It was early April in 1966. It was less than a fortnight since John Lennon had declared that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus and the Time magazine had just published an issue with the question “Is God Dead?” boldly emblazoned on its cover. It was amidst these competing reports of the demise of religion that newspapers in the United Kingdom and its recently independent former colony, India, reported on the trip of an “Indian doctor” to the UK.

On the 11th of April, 1966 Dr. Hemendranath (“H.N.”) Banerjee traveled to the northern English seaside resort of Whitley Bay. It was not to enjoy the bracing air of the northern shores that he had traveled. Rather it was to meet a remarkable local family—the Pollocks. Over the last few years the lives of the Pollocks had been radically transformed and their deepest beliefs shaken. Their case had been widely reported in the media and had attracted Dr. Banerjee’s attention in India. At the time, he was a professor at the University of Jaipur in India and, despite the Cold War era shortage of funds and opportunities for Indian scientists to travel abroad, had been permitted to make the trip to Whitley Bay.

The facts of the Pollock Case in brief were this: on the 5th of May, 1957, the happy world of Mr. and Mrs. Pollock had collapsed around them when a crazed driver had driven her car onto the pavement and mowed down the two young daughters of the Pollocks. The daughters, Joanna and Jacqueline, had been eleven and six years old respectively at the time and died almost instantly. As their lives descended into despair, John Pollock—the father—developed a strong belief in reincarnation and kept saying that his daughters would come back. His wife, Florence, though equally distraught, was firm in her Catholic faith and refused to countenance the possibility of reincarnation. Then, in early 1958, Florence conceived once more. Medical tests reported that she had a single healthy child. But John dreamt that both his daughters were coming back and insisted she was going to have twins. Surprising the doctors, but not the father, on October 4th, 1958, Florence gave birth to twin sisters Gillian and Jennifer Pollock.

John’s conviction that his dead daughters had returned was strengthened when he noticed that birthmarks on Gillian’s body matched various scars and marks that had appeared on the body of the departed Jacqueline. Gillian’s identical twin Jennifer had none of the scars. These marks were in themselves a small mystery since it is highly unusual for one identical twin to have a series of birthmarks when the other had none.

By the time Gillian and Jennifer were two years old they had begun to occasionally refer to events in the lives of their dead elder sisters and even recognize their toys. All this was even more surprising since the family had since moved away from Hexham, where the elder children had lived, to Whitley Bay, where the younger girls grew up. When the girls were four years old the parents took them back to Hexham and they spontaneously recognized both the house and the school that their elder sisters had been in. Everything seemed to confirm John’s original claim that his dead daughters would be reincarnated and return to him.

It was to study this alleged case of reincarnation that Dr. Banerjee traveled to England. Interest in reincarnation is widespread in many Asian cultures and beyond. But in the wake of decolonization, India was remarkable in seeking to scientifically investigate the possibility of reincarnation. Institutionally, much of this research was carried out under the rubric of Parapsychology. But whereas Parapsychology in the US for instance,[1] had been overwhelmingly interested in ESP research, in India the emphasis had been squarely on reincarnation research. Beginning in the 1950s,  a number of Indian universities in Lucknow, Allahabad, Benares, Waltair, and Jaipur took up research into reincarnation.

In 1958, a dedicated research center titled the Seth Sohan Lal Memorial Institute of Parapsychology had been established in Jaipur through the patronage of a wealthy donor. The Institute examined several widely reported cases. Dr. Banerjee traveled not only to England but also to Lebanon, Turkey, Brazil, and the United States. Soon the Jaipur university also became the first Indian university to open a full-fledged Department of Parapsychology that was largely devoted to studying reincarnation. This department in turn financed the establishment of Parapsychology Clubs at various universities. By the mid-1960s research into reincarnation was thriving in India.

Dr. Banerjee was of course not alone in conducting this research. Dr. Jamuna Prasad in Allahabad, Prof. and Mrs. V.V. Akolkar in Pune, and Prof. P. Pal in Burdwan were some of the others who relentlessly scanned press reports, pursued cases, documented them repeatedly and in detail and published accounts of reincarnation. Dr. Banerjee however, was the most successful in raising funds and courting media attention. This was a double-edged sword, as along with the publicity the attention put pressure on him to make bigger and bolder claims about his research. This, in turn, often made the more academically minded researchers uneasy.

In their academic work however, all the Indian researchers, including Banerjee, were exceedingly careful to guard against any exaggeration or any direct confirmation of religious doctrine. Banerjee’s early academic work therefore is scrupulous in even avoiding the term “reincarnation” so far as possible and calling the phenomenon instead “Extra Cerebral Memory” (ECM). Eschewing any implication that the phenomenon necessarily confirmed the existence of an immortal soul, the researchers emphasized that all that such cases proved was that there was some mechanism through which memories on occasion could be passed on without the brain itself physically living on.

This was in itself a fairly radical position. Scholars like Fernando Vidal have pointed out that the in modern times our personhood has almost entirely come to be identified with our brains.[2] He calls it modern brainhood. The core of our personhood, that is our unique individuality, is frequently seen to reside in our brains. Science, technology, and popular culture have all conspired to promote this view of personhood as brainhood. To thus displace that very central organ as the locus of our memories was quite a bold move on the part of Banerjee and his peers. But it also managed to avoid the language of souls and hence too direct a dialogue with organized religion.

Banerjee’s success, however, was short-lived. He clearly flew too close to the sun in his need for publicity and resources. Soon after the trip to Whitley Bay his department ran out of funding. The private donations, including one substantial one from a Texan oil tycoon, dried up. By the end of the sixties, the Jaipur research program had entirely shut shop and its faculty dispersed. Banerjee himself migrated to the United States and devoted himself to writing non-academic and increasingly sensational books on reincarnation. In stark contrast to the work of his younger days, the careful accounts of ECM were now replaced with the inescapable immortality of the soul.

Reincarnation research in India however, did not die out with Banerjee. Dr. Jamuna Prasad for one continued his research. So did Akolkar and Pal, though they did not publish much. The real energy in reincarnation research, after the demise of Banerjee’s center, came from an American researcher, Dr. Ian Stevenson.

Based at the University of Virginia, Dr. Stevenson was a Psychiatrist who had become interested in reincarnation in the course of researching child psychology. Over the next three decades, Dr. Stevenson made regular trips to India and many other countries, particularly in Asia, collecting an enormous amount of sober, factual data on cases of alleged reincarnation. A significant number of Dr. Stevenson’s cases came from India and he researched these in collaboration with Indian researchers such as Dr. Prasad, Prof. Pal and others. Stevenson’s work was so careful and rigorous that even committed skeptics have found it difficult to dismiss his work.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Dr. Stevenson’s research is his interest in birthmarks. The Whitley Bay twins are not alone in carrying marks on the body that seem to resonate with memories of a past life. Dr. Stevenson had painstakingly collected reports of such cases and sought to compare them with postmortem reports of the body of the deceased person whose memories seemed to have survived. It is in these cases that biology had to most directly confront something that seemingly exceeded it. But that is another story for another time.

 

It was therefore an interesting reversal to see an “Indian doctor” (that’s what the press reports called Banerjee, though his training was not really in medicine) fly out to examine an English patient.

 

In all this what initially struck me most were those press reports about Dr. Banerjee traveling to England to examine the Pollock girls. As a historian of colonial India, I had been weaned on a surfeit of images of British scientists patronizingly looking at Indian subjects-patients (I use the hyphen advisedly for it was impossible in those encounters in the colonial clinic to forget the subject status of the patients and it surfaced in a myriad minor ways). It was therefore an interesting reversal to see an “Indian doctor” (that’s what the press reports called Banerjee, though his training was not really in medicine) fly out to examine an English patient. After all, in April 1966 India had only been independent for 18 years.

But this seemingly obvious, if trite, reversal also made me reflect upon what it really meant in the larger scheme of things. Was it a good thing that an impoverished postcolonial nation was investing in scientific research into reincarnation? After all histories of postcolonial science usually do not hold up parapsychology as one of the A-list sciences of the Cold War era. Space exploration, yes. Nuclear programs, yes. Transplant surgeries, absolutely. But reincarnation research? No. No one thinks of it as an achievement.

Worse still, today the fevered political climate in India, the US, and elsewhere has made many liberal-minded citizens fall back on a nostalgia for “proper science.” They march militantly “for Science” and wistfully invoke a time when “pseudoscience” was rightly exiled beyond the walls of the academia and good, rigorous and absolutely materialist science was unquestionably given the power to decide on the important things in life. We Indians love to remind each other of Prime Minister Nehru’s famous quote that, large, hydroelectric dams were the real “temples of modern India.”

In a way, Nehru’s dream has come true. Millions of young Indians today dream of careers in science and technology. We have become a nation of doctors and engineers. Few in comparison aspire to be poets, artists or, god forbid, historians. Yet somehow the decline of the poets and artists and historians has not really banished so-called “pseudoscience.” It has flourished of all places in the very halls of postcolonial science. The Indian Science Congress at its 102nd annual meeting in 2015 notoriously held a symposium titled “Ancient Science through Sanskrit” which, among other things, claimed that India had developed a “jumbo aircraft that flew between continents and planets 9,000 years ago.” The political resonances of the symposium were clearly with the right-wing Hindu political party in power and left-liberal opinion saw it as a dilution of the proper “scientific temper” that Nehru had urged.

In the wake of all this, what does the history of reincarnation research in India stand for? Is it Dr. Banerjee’s trip to Whitley Bay something to be proud of? Or was it an early sign of the alleged dilution of the scientific spirit?

This is where I think good, old-school history can actually be illuminating. Instead of trying to make Dr. Banerjee’s moment in the 1960s stand in for our contemporary battles, I would argue that we simply need to look at what were the stakes at the time and for whom. To do this is to simply go back to the beginning. Why and how did reincarnation research in India acquire an institutional base within the academic establishment?

In searching for such answers we come face to face with two distinct aspects of the story. The first pertains to individual motivations. This is always difficult to reconstruct, particularly when private papers and correspondence have not been preserved—as indeed unfortunately, they seldom are in India. Yet disciplinary training and institutional trajectories can be suggestive of individual motivations. One of these suggestive elements in the background of some of these Indian researchers was a tradition for trying to imagine a fundamentally different type of science. The best-known exponent of such a science was Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose.[3]

Coming out of a late nineteenth-century milieu in Calcutta where the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science had fostered a generation of young Indian scientists who thought of science as something bigger than just a lucrative career or as a narrow pursuit of more efficient technologies, Bose has tried to imagine a different kind of science.[4] Many of those involved with the IACS sought to develop a science that would be more humane and spiritual. JC Bose’s physics emerged out of such conversations and commitments. Yet, for all the protestations of cultural difference, it cannot and indeed must not be forgotten that the world of Victorian physics in the closing decades of the nineteenth century was a very spiritual one. Some of the leading names in physics, such as Sir Oliver Lodge, Sir William Crookes, Sir William Barrett, were all interested in Psychical Research. Bose’s Hindu inflexions on the theme may have been unique but his quest for the psychical through the physical was certainly not atypical.

 

Though Bose lost much of his scientific reputation in the west through his quest for an alternative science, in British India and particularly in his native Calcutta he was revered as a cultural hero and ideal scientist.

 

Though Bose lost much of his scientific reputation in the west through his quest for an alternative science, in British India and particularly in his native Calcutta he was revered as a cultural hero and ideal scientist. It is highly likely that some of this earlier history would have effected the development of later researchers. Banerjee for one was a Bengali like Bose and had studied in Calcutta. Pal was not only a Bengali but also a physicist. There is therefore, every likelihood that historically produced cultural ideals about what a true scientist does may well have shaped their interests in reincarnation.

A more concrete aspect of the story, however, is the political background that made this research possible. The man who did more than anyone else in ensuring the funding of such research was the Indian politician Dr. Sampurnanand. The research centers at Lucknow and Allahabad had been established through his interest when, in 1954, he somewhat unexpectedly became the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh—India’s largest state and the one in which these cities are located. It was Sampurnanand once more who when, on being removed from the Chief Ministership in 1960, was appointed Governor of the state of Rajasthan, ensured the opening of the Parapsychology Department at the University of Jaipur.

Sampurnanand was a scholar and freedom fighter whose ascent to Chief Ministership owed much more to the faction-fighting of others than to his own machinations. He was almost universally liked and had a stature, unlike many others in the postcolonial UP Congress Party, that well exceeded his identity as a politician. His scholarly writings are extensive and give a very good sense of his beliefs. Politically, Sampurnanand was a long-time member of the Congress Socialist Party (CSP), though on certain issues, such as championing Hindi over Urdu, he remained closer to right-wing Hindu politics than secular left-wing nationalism. One commentator described the CSP members as, Gandhi’s children and Marx’s students. Gandhi’s excessive mysticism and his dabbling in formalized religion put them off almost as much as they were unconvinced by the materialism and violence of mainstream Marxism. For Sampurnanand one major practical concern was how to govern a truly democratic polity without foisting the will of the majority per force on the minority. In order to do this, he believed it was crucial to locate the spiritual core of a people and be guided by it. But he deeply mistrusted formalized religions and had no faith in their ability to reach the shared spiritual core of humanity. He saw all formalized religions as divisive and hierarchic. The only religion for which he had some respect as a democratic force was Islam, but here too he feared that its democratizing impulse had eventually been overcome by sectarianism.

Likewise Sampurnanand was also mistrustful of mainstream science. The atom bomb, poison gases and the role of science in colonialism and warfare in general, had left him deeply ambivalent about science. For him the true purpose of science was to be in the service of humanity, understood in its most enlightened, non-sectarian and spiritualized sense. He dreamt of a science that was dedicated to discerning the shared bonds that united all of humanity and illuminated a common purpose with reference to which the business of government could then be conducted.[5]

Some of Sampurnanand’s dreams may seem naïve and idealistic today, but having just won a hard-fought battle against one of the most powerful empires in history, the impossible must have seemed attainable to Sampurnanand and his peers. They had brought the mighty British Empire with all its hubris and pomp to its knee, now they wanted to build a radically new nation. This new nation would be guided by a new science: a science whose primary purpose was not the aggrandizement of the state through war and violence, but rather the pursuit of a shared, universal purpose.

What then might this history teach us about our contemporary predicament? For one thing it shows us that both “science” and “religion” acquire their specific connotations within particular historical contexts. Sampurnanand’s understanding of science is not ours. But neither was it an understanding shared by all of Sampurnanand’s contemporaries. There is little use in talking about science with a capital “s” and imagining that everyone means the same thing by it.

It also shows that the specific meanings that these terms come to connote in any given context might be far from obvious. They are often implicated as much in the uniqueness of the moment as in the individuality of the people and projects. Incarnations succeed incarnations without being putatively related to each other. The only way to grapple with these incarnations is to undertake the grunt work of history. History alone can reincarnate the sciences of the past.

History forcefully reminds us that all modern entanglements of science and religion have not been in the pursuit of narrow, sectarian gains. Indeed, some of the most audaciously all-inclusive and cosmopolitan dreams have also been dreamt upon the bed constructed by yoking science to religion. Neither science nor religion is intrinsically and universally good, bad or ugly. It is our dreams of the future that are hateful, inclusive or selfish. What we make of science or religion depends on what kind of a future we dream of.


Projit Bihari Mukharji is an Associate Professor in History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania. His most recent book was called Doctoring Traditions: Ayurveda, Small Technologies and Braided Sciences (Chicago: 2016). When not wearing his academic’s hat, Mukharji is a raconteur who loves to share stories about Calcutta of yore on his blog, Calcutta by Gaslight.

 

[1] On US Parapsychology see Collins, Harry M., and Trevor J. Pinch. “The construction of the paranormal: Nothing unscientific is happening.” The Sociological Review 27, no. 1_suppl (1979): 237-270; Pinch, Trevor J. “Normal explanations of the paranormal: The demarcation problem and fraud in parapsychology.” Social Studies of Science 9, no. 3 (1979): 329-348.

[2] Vidal, Fernando. “Brainhood, anthropological figure of modernity.” History of the human sciences22, no. 1 (2009): 5-36.

[3] Nandy, Ashis. Alternative sciences: Creativity and authenticity in two Indian scientists. Vol. 4. New Delhi: Allied, 1980.

[4] Arnold, David. Science, technology and medicine in colonial India. Vol. 5. Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 158-59.

[5] For Sampurnanand’s views on religion and science see, Sampurnanand, Samajvad [Socialism], 5th Edn. (Kashi: Bharatiya Jnanpith, 1960). In Hindi.

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