Are past-life memories frauds? – Analysis with the case study of a Muslim-to-Hindu reincarnation
Thousands of cases of past-life memories have been documented by Dr Ian Stevenson and other researchers. When skeptics fail to explain away such cases, they resort to the fraud hypothesis.
The parental fraud explanation holds that the parents spin the entire story of a past-life memory and drill the child to perfection to play the critical part in the fraud. Stevenson, Tucker and other past-life researchers have carefully analysed this possibility, and we present here a systematised summary of their analysis.
What might the parents gain through a fraud? The possible gains can fall in three broad categories:
Might the parents be driven by the agenda to prove their personal belief in reincarnation to others? Perhaps, in some cases. But this agenda is entirely inapplicable to the many cases found in America and Europe in which the parents didn’t believe in reincarnation.
In fact, in many of these cases, the parents had been predisposed by their religious teaching and cultural upbringing to explicitly disbelieve in reincarnation and so, would have had reason to expose a fraud if it occurred and not set one up themselves. And Tucker, who has focused on investigating cases primarily in America, has found a significant number of strong cases among such disbelieving parents.
Even in the cases in Asia and other places where the parents believe in reincarnation, validating their beliefs is not particularly important for the parents for they, as well as most of the people in their social circle, believe in reincarnation implicitly. Because the parents rarely find their belief in reincarnation challenged, which is the norm in more westernised societies, they don’t feel any need to prove their belief, leave alone orchestrate a fraud to prove it.
Tom Shroder, an editor at the Washington Post, journalistically investigated the past-life research of pioneering researcher Ian Stevenson. He documented his findings in a fascinating book entitled Old Souls: The Scientific Evidence for Past Lives. There, Shroder wrote, “Family members admittedly interested in and open to the possibility of reincarnation had nonetheless refused to leap to any conclusions or embellish the child’s statements. If anything, they had played them down.”
Moreover, a widespread belief among Indians, especially rural Indians, is that those children who talk about their past-life will die young. Stevenson stresses that he has found no statistical basis for this belief—the mortality rate of children who remember past lives is no higher than that of those who don’t. Still, most rural parents continue to believe this and so, they often discourage their children from speaking about the earlier life even when the children want to. Therefore, it seems extremely unlikely that they would initiate a fraud that would require the child to speak about past-life memories repeatedly.
Stevenson and all subsequent past-life researchers follow a standard policy of not paying anything to the parents for conducting their interviews as they want to ensure that the case doesn’t get corrupted; that is, the parents and other interviewees don’t exaggerate or invent points in the hope of getting money. So there is no monetary gain for the parents in the investigation itself. In fact, the investigation that extends for hours and hours often constitutes a financial strain for some of the parents—especially those from financially challenged backgrounds and need to work throughout the day to make ends meet. Consequently, they sometimes even resent the precious long hours spent in giving exacting interviews to the researchers.
In some of the cases, a child born in a poor family believes himself or herself to be the reincarnation of a deceased member of a wealthy family. Might the parents be conniving such a relationship so that they can get some money from the wealthy family? Possibly. But general patterns in the detailed case histories show that even when the poor parents develop a relationship with the wealthy family during the course of the investigation, very rarely do these parents ask for gifts from the wealthy family— and even rarer are the occasions when they actually do get gifts.
So overall there’s no monetary benefit for the parents in contriving these cases.
Might the parents be setting up the fraud to gain fame and prestige? Possibly. But again, detailed analysis of case patterns shows that in most cases the parents don’t appear eager to publicise their child’s past-life memories. Even when the children speak about a past-life, the parents, being believers in reincarnation accept that their child must have been somebody in a previous life and don’t bother about who he or she was. So they don’t pay much attention to the details spoken by the child. In a few cases, the child requests repeatedly, and insistently to be taken to the arena of the previous lives and even threatens to go off alone if the parents do not take him or her there. Only in such cases do most parents start broadcasting the details to locate the previous personality.
Prestige, as a driving motive of the parents is plausible in those few cases in which the child claims to be the reincarnation of a celebrity. Consequently, researchers always treat such celebrity reincarnation claims, whenever they occur, with extra scepticism. (Abiding by their spirit of reasonable scepticism, we have avoided discussing any celebrity cases in this book.) But most of the children with spontaneous past-life memories recall fairly normal lives as ordinary, unknown, or little-known people. Such claims, even when proven to be true, don’t bring any prestige at all.
Thus, in a majority of the cases no tenable reason seems to exist for parents to commit a fraud. Additionally, there are two strong arguments that go against the fraud explanation.
To pull off a fraud would involve:
- Onerous drilling of the child: The parents would have to drill the child, repeatedly and thoroughly, to make him or her repeat the same false story accurately, over and over again and spontaneously feign the apt emotions that go along with the story. Such meticulous drilling would be extremely difficult and troublesome; but it might still be possible when the child is old enough to be drilled. However, in many cases the children start speaking about past-life memories as soon as they learn to speak. This early age seriously problematises the fraud hypothesis, as Shroder points out in his book Old Souls: “That extraordinarily young age made the idea of some form of fraud almost unthinkable….Believing that a child could learn and repeat complex, accurate biographies at an age when his peers are struggling to learn the names of colours is almost an absurdity.”
- Ensuring the collusion of multiple witnesses: In many of the past-life-memories cases, more than a dozen witnesses report having heard the child’s statements or seen the child’s recognitions and emotions, or both. Making all these people give a consistent, deceptive account would require not just fraud but a systematic and intricate conspiracy. As the parents don’t gain anything tangible by proving that the cases are true, it seems extremely unlikely that they would go through the massive effort necessary to organise a conspiracy.
Most importantly, in several cases the parents find the child’s past-life memories displeasing and even embarrassing; they explicitly wish and try to make their child “normal.” In such cases, the fraud explanation fails completely. Why would the parents set up a fraud by which they would lose face?
A Muslim-to-Hindu Reincarnation
In an article in the Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol 4, No 2, 1990, University of Virginia researcher Antonia Mills provides an overview of various cross-religious Indian cases, that is, Hindu-to-Muslim or Muslim-to-Hindu cases, and then provides a detailed analysis of one Muslim-to-Hindu case.
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
- 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’sThere 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.
Thus, in Mushir’s case, the parental fraud explanation fails utterly.
It is apt to sign off with a quote from Shroder: “Neither self-delusion, intentional fraud, peer pressure, nor coincidence could explain how the children Ian investigated could have known all that they knew about strangers who’d died before they were born.”
Demystifying Reincarnation is available at all leading books stores in India as well as online.