Home > Religion Near-Death Experiences and Hinduism

Near-Death Experiences and Hinduism

Indian old monk sadhu in saffron color clothing

1. Introduction to Near-Death Experiences and Hinduism

Ian Stevenson

Near-death experiences (NDEs) can vary across cultures due to differences in religious beliefs, cultural conditioning, and societal norms. Here are some potential differences between Hindu and Western near-death experiences:

(1) Cultural and Religious Framework:  Hindu near-death experiences are often interpreted within the framework of Hindu cosmology, which includes concepts such as reincarnation, karma, and the cycle of birth and death (samsara). Western near-death experiences may be interpreted within the context of Christian beliefs, such as judgment, heaven, hell, or purgatory.

(2) Symbols and Archetypes:  The symbols and archetypes encountered in near-death experiences may differ. For example, Hindus might report encounters with deities like Yama, the god of death, or scenes from Hindu mythology, while Westerners might report encounters with angels, Jesus, or deceased relatives.

(3) Life Review and Judgment:  In Western NDEs, individuals often report undergoing a life review where they experience a review of their actions and their impact on others. This may be associated with feelings of judgment or accountability. In Hinduism, a similar life review might occur, but it may be more closely tied to concepts of karma and the consequences of one’s actions in future lives rather than a final judgment by a divine being.

(4) Tunnel and Light:  While the tunnel and encountering a bright light are common elements in many Western NDEs, they may not be as prevalent in Hindu near-death experiences. Instead, Hindus might describe entering different realms or encountering different beings or landscapes.

(5) Reincarnation and Afterlife Beliefs:  Hindu near-death experiences may involve encounters with beings or realms associated with the afterlife or different planes of existence. There may be a stronger emphasis on the idea of reincarnation and the soul’s journey through multiple lifetimes. Western near-death experiences may focus more on the idea of an afterlife in a single realm, such as heaven or hell.

(6) Cultural Expectations:  Cultural expectations and beliefs about death and the afterlife can influence the interpretation and reporting of near-death experiences. Hindus may interpret their experiences through the lens of their cultural and religious beliefs, just as Westerners may do the same with their own beliefs.

It’s important to note that individual experiences of near-death vary widely, and not all Hindu near-death experiences will fit neatly into these categories. Additionally, there may be considerable overlap between the experiences reported by individuals from different cultural and religious backgrounds.

The Hindu near-death experiences profiled below come from the research of Dr. Satwant Pasricha and Dr. Ian Stevenson as published in an article entitled Near-Death Experiences in India from the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, Vol. 174, No. 3.

2. Vasudev Pandey’s Near-Death Experience

Vasudev Pandey was interviewed in 1975 and again in 1976. He was born in 1921 and had nearly died in his home of what he described as “paratyphoid disease” when he was about 10 years old. Vasudev had been considered dead and his body had actually been taken to the cremation ground. However, some indications of life aroused attention, and Vasudev was removed to the hospital where doctors tried to revive him, using “injections,” with eventual success. He remained unconscious for 3 days and then became able to describe the following experience (as narrated to us in 1975):

Two persons caught me and took me with them. I felt tired after walking some distance; they started to drag me. My feet became useless. There was a man sitting up. He looked dreadful and was all black. He was not wearing any clothes. He said in a rage to the attendants [who brought Vasudev there]:

“I had asked you to bring Vasudev the gardener. Our garden is drying up. You have brought Vasudev the student.”

When I regained consciousness, Vasudev the gardener was standing in front of me [apparently in the crowd of family and servants who had gathered around the bed of the ostensibly dead Vasudev]. He was hale and hearty. People started teasing him saying, “Now it is your turn.” He seemed to sleep well in the night, but the next morning he was dead.”

In reply to questions about details, Vasudev said that the “black man” had a club and used foul language. Vasudev identified him as Yamraj, the Hindu god of the dead. He said that he was “brought back” by the same two men who had taken him to Yamraj in the first place. Vasudev’s mother, who died before the time of the interview, was a pious woman who read scriptures which included descriptions of Yamraj. Vasudev, even as a boy before his near-death experience, was quite familiar with Yamraj.

3. Durga Jatav’s Near-Death Experience

Durga Jatav, a man approximately 50 years old, was interviewed in November, 1979, and again 3 months later. About 30 years before, he had been ill for several weeks, suffering from what had been diagnosed as typhoid. When his body “became cold” for a couple of hours, his family thought he had died. He revived, however, and on the third day following this he told his family he had been taken to another place by 10 people. He tried to escape, but they cut off his legs at the knees to prevent his escape. He was taken to a place where there were tables and chairs and 40 or 50 people sitting. He recognized no one. They looked at his “papers,” saw that his name was not on their list, and said, “Why have you brought him here? Take him back.” To this Durga had replied, “How can I go back? I don’t have feet.” He was then shown several pairs of legs, he recognized his own, and they were somehow reattached. He was then sent back with the instructions not to “stretch” (bend?) his knees so that they could mend. Durga’s older sister, who was also interviewed, corroborated his account of his apparent death and revival.

A few days after Durga revived, his sister and a neighbor noticed marks on Durga’s knees which had not been there before. These folds – or deep fissures – which appeared on his skin in front of his knees were still visible in 1979. There was no bleeding or pain in his knees other than the discomfort engendered by Durga following the “instructions” to keep his knees in a fixed position. X-ray photographs we took in 1981 showed no abnormality below the surface of the skin.

Durga had not heard of such experiences until his own near-death experience. He did not see his physical body from some other position in space. He said afterward the experience seemed like a dream; nevertheless, he claimed it strengthened his faith in God.

One informant for this case was the headman of the village where Durga lived who said at the time of Durga’s experience, another person by the same name had died in Agra about 30 km away; however, neither Durga nor his older sister were able to confirm this statement.

4. Chhajju Bania’s Near-Death Experience

Chhajju Bania was interviewed in 1981, at which time he was about 40 years old. His near-death experience occurred some 6 years earlier. He became ill with a fever and his condition deteriorated until he was thought to have died, at which time his relatives began preparing his body for cremation. However, he revived, and he gave the following account of his experience as he remembered it afterward:

Four black messengers came and held me.

I asked, “Where are you taking me?”

They took me and seated me near the god. My body had become small. There was an old lady sitting there. She had a pen in her hand, and the clerks had a heap of books in front of them.

I was summoned …

One of the clerks said, “We don’t need Chhajju Bania [the trader]. We had asked for Chhajju Kumhar [the potter]. Push him back and bring the other man. He [meaning Chhajju Bania] has some life remaining.”

I asked the clerks to give me some work to do, but not to send me back. Yamraj was there sitting on a high chair with a white beard and wearing yellow clothes. He asked me, “What do you want?”

I told him that I wanted to stay there.

He asked me to extend my hand. I don’t remember whether he gave me something or not.

Then I was pushed down [and revived].

Chhajju mentioned that he later learned a person named Chhajju Kumhar had died at about the same time that he (Chhajju Bania) revived. He said his behavior changed following his near-death experience, particularly in the direction of his becoming more honest.

Chhajju’s wife, Saroj, remembered her husband’s experience, but her account of what he told her about the near-death experience differed in some details from his statement. For example, she said he told her (about reviving) at the place to where the four men had taken him, there “was a man with a beard with lots of papers in front of him” (not an old lady). The bearded man said, “It is not his turn. Bring Chhajju Kori (a weaver)” (Not Chhajju Kumhar). Other discrepancies between the two accounts concerned unimportant details. Saroj remembered her husband telling her that he had not wanted to leave “there” and that he had been “pushed down” before he revived.

5. Mangal Singh’s Near-Death Experience

Mangal Singh was interviewed in March, 1983, when he was 79 years old. He described his near-death experience, which occurred approximately 5 or 6 years earlier. Unlike most subjects who have near-death experiences, he was not ill at the time, or did not consider himself to be so. He gave the following description of his experience:

I was lying down on a cot when two people came, lifted me up, and took me along.

I heard a hissing sound, but I couldn’t see anything. Then I came to a gate. There was grass, and the ground seemed to be sloping.

A man was there, and he reprimanded the men who had brought me, “Why have you brought the wrong person? Why have you not brought the man you had been sent for?”

The two men [who had brought Mangal] ran away, and 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 had better hurry up and go back.”

When he touched me, I suddenly became aware of how hot his hand was. Then I realized why the pots were boiling. The heat was coming from his hands.

Suddenly I regained consciousness, and I had a severe burning sensation in my left arm.

The area developed the appearance of a boil. Mangal showed it to a doctor who applied some ointment. The area healed within 3 days but left a residual mark on the left arm, which was examined.

In response to questions, Mangal said he thought he might have been sleeping at the time of the experience, but he was not sure of this. He was unable to describe the appearance of the persons figuring in the experience. It seemed to be less visual than auditory and tactile. He did remember the senior “official” picking up a lathi (a heavy Indian staff) with which he intended to beat the lesser “employees” before they ran away. Another person had died in the locality at or about the time he revived, but Mangal and his family made no inquires about the suddenness of this person’s death and did not even learn his name.

6. An Analysis of Hindu Near-Death Experiences

The Hindu near-death experiences profiled here are typical of the cases studied in India by researchers Satwant Pasricha and Ian Stevenson. The subject does not view his or her physical body, as do many subjects of western near-death experience cases. Instead the subject is taken in hand by “messengers” and brought before a man or woman who is often described as having a book or papers that he or she consults. A mistake is discovered. The wrong person has been “sent for,” and this person is then brought back by the messengers to his or her terrestrial life; or the subject is “pushed down” and revives. The error supposedly made is often a slight one, as a person of the same given name but a different caste, or someone living in a different but nearby village, should have died and been brought instead of the subject of the near-death experience. In six of their cases, the informants said that another “correct” person (corresponding to the subject’s information from the “next world”) did, in fact, die at about the time the subject revived; but the researchers did not verify those deaths.

In contrast, subjects of western near-death experiences usually give no reason (in psychological terms) for their recovery; if they do give one they may say that they revived because they decided to return of their own accord, often because of love for living members of their family. Sometimes they are “sent back” by deceased persons who tell them their “time has not yet come.” Indian subjects sometimes report meeting relatives and friends in the “other realm” in which they find themselves, but these persons have nothing to do or say about the prematurity of the subject’s death and a need for him or her to continue living. The idea of prematurity of death, or “your time has not yet come,” occurs in the cases of both cultures; but the persons involved in sending the NDEr “back to life” differ.

All in all, researchers Pasricha and Stevenson uncovered 16 accounts of near-death experiences in India. Later research by Pasricha documented another 29 near-death experiences by people living in India.

A comparison of Hindu near-death experiences with western accounts reveals the following:

(1) In 45 Hindu near-death accounts, Pasrich and Stevenson found no evidence of a tunnel experience which is frequently found in western accounts of the near-death experience. However, another near-death researcher, Susan Blackmore, reported accounts of a tunnel experience in her research of 8 Hindu near-death experiencers.

(2) Only one account contained an out-of-body experience, which is another aspect that is frequently found in western accounts. Osis and Haraldsson did find several accounts of out-of-body experience in the Indian near-death experiences they researched.

(3) Consistent with western accounts, some Hindu near-death accounts included a life review. However, whereas in western accounts the life review often consists of seeing a panoramic view of a person’s entire life, Hindu accounts consists of having someone read the record of the dying person’s life called the “akashic record.” In Christian circles, this is equivalent to reading from the “Book of Life” as known from the Christian doctrine of the resurrection. In Hindu circles, it is a traditional belief that the reading of a person’s akashic record occurs immediately after death. This concept is widely believed by Hindus all over India. However, the panoramic life review, which is commonly mentioned in western accounts, does not appear in accounts from India.

(4) As in western accounts, Hindu near-death accounts sometimes describe the meeting of religious deities and deceased loved ones.

Near-death researchers, Karlis Osis and Erlendur Haraldsson, documented the first major accounts of near-death experiences in India. In their interviews with 704 people living in India about their near-death experiences, 64 accounts of near-death experiences came to the surface. The remaining accounts had to do with death-bed visions. They published their findings in their book entitled At the Hour of Death: A New Look at Evidence for Life After Death.

7. Hindu Afterlife Beliefs

The Upanishads, the ancient set of Hindu religious texts, postulated an eternal, changeless core of the self called as the Atman. This soul or “deep self” was viewed as being identical with the unchanging godhead, referred to as Brahma (the unitary ground of being that transcends particular gods and goddesses). Untouched by the variations of time and circumstance, the Atman was nevertheless entrapped in the world of samsara (the cycle of death and rebirth). Unlike Western treatments of reincarnation, which tend to make the idea of coming back into body after body seem exotic, desirable, and even romantic, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other southern Asian religions portray the samsaric process as unhappy. Life in this world means suffering.

What keeps us trapped in the samsaric cycle is the law of karma. In its simplest form, this law operates impersonally like a natural law, ensuring that every good or bad deed eventually returns to the individual in the form of reward or punishment commensurate with the original deed. It is the necessity of “reaping one’s karma” that compels human beings to take rebirth (to reincarnate) in successive lifetimes. In other words, if one dies before reaping the effects of one’s actions (as most people do), the karmic process demands that one come back in a future life. Coming back in another lifetime also allows karmic forces to reward or punish one through the circumstances to which one is born. Hence, for example, an individual who was generous in one lifetime might be reborn as a wealthy person in the next incarnation.

Moksha is the traditional Sanskrit term for release or liberation from the endless chain of deaths and rebirths. In the southern Asian religious tradition, it represents the supreme goal of human strivings. Reflecting the diversity of Hinduism, liberation can be attained in a variety of ways, from the proper performance of certain rituals to highly disciplined forms of yoga. In the Upanishads, it is proper knowledge, in the sense of insight into the nature of reality, that enables the aspiring seeker to achieve liberation from the wheel of rebirth.

What happens to the individual after reaching moksha? In Upanishadic Hinduism, the individual Atman is believed to merge into the cosmic Brahma. A traditional image is that of a drop of water that, when dropped into the ocean, loses its individuality and becomes one with the sea. Although widespread, this metaphor does not quite capture the significance of this merger. Rather than losing one’s individuality, the Upanishadic understanding is that the Atman is never separate from Brahma; hence, individuality is illusory, and moksha is simply waking up from the dream of separateness.

The most that the classical texts of Hinduism say about the state of one who has merged with the godhead is that the person has become one with pure “beingness,” consciousness, and bliss. From the perspective of world-affirming Western society, such a static afterlife appears distinctly undesirable.

Beginning at least several centuries B.C., devotionalism rejected the impersonalism of both the ritual strategy of Vedism and the intellectual emphasis of the Upanishads. Instead, God was approached as a personal, supremely loving deity who would respond to devotional worship. The afterlife in devotional theism is not the static, abstract bliss of merging into the ocean of Brahma. Rather, the devotional tradition views the liberated soul as participating in a blissful round of devotional activities in a heaven world that is comparable, in certain respects, to the heaven of Western religions.

Along with heaven realms, Hinduism also developed notions of hell worlds in which exceptionally sinful individuals were punished. Many of the torments of Hindu hell worlds, such as being tortured by demons, resemble the torments of more familiar Western hells. Unlike Western hells, however, Hindu hell worlds are not final dwelling places. They are more like purgatories in which sinful souls experience suffering for a limited term. After the term is over, even the most evil person is turned out of hell to once again participate in the cycle of reincarnation.