Of Rats, Reincarnation, Research, and Religion

In light of my last post, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about where to go next. What can I share about my search for a faith that makes sense?

Perhaps serendipitously, I’ve also been reading a fascinating little book by Mary Roach titled Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. I plucked it off the shelf in my local Barnes & Noble’s science section on a whim, looking for something to distract me a bit before I dash headlong into another grueling semester. I expected nothing more than an entertaining week of reading. Instead I found a whimsical and witty companion in Mary Roach who, like me, has a ton of unanswered questions. Unlike me, she has a hefty advance to underwrite her quest for answers. Having chronicled some of the more interesting and bizarre things we do with dead bodies in her book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Roach next sets out to discover the fate of the soul. Does the soul exist? And if so, where does this I that is me go when physical death comes knocking? As with most questions of these sorts, the answers are as numerous and idiosyncratic as the people you ask.

Roach begins her quest by travelling to India to spend a week in the field with Dr. Kirti Rawat, director of the International Centre for Survival and Reincarnation Researches. Part of his research involves attempting to validate cases of alleged reincarnation by interviewing family members on both sides of the equation – those who have a child claiming to be the recipient of a recycled soul and those who are related to the deceased. Empirical proof, the kind that most scientists prefer, is nonexistent in these cases; so much of what Dr. Rawat relies on is anecdotal, and quite often biased, testimony. Roach likens him to a police detective attempting to build a case on circumstantial evidence. And some cases are stronger than others, lending him an air of credibility in his field. Dr. Rawat’s current investigation centers on a young boy named Aishwary whose family claims is the reincarnation of a factory worker named Veerpal, a victim of an accidentally electrocution while on the job. At one point, Aishwary and his family accompany Dr. Rawat to the home of Veerpal. There Veerpal’s father Mathan scoops young Aishwary onto his lap and holds him close. Father and son, reunited. Here are some highlights from Roach’s book:

I’m working myself up to full nitpicker skeptic mode, but then something happens. I’ve been watching Mathan Singh, wondering why he isn’t staring deeply into the boy’s eyes to try to figure out if it’s true, trying to connect with the soul of his lost son somehow. I guess I’d been expecting a Demi-Moore-in-Ghost kind of moment, the part where she somehow senses that (God help her) her dead husband is there inside Whoopi Goldberg. What I notice instead is that Mathan Singh, sitting chatting with his arms around the boy, looks profoundly content. It occurs to me that it doesn’t much matter whether this boy does or does not hold the soul of the son Mathan Singh lost. If Mathan Singh believes it, and if believing it eases the grief he feels, then this is what matters. It also occurs to me that I don’t speak Hindi, and that I have no idea what this man is saying or feeling or believing. He could be saying, “This reincarnation crap. I’ve never bought it.”

I tug on Dr. Rawat’s sleeve. “Can you ask him how he feels about all this?”

Dr. Rawat obliges. “He says he is happy. He says, ‘My son is alive, therefore I am happy.'” Past-life therapy.

. . .

My first day on the streets of Delhi, a live rat dropped from somewhere overhead. It was not thrown, for it descended in a vertical path directly in front of my face, landing more or less on my shoe. It appeared to have simply lost its footing at the precise moment that fate had arranged for my arrival there on the sidewalk. The event struck me as an appalling close call, a brush with vileness and possible scalp laceration, a harbinger of coming horrors and shortcomings in public hygiene.

“Oh!” exclaimed Dr. Rawat. He was as surprised as I was, but here our reactions parted company. “You are blessed! The rat is the conveyance of Lord Ganesha!”

The episode got me thinking. If you are enough of a Hindu to view a falling rat as an auspicious event, are you too much of a Hindu to dismiss reincarnation – if indeed that is what the facts suggest you should do? I wondered about Dr. Rawat’s capacity for objectivity. He refers to his research as an obsession, an addiction. “Like a drunkard to his bottle, I am to my cases!” he told me when we first met. But is he investigating reincarnation, or merely hunting for evidence in its favor? How can he remain unbiased?

. . .

“As a Hindu,” I begin, “you believe in reincarnation. Is it difficult for you, as a researcher, to maintain your objectivity?”

“I am born into a family that believes in reincarnation,” Dr. Rawat allows. “And moreover, in my family there was said to be a case of reincarnation. I am aware that there may be some conscious or unconscious bias in me.” He insists that this has made him more cautious, rather than less so. “So that my personal belief, my personal experience, may not infringe on my scientific pursuit, I assume the role of a critic when I study these cases, not a believer.”

Particularly poignant are Roach’s concluding remarks . . .

I’ll tell you what I think might be happening. Over and over, Dr. Rawat would stop his interviewees and counsel them to relate only what they themselves saw or heard. He admits it’s almost impossible. Add to that the likelihood that the stories the villagers have heard are inevitable embellished along the way. It’s one big heady game of Indian telephone . . . No one sets out to lie, but the truth gets nicked and misshapen.

Objectivity . . .

Since leaving the church and setting aside many of the tenets of the Christian faith I once espoused, this is one thing I have found lacking in many believers. When word first got out that I’d jumped the Gospel Ship, long-time acquaintances suddenly appeared at the rails to throw me a lifeline. Some were gentle while others were quite obnoxious. All of them thought me simply mad. But shamefully few of them responded honestly when asked a simple question: Why do you believe? I received lots of biblical babble, at least one turn-or-burn, I-love-you-brother-but diatribe, and a few nuggets of nonsense from a dear friend about theomatics and biblical numerics, but very little from the heart. It comes down to tradition, experience, and testimony, all “nicked and misshapen” by unacknowledged ambiguity. Yet, like Mathan Singh, belief is enough for them, and they are content and happy.

I also see a lot of Dr. Rawat in me. Though his is a Hindu, he isn’t particularly dogmatic; his willingness to not let the trappings of his upbringing interfere with his research is inspiring. How many people are willing to set aside what they’ve always been told is true to look at things from a different perspective? Very few, I’m afraid. There is comfort in the familiar, and when times grow dark and doubt rears its head, a strongly-worded “God is good!” is sufficient. Frankly, it’s a head-in-the-sand mentality that grows wearisome when heard with unstopped ears.

I realize I’m painting ugly with a large brush. Who am I to call anyone an unwitting fraud for clinging to what millions embrace as being truer than the air we breathe? Don’t I too lack objectivity? I’m looking for loopholes in a system of belief by which others see our only hope for spiritual peace. At what point does one stop searching and make a choice regarding where to hang the hat of eternity?

Does such a hat even exist? From a scientific standpoint it isn’t likely, at least not in the sense that many religious people regard the soul.

And yet I wonder . . .

[photo credit]

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15 thoughts on “Of Rats, Reincarnation, Research, and Religion

  1. Yikes – that IS a big can of worms to open!
    I’m afraid I have no words of deeper wisdom either, though at least you know I won’t tell you you’re gonna burn! I have come to the conclusion that faith is the meat of any belief. not the dogma that dictates what we should think, but the inner promptings that come from our hearts. I can’t fault someone for being a Christian if that truly brings them comfort. I can fault them for peddling their religion on my doorstep, however!

    I don’t know whether reincarnation is a done deal or not, but I have met people who I felt I knew immediately, and I have been places for the first time that I knew I had seen before. Is that reincarnation or am I just a really good receiver for telepathic/empathic messages? I don’t know.

    Good post, though!

  2. OK, I have Spook near the top of my stack of things to read so I stopped myself from reading the rest of this post. But I’m gonna bookmark it and come back and engage you in discourse when I finally read it.

    Deal?

  3. Did Mary Roach used to write a column for Reader’s Digest? If it is the same Mary Roach I am excited to see she has written a book, I enjoyed her writing in the Digest.

  4. I usually have to have some kind of proof or first hand knowledge before I believe something, or declare it as untrue for certain. I don’t have either in regards to a lot of what religions teach so I guess I’ll have to wait til I die and can prove it for myself…or not.

  5. I have had a few experiences in my life that were enough to convince me even early on about the existence of and my reason for believing not to mention that my father is a man of great faith and he has recounted some things that happened to him that were very convincing, but I understand also the need to question everything more and more in this world that we live in. This post really hits home with me after a weekend discussion with my unquestioning grandparents about why I no longer attend a church but prefer to have my own private worship whenever I choose.

  6. I suppose it’s a case of ” you won’t know till you get there”. Cold comfort to be sure, but these mysteries of life and death are mysteries for a reason. There is just no way to prove or disprove any one belief. I see Dr. Rawat more as a social researcher than scientific. Either way, Im not Hindu, but I actually find a great deal of comfort in the idea of reincarnation, and the idea that our soul remains on this plain to see another day. Whether I believe that or not is another story all together. Sounds like a good read though. I’ll have to put it on my list. Thanks for the review!

    Came by via Maggie’s. Thought I’d say hi. Hi!

  7. Brian, I like this woman’s writing voice. Very appealing. I can see why you kept on going. Religion is too visible in the national and world politic for my taste. Best illustrated by a comment on 9/11. The 9/11 hijackers were praying to Allah as they approached the World Trade Centers (the microphone was on) and one survivor of the World Trade Center who saw it coming , and had his office all in on him, was praying to Jesus.

    Now, emoticons?? I have opinions on that!!

  8. I think the evolutionary imperative to create a belief in an afterlife that is dependent on following a set of rules important for the continuation of societies is strong. But that doesn’t mean the afterlife doesn’t exist. You can’t prove god is or isn’t, at least not with our current technological and scientific knowledge. So here’s the thing I come back to: what’s the downside to believing in some god, some afterlife? If you do, and you’re wrong, no big deal; you won’t know anyway. But if you DON’T and you’re wrong, OOPS!

    Not sure that’s the best basis for faith (and it isn’t mine yet), but it does feel compelling sometimes.

  9. Faith is all about unsupported belief. As for scientific research into spiritual matter, I’d say it’s a pointless exercise because it’s impossible to prove.

    One of the things that gets me about faith (particularly Christian) is that if we are made in the image of god why are we being asked to forego our, so called, god given powers of reason. It just doesn’t make sense to me.

    I’m not sure of ANYTHING so I’m agnostic. As in looking for knowledge.

    As Blood, Sweat and Tears once said, “I can swear there ain’t no heaven but I pray there ain’t no hell.”

  10. I did without faith for the middle 20 years of my short 40 years. But something, some part of me (early programming?) was always poking around. I wonder if spirituality, believing in something outside our selves, is like another sense? A gift of consciousness perhaps.

    I started with faith (or it was started for me) as a way to cling to my idea of self — who I am that is different from everyone else and will eventually die. It was a belief through fear system. That turned me off like a TV in a blackout. Now I’m working on the idea that my “self” is an illusion, as temporary as a wave in the ocean. When I die, I will return to the ocean which is all I ever was anyway. I find the idea comforting, but old habits die hard and I’m not willing to do what it takes to go whole-heartedly down that path.

    Two things I’ve learned along the way: Life is a gift (every part of it) and it’s OK not to know.

    M

  11. O.K. I was a faith “innocent” my parents left it up to me to decide. I have found that I very truly deeply know that there is no after-life and no divine plan. We are animals and then our bodies stop. Done.

    I have tried to believe, because it feels like it might be a warm sweater, but, I can’t get past it. I have found that theories of complexity and quantum physics have stilled my angst. Improbable (life, water, the universe, everything) is IMPROBABLE not impossible. No gods needed.

    I LOVE to talk about this though. I read loads of philosophy and theoretical physics. I also love to never think of life as a gift but happenstance.

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