NEW DELHI, India — When Sumeet Kohli's husband was killed in a traffic accident, the 37-year-old cineplex manager was devastated. But when psychiatric medicines failed to help her, her husband's memory inspired her to make a decision she says changed her fate: She sought out a regression therapist who helped her dredge up memories of a past life.
"My life revolved around my husband, so it was very difficult for me to deal with that loss," Kohli said. "I was quite suicidal at that time. I had two small daughters, and I couldn't put things back together for myself. I had too many questions and no answers."
With a deep belief in reincarnation founded in Hinduism, middle-class Indians are embracing past life regression as a form of psychotherapy — once more showing how ancient traditions are fueling "new age" spiritualism even among successful, educated pragmatists. But even though the concept of past lives is a vital feature of India's Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist religions, ironically, the therapy has boomeranged back to the subcontinent from the United States — where the new embrace of Eastern religions, yoga and "spirituality" has made regression more popular than ever.
The website of a prominent new age magazine lists some 150 practitioners of the therapy across India. Practitioners in urban centers such as Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore say they have seen patient numbers double over the past five years. And last year a major TV channel pioneered a reality show, Raaz Pichhle Janam Ka (or The Secrets of Your Past Life), in which Mumbai-based psychologist Dr. Trupti Jayin supposedly helped ordinary people and celebrities access their past lives.
But are these gurus — some of whom charge upward of $300 per session — really qualified to treat clinical psychological and physical problems ranging from claustrophobia to peanut allergies? Or are they simply exploiting Hindu tradition and India's anxieties about the mental health profession to make a quick buck?
"One can open a chamber [clinic] like a physician and practice their trade and make pots of money," said Sumitra Padmanavan, a member of the Kolkata-based Humanists' Association. "Since the [political] leaders themselves are not sure about what exactly is meant by 'scientific truth,' the laws to curb these practices are not enforced."
Believe it or not, but Kohli says past life regression worked for her. She was popping antidepressants and sleeping pills like candy — to no avail — when she recalled that at the time of his death her husband had been reading "Many Lives, Many Masters," the bestselling book by American past life regression pioneer Brian Weiss. After a diligent search, Kohli discovered Roma Singh, a hypnotist and alternative healer based in the suburbs of Delhi, who, like Weiss, claimed she could help people overcome problems by aiding them in recalling their past lives.
Within five or six sessions, Kohli recalls, she had been reunited with her dead husband in five different incarnations, and finally discovered the source of her difficulties in dealing with her grief: In one of her past lives, her husband had been her son, and she had accidentally smothered him to death while breastfeeding. By dealing with that unresolved guilt, Kohli says, she came to terms with her present-day loss as well — which allowed her to stop taking antidepressants and sleeping pills.
"I felt an inner strength," she said. "I was more clear in my vision. My insecurity and fear had suddenly disappeared. I was always in fear all the time and I suddenly forgot all that."
When Weiss, a psychiatrist with a degree from Yale Medical School, first published "Many Lives, Many Masters" in 1988, he was criticized by other doctors for embracing superstition. But today many professional psychologists and psychiatrists in the West offer past life regression therapy alongside the more traditional package of counseling and prescription drugs — often with the claim that regression can help patients access traumatic experiences and achieve healing catharsis within a single session instead of years of Sigmund Freud's "talking cure."
"If there is an emotional catharsis — marked by physical reactions like shivering and crying — that toxic energy that is trapped with the story of the past life gets released."
Skeptical scientists argue that neither the vividness of the experience nor the supposedly transformative effect of the catharsis proves that the person has tapped into an actual past life, however. Critics argue that memories are much more vivid under hypnosis, generally, and the subjects simply create the narrative of their past lives from subconscious memories, their imaginations and inadvertent suggestions from the therapist.
In some cases, studies have shown that the historical era "remembered" by the patient under hypnosis bears more similarity to Hollywood's treatment of the time period than it does to historical fact. But researchers such as the late University of Virginia psychiatrist Ian Stevenson, who studied more than 2,500 such claims over his 40-year career, have claimed that they could find no other explanation for the skills, knowledge or behavior of many so-called "reincarnation children."
"The belief comes later," said Dr. Sanjay Chugh, a Delhi-based psychiatrist who uses past life regression in his medical practice. "What I look for is the fact that it works. There is no one actually who has undergone past life regression here who has not felt helped where the symptoms are concerned."
Hinduism's emphasis on karma and past lives has contributed to "phenomenal" growth, said Jayin who is a practicing clinical psychologist when she's not hypnotizing Bollywood stars on TV. Through the course of the first season of Raaz Pichhle Janam Ka, she says, NDTV Imagine, the channel that aired the show, received more than a million calls and emails from viewers who wanted help with their past lives, and in her private practice, Jayin now conducts an average of two regressions per day.
But it's not only the TV hypnotist whose business is booming. Regression therapists with a grounding in alternative or spiritual therapies such as reiki as well as those with degrees in psychology and psychiatry report that they're similarly overwhelmed — despite charging 10 to 20 times the cost of an average psychologist's counseling session for a past life regression.
And they're growing swiftly in number, according to Dr. Kondaveti Newton, a medical doctor who co-founded the Life Research Academy with his wife, Laxmi, in 2000. Over the past eight years, Newton said, the school has trained as many as 400 people to be past life regression therapists — while the country's entire roster of psychiatrists numbers only about 4,000.
Regression therapists who are already psychiatrists or clinical psychologists — such as Delhi's Dr. Chugh, who studied with Brian Weiss, or Mumbai's Dr. Jayin, who attended Newton's Hyderabad-based academy — have extensive training in counseling, psychological theory and the workings of the brain. Moreover, their practices (though not past life therapy, specifically) are also subject to oversight by regulatory boards like the Indian Medical Council.
But schools such as Newton's Life Research Academy, Andy Tomlinson's Past Life Regression Academy and Weiss's Omega Institute for Holistic Studies teach regression therapy in programs as brief as five days.
And a quick scan of the past life regression therapists listed on Indian web portals suggests that qualified mental health professionals account for only a tiny minority of the people practicing the technique in India. Most of the others offer past life regression as part of a package of services that includes treatments that have even less scientific acceptance, such as reiki — a Japanese meditative technique that purports to heal illnesses through the power of thought.
Minal Arora, a 34-year-old IT executive, is one example. Talking fluently of reiki, Doreen Virtue's Angel Therapy and something called Serenity Surrender, Arora said she sought out a past life regression course in Singapore when she was experiencing some personal problems. A math major without any formal training in psychology, she attended Tomlinson's Past Life Regression Academy to help herself, but now she has a weekend past life regression therapy practice that's booked solid months in advance.
"Initially, I did it just out of curiosity," she said. "But then I saw the kind of difference I could make in people's lives."
Akshay Dwivedi, a 32-year-old specialist in risk management, went to Arora for help when he was suffering from vague feelings of inertia and depression, and trouble in his relationships with various people in his life. Again, the catalyst was Brian Weiss, whom Dwivedi was reading when he discovered on a trip to Haridwar — one of Hinduism's holy sites — that he had a pathological fear of water. Under hypnosis, he believes that he discovered he was a farmer in a past life, and he drowned trying to save one of his family members from a flood. That failed rescue and his own grim fate, he says, lay at the root of his fear of water and his anxiety about close relationships. But Arora's therapy helped cure him.
"She invoked the archangel Michael to cut the karmic cords between me and the person I could not save," Dwivedi said. "That's why I was inviting insecure relationships around me. She said archangel Michael will cut the karmic cords with his sword, and I could see it happening."