Nga Nyo and Ba Saing who were about twenty years old lived in a Burmese village called Chaungo. The friends made a living by selling betel leaves. One day Ba Saing borrowed some rice from Nga Nyo but was bitten by a snake and died before he could return the rice. This happened sometime between 1270 and 1280 of the Burmese Era.
Perhaps because Saing’s last thoughts were about the rice he had borrowed from his friend and not returned, he was reborn as a cockerel in Nyo’s house. Nyo trained the cockerel to be a fighting cock. The cock won its first fights, but lost the fourth fight and in anger Nyo held it by its legs and dashed its head on the ground. Carrying the dying cock home, he threw it down near a water pot, where his cow came and touched it gently by its lips.
After his death as a cock, Saing was reborn as a calf to this cow. When the calf was a year or so old, Nyo sold it to four of his friends who butchered it and cut up the meat in preparation for a feast, which Nyo himself was to join. A clark from the nearby town and his wife happened to pass by them at that time and the woman, looking at the calf being cut up, said she wouldn’t have slaughtered it so cruelly had it been their calf. “Even if it had died a natural death,” she added, “I wouldn't have the heart to eat its flesh. I would just bury it."
The calf is now reborn as the child of this couple. He remains without speaking until the age of seven. One day his father tells him that it was payday and he will bring some fresh clothes for him, but he must speak. That evening the father comes home from office with pretty clothes for his son. And for the first time in his life the child speaks. His first words were, “Pay back Nga Nyo’s measure of rice.”
When the father agrees he would do anything for him, pay back not just a measure of rice but a whole bag if necessary, the boy tells him in that case they should go to Nyo and settle the debt immediately.
Let me now continue the story of the incident as it is told in its Burmese version.
“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 calf, 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.”
I find this an incredibly beautiful story in so many ways.
The first thing it speaks about is the persistence of memory beyond death and across 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, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. 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...” [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 the ego. 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. 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 a single 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, Amba accomplishes her goal.
The Bhagavad Gita [8.6] says: ... that our mental state at the moment of death is decides our future birth – whatever feelings we have in our mind at the moment of death, whatever attitudes we have, whatever thoughts we have – they function as decisive factors in the form our next birth takes.
Clinical psychology using hypnotic regression as an approach to healing has come across several cases in which a psychological experience of one lifetime is carried into the next life time, or even across several lifetimes. The celebrated author and clinical psychologist Brian Weiss talks of several such incidents in his works such as Many Lives, Many Masters and Through Time into Healing. 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 lasts for 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 another he is a son tortured by the elder brother reborn as his father and so on. [Please see my Reincarnation, Transactional Analysis and Karma available online for more details of the story.]
Another thing: Every time he is killed, Ba Saing is reborn at the home of someone he is attached to, has strong feelings for.
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 fighter 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 its lips and Ba Saing now takes birth as the calf of that cow. He is still in the household of his friend Nga Nyo to whom he owes a debt.
This time Nga Nyo sells the calf to four of his friends. They butcher it for a feast that Nga Nyo himself joins.
While the friends and Nyo do not know it, it is his friend’s body they are feasting on.
While they were butchering the calf, the clerk and his wife happen to pass by. The clerk’s wife laments the calf’s fate, expressing pity for it and 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 by others. School children do that when they are treated heartlessly by their teachers. The silence is usually partial, but it can also be total.
Eventually, at the age of seven when Ba Saing speaks, it is to talk of his debt to his friend from three 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.
He has clear memory of the events that happened in all three lifetimes, memory of the places and people. He has had three bodies, three deaths, but the memories are crystal clear, even the feelings are.
Nga Nyo weeps repenting the cruelty he had meted out to his former friend. He had trained him to be a 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.
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 we have written into our 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 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. But the soul does not have to wait for forty-eight days before he enters another womb – it could instant, if an appropriate womb is available.
One important lesson the story of Ba Saing teaches us is not to be cruel to anyone, including the animals around us.
After all, who knows who they are? Who knows the very person you want to murder this time wasn’t in another lifetime your father or mother, your son or daughter? Haven’t we all, as the Mahabharata says, had innumerable lifetimes and innumerable mothers, fathers, wives and children in those lifetimes?