Revolving lives

13 Aug 2020


The writer is an author.
The writer is an author.

WHO was the first sentient being to ask the question: ‘Is there an after-life?’ It has taken humans countless millennia to formulate their own separate answers, only to discover that the prism of the human mind works in reverse. It converts a spectrum of possibilities into a single ray of belief.

The ancient Egyptians convinced themselves that there was another life after life. They codified their beliefs (as did the Buddhist Tibetans) into a Book of the Dead, essential grave-side reading for the departed to help them achieve a safe transition from this world into the after-life.

The Hindu sages took a step backwards, into proto-existence. They postulated a life before life and then another after life. To them, souls pass through revolving doors of birth and rebirth until released by the safety catch of moksha. For Muslims, the journey is one-way. The blessed go to an everlasting heaven, the impious to a searing damnation.

Modern minds claim to have found their answers in visions of life after life, now popularly described as Near Death Experiences (NDEs). Dr Eben Alexander’s book Proof of Heaven was a personal account of his own journey. Some sceptics dismissed it as a drug-induced trip, “recollected in tranquillity”. Other earthbound medics have relied on borrowed experiences.

Modi believes in beneficial rebirth, but can he be sure as who or what?

One such compilation was Dr Raymond Moody’s popular Life After Life (1975). It sold over 13 million copies. To fortify his argument, Dr Moody amassed considerable data but, his critics cavilled, he failed to support his findings with verifiable cases. Worse, he ‘cherry-picked’ those experiences that supported his hypothesis. One cynic Robert T. Carroll contended that neuro-chemistry could induce similar periods of enhanced consciousness. Carroll warned: “Our brains are constantly fooling us.”

His attributed such NDEs to an aberration of a “dying, demented or drugged brain”. Carroll argued also that human consciousness was conditioned by religious belief. Just as dead ancient Egyptians expected to encounter Osiris (Lord of their Underworld), “when Christians have near-death experiences, they often say they’ve met Jesus. When Hindus have near-death experiences, they meet Hindu deities”.

Recently, an elderly Covid-19 patient in a Lahore hospital stopped short this side of the divine. His cardiologist recalls: “He had a vivid dream. There are millions of small creatures running around in his body. An echoing voice booms through his body addressing these miscreants ‘Who allowed you to invade this body?? How dare you?’ He woke up and was quite shaken.”

Can examples of such unique sleep — cal­led ‘death’s sister’ by Homer — be glibly dismissed? Consider this explanation by an NDE survivor: “All the words I know are three-dimensional […] When I was taking geometry, they always told me there were only three dimensions, and I always just accepted that. But they were wrong. There are more.”

IT experts will detect a parallel. For years, students of physics were taught that rays of light could not be bent. One of them — an Americanised Sikh Dr Narinder Singh Kapany — did not accept conventional un-wisdom. He proved his professors wrong by inventing fibre optics and created another dimension.

Today, the only living example of accepted rebirth is His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. His followers acknowledge him as the reincarnation of the previous 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso. Devotees believe the Dalai Lamas to be manifestations of Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. As a Bodhisattva, the Dalai Lama is bound by a vow to be reborn in this world to help humanity. Although he regards himself as only “a simple Buddhist monk”, the present Dalai Lama has become an international celebrity. In 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in recognition of his adherence to his “Buddhist peace philosophy on reverence for all living things and the idea of a universal responsibility that embraces both man and nature”.

He startled his admirers once by suggesting, flippantly, that a Dalai Lama could be reincarnated as a woman, provided she had “physical appeal”. He later withdrew this sexist slur. His rebirth in another gender however remains a possibility. The Dalai Lama is in control of his own re-entry, unlike devout Hindus. Their level of re-entry is determined by their deeds or misdeeds here on earth.

One wonders whether prime minister Narendra Modi, when attending the recent foundation laying ceremony of the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi mandir at Ayodhya, prayed that his act of piety would improve his personal karma. As a devout Hindu, Mr Modi believes in beneficial rebirth, but can he be sure as who or what?

What if capricious fate rewards him for his actions in Gujarat and occupied Jammu & Kashmir, and he finds himself reborn in a future life as a Muslim, subtler still, as a Pakistani Muslim?

The writer is an author.

Published in Dawn, August 13th, 2020