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 https://www.advaita-vision.org/chidabhasa/. 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 https://www.advaita-vision.org/discussion-on-chidabhasa/.

The point is that the jIva does not really exist; it is only a ‘reflection’ of Consciousness as it were. It is possible to provide explanations for how the subtle body ‘separates’ from the gross body at death and eventually transmigrates to a new body. I wrote a blog on this also for AA and will republish at AV shortly. [The process that the jIva has to go through in between lifetimes is described in the Chandogya Upanishad V.3 – V.10 and the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad VI.2 and is referred to as the ‘five (mystic or sacred) fires’ (pa~nchAgni).] But these explanations again are only for those not yet prepared to accept the reality. (To be fair, the reality is probably more acceptable to the modern mind than those mystical ‘explanations’!)

So, to answer your questions:

1) The interim teaching would probably say that the subtle and causal bodies have left the gross body. There is therefore no longer any reflection of Consciousness to ‘animate’ the brain. (I say ‘probably’ because, of course, this state was presumably unknown to the ancients as there were no life-support facilities to maintain vital functions!)

2) Again, I speak from my own understanding here – I very much doubt that anything is said about such a condition in the scriptures. You could probably say that the body is alive in the same way that a plant is alive. Just as the plant needs sunlight, water, carbon dioxide and a few minerals to remain alive, so the body in PVS needs the life-support functions of a hospital to remain alive. As far as ‘state of Consciousness’ is concerned, this does not apply, since there is no Consciousness being reflected by a mind. Of course Consciousness is still present in the sense that there is only Consciousness, so all is still turIya, if you like.

3) The subtle body depends upon the brain for its operation in the context of the jIva. When the heart stops, blood is no longer supplied to the brain, which begins to cease functioning. You could say that when this reaches a critical level, the mind (subtle body) leaves the gross body.

The reality of the situation is that there is only ever Consciousness or brahman. All apparent things/bodies are only name and form of this Consciousness. Nothing is ever born or dies. Realizing/remembering this is the simplest way to accept the appearance, be it something desirable or something one wishes were otherwise.