The Physics of the Self
In October 1973, Dr. Gregory Benford, an associate professor of physics at the University of California at Irvine, visits Srila Prabhupada in the garden of the Los Angeles Krsna center. In the course of their intriguing discussion about the possibility of scientific understanding of the soul, Srila Prabhupada declares, “We don’t say that this scientific knowledge is useless. Mechanics, electronics—this is also knowledge. .. but the central point is atma-jnana—self-knowledge, knowledge of the soul.”
Srila Prabhupada: What is the current scientific knowledge about the spirit soul?
Dr. Benford: We have virtually no scientific knowledge about the soul.
Srila Prabhupada: Therefore you have actually made no advancement in scientific knowledge.
Dr. Benford: Well, scientific knowledge is a different class of knowledge.
Srila Prabhupada: Perhaps. There are so many departments of knowledge: the medical study of the body, the psychological study of the mind, and ultimately spiritual, transcendental knowledge. The body and mind are simply the coverings of the spirit soul, just as this shirt and coat are coverings for your body. If you simply take care of the shirt and coat and neglect the person who is covered by this shirt and coat, do you think that this is advancement of knowledge?
Dr. Benford: I think that there is no category of knowledge that is useless.
Srila Prabhupada: We don’t say that this scientific knowledge is useless. Mechanics, electronics—this is also knowledge. But different departments of knowledge differ in their comparative importance. For example, if someone wants to cook nicely, this is also a science. There are many different departments of knowledge, but the central point is atma-jnana—self-knowledge, the knowledge of the soul.
Dr. Benford: The only form of knowledge that is verifiable—that is, verifiable in the sense of getting everybody to agree with it—is that which can be proved logically or experimentally.
Srila Prabhupada: The science of the self can be verified logically.
Dr. Benford: How so?
Srila Prabhupada: Just consider your body. You once had the body of a child, but now you don’t have that body anymore; you have a different body. Yet anyone can understand that you once had the body of a child. So your body has changed, but you are still remaining.
Dr. Benford: I am not so sure it is the same “I.”
Srila Prabhupada: Yes, you are the same “I.” Just as the parents of a child will say, after he has grown up, “Oh, just see how our son has grown!” He is the same person; his parents say so, his friends say so, his family says so—everyone says so. This is the evidence. You have to accept this point, because there is so much evidence. Your mother will deny that you are a different person, even though you have a different body.
Dr. Benford: But I may not be the same being that I was.
Srila Prabhupada: Correct. “Not the same” means, for example, that a young child may talk nonsense now, but when he gets an adult body he does not speak foolishly. Although he is the same person, along with his change in body he has developed different consciousness. But the spirit soul, the person, is the same. He acts according to his body, that’s all—according to his circumstances. A dog, for example, is also a spirit soul, but because he has a dog’s body he lives and acts like a dog. Similarly, when the spirit soul has a child’s body, he acts like a child. When he has a different body, the same soul acts like a man. According to circumstances his activities are changing, but he is the same. For example, now you are a scientist. In your childhood you were not a scientist, so your dealings at that time were not those of a scientist. One’s dealings may change according to circumstances, but the person is the same.
Therefore, the conclusion is tatha dehantara-praptir dhiras tatra na muhyati: “When this body is finished, the soul gives it up and accepts another body.” [Bhagavad-gita 2.13] Tatha dehantara. Dehantara means “another body.” This is our Sanskrit knowledge from the Bhagavad-gita. When the spirit soul is injected into the womb of a woman, it forms a little body. Gradually, through the emulsification of secretions, the body develops to the size of a pea because of the presence of the spirit soul. Gradually the body develops nine holes—eyes, ears, mouth, nostrils, genitals, and rectum. In this way the body is developed to completion in seven months. Then consciousness comes.
Dr. Benford: At seven months?
Srila Prabhupada: Yes. The child wants to come out. He feels uncomfortable; therefore he prays to God to kindly release him from the bondage. He promises that when he gets out he will become a devotee of God. So after nine months he comes out of the womb. But unless his parents are devotees, due to circumstances he forgets God. Only if the father and mother are devotees does he continue his God consciousness. Therefore, it is a great fortune to take birth in a family of Vaisnavas, those who are God conscious. This God consciousness is real scientific knowledge.
Dr. Benford: Is it true that the children of all such parents are somewhat spiritually superior to the children of other parents?
Srila Prabhupada: Generally, yes. They get the opportunity of being trained by the mother and father. Fortunately, my father was a great devotee, so I received this training from the very beginning. Somehow or other I had this spark of Krsna consciousness, and my father detected it. Then I accepted my spiritual master. In this way I have come to this stage of sannyasa [the renounced monastic order]. I am very much indebted to my father, for he took care of me in such a way that I became perfectly Krsna conscious. My father used to receive many saintly persons at our home, and to every one of them he used to say, “Kindly bless my son so that he may become a servant of Radharani [Lord Krsna’s eternal consort].” That was his only ambition. He taught me how to play the mrdanga drum, although sometimes my mother was not very satisfied. She would say, “Why are you teaching him to play mrdanga?” But my father would say, “No, no, he must learn a little mrdanga.” My father was very affectionate to me. Therefore, if due to past pious activities one gets a good father and mother, that is a great chance for advancing in Krsna consciousness.
Dr. Benford: What will happen to you and your students next?
Srila Prabhupada: We are going back to Krsna. We have got everything: Krsna’s name, Krsna’s address, Krsna’s form, Krsna’s activities. We know everything, and we are going there. Krsna promises this in the Bhagavad-gita [4.9]:
“One who knows Me in truth, scientifically,” Krsna says, “is eligible to enter into the kingdom of God. Upon leaving the body, he does not take his birth again in this material world, but attains My eternal abode.”
Dr. Benford: How do you know that people return in some other form?
Srila Prabhupada: We see that there are so many forms. Where do these different forms come from—the form of the dog, the form of the cat, the form of the tree, the form of the reptile, the forms of the insects, the forms of the fish? What is your explanation for all these different forms? That you do not know.
Dr. Benford: Evolution.
Srila Prabhupada: Not exactly. The different species are already existing. “Fish,” “tiger,” “man”—all of these are already existing. It is just like the different types of apartments here in Los Angeles. You may occupy one of them according to your ability to pay rent, but all types of apartments are nevertheless existing at the same time. Similarly, the living entity, according to his karma, is given facility to occupy one of these bodily forms. But there is evolution, also—spiritual evolution. From the fish, the soul evolves to plant life. From plant forms the living entity enters an insect body. From the insect body the next stage is bird, then beast, and finally the spirit soul may evolve to the human form of life. And from the human form, if one becomes qualified, he may evolve further. Otherwise, he must again enter the evolutionary cycle. Therefore, this human form of life is an important juncture in the evolutionary development of the living entity.
In other words, whatever you like you can achieve. There are different lokas, or planetary systems, and you can go to the higher planetary systems where the demigods live and take a body there, or you can go where the Pitas, or ancestors, live. You can take a body here in Bhuloka, the earthly planetary system, or you can go to the planet of God, Krsnaloka. This method of transferring oneself at the time of death to whatever planet one chooses is called yoga. There is a physical process of yoga, a philosophical process of yoga, and a devotional process of yoga. The devotees can go directly to the planet where Krsna is.
Dr. Benford: Undoubtedly you are aware that there are a few people, both in Eastern and Western society, who feel it a bit more intellectually justifiable to be completely agnostic about matters of theology. They feel, more or less, that if God had wanted us to know something more about Him, then He would have made it more easily apprehendable.
Srila Prabhupada: Then you don’t believe in God?
Dr. Benford: I don’t not believe in God; I’m just not forming an opinion until I have some evidence.
Srila Prabhupada: But do you think that there is a God or not?
Dr. Benford: I have a suspicion that there may be, but it is unverified.
Srila Prabhupada: But you think sometimes that there may be God, do you not?
Dr. Benford: Yes.
Srila Prabhupada: So you are in doubt, suspicion—you are not certain—but your inclination is that you think there is a God, is it not? Your knowledge being imperfect, you are in doubt, that’s all. Otherwise you are inclined to think of God. But because you are a scientific man, unless you perceive it scientifically, you do not accept. That is your position. But from your side, you believe in God.
Dr. Benford: Sometimes.
Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Sometimes or at all times—it doesn’t matter. That is the position of everyone. As long as one is in the human form of life, he has a dormant consciousness of God. It simply has to be developed by proper training. It is just like anything else in life. For example, you have become a scientist by proper training, proper education. Similarly, the dormant consciousness of God, or Krsna, is there in everyone. It simply requires proper education to awaken it. However, this education is not given in the universities. That is the defect in modern education. Although the inclination to be Krsna conscious is there, the authorities are unfortunately not giving any education about God. Therefore people are becoming godless, and they are feeling baffled in obtaining the true joy and satisfaction of life.
In San Diego, some priestly orders are going to hold a meeting to investigate the reasons why people are becoming averse to religion and not coming to church. But the cause is simple: Because your government does not know that life, especially human life, is meant for understanding God, they are supporting all the departments of knowledge very nicely—except the principal department, God consciousness.
Dr. Benford: So, of course, the reason is separation of Church and State.
Srila Prabhupada: Reasons there may be many, but the principal reason is that this age is the Kali-yuga [the age of quarrel and hypocrisy]. People are not very intelligent; therefore they are trying to avoid this department of knowledge, the most important department of knowledge. And they are simply busy in the departments of knowledge in which the animals are also busy. Your advancement of knowledge is comprised of four things—eating, sleeping, mating, and defending. For example, you are discovering so many lethal weapons, and the politicians are taking advantage of it for defending. You are discovering so many chemicals to check pregnancy, and people are using them to increase sex life.
Dr. Benford: What do you think about the moon mission?
Srila Prabhupada: That is also sleeping. You have spent so much money to go there and sleep, that’s all. Otherwise, what can you do there?
Dr. Benford: You can go there and learn.
Srila Prabhupada: You go there and sleep, that’s all. Sleeping. You are spending billions and getting nothing in return.
Dr. Benford: It’s worth more than that.
Srila Prabhupada: No, nothing more, because these four principles—eating, sleeping, mating, and defending—are the background. If you have no knowledge beyond this body, you cannot go beyond this bodily jurisdiction. You may have very gorgeous, polished bodily knowledge, but your whole range of activities is within these four principles of eating, sleeping, mating, and defending. This knowledge is prevalent among the lower animals, also. They know how to eat, how to sleep, how to have sexual intercourse, and how to defend.
Dr. Benford: But they don’t know anything about nuclear physics!
Srila Prabhupada: That does not mean that you are improved over the animals. It is the same thing—only polished. You are improving from the bullock cart to the car, that’s all—simply a transformation of material knowledge.
Dr. Benford: There is knowledge about the structure of the physical world.
Srila Prabhupada: But it is a waste of energy, because in your activities you cannot go beyond this bodily jurisdiction of eating, sleeping, mating, and defending. The dog may sleep on the ground, and you may sleep in a very nice apartment, but when you sleep your enjoyment and the dog’s enjoyment are the same. You may have so many electrical appliances and other material conveniences, but when you sleep you forget everything. Therefore this gorgeous sleeping accommodation is simply a waste of time.
Dr. Benford: You seem to place emphasis on what knowledge does for you. What about the sheer joy of discovering how nature works? For example, now we think that we understand matter like this [pointing to the grass]. We think that we know from experiments, theory, and analysis that it is made up of particles that we cannot see, and we can analyze the properties of it through experiment. We know that it is made up of molecules. We understand some of the forces that hold it together, and this is the first time we knew this. We didn’t know it before.
Srila Prabhupada: But what is the benefit? Even if you knew every particle of this grass, what would be the benefit? The grass is growing. It will grow with or without your knowledge. You may know it or not know it, but it will not make any difference. Anything you like you may study from a material, analytical point of view. Any nonsense thing you take you can study and study and compile a voluminous book. But what will be the use of it?
Dr. Benford: I seem to view the world as the sum of its component parts.
Srila Prabhupada: Suppose I take this grass. I can write volumes of books—when it came into existence, when it died, what the fibers are, what the molecules are. In so many ways I can describe this insignificant foliage. But what is the use of it?
Dr. Benford: If it has no use, why did God put it there? Isn’t it worthwhile studying?
Srila Prabhupada: Our point is that you would rather study the insignificant grass than the God who has created everything. If you could understand Him, then automatically you would understand the grass. But you want to separate His grass from Him, to study it separately. In this way you can compile volumes and volumes on the subject; but why waste your intelligence in that way? The branch of a tree is beautiful as long as it is attached to the main trunk, but as soon as you cut it off it will dry up. Therefore, what is the use of studying the dried-up branch? It is a waste of intelligence.
Dr. Benford: But why is it a waste?
Srila Prabhupada: Certainly it is a waste, because the result is not useful.
Dr. Benford: Well, what is “useful”?
Srila Prabhupada: It is useful to know yourself—what you are.
Dr. Benford: Why is knowledge of myself better than knowledge of a plant?
Srila Prabhupada: If you understand what you are, then you understand other things. That is called atma-tattva, atma-jnana, self-knowledge. That is important. I am a spirit soul, and I am passing through so many species of life. But what is my position? I don’t wish to die, because I am afraid to change bodies. Therefore, I am afraid of death. This question should be raised first: I don’t want unhappiness, but unhappiness comes. I don’t want death, but death comes. I don’t want disease, but disease comes. I don’t want to become an old man, but old age comes anyway. What is the reason that these things are coming by force? Who is enforcing these things? I do not know, but these are the real problems. I don’t want excessive heat, but there is excessive heat. Why? Who is enforcing these things? Why are they being enforced? I don’t want this heat; what have I done? These are real questions, not just studying foliage and writing volumes of books. That is a waste of energy. Study yourself.
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