Reincarnation: Myth or Reality?

The Indian subcontinent has long been obsessed with rebirth, from the Bhagavad Gita to Bollywood. Scientists are finally taking note.

2013GB1448 vishnu avatars
Vishnu ca. 1690 (Victoria & Albert Museum): In this illustration to the Hindu text the 'Vishnu Sahasranama' (The Thousand Names of Vishnu), the god Vishnu is shown being worshipped in several forms at once by groups of devotees.

Sushmita Pathak


March 13, 2024


12 min

Like most children, Shanti Devi began stringing sentences together when she was about 3. But unlike other kids, she didn’t talk about her toys or the things around her. Instead, the little girl spoke of people some 100 miles from her home in Delhi. She mentioned her husband, a cloth merchant who lived in Mathura: tall, fair, with a wart on his left cheek. She also discussed her death, which took place days after she gave birth to her son in 1925. In these stories, she was not Shanti Devi. She was a woman called Lugdi. At first, Shanti’s parents chalked up her bizarre statements to imagination, but the stories didn’t stop. It seemed Shanti was recalling a past life.

In India, 40% of Hindus, 23% of Jains, and 18% of Buddhists and Sikhs said they believed in reincarnation in 2021. In the West, interest in reincarnation has been rising over the past half-century. In 2023, a quarter of adults in the U.S. said, “It is definitely or probably true that the dead can be reincarnated.” Psychologist Ian Stevenson even established a department at the University of Virginia in 1967 to study unexplained phenomena, including reincarnation. Since then, a small group of researchers scattered across the globe have dedicated their careers to examining claims similar to Shanti Devi’s, to answer the all-important question: is reincarnation real?

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