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Reincarnation: The Persistence of Memory

Renuka Narayanan has a weekly column in the Hindustan Times. It is her column this week that drew my attention to this touching story. She had mentioned in her column that the story is available online and I looked it up. Renuka’s narration is a slightly edited version of the story as it is available online. Since the online version has a few more details than her narration, I am giving here the online version.

“There was a village of about 400 houses called Chaungyo, ten miles north-west of Taungdwingyi. Two young men of the village, Nga Nyo and Ba Saing, who were friends earned their living by going round villages selling betel leaves. Coming back one day from the rounds, Ba Saing went short of rice on the way. He borrowed a small measure of rice from Nga Nyo to cook his dinner. After dinner, while they made their way back to the village leisurely in the moonlit night, poor Ba Saing was bitten by a poisonous snake and met instant death. It was sometime between 1270 and 1280 B.E. when the two friends were about the ages of twenty or so.

Probably because he hung into the thought of the loan of the small measure of rice, at the time of his death, he was born a cockerel in Nga Nyo's house. Nga Nyo trained it to become a fighting cock and entered it in fighting competitions. The first three competitions were won by Nga Nyo's cock which unfortunately lost the fourth fight because its opponent happened to be older and stronger than itself. Nga Nyo expressed his disappointment and anger by holding his cock by its leg and thrashing it against the ground. Bringing the half-dead cock home, he threw it down near the water-pot where Nga Nyo's cow came and touched it with her lips (as if expressing her sympathy).

The poor cock died afterwards and took conception in the womb of the cow. When the calf had grown up considerably, it was bought for four kyats by his friends for a feast which Nga Nyo would also join. While they were butchering the calf and cutting up the meat in preparation for their feast, a couple from Taungdwingyi, a clerk and his wife, happened to arrive on the scene. Expressing her sympathy for the calf, the clerk's wife said, "If it were my calf, I wouldn't have treated it so cruelly. Even if it had died a natural death, I wouldn't have the heart to eat its flesh. I would just bury it."

Sometime afterwards, a son was born to the clerk's wife. The child remained without speech till he was seven when, one day his father told him, "Son, do utter some words and talk to us. Today is pay day. I'll buy and bring back some nice clothes for you." Keeping his promise, the father came back in the evening with some pretty garments for his son. He said, "Here, Son, these beautiful clothes are for you. Do speak to us now." The boy then uttered, "Nga Nyo's measure of rice."

The father said, "Son, just talk to us. Not only a measure, but a whole bag of rice we will pay back the loan for you." Thereupon the boy said, "If so, put the bag of rice on the cart. We will go now to settle my debt." After putting a bag of rice on the cart, they set off on their journey. The father asked the son, "Now, where to?"

The child directed his father to drive towards the north of Taungdwingyi. Eventually they came to Chaungyo village when the son said, "That's it. That's the village," and kept directing his father through the village lanes until they came to Nga Nyo's house. Upon enquiring whether it was indeed U Nyo's house, U Nyo himself confirmed it by coming out from the house. As he approached the cart, the child hailed him, "Hey Nga Nyo, do you still remember me?" The elderly man was offended to be rudely addressed as 'Nga Nyo' by a mere child, the age of his son, but became pacified when the clerk explained, saying, "Please do not be offended, U Nyo. This child is under some strange circumstances."

When they got into the house, the boy began, "So, Nga Nyo, you don't remember me? We were once together going round the villages selling betel leaves. I borrowed a small measure of rice from you. Then I was bitten by a poisonous snake and died before I could return the loan. I then became a cockerel in your house. After winning three fights for you, I lost the fourth fight because my opponent was much stronger than I was. For losing that fight, you beat me to death in anger. Half dead, you threw me down near the water pot and a cow came and kissed me. I took conception in her womb and was reborn a cow. When I became a heifer, you all killed me to eat. At that time a clerk and his wife, who are now my father and mother, came nearby and had expressed sympathy for me. After my death as a cow, I was born as a son to my present father and mother. I have now come to repay my debt of the measure of rice."
All that the child recounted were found to be true by U Nyo who wept, feeling repentant for all the ill-treatment he had meted out to his former friend.”


To me this is an incredibly beautiful story in more ways than I can explain.

The first thing it speaks about is the persistence of memory beyond death and through lifetimes, a fact that has been found true by the experiences of countless people and is attested to by several major religions and spiritual traditions. It is an integral part of Hinduism and Buddhism. It is so integral to Indian thought and spirituality that it routinely appears throughout Indian literature. Speaking of this, Krishna in the Gita tells Arjuna: Both you and I, O Arjuna, have lived through several lifetimes. I remember them all, whereas you do not, O Scorcher of Enemies. [BG 4.5] The Mahabharata mentions who each character in it was in his previous lifetime and in a few cases, in many previous lifetimes.

Another important thing the story tells us is that memory does not depend upon the brain. It is independent of the brain. Indian philosophy and psychology mention the chitta as the seat of memory and the chitta survives death since it is not physical and only the physical part of us dies each time we die. Chitta is one of our four inner instruments [antahkarana], the other three being manas, buddhi, and ahamkara, usually translated as mind, intellect and ego-sense. Chitta has no English equivalent. The usual translation is mind, which is more correctly the translation for manas.

A single dominating thought remains in Ba Saing’s mind through his several incarnations: that he has borrowed a measure of rice and has to return it. The feeling of guilt that you have borrowed something and have to return it can be a powerful thought, depending on your value systems. The great Socrates in his dying moments asks his disciples to return something trivial that he had borrowed. While many of us take it lightly, some of us get obsessed with the thought of returning borrowed things, almost to compulsion.

Speaking of one thought remaining in your mind through several lifetimes, the Mahabharata talks of Amba dying with the thought of revenge in her mind. She is then born as a princess in Vatsa and dies again with her revenge unaccomplished. The next time she is born as the daughter of Drupada and becomes known as Shikhandi after a sex transformation. In that lifetime, as we all know, she accomplishes her goal.

Clinical psychology using regression as an approach to healing has come across several cases when a psychological experience of one lifetime is carried into another life time, or across several lifetimes. The celebrated author and clinical psychologist Brian Weiss talks of several such incidents in his works. Through regression he takes people to the lifetime that caused their problems and healing happens when they relive with awareness the incident that originally caused the problem.

Just as the case of Amba which the Mahabharata discusses in great detail, Rosemary Ellen Guiley in her Tales of Reincarnation discusses the story of two brothers who carried their thoughts and feelings across several lifetimes from the Roman times to today’s United States. The two brothers were driving chariots in Roman times when the younger brother’s chariot collides with that of the elder brother. The elder brother is thrown down from his chariot and is crushed by his own chariot wheel. What follows is a tail of vengeance that last two millennia. Here again it is the dying thought of the elder brother that forces him to torture his younger brother through lifetimes – in some lifetimes the younger brother is a wife who is tortured by the elder brother who is now his/her husband; in some others, they are a son and father and so on. [Please see my Reincarnation, Transactional Analysis and Karma for more details of the story. []

Every time he is killed, Ba Saing is reborn at the home of someone he is attached to.

His first rebirth is in his friend Nga Nyo’s house. Here he is reborn as a cock. While birth at his friend’s house could be due to his attachment, one reason for birth as a cock could be because of the connection between cocks and rice, which was the debt he owed to his friend. In the east, cocks are commonly fed rice, both raw and cooked, and paddy. Another reason could be that the jiva [psycho-spiritual being that transmigrates from body to body] often tends to take the first body available for rebirth which he finds more or less appropriate depending on his dominant thoughts and feelings of the moment. The Upanishads metaphorically speak of all life being paraded before a jiva ready for rebirth. When a form that he finds appealing at the moment appears before him, the jiva jumps up and says that is what he wants and he is then reborn as that. Like in all other decisions we take in life, our moods are very important and can influence our decisions strongly.

Nga Nyo trains the cock to become a fighting cock and enters it in competitions. When it fails after three wins, an angry Nga Nyo dashes the cock to death. Here his cow shows some sympathy by touching the dying cock with her lips and Ba Saing now takes birth as a calf of that cow. He is till in the household of his friend Nga Nyo to whom he owes a debt. The cow’s feelings for the dying cock have obviously touched it and it is as her child that he is born this time.

This time Nga Nyo sells the calf to four of his friends. They butcher it for a feast that Nga Nyo himself was to join.

While the friends and Nyo do not know it, it is his friend’s body they are feasting on. This reminded me of folktales from across the world, in which a child is killed and the murderer – usually the wicked stepmother – feeds it to the child’s own father and siblings. Ashliman lists several such stories in his collection of folktales, folklore, fairytales and mythology, many under type 720 [Mother Killed Me, Father Ate Me type of tales].

While they were butchering the calf, a clerk and his wife happen to pass by. The clerk’s wife laments the calf’s fate, saying "If it were my calf, I wouldn't have treated it so cruelly. Even if it had died a natural death, I wouldn't have the heart to eat its flesh. I would just bury it." The calf is now reborn as her child.

Again, a touch of sympathy in a cruel world and the jiva is drawn to it.

The child decides to remain silent. He does not talk.

It is a conscious decision on his part. Perhaps the experiences of the previous two lifetimes have shocked him into silence. Sensitive people often withdraw into silence in the presence of heartlessness, whether the heartlessness is knowing or unknowing. Lots of children do that, and so do several adults. Women frequently become silent when they are treated brutally by their husbands, or in a joint family, by the in-laws. School children do that when they are treated heartlessly by their teachers. The silence is usually partial, but it can also be total. Medical science reports cases where children turn autistic because of traumatic incidents.

Indian tradition talks of child who remained silent for a different reason. This is the great Hastamalaka, who eventually becomes a disciple of Acharya Shankara. But of course, he was not shocked into silence; it was his sensitivity that made him silent. That, and the feeling that mundane communication is so futile. A sensitive and awakened mind often finds much of what goes on around him so utterly meaninglessness that he becomes silent.

Hastamalaka has the rare honour of being the only disciple in the world on whose work his guru wrote a commentary.

Eventually, at the age of seven when Ba Saing speaks, it is to talk of his debt to his friend from lifetimes back. The father takes him to Nga Nyo, the child showing the way to his village, which he remembers. When he sees Nga Nyo, he immediately recognizes him and addresses him familiarly, as though he is meeting an old friend after a long time. Well, he is, really.

Nga Nyo weeps repenting the cruelty he had meted out to his former friend. He had trained him to be fighting cock and when he lost a battle, dashed him to death in a fury. The second time he had sold him to his friends, to be butchered and eaten, and he himself had joined the feast.

One day before I read this Burmese story, my wife told me about something that happened to someone who had got married two weeks ago. She had married a person whose wife had died of blood cancer a while ago. After a wedding party in the husband’s hometown, the husband and the new wife went to bed late at night – their nuptial night. And the moment they were together in their bedroom, in flew a little bird – past midnight, when birds do not fly about. The bird began flying about the room restlessly, now landing here, now landing there. The fan was on in the room and they were afraid that the bird might get hit by its blades. They tried to drive the bird out through the open window and then what they feared happened. The bird flew onto the fan and was hit by the blade. As it lay in a swoon, they picked it up and gave it some water. It was soon revived. They took it to the courtyard so that it can fly away, but it wouldn’t go. Instead, it flew back into the room again through the window and started flying about once again. Eventually they managed to catch it again and then took it in the middle of the night itself to a far off place in their car and let it fly off.

All this while, there was one single thought in the minds of both the husband and the new wife. They instinctively felt they knew who the little bird was.


How long does it normally take for a dead person to be reborn again? It all depends on the strength and nature of your vasanas, the psychological scripts you have written into your depths, and several other external factors. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the classic that is about a thousand years old, is perhaps the most authentic text we have on this subject. The book, one of my favourites, talks about the transformations human consciousness undergoes each day from the moment of death. According to the Book of the Dead, most people are reborn within forty-eight days of their death.

In modern times, several people have studied the phenomenon of rebirth scientifically. The most respected of them is Dr Brian Weiss, the clinical psychologist referred to earlier, whose Through Time into Healing I found fascinating. His most famous book, though, is Many Lives, Many Masters. I am sorry to say I couldn’t agree with some parts of the book.

One important lesson the story of Ba Saing teaches us is not to be cruel to animals around us. Who knows who they are?

There are far too many more things that I would like to write about Ba Saing’s story. But that would make this article far too long. Maybe, some other time. For the time being, let me end this with a folktale called The Rose Tree, from Devonshire, England. The story is taken from William Henderson’s Folklore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders.


There was upon a time a good man who had two children: a girl by a first wife, and a boy by the second. The girl was as white as milk, and her lips were like cherries. Her hair was like golden silk, and it hung to the ground. Her brother loved her dearly, but her wicked stepmother hated her.

"Child," said the stepmother one day, "go to the grocer's shop and buy me a pound of candles."

She gave her the money, and the little girl went, bought the candles, and started on her return. There was a stile to cross. She put down the candles while she got over the stile. Up came a dog and ran off with the candles.

She went back to the grocer's, and she got a second bunch. She came to the stile, set down the candles, and proceeded to climb over. Up came the dog again and ran off with the candles.

She went again to the grocer's, and she got a third bunch, and just the same event happened. Then she came to her stepmother crying, for she had spent all the money and had lost three bunches of candles.

The stepmother was angry, but she pretended not to mind the loss. She said to the child, "Come, lay your head on my lap that I may comb your hair."

So the little one laid her head in the woman's lap, who proceeded to comb the yellow silken hair. And when she combed, the hair fell over her knees and rolled right down to the ground.

Then the stepmother hated her more for the beauty of her hair, so she said to her, "I cannot part your hair on my knee. Fetch a billet of wood."

So she fetched it.

Then said the stepmother, "I cannot part your hair with a comb. Fetch me an ax."
So she fetched it.

"Now," said the wicked woman, "lay your head down on the billet while I part your hair."

Well! She laid down her little golden head without fear; and whist! down came the ax, and it was off. So the mother wiped the ax and laughed.

Then she took the heart and liver of the little girl, and she stewed them and brought them into the house for supper. The husband tasted them and shook his head. He said they tasted very strangely. She gave some to the little boy, but he would not eat. She tried to force him, but he refused, and ran out into the garden, and took up his little sister, and put her in a box, and buried the box under a rose tree; and every day he went to the tree and wept, till his tears ran down on the box.

One day the rose tree flowered. It was spring, and there among the flowers was a white bird; and it sang, and sang, and sang like an angel out of heaven. Away it flew, and it went to a cobbler's shop, and perched itself on a tree hard by; and thus it sang:

My wicked mother slew me,
My dear father ate me,
My little brother whom I love
Sits below, and I sing above
Stick, stock, stone dead.

"Sing again that beautiful song," asked the shoemaker.

"If you will first give me those little red shoes you are making."

The cobbler gave the shoes, and the bird sang the song, then flew to a tree in front of a watchmaker's and sang:

My wicked mother slew me,
My dear father ate me,
My little brother whom I love
Sits below, and I sing above
Stick, stock, stone dead.

"Oh, the beautiful song! Sing it again, sweet bird," asked the watchmaker.

"If you will give me first that gold watch and chain in your hand."

The jeweler gave the watch and chain. The bird took it in one foot, the shoes in the other, and flew away, after having repeated the song, to where three millers were picking a millstone. The bird perched on a tree and sang:

My wicked mother slew me,
My dear father ate me,
My little brother whom I love
Sits below, and I sing above

Then one of the men put down his tool and looked up from his work,


Then the second miller's man laid aside his tool and looked up,


Then the third miller's man laid down his tool and looked up,


Then all three cried out with one voice, "Oh, what a beautiful song! Sing it sweet bird, again."

"If you will put the millstone round my neck," said the bird.

The men complied with the bird's request, and away to the tree it flew with the millstone round his neck, the red shoes in the grasp of one foot, and the gold watch and chain in the grasp of the other. He sang the song and then flew home.
It rattled the millstone against the eaves of the house, and the stepmother said, "It thunders."

Then the little boy ran out to see the thunder, and down dropped the red shoes at his feet.

It rattled the millstone against the eaves of the house once more, and the stepmother said again, "It thunders."

Then the father ran out, and down fell the chain about his neck.
In ran father and son, laughing and saying, "See, the thunder has brought us these fine things!"

Then the bird rattled the millstone against the eaves of the house a third time, and the stepmother said, "It thunders again. Perhaps the thunder has brought something for me," and she ran out. But the moment she stepped outside the door, down fell the millstone on her head. And so she died.



  1. Re-incarnation appears to be fact.

    Rebirth is ‘YES’. I know about my previous birth. My most Revered Guru of my previous life His Holiness Maharaj Sahab, 3rd Spiritual Head of Radhasoami Faith had revealed this secret to me during trance like state.
    HE told me, “Tum Sarkar Sahab Ho” (You are Sarkar Sahab). Sarkar Sahab was one of the most beloved disciple of His Holiness Maharj Sahab.

    Since I don’t have any direct realization of it so I can not claim the extent of its correctness. But it seems to be correct. During my previous birth I wanted to sing the song of ‘Infinite’ but I could not do so then since I had to leave the mortal frame at a very early age. But through the unbounded Grace and Mercy of my most Revered Guru that desire of my past birth is being fulfilled now.

    Comment by Anirudh Kumar Satsangi — July 9, 2009 @ 8:15 am | Reply

  2. Rebirth is ‘YES’. I know about my previous birth. My most Revered Guru of my previous life His Holiness Maharaj Sahab, 3rd Spiritual Head of Radhasoami Faith had revealed this secret to me during trance like state.
    HE told me, “Tum Sarkar Sahab Ho” (You are Sarkar Sahab). Sarkar Sahab was one of the most beloved disciple of His Holiness Maharj Sahab. Sarkar Sahab later on became fourth Spiritual Head of Radhasoami Faith.

    Since I don’t have any direct realization of it so I can not claim the extent of its correctness. But it seems to be correct. During my previous birth I wanted to sing the song of ‘Infinite’ but I could not do so then since I had to leave the mortal frame at a very early age. But through the unbounded Grace and Mercy of my most Revered Guru that desire of my past birth is being fulfilled now.


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