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 . . .