Is There Life After Death? | Vedanta Podcasts

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Today’s podcast has been edited & adapted from the lecture “Does the Soul Exist after Death?” by Swami Abhedananda, (Shāmi Abedānondo), delivered in 1900.

One of the most poetical of the Upanishads begins with this inquiry: “There is this doubt: when a person dies, some say that they are gone forever, that they do not exist, while others hold that they still live; which of these is true?”

Various answers have been given to this question. Metaphysics, philosophy, science, and religion have tried to solve this problem. At the same time, attempts also have been made to suppress this question and prevent inquiry as to whether or not we exist after death. Hundreds of thinkers have brought forward all sorts of arguments to do away with questions bearing upon this momentous subject.

From ancient times there have been thinkers in India who denied the existence of the soul after the death of the body. They are known as Charvákas. They believe that the body is the soul, and that the soul does not exist outside of the body, and that when the body dies, the soul is also dead and gone. They believe in nothing that cannot be perceived by the senses.

Their motto is: “As long as you live, do not fail to enjoy. Live comfortably and enjoy the pleasures of life. Do not think of the future. Get all that you need and wish; if you have not got money, then beg or borrow it, for when the body is burned into ashes, no one will have to be accountable for your deeds.”

Such Charvákas we find in almost every country. For instance, in the Old Testament we read that Solomon says: “Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart. Live joyfully with the wife whosoever thy hand findeth, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.”

The followers of such thinkers are spreading very rapidly, and their number is increasing every day. They are now known as atheists, materialists, etc. According to this class of thinkers, those who believe in the existence of the soul as separate from the body, or in a life after death, are ignorant and superstitious fools, while those who follow their ideas are clever and intelligent beings.

Most of them hold that there is no such thing as a soul. No argument can convince them or change their views, because they will not admit the existence of anything which lies beyond the reach of their senses, or which cannot be perceived by the limited powers of the senses.

They have written volumes after volumes against the existence of the soul, and have tried to stop such useless questions of the mind; but in spite of their efforts, have they succeeded in stopping that innate question, “What remains after death?” — which rises spontaneously in almost every human heart? No.

The same question rises today, as it arose thousands of years ago. No one can stop it, because it is inseparably connected with our nature. The same question was asked by saints and sinners, by prophets and priests, by kings and beggars amongst all nations, in all climes. We are discussing the same question today; and it will be discussed the same in the future.

We may forget it for the time being in the turmoil and struggles of our lives; we may not ask it when we are deeply absorbed in comforts, luxuries, and sense enjoyments; we may delude ourselves by various false argumentations; but the moment we encounter the sudden appearance of death, the moment we see that someone of our nearest and dearest is breathing their last, we stop for a while and ask within ourselves: “What is this? Where have they gone? Do they still exist? What has become of them?”

That dormant question reappears in a new form and disturbs our peace of mind. Then we begin to inquire; but at the very threshold of our inquiry, we find an adamantine wall which it is almost impossible to break through. Weak intellects stop there; their feeble attempts to cross that wall produce no result. That wall is nothing but the belief that the body is the producer of the soul, that the soul is the result of the physical form we call the “body.”

Those who can overcome this strong barrier can understand whether or not the soul exists after death. The old, crude way of inferring the existence of soul after death (and a future life for all men, women and children from the tradition of a single miraculous resurrection of a certain person), no longer appeals to our reason. The time has come when we want to discuss the question scientifically, psychologically, philosophically, metaphysically, and in all other possible ways.

Now let us see whether the explanation that body is the cause of the soul is satisfactory or not. In medical schools and college laboratories students are taught that thought, or intelligence, or consciousness, is nothing but a function of the brain. Moreover, they learn that every special form of thought is a result of the activity of a special portion of the brain.

When we see things, or think of seen objects, the optical convolutions of our brain are active. A certain portion of the temporal lobes are active when we hear, and so on. Those modern scientists who advocate the production of thought by brain say that if the brain functions stop, the mind, intelligence, consciousness, and all the mental phenomena will instantly stop.

The phenomena of consciousness correspond, element for element, to the operations of special parts of the brain. There is no such thing as soul; consequently there can be no question regarding its existence after death. They deny the existence of the soul altogether. The sensations decay when the organic conditions change and stop when the machinery stops. The brain brings into existence the material of consciousness of which our minds consist.

In India, similar theories were advanced by the Buddhists, who did not believe in the existence of a soul as separate from the gross body. The Buddhists maintained that the body is the cause of mind and intelligence, that consciousness is the result of the combination of insentient matter and unintelligent forces of physical nature.

They used the illustration of a lamp and the light. Your body is just like a lamp, and the intelligence, or consciousness, is like the light produced by the burning of the candle. But Vedanta philosophers refuted these materialistic theories by pointing out the fallacy of their principal arguments.

Vedanta says that matter or object is only one half of the universe, and the other half is mind, or subject, or soul. It is impossible to deduce the one from the other. In the first place, if we analyze our knowledge of matter and force, we find that we cannot know matter by itself and we cannot know force by itself — that what we know, is nothing but a mental change.

Therefore, Vedanta philosophy teaches that the source of consciousness cannot be found in matter, but stands independent of it. What we call matter is only the medium through which consciousness manifests itself.

Now, the question may arise: If the soul exists after death, does it retain its individuality? Vedanta philosophy says, yes, it does. The souls of earthbound spirits retain their personality, too. Each soul after death takes with it all the experiences, impressions, and ideas which it gained on earth. It takes its mind, its intelligence, its intellect and powers of the senses, and enjoys or reaps the fruits of its own thoughts and deeds.

If you read the funeral service of the Hindus ,you will find that after the death of a person the relatives do good deeds in the name of the departed, believing that good thoughts, prayers, and good works, done in their names, will help the departed spirits.

The Hindus also believe that, if we think of them constantly and invoke them, asking them to remain with us for our own gratification without thought of their good, we force them to remain confined to that particular personality which was connected with their earthly bodies they left behind them.

Personality is always connected with the body. At every birth of the body, we have a certain personality according to the environments, and if we keep one soul confined in one personality or one set of environments, then there will be no progress of the soul. Therefore, it is better not to drag our departed friends to our plane of existence; but to help them by sending good thoughts to them.

The Hindus believe that heaven is a realm where the departed souls go to reap the pleasant effects of their good and virtuous actions, and that they remain there for some time — that is, until the results of their good works are completely reaped; then after that period, they will return to this world again.

The Persians believed that the soul would rise three days after death and would go either to heaven or to hell, according to your thoughts, speech, and works. This Persian idea of heaven was afterwards adopted by the Jews and the Christians. The ancient Hebrews did not trouble themselves about life after death. They believed that God breathed life into man’s nostrils and that the breath, which came from Jehovah, would go back to Him; that the life breath of all creatures would return to the source from whence it came.”

The Egyptians believed in a double, which was like a shadow of the body and which remained as long as the body remained. This gave rise to the idea of mummifying the bodies of the dead. If the body was injured in any part, the double (or soul) was likewise injured; so to keep the soul intact they preserved the bodies.

The Chaldeans believed in a double which would be annihilated if the body were destroyed. They expected a resurrection of the corpse. Many Christians have a similar belief. This idea gave rise to the custom of embalming and burying the dead. Some Christians still believe that the body will rise after death. Others do not believe in the resurrection of the body. They believe that the soul will remain and exist through all eternity, although it had a beginning.

The Christian idea regarding the beginning of the soul is that at the time of birth, each soul is newly created by the Almighty God. But the Hindus say that that which has a beginning cannot live through all eternity; it must have an end. The Hindus do not believe that the soul is created by God or by any other being. It is eternal by its nature. It is birthless, and it cannot die.

The Hindus do not mean destruction or annihilation by death; they mean by it a change of body or form. This kind of death is a constant attendant of life. Phenomenal life is impossible without death or change of forms. We are dying every day. Every seventh year the entire body has changed every particle and renewed every atom.

Although every particle of the body changes, we still continue to exist; our continuity is not broken. From babyhood to old age we retain the same sense of “I” and of personal identity. This continuity of the conscious agent, or “I,” cannot be explained by any physical or chemical law. According to Vedanta philosophy, thought, or feeling, or intelligence can never be produced by any mechanical or molecular motion.

“Motion produces motion and nothing else,” says modern science. As such, how can the motion of the atoms of the body produce consciousness? That must be due to some higher power, or force. This force is ordinarily called “soul.”

The soul is not subject to the atomic or molecular changes in the body; it is rather the cause of them. It is beyond all change, and consequently, beyond death. It is the basis of the continuity of the conscious state and of the sense of identity in the individual.

As we survive and retain our individuality after each seven years of change and renewal, so we shall live as individual souls after the final dissolution of the form of our bodies. In the Bhagavad Gita it is said: “As during our lifetime we survive the death of the baby body, the young body, and the mature body, successively, and retain our individuality, so after the death of the old body we shall survive, live, retain our individuality, and continue to exist through eternity.”

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