Saturday, April 28, 2012

Old Age

changing bodies“There is no superior power which can check the cruel hands of death. No one wants to die, however acute the source of bodily sufferings may be. Even in the days of so-called scientific advancement of knowledge, there is no remedial measure either for old age or for death. Old age is the notice of the arrival of death served by cruel time, and no one can refuse to accept either summon calls or the supreme judgment of eternal time.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.13.19 Purport)

You’ve seen the news. Eat blueberries to extend your life. Exercise a certain number of times each week and you can prevent the onset of a specific disease. And of course the claims are backed up by studies. Recent research shows this and shows that. Then there are the newer studies coming out which refute the older ones. “Scientists now believe that coffee is not good for you, while it was previously said that it was good for you.” One day oat bran was the secret to reducing the risk of heart disease, and the next day oat bran brought on so many side effects. While the focus is always on extending life and thereby trying to escape the undefeated warrior known as death, what about the issue of old age? How do we stop that?

Let’s think of it this way. Say that we listen to the advice that we get from the health experts, who use the advantages of modern medicine and the noted perceptions in recent scientific research to come up with their recommendations. Modern medicine has certainly given us many advancements, such as vaccines for debilitating illnesses and effective treatment for previously crippling diseases. The advanced machinery of today is very good at extending life, especially for people who are traumatically ill. In days past the same tragedies would have likely resulted in instant death, but with advancements in treatment people can heal a lot faster now.

Scientific researchRecorded perceptions, commonly known as experimental research, are what brought about these advancements. You started with a certain hypothesis. Next, you created a controlled environment, and finally you ran your tests. If the results are the same through repeated retries, you can assert that the original hypothesis was correct. This is the basic scientific method. You have both observation and experiment. Without observation the experiment is of no value. Without experiment, your observation is as good as a guess. Statements that begin with “I believe” can be countered by another person’s belief. As each person is a valid human being, who is to say whose belief is more valuable? How do we decide which opinion carries more weight?

So we have a specific set of recommendations that was created through past experiments and conclusions. For the moment, we’ll ignore the fact that past recommendations and conclusions have sometimes later on been refuted through new research, which in turn reveals the flaw in relying solely on the scientific method. The root cause of the defect is quite easy to spot as well: who is able to perceive every single event in history? We may create a controlled environment, but this doesn’t mean that we can think of every possible combination of conditions. For instance, studying weather patterns over a period of thirty years to come up with a guess as to the future changes in climate is silly because the earth has existed for much longer a period of time. If you can’t go back and study the entire history of the earth and its climate, the entire process is academic. If somehow you could absorb the information pertaining to all of weather’s history, you still have no idea how the millions of living entities residing on earth will behave going forward and what effect that behavior will have on the environment.

The recommendations we’re following from the health experts in this hypothetical scenario relate to daily habits. We’re told to sleep at least eight hours a night, so we do that. We eat on time, avoid saturated fat, exercise regularly, but not too strenuously, and eat all the foods that are purported to prolong life. For this situation, let’s say that everything works out. We live for a very long time, long enough to see the birth of our great-grandchildren. We reached old age, so the previous effort is considered worthwhile. The recommendations were effective because they extended our time within the present body.

But what about old age itself? Where does that fit into the equation? If I live to a point where my body starts to decay, what is the use in continuing on? Moreover, what have the recommendations done for my quality of life? If I lived a long time but remained stuck to a wheelchair or had difficulty walking around, should not those defects be a concern? In this respect the scientific advancements have done little to nothing. Eating the “right” foods can help you live longer, but nothing can be done to stop old age from coming, let alone death. A cure has yet to be found for old age, which is the messenger of death, telling the living entity that their time for exit is approaching.

Why bring this up? So what if healthy living doesn’t address old age? Would we rather live dangerously and die young? The reason the defect requires mentioning is that the living spirit has the potential to do great things. Extending life is not one of them and neither is preventing old age. Surely one should try to remain healthy, attempting to keep the spirit soul tied to an active form, but the real aim of life is to put an end to the cycle of birth, old age, disease and death. This can only be done through fostering the proper consciousness.

“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.”  (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.13)

Lord KrishnaThe continuous cycle is known as reincarnation. One doesn’t have to die and get born again to be part of the transmigration process. The changing body can be seen through visual evidence, which shows that reincarnation is a scientific fact and not a dogmatic belief. Your outward form changes but you as a person do not. Identity is tied to spirit, which is immutable. In the C# computer programming language, the “string” data type is immutable. This means that you can’t change the contents of a string object after it is created. You can perform some operations on it and get a resultant value, but that new value must be reassigned completely to the original variable if you want to access the new value.

Following a similar concept, the spirit soul residing within the body cannot be altered, but it can be assigned to a new body. Old age also represents a kind of new body; thus the reassignment occurs constantly. When there is a complete shift in bodies, at which point memory is totally erased, the corresponding events are known as death and birth. There is no way to stop this from happening, at least in the immediate future, but through the proper consciousness one can escape the cycle going forward.

And what consciousness is that? The fear over death is what drives the scientific studies and the consuming public to follow the outputted recommendations. That same fear can be used as impetus to learn about the Supreme Lord, who is not a sectarian figure. His association is the most cherished, and through following the proper set of procedures, one can live a virtuous life and at the same time advance in consciousness. If you follow the regulations passed on by scientific studies, you can perhaps find a healthy condition that prolongs life, but the issue of consciousness is not addressed. When following the highest system of religion known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, every situation can become favorable.

How does this work exactly? The quintessential act of bhakti is the chanting of the holy names in a mood of love and devotion. You chant so that you can occupy your time and hear transcendental sound vibrations. Hearing is the easiest devotional act and it is also the most effective in terms of changing thought for the better and increasing intelligence. If you’re smarter you can recognize nonsense in instruction a lot easier. You can also follow the right path with more confidence. Hearing can take place with laziness on the outside, but the mind actively engages during the process by creating mental images and forming counterarguments to the thoughts that arise. If you’re forced to think while hearing, you will be better off in the long run.

“And whoever, at the time of death, quits his body, remembering Me alone, at once attains My nature. Of this there is no doubt.”  (Lord Krishna, Bg. 8.5)

Krishna's MercyBy regularly reciting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, the consciousness gradually becomes so pure that it looks for ways to continue to stay in that sublime setting. Thus a proper scheme to follow on a go-forward basis is created without a problem. You learn to prolong your spiritual life, which continues after death. From the holy names, the forms and features of the Supreme Personality are revealed, and they are so pleasurable that you hope to bask in their glory without cessation. Whether in youth or old age, the devoted soul finds a pleasurable situation, and knowing that their cherished object of worship is protecting them, the time of death is no longer one to be feared.

In Closing:

From experts issues of health to resolve,

But still the problem of old age to solve.


Perhaps by eating right live long you will,

But from an aged body a problem there is still.


Know that every second your form is decaying,

But your identity the same it is staying.


Therefore must address the needs of the soul,

Through consciousness on its fate gain control.


Fix the mind on the Supreme Lord’s lotus feet,

In bhakti’s bliss, death with a smile you’ll greet.