Bioethics in India: Proceedings of the International Bioethics Workshop in Madras: Biomanagement of Biogeoresources, 16-19 Jan. 1997, University of Madras; Editors: Jayapaul Azariah, Hilda Azariah, & Darryl R.J. Macer, Copyright Eubios Ethics Institute 1997.

11. Scientific and Spiritual Concepts of Death

Prof. V. R. Selvarajan

Department of Zoology, Univ. Madras, Guindy campus, Chennai 600 025

Any discussion on DEATH is very exciting as it creates curiosity among people. It involves fear of death as well as sacrifice after death. Books explaining the phenomenon of death are rare. Many of us have not experienced this state of physiology so far in our life time. Consequently, the topic raises doubts as well as excitement. We see in the society that death occurs sometimes suddenly, accidentally or deliberately (like suicides) and very rarely by declaration by some seers (one who foretells future i.e. prophets). Maha Samadhi state is not unknown to Indians as it is prevalent in spiritual India from thousands of years.

With this short introduction, we will proceed to the Scientific concepts of death. The death may be defined as "Ending of any form of life" (1). After the death of organism or human being, the physiological aspects are supposed to be permanently ceased and the organism is exposed to bacterial action leading to disintegration. Mother's womb is the integrating centre (embryo formation) and grave yard is the disintegrating centre. Consequently, all the components in the organism undergo cyclical changes and total destruction is a very rare phenomenon.

There are partial deaths for example "cerebral death" where the EEG pattern is almost flat but the person can be kept alive with artificial respiration and liquid feeding. This is because of the stopping of mesencephalic portion of the Reticular activating system and in this state, the person cannot be aroused. In some COMA patients, all the parts of the brain are inactivated not just RAS alone. In this state, the EEG is flat and by medical technology, the other parts of the body can be maintained like artificial respiration, nutrition through stomach tube and maintaining the blood circulation (2).

In biology, the scientists come across with words like a) suspended animation, b) aestivation and c) hibernation (3). In these physiological states, the invertebrates and vertebrates undergo temporary arrest of the metabolic activities and the animals revive to active state after some time, either months or seasons. There are many scientific publications in Molluscan aestivation. Hence these are not good examples of true death. Modern techniques of liquid nitrogen can bring about cryopreservation of parts of the body or organisms and after altering the temperature, the organisms revive to normalcy. Death appears to be a time bound factor as tissue or organ transplantation is increasing day by day and sometimes involves ethics where the pig heart is transplanted to monkey or man.

The word "Death" has been commonly used by public to indicate several meanings, for example:

1. Dead end - street closed at one end

2. Dead head - person who rides in the bus without payment

3. Dead beat - who does not pay for what he eats

4. Dead line - line or date not to be crossed

5. dead blow - blow that kills

Unpopularity in the society is considered as "living death" and also come across words like cold death, heat death and miserable death.

Coming to Spiritual concepts of death, we have in store already published material, explaining the phenomenon of death and Life after death (4). One such is Bhagavad Gita where Lord Krishna said "Many are the births taken by Me and you, Arjuna, I know them all while you know not" (Jnana Karma Sanyasa Yoga, Chapt. 4, Sloka - 5). Further Krishna said in Samkya Yoga, Chap. - 2, Sloka - 22 "As a man casting off worn-out garments puts on new ones, so the embodied casting off worn-out bodies enters into others that are new".

Further the Bhagavad Gita in Chapt. 8, Sloka 23, 24, 25, 26 (Akshara Brahma yoga) also says, the time in which the Yogis depart never to return and the time in which they depart to return. Sloka 24 says that "fire, light, day time, the bright half of the moon, six months of northern path of the sun, then go forth, the knowers supreme, go to Him". Similarly, the 25th sloka says that "smoke, night, dark half of the moon and the six months of the southern passage of the sun, then going forth, the Yogi obtains the Lunar light and returns".

In Prasna Upanishad (5) the Kausalya (son of Asvala) questioned Bhagvan Pippalada whence is this Prana born -

Apana - dwells in organs of the excretion and generation

Prana - dwells in eye, ear, mouth and nose

Samana - is in the middle and it distributes the food equally

Vyana - heart, where there are 101 arteries and 72 thousand branches where Vyana moves

Udana - ascending leads to worlds due to good work or sinful deeds

The sun rises and assists the Prana in the eye, the earth attracts apana downwards and the other between sun and earth is Samana and the wind is Vyana. Fire indeed is Udana and fire gone out enters another body with his senses absorbed in the mind. Whatever his thought at the time of death, with that he attains prana. In Bhagavad Gita 4 also it is mentioned by Lord Krishna "Yam Yam vapi swaram bhavam thyajathyanthe kalebaram ....." emphasizing the last thoughts decide the next birth. The portfolio of lord yama starts not with the scientific concept of physical death but with the soul after death and River Vaitharani has been indicated. Not only in the Indian philosophy that life after death is indicated but also in Christianity where the soul goes to the worlds depending on good and bad deeds and Crucifixion of Lord Jesus Christ is a solid example where He comes out of the dead body after three days. The role of Satan or Saithan has been indicated in many faiths.

In summary, it can be said that ending of any form of life as death defined by science is not totally acceptable to spiritual concepts and life after death has been indicated. The Astral travel and Parakayapravesam of Indian yoga support the spiritual outlook. I hope all scientists will get one day to inquire about death and its reality. May God bless all of us.

1. "Death" Definition from Thorndike - Barnhart comprehensive Desk dictionary - 1962 - Double day company, New York, pp 219.
2. "Coma" definition - Medical Physiology, Guyton and Hall, 1996, pp 667.
3. Prosser CL. Comparative animal physiology, W.B. Saunders, Phil. 1973, pp. 227, 416.
4. Bhagavad Gita - translated by Swami Sivananda, Sivananda Ashram, Rishikesh, India.
5. Prasna Upanishad - By Swami Sivananda pp. 144, Sivananda Ashramam, Rishikesh.
6. Discourses on Christianity

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