The story of Swarnlata is characteristic of Stevenson’s cases: the young girl’s memories began when she was 3, she gave enough information to enable Stevenson to locate the family of the deceased person she remembered (the case was “solved”), and she gave more than 50 specific facts that were verified. But Swarnlata’s case was also different from most because her memories did not fade.
And this is a sweet case, characterized by love and happy memories rather than by violent death and struggles between castes and families, like in so many other cases.
Swarnlata Mishra was born to an intellectual and prosperous family in Pradesh in India in 1948. When she was just three years old and traveling with her father past the town of Katni more than 100 miles from her home, she suddenly pointed and asked the driver to turn down a road to “my house”, and suggested they could get a better cup of tea there than they could on the road.
Soon after, she related more details of her life in Katni, all of which were written down by her father. She said her name was Biya Pathak, and that she had two sons. She gave details of the house: it was white with black doors fitted with iron bars; four rooms were stuccoed, but other parts were less finished; the front floor was of stone slabs. She located the house in Zhurkutia, a district of Katni; behind the house was a girl’s school, in front was a railway line, and lime furnaces were visible from the house. She added that the family had a motor car (a very rare item in India in the 1950’s, and especially before Swarnlata was born). Swarnlata said Biya died of a “pain in her throat”, and was treated by Dr. S. C. Bhabrat in Jabalpur. She also remembered an incident at a wedding when she and a friend had difficulty finding a latrine.
In the spring of 1959, when Swarnlata was 10 years old, news of the case reached Professor Sri H. N. Banerjee, an Indian researcher of paranormal phenomenon and colleague of Stevenson. Banerjee took the notes her father made and traveled to Katni to determine if Swarnlata’s memories could be verified.
Using nothing more than the description that Swarnlata had given, he found the house–despite the house having been enlarged and improved since 1939 when Biya died. It belonged to the Pathak’s (a common name in India), a wealthy, prominent family, with extensive business interests. The lime furnaces were on land adjoining the property; the girls school was 100 yards behind the Pathak’s property, but not visible from the front.
He interviewed the family and verified everything Swarnlata had said. Biya Pathak had died in 1939 leaving behind a grieving husband, two young sons, and many younger brothers. These Pathaks had never heard of the Mishra family, who lived a hundred miles away; the Mishra’s had no knowledge of the Pathak family.
The next scene in this story sounds like a plot from Agatha Christie, but is all true, extracted from the Stevenson’s tabulations in Swarnlata’s published case. In the summer of 1959, Biya’s husband, son, and eldest brother journeyed to the town of Chhatarpur, the town where Swarnlata now lived, to test Swarnlata’s memory. They did not reveal their identities or purpose to others in the town, but enlisted nine townsmen to accompany them to the Mishar home, where they arrived unannounced.
Swarnlata immediately recognized her brother and called him “Babu”, Biya’s pet name for him. Stevenson gives only the barest facts, but I can imagine the emotions ran high at this point. Imagine how Babu felt to be recognized immediately by his dead sister reborn.
Ten-year-old Swarnlata went around the room looking at each man in turn; some she identified as men she knew from her town, some were strangers to her. Then she came to Sri Chintamini Pandey, Biya’s husband. Swarnlata lowered her eyes, looked bashful–as Hindu wives do in the presence of their husbands–and spoke his name. Stevenson says nothing of Sri Pandey’s reaction at finding his wife after twenty years
Swarnlata also correctly identified her son from her past life, Murli, who was 13 years old when Biya died. But Murli schemed to mislead her, and “for almost twenty-four hours insisted against her objections that he was not Murli, but someone else.” Murli had also brought along a friend and tried to mislead Swarnlata once again by insisting he was Naresh, Biya’s other son, who was about the same age as this friend. Swarnlata insisted just as strongly that he was a stranger.
Finally, Swarnlata reminded Sri Pandey that he had purloined 1200 rupees Biya kept in a box. Sri Pandey admitted to the truth of this private fact that only he and his wife had known.
A few weeks later, Swarnlata’s father took her to Katni to visit the home and town where Biya lived and died.
Upon arriving she immediately noticed and remarked about the changes to the house. She asked about the parapet at the back of the house, a verandah, and the neem tree that used to grow in the compound; all had been removed since Biya’s death. She identified Biya’s room and the room in which she had died. She recognized one of Biya’s brothers and correctly identified him as her second brother. She did the same for her third and fourth brother, the wife of the younger brother, the son of the second brother (calling him by his pet name “Baboo”), a close friend of the family’s (correctly commenting that he was now wearing spectacles, which he in fact had acquired since Biya had died) and his wife (calling her by her pet name “Bhoujai”), Biya’s sister-in-law–all with appropriate emotions of weeping and nervous laughter. She also correctly identified a former servant, an old betelnut seller, and the family cowherd (despite her youngest brother’s attempt to test Swarnlata by insisting that the cowherd had died).
Later, Swarnlata was presented to a room full of strangers and asked whom she recognized. She correctly picked out her husband’s cousin, the wife of Biya’s brother-in-law, and a midwife–whom she identified not by her current name, but by a name she had used when Biya was alive. Biya’s son Murli, in another test, introduced Swarnlata to a man he called a new friend, Bhola. Swarnlata insisted correctly that this man was actually Biya’s second son, Naresh. In another test, Biya’s youngest brother tried to trap Swarnlata by saying that Biya had lost her teeth; Swarnlata did not fall for this, and went on to say that Biya had gold fillings in her front teeth–a fact that the brothers had forgotten and were forced to confirm by consulting with their wives, who reminded them that what Swarnlata said was true.
This must have been a spectacle. Here was a ten-year-old stranger from far away–so far, in terms of Indian culture, that her dialect was distinctly different than that of the Pathaks–who acted confidently like an older sister of the household, was familiar with intimate names and family secrets, and remembered even marriage relationships, old servants, and friends. Just as amazing, her memory was frozen at the time of Biya’s death; Swarnlata knew nothing about the Pathak family that had happened since 1939.
In the following years, Swarnlata visited the Pathak family at regular intervals. Stevenson investigated the case in 1961, witnessing one of these visits. He observed the loving relationship between Swarnlata and the other members of the family. They all accepted her as Biya reborn.
Swarnlata behaved appropriately reserved towards Biya’s elders, but when alone with Biya’s sons, she was relaxed and playful as a mother would be–behavior that would otherwise be totally inappropriate in India for a 10-year-old girl in the company of unrelated men in their mid-thirties.
The Pathak brothers and Swarnlata observed the Hindu custom of Rakhi, in which brothers and sisters annually renew their devotion to each other by exchanging gifts. In fact the Pathak brothers were distressed and angry one year when Swarnlata missed the ceremony; they felt that because she had lived with them for 40 years and with the Mishras for only 10 years that they had a greater claim on her. As evidence of how strongly the Pathaks believed that Swarnlata was their Biya, they admitted that they had changed their views of reincarnation upon meeting Swarnlata and accepting her as Biya reborn (the Pathaks, because of their status and wealth, emulated Western ideas and had not believed in reincarnation before this happened). Swarnlata’s father, Sri Mishra, also accepted the truth of Swarnlata’s past identity: years later, when it came time for Swarnlata to marry he consulted with the Pathaks about the choice of a husband for her.
How did Swarnlata feel about all of this? Was it confusing for her to remember so completely the life of a grown woman? Stevenson visited her in later years and corresponded with her for ten years after this case was investigated. He reports that she grew up normally, received an advanced degree in botany, and got married. She said that sometimes, when she reminisced about her happy life in Katni, her eyes brimmed with tears and, for a moment, she wished she could return to the wealth and life of Biya. But her loyalty to the Mishra family was undivided and, except for the regular visits to Katni, she went about the business of growing into a beautiful young woman, accepting fully her station in this life.
In some ways Swarnlata is typical of Stevenson’s cases: the amazing number of facts and people she remembered; the positive identification of the previous personality, the exchange of visits between the families, and the age at which she first had her memories. What is not typical, however, is the persistence of clear memories into her adulthood, the lack of a traumatic death, and the support and cooperation between the families (in most cases one or both of the families are reluctant to encourage the child or to bring the case to the outside world). This is a sweet case that illustrates what profoundly enriching human experience a past life memory can bring about.
This case is extracted from charts and commentary on pages 67 to 91 in Dr. Ian Stevenson’s classic book, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. This is the original long version written for the book by Carol Bowman called “Children’s Past Lives”, but due to space constraints a shorter, edited version appeared in the book. This is the original extract in its entirety.