An Enigma Called Death

Death has always fascinated me along with the myriad unsolved questions and the mystery that surrounds it. I have raised questions about it time and again when in the company of mystics, researching through books, and findings of science. I have finally come to an understanding that life (consciousness), like any other energy, is indestructible. Though there comes an end to the experiences undergone by it when it is in its finite mortal garb. Just as sound goes back into silence but never lost, also so the individual self or consciousness merges back into the fundamental ever flowing sea of Universal Consciousness (God), from which it may re-emerge once again at another time.

 Edward Munch poetically wrote," From my rotting body, flowers shall grow, and I am in them and this is Eternity".

Gloom engulfs people when they see the ephemeral nature of the world.  But everything must die, even the innumerable faraway galaxies with all their planets and stars. For they too come under the same Eternal Law; whatever is born within the realm of Time will ultimately be destroyed within time. Those who lament this certitude of death view it from a narrow perspective.  But Nature is wise and if decay and destruction were not present, the wheel of change would grind to a halt.  Consciousness (life) was never born nor can it be destroyed and death is simply nature's way of rechanneling. 

The Bhagwad Geeta, the sacred text of the Hindus written over 5000 years ago in Sanskrit, states,

न जायते म्रियते वा कदाचि-                                                                                                                                  न्नायं भूत्वा भविता वा न भूयः ।                                                                                                                               अजो नित्यः शाश्वतोऽयं पुराणो-  न हन्यते हन्यमाने शरीरे ॥

(The soul is never born nor dies at any time.  Nor does it come into being when the body is created. Soul is unborn, eternal, ever-existing and primeval. Soul is not destroyed when the body dies)

वासांसि जीर्णानि यथा विहाय
नवानि गृह्णाति नरोऽपराणि |
तथा शरीराणि विहाय जीर्णा
न्यन्यानि संयाति नवानि देही || 2.22||

(As a human being puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones)

According to Hinduism, the soul is immortal and it is the body alone that dies. Life, death and then rebirth are all a process of perfection for the soul. Birth and death are the game of Maya (माया). Maya has complex meanings but can roughly be described as illusion or ignorance in English. For he who is born, the countdown towards death begins immediately. After death, the process to take another birth starts, according to his karma (कर्म) or actions performed and experiences gained during his lifetime. Life and death together form a never ending cycle through which each human being has to keep on going till he attains Moksha (मोक्ष) or liberation.

 Birth and death are merely doors of entry and exit on the stage of this world. Death is not the end of life. Life (consciousness) is one continuous never-ending process. Death is only a passing over and a necessary phenomenon, which every soul has to pass to gain experience for its further evolution. Dissolution of the body is no more than sleep. Just as a man sleeps and then wakes up, so is death and birth. Death is like sleep. Birth is like waking up. In reality, no one comes and no one goes 'anywhere' as we are we are all a part of Bramhan, the Supreme Consciousness which is deathless, timeless, causeless and beyond space. We merely merge back into that Brahman and re- emerge once again from it.

The individual consciousness or atma (आत्मा) is an integral part of the Universal Consciousness (God) or Parmatma (परमात्मा). Due to the veil of Maya (माया), it is unable to recognize its true nature, hence keeps drifting from one body to another. This process of rebirth continues over and over till the time it gains enough experience and knowledge and realizes its Oneness with the Supreme Being. After physical death, the soul carries along with it its past memory, experience and knowledge.

 In Hinduism, there is no concept of an external Hell.  An unworthy soul goes through hellish states of mind with woeful rebirths. However, no states are permanent and a soul can again work its way up from any lower plane. Life in higher planes too has a fixed time period. After enjoying the fruits of his good karma a soul is subject to sudden death there also. Ultimate liberation can only be achieved in the form of human birth and not in any other plane of existence.

According to Buddhism, death is an integral part of life itself. All hopes, ambitions and fears we cherish during our lifetime will become irrelevant and redundant once we die. On the luminous continuity of existence which has no origin and which has no end, human beings project all the images of life and death, terror and joy, demons and gods. These images become our complete reality and we submit without thinking to their dance. In all the movements of this dance we project our greatest fears on death and we make every effort to ignore it. The fear of death has its roots in the apprehension of complete annihilation of one's identity. There is 'change' happening all around. We all were once strong and youthful- , and then things changed with the passage of time. Youthfulness gave way to old age accompanied by sickness and death, rapidly ebbs the river of life. 

However, death is not a complete annihilation, but merely an end of the physical body. Our consciousness will still remain and again seek attachment to a new body and new life. The self will be reborn according to his karma or the net result of   its positive and negative actions.

 The rebirth according to Buddhist thought takes place on one of the mentioned 6 realms: 

1.. Devagati, the Realm of Devas (gods) and other Heavenly Beings

2.  Asura-gati, the Realm of Asura (anti gods)

3.  Preta-gati, the Realm of Hungry Ghosts

4.  Naraka-gati, the Realm of Hell

5.  Tiryagyoni-gati, the Animal Realm

6.  Manusya-gati, the Human Realm

 A spirit is reborn in any one of these realms according to the goodness or severity of his karmic actions. Buddhists however, believe that none of these places are permanent and the 'self' does not remain in any of these places indefinitely. So we can say that in Buddhism, the flow of life never ends, but goes on in one form or another as a result of accumulated karma.

Bardo Thodal :  Tibetan Book of the Dead

One of the books that has fascinated me is “Bardo Thodal " which is a 1200- year- old  Tibetan text written to guide 'individual consciousness' through its journey in the afterlife. Bardo Thodal, meaning liberation through hearing, during the intermediate state, was composed in the 8th century by a mysterious Indian mystic named Padma-Sambhava, originally written down in Sanskrit. The Tibetans of that time were not ready for the profound spiritual teachings contained therein, so Padma-Sambhava hid his texts in strange and remote locations, leaving them to be discovered at a later time when their spiritual message could be received by those with an open mind.  These writings were subsequently discovered by a Tibetan called Karma Lingpa, in the 14th century.

An Oxford educated American anthropologist and writer Walter Evans-Wentz who went on a spiritual quest, travelling alone through Europe, Arabia, India and finally to the borders of Tibet, became the first foreigner to discover Bardo Thodal in a small monastery near Tibet and translated it into English in 1927 and named this translation "The Tibetan Book Of The Dead" for the western audience. Since that time this book has fascinated the western mind and has been gone out of print with its translations further done in several other languages. Walter Evans was so influenced by this text that when he died in July 1965, this Tibetan Book of the Dead was read at his funeral.

This book deals in detail with the experiences of individual consciousness after it leaves the body, and is intended to guide people through what all consciousness undergoes after death. The Bardo Thodol teaches that once this consciousness or awareness is released from its material body form, it creates its own reality as one would experience in a dream state. This dream occurs in various phases which are both peaceful and frightening. The departed experiences visions and the presence various deities who are both benevolent and wrathful.

This interim state between death and the next birth is called ‘bardo’ by the Tibetans. The word bardo literally means “between two.” Although popularly taken to refer to the after-death state, its principal meaning is the "now" in every moment of time, the continuously moving point between past and future. Thus bardo occurs at every moment of time.  Buddhism teaches that change is an integral part of existence and life in itself is a continuous flow of interconnected moments. The nature of each moment is determined by what has gone before just as actions done in this life will govern the type of life we will live next. Although this book is primarily supposed to be read to guide the soul in its journey in the afterlife, it is important to read and understand it during lifetime because it’s teaching concern this life as much as they concern the next. 

 Tibetan death and funeral practices are unlike any other in the world. After the death of a person,   Buddhist lamas visit the  deceased person's house to chant prayers. The text read by them will be Bardo Thodal. This reading of text will guide the soul though the different doorways or bardos of afterlife. According to Bardo Thodal the bardo of dying lasts from the beginning of the body's physical collapse until the body and consciousness are separate. While we are living, the basic elements of nature like earth, water, fire and air together support and condition our consciousness and perceptions. Death occurs when this is no longer the case.  As the person is dying his body is turned to its right side by the lamas. This is the same position the Buddha lay when he was dying. This position makes it easier for the life force to be in a more peaceful state.

The First Bardo:

Afterlife Realm: Moments Immediately After Death and Appearance of a Brilliant White Light:

The first bardo comes at the very moment of death. At this stage the dead person is sensitive to sounds, and he can see and hear his loved ones.  He does not know that he is now dead and in a spirit form. The spirit can hear and see what ever is happening around his body but those present in the room are unable to see or hear him. When he sees and hears the lamentations of his near and dear ones, it results in confusion and fear, as he is unable to understand the cause of their crying.  The lamas instruct the relatives of dead person not to cry as it confuses and frightens the spirit. It is very important for the spirit's mind to be clear at this point. The lamas whisper into the dead person's ears that he need not be frightened as they are there to help and guide him. The text further describes the collapse of the body supporting elements, earth collapses into water, water collapses into fire, fire collapses into air, and air dissolves into consciousness.

Consciousness then experiences a pure and extremely luminous white light. This is the direct experience of its own basic nature. The consciousness is then immersed into this brilliant and boundless white light which is the Ultimate Reality or Mind. This Ultimate Reality is infinite and beyond Time and Space. This brilliant radiance is also the 'Collective Mind of all Buddhas' and all the Enlightened Ones. To recognize this Light as one's own Mind and Ultimate Reality is imperative, according to Bardo Thodal. If he can recognize this supreme state at the moment of death, he will attain liberation from the cycle of birth and death. This condition is called the "Dharmakaya". Dharmakāya constitutes the un-manifested, inconceivable (acintya) aspect of a Buddha, out of which all Buddhas arise and to which they return after their dissolution.

Most souls however will fail to recognize this Light. They will again be pulled down by the weight of their karma into the second stage of the first bardo, called the Secondary Clear Light, seen immediately after death. At this point, there are separate instructions to be read according to the spiritual growth of the person while he was living. For a person adept in meditation and other spiritual practices, the instructions are the same as at the moment of death, enjoining him to recognize himself as the Dharmakaya. For a person who was still at a student-level on the spiritual path, he is instructed to meditate on the particular god for whom he performed devotional practices while alive. Finally, if the deceased is not familiar with any spiritual practices, the instruction is to meditate upon a known avatar of his religion and worshipped by many others in the same religion. For Hindus it could be Krishna and for Christians, it could be Jesus.

Second Bardo:

Appearance of Karmic Apparitions; Peaceful Deities: About this time the deceased can see that the share of food is being set aside, that the body is being stripped of its clothes, that the place where his sleeping rug was kept being swept, he can hear the weeping and wailing of his friends and relatives, and, although he can see them and can hear them calling upon him, they cannot hear him calling upon them.

A concept central in all forms of Buddhism is reincarnation, which means that after death the soul is reborn again in a better or worse body, conditions or environment, depending upon his good and bad Karma or deeds done in the present life. This cycle of birth and death continues till the time there is residue Karma to fulfil, as for every Cause there has to be an Effect. The goal of Buddhism is to step off this eternal wheel of Karma and attain liberation through extinguishing of desires and acquiring of true knowledge.

If the soul is still not liberated at the previous stage or first bardo, it will now descend into the second bardo, which is said to last for two earthly weeks. The second bardo is also divided into two parts, in the first the soul of the deceased encounters what are referred to as the Peaceful Deities. On each of the seven days, a Buddha-like Being will appear to him in all its radiance and glory. Accompanying him will be other angels and spiritual figures. Also on each day by turn there will shine a light from one of the six lokas or worlds.                                                                                                                                                                         In the second week the soul meets seven legions of Wrathful Deities, gruesome, monstrous demons who attack him with fire and sword, drinking blood from human skulls. They threaten to injure, exenterate, decapitate and kill him.  If the soul runs away in fear he loses his chance to liberation. At this juncture Bardo Thodal advices the soul not to have any fear, but rather to recognize that the Wrathful Deities are really the Peaceful Deities in disguise, manifesting their gruesome side as a result of his own evil karma. The soul is told to calmly face each demon and see it as the deity it really is. If he can do this, he will merge with the Being and attain Liberation. He is instructed to understand the reality that all these horrific creatures are not real, but are merely manifestations of his own mind. If he can recognize this, they will disappear and he will be ‘Liberated.’ If he can't, he will drift down to the next bardo.

The Third Bardo:

In the third bardo, the soul encounters Dharma-Rāja, the Lord of Death also known as Yama, a fearsome deity who appears amidst fire, riding a buffalo. He is the dispenser of justice and the governor of eternal law that ensures rejuvenation of life and a sense of balance between the old and the new in all existence. He is the embodiment of righteousness, the Dharma;   and he is the king of justice. He judges the dead but is amenable to compassion and reason.  When the dead person protests saying he has done no evil, the Lord of Death holds before him the mirror of karma, wherein every good and bad deed is clearly reflected. Now demons approach and begin to inflict torments and punishments upon the soul for his evil deeds. The instructions in the Bardo Thoral are for him to attempt to recognize his own consciousness in all these beings, including the Lord of Death himself. The dead person is told that this entire scene unfolding around him is a projection from his own mind. Even here he can attain liberation by recognizing this. The soul who is still not liberated after the judgment will now be drawn helplessly toward rebirth. The lights of all the six Lokas will appear again. Into one of these worlds the soul has to be reborn. The light for the one he is destined to be reborn will shine brighter than the others. The soul is still experiencing frightening visions and the torment of the third bardo. He will resort to any measure to escape from these visions. He tries to seek refuge in what appear to be caves or tunnels, but which are actually the entrances to wombs. He is warned of this by the text of the Bardo Thoral  and urged not to enter them, but to meditate upon the Light instead, for it is still possible for him to achieve liberation and avoid rebirth. Finally   comes a stage where it is no longer possible to attain liberation, and after this the soul is given instructions on how to choose a favorable womb for rebirth. The method urged is non-attachment to worldly pleasures and repulsion for worldly ills.

According to this text the soul wanders in the afterlife for a period of 49 days.

Scientific Research On Near Death Experiences :

 Interestingly the experiences narrated in "Tibetan Book of the Dead" are quite similar to those who have had a ‘near death experience’ or NDE, after being pronounced clinically dead, but somehow revived to live again. In his book "Life after Life" by Raymond Moody, a pioneer in this field of study, has emphasized the fact that most people who had near death experiences never wanted to return back into their old, sick and fragile bodies. This act of dying is not accompanied with any feeling of sadness or unhappiness, but in fact is experienced as a liberating process from the limitations of material existence by a dying person. 

Interestingly many more scientists now also believe they may have found some light at the end of this enigmatic tunnel. Till quite recently a controversial subject like this one had been treated with widespread skepticism. The existing paradigm being that the brain produces consciousness and once the body is brain dead there is no scope for consciousness to exist anymore.

 The largest ever medical study into near-death and out-of-body experiences has discovered that some awareness may continue even after the brain has shut down completely. Scientists at the University of Southampton have spent four years examining more than 2,000 people who suffered cardiac arrests at 15 hospitals in the UK, US and Austria and  found that nearly 40 % of people who survived described some sort of ‘awareness’ during the time when they were 'clinically dead'. Later their hearts were resurrected.

Recently another very interesting case of Eben Alexander MD came to light. Narrating his own story he writes "At 4:30 a.m. on Nov. 10, 2008, I suddenly became very ill with acute bacterial meningoencephalitis. Within four hours, I was deep in coma; I spent the next seven days comatose, on a ventilator. Bacterial meningitis with such a rapid decline in neurologic function conferred a 90 percent mortality rate, as assessed at the time of my initial ER evaluation, but my prospects for survival rapidly worsened. My physicians at Lynchburg General Hospital in Virginia were shocked to find that I had acquired spontaneous E. coli meningitis, which has less than a one in 10,000,000 annual incidence. They were aided by experts at the University of Virginia, Duke, Massachusetts General Hospital and beyond in their efforts to find a cause and force a turnaround in what at first seemed to be an irreversible death-spiral as I failed to respond to triple antibiotics.

My medical history of recent travel to Israel (as part of my work coordinating global research in focused ultrasound surgery) raised great concern among my doctors. Around the time of my visit, physicians at The Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center had reported the world’s first well-documented case of spontaneous plasmid transfer of the Klebsiella Pneumonia carbapenemase (KPC) gene from a deadly gram-negative organism into a patient’s previously uninfected intestinal E. coli, conferring total antibiotic resistance on the latter. The terrifying implications for a disastrous pandemic if such an E. coli ever escaped the strict isolation of a hospital ICU were obvious, and my doctors considered that I might represent such a case.

My neurological examinations were consistent with diffuse cortical damage plus extra ocular motor dysfunction (brainstem damage). My CT scans revealed global neocortical involvement, and, on the third day, my cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) protein was 1,340 mg/dl, my CSF white blood cell count 4,300 per mm3, and my CSF glucose level was down to 1 mg/dl (compared with the normal value of 60-80 mg/dl). I was extremely ill, with diminishing chances for survival and virtually no chance for recovery. My physicians never found a cause for my mysterious malady.

Fortunately, my E. coli finally started to respond. On the seventh day of my coma, to everyone’s surprise, I opened my eyes and started to come back. I was rapidly extubated by the shocked intensivist. A family friend who was there could not get over how my amazed expression looked more like the astonished gaze of an infant, not like what one would expect from an adult returning from an unconscious state.

A recent objective medical review of my records coordinated by Dr Bruce Greyson came to the following conclusions:

“Three physicians not associated with Lynchburg General Hospital completed an independent review of the complete medical record of Dr. Alexander’s hospitalization, and spoke with the hospital’s two consulting neurologists to gather additional information.  The records indicated that Dr. Alexander was brought to the emergency department unresponsive, with evidence of a bacterial infection, and he was assessed to have moderate brain injury, which rapidly progressed to severe brain injury over the next few hours.  Brain scans showed that the membranes covering the brain as well as the grooves in his cerebral cortex were swollen with pus-filled liquid, compressing the cortical tissue.  Laboratory examination showed evidence of a bacterial infection in his cerebrospinal fluid, due to an organism that very rarely causes meningitis in adults, and, when it does, is almost always fatal or resulting in permanent neurological deficits.  Nevertheless, after a profound near-death experience, Dr. Alexander eventually awoke from his coma, and within a few months had made what his surprised neurologists called a ‘complete and remarkable recovery’ from an illness they agreed might well have been fatal, without any residual neurological deficit.”

If one had asked me before my coma how much a patient would remember after such severe meningitis, I would have answered “nothing” and been thinking in the back of my mind that no one would recover from such an illness, at least not to the point of being able to discuss their memories. Thus, you can imagine my surprise at remembering an elaborate and rich odyssey from deep within coma that comprised more than 20,000 words by the time I had written it all down during the six weeks following my return from the hospital. My older son, Eben Alexander IV, who was majoring in neuroscience at the University of Delaware at the time, advised me to record everything I could remember before I read anything about near-death experiences (NDEs), physics or cosmology. I dutifully did so, in spite of an intense yearning to read everything I could about those subjects, based on the stunning character of my coma experience.

My meningoencephalitis had been so severe that my original memories from within coma did not include any recollections whatsoever from my life before coma, including language and any knowledge of humans or this universe. That “scorched earth” intensity was the setting for a profound spiritual experience that took me beyond space and time to what seemed like the origin of all existence.

Those memories began in a primitive, coarse, unresponsive realm (the “Earthworm’s Eye View” or EEV) from which I was rescued by a slowly spinning clear white light associated with a musical melody, that served as a portal up into rich and ultra-real realms. The Gateway Valley was filled with many earth-like and spiritual features: vibrant and dynamic plant life, with flowers and buds blossoming richly and no signs of death or decay, waterfalls into sparkling crystal pools, thousands of beings dancing below with great joy and festivity, all fueled by swooping golden orbs in the sky above, angelic choirs emanating chants and anthems that thundered through my awareness, and a lovely girl on a butterfly wing who proved months later to be central to my understanding of the reality of the experience (as reported in detail towards the end of my book Proof of Heaven). The chants and hymns thundering down from those angelic choirs provided yet another portal to higher realms, eventually ushering my awareness into the Core, an unending inky blackness filled to overflowing with the infinite healing power of the all-loving deity at the source, whom many might label as God (or Allah, Vishnu, Jehovah, Yahweh – the names get in the way, and the conflicting details of orthodox religions obscure the reality of such an infinitely loving and creative source).

While writing it all up weeks later, God seemed too puny a little human word with much baggage, clearly failing to describe the power, majesty and awe I had witnessed. I originally referred to that deity as Om, the sound that I recalled from that realm as the resonance within infinity and eternity. Many lessons were taught in that core realm, with all of the higher dimensional multiverse collapsed down into a complex “over-sphere” that served as a tool in advancing some of the deeper lessons. All of my understanding of space, time, mass, energy, information, soul journeys, causality, the afterlife, reincarnation, meaning and purpose took on extraordinary relationships that I am even now just beginning to unravel. I cycled through those spiritual realms from the lowest EEV all the way back to the Core multiple times, offering a rich spiritual odyssey that completely defies any conventional scientific understanding, given the duration and severity of my meningoencephalitis. Given those medical facts, my brain was incapable of providing any hallucination, dream or psychic drug effect, due to the global damage of my neocortex so apparent from my neurologic exams, scans and laboratory values.

My coma taught me many things. First and foremost, near-death experiences, and related mystical states of awareness, reveal crucial truths about the nature of existence. Simply dismissing them as hallucinations is convenient for many in the conventional scientific community, but only continues to lead them away from the deeper truth these experiences are revealing to us. The conventional reductive materialist (physicalist) model embraced by many in the scientific community, including its assumption that the physical brain creates consciousness and that our human existence is birth-to-death and nothing more, is fundamentally flawed. At its core, that physicalist model intentionally ignores what I believe is the fundament of all existence — consciousness itself.

There are thousands of other cases like that of Dr. Eben Alexander

Research published in The Lancet and the Journal of the American Medical Association has brought NDEs to light as events worthy of intense scientific study. Some common features found in many such similar studies are as under :

1. An out-of-body experience. People who have clinically died experience that they have separated from their physical bodies but can see what is happening around them or see their physical bodies  as though an observer  perceives their surroundings. Their attempts to communicate with the living people they can see and hear are unsuccessful. In this non-physical state, they experience walking through walls and moving from one place to another just by the power of their thought.

2.  Experience of going through a tunnel : Passing through a tunnel of light  is  a characteristic  of most  near-death experience.  Some people's  feelings include , rushing toward a powerful light or moving rapidly through a narrow  passageway or corridor. 

3. Seeing a  Being of Light.  This is the most common feature witnessed by  people. People feel  drawn towards a very bright and all engulfing Light, which they say lies towards the end of the tunnel.

4. All communications through telepathy: Nearly all people experienced communication through direct transfer of thought. Many said that  words are not  capable or are incapacitated in correctly portraying  the conditions they experienced in that field. In other words, the communication was non-verbal and seemed to take place on a level of consciousness rather than physically.

5. A feeling of an intense and unconditional love : People felt that they were in the presence of an  overwhelming, non judgmental absolute Love. They also often recall recognizing and meeting deceased family members in an otherworldly dimension. They may also encounter angels or spiritual guides. These angels or spiritual beings were there to assist them in transition from their physical state into the non physical ethereal realms.  Experiencers also felt their own individual ecstasy, an exuberating sense of joy being in a realm, devoid of the burdens, limitations and pain of their physical bodies and earthly troubles, and in the presence of such loving beings. A love which they had never experienced on earth before .

6.Meeting God : Some people experience meeting God in the form of their own religious beliefs on earth. Many  staunch atheists turned Believers after these profound experience.

7. Unlimited Knowledge : Experiencers  felt that they were in the presence of 'unlimited knowledge'. All the darkest secrets of the Universe stood revealed before them. The unknown now stood known. Unfortunately, they never seemed to be able to retain this knowledge upon awakening. But on awakening they remain aware that there  is vast knowledge in the universe awaiting to be retrieved.

8. A Complete Life Review. People recall seeing their entire life flash before them as though watching a movie. Every significant event of their life gets projected before him in its fullest detail. While some witnessed the review from beginning to end, others saw it in reverse order, from present day back to the beginning.

9. Some People Also Visit  Hellish Realms :  Experiencers often  say they travelled through different spiritual realms good and bad. Some were even shown  what they understood as Hell, a place a great anguish and pain . Dr Raymond Moody in his book "Life After Life"  studies also uncovered a disturbing subset of this phenomenon that seemed to indicate that some of these experiences were far from pleasant, and pointed at people actually visiting Hell itself, or a realms similar to that as per human understanding.

One of the first widely circulated reports of such a terrifying NDEs was an account from Dr. George Ritchie MD a renowned psychiatrist. Ritchie's story was the first contact Dr. Raymond Moody, PhD had with NDEs, during his post-graduate studies and residency in Psychiatry at the University of Virginia. This led Moody to investigate over 150 cases of NDEs in his book Life After Life and two other books that followed. At the age of 20, George Ritchie apparently died in an army hospital and was pronounced dead twice by the doctor on duty. Nine minutes later he returned to life. Dr. Ritchie wrote of his near-death experience (NDE) in his book "Return from Tomorrow" co-written with Elizabeth Sherrill (1928), and published in 1978. Ritchie described coming down with pneumonia and being brought to an Army hospital in Richmond, Virginia, where he was pronounced dead but finally revived 9 minutes later with a horrifying story to tell. He claimed that he had had an out of body experience where he wandered around town and met a mysterious figure who took him on a guided tour of various disturbing places. One was a bar where people desperately tried to drink, eat, or smoke cigarettes but could not no matter how hard they tried. This vision of those who could not partake in vices or what they loved most was relatively mild compared to what was to follow. He next found himself in a barren wasteland where spirits of all shapes and sizes were engaged in vicious battle with each other, punching, biting, kicking, and slashing at each other with wrathful abandon. Ritchie would later write of this scary, foul scene: " Even more hideous than the bites and kicks they exchanged, were the sexual abuses many were performing in feverish pantomime. Perversions I had never dreamed of were being vainly attempted all around us".

Another  researcher and writer of horrifying  NDEs by the name of Nancy Evans Bush has estimated that one out of every five NDEs involve terrifying traumatic experiences dark chilly voids, sensory deprivation, absolute loneliness, scary demonic monsters, blazing fires, other visions of conditions of Hell, the description of which would wary from person to person. In her book "Dancing Past the Dark", Bush explains about these different permutations of Hell thus: "Some are hot, some are cold, some are like deserts, some are like a swamp. Some are too bright, in terms of fire, and some are full of wet, slimy, nasty stuff. I’ve heard descriptions of wells with slimy creatures in them, but I’ve also heard barren wastes with nothing".

10. Told to go back :  In many cases people were told to go back to their earthly bodies as their time had not yet come, whereas in other cases they were given a choice. These people were very reluctant to return to their earthly bodies even when told they yet have a mission to complete.

11. Vision of the future : Some people were given the knowledge of future happenings. They could be future world events or they could be events related to the life of that person alone.  

 12. Fear Death No More: People having these experiences had a marked personality shift after their return to their physical bodies. Their outlook towards life in general changed remarkably for the better. Also these people no longer feared death. Their afterlife experience is so profound and real that they are now sure that their consciousness  lives on even after the death of their physical body. Many atheists  and people with strong materialistic outlook towards life changed into people with profound spiritual outlook. They also understood that this life had a higher purpose to fulfil and should not be wasted away. Every living being and the universe at large were interconnected and that they were not isolated beings in a lonely universe. 

A Study In Reincarnation :

Reincarnation is a philosophical concept that concludes 'individual consciousness' as a core essential part of a living being, which starts a new life in a different physical body or form after each biological death.

 This concept is accepted as a unquestionable reality in Hindu and Buddhist belief systems. 

 Neither the word 'reincarnation' nor this idea appears in the current form of Bible,  which clearly tells us that we die once and then face judgment (Hebrews 9:27). The Bible never mentions people having a second chance at life or coming back as different people or animals. Jesus told the criminal on the cross, "Today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43), not "You will have another chance to live a life on this earth." Matthew 25:46 specifically tells us that believers go on to eternal life while unbelievers go onto eternal punishment. 

Interestingly In December, 1945, early Christian writings containing many secrets of early Christian religion were found in upper Egypt, in a location where many Christians fled during the Roman invasion of Jerusalem.  These had kept hidden for nearly two thousand years. These writings affirmed the existence of the doctrine of reincarnation being taught among the early Jews and Christians. This sect was ultimately destroyed by the Roman orthodox church, their followers burned at the stake and their writings wiped out.  The writings included some long lost gospels, some of which were written earlier than the known gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  These' Gnostic Christians' claimed to possess the correct definition of 'resurrection'  based on Jesus' secret teachings, handed down to them by the apostles.

Brian A. Bain, M.A., has this to say about the 1945 discovery: "Long considered to be heretical, ancient Gnostic Christian texts unearthed this century display compelling similarities between Gnostic conceptions of life and death and modern near-death experiences. The Gnostic texts devoted extensive tracts to what readers could expect to encounter when they died. Other passages make numerous allusions to near-death-like experiences that can be realized in this life, most notably the human encounter with a divine light.

The Gospel of the Nazirenes:

Discoveries during this century are shedding more light on to one of the most clouded period in Christian history i.e. the original teachings of Jesus compared to the modern day Bible. Given the recent discoveries of the 'Dead Sea Scrolls', the 'Gnostic Gospels' of Nag Hammadi, and now the long sought 'Gospel of the Nazirenes', much has been unearthed and understood about the earliest days of Christianity in the present century compared to all the  previous years combined.

 And what is becoming more and more clear from these discoveries is that the original message of Christ differed sharply from the official doctrines later adopted by the church. Many of the most revered early church fathers, as well as a surprising number of scholars today, have boldly declared that the legendary Gospel of the Nazirenes  was actually the long lost original gospel which was collectively written by the 12 apostles in the period immediately after Christ’s death, and upon which all three of the biblical gospels were based.

For nearly 2,000 years, all information about Jesus comes to us through the biblical gospels. In the fourth century the Roman authorities decided to compile and edit all available books and scrolls  on Jesus which were then in circulation. It was left entirely on their discretion to decide what was real and what was fake. This carried with it  streaks of  political influence and compromise. Bishops making these decisions were doing so under the direct influence and instructions of the Roman Emperor. It has been rumoured ever since that true teachings of Jesus were edited and their  meanings altered  during that time. Many important Christian documents were also  destroyed during that period.

Before  325 AD  many of the early Church priests had included in their writings a mention of an earlier Gospel, upon which, they claimed  Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke had  been based. This document had gone by the titles, Gospel of the Nazirenes ,Gospel of the Ebionites, Gospel of the Hebrews, The Aramaic Gospel of Matthew.

For nearly 2,000 years  this work was considered to have been  lost, but in 1870 an isolated manuscript was discovered hidden away in a remote Tibetan monastery. It  was then hurriedly translated from its original Aramaic text  and then published as "The Gospel of the Holy Twelve". This  translation was somewhat intellectually dull and un-stimulating and hence was not read much. A new and much better translation later was published in 1997, edited by Alan Wauters and Rick Van Wyhe.

Initially while  reading it, one feels  the same old message of the current form of Bible coming through. Then suddenly one is struck as if by a bolt of lightning. One starts reading passages that directly support the reincarnation concepts as taught  in Vedic theology. Along with it come equally startling stories of Jesus studying the mystical and philosophical concepts of India, Persia and Eqypt. Also contain within it are  stories of his marriage and subsequent demise of his wife. It teaches strict   vegetarianism , clearly stating that Jesus' anger at the Temple was not merely directed at the commercial rackets going on there but was directly targeted  to the  killings and selling of sacrificial animals. 'Nazirenes'  claims that one of the biggest reasons Jesus was  condemned by the religious heads of Israel was because he wanted to put an end to the blood sacrifices in the Temple. Putting an end to these sacrifices was seen as a financial threat  by the unwilling priesthood.

Among the ancient Greeks, Socrates, Pythagoras, and Plato are among those who made reincarnation an integral part of their teachings. At the end of his life, Socrates said, "I am confident that there truly is such a thing as living again, and that the living spring from the dead." Pythagoras claimed he could remember his past lives, and Plato presented detailed accounts of reincarnation in his major works.

A lot of North American tribes include some form of belief in reincarnation in their religions. This is especially true for the Inuit, Tlingit, Aleut, Beaver, Kutchin, Carriers, and Kwakiutl tribes. The most intense belief can be found among the Tlingit tribe of the Alaska territory. At the moment of death, the  soul was thought to leave the body, travel to the spiritual world, and ultimately reincarnate.

Mesopotamia historically included Sumer, Babylon, and Akkadia. In this region, from 6,000 to 4,000 years ago, elements of reincarnation theory were also  widely accepted.

The early Egyptian concepts of Ba and Ka also suggest reincarnation. The term Ba seems to imply a phenomenon like the transcendent soul. The term Ka apparently refers to an aspect of the Ba which is individuated and linked to a physical body, an in a soul-incarnate. The idea of reincarnation seems to have flourished during the Old Kingdom, however  after the advent of pharoahs it lost its ground.

Dr. Ian Stevenson( 1918-2007) was a pioneer in  the scientific study of the phenomenon of reincarnation. He was a psychiatrist who worked for the University of Virginia School of Medicine for 50 nearly years. He was Chairperson of the Department of Psychiatry from 1957 to 1967, the Carlson Professor of Psychiatry from 1967 to 2001, and a Research Professor of Psychiatry from 2002 until his death. Stevenson’s main subject of study was  children’s memories of previous lives.

Stevenson’s research  published in 1997, was a 2,268-page, two-volume work called 'Reincarnation and Biology'. During his original research into various cases involving children's memories of past lives  Dr. Stevenson noticed the fact that these children frequently bore birthmarks which supposedly related to their murder or to  the injuries related to their death they had suffered in a previous life. Stevenson's research into birthmarks and congenital defects has immense corroborative evidence for putting forward these cases  of  reincarnation. In many cases presented by Dr. Stevenson there are also medical as an additional proof.

Dr. Stevenson writes that in the cases he researched and resolved in which birthmarks or deformities were present, he didn't suppose there was any other possible explanation than that of reincarnation. Only 30% - 60% of these deformities can be put down to birth defects which related to genetic disorders, infections or other causes. Apart from these demonstrable causes, the medical profession has no other explanation for the other 40% to 70% of cases other than calling them mere chance.

 A Turkish boy whose face was congenitally underdeveloped on the right side said he remembered the life of a man who died from a gunshot wound from a point-blank range.

On the back of the head of a small boy in Thailand was a small, round birthmark, and at the front was a larger, irregular birthmark, resembling the entry and exit wounds of a bullet. Stevenson had already confirmed the details of the boy’s statements about the life of a man who’d been shot in the head from behind with a rifle.

A child in India who said he remembered the life of boy who’d lost the fingers of his right hand in a fodder-chopping machine mishap was born with boneless stubs for fingers on his right hand only.

One of the thousands of other such case suggestive of reincarnation was a child from Srilanka. A small girl child one day overheard her mother mentioning the name of a small  town called 'Kataragama', that the girl had never seen or heard of before . The girl then told her mother that she drowned there when her mentally challenged brother had pushed her into that river. She had a father named 'Herath' who sold flowers in a market near the Buddhist stupa. That she lived in a house that had a glass window in the roof and that her house was adjacent to a  Hindu temple, outside which people smashed coconuts on the ground .

 Dr.Stevenson was able to confirm that there was, indeed, a flower vendor in Kataragama who ran a stall near the Buddhist stupa whose two-year-old daughter had drowned in the river while the girl played with her mentally challenged brother. The man lived in a house adjacent to a temple where devotees practiced a religious ritual of smashing coconuts on the ground.

 The little girl however did get a few things wrong. For instance, the dead girl’s dad wasn’t bald and his name wasn’t Herath, that was the name of the dead girl’s cousin. Otherwise,  27 of the 30 distinct, verifiable statements she made were correct. The two families had never met before, nor did they have any friends, co-workers, or other acquaintances in common. Hence there seemed no way to gather such information from any other source .

Personally I was really fascinated reading an extremely interesting case of  James Leininger. James Madison Leininger was born on April 10, 1998 in San Francisco, to Bruce Leininger, a human resources executive, and Andrea Leininger, a resume-writer, homemaker and former professional dancer.  The family moved thereafter to Dallas, Texas and then to Lafayette, Louisiana.  James’s expressions of past-life memory manifested mostly between the ages of two and five, following the move to Lafayette.

At two years of age, James started experiencing  graphic, nightmares that would make him scream while sleeping.  One night while sleeping James starting screaming out, “Airplane crash!  Plane on fire! Little man can’t get out!”   Andrea ran to his bedroom and saw James face in extreme agony. He lay on his back kicking, screaming and clawing as if trying to make his way out of something he was stuck in. The same nightmare kept coming back over and over again. After observing him carefully for sometime it became clear to Andrea that the nightmares involved someone who was stuck in a plane on fire, trying desperately to claw his way out. When Andrea asked who the little man in the plane was, James replied: 'Me'

 When Bruce asked him about who shot his plane down James replied 'Japanese'. When he was asked how he knew that it were the Japanese who shot down his plane, James replied: 'The big red sun'. Both the parents were really puzzled about what their son was uttering.

Passing by a toy shop one day when James was even less than two years of age, Andrea  saw a display window filled with  toys.  She pulled out a little propeller plane and handed it to James saying  ‘Look there’s even a bomb underneath it.’ James immediately replied, ‘That’s not a bomb, Mummy, That’s a dwop tank.’ Talking about this with her husband later she learned that a drop tank is an extra fuel tank fitted to an aircraft to extend its range.

His parents were  surprised at James obsession with warplanes of World War 2. In play, James crashed his toy planes into furniture, breaking off the propellers.  He also began expressing his obsession  in his drawings, drawing naval-aerial battles between Americans and Japanese, in which planes were burning and crashing, bullets and bombs exploding all around. Interestingly these were always WWII scenes, with propeller-driven aircraft, not modern day jets or missiles.

All he ever draws are planes fighting, and he knows the type of planes. I mean he even draws the red sun for the Japanese," Bruce says. "But after he drew 'James 3' for the first time, I asked him why he did that. James said, 'I'm the third. I'm James 3.' He's been calling himself that ever since he was three years old. I think he is struggling with something unresolved or he just wouldn't be still drawing those images, like a needle stuck on a record. "

 He named the American aircraft as Wildcats and Corsairs, and referred to Japanese planes as Zekes and Bettys, explaining that the boy’s name referred to fighter planes and the girl’s name to bombers . Andrea wondered how her 'little son' could know such details of World War II and the aircrafts of that period.

James also told Bruce how Corsairs would have flat tires every now and then, also that they would always tend to turn to the left. After checking with military historians at the Lone Star Flight Museum in Galveston, Texas, this statement stood verified.

Andrea recalls the first time ever she had cooked meatloaf for James. When she announced that  there was meatloaf for dinner, James replied  he hadn't had meatloaf since he was on the Natoma Bay.  Later when Bruce and Andrea contacted several ex officers of that ship and found that meat loafs were a regular meal for the crew.

 Bruce and Andrea also recall how James would say his plane was shot in the engine.

The perplexing questions  as to how did he know about the Japanese and their emblem with 'the big red sun' and from where was his in-depth knowledge about these fighter planes coming from remained unanswered.

Over a period of time, James revealed that the man in his nightmares was also named James(Huston), that he flew a plane called a Corsair,  that the plane he flew took off from a boat and that the boat’s name was the 'Natoma.' To try and make sense of it all, Bruce did some internet search for the word Natoma. The result was that there existed an aircraft carrier by the name of U.S.S. Natoma Bay, stationed in the Pacific Ocean during World War II.

One day his parents took him to the Lone Star Flight Museum, they were surprised to see little James walking around a Corsair, conducting a flight check, like a pilot normally does before boarding his aircraft.

Andrea’s mother, Barbara Scoggin was the first one to speculate that the memories of James could be coming from a past life. Andrea too was now open to the possibility that James might be experiencing memories of a past lifetime.

After reading about a counselor by the name of Carol Bowman from Pennsylvania, Ms. Scoggin explained how Ms. Bowman was an expert on a child phenomenon that was similar to what James was experiencing. Ms. Bowman had also authored a book, 'Children's Past Lives: How Past Life Memories Affect Your Child'. Andrea called her immediately.

"When we are dreaming, our conscious minds are not filtering material as when we are in a waking state, so unconscious material, including past life memories, emerge," Ms. Bowman explains. "It is not uncommon for young children to dream of their previous lives. We tend to notice the nightmares, because they disturb the sleep and are often dramatic, realistic stories, as in James' case. They are often recurring, as the child relives the same dramatic events over and over. On some level, they are seeking resolution to these disturbing memories."

Bruce Leininger was fairly uncomfortable with the whole idea of reincarnation and began to research his son’s statements with the firm hope of ruling it out. But James revealed another piece of information which shook his skeptical father. Bruce one day was looking through a book titled 'Battle For Iwo Jima' by Derrick Wright. As Bruce slipped through the pages of that book, James jumped into his lap to watch cartoons. James pointed to a map of Iwo Jima near Chichi Jima and said, "Daddy, that is where my plane was shot down.

 In another nightmare, James gave his parents the name of Jack Larsen, and he said it was Larsen who flew with James. Bruce now needed to track down Jack Larsen to finally put an end to this story. He started searching through the internet again . Bruce couldn't find anything on  Jack Larsen  in any military record. He searched every list he could find from the U.S. National Archives on men who had died when stationed on  Natoma Bay and all other carriers during World War II. There were several Larsens  who had died, but no Jack Larsen of the Natoma Bay. He searched for more than a year, with nothing to show for it. Ironically the error being that he looked out  for a 'dead' man. After attending a Natoma Bay Association Reunion in September of 2002, Bruce found out that Jack Larsen was alive  in Springdale, Ark.

After speaking with veterans from the carrier and their families members Bruce discovered that 21 men were lost from the Natoma Bay. One of those men was a Lt. James McCready Huston Jr. from the VC-81 fighter squadron, who was shot down at the age of 21 in Futami Ko Harbor at Chichi Jima. Huston had volunteered for the mission, the last mission he would have flown before returning to the United States. He was the only pilot from the Natoma Bay who was shot down at Chichi Jima. The name stuck out in Bruce's mind because the Leiningers had noticed that James had been signing his name as 'James 3' on his crayon drawings of World War II planes.

 " Bruce visited Larsen in Arkansas in September of 2002 and asked him about James Huston. Larsen said he was sure his plane had been hit by anti-aircraft fire on March 3, 1945,  the day Huston failed to return from his mission and was then pronounced missing in action. Larsen had been Huston's wingman during the day's run to Chichi Jima. After checking into the squadron's aircraft action records, Bruce found out that Huston was shot down in a FM2 Wildcat fighter plane and not a Corsair.

Just to make doubly  sure Bruce tried to locate Huston's family. In February of 2003 he made contact with Anne Huston Barron, Huston's sister, who lived in California. Through several phone conversations, the Leiningers and Ms. Barron became friends, and she agreed to send Bruce photos of her brother during his military service. The packages of photos arrived in February and March of 2003. In one of the packages was a photo of Huston standing in front of a Corsair fighter plane, the same kind of plane James had mentioned repeatedly.

According to Bruce, interviews with past servicemen and declassified U.S. military records, before Huston joined up with the Natoma Bay and VC-81, he was part of an elite special squadron, the VF-301 Devil's Disciples, from January to August of 1944. This squadron test flew Corsairs for carrier use, and only 20 pilots were selected for this assignment. However  the VF-301 squadron was disbanded after eight months and Huston was then transferred to VC-81 on Oct. 8, 1944.

"I don't have an answer for this, so I can't explain it either," Bruce says. "Through it all, there has to be an element of faith. There could still be the coincidence of dreaming this all up, but there are odd factors you have to calculate. Lightning can strike once, but when it strikes eight or nine times, you can't say it's a coincidence."

James Leininger had three G.I. Joe dolls and named them Leon, Walter and Billie, names of three pilots who coincidently served with Huston. According to U.S. Pacific Fleet records, Lt. Leon Stevens Conner, Ensign Walter John Devlin and Ensign Billie Rufus Peeler were among the 21 fatalities from the Natoma Bay. They were also members of the VC-81 air squadron with Huston. When asked why he named the dolls the way he did, Bruce says James answered, "Because they greeted me when I went to heaven." After James said that Bruce stood shocked in amazement. .

In June of 2003, another veteran by the name of Jack Durham helped Bruce with his research. Durham turned out to be a member of the VC-83 torpedo-bomber medium (TBM) squad from the U.S.S. Sargent Bay that had run parallel to Huston's squadron on the day he was shot down. According to U.S.S. Natoma Bay aircraft action reports, the VC-81 squadron covered the TBMs during the Futami Ko Harbor strike. Without a doubt, Durham says, he saw Huston's plane shot down by anti-aircraft fire .  Digging up more records on the bomber squad Bruce then contacted other VC-83 crew members  John Richardson, Bob Skelton and Ralph Clarbour  and they all confirmed that not only had Huston's plane been shot down, but they saw it get hit in the engine, causing an loud explosion in the front of the plane. It then crashed into Futami Ko Harbor, the same place James pointed to in the history book with his father in November of 2000.

Now every detail of James' dreams had been verified to the Leiningers' satisfaction.

As a Hindu, ' Bhagwat Gita' has always been an integral part of my family. I have been hearing verses of it from family elders right from my childhood. As the story goes ,Arjuna stood in the battlefield of Kurukshetra, distraught  with feelings of indecision and confusion, as he faced the prospect of  killing his own half-brothers, uncles, friends and teachers. At this moment, Lord Krishna, who was his 'sarthi' ( person driving the chariot) in the battlefield, sought to allay his fears by teaching him about the distinction between the physical body (which is impermanent) and the soul or consciousness (which is permanent).

Bhagavad Gita - Chapter 2, Verse 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27

वासांसि जीर्णानि यथा विहाय नवानि गृह्णाति नरोऽपराणि।                                                                                                       तथा शरीराणि विहाय जीर्णान्यन्यानि संयाति नवानि देही।                                             

Translation :During our day to day lives we change our old and dirty clothes to put on new ones, similarly, the consciousness or atman casts off its old or worn out physical body and moves on to a newer physical body after the onset of death. Just like the clothes that we wear do not represent  our physical body, the state of our physical body does not represent the truly unchangeable and permanent nature of the consciousness that resides within it. Consciousness (soul)  takes birth again and again, gathering itself a mind, life and body, formed out of the materials of nature, according to its past karmic impressions and its needs for the future. The psychic being is the vijnana which supports the triple manifestation of body, life and mind. When the gross physical body falls away, the vital and mental sheaths still remain as the vehicle of the soul. Rebirth is the law of nature. There is an objective connections between the various forms of life. “Like corn a mortal ripens and like corn is he born again”. (Katha Upanisad, Ch 1, verse 6).           

नैनं छिन्दन्ति शस्त्राणि नैनं दहति पावकः ।
न चैनं क्लेदयन्त्यापो न शोषयति मारुतः ।।२३।।                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

Consciousness (soul) cannot be harmed by any weapon, it is formless and shapeless. It cannot be cut into pieces by any weapon neither can fire burn it or destroy it. Water cannot wet it because water can only act on elements which have a physical description or dimension. For the same reason, wind cannot dry it or exert any force on it. Thus the aatman is beyond the influence of all the three primary forces (fire, water and wind) which can affect entities having physical form and description.                                        

अच्छेद्योऽयमदाह्योऽयमक्लेद्योऽशोष्य ऐव च।                                                                                                                   नित्यः सर्वगतः स्थाणुरचलोऽयं सनातनः।                       

Atman cannot be cut, burnt, it is not subject to decay, become wet or be dried out. The five forces of nature which are capable of destroying physical elements by their combined actions have no influence on the atman. That is why it is referred to as 'nitya' or permanent & unchangeable. It is omnipresence, omniscience. Atman is called 'Sanatana' which means existing since the beginning of TIME.                                                                                                                                                        

अव्यक्तोऽयमचिन्त्योऽयमविकार्योऽयमुच्यते।                                                                                                                     तस्मादेवं विदित्वैनं नानुशोचितुमहर्सि।।                                                                         


Atman cannot be known or understood by using the brain or its mental capabilities. It is known as ‘avyakta’ or something that cannot be described.  It cannot be known purely by meditating or thinking upon it  hence it is known as ‘achintya’. Atman cannot be understood by the use of any of our senses, it is without shape and is known as ‘avikaari’. It is beyond the reach of thought and does not have any form as such. Forms may change, things may come and go but that which remains without change behind them all is forever is atman.