Life and Death
by Mandaleshvara dasa
“What is that force without which a living body becomes a dead body? That’s the one thing the experts can’t quite put their finger on.”
What is life? ... A child is born. You can see his natural luster, feel the warmth of his body, hear his crying. All his vital functions are in order. Sometimes he is awake, sometimes asleep; he drinks his mother’s milk and digests it. For the past nine months he has been in the womb of his mother, developing his small body. And now he is born. He will continue to grow, day by day. He will become larger and heavier. His features will change. He will grow stronger, more proportioned and coordinated. And one day his mother will say, “Why, he’s so big! He’s not a baby any more.”
Living beings are born, and they die. And in the interim they grow, stay for some time, produce offspring, then dwindle—and the whole process ends in death.
And what is death? ... Last night at 11:31 P.M., Mr. Gerald Smith died. His pulse and heartbeat stopped, his lungs collapsed, and his body temperature dropped. The on-duty physician did all he could. But, understanding that the patient’s vital functions had ceased, he pronounced Mr. Smith dead.
“Living beings are born, and they die.” What could be a more profound philosophical statement. Eleven years ago I was a college sophomore taking an introductory philosophy course. When I heard that statement from my professor, I was struck by its gravity and truth. For the first time in my life, I plainly saw: I am a living being, and I will soon die.
Some important questions came into my mind at that time—questions about death and about, the purpose of life. Now, after studying Bhagavad-gita (the philosophy course taught by the original teacher, Lord Krishna), I’m finding the answers to these big questions. These questions and their answers must be just as important to you as they are to me, because they deal with something we have in common. We are all living beings destined to die.
I’d like to present here the essential facts about life and death as I have understood them from the Bhagavad- gita,under the guidance of my spiritual master, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Of course there’s been scientific research and philosophical inquiry about life and death, but apparently no one really knows very much.
Suppose we open a dictionary to find out what “life” is. According to Webster’s, it’s “the principle or force by which animals and plants are maintained in the performance of their functions and which distinguishes by its presence animate from inanimate matter.” But just what is that “principle or force”? The encyclopedias offer all kinds of scholarly definitions, but most of these simply acknowledge that life is hard to define. “The chemical composition of protoplasm is known,” notes one encyclopedia, “but what gives it the qualities of life is not known.” Or sometimes the encyclopedias try to define life by listing its external symptoms: if a thing grows, reproduces, and so on, it’s alive.
But again, what is that principle that brings about these characteristics like growth and reproduction? What is that force without which a living body becomes a dead body? That’s the thing the experts can’t quite put their finger on. They talk about life; they study its symptoms. But they can’t figure out what it is. And if you or I were to ask a university professor, we would probably get the same sort of answer—one that hedges on the real issue. And we’d probably get lost in biochemical, metabolic, thermodynamic, or genetic jargon.
Sometimes the scientists claim that life is “a phenomenon that occurs in nature when exactly the right chemicals combine under exactly the right conditions.” Actually, this is the gist of most scientific theories about life, but just how scientific is it? The scientists’ own methodology requires that they support each theory by experimentation and observation. But no scientist has ever observed life being generated spontaneously from chemicals. When you don’t know something, that’s one thing. When you don’t know but pretend to, that’s something else—cheating. It’s cheating for these so-called scientific authorities to claim that life originates from matter.
Still, the scientists go on telling their story: “Once upon a time, a long time ago, life arose from a random chemical soup.” And we’re supposed to believe them. But ask them to go into the laboratory and come up with some clinical proof, and they say that life came into being ages and ages ago—by accident. Hmm. That certainly seems odd, but at least it squares conveniently with their theories. Today, of course, things don’t happen that way. Anyone can see that (nowadays, at least) living beings come from other living beings. Yet our learned scientists keep trying to show us that conscious life comes from dead matter. But when they make a facsimile of the conditions that may have existed on earth x millions of years ago and try to create life ... they fail. Sometimes they claim they’ve synthesized certain amino acids, “the building blocks of life.” But that’s not life. There’s a big difference between an amino acid and a conscious living being.
“One day soon,” they doggedly vow, “we’ll create life from chemicals.” But what we see every day is that life comes from life. Two bugs create more bugs, a scientist and his wife have children, and so on. But where do we see life coming from chemicals?
How can the scientists even try to prove by experimentation that life has arisen spontaneously from matter? Consider: they themselves are life—they’re living beings—so all their attempts to show how life comes spontaneously from matter are self-contradictory, because the scientists themselves are conducting the experiments.
Who Plants the Seed?
Regardless how life may have begun within the universe, scientific evidence makes one thing clear: life could not have come about by accident, from chemical combination; an intelligent living being must have entered into the picture to conduct the experiment or combine the chemicals, to plant the seed or hatch the egg. So even if some scientist who wanted to prove that life comes from matter were to succeed in creating life (of course, this is impossible, but if, for the sake of argument, someone did it), he would actually be affirming that life is created by a very intelligent being under controlled conditions. In other words, he would be proving that life must come from life, not from matter. And that’s just what Bhagavad-gita has been saying for thousands of years.
As Bhagavad-gita explains, the origin of life is life: the supreme life, Krishna. “I am the source of everything, material and spiritual,” says Lord Krishna. “Both the living, spiritual energy and the inanimate, material energy emanate from Me.”
The material scientists would like us to accept the unfounded notion that life comes from matter (although where matter has come from they can’t say). But Bhagavad- gita tells us, “Lord Krishna is the original life, the source of everything, whether living or material.” In other words, everything (living or material) is coming from one living source. Life and matter are simply two different energies of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, just as light and heat are two energies of the sun.
What Makes the Difference?
It was back in 1968 that my spiritual master Srila Prabhupada spoke to an assembly of faculty and students at M.I.T. “Although you have so many departments of knowledge,” he pointed out, “you have not found out what makes the difference between a living body and a dead body.”
As anyone can see, something essential is missing from a dead body-something that distinguishes it from a living body. “Where is your educational department for finding that essential thing?” Srila Prabhupada challenged. Unfortunately, despite their advanced knowledge of the physical body and its mechanical workings, our modern scientists have no knowledge of the living soul. Yet it is the soul that gives life to the body. Without the soul the wonderful material body becomes useless, fit for burning or burying.
Despite their claims and promises, today’s scientists seem unable to tell us anything about life or birth or death. But ancient India’s Vedic literatures are not so disappointing. In fact, they are perfectly scientific. Consider, for instance, the Vedic explanation of birth:
“Under the supervision of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, a living spirit soul enters a particle of semen and is then injected into the womb of the mother during sexual intercourse.” If the conditions within the womb are favorable, the soul remains and there is an emulsification of the semen and the ovum. Then, due to the presence of the soul, the embryo develops. When the body is fully developed (after about nine months), the baby comes out of his mother’s womb—and this is called birth. If there were no living soul, the embryo could not have grown and developed. To put it simply, matter can’t grow and develop without the living energy of the soul.
And what about death? ... When Mr. Smith died last night at 11:31 P.M., all his vital functions stopped. His pulse, heartbeat, and breathing stopped, and his life luster suddenly vanished. What happened? What happens at death?
“Death is the absence of life.” The scientists are in agreement about that. But what life is they have no inkling of. So a fitting “scientific” definition of death would be, “Death is the absence of life (whatever that is).”
Undoubtedly, death is the absence of life. And from Bhagavad-gita we get a clear understanding just what that means: “LIFE is the eternal soul. And when the soul leaves the body ... DEATH—the absence of life.”
As I said, hardly anyone today knows the facts about life and death. But if we read Bhagavad-gita,we’ll get all the facts.
A Sudden Lack of Luster
Some members of the scientific community do accept the existence of the eternal living soul. For example, Dr. Wilfred G. Bigelow (a world-famous heart surgeon and chairman of cardiovascular surgery at the Toronto General Hospital) says, “My thirty-two years as a surgeon have left me no doubts that there is a soul.”
Several years ago the Montreal Gazette quoted Dr. Bigelow as saying, “There are certain cases where you happen to be present at the moment when people pass from a living state to death, and some mysterious changes take place. One of the most noticeable is the sudden lack of luster to the eyes. They become opaque and literally lifeless. The central question is, Where is the soul and where does it come from?”
My spiritual master appreciated Dr. Bigelow’s insight. In a letter to him, Srila Prabhupada wrote,
“Undoubtedly the soul is present in the heart of the living entity, and it is the source of all the energies for maintaining the body. The energy of the soul is spread all over the body, and this is known as consciousness.
“The undertaking of ‘soul research’ would certainly mark the advancement of science. But the advancement of science will not be able to find the soul. The soul’s presence can simply be accepted on circumstantial understanding.
You will find in the Vedic literature that the dimension of the soul is one ten-thousandth the size of a point. The material scientist cannot measure the length and breadth of a point. Therefore it is not possible for the material scientist to capture the soul. You can simply accept the soul’s existence by taking it from Vedic authority. What the greatest scientists are finding, we’ve explained long ago.”
Modern scientists use circumstantial data to back up all sorts of theories about things they can’t directly perceive (take atomic and subatomic particles, for instance). So why don’t they accept the circumstantial evidence for the existence of the soul? We find a full explanation of the soul’s existence in Bhagavad-gita,and a full verification in our own everyday experience.
The so-called scientists, who claim that life comes from matter, that it arose by chance, and that it dies along with the body, defy not only Vedic authority but even common sense and their own practical experience. Bhagavad-gita calls their philosophy demonic: “The demons say that there is no God in control, that everything in this world is a product of the random attraction of various material bodies.” (Bg. 16.8) These demons in the guise of scientists want to undermine belief in God and the soul “There is no God. There is no soul. Science is God, and we are the high priests.”
On account of this godless philosophy, people have become more and more materialistic and faithless. We’re starting to think, “So, there’s no God and no soul and no life after death. That means there’s no sin and no karma. When your body is finished, everything’s finished. So you can do anything you like.”
But as Bhagavad-gita says, “Following such conclusions, the demonic engage in unbeneficial, horrible works meant to destroy the world. They believe that to gratify the senses unto the end of life is the prime necessity of human civilization. Thus there is no end to their anxiety.” (Bg. 16.9, 11)
We have another choice, of course. We can follow the Bhagavad-gita’s teachings and understand the phenomenon of life and the process of birth and death. And at last we can become free from birth and death and enter into eternal life.
The choice is ours—whether we’ll follow godless science or the science of the soul. So let’s not make the wrong choice. It’s a matter of life and death.