Simple common sense says that human life is distinguished from all other forms of life by virtue of a more developed consciousness that enables us to ask questions like – Who am I? Where do I come from? What is the goal of my life? Through the process of Krishna consciousness we can explore this human potential to the highest degree.
If we were to conduct a survey by asking the question “Who are you?” we would get answers such as “I am Mr. Smith,” “I am a man,” “I am a woman,” “I am an American,” “I am a Christian,” “I am a carpenter,” “I am black,” “I am a communist,” and so on. Though people identify themselves in many different ways, none of these responses answer the question of who I am. Why? Because they refer only to the body.
We may look at our body and try to determine with which part we can identify. Are we our hands? Well, there are many people with amputated hands, and still they have retained their identity. The same holds true for arms, feet, and legs. Maybe we are the heart? But what about all the people who have received another heart? They seem to be the same person after the transplant. What about the brain? I know someone whose head was badly injured and a good part of his skull and brain had to be removed—he is still the same person.
Now we are coming to a dead end with our research.
What is our real identity, which distinguishes you and me so clearly from one another, even though we may look the same, have the same name, weight, height, and complexion?
Materialistic science has not come up with an answer to this question. But the world’s oldest books of knowledge, the Vedas, define our identity in this way: aham brahmasmi—I am spirit. I am an eternal spirit soul distinct from matter or the body. The Bhagavad-gita (2.20) explains:
For the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time. He has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.
This conclusion generally provokes arguments from hardcore materialists. Therefore we will deal with some common objections in the following hypothetical discussion.
Challenge: Isn’t this just the obsolete opinion of some outdated books, the imagination of uneducated, primitive people?
Reply: All authentic scriptures—Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim—proclaim the eternality of the soul. And an objective analysis will reveal that the Vedas contain the most comprehensive knowledge of spiritual subject matters. The majority of the world’s population still believes firmly in the existence of the soul.
Challenge: But nobody has ever seen the soul!
Reply: If you think that only things that can be seen exist, then how do you prove that you have intelligence, feelings, love, thoughts, and so on? These things can’t be seen either.
Challenge: But they can be perceived through the activities they generate.
Reply: Yes and the soul’s existence can be perceived—through consciousness, the symptom of the soul. Dead matter has no consciousness and therefore no soul.
Challenge: But consciousness is simply produced by the chemical reactions of the brain, and the evidence is that as soon as the brain stops functioning, there is no more consciousness.
Reply: This is a foolish argument. For example, if you watch a football game on TV and a power failure occurs, the game disappears from the screen. According to your logic, this is the evidence that the football game was produced by the TV. Actually, the machine simply transmitted the game that was going on independently of the TV. In the same way, consciousness is transmitted by the brain but not produced by it.
Challenge: But the idea of “soul” is completely unscientific.
Reply: What does science mean? You have a theory, you conduct experiments, and according to your results you prove or disprove your theory. If you want evidence for the soul, why don’t you make an experiment with spiritual science? There are countless people who have obtained the result in the form of self-realization. So you too can verify the existence of the soul. But if you turn a theory down without even trying to verify it, then you are certainly most unscientific.
Challenge: But I just don’t believe in the soul.
Reply: Well, you can certainly believe whatever you want, but don’t pass your atheistic beliefs off as scientific truth. The existence of the soul can be verified through the proper process, and that is what Krishna consciousness is all about.
We can observe that all bodily designations are constantly changing. For example, someone may identify himself as a young male Christian carpenter with socialist ideals. But thirty years later that same person may identify himself as an old atheistic real estate agent with capitalistic ambitions. Even a person’s sexual designation can change. Modern medical science can turn a man into a woman and vice versa. Besides, the cells in the body constantly change, so our physical identity changes from moment to moment. Therefore we cannot establish a real, permanent identity contingent on the physical body. Only one thing remains constant: the conscious observer in the body, who is aware of the physical changes.
This becomes even clearer by examining the way we talk about the body. We say “my body,” “my arm,” “my foot.” But who is the “I,” the owner and controller of the body? It is the conscious spirit soul.
The body is a machine made of matter. This is confirmed in the Bhagavad-gita (18.61):
The Supreme Lord is situated in everyone’s heart, O Arjuna and is directing the wanderings of all living entities, who are seated as on a machine made of the material energy.
In other words, the body is like a car, and the soul is its driver. An ignorant person may see a car from a distance and think it is driving by itself. But a knowledgeable person can understand that there has to be a driver.
Matter is by nature inert and requires superior, living energy to manipulate it. Every machine needs an operator. The body consists of chemicals and does not move without the presence of the soul. The best evidence for this is that when a person dies, all bodily functions stop.
Of course, someone may say that this is due to lack of certain chemicals. But if someone is dead you can inject chemicals all day long and he will not wake up. Once the soul is gone, the chemicals start to disintegrate, and no scientist can stop this process.
Therefore the difference between a dead body and a living body is the presence of the soul.
Earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence, and false ego—all together, these eight constitute My separated material energies. Besides these, O mighty-armed Arjuna, there is another, superior energy of Mine, which comprises the living entities who are exploiting the resources of this material, inferior nature. (Bhagavad-gita 7.4, 5)
According to the Vedic science there are three bodies:
1. The gross body, consisting of earth, water, fire, air, and ether (space). These elements combine to form blood, flesh, bone, skin, and so on.
2. The subtle body consisting of mind, intelligence, and false ego. Its functions are thinking, feeling, and willing (mind); decision-making and evaluating sense objects (intelligence): and illusory identification with matter (false ego).
The subtle body can be experienced in our emotions, such as love, hate, attraction and repulsion, or in our dreams, which are nothing but the subtle body acting instead of the gross body.
3. The spiritual body, or the soul, consisting of eternity, knowledge, and bliss—sac-cid-ananda. It is unmanifested, or in seed form, while encaged in a material body.
The soul is the cause of life in the sense that it makes the gross body appear alive, but actually the soul is the life itself, and the body is never alive. A hammer, for example can perform very useful tasks and move around in so many ways but only when it is held by the hand. In the same way the body moves only because of the presence of the soul.
The relationship between matter, body, mind, and soul is described in Bhagavad-gita (3.42):
The working senses are superior to dull matter; mind is higher than the senses: intelligence is still higher than the mind: and he [the soul] is even higher than the intelligence.
Bhagavad-gita describes enjoyment on the physical platform as much inferior to enjoyment on the level of the pure self, the soul. From the following verses we can see that understanding our real self and the difference between matter and spirit is not merely a philosophical issue but can affect our life in a very practical way:
An intelligent person does not take part in the sources of misery, which are due to contact with the material senses. O son of Kunti such pleasures have a beginning and an end, and so the wise man does not delight in them. (Bhagavad-gita 5.22)
In the stage of perfection called trance, or samadhi, one’s mind is completely restrained from material mental activities by practice of yoga. This perfection is characterized by one’s ability to see the self by the pure mind and to relish and rejoice in the self. In that joyous state, one is situated in boundless transcendental happiness, realized through transcendental senses. Established thus, one never departs from the truth, and upon gaining this he thinks there is no greater gain. Being situated in such a position, one is never shaken, even in the midst of greatest difficulty. This indeed is actual freedom from all miseries arising from material contact. (Bhagavad-gita 6.20-23)
Just as the body requires material food, the soul requires spiritual food. As long as people are starving their soul, they will have to tolerate the consequences in the form of anger, frustration, envy, lust, greed, and hatred. These are all symptoms of bodily identification.
If the driver always fills the tank of the car, checks the oil, polishes and cleans the car nicely, but neglects to eat, soon all his efforts in relation to the car will be useless. What good is a car without a driver? Both the car and the driver have to be maintained nicely. But out of the two, the driver is more important. Unfortunately, not only does our materialistic society fail to maintain the driver properly—it doesn’t even know he exists!
From the spiritual point of view, a so-called normal person who identifies with his material body is as crazy as a mentally deranged person who imagines himself to be Napoleon or Hitler. Neither of them knows who he is.
The only sane person is the one who understands his real identity as spirit soul and who can see the difference between matter and spirit. The knowledge of our real self is already there. It is an inherent part of the soul. Therefore we do not have to acquire it from somewhere else. We simply have to uncover it from within ourselves, just as one would clean a dusty mirror to see himself again. Self-realization can be accomplished by the process of Krishna consciousness. By cultivating knowledge of our real self, we realize the wonderful qualities of the soul and become happy and peaceful.