When Ian Stevenson made a case for Life after Death


By Dr. Prasanna Cooray

Over half a century ago, in 1966, when Prof. Ian Stevenson first published his seminal work "Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation" (University of Virginia Press) it took the world by storm. It not only gave a tremendous boost to the religions that believe in reincarnation (and rebirth), but sought to provide a scientific foundation to the notion. After a scrupulous study of over 3,000 cases of "rebirth" Stevenson handpicked 20 cases of those to suggest, if not prove, the case of "reincarnation".

This fact was succinctly captured by Prof. Curt John Ducasse, parapsychologist and then Chairman of publications committee of the American Society for Physical Research, in the foreword he wrote to Stevenson’s "Twenty cases …". The closing line of his missive read as, "The twenty cases…, which Dr. Stevenson personally investigated, reports on, and discusses …, are not claimed by him to settle that question; but they do put it before the reader sharply and, because of this, are fully as interesting and important as are the more numerous cases suggesting discarnate survival, to which physical research has given close and lengthy attention".

Although the notions of reincarnation, rebirth (and karma) existed in the Eastern cultures from time immemorial it was alien and superstitious to the Western (Judeo-Christian) cultures. Over 5,000 years old Vedic philosophy and the religions like Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism that originated in Indian subcontinent (and have roots into Vedism and Sramanism), all believe in reincarnation (or rebirth). Besides, ancient Egyptian, Roman, Native American, African, Oceanic religions, Confucianism, Taoism and even the Jewish tradition of Kabbalah accepted reincarnation. But it sounded strange in the Western culture, especially at the time when Stevenson first proposed it. Further, coming from a medical professional trained in modern scientific paradigm, it raised a many eyebrows among the scientific community across the world.

Reincarnation and Rebirth

Fundamentally, "reincarnation" differs from "rebirth" for a number of reasons. Nevertheless, reincarnation was the term preferred by Stevenson to describe the phenomenon he postulated.

From a philosophical perspective, the term "reincarnation" (also called "transmigration") denotes the continuation of an individual’s soul from one human body to another. Indian Journal of Psychiatry defines reincarnation as "the religious or philosophical concept that the "Atman" (or "soul"), after biological death, begins a new life in a new body that may be human, animal or spiritual depending on the moral quality of the previous life's actions".

Although the essence, in terms of transfer of some form of "energy" from one being to another, is the same, the process differs between Hindu and Buddhist thinking. This Stevenson describes in his book as "Buddhists, especially of the Theravada branch, do not believe in the persistence of a permanent entity or soul. There is a constant flux of desire, action, effect and reaction, but no persisting soul. When a person dies, the accumulated effects of his actions set in motion a further train of events which leads to other consequences, one of which may be the terrestrial birth of another personality". He further elaborates, "If the first personality has achieved detachment from sensuous desires, a birth into another "plane" may occur instead of a new terrestrial birth. But this newly born personality will relate to the first one only as the flame of a candle (before it finally extinguishes) can light another candle’s flame. Buddhists often prefer the term "rebirth" to "reincarnation" to emphasize this distinction".

Fifty years down the line, in retrospect, a revisit of Stevenson – as persona as well as his memorabilia – is important to the modern medical science for quite a few reasons. Medical science of today, that has become increasingly "reductionist" and "materialistic" over the years, has seemingly dissociated from the social and spiritual aspects, as if it had reached a point of no return. The focus has moved towards the individual cell vis-à-vis the individual self. This, in clinical practice, is apparent in the dependency on and the overzealous use of technology. The emphasis on cell and molecular biology has marched on at a pace unparallel to the advances in bioethics, and in the opposite direction. The practice of clinical medicine has come to be influenced and dictated by the pharmaceutical and clinical investigation industries as it was never before. All these are but a few reasons that warrant a revisit of the spiritual dimension of health, down the Stevenson memory lane.

Ian Stevenson (1918 – 2007)

Ian Pretyman Stevenson was born on 31 October 1918 in Montreal Canada. His father was a lawyer turned journalist. His mother was a learned woman who had a special interest in mystical and occultist theories and practices, and maintained a reasonably good personal library at home. Young Ian was a voracious reader of these books, and developed an early interest in theosophy. He often fell sick from bronchitis during his childhood necessitating long layoffs from school. This too sharpened his reading habit, which continued till his death.

Stevenson passed out as a doctor from Mc Gill University in Canada in 1943. Later he qualified as a psychiatrist, and taught first at Louisiana State University School of Medicine and then at University of Virginia School of Medicine for over 50 years, where he was a professor and head of the department.

From early medical student days Stevenson disliked "reductionism" that is deeply ingrained in the established standard medical education. Instead he developed a likening to the areas such as psychosomatic disorders and psychoanalysis, which later propelled him towards psychiatry.

In 1967, a year after the release of "Twenty cases …", Stevenson founded the University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies (originally called, Personality studies), whose mission is to study "the phenomena that suggest that currently accepted scientific assumptions and theories about the nature of mind or consciousness and its relation to matter, may be incomplete".

Stevenson’s special interest was in "paranormal" studies that include areas as diverse as metaphysics, anomalous research, psychic and intuitive studies to extrasensory perception (ESP), telekinesis, ghosts, life after death, reincarnation, faith healing, human auras etc. In 1982, he cofounded the Society for Scientific Exploration, whose mandate includes peer reviewed research on areas such as consciousness, alternative energy and spiritual healing, and it scope extends into fringe sciences that include areas that depart significantly from the mainstream knowledge and are considered to be questionable according to the conventional wisdom.

Stevenson held the ideas that emotions, memories, and even physical injuries in the form of birthmarks can be transferred from one life to another. His masterpiece was the "Reincarnation and Biology: A Contribution to the Etiology of Birthmarks and Birth Defects" which was published in 1997. Running into two volumes this 2,268 page tome reported two hundred cases of birthmarks that seemed to correspond to a wound on the deceased person whose life the child recalled. (A shorter version of this, entitled "Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect", he published in 1997). He also believed that certain phobias, philias, unusual abilities and illnesses could not be fully explained by heredity or the environment alone. And he believed that reincarnation provided a third type of explanation for most of these unexplainable phenomena.

Enquiries into Reincarnation

As later reported in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), in a case of reincarnation, a child, usually at the age of two or three, will begin talking persistently of things, places and people about which the parents are thoroughly ignorant.

The child may even behave quite differently from other siblings. This will appear very strange in terms of the circumstances of his upbringing. Finally, the child himself may relate all this to a previous life he claims to remember having led, sometimes in a neighboring place or in a distant place.

This will be very trying for the parents, who along with friends of the family, start make enquires about persons presumed to be dead to whom the child’s statements might apply. If they find the family that appears to be the basis of the statements, a contact will be made. Then they will get additional information. Some of this information verifies and some contradicts the child’s statements. At the end of the inquiry, the child may be taken to the family he claims was his original family. As time goes on, both the families may make arrangements for a reunion. The child takes his parents and others through complicated streets and alleys. He may show somnambulistic precision. He leads the group directly to the place where he claims to have lived or worked in his former life. He then greets various persons who have come to witness this reunion. He calls them by their names and behaves appropriately. The child’s likes and dislikes special idiomatic phrases; nicknames and names for objects in his previous life are recollected.

All these cases have some common ingredients. There are repeated statements of a young child’s identification with an earlier person. These children who remember lost lives present information about this person in the form of memories or people known to him. They request to return to their previous homes and present familiar behaviour in the apparently strange environment. They address the alleged relatives with appropriate emotional responses. Most of these memories vanish between the ages of seven and nine. All these could suggest some continuity of personality hidden in the subliminal self.

In "Cases of the Reincarnation Type, Vol. II: Ten Cases in Sri Lanka" Dr. Stevenson recorded a case of a newborn girl who screamed whenever she was carried near a bus or a bath. When she was old enough to talk she recounted a previous life as a girl of 8 or 9 who drowned after a bus knocked her into a flooded rice paddy field. Later investigation found the family of just such a dead girl living four or five kilometers away. (Excerpt from the Stevenson obituary written by Margalit Fox to the New York Times of 18 February 2007).

Mixed reactions

Quite expectedly, Stevenson’s hypothesis was met with mixed reactions. Many scientists spurned Stevenson’s claim as "pseudo-science". However, if one peeps into these criticisms leveled against Stevenson would find that most were made on the premises such as Stevenson’s inadequate knowledge about the local cultures and credibility of the interpreters than the falsity of his methodology or "hollowness" of his argument.

Among Stevenson’s admirers was Chester Carlson, the inventor of photocopier, who later financed Stevenson’s researches as Carlson himself believed that he got the inspiration for his invention paranormally.

Margalit Fox in a Stevenson obituary to the New York Times wrote, "Dr. Stevenson was to his supporters a misunderstood genius, bravely pushing the boundaries of science. To his detractors, he was earnest, dogged but ultimately misguided, led astray by gullibility, wishful thinking and a tendency to see science where others saw superstition".

Stevenson was a fervent traveler. He had travelled as much as 55,000 miles a year on his research undertakings across all continents. In an obituary titled "Professor Ian Stevenson, an emperor in parapsychology" the BMJ commented , "It was not an arm chair research but literally a ‘shoe leather research’. Travelling across the east and west, he has been living as a world citizen for the last forty years".  

Stevenson’s association with Sri Lanka

Among the twenty cases Stevenson reported in his groundbreaking publication, three were from Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). Out of the 17 other cases, seven each were from India and Alaska. There were two cases from Brazil and one from Lebanon.

Among the cases documented from Sri Lanka, one was of Gnanathilaka from Hedunawewa who was Thilakarathne from Thalawakele in her previous birth. Thilakarathne died 15 months before the birth of Gnanathilaka. The second was of Wijerathne of Uggalkaltota, who claimed to have been reborn into his own family as his previous birth’s brother’s son. Wijerathne, in his previous birth was identified as Rathran Hami, his father’s brother. The third was of Ranjith Makalanda of Kotte. Ranjith, even as a toddler with a strong affinity to the Western way of life, was claimed to have been an Englishman in his previous birth.

Since 1961 Stevenson had been a frequent visitor to Sri Lanka on his research work. Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya Thero was a close acquaintance of Stevenson, and had helped him in research. Based on further cases of reincarnation reported in Sri Lanka, Stevenson published another book titled "Cases of the Reincarnation Type, Vol. II: Ten Cases in Sri Lanka" (University of Virginia Press), published in 1978. "Cases of the Reincarnation Type" was a series of publications that ran into four volumes. Volume I reported 10 cases from India (1975). And the Volumes III and IV published 12 cases apiece from Lebanon and Turkey (1980); and Thailand and Burma (1983), respectively.

Among the other notable works of Stevenson are the Telepathic Impressions: A Review and Report of 35 New Cases (1970), Unlearned Language: New Studies in Xenoglossy (1984), Children Who Remember Previous Lives: A Question of Reincarnation (revised edition) (2000) and European Cases of the Reincarnation Type (2003).

Stevenson died peacefully on 08 February 2007, leaving behind a legacy of himself as a man who defied the mainstream thinking for the cause his consciousness felt right.

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