Of death, deja vu and many lives

The belief in after-life is near-universal across cultures and religions — and so are near-death experiences

Representative image of a row of Buddhas/bodhisattvas—that is, the Buddha in many lives and iterations (photo: IANS)
Representative image of a row of Buddhas/bodhisattvas—that is, the Buddha in many lives and iterations (photo: IANS)

Avay Shukla

The other day I came across these haunting lines by the poet Rumi:

Death has nothing to do with going away. The sun sets, and the moon sets, but they are not gone.

There is the promise of (for want of a better word) immortality here, and this set me off on a path of recollection and reflection, as such words are wont to do at my age.

A couple of incidents in my personal life came to mind, which may give some tangible meaning to Rumi's thoughts.

About 15 years ago, a tree fell on me in the middle of a severe snowstorm in Shimla. I suffered grievous injuries but survived, after months of hospitalisation. While I was laid up, my wife (in the tradition of all good Indian wives) went to consult a very learned gentleman who is internationally respected for his ability to read horoscopes and divine the future.

After studying my horoscope for a few days he told her that I would recover completely, that the falling tree had actually saved my life by averting a bigger accident. He explained that at the time I was under the influence of markesh dasha, a celestial arrangement (in Vedic literature) in which death is almost certain.

But it's what he went on to say further that is the trigger for this blog: that nature would never harm me because in my previous birth I had been a mendicant in these very same Himalayan forests, and had lived and died among these trees. (For the record, I had never been to Himachal before 1976, when I joined my training course in Shimla.)

Fast forward to six months later, when I had started to walk again, with the help of braces and a stout stick. Neerja and I decided that, as my first trial, we would drive to Hatkoti (about 6 hours above Shimla) and walk from there to a holy place called Giri Ganga, 5 km away through a thick forest.

The locals regard this place almost as highly as Haridwar, and it is where the ashes of their loved ones are immersed in the stream that flows there. Neither of us had ever been there before, but as we neared Giri Ganga I just knew that I had been there before.

I started telling Neerja what lay beyond every bend before us, where the prayer platforms were located, where the bridge would cross the stream, where the little temple was—all long before we had even set eyes on them! Neither of us could explain this, but the words of the wise guru in Shimla came to mind. And now Rumi. And some reading on this subject, the results of which I would like to share with the reader.

Literature is now emerging about the continuance of life after death and the influence of our past life experiences on our present behaviour.

This is made possible by a fairly new discipline in psychiatry—a type of hypnosis called regression therapy, where the psychiatrist takes the patient into deep hypnosis, back to his or her past life, to reveal hidden details and facts which could have a bearing on his/her present life.

There is a second strand to this mysterious phenomenon—the near-death 'out of body' experience (NDE) where the person medically dies, leaves the body but returns to it to live on because his ordained hour has not yet come.

I find these allusions to previous lives and the twilight zone utterly fascinating, comforting and disturbing at the same time.

There are quite a few books on this subject now, by authors (usually psychiatrists) such as Dr Melvin Morse, Paul Perry, Jenny Randles, Peter Hough, Denise Linn, Jenny Cockell—but the book which is the gold standard on after-lives has to be Many Lives, Many Masters by Dr Brian Weiss.

Weiss's book is a years-long study, carefully documented, of the many lives lived by one of his patients, Catherine. In her sessions with the doctor, she recounts—in startling detail—as many as 17 of her previous lives, spread over many centuries.

For those who find it difficult to believe this, let us remember that just about every major religion postulates some form of reincarnation or rebirth, whether on this earth itself or on some plane called Heaven, Paradise, Jannat or whatever. Reincarnation and the in-between planes are integral tenets of the Jewish Kabbalistic literature, which is hundreds of years old. Why then should we be surprised that the experiences of a few individuals seem to corroborate something we implicitly believe in, or at least do not question as part of our religions?

The first window to the 'other world' is provided by those who have experienced NDE, and these experiences are remarkably similar: They all report leaving their body, hovering over it and observing the events below with detachment, feeling a sense of panic, anxiety, temporal and spatial distortion, moving towards a bright light and then being asked by a hooded figure—'elders' or 'masters', according to Catherine in Weiss' book—to return to their body because it is not yet time for them.

According to a 2005 article by a British psychoanalyst, Chris French: 

Near death experience represents evidence of the immaterial existence of a soul or mind, which leaves the body upon death, and provides information about an immaterial world where the soul journeys after death.
Chris French, psychoanalyst

It is this 'other' or 'immaterial' world that Weiss and the others explore and document in excruciating detail with their patients.

One remarkable experience, common to all NDEs, is that some souls leave the body temporarily but are told to return because they have not yet completed the "learning" process: they can cross over to the celestial other world only when this process is complete.

This aligns very well with the Hindu belief of birth and rebirth, in which the soul or atma undergoes a series of births till such time it is completely purified and purged of all negativity, and only then can it become one with the Brahmand, ending the cycle of birth and death with its entry into Swarg or Heaven.

It also corresponds nicely with the concept of Purgatory in Christianity, where the soul undergoes a phase of expiatory purification to cleanse it of its sins and make it ready for entry into Heaven.

It would appear that people are quite often reborn in the same place and social milieu where they existed in their previous life (though this is not necessary every time). Catherine confirms this to Dr. Weiss and identifies many persons in her present life as persons she recognizes from many of her previous lives.

Does this explain the feeling of deja-vu people sometimes experience when they meet someone for the first time but feel that they have met before, or go to a new place and feel that they have been there before? (Like my experience in Giri Ganga.)

I don't know, but it is strangely comforting to learn (or believe) that we can, after death, rejoin those loved ones who have gone before us.

The subject of the after-life is an intensely personal thesis and a matter of belief, but it is one where science and religion appear to be converging as we continue to learn more about it from the experiences of people like Catherine.

For me, the primary lesson from these books is twofold:

One, Death is not the end of life, the soul is the eternal traveller.

Two, respect that fateful moment when the soul of someone you love transitions from the material to the spiritual state, for this is a moment of intense trauma, confusion and apprehension for the soul—it is leaving the familiar and heading for the unknown.

It needs our support, love and warmth at this terminal moment—sit with the body, hold its hand, murmur words of love and care. The body may be without life but the soul is still very much there, reluctant to leave on its final journey.

Do not run around, shouting and screaming, or making phone calls or summoning relatives. There will be a time for that.

For right now, create an ambience of calm, of serenity and quietude, make it easier for the departing soul to leave, not more difficult. 

Stay with it, in mind and body, till the end, for it is not the end—you will probably meet again in another life.

As a wise man said:  

We are not human beings going through a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings going through a temporary human experience.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

AVAY SHUKLA is a retired IAS officer and author of The Deputy Commissioner’s Dog and Other Colleagues. He blogs at avayshukla.blogspot.com. Views are personal

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