Behind the book – Interview with Chaitanya Charan, author of “Demystifying Reincarnation”
(This interview appeared originally at http://www.privytrifles.co.in/2017/06/behind-book-chaitanya-charan.html)
- Welcome to Reviews and Musings. Talking about your latest book Demystifying Reincarnation, how important it is for us to understand the deeper meaning of our lives in today’s times?
Understanding life’s deeper meaning is especially important in today’s times because we have so many options to choose from. Just as it’s possible to spend a whole day surfing superficially on the net looking at this picture or that movie or that news without learning anything worthwhile or even enjoying anything substantially, so too can we spend our whole life surfing superficially, doing this and that, without ever connecting with our essence, without understanding what it is that makes us us, without manifesting that which we are meant to contribute during our life-journey.
The importance of meaning in life is higlighted by classic books such as Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankyl. Based on the author’s survival amidst the horrors of the Holocaust, it explains how without a purpose for life, we lose the drive to live. A lack of a sense of overall meaning and purpose of life is the cause of the many mental health problems facing society nowadays ranging from depression to suicidal urges. They all have their specific, complex triggers, but they also originate in a universal malaise: the alienation and disorientation coming from meaninglessness and purposelessness.
Psychologist William Sheldon of Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons echoes, “Deeper and more fundamental than sexuality, deeper than the craving for social power, deeper even than the desire for possessions, there is a still more generalized and universal craving in the human makeup. It is the craving for knowledge of the right direction—for orientation.”
This need for orientation is addressed by the world’s great spiritual wisdom-traditions, if we just open ourselves to them.
- Reincarnation has always been an intriguing subject. Talked at length, discussed with curiosity but never accepted and believed widely. Why do you think it is so?
I feel there are two reasons: excessive skepticism and excessive sensationalization. The scientific method has made us all skeptical of things that seem spooky, that smell of the supernatural. Much of such skepticism is warranted – it has equipped us to reject the many superstitions that held sway over people in the past. Still, we can go overboard in our devotion to skepticism. It’s worth remembering that skepticism can only tell us what is wrong, never what is right. Using skepticism to gain knowledge is like using the brakes to move a vehicle; it can protect us from going off-course, but it can’t take us ahead on-course.
Unfortunately, such skepticism has been further indirectly fuelled by whatever cases of reincarnation do come in the public eye. This happens primarily through Bollywood movies where reincarnation is romanticized as a convenient dramatic tool to fulfill in another life a love that was thwarted in this life. Reincarnation ends up becoming just another concept, something akin to vampires, that’s acceptable in the fictional world, but not taken seriously in the real world.
Exploiting the intrigue created by such sensationalized and romanticized depictions of reincarnation, some books compile cases of celebrity reincarnations where pictures of supposed similarities of certain people with some celebrities are touted as evidence. All this titillates people’s minds, but it distracts them from the much stronger evidence that has been uncovered by serious researchers who are interested in investigating reincarnation, not sensationalizing it.
If we have more presentations on reincarnation that avoid the extremes of excessive skepticism and excessive sensationalization, I am sure that more people will be open to exploring and accepting it.
- Apart from reincarnation you have also talked about ghosts and other paranormal things in your book and brought scientific evidence amidst it all to prove things. Was it something intentional, knowing that today’s generation needs assurance and there can’t be anything stronger than science to prove a point to them?
Yes, India has not yet made the transition from modern times to post-modern times. In the modern worldview, science has almost the same sacral authority that religious revelation had in pre-modern times. In post-modern times, that place is being increasingly taken by personal experience.
So, I have tried to draw on all these three sources of authority in the book – the first part draws on scientific evidence for past-life memories and near-death experiences, but also weaves in the experiential element by narrating human stories; and the last part draws from spiritual texts to explain how their content is rationally intelligible and even appealing.
But yes, given science’s respectability in today’s intellectual ethos and given that fields such as reincarnation are often dismissed summarily by being labelled as unscientific, I have devoted a significant portion of the book to report scientific findings that point persuasively to reincarnation as the most reasonable explanation.
- The entire book is backed by intensive research with a lot of critical analysis. According to you, how important is research for a book? And how much of it can be called enough before putting a stop to it?
This was a dilemma I wrestled with for nearly ten years. Among all the twenty books I have written till now, this is my most researched book. I spent fifteen years in preparing the book: five years doing background work, five years writing it, and five years refining it, deciding what to keep and what to leave out.
Research and reasoning are foundational for the credibility and authority of a book on a topic such as reincarnation that is considered fringe and far-fetched. Yet too much research can make a book over-academic and inaccessible to general readers. During my research in the field of paranormal studies, I found several such books that were backed by stupendous research, but reading them required a level of interest and commitment that few people have.
So, how much research is too little or too much? I arrived at the balance by speaking what I had written and seeing how well the audience connected with it. I have spoken on science and spirituality at universities and corporates in India as well as in the US, Canada, UK and Australia.
During my talks, I noted which points resonated with the audience and at what depth of information or reasoning, they started appearing overwhelmed. Based on those experiences, I arrived at the level of research that was included in the book.
- Given the current scenario globally, please share your thoughts on religion and its myriad interpretation by each one of us.
While we all are free to interpret religion whichever way we want, we deprive ourselves of its uplifting potential if we relegate it entirely to the subjective realm of personal interpretation. Religion needs to be complemented by reason, by the systematic philosophical analysis of the truth-claims of religion. If we look at wisdom-texts such as the Bhagavad-gita, texts that are considered sacred by millions of religious people, these texts don’t focus so much on the practices that comprise religion – they focus on the principles that comprise spirituality. When those principles are understood and assimilated through practices appropriate for contemporary times, then that combination of religion and philosophy comprises a spirituality that is individually and socially empowering.
Religion can be a cause of confusion and conflict if it is divorced from rationality, from the open-minded reasoning that seeks something more than what the here-and-now has to offer. If religion is seen simply as a tool for getting material things, then it can easily be exploited by people interested in power and prestige; they can interpret things in any way that serves their vested interests, without considering whether their interpretations are spiritualizing anyone, even themselves.
But when religion is seen for what it is meant to be – a set of practices for channeling our consciousness to higher levels of reality, for reminding us that we are parts of something much bigger than ourselves and our daily world, for helping us rise to higher levels of experience – it can be a profound source of peace and self-empowerment.
- If there is one thing you could tell the younger generation, what would it be?
There is much, much more to life than what our senses and our gadgets can offer us.
FOMO (Fear of missing out) is a valid fear, and we need to apply it to the fear of our missing out on life’s deeper, richer, sweeter spiritual side because of being obsessed with the sensual and the digital.
Youth is the time of rebellion, the time when we don’t like to be told by anyone what we should do, the time when we want to be ourselves.
The best way to find who we are and to become who you are meant to be is not by adopting the latest fashions or getting the “recentest” gadgets, but by using spirituality to explore and discover your core self.
- Having come across so many stories on reincarnation, is there any such story that left you spellbound. If yes, please share about it with us.
I found most fascinating the case of Mushir Ali Shah that I wrote on in “Demystifying Reincarnation.”
What struck me was that the evidence left practically no scope or rationale for fraud; the emotions of the characters were so unpretentious; and the context of an inter-religious reincarnation here in India itself made the drama much more real and immediate for me.
Here is the relevant extract from the book:
Mushir Ali Shah, the eldest son of the Fakir Haider Ali Shah through his second wife Najima, had lived with his parents in the town of Kakori, Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, India. He worked as a horse-cart driver carrying fruits or vegetables from Kakori to the market in Lucknow. On 30 June 1980, when he was approximately twenty-five years old, a tractor struck him and his mango-filled cart, killing him on the spot. The fatal accident occurred on the road from Kakori to Lucknow at a half-kilometre distance from the village of Baj Nagar.
In Baj Nagar, which is about five kilometers from Kakori, in April 1981 was born Naresh Kumar Raydas as the third of four children of Guru Prasad Raydas.
- When Naresh started speaking at the age of two, he would often repeat, to his parents’ puzzlement, the words “Kakori, Kakori” and also “karka, karka,” which means “horse-cart” in the local dialect.
- Around the same age, he would kneel down at home as if to perform namaz, the Muslim form of ritual prayer and would stop if he noticed that he was being observed.
- The Fakir from Kakori, who maintained his family by begging alms and offering blessings, would come to Baj Nagar and to Naresh’s house every Thursday. When Naresh learnt to walk, he would follow the Fakir to the next two or three houses and then return to his own home. Although his parents told him to address the Fakir by the Hindu term for a mendicant, Baba, he would address him as Abba, the Urdu word for father used by Muslims and some Hindus in that area of Uttar Pradesh.
- By August 1987 when Naresh was about six, he would repeatedly say that he was a Muslim from Kakori. One day when he saw the Fakir, he again called him Abba and asked him, “Don’t you recognise me? In my house there are five neem trees. I was hit by a tractor.” He asked the Fakir to take him home, a request that the befuddled Fakir refused.
- The next morning, Naresh compelled his mother to take him to the Fakir’s house in Kakori. Once there, he led her unguided through a part of Kakori that neither he nor his mother had seen before, until they reached the Fakir’s house. There Naresh again called the Fakir “my Abba,” and his wife Najima as Ammi (Mother). He also recognised Mushir’s brothers and a sister who was present along with her husband, whom he called by his name—Mohammed Islam. He asked Najima, “Where is my younger brother Nasim?” When she told him that he was sleeping, Naresh went to him and woke him up. As Nasim was trying to gather his wits, Naresh hugged him and started kissing him. When asked how many brothers and sisters he had, Naresh answered, “Five brothers, six sisters. One of the sisters is a stepsister.” This was correct in relation to the time when Mushir was alive. When Najima pointed to her six-year-old daughter Sabiah who had been born three months after Mushir’s death and asked who she was, Naresh replied, “She was in your stomach at that time.”
- Naresh also correctly identified Mushir’s suitcase among the five metal suitcases inside the house and accurately described its contents before it was opened.
- The Fakir and his wife also noted that Naresh had a slight depression near the middle of his chest at the same place as Mushir’s chest wound from his fatal accident.
- Naresh recognised many of the people from Kakori who had gathered at the Fakir’s house. He even asked the wife of a man named Zaheed whether she had returned to the Fakir the 300 Rupees that he had deposited with her husband. Mushir had indeed deposited that amount with Zaheed who had returned it three days after Mushir’s death.
- When the Fakir’s family prepared to send Naresh back with five Rupees, he demanded, “What do you mean? That you will send me off without giving me tea and eggs?” Mushir had been very fond of tea and eggs, and used to have them every day. Naresh’s demand for eggs was significant because his family, being vegetarian Hindus, did not eat eggs.
For our analysis, the critical point of this case is that the two families belonged to two different religions that have had a long history of mutual tensions in India. So, neither of the families was interested in establishing any reincarnational connection with each other.
Mills explains in her article that in many of these cross-religious cases, both the Hindu and the Muslim families tried to suppress the child’s speech and behaviour: “Hindu parents of a child who claimed to be a Moslem generally tried to take measures which they hoped would erase the child’s previous-life memories. The techniques used included simply ignoring the child’s claims, teasing, piercing the child’s ear, turning the child on a potter’s wheel, and taking the child to an exorcist out of fear that the child would go mad. One Moslem family tried a combination of rotating the child counter-clockwise on a millstone (to “undo” his past-life memories), tapping him on the head, and beating him.”
Might Naresh’s family have been interested in proving their belief in reincarnation? Possibly, but what interest would Mushir’s family have had in joining the fraud? Their religion opposed belief in reincarnation. So if religious bias had played any role here it would have made them deny or even disprove reincarnation.
When the Fakir was asked about his response as the case had unfolded, he said that he had not believed in reincarnation before this case. During his weekly visit to Baj Nagar when Naresh had identified himself as his son, he had felt deeply troubled. Unable to sleep that night he had prayed at midnight, “Allah, what is this mystery?”
The next day when Naresh came to his house and recognised several people and things correctly, he felt that Allah had solved the mystery for him: Naresh was indeed his son Mushir, reborn. Najima, though initially shocked that an unknown Hindu boy was claiming to be her son, soon became convinced by his many correct recognitions.
When they recounted these events, both of them were moved to tears and his voice trembled with emotion. Thus, the sheer force of the recognitions transformed their attitude towards reincarnation from disbelief to belief.
The reactions of Mushir’s other family members were revealing and reflective of the general Muslim attitude towards reincarnation. Mushir’s sister Waheeda described how Naresh had correctly identified her by stating, “You are my sister.” But when asked about her conclusion from the recognitions she replied bluntly, “We don’t believe in reincarnation.”
In general, what was typical among Muslims was not just denial of reincarnation but denial even of the permission to investigate the possibility of reincarnation. Researchers sometimes faced covert or overt opposition from the Muslim community when they attempted to investigate past-life-memories cases involving Muslim children.
- Though the book is detailed with proper chapters and outline, the topic is still exhaustive. Do we see a sequel for the book coming out soon?
Yes, building on this book on a specific topic, I plan to write a book, maybe several books, on the broader field of science and spirituality. These two sources of knowledge are often seen as contradictory, but they can be complementary if their respective domains and purposes are understood.
I have spoken on “Spirituality in the age of science” at universities in Cambridge, Toronto, Washinton as well as of course in India. Everywhere, I have seen deep interest, even hunger, for reconciling these two forces that shape human life in today’s world. So, I intend to address this need in the near future.
- What are the other projects you are working on currently?
I have just completed video recording for courses on “Science, Spirituality and Life’s Big Questions” as well on “Demystifying Reincarnation.” I plan to follow it up with other video courses on similar topics.
I have a blog on the Bhagavad-gita called gitadaily.com, where I have been writing daily on the Gita for the last seven years. I am working on an introductory course – in all three formats, textual, audio and video – that explains the basic concepts of the Gita and how they are relevant in today’s world.
I will be doing a course on “Bring out the best within you” in Sep-Oct this year for students of Florida University.
I have done a 75-session video course on “Fascinating Mahabharata Characters” and am working on a similar course on the Ramayana. That course will correlate broadly with one of my upcoming books with Fingerprint – “From Me to We – Reflections on Ramayana.”
Another upcoming book is semi-autobiographical – “The becoming of a monk.” Through an analytical QA-based narration of my becoming a monk, I explain the rationale for giving our spiritual side its due in today’s world.
- A message for all your readers.
Life is too precious to be spent merely in living – we need to be learning while living. And the best way to learn is through books, especially books about life’s deeper meaning.
Reading for learning can seem demanding, but at the other end of the demanding hides the fulfilling.
I am honored to be a part of a community of readers and writers (every writer is first and foremost a reader) that seek the fulfillment of living fully by learning.
Thank you so much for your time!
My thanks to you for giving me the opportunity to share the story behind the story of “Demystifying Reincarnation.”
Demystifying Reincarnation is available at all leading books stores in India as well as online.