Dr. Erlendur Haraldsson, professor emeritus at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, has examined cases of children who seem to remember their past lives. In some of the cases, the children remembered lives as Buddhist monks. Furthermore, in some of these cases, the memories were recorded right after the children recalled them (without time elapsing in which the memories could be distorted), and they seemed to correspond to historical information about real monks who had died.
Cases in which children remember details that can be, and are, verified against factual reports of the life of someone who has died are known as “solved cases” among researchers. Cases in which the memories are too vague or the details too imprecise to be verified are known as “unsolved cases.”
The solved cases of these children who remember being monks stood out to Dr. Haraldsson for another reason. “What makes these … cases particularly interesting is not only the alleged memories but also the behavioural features that the children display. Each child shows behavior that is considered appropriate and even ideal for monks,” wrote Dr. Haraldsson and Godwin Samarartne in a 1999 paper titled, “Children Who Speak of Memories of a Previous Life as a Buddhist Monk,” published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.
Far from being happy about this behavior or encouraging it, the childrens’ parents seem to have been concerned and distressed by it.
Duminda Bandara Ratnayake was born in 1984 in a mountainous, rural area of Sri Lanka known as Thundeniya.
Some of the details Ratnayake reported about his past life, when he began to talk about it around the age of 3, include:
1. He had been a senior monk at Asgiriya temple, about 16 miles from his current hometown.
2. He had a pain in his chest and fell, then died; he used the word “apawathwuna,” which is only used for the death of a monk.
3. He owned a red car.
4. He taught apprentice monks.
5. He had an elephant.
6. He had friends in the Malvatta Temple he used to visit.
7. He had a money bag and a radio in Asgiriya he wanted back. (His mother was embarrassed to report this, because these are not items considered appropriate for a monk to possess.)
He displayed no interest in playing with other children, only in becoming a monk. He recited Buddhist stanzas in the ancient language of Sinhalese Buddhism, only used and learned by monks. He lived his life like a monk, carrying his clothes the way a monk does, attending the temple and placing flowers there in the Buddhist fashion, and displaying similar behaviors.
This permeated his life. He was calm, serene, detached. He told his mother she shouldn’t touch his hands (women are not supposed to touch a monk’s hands).
A local monk whom Haraldsson interviewed in addition to the boy’s family members had observed the boy’s behavior and felt his parents could not have taught him these behaviors.
Ven. Mahanayaka Gunnepana seemed to be the only deceased monk who fit the boy’s descriptions. According to the memories of other monks who knew Ven. Gunnepana, he owned a red or perhaps reddish-brown car. He died of a heart attack. He preached frequently (not all monks preach, some spend more time in meditation). No one knew if he owned an elephant at some point in his life, but the chief disciple of Ven. Gunnepana had caught an elephant and brought it to Ven. Gunnepana’s home village, where he was a frequent visitor. Ven. Gunnepana had shown a particular interest in the elephant, which died shortly before he died himself.
He didn’t have a radio, but he was the only one of several possible monks Haraldsson had narrowed the search to who had something resembling a radio—a gramophone. It is possible Ratnayake did not know how to describe a gramophone as anything other than a “radio.” Ven. Gunnepana was particularly fond of music. He was remembered as a virtuous monk who strictly observed the rules. All of these facts seem to correlate to the boy’s behavior and personality traits as well as his memories.
Haraldsson thought it unlikely the boy learned any of this from his family or others he came into contact with. For example, though there is a slight chance he may have learned the religious stanzas from the radio, as they are broadcast very early in the morning, locals told Haraldsson that no other children they know have learned the stanzas in the ancient tongue and it is extremely unusual.
Gamage Ruvan Tharanga Perera was born in August 1987 in Kalutara district in Sri Lanka. When he was 2 years old, he spoke of a previous life in Pitumpke monastery, a monastery unknown to his parents but which, it turned out, was about 20 miles south of their home.
The boy said the temple had a clay monkey, a very unusual and specific statement that was later verified. It is not at all common for the temples to have monkey statues.
Some of the monk-like behaviors he displayed included knowing how to sit in lotus, how to wear a monk’s robe, and how to hold a fan when chanting, all of which he had not been taught. He did not want to eat in the evenings (monks are supposed to stop eating after noon), did not want to sleep with his mother (telling her monks do not sleep with women), and in the evenings he would perform a ceremony of worship with recitations. He encouraged his family members to follow all of these behaviors themselves, and even scolded them for not doing so. He scolded his father when he brought liquor into the house. Though he scolded, those who knew him told Haraldsson he was never angry, but always serene.
He led his classmates in religious ceremonies, acting like an abbot. They all respected him, his teachers and some of his classmates later told Haraldsson. As with Ratnayake, Perera could chant stanzas in the ancient language of Pali, which he may have learned from the radio or television—but his parents think that very unlikely.
His parents were not interested in his memories, nor did they encourage him to talk about them. Haraldsson discovered the case when a local reporter learned of the boy’s memories from the family’s neighbor.
He was disinterested in playing with other children, would request pictures of Buddha instead of toys, would draw pictures from the life of Buddha in school, and wanted to dress like a monk.
His parents later took him to Pitumpke temple. He quickly pointed out the clay monkey he had told them about, which was not displayed prominently. Some there became convinced that he was the reincarnation of the previous abbot of the monastery, Ven. Ganihigama Pannasekhara (1902–1986).
Ven. Pannasekhara and his family were all vegetarians for religious reasons, which is rare in Sri Lanka. Perera also insisted on a vegetarian diet. Ven. Pannasekhara became chief abbot of the Colombo district in 1972, which fits with Perera’s behavior as an abbot. Ven. Pannasekhara died in January 1986, 17 months before Perera was born. Perera’s personality traits match those of Ven. Pannasekhara, including strong leadership qualities and a zeal for chanting in public. Some at the temple remained skeptical, however, as Perera did not recognize the people Ven. Pannasekhara had known.
Perera was not brought up in a religious environment. Haraldsson and Samarartne conclude, “We find no easy explanation for his unusual and distinct behavioral characteristics which are so atypical for a child.”
Researchers have studied young children’s reports of past-life memories for the last 45 years. The children usually describe a recent, ordinary life, and many of them have given enough details so that one particular deceased individual has been identified to match the children’s statements.
These cases occur worldwide, and although they are easiest to find in cultures with a belief in reincarnation, many cases have been found in the West as well. This review explores the facets of this phenomenon and presents several recent American cases.
In 1960, Ian Stevenson, then chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia, wrote a review of 44 previously published cases of individuals who had reported memories of previous lives. He then began to hear of new cases and the following year took a trip to India after learning of five cases. He was there for four weeks and found 25. He achieved similar results in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and realized that the phenomenon was much more common than anyone had known.
He took an analytical approach to the cases.
Psychiatrist Harold Lief later described him as “a methodical, careful, even cautious, investigator, whose personality is on the obsessive side. He never assumed he knew the cause of the cases but instead simply worked to determine precisely what the facts of each case were. He made no grand claims about the work, as indicated by the title of his first book on the phenomenon, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation.
Though Stevenson’s efforts did not produce mainstream acceptance of his work, it did garner some respect in main- stream circles. The Journal of the American Medical Association reviewed one of his books in 1975 and stated that “in regard to reincarnation he has painstakingly and unemotionally collected a detailed series of cases . . . in which the evidence is difficult to explain on any other grounds.”
In addition, Carl Sagan, the late astronomer, was very skeptical of nonmain- stream work but wrote, “There are three claims in the [para- psychology] field which, in my opinion, deserve serious study,” with the third being “that young children sometimes report details of a previous life, which upon checking turn out to be accurate and which they could not have known about in any other way than reincarnation.”
Stevenson retired in 2002 but continued to write, including a final paper summarizing his career. He died in 2007, but several researchers are continuing the study that he began more than 45 years ago of this phenomenon.
The subjects in these cases tend to be young children. They typically begin describing a previous life when they are two or three years old, and they usually stop by the age of six to seven. They make the statements spontaneously without the use of hypnotic regression. They describe recent lives, with the median interval between the death of the previous individual and the birth of the child being only 16 months.
They also describe ordinary lives, usually in the same country. The one part of the life that is often out of the ordinary is the mode of death, as 70% of the deaths are by unnatural means.
Some subjects report having been deceased family members, whereas others say they were strangers in another location. If they give enough details, such as the name of that location, then people have often gone there and identified a deceased individ- ual, the previous personality, whose life appears to match the state- ments the child made.
Over 2,500 cases have been investigated worldwide. They are easiest to find in cultures with a belief in reincarnation, and the places that have produced the most cases include India, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Lebanon, Thailand, and Burma (Myanmar). Cases have been found wherever anyone has looked for them, including all continents except Antarctica.
Stevenson published a book of European cases,10 and numerous cases have been found in the United States as well.
Several of these will be reviewed in a later section. Cases in the West seem to be less common, but this may be because they are harder to find, as some parents are reluctant to disclose, even to close friends and family at times, what their children have said.
When cases are investigated, history is obtained from as many people as possible. This includes the subjects, if the children are willing and able to tell investigators about the purported memories, as well as their parents and others who have heard the children describing past-life memories.
The other side of the case is then investigated; the previous family is interviewed to determine how accurate the child’s statements are for the life of the previous personality. Attempts are made to obtain autopsies or medical records of the previous personality if they are relevant. If the two families have not yet met, tests can also be conducted to see if the subject can recognize people from the previous life.
In addition to the purported memories, a number of the children have had birthmarks or birth defects that appeared to match wounds, usually fatal ones, suffered by the previous personalities. Stevenson published a 2,200-page work that documented over 200 such cases, as well as a shorter synopsis.
Examples include a girl, born with markedly malformed fingers, who seemed to remember being a man whose fingers were cut off, and a boy, born with stubs for fingers on his right hand, who seemed to remember the life of a boy in another village who lost the fingers of his right hand in a fodder-chopping machine.
Another example is Chanai Choomalaiwong, a boy from Thailand. When he was three years old, he began saying that he had been a teacher named Bua Kai who had been shot and killed one day as he rode his bicycle to school.
He begged to be taken to his parents, that is, Bua Kai’s parents, and he named the village where he said they lived. Eventually, he and his grand- mother took a bus that stopped in a town near that village. His grandmother reported that after they got off the bus, Chanai led her to a house where an older couple lived. Chanai appeared to recognize the couple, who were the parents of Bua Kai Lawnak, a teacher who had been shot and killed on the way to school five years before Chanai was born.
No autopsy report was available for Bua Kai Lawnak, so Stevenson interviewed witnesses who saw the body. His widow reported that the doctor involved in the case said that her hus- band had been shot from behind, because the small, round wound on the back of his head was a typical entry wound, whereas the larger, more irregularly shaped wound on his fore- head was typical of an exit wound.
Chanai was born with two birthmarks, a small, round birthmark on the back of his head, and a larger, more irregularly shaped one toward the front.
The Results & What These Reincarnation Cases Look Like
These are cases involving very young children and they offer little reason to suspect a hoax. From a scientific standpoint, however, even though these cases are intriguing they still leave us with a problem that plagues most parapsychological phenomena today. As Tucker points out:
“The processes that would be involved in such a transfer of consciousness are completely unknown, and they await further elucidation.” (source) (1)
What Does This Mean?
(1) Radin, Dean. Supernormal: Science, Yoga and the Evidence For Extraordinary Psychic Abilities. New York, Deepak Chopra Books , 2013