“When does life begin?” – Simple answer – it doesn’t! There is no beginning to life – and no end!
Within the world as we know it, we are dealing with 2 distinct energies, the material energy or bahiraṅgā śakti (that energy which is external, unessential, or relating to the exterior) also known as dead matter, and a spiritual energy the jīva-śakti (life-energy)
Life does not arise from matter or the material energy. Life is spiritual. Matter, in close proximity to (or under the influence of) life, can manifest symptoms of life. For example, living organisms undergo six changes—birth, growth, maturity, reproduction, then dwindling or old-age, and death.
From a scientific perspective this development in living organisms could be seen as contradicting the 2nd law of thermodynamics, which, according to Boston University, states that ”there is a natural tendency of any isolated system to degenerate into a more disordered state.”
We see this in humans for instance, when a single cell divides with increasing complexity, leading to the development of bones, hair, internal organs, a brain etc., all manifesting from that one original cell. A clear manifestation of incredible complexity and order.
Then, at the moment of death, there is a monumental shift in the other direction – a breaking down of that order and complexity.
The yogis attributed this apparent contradiction to the fact that the body, and the living being within the body, are two distinct energies.
Just as fire, which burns and illuminates, is different from firewood, which is to be burned to give illumination, similarly the seer within the body, the self-enlightened spirit soul, is different from the material body, which is to be illuminated by consciousness. Thus the spirit soul and the body possess different characteristics and are separate things. – Bhāgavata Purāṇa 11.10.8
The soul within the body is self-luminous and is distinct from the visible gross body and invisible subtle body. It remains as the fixed basis of changing bodily existence, just as the ethereal sky is the unchanging background of material transformation. Therefore the soul is endless and without material comparison. – Bhāgavata Purāṇa 12.5.8
One of the characteristics of the jīva-śakti (life-energy) – it is eternal.
Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be. Bhagavad-gītā 2.12
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. Bhagavad-gītā 2.20
So why does the spirit-soul/atma acquire this current body?
As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change. – Bhagavad-gītā 2.13
The caterpillar transports itself from one leaf to another by capturing one leaf before giving up the other. Similarly, according to one’s previous work, the living entity must capture another body before giving up the one they have. This is because the mind is the reservoir of all kinds of desires. – Bhāgavata Purāṇa 4.29.76-77
The living entity in the material world carries its different conceptions of life from one body to another as the air carries aromas. Thus one takes one kind of body and again quits it to take another. – Bhagavad-gītā 15.8
If you are interested in this topic and would like to explore further, I suggest a series I have done called “Finding Myself – The fundamentals of enlightenment” available here – LINK
Namaste and welcome once again.
So I have somewhat recently returned from some travel in Asia, and when I was up in the Philippines I was talking to a friend, and she had been engaged in a little bit of a conversation, and even debate, with her mother, who was living in the U.S. And the debate, they came to a point—or the discussion rather, probably, more than a debate—came to a point where the question arose, “When does life begin?” And it was at this point that things came to a little bit of an impasse. And she had also perhaps forgotten some of the fundamentals of what we learn through all this wonderful yoga wisdom. And the question that had come up, as I mentioned was, “When does life begin?”
This subject is quite often connected with the abortion debate. I, however, am not going to deal with the issue or the topic of abortion. The fact that this question was raised, I thought it was really important, because it’s very foundational to our life and how we are going to choose to live, because it actually addresses something really quite deep.
So when we ask the question, “When does life actually begin?” the very simple answer is that it doesn’t! There is no beginning to life, nor is there an end. When people hear that it’s sort of like, is a little bit astounding for some people, and they want to sort of question, “Well, what exactly do you mean by that?” So, my response is very much shaped by both the great wisdom found in the Vedas and the perspective that is offered on life, which is completely different from the common materialistic perspective that people have.
Within the world as we know it, we are actually dealing with two very distinct energies, the material energy—and in Sanskrit this is called the bahiranga sakti, which literally means that energy which is external or unessential, or it’s relating to that which is exterior to something; and then the second energy is a spiritual energy which is called the jiva sakti, which literally means the life energy. So don’t overly think this one or get too stressed about it. We will be covering some points and things will become very clear to you as we go.
So, in this world people’s reference to life is quite or most often, the time that the body is seen to be alive, that’s what people refer to as life. But the Vedas teach us that that’s not a very thoughtful view of things, that there is way more to the paradigm than that thought or that idea. So the Vedas, in speaking about these two energies which are manifest and we can experience and observe in this world, it is the spiritual energy alone, the jiva sakti, the life energy, that manifests life. But there is this very amazing and observable phenomena, that when this spiritual energy is in close proximity to the material energy, then the material energy can begin to exhibit the symptoms of life also. So therefore what most people speak about as being life, and what the great yogic teachers, the great sages talk about as being life were really two quite distinct things.
So if we understand that the material energy, when it is under the influence of and in very close proximity to this spiritual energy, it takes on all these characteristics that it wouldn’t normally do. And what do we mean by that? We see with all living organisms, or practically all living organisms, they undergo what were categorized as six changes, or transformations. You have what is called birth—and that may be different for different types of organisms—you have birth, you have growth, then you reach maturity, the organism reaches maturity. There is then often the characteristic of reproduction, which may manifest in so many different ways. And then gradually there is a dwindling of the organism, or what we refer to in human species and more developed animals as being old age. And then finally there is death. So these are the six transformations that all living organisms undergo.
But I will make the point that it is only the material energy that is undergoing these six forms of transformation. The living being, the eternal spiritual living being within, does not undergo. He may, the living being may experience and identify with the transformations of the outer body. If you recall earlier, we spoke about the material energy has being external, this bahiranga sakti, and it is referred to as external for a whole bunch of different reasons, one of them being that it is external to the life energy.
So from a scientific perspective this development that you see within living organisms could be seen to contradict what is referred to as the second law of thermodynamics. So we’re going to have a little, little and easy, science class here. Thermodynamics deal with heat and energy within the material sphere.
So, the first law of thermodynamics that was discovered states that energy cannot be created or destroyed. So I’m just presenting that in the simplest way. So that means the total quantity of energy in the universe always stays the same. So energy can be transformed—and when we speak of energy here, it’s not in the same way as I was using the word a little bit earlier when we were talking about material energy and spiritual energy. We’re talking about energy as it manifests, for instance, in the form of heat or in other forms.
So, the second law of thermodynamics is about the nature of energy. According to the Boston University the second law of thermodynamics also states that, “There is a natural tendency of any isolated system to degenerate into a more disordered state.” So scientifically this is referred to as entropy, the tendency for things to break down. And so when I say that, I mean, I think if you think of compost, where you’ve got vegetable matter from the kitchen or whatever, and you put it in the compost bin, and if you put a time-lapse camera on it, and you watch it breaking down, you will see how it quickly devolves into more simple chemical structures and states, and in the process often releases a quite significant amount of heat and gases and other changes; but you see it devolving from a complex state, I mean the living organism is very complex, into a less complex state. Just like you end up with organic matter, compost that you put in the garden.
But with living organisms, living beings, we see that the second law of thermodynamics is actually contradicted. And one can ask, “Well, why does it not hold up in this condition?” and maybe even, “What exactly do you mean by that?”
So initially, when this energy of life influences matter we will see that there is almost an exponential increase in very orderly complexity. It’s sort of like most people are going to be rolling their eyes and thinking, “What exactly does that mean?” Well, in the example of the human being, it begins as a single-celled organism which quickly begins to divide, to replicate and to grow in size, and also in complexity. From that initial cell you soon end up with a whole variety of different types of complex matter, like you have the skin beginning to form, you have the blood beginning to form, you have a brain beginning to form, you have bones, nails, teeth, hair. When you begin to look at the development then of the internal organs, the lungs, the kidneys, the liver, the spleen, so now we see that this single cell of material energy is now growing dramatically and almost exponentially in complexity until, of course, it develops into a fully developed human organism.
So, we see that rather than things heading towards entropy, more simple state, as matter naturally does, in the presence of a living organism we see this huge growth in complexity. Then, once the organism has fully developed, whether it’s due to old age or disease or an accident, suddenly death arrives, the death of that particular body. Then we will see there is a very sudden and monumental shift in the other direction, meaning away from complexity. We see the breaking down of all of that order and all of that complexity to now a very simple state. I think there is the biblical saying, “From ashes to ash, from dust to dust,” when they speak of the death of the body.
And so this is like a really big question. So why is it that a living organism seems to directly contradict the second law of thermodynamics? And once again, just revisiting what was described: the Boston University stated that one of the understandings is that “there is a natural tendency of an isolated system to degenerate into a more disordered state.” A person may therefore question, “Well is there something wrong with this second law of thermodynamics?” The law of thermodynamics was generally applied to non-living matter, but in the case of living organisms it becomes a little bit more difficult to deal with for people.
And so you have the Darwinist type professors at universities will often try to counter that, “If we define an isolated system simply as the body, the living organism, the body of this living organism, then yes, it appears to, but if you look at the bigger picture…” and as they say, “When you take into account the entire system, including the environment then there is always a net increase in entropy.”
So, personally I’m not very satisfied with that response. I feel it is an attempt to try and explain away an incredibly difficult problem, because I think we can understand that each body is an isolated system. So anyway that’s—for me it’s not a very persuasive argument, and I’m not going to get into the details of the science here. I’ll just make that statement so we can move on.
So the yogis, since ancient times, they attributed this apparent contradiction (and when I say apparent contradiction I’m talking about a living organism growing in complexity and—rather than going the other way heading towards entropy or order breaking down), they explain this contradiction to the fact that the, as I’ve already stated, the body and the living being within are two distinct energies.
So I’d like to just quote you a couple of verses here. This, both of them, are from the very ancient text, the Bhagavat Purana. And this first one, it states,
“Just as fire which burns and illuminates, is different from firewood, which is to be burned to give illumination similarly the seer within the body, the self-enlightened spirit soul, is different from the material body, which is to be illuminated by consciousness. Thus the spirit soul and the body possess different characteristics and are separate things.”
So this is a very easy to understand explanation. The concepts put forward by the great thinkers in the yogic world, I mean, are absolutely amazing. For instance, any wooden object, they say actually contains the element fire, and their conception of things, their understanding of the order, the natural order of things, was quite different. For instance, when you light a large fire from a lot of wood you might begin with simply a match. And if they ask, “So where does the fire come from?” and somebody would say, “Well, it comes from the match.” And their response would be, “Well, no, the match has a little tiny fire. How did that fire become so big?” and they refer to it as residing within the wood, and under certain conditions it can manifest.
So we have this term also, “the seer” drishta This was a very important term in yoga, and it’s a very deep question. I’m not going to go into detail about it now, but it speaks to who is the one that’s actually within observing and seeing everything, even the mind. The seer is actually the spiritual being and not the external object or the instruments of the senses.
So in another verse from the Bhagavad Purana it states:
“The soul within the body is self-luminous and is distinct from the visible gross body and invisible subtle body. It remains as the fixed basis of changing bodily existence, just as the ethereal sky is the unchanging background of material transformation. Therefore the soul is endless and without material comparison.”
So a lot of very profound ideas here, and we’re not going to really dissect it. I just wanted to establish the framework of understanding of the great transcendentalists, that it was the life force, the jiva sakti, the life energy, which is spiritual in nature, that illuminates the body and lends consciousness to the body. And you have two bodies, the gross physical body, which is called the sthula sarira, and then there is a subtle body comprised of the mind; the intellect, or intelligence, the buddhi; and the false concepts of self, called the ahankara. And both the subtle and the gross body manifest symptoms of life and appear to be living because consciousness has been lent to them by the presence of the jiva, the eternal spiritual being within.
So getting back now to the, having at least discussed that point, getting back to the original question of the beginning of life: When does life begin? So, one of the characteristics of the spiritual being, this jiva sakti, the life energy, is that it is eternal. It was not created. It did not begin. And when I say created, I’m talking about it in the highest way that you can understand and appreciate that word. It did not have any beginning, and it does not have any end. It is actually eternal.
In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna, while responding to Arjuna, the great warrior prince, his dilemma, spoke to him about the eternal nature of the atma. The word atma, which is, literally means “the self” which is a very, I think, a very wonderful way to characterize and explain the spiritual energy: it is you, the self. So He states in one verse:
“Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.”
So, a person may question, “Well, what’s He talking about?” He’s talking about Arjuna and Himself, Krishna, He’s speaking of these kings that were arrayed on this battlefield preparing to fight, and never was there a time when they did not exist, nor will they ever cease to be. He has already laid out the eternal nature of the soul, the spirit soul, and that there is a distinction between the body that one temporarily inhabits.
Arjuna had manifest a deep concern, that was really causing havoc in his mind, about whether he should engage in this great battle that was about to take place, and the idea of taking the life of others, how wrong that was—which is true, but Krishna was explaining a deep spiritual principle. The life itself never ends. There was never a time when you or I or all these kings did not exist; nor will there be a time when we cease to be. And then going a little further He said:
“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.”
So this is about as clear as things can get. And it’s really important for people that are serious about living a spiritual life and cultivating real spiritual knowledge, that this understanding, this principle needs to be foundational because it is upon this principle that one undertakes the cultivation of self-realization and God-realization.
So a person may ask, “Well, it sort of raises the question of why does the spirit soul or the atma acquire this current body?” I’m going to just touch on it. We’re not going into any detail. There’s a lot of other talks that I’ve done on the subject matter which you might look through and refer to. It’ll be obvious in the titles which ones are dealing with these subjects.
But from the spiritual perspective life, (and when I say life, we are talking about life as a characteristic of the atma)—One of the ways in which people can observe the presence of that which is spiritual is to simply look for where there is life. When you see the symptoms of life you should know that that is originating or emanating from a spiritual being. The characteristics may be manifesting in a material organism, but the life itself is actually originating from the atma. And with this in mind and considering the things that we’ve discussed, we will understand that life (and here I’m going to talk about it just like, material life) is actually a continuum. It doesn’t come to an end. It just continues.
And speaking to that subject, in the Bhagavad-gita, this verse:
“As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change.”
So of course, this speaks to the topic of what’s commonly called reincarnation, but more accurately described as the transmigration of the soul. And I will just make the point, in case it’s kind of lurking in anybody’s mind, this transmigration of the soul, or reincarnation, means that all spirit souls are exactly the same in quality and in so many ways. The bodies that the soul may assume may vary massively. There are millions of species. The living beings occupying all the different life forms are fundamentally the same, but the bodies may be completely different.
One of the characteristics of human life is that in the human form—in many ways this form is the subtlest of forms, in that the qualities or characteristics of the soul, the spiritual being, are perhaps more evident, and as a result, the human beings can ask questions, “Who am I? What is this life for? What is my purpose?” and many other associated questions.
So, speaking a little further on this point of transmigration, from the Bhagavat Purana, a really amazing verse:
“The caterpillar transports itself from one leaf to another by capturing one leaf before giving up the other. Similarly, according to one’s previous work, the living entity must capture another body before giving up the one that they have. This is because the mind is the reservoir of all kinds of desires.”
So this is a very simply put explanation of what happens. There are many verses that deal with this subject. And it talks about how, or speaks to the reality, that in life the nature of the desires that we develop, the things that we are attracted to, will actually determine where we will go after the death of this current body; that one in this very lifetime begins to cultivate all types of desires and hankerings, and they become attracted to different types of experience in different ways that, coupled with their karmic—the fruit of their karma, their actions taken in this lifetime, determine where one will go when quitting this body. And so the example of a caterpillar, I mean it’s really amazing. You’ve seen a caterpillar moving on a plant, and it will reach out for a new footing, a leaf, and it will sort of begin to feel it and grip it, and then slowly pull itself over. Then when it feels it is safe, it gives up the grip on the platform, the leaf that it was on, and now has acquired another place to be standing. And it is this explanation of the mechanism by which one transmigrates from one body to the next.
So a final verse that I will read:
“The living entity in the material world carries its different conceptions of life from one body to another as the air carries aromas. Thus one takes one kind of body and again quits it to take another.”
So this is from the Bhagavad-gita, also another way of explaining this phenomenon.
So that’s about as far as I just wanted to go with this subject. And going back to the initial topic, life doesn’t have a beginning. We are eternally existent. The life within a particular material body, when we become entangled and entrapped, does have a beginning and does have an end, but that does not signal the end of the soul. And what happens? As I said, life is a continuum. One simply moves on to another situation according to the nature of one’s desires.
If we take this philosophical point into—we take it on board, we understand and appreciate it, it can really contribute in many ways to our life, to helping us live a more noble and compassionate existence, and it will really very much shape our decision making and how we live in this world.
So as I mentioned, I’ve just touched on these things very briefly. If you would like to go a little bit more deeply into the subject of our identity, who we actually are, if you want to explore it further then I’ll recommend to you a series that I’ve done called Finding Myself: the Fundamentals of Enlightenment, and what I’ll do is paste a link to that series in below the video. So if you want to explore a little bit further you can. It will help you to understand things more deeply.
So with that, thank you very, very much, and nice to see you all again. Haribol.