This is the latest in a series of articles discussing the work of Ian Stevenson and his research into reincarnation. It follows on from this article in which I described several of his cases where a birthmark appears at the site of a wound, usually fatal, from a previous incarnation. This suggests that the birthmark is a physical memory of some kind of the earlier wound. Here I’m going to repeat the process for birth defects. Stevenson comments that, when considering reincarnation as a possible cause, these are even more important than birthmarks, because “they are much less easily attributed to chance than are birthmarks… (and) in contrast to birthmarks, serious birth defects are comparatively rare”.
Examples of these include “partial or complete absence of fingers, toes, and larger parts of arms, legs, ears, or other organs”. As with birthmarks, there are other known causes: genetic factors, teratogens, German measles in a pregnant woman, and uterine conditions. Again, as with birthmarks, this nevertheless leaves a large number of cases unexplained. He describes several cases of birth defects unknown to experts, not corresponding to any commonly recognized syndromes or malformations. In the absence of these precedents, the reincarnation factor becomes more likely.
(I’m going to describe many cases, and go into quite a lot of detail. If at any point you are convinced of the reality of this phenomenon, please feel free to jump ahead to the discussion at the end.)
I’ll begin with his chapter 19, ‘Birth Defects Involving Two or More Regions of the Body’. These cases provide the most impressive evidence when arguing for reincarnation, if multiple birthmarks and birth defects all correspond to the wounds on the identified dead person.
1. Ma Htwe Win. Before her mother became pregnant, “she dreamed that a man who appeared to be walking on his knees, or perhaps on amputated stumps of legs, was following her; she tried to avoid him, but he continued to approach her. She did not recognize the man”. “When Ma Htwe Win was born, “her parents immediately observed that she had severe birth defects as well as prominent birthmarks. The birthmarks were on her lower left chest in the region of the heart and on her head. The fifth finger of her left hand was absent. She had constriction rings around the lower parts of her legs above the ankles and another, particularly deep, constriction ring around the middle of her left thigh”. They had no explanation for any of this, until she “said that she had been a man called Nga Than”, and gave details of his murder: stabbed in the chest, fingers cut, and a blow to the head, and legs tied to the back of the thighs, so that the body could be compressed, and therefore disposed of in a well. (It hardly needs pointing out that all these correspond precisely to the birthmarks and defects noted.) Her “statements were correct, so far as they could be verified, for the life and death of a man called U Nga Than”.
2. Thiang San Kla. Before his birth both his parents had dreams in which the mother’s deceased brother Phoh appeared, saying that he wished to be reborn as their child. Thiang was born with six birth defects and birthmarks. The two most important were an extensive lesion on his head, and a defect of the right big toe — a partially detached portion of the nail, and tissue darkly pigmented. (The other four had faded by the time of the investigation.) Phoh had been killed, having been “hit on the back of the head with a heavy knife”. Before his death, he had injured his right foot in an accident. “His right toe became infected and never healed before he died”.
Before he was four Thiang began to speak about the life of Phoh. He at once recognised a policeman who had investigated the murder and called him by name. He “also correctly stated to him the names of the persons who had killed Phoh”.
3. Ariya Noikerd. Before her birth both her mother and her mother’s older sister dreamed that Apirak, a son of the family who had been killed 3 months earlier, was going to return to the family. Ariya was born about a year after his death. She had “a widespread port-wine stain birthmark on the left side of her face and head”, and “an unusual cleft or deep crease in the skin of her lower back, near the midline and just above her right buttock. Apirak had had an exactly similar cleft at the same site”.
He had been killed in an accident involving a truck. Some mismanagement followed, and when his body was cremated “it had not been washed, and blood remained on the face and head where it had been right after the accident”. Both his parents and maternal aunt “said that the birthmarks… were at exactly the places where blood had been on Apirak’s face when his body was cremated”. Stevenson says that “this is the third case in which informants have attributed birthmarks to blood left on the previous personality’s body when it was cremated”.
In chapter 17, entitled ‘Birth Defects of the Extremities’, Stevenson gives 7 examples.
1. Lekh Pal Jatav. He was “born without the fingers (phalanges) of his right hand, which were represented by mere stubs; his left hand was normal”. This is “extremely rare”. He “had spoken only a few words about a previous life”, when a woman from Nagla Tal (a nearby village) came and happened to notice him. “She mentioned that a child of Nagla Tal had had his fingers cut off in an accident”. This was Hukum Singh who “had had his fingers cut off when he inadvertently put them into the blades of a fodder-chopping machine… (He) survived this accident, but he died the following year of some unrelated illness”. Before Lekh Pal travelled to Nagla Tal to meet the other family, “he had spoken to his family about the life of Hukum. He kept repeating the word ‘Tal, Tal’, but at the time this made no sense to his mother. He said Nagla Devi was not his home and he would not stay there. His older sister later remembered that he described to her how, in the previous life, he had put his hand into a fodder-chopping machine. He said that he had a mother and father in ‘Tal’ and also an older sister and a younger brother”. When he was taken to Nagla Tal “he was credited with making a number of recogntions”.
2. Ma Myint Thein. Before her mother became pregnant with her, her father “dreamed that an acquaintance, U Sein Maung, said that he wished to be reborn in his family”. “When he had this dream, he did not know that U Sein Maung was dead. The next day, however, he learned that assassins armed with swords had killed U Sein Maung the day before”. Two witnesses who had later seen the body “said that the fingers of both of U Sein Maung’s had been chopped off (by a sword) and his head almost severed from his trunk”. Other informants said that he had also been stabbed in the back”. Ma Myint Thein started to refer to her previous life when she was about 5. Years later she “remembered that her first memories of the previous life occurred when, as she was playing with other children, she noticed that her hands were different from theirs. She then began to recall that in a previous life she had been murdered by three or four men with swords”. She “gradually opened up her memories to other members of her family. She said that she had been called Sein Maung. She had a wife, Ma Thein, and two children” and gave other correct particulars.
She described her death from the previous life, the sword attack, the jewels he had been wearing (which had not been stolen following the attack). She “had a phobia of the site where U Sein Maung had been killed, and when she had to pass it on her way to Pyawbwe, she found herself shivering”.
3. Ma Khin Mar Htoo. Before she was conceived, her mother “dreamed that a girl called Ma Thien Nwe was going to be reborn as her daughter”. Ma Thien Nwe, nicknamed Kalamagyi, had died in a horrific accident when she was run over by a train. “Her lower right leg was found at a considerable distance behind the rest of her body, which the train had sliced in two, as it ran over her. It seems likely, therefore, that as Kalamagyi fell under the train, she thrust her right leg out under the wheels, and it was cut off before other parts of her body were injured”.
“Ma Khin Mar Htoo was born with her right leg absent from a few inches below the knee. Two rudimentary toes protruded from the stump of the leg… This condition, hemimelia in medical terms, is a rare malformation”.
“When Ma Khin Mar Htoo could speak, she expressed many memories of the life and death of Kalamagyi”. (The two families were acquainted, so Stevenson thinks she could not have made any statements which would have served as confirmatory evidence of the reincarnation.)
4. Ma Win Tar. “At her birth she was found to have severe defects of both hands. The middle and ring fingers of her right hand were present, but only loosely attached to the rest of the hand, and they were webbed together”. These were amputated, following a doctor’s recommendation. Several of her other fingers “were either missing or had constriction rings. There was a prominent ring around her left wrist, and close examination of this showed that it consisted of three separate depressions that might have corresponded to grooves made by a rope wound three times around the arm. (Her mother) said that there had been a similar ropelike mark above her right wrist, but this had since faded. She also said that when Ma Win Tar had been younger, it was possible to discern in this area a pattern within the birthmarks that corresponded to the strands of the rope”. “When she was about 3, she began to refer to a previous life. She said that she had been a Japanese soldier, captured by some Burmese villagers, tied to a tree, and burned alive”. She gave no name, and the account is unverified, although Stevenson thinks it plausible, as there were such cases. She also showed unusual behaviour for her family and culture, but appropriate for the previous life: wanting to dress like a boy, keeping her hair short like a boy, not liking Burmese food, preferring Japanese-style dishes, resisting Burmese Buddhist practices, adopting a Japanese sitting posture, and insisting that she was Japanese. Stevenson picks out this one: “She had a streak of cruelty rare in Burmese children, and she sometimes slapped the faces of her playmates when they annoyed her. (This was a habit that the Japanese soldiers often showed when Burmese villagers irritated them; Burmese people rarely slap faces.)”.
5. Augustine Nwachi, an Igbo. He was “born with a severe birth defect of his left foot. The outer third of the foot was absent. There were a few nubbins attached to the end of the stump that suggested attempts at toes”. “Mainly on the basis of his birth defect, Augustine was identified as the reincarnation of his paternal grandfather, Dominic. The latter had died from an infection of his left great toe and second toe, which had become gangrenous, and must have culminated in an overwhelming infection that killed him within a few days of his becoming ill”.
“The Igbos attach importance to the judgment of an oracle concerning the identification of a reincarnated person, and in Augustine’s case an oracle confirmed his father’s opinion that Augustine was the reincarnation of his grandfather”.
6. Bruce Peck. At this point, Stevenson introduces what, on the face of it, is an even more extraordinary suggestion than those we have been considering so far. He describes the case of Bruce Peck in which “the generating factor… was not even a mark on the previous personality’s body; instead, it seems to have been a thought in his mind”. His paternal grandfather, Richard, “was a renowned fisherman”. He “found the life of a fisherman unendurably severe. Three informants told me independently that they had heard Richard say that if he were reborn he wished not to have a forearm, so that he could not become a fisherman, and he would then be able to work at some less arduous job on land. As he said this, he gestured with his left hand straightened out making a motion like an axe coming down on his right arm and chopping it off below the elbow”.
He drowned accidentally, at a time when Bruce’s mother was already pregnant. When Bruce was born 7 months later, “the lower half of his right forearm was absent”. He had “no imaged memories of his grandfather’s life or death”, and there had been no dream. “He did have a severe phobia of water. He worked entirely at clerical positions on the shore”.
7. H. A. Wijeratne. Stevenson thinks that our sense of justice might be offended, in that the victims of crimes seem to be the ones who are afflicted by a birth defect in a subsequent life, not the perpetrators. He is aware, however, of a few cases of malefactors who had an apparently related birth defect in a subsequent life. He describes one example, H. A. Wijeratne, who had “marked birth defects of his right chest and arm. The major muscle of his right upper chest was absent, his right arm was much reduced in size compared with the left one, and the fingers of his right hand were extremely short; some of them were webbed together”. When he began to speak, his mother heard him say “that he had been born with a defective arm because he had murdered his wife in a previous life”. Her husband was not surprised to hear this, because “he had already surmised that Wijeratne was his late younger brother, Ratran Hami, reborn”. He had actually been told by him before he died that he would return as his son. Details of the crime, his trial at which he had “pleaded not guilty, offering an explanation of acting in self-defense”. and execution follow. Wijeratne did not believe his deceased uncle’s false plea, freely acknowledging his guilt, “and believed he was paying a penalty for the murder by being reborn with a malformed right arm”.
Chapter 18 is entitled ‘Birth Defects of the Head and Neck’. I’ll summarise two of the four cases mentioned.
1. Semih Tutuşmuş. Two days before his birth, his mother Karanfil “dreamed of a man called Selim Fesli, who had been shot at close range in the head and had died of his wounds a few days later. In the dream the man’s face was covered with blood, and he said that he had been shot in the ear. He also said that he was going to stay with the dreamer. Karanfil had never met Selim Fesli, although she had heard vaguely about his death… Semih was born with a severe birth defect of the right ear. The external ear was represented only by a linear stump. In addition, the right side of his face was underdeveloped”. The details of Selim’s wounding and death are provided, Stevenson obtaining a copy of the postmortem report, which described shotgun wounds to the skull.
“Semih began to talk about the life of Selim Fesli when he was about 1½ years old. His first words on the subject were the (correct) names of the man who shot Fesli”. He gave more details about the shooting, naming himself as Fesli. “He remembered also, and stated, the names of Selim Fesli’s wife and all six of their children. Among 15 statements that Semih made about the previous life, 11 were correct, 2 incorrect, and 2 unverified”. (Fesli was known to Semih’s father, so this information might have been acquired normally, although there is no obvious reason to think so.)
Semih had a strong desire to visit Selim Fesli’s family. When he was still less than 4 years old, he found his way alone to Fesli’s village and introduced himself to members of the family, who at some point accepted up to a point that he was the reincarnation. He showed “an attitude of extreme hostility” toward the killer, and threatened to kill him.
2. Süleyman Çapar. His mother Hekime “dreamed during her pregnancy… that a man on horseback approached her. She asked him why he was coming to her. He replied: “I was killed with a blow from a shovel. I want to stay with you and not with anyone else”. She said that she did not recognise him, and did not give it much thought at the time. “When Süleyman was born the back part of his skull was depressed, and it had a prominent birthmark”. “He gradually told details about a previous life”, how he had been killed, and said that he wanted to go to “the stream”.
Hekime eventually agreed, and “let him show the way to a village called Ekber, where there was a stream and a mill”. “Süleyman had given the name Mehmet as the one he had had in the previous life”. This enabled the relevant person to be identified. “It is certain — from the medical records that (Stevenson) examined — that Mehmet died after being struck on the back of the head with a flour shovel”.
If you’ve managed to read this far, and are not yet convinced by the reality of this phenomenon, then nothing more I add will make any difference. I’ll turn therefore to a discussion of the implications. The obvious ones are the reality of reincarnation, and therefore of the afterlife, since the discarnate body has to go somewhere in between lives.
One of the most interesting features in these examples is the regular occurrence of dreams announcing the imminent reincarnation. This is conclusive evidence, if any were needed, that dreams are not produced by the brain, but emerge from another level which has access to this knowledge.
Even more intriguing is the meaning of the appearance of the birthmarks and other defects. It is reasonably easy to believe that a conscious self might have the desire to be reincarnated into a specific family, and this seems to have happened in some of these examples. However, nobody would choose to be born with a serious defect or birthmark. And apart from the one case stated, there is no suggestion that any of these children were being punished through karma for misdemeanours in previous lives. We therefore have to assume that the appearance of these defects is just in the nature of things, without any planning or intention. We are led to the extraordinary conclusion that an injury to a physical body can be stored as a memory in whatever we choose to call the non-material body that exits upon death (astral, etheric, soul). The memory must remain stored at this other level until the next incarnation, and then reappear spontaneously.
Bibliography: Ian Stevenson, Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect, Praeger, 1997