have jumped ahead a bit here into Chapter Five, Discussion, in which Pasricha presents her argument that explanations other than reincarnation fail to sufficiently explain strong cases, making the crucial point that to be valid, an explanation must explain all aspects of a case. Fantasy, for instance, cannot explain cases with strong verifications, cryptomnesia cannot explain cases of children too young to read in families to which the previous personality is entirely unknown, genetic memory cannot explain verified memories of death, psychic explanations cannot explain the child’s strong identification with the previous personality, skills or birthmarks, etc.

In her cross-cultural comparisons, Pasricha touches on the notion that cultural beliefs influence some aspects of reincarnation—particularly intermission length and sex change—but I would say her work here has been superseded by Matlock’s as he has incorporated more recent findings.

In Chapter Six, Pasricha addresses implications of reincarnation research. She concurs with Stevenson that reincarnation has value in explaining cases of unusual/irrational fears, childhood vengefulness and gender dysphoria, but also goes broader to suggest a three-root rather than nature-and-nurture model of human development as a premise for diagnosis:

If we fail to trace the cause of a person’s deviant behavior to his genes or to his immediate environment, we may justifiably conjecture that it derives from events even earlier than those of childhood or infancy, namely those of a previous life (p. 242).

Even Stevenson was not so bold (see Stevenson, 1977), but in the context of Indian culture, of course, the three-root model is a premise. We know again we are reading an Eastern author when she notes that further reincarnation research would help stop parents from cruelly suppressing their children’s past-life memories—not by angry denial and dismissal due to parental disbelief, as it would be in the West, but by such methods as spinning the child counterclockwise on a potter’s wheel due to the common Indian superstition that children who remember past lives die young, which is of course belied by the case data.

Chapter Seven covers Pasricha’s next decade of work, and readers who want full detail will prefer the available papers she published in those years. She investigated some 300 cases, including two I consider to be strong contenders for the single most interesting reincarnation case extant, Uttara Huddar (see Stevenson & Pasricha, 1980) and Sumitra Singh (see Stevenson, Pasricha and McClean-Rice,1989). In another, that of Rakesh Gaur, she disagreed interestingly with her Western co-author on interpretation (see Pasricha & Barker, 1981), only to see said co-author frequently quoted by skeptics while her portion was ignored. In 1987, she co-published with Stevenson in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research a study in which the features of reincarnation cases two generations apart were found to be essentially the same, pointing at the consistency typical of genuine phenomena (see Pasricha & Stevenson, 1987). Other lines of inquiry include incidence of past-life memory in northern India, cultural differences in the proportions of solved vs. unsolved cases, and a comparison between Indian and American near-death experiences.

All-in-all, Claims of Reincarnation makes its case for reincarnation well, in a straightforward, matter-of-fact, grounded and thorough way. Some readers might find Pasricha’s writing a little stilted, and it doesn’t have the pellucid quality of Stevenson’s, but you can tell what she means to say. Quantitative evidence she usefully gives in table form, including the comparison of her cases and Stevenson’s. In my opinion, this book is a must-have for anyone seriously interested in past or current reincarnation research.

Some, of course, would consider Pasricha’s culturally-rooted belief in reincarnation as a disqualifying bias, eliminating her work, however rigorous, from serious consideration. They should admit, however, what Pasricha’s book reminds us: their dismissal of reincarnation is no less a culturally-rooted belief. To quote a 17th-century English author of a lengthy skeptical, rather than pseudoskeptical, work, Sir Thomas Browne:

And as credulity is the cause of Error, so Incredulity oftentimes of not enjoying truth; and that not only an obstinate incredulity, whereby we will not acknowledge assent unto what is reasonably inferred, but any…skeptical infidelity against the evidence of reason and sense. (1646/2009, p. 100)

In other words, one pre-existing belief does not make it harder to follow the data than another, so just follow the data.

Browne, Thomas (2009). Pseudodoxia Epidemica: or Enquiries into Commonly Presumed Truths
   Oxford: Benediction Classics. Original work published 1646.
Matlock, J. G. (2019). Signs of Reincarnation: Exploring Beliefs, Cases, and Theory. Lanham, MD:
   Rowman & Littlefield.
Pasricha, S. K., & Barker, D. R. (1981). A case of the reincarnation type in India: The case of Rakesh
   Gaur. European Journal of Parapsychology, 3, 381-408.
Pasricha, S. [K.], & Stevenson, I. (1987). Indian cases of the reincarnation type two generations
Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 54, 239-246.
Stevenson, I. (2001). Children Who Remember Previous Lives: A Question of Reincarnation (rev.
   ed.). Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
Stevenson, I. (1977). The explanatory value of the idea of reincarnationJournal of Nervous &
   Mental Disease, 164
, 305‒326. 
Stevenson, I. & Pasricha, S. [K.] (1980). A preliminary report of an unusual case of the reincarnation
   type with xenoglossy
. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 74, 331-348. 
Stevenson, I., Pasricha, S and McClean-Rice, N. (1989). A case of the possession type in India with
   evidence of paranormal knowledge
Journal of Scientific Exploration, 3, 81-101.

KM Wehrstein is a journalist, novelist and reincarnation researcher. She has contributed a number of entries to the Psi Encyclopedia.