Of all my daughters the most discerning, critical and even cynical is Radhika. Earlier she had asked if I believed in God. In the same vain she recently asked how a person dies. She knows that I have the unenviable job of going to hospitals to perform last rites and so she was naturally curious.
Well, I said, “When the soul leaves the body the person dies.”
She responded, “Soul? You mean some kind of spiritual spark and when this spark leaves the body the person dies?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“Do animals have souls?” She asked.
“Yes, of course.”
“What about plants?” was the next question.
“Yes, all living things have souls. That is what creates life,” I again answered.
“While a person is living, where does this soul stay within the body”?
“In the heart,” I replied. I was just giving the standard answers that all priests give.
“Now, what about when a person gets a heart transplant, does the person get a new soul? What about when you take a plant cutting and from just a stem you can get another plant. How does the new soul get there? And what about Dolly?”
“Yes, the cloned sheep. They just took some DNA and RNA and cloned another sheep. How did that spiritual spark get there? Does this mean there is more than one soul in everybody? Maybe there is a soul in every DNA piece?”
She had set me up! Now I had to get myself out of this hole.
Anna, I have told you that I have no idea whether there is a God, and yet I have stated my reasons for making the leap of faith about God. Moreover, the existence of God implies the existence of soul, and so I am also inclined to accept the existence of a soul. The common soul model is some kind of spiritual spark that inhabits the body. This is what I call the “particle model” of the soul, but as science advances and new challenges are presented to theology in the form of organ transplants and cloning it is necessary to develop new models of God, soul and spirituality. I enjoy these challenges. So here is my present thinking on the matter of soul.
Anna, The Bhagavad Gita speaks about the soul in a “negative way” “It is not like this; it is not like that; it cannot be cut, it cannot be burned; it cannot be moistened; it cannot be measured,” and so on. The most positive and direct thing the Gita has to say about the soul is that it is eternal and all pervading. The Upanishads compare the soul to breath or wind. The idea of the soul as a spiritual particle has only limited use in Hinduism, the breath or wind model of the soul is far more common. Of course, the word “soul” is never used in Sanskrit, instead the most basic term is “sat.” The word sat means eternal, unchanging and all pervasive. This is what is usually translated as soul. And yet “soul” commonly implies some kind of spiritual essence that we sometimes imagine as a “spiritual spark.” This is perhaps more Christian than Hindu and yet this is how the current generation of Hindus understand the concept of soul. Translating sat as soul, and doing a similar thing for other key Sanskrit terms, has led to the Christianization of Hinduism, but this is a whole other discussion. In no way is sat some kind of spiritual particle.
For the purposes of this discussion I am going to translate sat as “existence,” and since we are having this discussion I am going to introduce another Sanskrit term that is also used to describe “soul.” This is cit. “Cit” means consciousness. So “soul” is something that is eternally existent, conscious and all pervasive, sat and cit. Given these ideas of soul here is how I view life and death.
Imagine a house, a skyscraper, a simple rowboat, a cruise ship or any other structure or conveyance that exists in this world. They are all particular arrangements of matter, some more sophisticated than others. A simple house is a less sophisticated organization of matter compared to a huge skyscraper. Similarly, the rowboat compared to the cruise ship is also a less sophisticated organization of matter, but in all cases buildings and boats are just organized arrangements of matter. In fact, everything in this world is simply matter arranged according to some system, and all such organizational systems are arranged according to a particular set of instructions, a plan. A house, the skyscraper, the row boat and the cruise ship are all fashioned according to a set of instructions that we call blueprints, but he skyscraper will have many more sets of these blueprints compared to the simple house because the skyscraper is a more sophisticated arrangement of matter.
What is an apple seed? When I ask this question, I usually get an answer that it is like an embryo or tiny tree squeezed down into the size of the seed. I think of an apple seed as tiny set of instructions, a set of blue prints that makes an apple tree. An apple seed is really just an information package! Plant this information package in the earth, activate it with water and heat, and the most amazing thing happens. Raw matter is transformed into all the components of an apple tree, cellulose, water, sugars, etc. The DNA within the apple seeds contains the necessary information to construct an apple tree. We call this arrangement of matter, life! And similarly for preach trees, pear trees, maple trees and virtually every other living thing in this world, even animals and human beings. A human being is constructed according to the set of plans contained within a sperm and an egg. What makes life distinct from dull matter is that the level of organization is vastly more sophisticated in the case of life than in the case of dull matter. But the amazing thing about matter is that when it is organized in a sufficiently sophisticated manner it can allow sat and cit to shine through. This is the appearance of soul that we call life. Compared to a plant, an animal is a structure that is many many more times sophisticated and so it all allows for a much higher manifestation of soul. And a human being is a structure that is even more sophisticated than an animal. So Anna, I think of biological structures as systems of sophisticated organization that function as portals or doorways for soul, and when these systems of organization break down sufficiently, the doorway closes and soul vanishes. This is what we call death. The arrangement of matter that we call a house or skyscraper is never sophisticated enough to allow the manifestation of soul and so there is no question of death when these structures fall into dissolution.
In this way a heart transplant was no bearing on the presence of soul so long as the overall integrity of the body is maintained during the transplant operation through the use of heart lung machines, etc. A plant cutting or an animal cloning, as in the case of Dolly, is just an alternative means of extracting and activating an information package. This is how I look upon life. It is all around us at all times, but only when matter is sufficiently arranged does it manifest soul, sat and cit.
Photograph* by Malati Marvin
Image Source**: http://weheartit.com/entry/565812
Image Source***: http://www.cosmosmagazine.com/news/392/hello-dolly-the-sheep-changed-world