For many, the coherent and cohesive descriptions of different environments recounted by very small children are altogether more persuasive. One benchmark case is that of Shanti Deva. In 1930, aged 4, Shanti told her parents that she had once lived in a place called Muttra, that she had been a mother of three who died in childbirth and that her previous name had been Ludgi.
Only when they were continually pressed by the youngster did the bewildered family from Delhi investigate. They discovered there was indeed a village called Muttra and that a woman named Ludgi had recently died there. When Shanti was taken to the village, she lapsed into local dialect and recognized her previous-life husband and children. She even gave twenty-four accurate statements that matched confirmed facts, an impressive feat for such a young child, and one that it would be impossible to hoax.
Since 1967, psychiatrist Dr Ian Stevenson has pioneered the scientific study of spontaneous past life recollections among infants. Usually a youngster is aged between two and five years old when they describe what went on in a previous existence. In most cases, although not all, recall has faded by the age of seven.
Having interviewed thousands of children from all over the world, Dr Stevenson has discovered some interesting facets to the phenomenon. In some cases, the mother had experienced a prophetic dream, announcing or implying the past life identity of the child in her womb. Meanwhile, a number of children claiming a previous existence bore birthmarks that corresponded to wounds inflicted on them when they lived before. For example, a boy in India who was born without fingers on one hand remembered that in a prior existence he had put his hand into the blades of a fodder-chopping machine, amputating the digits. Dr Stevenson aimed to corroborate the verbal evidence of a child with relevant death certificates and interviews with witnesses to both existences.
Critics think the prophetic dreams are no more than wishful thinking. They credit Dr Stevenson with collecting anecdotal rather than scientific evidence.
Yet some of his cases are compelling and strangely thought-provoking. On one occasion, Dr Stevenson made an unannounced visit to a Druze village in Lebanon to see if any children there were subject to past life statements. He was immediately dispatched to the home of 5-year-old Imad Elawar, who had for several years been talking about another life in a different village some 40km distant. Young Imad had even stopped a former neighbour in the street to share recollections about the life he once lived. His first words as a child were Jamileh and Mahmoud, the names of his mistress and uncle in his previous life. Stevenson noted more than fifty-seven separate claims by the child about his past life, the majority of which could be supported with evidence from elsewhere.
While the study of reincarnation has leapt ahead recently, it is a subject that is by no means the preserve of the modern age. In 1824, a Japanese boy called Kastugoro recounted details of a village where he had once lived and the family that was once his own. Despite his tender age, the minutiae he recalled were sufficient to persuade investigators of the day that past lives were a reality.
Throughout the ages, belief in reincarnation has been powerful and widespread. Perhaps we are closer to history than we imagine…
This is an extract from the book The Encylopedia of the Paranormal Rupert Matthews.