Body, material

Material Body

Reading Complexity: 

The wonderful material body
Our material body is our visible, physical identity in the material world. It is made of material elements—solids, liquids, gases, etc.—and exists for a limited time. It is born, grows to maturity, and produces offspring; it then gradually dwindles, ceases to function, and ultimately vanishes.

What we call a "living body" is a combination of two kinds of energy—material and spiritual. Material energy supplies the gross materials of which the body is made, and spiritual energy animates the body and enables it to work. Without the presence of a spiritual spark—the self or atma—no material process can give life to the body.

We tend to identify ourselves as our material body. If our material body is male, female, old, young, black, or white, we think we are male, female, old, young, black, or white. This misconception, called false ego, is at the root of most of our anxiety. Because of false ego, we believe "death" means the end of our existence, when it's actually just the end of the material body's existence. We're not the material body. We're spiritual.

Read More

Spiritual energy, the vital force within the material body, remains constant throughout all the body's changes. The body dies, but we continue to exist. As soon as the self leaves the body—the event commonly known as death—the material body stops working. The self then moves on to another body, a process known as reincarnation or transmigration. The old body—deprived of its spiritual spark—then begins to decompose.

What type of material body we get next depends on various factors. The quality of our karma (actions) and consciousness determine whether we're qualified to have a human, animal, or vegetable body. The superior forces of material nature within the universe then arrange a specific body for us.

There are millions of different material bodies, and practically an unlimited variety within each species. Each body has its particular limitations—lifespan, intelligence, mobility, capacity for enjoyment, strength, and so on. The self passes through body after body after body, seeking fulfillment. But because the self is everlasting and spiritual, and all material bodies are temporary and subject to miserable conditions like disease, old age and death, we're disappointed again and again.

We have material bodies in the first place because of our persistent aversion to the Supreme Person. Our original, spiritual nature is to live in cooperation with the Absolute Truth, the Supreme Person, who is the source of all energies, including ourselves. When we want to live separately from Him, we want to not be ourselves. The material body is a kind of disguise that Krishna, the Supreme Person gives us when we want to forget our real identity.

Fortunately, this forgetfulness can be reversed. Krishna explains in the Bhagavad-gita how to recover our normal consciousness through the practice of Krishna consciousness. By deliberate remembrance of the Supreme Person, Krishna, anyone can truly be themselves, and never again have to undergo all the pain and trouble that goes along with being confined in a material body.

Is Old Age Inevitable?


from Back To Godhead Magazine #24-07, 1989

An article in The Times of London, entitled “Slowing Down the March of Time,” gave an update on research at an institute of experimental gerontology. According to a spokesman, “Some enigmas of aging are beginning to be unraveled by remarkable advances in medical research…. Growing old, in the traditional sense, is not inevitable. We are already developing ways to counter it” The author goes on to say that although research has been going on for a century, specific factors that cause aging “remain frustratingly elusive.” But aging is a crucial problem, because the aging populations, sometimes known as “gray-haired societies,” are dramatically increasing:

The extra demand on health and social services, as well as the need to find treatments for diseases of old age—particularly senile dementia—will be enormous. Hence the urgency of the question: “What causes us to grow old?” … Medical advances in the past few decades have largely thwarted many of the traditional killers of the elderly, such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, and influenza. In their place have come other diseases—not new, but camouflaged by the previous limits of the average life span: cancer, heart disease, senile dementia, and other degenerative conditions. As life expectancy increases. Hodkinson says, it is not the fear of death that overshadows our last years but the anxiety that we will lose our freedom through mental and physical disabilities.

Before trying to relate the Vedic solution to this current social problem, I would like to first explain the Vedic view of old age and the Vedic remedy. This topic is discussed in great detail in the Fourth Canto of the Srimad- Bhagavatam. The Bhagavatam is the history of Vedic civilization with attention to the incarnations of Godhead and His pure devotees. In one section, an allegory is told of a king named Puranjana, who symbolizes all conditioned souls in this material world. The sage Narada Muni describes how King Puranjana tried to enjoy himself to the fullest extent but was eventually attacked by a woman named Jara, who is the symbol of old age.

There is no way to overcome the influence of Jara in material life. Any Utopian idea that old age or death can be eliminated will never come about. Birth, death, disease, and old age are the four miseries of material life. Although scientists may work to try to alleviate these things and may appear to make a little progress, these natural miseries can never be removed. The Vedic approach is therefore different. We work to remove the very foundation of all these miseries, which is material existence itself. That approach will be more profitable than working within a concept that we can achieve a deathless or painless state within this temporary material life.

According to Srimad-Bhagavatam, we cannot slow down the march of time. There is a verse that states, “Both by rising and by setting, the sun decreases the duration of life of everyone, except for one who uses the time by discussing topics of the all-good Personality of Godhead” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.3.17). This especially refers to wasting time. Any time wasted can never be retrieved; even a million dollars cannot buy a minute back. Whatever one’s duration of life, it’s eventually vanquished. For the materialist, old age is therefore a signal that he has wasted his life. He thought he could be happy by omitting spiritual life and indulging in material pleasures, but when invalidity comes, it’s not only too late for material happiness, but it’s very difficult to make progress in Krishna consciousness.

The story of Puranjana is told by the sage Narada. Narada says that Jara once approached him with lusty desires but she couldn’t attack him because he was a brahmacari, a celibate. This means that persons who remain celibate like Narada do not grow old in the way ordinary persons do. They tend to live longer and without so many pains. Srila Prabhupada states in this section of the Bhagavatam:

If a person is Krishna conscious, he can work like a young man even if he is seventy-five or eighty years old. Thus the daughter of Kala (time) cannot overcome a Vaishnava. Srila Krishnadasa Kaviraja Gosvami engaged in writing Caitanya-caritamrita when he was very old, yet he presented the most wonderful literature about the activities of Lord Caitanya. Srila Rupa Gosvami and Sanatana Gosvami began their spiritual lives at a very old age, that is, after they retired from their occupations and family lives. Yet they presented many valuable literatures for the advancement of spiritual life…. Thus Jara, the effect of old age, does not harass a devotee. … Because a devotee rigidly follows the instructions of Narada Muni, he has no fear of old age, disease, or death. Apparently a devotee may grow old. but he is not subjected to the symptoms of defeat experienced by a common man in old age. Consequently, old age does not make a devotee fearful of death, as a common man is fearful of death. When Jara, or old age, takes shelter of a devotee, Kalakanya diminishes the devotee’s fear. A devotee knows that after death he is going back home, back to Godhead: therefore he has no fear of death. Thus instead of depressing a devotee, advanced age helps him become fearless and thus happy.

This was certainly true in the life of Srila Prabhupada. He was very jolly and active with his writing and preaching until he departed at the age of eighty-two. Although his example is extraordinary, others can follow and be much more successful than people who are struggling with material formulas to get through old age.

One who engages in spiritual practices throughout his life will not necessarily be immune from old-age diseases, but he will most likely not have such severe problems. The occurrence of senile dementia is rare in a person who is enlivened and enlightened with spiritual consciousness. Krishnadasa Kaviraja was in his nineties when he wrote the Caitanya-caritamrita. He writes there, “I have now become too old and disturbed by invalidity. While writing, my hands tremble. I cannot remember anything, nor can I see or hear properly. Still I write, and this is a great wonder.”

So the debilitating condition may come, but it won’t take away the higher consciousness, because one has been practicing higher consciousness all his life. But if one waits until the end of life to try to chant Hare Krishna, then the debilitation will overcome him.

So although the scientists may eventually be able to retard the degenerative diseases and extend the human life span, that isn’t the real problem. The latter part of life is significant not merely for trying to prolong sense pleasure, but it’s the time that must be used—even if earlier years weren’t fully used—for spiritual life. To spend the remaining days reminiscing and becoming fearful of approaching death, or thinking that one is useless in material society, is the greatest misfortune. The Vedic scriptures are teaching us that elderly people should be sane enough and brave enough to leave behind all material entanglements and concentrate on preparing themselves for what comes next—death and the next life.

Living Simpleminded / Dying Ignorant


from Back To Godhead Magazine #13-10, 1978

The poet’s vision is “to see infinity in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour.” In much the same way, a person who ponders Lord Krishna’s words in Bhagavad-gita can see the Transcendence even in the daily affairs of this material world.

Case in point: a recent article reported that each year, 20 million Americans suffer sports injuries. It seems a large percentage of these mishaps occur to people thirty-five and older who refuse to recognize that their bodies are aging. One prominent doctor quipped that these people are suffering from “an acute case of simplemindedness.”

Now, the good doctor may well claim that anyone who thinks his fifty-year-old body can cavort around the tennis court the way it did at twenty is simpleminded. But in the Gita Lord Krishna tells us that the so-called old man is still young—inside—and that anyone who can’t appreciate his inner psychology is simpleminded.

In other words, Krishna points to an enduring, ever-youthful self within the aging outer body. And He describes that while the outer body is changing from boyhood to youth to old age, the inner self stays the same. (Every day we see mothers recognize full-grown men as the same sons they once burped on their shoulders, even though the sons’ bodies have completely. changed.)

As Krishna goes on to explain, the inner self (the atma) will live for eternity—but the body has to grow old and diseased and die, and until we become self- realized, we’ll go on getting more and more bodies that have to grow old and diseased and die. So why don’t our knowledgeable doctors tell us how we can deal with this most critical injury—death? Could the answer be they don’t know how to treat it? Actually, both patients and doctors show an acute case of simplemindedness when they don’t see that the body has to grow old and decrepit and die. If they completely forget the inner self and fail to get the self in shape for death and the next life, then there’s no word for it but simplemindedness.

In our human life we’re supposed to be preparing ourselves. But not so much by exercising our bodies or giving them extra rest. Rather, we have to analyze our situation—discover the difference between the body and the self, find out about Krishna’s cure for death. Though the rage today is simplemindedness, we have to gain the presence of mind to see ahead, to our death and beyond.

For most of us, the real disease is that we’re ignoring the self and the next life. Old age means a bit more than having to cut out baseball and tennis. It means we’re going to die. So before we get too far along in years, we have to start a spiritual fitness program. We have to exert ourselves strenuously for self-realization.

This brings us to another “grain of sand.” In the past decade, death has become a fashionable topic. It’s no longer taboo, and in fact, people talk about it as if they were quite unafraid and thoroughly enlightened about its meaning. They read bestsellers like Life After Life, and they flock to courses on death and dying. But what does all this amount to? Has anyone come to understand what his death will actually be like? It doesn’t seem so. Death dilettantes may record volumes of scientific data about the physiological and mental experiences dying people go through, and they may try to help the patient die “easier,” but they can’t tell us what death really is.

Yet Bhagavad-gita tells us: death means the soul leaves the body. If that simple explanation isn’t enough, we can observe the fact in everyday life. At a funeral someone laments, “My husband is gone!” In other words—and we all know it—the self has left the body. The corpse may be lying in the coffin, but the actual living person has left.

Unfortunately, we soon forget this lesson, perhaps after seeing a psychologist who specializes in “grief therapy.” But our so-called experts can’t explain death away just by saying, “It happens to everybody,” or, “You still have your own life left to live.”

What, after all, has happened to the person who left his body? The Gita says, “For the soul there is never birth or death, nor having been, does he ever cease to exist. He is original, unborn, eternal, and undying. He is not slain when the body is slain.” After he leaves one body he simply gets another.

What kind of body will we get? That will depend on our mental state when we leave this body. India’s Vedic literatures describe 8.4 million different species, from the lowest aquatics and plants up through insects and reptiles and birds and beasts to human beings. After death we may have to take a body in any one of these species. And if we do things that are great wrongs in the eyes of God—say, needlessly killing other living beings or neglecting self- realization—we’ll certainly not attain a higher body.

So we can’t just ignore the signs of old age and death we daily see around us. And we have to see beyond the facile, faddish investigations. If we want to see things as they really are, we have to look to Bhagavad-gita and get transcendental vision.

Temple of Vishnu


from Back To Godhead Magazine #30-01, 1996

Devotees know that their bodies are temples of Vishnu, or Krishna. Krishna, the Absolute Truth, appears in three features: as the impersonal Brahman, as the Supersoul, and as Bhagavan, the personal feature, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. As the Supersoul, the Lord resides in every body, in the heart, along with the individual soul. Therefore, devotees respect their own bodies by keeping them clean and following good practices for health. Devotees don’t perform needless austerities, and they especially avoid austerities harmful to the body or not prescribed in the scriptures. Krishna tells us that such austerities are in the mode of ignorance.

Similarly, devotees avoid ignorant foods such as meat, fish, and eggs. Devotees follow the injunction of Bhagavad-gita that one should not eat too much or too little, sleep too much or not sleep enough. They don’t want to torture either the individual soul or the Supersoul residing in the body. A devotee recognizes that he does not own his body; the body is only rented from Krishna. Like any rental, it should be treated responsibly.

Devotees know that other people’s bodies are temples of Vishnu also. Srila Prabhupada writes in his purport to Bhagavad-gita 9.11, “A devotee should see that because Krishna is present in everyone’s heart as Paramatma [the Supersoul], every body is the embodiment of the temple of the Supreme Lord; so as one offers respect to the temple of the Lord, he should similarly properly respect each and every body in which the Paramatma dwells. Everyone should therefore be given proper respect and should not be neglected.”

A devotee therefore extends respect not only to other human beings but to living beings in all species of life. When we recognize the Lord’s presence in everyone’s heart, we are more inclined to respect every living being. The Bhagavad-gita tells us that a learned person sees with equal vision a brahmana, an elephant, a dog, and a dog-eater (outcaste). One can see all living beings equally when one perceives the same Supersoul within the heart of all.

In the Srimad-Bhagavatam (4.3.22) Lord Shiva explains this to his wife, Sati: “My dear young wife, certainly friends and relatives offer mutual greetings by standing up, welcoming one another, and offering obeisances. But those who are elevated to the transcendental platform, being intelligent, offer such respects to the Supersoul sitting within the body, not to the person who identifies with the body.”

Lord Siva said this after he was insulted by Daksha, his father-in-law, early in the world’s creation. Daksha was performing a great sacrifice, to which he had invited the demigods. He was a prajapati, one of the universal progenitors, and was therefore powerful. His body emanated a beautiful aura, and when people saw it they naturally offered him respect. When he entered the sacrificial arena, however, although all the others present stood up to receive him, Lord Siva was lost in meditation on Krishna and did not notice Daksha’s arrival. Daksha was offended and in turn insulted Lord Siva.

Srila Prabhupada comments, “It may be argued that since Daksha was the father-in-law of Lord Siva, it was certainly the duty of Lord Siva to offer him respect. In answer to that argument, it is explained here that when a learned person stands up and offers obeisances in welcome, he offers respect to the Supersoul, who is seated in everyone’s heart.”

Lord Siva was not neglecting Daksha; since Lord Siva was already offering respects to the Supersoul of the universe, those respects naturally included respects to the Supersoul in Daksha’s heart.

Still, devotees offer respects not only to the Supersoul but also to the individual soul. Therefore a devotee may offer obeisances differently according to the soul’s development. Although there is no such thing as “better” souls or “lesser,” different living entities have different degrees of advancement. One living entity may identify with his or her bodily existence whereas another may be liberated from bodily identification. If we were offering respects only to Lord Vishnu, we would offer the same respect to every living entity, but because we respect the individuality of the soul, we offer respect according to the living entity’s nature.

Those in the gross mode of ignorance cannot see the soul. Those in the mode of passion, preoccupied with bodily forms, cannot see the underlying equality and unity of all beings. But Krishna defines knowledge in the mode of goodness as follows: “That knowledge by which one undivided spiritual nature is seen in all living entities, though they are divided into innumerable forms, you should understand to be in the mode of goodness.” Srila Prabhupada writes, “A person who sees one spirit soul in every living being, whether a demigod, human being, animal, bird, beast, aquatic, or plant, possesses knowledge in the mode of goodness. In all living entities, one spirit soul is there, although they have different bodies in terms of their previous work.”

“Oneness” in this sense does not mean that there is one soul in myriad bodies, as the impersonalists teach, but that an individual soul of equal quality is present in the heart of each living being. A plant has a soul, and we offer the respects appropriate for a soul in a plant’s body. For obvious reasons, although we respect the presence of the soul and Supersoul in the body of a tiger, we do so from a distance.

Of course, we show the most respect to other human beings, but a devotee does not base that respect on a person’s material position. Devotees shouldn’t look at other living entities as objects to gratify their senses. Therefore, men should respect women as mothers and no one should try to exploit other living beings for sense gratification. To exploit others is to exploit the resources of the Lord’s temple and thus defile it.

A devotee offers the most respect to pure devotees. The Nectar of Instruction advises that one respect devotees in terms of their relationship with Krishna: “One should mentally honor the devotee who chants the holy name of Krishna, one should offer humble obeisances to the devotee who has undergone spiritual initiation and is engaged in worshiping the Deity, and one should associate with and faithfully serve that pure devotee who is advanced in undeviated devotional service and whose heart is completely devoid of the propensity to criticize others.”

The highest repository of respect for a devotee is someone advanced in pure devotional service and free from envy. Freedom from envy means freedom from the bodily concept. The nonenvious devotee has the ability to see the “one” soul in all living beings. Such a humble devotee has nothing to gain from anyone but everything to give, because he possesses Krishna.