Between Lives

I occasionally get asked questions about reincarnation, in respect of advaita. And the sort of answer that I usually give is along the lines of saying that who-we-really-are was not born and neither will it die. Accordingly, it is really a waste of time to worry about if, why and how, the unenlightened jIva navigates through saMsAra.

But there is a whole section in the Brahma Sutra  dealing with this somewhat abstruse, and seemingly ultimately irrelevant topic. It has some interest, and raises a few questions. So, for those who feel that they are doomed to return for at least another lifetime, here are some details about what the scriptures say is involved.

In the past, I had always assumed that the nature of the body into which a jIva is born in any given life is determined sometime between the events of procreation and birth. Not so! A rudimentary, ‘minute body’ is actually allocated at the time of the death of the previous body (according to the scriptures). This new gross body, along with the subtle and causal bodies, life forces (prANa-s), mind, sense organs and organs of action (j~nAnendriya-s and karmendriya-s), together with the accumulated saMskAra, then ‘travel’ (gati) to the next birth. Consciousness or chit does not travel, of course, since it already exists everywhere! Continue reading

Q.405 Persistent Vegetative State

Q: Recently, a relation suffered cardiac failure and was declared as  ‘dead’ by one of the doctors in the local hospital. 30 minutes later, a doctor at a bigger hospital used a defibrillator to restart his heart. Unfortunately, for this span of 30 minutes, his brain was not receiving oxygen and conseqently 50 % of it was damaged leaving him in a ‘Persistent Vegetative State’. He has been in this condition for the past 2 years.

Currently I am studying various Upanishads along with Advaita Vedanta philosophy and I would seek your help on the following questions:

1) According to Advaita Vedanta and Upanishads, the soul departs on the death of a person. So in my relative’s case, does that mean that the ‘Soul’ had departed and came back again or did it never depart from his body ?

2) Does Vedanta recognize a person in a ‘persistent vegetative state’ as ‘alive’ ? How would Vedanata describe this state in terms of the usual 4 states (awake, dream, dreamless sleep and turIya)?

3) Does the soul leaves the body because the heart stops functioning or does the heart cease functioning because the soul has departed from the body ?

A (Dennis): Sorry to hear about your relative’s situation. It is understandably distressing.

Advaita is a progressive teaching. I.e. the scriptures or a teacher will provide one explanation for a new seeker and a different one for an advanced student. Ultimately, as you must realize, there are ‘not two things’. Therefore, the final understanding must be that there are no persons, no world, no mind etc; there is only brahman and ‘you’ are That.

The most useful way of answering your question depends upon an understanding of the concept of chidAbhAsa, the ‘reflection’ of Consciousness in the mind. I wrote an article about this which you can read at There is also a follow-up blog, which does not seem to be available any longer. I will post both of these at AV in March (when the copyright expires). There is also an extended discussion on the subject between myself and Peter Bonnici at Continue reading

Q. 388 – Fear of Deep Sleep

Q: I am reading Dennis’ book ‘The Book of One’, and I am on the chapter about deep sleep.

From the age of around seven ( I am now 51), I have had a morbid terror of sleep. Not dreaming sleep which I enjoy (I am one of those rare people that has quite regular lucid dreams), but deep sleep, and equate it with “unconsciousness or non-consciousness” or death which leads to death anxiety. I understand that this fear is a result of constructs that I have devised, and am my own torturer. But the enquiry in this book and other books on Hinduism I have read seems to be returning me to the same cul-de-sac that is the dead end of my search.

Just reading the chapter now left me cold with fear and even worse complete dissappointment, as it doesn’t feel intuitive to me that this is our natural state? I really don’t want to return here at all, is this a normal reaction people feel when they are introduced to this concept?

I am not an intellectual. I have persevered with the book and it’s concepts, even though at times it is quite clearly beyond my comprehension. But is that it? Is that all there is? A kind of acceptance of annihilation of this ego-mind… forever?

I have some recollection of the Indra story where they ask the same question of Prajāpati and wasn’t quite satisfied?

Will this fear pass?

A (Dennis): You should take up meditation with the determination to practice fully. The nature of this would depend upon which method you chose. I took up mantra-based meditation similar to TM, which required 30 mins practice twice per day. This sounds impossible to begin with I know but, after a few months, it becomes part of your routine. And you benefit in so many ways, both mentally and physically. But the point is that, eventually (the time varies from one individual to another), you reach the point where you begin to experience periods of samAdhi. At these times, your mind becomes totally still. You are still aware of external and internal events but you remain entirely detached from both. You know that you are neither the body nor the mind but the observer of these. There is no ego at these times because you recognize this independence. Ego IS identification with one or other.

In deep sleep, you do not experience anything. But this is because there is nothing to experience, not because ‘you’ have disappeared. You see neither external world (because the senses are inactive) nor internal thoughts (because the mind is inactive). But the Self that is the witnessing Consciousness in deep meditation is still present in deep sleep. It never ‘sleeps’ (or dies) because it is the only thing that really exists. It is who you really are.

Hope this helps!

Birth and Death

One of the most startling passages that I encountered when I first began to study advaita was that in chapter 2 of the Bhagavad-Gita in which Arjuna bemoans the fact that he is expected to kill his teachers and relatives. Krishna responds with the following amazing statement (II.19 – II.20): “He who thinks that the spirit kills, and he who thinks of it is killed, are both ignorant. The spirit kills not, nor is it killed. It was not born; it will never die: nor once having been, can it ever cease to be: unborn, eternal, ever enduring, yet most ancient, the spirit dies not when the body is dead.” (Ref. 1)

Needless to say, the idea of death is one that disturbs most people. Indeed, it is probably the most feared event for the vast majority whether or not they believe that it signifies the literal end of their existence. Life appears to have the profile of a hill. We start at the bottom; slowly we begin to make an impression on life, ‘making a name for ourselves’, acquiring all of those things that are considered to make life significant – job, spouse, peer recognition, house and money etc. And then, there comes a time when we feel that we have achieved all that we are going to achieve. Ambitions cease; physical and mental capabilities decrease; ailments become more frequent; there is a gradual slide into physical decay and ultimate death. As Macbeth puts it so depressingly:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.

Or, as Jaques puts it in ‘As You Like It’:

Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
Continue reading

Q. 387 – Value of Self-knowledge

Q: At the end of the day, what does knowledge of self give us ? It does not help to answer the burning question of why the appearance/dream/mAyA that we are experiencing as humans or animals exists. Also, it appears that even if one attains knowledge of self in one life, he/she can actually become a cockroach in the next due to karmic effect, ie we are not really liberated from the brith-death cycle. The only benefit I do see in a life in which one attains knowledge of self is that one might lead a life devoid of misery in the mind as we sail through good and bad times, even though we may experience physical pain.

A (Dennis): Self-knowledge removes Self-ignorance and it is that which makes us think we are limited, unhappy, doomed to old age and death. With Self-knowledge we realize that we are not human, living in an inhospitable world; we are brahman. The world appears as separate because of our ignorance. On gaining Self-knowledge, we realize that it’s substance is nothing but brahman.

From the perspective of the ignorant person, there is rebirth (possibly as a cockroach) and we are subject to karma. With Self-knowledge, we realize that there is no person, no birth or rebirth, no death, no creation.

The idea that knowledge is pointless is actually the main argument of the pUrvamImAMsika philosopher. They believe that only the karmakANDa portion of the Vedas is relevant – rituals that we have to perform in order to gain benefits. They say that the Upanishads etc are only supporting material to be meditated on. In the Brahmasutras, I.1.4, Vyasa effectively refutes all those philosophers who deny that brahman is the principal topic of the Vedas. But he does this with the single word ‘tu’ (tattu samanvayAt). Fortunately Shankara takes the opportunity to take up arms against pUrvamImAMsA. Whilst he agrees that knowledge in itself is often useless – we need actually to do something in order to gain some benefit – there is one situation in which ONLY knowledge bears fruit. That is when the problem is one of ignorance. The classic example is the rope mistaken for a snake. As soon as we find out that it is a rope, all our fears etc disappear. And our essential problem in life is that we believe we are a limited person. The knowledge that is to be gained from Advaita is that we are brahman – and that reveals that we have no real problems at all.

Fear from wild creatures – 3

fear 3-1 The fear most commonly experienced is the thought that I will end with the death of my physical body. Such a thought equating the ending of the “I” with the ending of the gross body indicates clearly the persisting misidentification of “I” with the body. It is the separate self which feels that it will disappear with the disappearance of the body. The cure for it is the recognition of the fact that the true “I” that I am, as Advaita teaches, is neither born nor will die; “I” is eternal, ageless, and imperishable (Bhagavad-Gita II-20). One who has really understood the Advaitic message abides as the true “I.”  ‘To abide as the true I’ means to be knowingly as that immortal and changeless Awareness and not to mistake oneself to be the body and the mind which are transient and perishable. Therefore, disciplining the body through a drill of practices (as done in skill development like car-driving or carpentry) or control of the mind through repeat exercises (as required for computer coding or mathematics) can hardly be called abidance as the true “I.”  Conscientiously feeling the difference between the phrases ‘I am the body’ and ‘I am aware of the body’ and experientially realizing that difference will help to firm up the understanding.

Continue reading

Three Q&As in Quora

Three Q/As from QUORA (on brain, philosophy, QM, NDE, consciousness)

1. How does the brain understand philosophy?

M. The brain… understanding philosophy? My reply to this is similar to the one I gave recently to another question and which was based on Socrates’ answer to an observation that someone was making. The man saw a pool of water being stirred by a stick held by a man and said that the stick was stirring the water. To which Socrates replied: ‘Is it the stick, or the man moving the stick?’ (Which one is the real agent – the material, or the instrumental cause, in Aristotelian terms?).

Equally, is it the brain, or the mind which ‘moves’ the brain which moves the stick which stirs the water?

Is it the brain, or the mind which (using the brain as an instrument) understands philosophy? Actually, it is consciousness (as a substrate) using the mind using the brain… Consciousness itself does not do anything Continue reading

Fear from wild creatures – 2

pic2 for AV Fear can be caused by a perceived threat which could be either from within the body-mind or from a source external to the body. The source of fear itself and consequently the type of fear can be either real or imaginary. We shall, however, not consider the issues related to the nature of the source causing the fear in this essay. We shall treat fear as a ‘signaling mechanism.’ Viewed thus, ‘fear’ includes all its other manifestations and variations like  anger, hatred, disgust, anxiety, revenge etc. The signal itself appears as tightening of muscles, fastness of breath, heaviness in the heart area, slowness of digestive processes, dilation of pupils of the eye, contortion in the facial muscles, perspiration and so on. Depending on the intensity of the threat, the flux of thoughts may alter and even the sense of a ‘separate self’ may disappear.

A point to be remembered is that, though all such reactions are commonly attributed to the source, the perceived source itself is not the cause. It is in the way one’s body-mind are programmed to react. Suppose you sweat on mistakenly seeing a rope as a snake in semi-darkness. The unreal snake in the rope has actually nothing to do with the way your body has reacted. Continue reading

Fear from wild creatures – 1

scared “I understand the Advaita teaching that everything is One only without a second, but I am always afraid of dogs and monkeys which are common in my place. Moreover, I also have a fear of snakes etc. as I live in a forest area.

Everything is brahman and therefore, ‘fear’ is also brahman.  Though my mind is convinced by the logic of Advaita, why do I suffer from various fears?”

If there is a perception of fear, it automatically implies that there is a ‘me’ as the ‘subject,’ the finite perceiver and there is the ‘other,’ an object, separated from ‘me.’  (For this analysis, we define an ‘object’ as anything that is perceived. Hence ‘fear’ is also an object). This in turn implies that I ignored my ‘Dimensionlessness’ (anantatva) and assumed finiteness to myself.

It is true that on the full understanding of the Oneness of “Whatever-That-IS,” there is no scope for any sort of ‘fear.’ After all, if all is One, and there is no second, where and who is the other to be afraid of?

We have a recent real-life example for this in the 35th Pontiff of Sringeri, Shri Abhinava Vidyatheertha Swami. He found a big cobra snake coiled around his neck when he was meditating in a remote forest area. He told his Successor: Continue reading

Adi Shankara

lamp and grassMost people (or at least those who visit this website!) will be aware that the dates for Shankara’s birth and death are a trifle hazy. It is generally assumed that he lived around the ninth century A.D. and had a fairly short life, dying at around the age of 32. Fewer people will know, however, that one of the principal Maths – namely that at Sringeri – actually has his date of birth as 44 BCE. And 509–477 BCE are the dates based on records from other Maths!

In fact, there are endless discussions in the academic world over details such as these. The sort of argument that is used takes a quotation from some writing attributed to Shankara, in which another person, place or quotation is used. If the date of that cited material is known, then it can be concluded that Shankara must have been living at a time later than this. (Such arguments enable the BCE dates to be discounted.) Unfortunately, in most cases, the dates of the cited person or place are not known either! Basically, Indians in the past have not been particularly good at recording their historical events. Plus, enlightened sages are not in the slightest bit interested in having their name associated with any recorded words or in having anyone record their biographies. Continue reading