Book Review: Proof of Heaven, by Dr Eben Alexander

Proof of HeavenPublisher: Simon & Schuster
Price: Rs 350

If once in this world I win a moment with you, 
I will trample on both worlds, I will dance in triumph for ever. 
O Shamsi Tabriz, I am so drunken in this world, 
That except of drunkenness and revelry I have no tale to tell.

Rumi’s unforgettable words come to mind when you put down Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife (2012) by Dr Eben Alexander. A highly qualified and respected neurosurgeon in the US, Alexander was afflicted by a rare form of meningitis at the age of 55, and went into coma for seven days. Though his physical condition deteriorated considerably and his brain saw extensive damage — so much so that his doctors wrote him off with a fatality chance of 97 per cent — he miraculously opened his eyes on day seven and was restored to perfect health within months.

He later wrote this book about his near-death experience, in which he describes what he went through in those few days — when, for him, time stood still and his being went on what can only be called a divine journey, past sticky darkness and overwhelming light, past beings that seemed like angels and an eternal source of energy that pulsated through him as if he were one with it.

Over the past four hundred years or so, the chasm between spirituality and science has grown wider and wider, so that today, it is considered unscientific to talk about God. One needs to seek ‘proof of heaven’, as it were, before committing to any belief. Only that which can be observed and documented is considered ‘real’ — everything else is dismissed as mumbo jumbo, fanciful thinking.

And so, even Alexander had a tricky time trying to find the words to describe an other-worldly experience. Being a scientist himself, he admits his earlier self would have dismissed his own experience as a play of neurons, as the flight of a disturbed mind. But using that very scientific knowledge, he goes to show how the parts of his brain that are usually responsible for such thoughts — the neocortex and others — were non-functional in those seven days. How could he have had a dream if the part of his brain responsible for dreaming — at least according to known scientific principles — was out of order?

The visions that he sees are not unfamiliar to us and especially not in India, where even scientists studying cancer molecules believe in astrology and follow their gurus’ advice. We’ve heard of such visions from the Bhagvad Gita, when Krishna bestows Arjun with divine sight for a few moments, so that Arjun can see the grandeur and indescribable vastness of God. We’ve heard of them from poets like Rumi, even in the lyrics of Eric Clapton. We are reminded of them every day in the ‘Notes from the Universe’ from Mike Dooley’s Tut.com. We’ve read of them in more and more books coming out of, strangely, the science-obsessed West. And most interestingly, we’ve seen men of science — doctors, psychiatrists and physicists — finding inexplicable truths in the sanctuary of their own labs and microscopes.

Who can forget the staggering Tao of Physics (1975) by Fritjof Capra? An Austrian-born American scientist with a PhD in theoretical physics, Capra turned all the fashionable scientific wisdom of his time on its head by comparing technical laws of nature with ancient Hindu, Chinese and Buddhist principles. One of the final scenes in the book likens the play and whirl of atoms to the dance of Shiva, an imagery that is unlikely to ever leave your head.

Dr Brian Weiss was another man of science who was confronted and confounded by something that science could not explain. A renowned psychiatrist and psychotherapist, he was astounded to hear one of his patients go into ‘past-life’ regression during a usual hypnotherapy session. When the lady began talking of Dr Weiss’s own family and dead son, he began to explore the phenomenon with greater interest and a sense of awe. Eventually, he became one of the world’s leading names in past-life regression, appearing on numerous TV shows including Oprah’s, and writing several books on the subject, including the 1988 bestseller Many Lives, Many Masters.

Then there’s Mani Bhaumik. Brought up in penury in West Bengal, he grew up to receive a PhD in quantum physics from IIT Kharagpur. Later, he left for UCLA on a fellowship, and became one of the world’s leading authorities on lasers. However, having been through such trying circumstances in his childhood, he realised that spirituality was an ‘essential ingredient for an abiding happiness’, and wrote Code Name God in 2005in which he infers that there is One Source to all scientific truths, that there is indeed God behind all things. It’s a slim but powerful book that links quantum physics to metaphysics, electrons to divinity.

No joy have I found in the two worlds apart from you, Beloved. 
Many wonders I have seen: I have not seen a wonder like you. 

In all these visions and glimpses we have seen of an afterlife, a parallel existence, there are strains of similarities. There is infinite grace, an abundance of joy and compassion, a oneness of being, and light enough for the whole universe. There is sensation of such magnificence that it cannot be contained in the limitations of language. But if there is one ‘portal’ that mere mortals here on earth have to access this unimaginable place, only available otherwise to seers and sages, it’s through love. Both earthy and divine, this — say all the writers and poets — is the one thing that we have in common with God. The more we express it, the more it manifests, and the closer we are to a higher dimension in our lives.

Alexander’s book beautifully sews together the little meaningful details of his life and shows how nothing happens by chance, how important family is, and the immense potential and power of prayer. It makes you look back at your own life with a sense of wonderment and reverence for all the things you took for granted or ever cribbed about. It leaves you eventually with a sense of peace and a childlike faith that ‘God has a plan for my life and that’s all I need to know‘.

The book cover promises, “Reading it will change your life.” No truer words than these.

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