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April 6, 1999


To Hell, and Back

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M D Riti in Bangalore

"Don't send me back, just give me some work to do right here," cried Chhajju Bania, 34, crouching before Yamaraj, the god of death who sported a flowing white beard and sat on a high chair.

He looked around and saw a little old lady, apparently a clerk, wielding a pen; several clerks leafed through books.

"You have brought the wrong Chhajju," said a clerk. "Push him back and bring the right one." So a reluctant Chhajju Bania was returned to his delighted family in Uttar Pradesh.

Kenchamma, 28, on the other hand, was quite happy when four female agents of the dead who were carrying her off to another world were stopped by an unknown man, who advised them to take her back because she was the mother of young children.

"Why are you carrying her?" he apparently demanded of the women who had picked her up after she bled profusely for four hours following a spontaneous abortion. The man then touched her on the knee with a hot rod and pushed her back to earth.

These are some of the near-death experiences studied by Dr Satwant Pasricha, additional professor of clinical psychology at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bangalore. Dr Pasricha hopes to chart this twilight zone dividing the living from the dead. And she gets his material from those who walked the line and came back.

Many of those who almost died of cardiac arrest, shock, coma, surgery or accidents have reported strange other-world experiences that were fleeting but clear. Dr Pasricha, the first and only Indian researcher to have been studying this phenomenon, recorded these cases in the course of her investigation of reincarnation, an area of research that she is now famous, or notorious, for.

Dr Pasricha has conducted extensive surveys of people who profess to have had such experiences. Based on this work, she draws several broad conclusions, which indicate the existence of distinctive differences between cases in India and abroad. Almost every person she interviewed here said s/he had met either Yamaraj or his emissaries. And those who had such experiences usually show a marked reduction in their fear of death and gained belief in life after death.

But are NDEs fact or figments of the imagination? Dr Pasricha draws no hard conclusions. She says only two surveys of such experiences have ever been published, one by G Gallup in the US and other by her.

Although many reports of such cases have been published, she says these are derived mainly from hospital populations, self-selected volunteers and other non-random samples. Little is known of the actual prevalence of such experiences in the general population.

Dr Pasricha studied not just the characteristics of NDEs prevalent in India, but also suggests ways they are similar or different from those of people in other countries.

"The differences seen within and across cultures may be due to actual variations in experiences of people living in different geographical regions, or due to differences in their expressions of experiences and variations in methods of investigation," she says.

"For example, both American and Indian cases talk about having their actions reviewed. However, the decision of the Indian subjects to return back from the other realm is taken by Yama, whereas American subjects themselves decide to return back. Muttakka of Karnataka, for example, cannot recollect exactly how she came back from the other world, but knows she was sent back by a 'fat man' who looked at her 'papers,' and said, "Why have you brought her? She has not yet completed her time (on earth!)."

Such features seem to reflect the behaviour of people in the two cultures. The people of India by and large evince an attitude of complete submission to their superiors, whereas Americans assert themselves.

"This indicates that NDEs may be shaped by cultural beliefs. But they certainly also transcend such beliefs," she says.

More than 70 per cent of the people interviewed said they had been presented before Yamaraj. The god had a report of their deeds/misdeeds on earth opened, found they had been brought by mistake and had them returned to earth. Many subjects said they met either dead relatives or religious figures.

"I was taken by messengers in a jeep to Yamapatna," says Gowramma, who fell unconscious for no particular reason when she was about 22. "Yamaraj looked into his list of names in a book and said: "Send her back. She has still not completed her time."

Gowramma reports that she saw her own body lying motionless. People sometimes report having seen their own lifeless bodies from outside. This is known as an out of body experience.

Mangal Singh even developed a boil on his left arm, which he claimed happened when a man from another realm touched him.

"I was lying down on a cot when two people came, lifted me up and took me along," he told Pasricha. "We came to a gate, beyond which there was grass and the ground seemed to be sloping. A man there reprimanded the men who had brought me: "Why have you brought the wrong person?" He picked up a lathi with which he intended to beat the two men, who promptly ran away.

Then the senior man said, 'You go back.'

"Suddenly I saw two big pots of boiling water, although there was no fire, no firewood, and no fireplace. Then, the man pushed me with his hand and said, "You'd better hurry up and go back." When he touched me, I suddenly became aware of how hot his hand was. Then I realised why the pots were boiling. The heat was coming from his hands! When I regained consciousness, I had a severe burning sensation in my left arm." Mangal still had a mark on his left arm that he claims was a result of the burning.

About a quarter of Dr Pasricha's interviewees reported such marks. And nearly half the people she studied in south India had been suffering from mild to severe physical illness, ranging from high and low grade fevers to dysentery and cough.

Most of them had NDEs at home, and were not revived by any medical means, whereas American researchers like M Sabom say all their interviewees were treated in a cardiac care unit. "It is possible that the location of the patient at the time of crisis and the mode of intervention influence the occurrence of an NDE," says Dr Pasricha.

However, there are many similarities between American and Indian NDE cases, which makes Dr Pasricha conclude that such experiences have many common features that are beyond cultural influences. Further studies in greater depth might, she feels, shed better light on this fascinating paranormal phenomenon.

However, as often happens in such research areas, Dr Pasricha says she is limited by a scarcity of funding and would much appreciate financial contributions from those interested in finding out more about this phenomenon.

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