Changing Bodies



In 1974, at the ISKCON center in the countryside near Frankfurt, West Germany, His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada had the following dialogue with Professor Karlfried Graf von Durckheim. Professor Durckheim, a noted religious psychologist and author of Daily Life as Spiritual Exercise, holds a Ph. D. in analytic psychology and is renowned for establishing a therapeutic school in Bavaria that incorporates both Western and Eastern approaches to the psychology of consciousness. In this conversation Srila Prabhupada explains the.first and most basic principle of reincarnation -- that the spiritual living entity is different from the material body. After establishing that the conscious self and the body are separate entities. Sr/la Prabhupada describes how the conscious self, or soul, perpetually transmigrates to another body at the time of death.

Professor Durckheim: In my work, I've found that the natural ego doesn't like to die. But if you go through it [a near-death experience], you seem to cross the threshold of death to quite a different reality.


Srila Prabhupada: Yes, it is different. The experience is like that of a diseased person regaining his health.


Prof. Durckheim: So the person who is dead experiences a higher level of reality?


Srila Prabhupada: It's not the person who has died, but the body. According to Vedic knowledge, the body is always dead. For example, a microphone is made of metal. When electric energy passes through the microphone, it responds by converting sound into electrical impulses, which are amplified and broadcast over loudspeakers. But when there is no electricity in the system, nothing happens. Whether the microphone is working or not, it remains nothing more than an assembly of metal, plastic, etc. Similarly, the human body works because of the living force within. When this living force leaves the body, it is said that the body is dead. But actually it is always dead. The living force is the important element; its presence alone makes the body appear to be alive. But "alive" or "dead," the physical body is nothing more than a collection of dead matter.


The first teaching of Bhagavad-gita reveals that the condition of the material body is ultimately not very important.


asocyan anvasocas tvam

prajna-vadams ca bhasase

gatasun agatasums ca

nanusocanti panditah


"The Blessed Lord said: While speaking learned words you are mourning for what is not worthy of grief. Those who are wise lament neither for the living nor the dead." [Bg. 2.11]


The dead body is not the real subject for philosophical inquiry. Rather, we should concern ourselves with the active principle -- that principle which makes the dead body move -- the soul.


Prof. Durckheim: How do you teach your disciples to become aware of this force which is not matter, but which makes matter appear alive? I can intellectually appreciate that you're speaking a philosophy which contains the truth. I don't doubt it. But how do you make a person feel it?


How to Perceive the Soul


Srila Prabhupada: It's a very simple matter. There is an active principle which makes the body move; when it is absent, the body no longer moves. So the real question is, "What is that active principle?" This inquiry lies at the heart of Vedanta philosophy. In fact, the Vedanta-sutra begins with the aphorism athato brahma-jijnasa -- "What is the nature of the self within the body?" Therefore, the student of Vedic philosophy is first taught to distinguish the difference between a living body and a dead one. If he is unable to grasp this principle, we then ask him to consider the problem from the standpoint of logic. Anyone can see that the body is changing and moving because of the presence of the active principle, the soul. In the absence of the active principle, the body neither changes nor moves. So there must be something within the body that makes it move. It is not a very cliffficult concept.


The body is always dead. It is like a big machine. A tape recorder is made of dead matter, but as soon as you, the living person, push a button, it works. Similarly, the body is also dead matter. But within the body is the life force. As long as this active principle remains within the body, the body responds and appears alive. For instance, we all have the power to speak. If I ask one of my students to come here, he will come. But if the active principle leaves his body, I may call him for thousands of years, but he will not come. This is very simple to understand.


But what exactly is that active principle? That is a separate subject matter, and the answer to that question is the real beginning of spiritual knowledge.


Prof. Durckheim: I can understand the point you made about the dead body -- that there must be something within to make it alive. The only proper conclusion is that we are talking about two things -- the body and the active principle. But my real question is, how do we become aware of the active principle within ourselves as a direct experience and not simply as an intellectual conclusion? On the inner path isn't it important to actually experience this deeper reality?


"I Am Brahman, Spirit"


Srila Prabhupada: You yourself are that active principle. The living body and the dead body are different. The only difference is the presence of the active principle. When it is not there, the body is called dead. So the real self is identical with the active principle. In the Vedas we find the maxim so 'ham -- "I am the active principle." It is also said, aham brahmasmi: "l am not this material body. I am Brahman, spirit." That is self-realization. The self-realized person is described in Bhagavad-gita. Brahma-bhutah prasannatma na socati na kanksati: when one is self-realized, he neither hankers nor laments. Samah sarvesu bhutesu: he is equal to everyone -- men, animals, all living beings.


Prof. Durckheim: Consider this. One of your students might say, "I am spirit," but he might not be able to experience it.


Srila Prabhupada: How can he not experience it? He knows that he is the active principle. Everyone ultimately knows that they are not the body. Even a child knows it. We can observe this by examining the way we speak. We say, "This is my finger." We never say, "I finger." So what is that "I"? This is self-realization -- "I am not this body."


And this realization can be extended to other living beings. Why does man kill animals? Why give trouble to others? One who is self-realized can see, "Here is another self. He simply has a different body, but the same active principle that exists within my body is operating within his body." The self-realized person sees all living entities with equal vision, knowing that the active principle, the self, is present not only in human beings, but within the bodies of animals, birds, fish, insects, trees, and plants as well.


Reincarnation in This Life


The active principle is the soul, and the soul transmigrates from one body to another at the time of death. The body may be different, but the self remains the same. We can observe this change of body even within our own lifetime. We have transmigrated from babyhood to childhood, from childhood to youth, and from youth to adulthood. Yet all the while, the conscious self, or soul, has remained the same. The body is material, and the actual self is spiritual. When one comes to this understanding, he is called self-realized.


Prof. Durckheim: I think we are now arriving at a very decisive moment in the Western world, because for the first time in our history, people in Europe and America are starting to take seriously the inner experiences by which truth is revealed. Of course, in the East there have always been philosophers who have known the experiences by which death loses its terrifying character and becomes the threshold to a more complete life.


People need this experience of overcoming their usual bodily habits. And if they can break through that bodily experience, they suddenly realize that quite a different principle is operating within themselves. They become aware of the "inner life."


Srila Prabhupada: A devotee of Lord Krsna automatically realizes that different principle, because he never thinks, "I am this body." He thinks, aham brahmasmi -- "I am spirit soul." The first instruction given by Lord Krsna to Arjuna in Bhagavad-gita is this: "My dear Arjuna, you are very seriously considering the condition of the body, but a learned man does not take this material body, either dead or alive, very seriously." This is the first realization on the path of spiritual progress. Everyone in this world is very much concerned with the body, and when it is alive, they take care of it in so many ways. When it is dead, they erect grand statues and monuments over it. This is body consciousness. But no one understands that active principle which gives the body beauty and life. And at the time of death, no one knows where the real self, the active principle, has gone. That is ignorance.


Prof. Durckheim: During World War I, when I was a young man, I spent four years at the front. I was one of two officers in my regiment who was not wounded. On the battlefield, I saw death again and again. I saw people standing just next to me get hit, and suddenly their life force was gone. All that was left, as you say, was a body without a soul. But when death was near and I accepted that I also might die, I realized that within myself was something that has nothing whatsoever to do with death.


Srila Prabhupada: Yes. That is self-realization.


Prof. Durckheim: This experience of war marked me very deeply. It was the beginning of my inner path.


Srila Prabhupada: In the Vedas it is said, narayana-parah sarve na kutascana bibhyati. If one is a God-realized soul, he is not afraid of anything.


Prof. Durckheim: The process of self-realization is a sequence of inner experiences, isn't it? Here in Europe, the people have gone through such experiences. In fact, I believe this is the real treasure of Europe -- that there are so many people who went through the battlefields, through the concentration camps, through the bombing raids. And within their hearts they retain the memories of those moments when death was near, when they were wounded and nearly torn in pieces, and they experienced a glimpse of their eternal nature. But now it's necessary to show people that they don't need a battlefield, a concentration camp, or a bombing raid in order to take seriously those inner experiences when one is suddenly touched by a sense of divine reality and understands that this bodily existence is not the all and all.


The Body Is Like a Dream


Srila Prabhupada: We can experience that every night. When we dream, our body lies on the bed, but we go somewhere else. In this way we all experience that our real identity is separate from this body. When we dream we forget the body Lying on the bed. We act in different bodies and in different locations. Similarly, during the day we forget our dream bodies in which we traveled to so many places. Perhaps, in our dream bodies, we flew in the sky. At night we forget our waking body, and in the daytime we forget our dream body. But our conscious self, the soul, still exists, and we remain aware of our existence in both bodies. Therefore, we must conclude that we are not any of these bodies. For some time we exist in a certain body, then at death we forget it. So the body is really only a mental structure, somewhat like a dream, but the self is different from all of these mental structures. That is self-realization. In Bhagavad-gita Lord Krsna says,


indriyani parany ahur

indriyebhyah param manah

manasas tu para buddhir

yo buddheh paratas tu sah


"The working senses are superior to dull matter; mind is higher than the senses; intelligence is still higher than the mind; and he (the soul) is even higher than the intelligence." [Bg. 3.42]


Prof. Durckheim: Earlier today you spoke about the false ego. Did you mean that the real ego is the soul?


Srila Prabhupada: Yes, that is the pure ego. For instance, now I have this seventy-eight-year-old Indian body, and I have this false ego that thinks, "I am Indian," "I am this body." This is a misconception. Someday this temporary body will vanish and I'll get another temporary body. It's just a temporary illusion. The reality is that the soul, based on its desires and activities, transmigrates from one body to another.


Prof. Durckheim: Can consciousness exist apart from the material body?


Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Pure consciousness, the soul, does not need a material body. For instance, when you dream, you forget your present body, but you still remain conscious. The soul, the consciousness, is like water: water is pure, but as soon as it falls from the sky and touches the ground, it becomes muddy.


Prof. Durckheim: Yes.


Srila Prabhupada: Similarly, we are spirit souls, we are pure, but as soon as we leave the spiritual world and come in contact with these material bodies, our consciousness becomes covered. The consciousness remains pure, but now it is covered by mud (this body). And this is why people are fighting. They are wrongly identifying with the body, thinking, "I am German," "I am English," "I am black," "I am white," "I am this," "I am that" -- so many bodily designations. These bodily designations are impurities. This is why artists sculpt or paint nude figures. In France, for example, they regard nakedness as "pure" art. Similarly, when you understand the "nakedness," or true condition, of the spirit soul -- without these bodily designations -- that is purity.


Prof. Durckheim: Why does it appear to be so difficult to understand that one is different from the body?


Everyone Knows "l Am Not This Body"


Srila Prabhupada: It is not difficult. You can experience it. It is only because of foolishness that people think differently; but everyone really knows, "I am not this body." This is very easy to experience. I am existing. I understand that I have existed in a baby's body, I have existed in a child's body, and also in a boy's body. I have existed in so many bodies, and now I am in an old man's body. Or, for example, say you have now put on a black coat. The next moment you may put on a white coat. But you are not that black or white coat; you have simply changed coats. If I call you "Mr. Black Coat," that is my foolishness. Similarly, in my lifetime I have changed bodies many times, but I am not any of these bodies. This is real knowledge.


Prof. Durckheim: And yet isn't there a difficulty? For instance, you may have already intellectually understood very well that you are not the body -- but you may still have the fear of death. Doesn't that mean you didn't understand it by experience? As soon as you've understood by experience, you should have no fear of death, because you know that you can't really die.


Srila Prabhupada: Experience is received from a higher authority, from someone who has higher knowledge. Instead of my trying to experience for years and years that I am not this body, I can take the knowledge from God, or Krsna, the perfect source. Then I have experienced my deathlessness by hearing from a bona fide authority. That is perfect.


Prof. Durckheim: Yes, I understand.


Srila Prabhupada: Therefore, the Vedic instruction is tad-vijnanartham sa gurum evabhigacchet. "In order to get first-class experience of the perfection of life, you must approach a guru." And who is a guru? Whom should I approach? I should approach someone who has heard perfectly from his guru. This is called disciplic succession. I hear from a perfect person, and I distribute the knowledge in the same way, without any change. Lord Krsna gives us knowledge in Bhagavad-gita, and we distribute the same knowledge, without changing it.


Prof. Durckheim: Over the past twenty or thirty years there has been a great awakening of interest in spiritual topics in the Western part of the world. But, on the other hand, if the scientists want to eliminate the human self, they are well on the way to doing it with their atomic bombs and other technical innovations. If they want to guide humanity to some higher goal, however, then they have to stop looking at man in a materialistic way through their scientific spectacles. They must look at us as we are -- conscious selves.


The Goal of Human Life


Srila Prabhupada: The goal of human life is self-realization, or God realization, but the scientists do not know that. Modern society is presently led by blind and foolish men. The so-called technologists, scientists, and philosophers do not know the real aim of life. And the people themselves are blind as well; so we have a situation in which the blind are leading the blind. If a blind man tries to lead another blind man, what type of results can we expect? No; this is not the process. One must approach a self-realized person if he wants to understand the truth.


[More guests enter the room.]


Disciple: Srila Prabhupada, these gentlemen are professors of theology and philosophy. And this is Doctor Dara. He is the leader of a society for study of yoga and integral philosophy here in Germany.


[Srila Prabhupada greets them and the conversation resumes.]


Prof. Durckheim: May I ask another question? Isn't there another level of experience that opens the door to some deeper consciousness for the common man?


Srila Prabhupada: Yes. That experience is described by Krsna in Bhagavad-gita [2.13]:


dehino 'smin yatha dehe

kaumaram yauvanam jara

tatha dehantara-praptir

dhiras tatra na muhyati


"As the embodied soul continually passes in this body from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change."


But first one must understand the basic principle of knowledge -- that I am not this body. When one understands this basic principle, then he can advance to deeper knowledge.


Prof. Durckheim: It seems to me that there is a big difference between the Eastern and Western approaches to this problem of body and soul. In the teachings of the East, you have to become free of the body, whereas in Western religions, a person tries to realize the spirit within the body.


Srila Prabhupada: This is very easy to understand. We have heard from Bhagavad-gita that we are spirit, that we are within the body. Our sufferings come about because of our identification with the body. Because I have entered into this body, therefore I am suffering. So, either Eastern or Western, my real business should be how to get out of this body. Is that point clear?


Prof. Durckheim: Yes.


Srila Prabhupada: The term reincarnation means that I am a spirit soul who has entered a body. But in my next life I can enter another body. It may be a dog's body, it may be a cat's body, or it may be a king's body. But there will be suffering -- either in the king's body or in the dog's body. These sufferings include birth, death, old age, and disease. So in order to abolish these four kinds of suffering, we have to get out of the body. That is man's real problem -- how to get out of his material body.


Prof. Durckheim: This takes many lives?


Srila Prabhupada: It can take many lives, or you can do it in one lifetime. If you understand in this life that your sufferings are due to this body, then you should inquire how to get out of the body. And when you get that knowledge, you will know the trick -- how to get out of the body immediately.


Prof. Durckheim: But that doesn't mean that I have to kill the body, does it? Doesn't it mean that I realize my spirit is independent from my body?


Srila Prabhupada: No; it isn't necessary that the body be killed. But whether your body is killed or not, someday you will have to leave your present body and accept another one. That is nature's law, and you cannot avoid it.


Prof. Durckheim: It seems that there are some points here which are in accordance with Christianity as well.


Srila Prabhupada: It doesn't matter whether you are Christian, Muslim, or Hindu. Knowledge is knowledge. Wherever knowledge is available, you must pick it up. And this is knowledge -- every living being is imprisoned within a material body. This knowledge applies equally to Hindus, Muslims, Christians -- everyone. The soul is imprisoned within the body and must therefore undergo birth, death, old age, and disease. But we all want to live eternally, we want full knowledge, we want full blissfulness. To attain this goal we must get out of the body. This is the process.


Professor Dara: You stress the point that we must get out of the body. But shouldn't we accept our existence as human beings?


Srila Prabhupada: You propose accepting our existence as human beings. Do you think that existing within this human body is perfect?


Prof. Dara: No, I don't say it is perfect. But we should accept this and not try to create some ideal situation.


How to Become Perfect


Srila Prabhupada: You admit that your condition is not perfect. Therefore, the correct idea should be to discover how to become perfect.


Prof. Dara: But why do we have to become perfect as spirit? Why can't we become perfect as humans?


Srila Prabhupada: You have already admitted that your situation within this human body is not perfect. So why are you so attached to this imperfect situation?


Prof. Dara: This body is an instrument through which I can communicate with other people.


Srila Prabhupada: That is also possible for the birds and beasts.


Prof. Dara: But there is a big difference between the talking of birds and beasts and our talking.


Srila Prabhupada: What is the difference? They are talking in their community, and you are talking in your community.


Prof. Durckheim: I believe the real point is that the animal has no self-consciousness. He does not understand what he is in essence.


Rising Above the Beasts


Srila Prabhupada: Yes, that is the real point. A human being can understand what he is. The birds and beasts cannot understand. So, as humans, we should endeavor for self-realization and not simply act on the level of the birds and beasts. Therefore the Vedanta-sutra begins with the aphorism athato brahma-jijnasa -- human life is meant for inquiring about the Absolute Truth. That is the aim of human life, not eating and sleeping like the animals. We possess extra intelligence with which to understand the Absolute Truth. In Srimad-Bhagavatam [1.2.10] it is said,


kamasya nendriya-pritir

labho jiveta yavata

jivasya tattva jijnasa

nartho yas ceha karmabhih


"Life's desires should never be aimed at gratifying the senses. One should desire to live only because human life enables one to inquire about the Absolute Truth. This should be the goal of all works."


Prof. Dara: But is it just a waste of time to use our bodies to do good to others?


Srila Prabhupada: You cannot do good to others, because you do not know what good is. You are thinking of good in terms of the body -- but the body is false in the sense that you are not the body. For instance, you might occupy an apartment, but you are not that apartment. If you simply decorate the apartment and forget to eat, can that be good?


Prof. Dara: I don't think this comparison of the body with a room is very good..o


Srila Prabhupada: That's because you don't know that you are not the body.


Prof. Dara: But if we go out of a room, the room remains. When we go out of the body, it doesn't remain.


Srila Prabhupada: Eventually the room will also be destroyed.


Prof. Dara: What I mean to say is that there must be a very intimate connection between the body and the soul, a kind of oneness -- at least, as long as we are alive.


Srila Prabhupada: No; that is not real oneness. There is a difference. For instance, the room we are presently in is important to me only as long as I am alive. Otherwise, it has no importance. When the soul leaves the body, the body is thrown away, even though it was very dear to its owner.


Prof. Dara: But what if you don't want to separate from your body?


Srila Prabhupada: It is not a question of what you want. You must separate. As soon as your death comes, your relatives will throw out your body.


Prof. Durckheim: Perhaps it makes a difference if a person thinks, "I am the spirit, and I have a body," rather than "I am the body, and I have a soul."


The Secret of Immortality


Srila Prabhupada: Yes. It is a mistake to think that you are the body and possess a soul. That is not true. You are the soul, and you are covered by a temporary body. The soul is the important thing, not the body. For example, as long as you wear a coat, it is important to you. But if it becomes torn, you throw it away and purchase another coat. The living being constantly experiences the same thing. You separate from this present body and accept another body. That is called death. The body which you previously occupied becomes unimportant, and the body you now occupy becomes important. This is the big problem -- people give so much importance to a body that within a few short years will be exchanged for another one.


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