by Dr. K.S.RawatThe interview was conducted and edited by Dr. K.S.Rawat, who is a Stevenson-style researcher based in India. Dr. Rawat welcomes comments, and is a frequent contributor to the Past Life Forum.
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Dr. Ian Stevenson, a Canadian-born psychiatrist and member of the faculty of the University of Virginia, is the leading authority in the scientific world with regard to reincarnation research. His research into promising case studies over the past three decades has taken him all over the world many times, often to India, where he was interviewed by a colleague, K. S. Rawat, director of Reincarnation Research Foundation in Faridabad, India.
Dr. Stevenson's landmark book, 20 Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, has been followed by several others. His contribution to the literature in this specialized field is unsurpassed. An interview with Dr. Stevenson appeared in the premier issue of Venture Inward. Dr. Rawat, incidentally, says he found his eminent colleague "seemingly shy and scared of publicity, (but he) did agree ultimately to my rather persistent request." This interview was conducted in 1986, and updated by Dr. Stevenson more recently.
Dr. Rawat: Well, let me first of all congratulate you, Dr. Stevenson, for your vast and deep study of cases suggestive of reincarnation throughout the world. May we start with a personal question? What reasons led you to study in this field?
Dr. Stevenson: In recent years my interest came from dissatisfaction with modern theories of human personality. By this I mean that I do not believe that genetics alone and genetics combined with environmental influences can explain all the peculiarities and abnormalities of human personality that we psychiatrists see.
Q: Do you think you are in a position to explain them better now?
Dr. Stevenson: Yes, I think so. I think reincarnation offers a third possibility. I don't think it replaces our understanding of genetics or environmental influences, but I think reincarnation offers a better explanation for some unusual behavior that occurs very early in the life and often persists throughout life. This is behavior that is unusual in the person's family. He could not imitate it from other members of the family or inherit it from them. So I think reincarnation is a possible explanation for such behavior.
Q: For some diseases also?
Dr. Stevenson: Yes, possibly. On that point we have much less information, but possibly so.
Q: With regard to sexual disorders?
Dr. Stevenson: Well, particularly with regard to what we would call transsexualism in which people believe that they really are members of the opposite sex. They often dress in the clothes of the opposite sex and behave as if their body should be really that of the opposite sex. These persons in the West often request surgical operations, wanting to be changed anatomically. We have a number of subjects who claim to have remembered a previous life as members of the opposite sex. They have been discontented with their physical bodies.
Q: What is the percentage of such cases?
Dr. Stevenson: It varies from none at all in certain countries like northwest North America (tribal cases), Lebanon, and Turkey. People in these regions believe that sex-change is impossible, and they have no cases of this type. That is one extreme. And the other extreme would be Thailand where sex change cases occur in 16 percent of cases and Burma where the incidence is as high as 25 percent, and then India, where, as in most other countries, it is about 5 percent.
Q: This way we are led to understand some sort of cultural differences among the cases suggestive of reincarnation.
Dr. Stevenson: That's right. The matter of sex-change between the previous life and the present life could be one example.
Q: What are the other examples? There might be some other cultural differences too.
Dr. Stevenson: Yes, there are. Another that occurs to me is the freedom in which the children give details of names. For example, in India the children tend to give many specific details. They often give 20 or 30 details that usually include proper names. Cases very similar in general features in Sri Lanka do not have that quality. The children there do not give many proper names. That is also true of American cases. American children, if they seem to remember previous lives, have some features similar to Indian cases, but they do not remember many specific details-- especially proper names. As a result we have in the USA a large number of what we call "unsolved cases." In these cases we are not able to verify what the child had said; whereas in India we have rather few (about 20 percent) unsolved cases.
Q: In all, how many cases are there in your files at Virginia?
Dr. Stevenson: We have about 2,500 now.
Q: And how many out of them have you studied so far?
Dr. Stevenson: I have probably studied, more or less, maybe one-third of them. Some, of course, much more thoroughly than others. And then the other two-thirds have been studied by my associates and colleagues.
Q: Well, what is your conclusion so far?
Dr. Stevenson: My conclusion so far is that reincarnation is not the only explanation for these cases, but that it is the best explanation we have for the stronger cases, by which I mean those in which a child makes a considerable number (say 20 or 30) of correct statements about another person who lives in a family that lives quite remote from his own and with which his family has had no prior contacts. When we talk about remoteness, we don't necessarily just mean physical distance. We know that two families can live only 10 kilometers apart and yet they can be very remote because they belong to different economic and social classes.
Q: Well, then you are still in search of say an ideal case, a perfect one?
Dr. Stevenson: Yes. I would like to find better cases. However, the ideal or perfect case, I don't think we will ever find. I don't know if such cases really exist, but we are always trying to get at the cases sooner and get to them before the two families have met so that we can make a written record of what the child says before the families meet. We wish to observe the first meeting ourselves. And we try to find other cases that have stronger evidence.
Q: A past personality's prediction, for example?
Dr. Stevenson: Well, a past personality's prediction is of interest but actually it may weaken some cases by setting up an expectation of that person's return. But that could be an additional feature in many cases.
Q: Well, when the subject and his family do not know the past personality at all?
Dr. Stevenson: Yes. That could really be good if the past personality's prediction is totally unknown to the subject's family.
Q: And then say, it is combined by having birthmarks, remoteness of time and placement, etc.
Dr. Stevenson: Yes and other features such as numerous statements.
Q: These would strengthen the case.
Dr. Stevenson: They would, yes, I think so.
Q: Could you tell me about some cases that interested you most?
Dr. Stevenson: Yes, they could be those where we had made a written record or somebody else had.
Q: Like Swarnalata's case.
Dr. Stevenson: Like Swarnalata's case. Swarnalata Mishra. That's one. Another one ...
Q: Jagdish Chandra, Bishan Chand ...
Dr. Stevenson: Yes, those were also two good cases. Jagdish Chandra's father was a lawyer trained in evidence. He made a written record and then verified his son's statements. It may be a little weak because it was his son's case, but still it was very well done. And, Bishan Chand's case. The case of Kumkum Verma in Bihar was in that group also. One of her aunts made a written record there. There was also a case in Lebanon - Imad Elawar - in which we could make a written record before verification and we have a few other cases like that.
Q: In some cases the past personality might have predicted about his rebirth. Could you recall some good cases of that type?
Dr. Stevenson: Yes, I think the best case of that type was in Alaska among the Tlingit tribe.
Q: Could you give some details?
Dr. Stevenson: Well, I recall one in which a man had predicted to his niece that he would come to her and he pointed out to her two marks on his body. They were scars of operations. One was on his nose. He had had an operation at the corner of his eye (right) at the upper part of his nose, and another on his back. I don't know what that was from. Anyway, he said to his niece: "You will be able to recognize me because I will have these scars reproduced on my body as marks." So he died and about 18 months later his niece had a baby boy who was born with birthmarks precisely at these places. I remember seeing and photographing these birthmarks. This boy was about 8 or 10 years old when I first saw him. The birthmark on the back was especially clearly seen. It had small round marks at the sides that looked exactly like the stitch marks of a surgical operation.
Q: But don't you think such a case becomes somewhat weaker scientifically since it was in the same family?
Dr. Stevenson: It does, yes, it does become weaker. That is true also of the cases where prediction is made in a dream. The family expects the person who appeared in the dream. On the other hand, the birthmarks are often very unusual. And it's quite unusual, I think, for someone to have two birthmarks at two different places, each corresponding to scars of an operation on the past personality. So cases like that have both weaknesses and strengths.
Q: Well, with regard to the birthmark cases - couldn't these birthmarks be caused by the mind of the mother when she was carrying the child in her womb?
Dr. Stevenson: Yes, some could be. The mother knew about the wounds on the dead uncle in the case in Alaska that I mentioned to you. She obviously saw the scars on her uncle. And in other cases, the mother had gone and seen the dead body of someone who was shot. She knew where the wounds were on the body and so her thoughts might have influenced the embryo of her baby. However, we have about 20 cases in which we questioned the mother and father carefully, and they didn't know anything about the previous personality. In some instances they might have known or heard of that person, but didn't have any idea where the wounds were. So I think in those cases the mother's mind could not have influenced the baby directly.
Q: What do you think is the importance of the study of these cases or, I should say, the importance of reincarnation research in the present world?
Dr. Stevenson: Well, I think it has several importances. I think it promises to throw light, as I said earlier, on certain psychological problems. I think it has also some implications for biology and medicine through the study of birthmarks and birth defects. Some children, as you know, have some birthmarks, or missing fingers on a hand, or deformed ears, or other birth defects. And, science still knows very little about the cause of birth defects. I think reincarnation will shed light on that. Then, of course, it also has a very wide implication for the whole question of life after death. The meaning of life. Why am I here?
Q: On some philosophical questions?
Dr. Stevenson: Yes, on the nature of mind, the mind's relationship with the body.
Q: On the controversy between spiritualism and materialism?
Dr. Stevenson: Yes.
Q: This could also be better understood if reincarnation could be proved as a fact?
Dr. Stevenson: Yes, that is true.
Q: Do you think it could have a bearing on the ethical life of human beings?
Dr. Stevenson: I thought about that a good deal ... once I met an Indian swami of the Ramakrishna order and he asked me "What are you doing in India?" I explained that I had come in search of actual cases which could be evidence of reincarnation. That was in 1961. I remember that after I had spoken, there was a very long silence. He didn't say anything. I didn't say anything. He sat there, the venerable swami, looking at me. Finally, he said, "Yes it is true," meaning reincarnation, "but it does not make any difference, because we in India have all believed in reincarnation and have accepted it as a fact, and yet it has made no difference. We have as many rogues and villains in India as you have in the West."
Q: Well, I would rather disagree with him because we Indians only believe superficially in reincarnation. It hasn't gone very deep into us, at least during these days.
Dr. Stevenson: Yes, I too. I thought about this remark. I agree that many Indian people themselves haven't grasped all the implications of reincarnation.
Q: Well. So far as India is concerned, what do you think about its potential for research in reincarnation?
Dr. Stevenson: India is perhaps the best country in the world for research in reincarnation. We know that cases are common--we don't know how common-- we have done only one systematic survey-- we know that anywhere we look, particularly in the North, we can find cases very easily. One of the difficulties has been insufficient funds and insufficient numbers of qualified people to investigate the cases. Once the idea of reincarnation research is spread around and more investigations are undertaken, India would be the best country in the world for conducting them.