Life or Death

An adult human body possesses 60 million cells and every 24 hours it loses 500 thousand million of them, enough to fill a soup plate. Every touch, breath of air, thought, movement and action takes its toll. 60 hairs are lost in a day, each with more than 1000 cells compactly arranged around a central fibrous core. One nail paring has some 10,000 cells which have been flattened and transformed into a tough and hard tissue. Each day the entire lining of the mouth is washed down into the stomach and digested. The food we eat scrapes off 70 thousand million cells from our intestines. Other cells are destroyed by the action of the mind on the body causing the chemical catastrophes of hate, anger and worry. Placed end to end, these lost cells would span the Atlantic ocean.

Even with this prodigious loss we do not fade away or disappear. For these cells are replaced. The processes of life and death are always with us, going on continuously from moment to moment. Our body is a collection of organised tissue; a mass of living, dying, new-born and growing cells. It is a wonder of nature and embodies the spiritual life force, for every day part of us dies so that the rest can live. The individual cells sacrifice themselves for the sake of the well being of the whole. Each cell is a true karma yogi; a selfless, industrious, tireless worker.

The whole organism is functioning as an integrated unit compensating for death by birth. But if death exists within life then what is death? Is death an absolute, unique phenomena? Or is it just a relative change in the state of being and experience; a natural event that is taking place every minute?

Between life and death

Molecular biologists, with the aid of specialised equipment such, as high powered electron microscopes, are finding there is no ultimate gap between life and death. In studying viruses, for example, they are looking at what appear to be the smallest living creatures. Though they can reproduce, viruses are dependent on a host to supply certain chemicals which they are too small to contain. It becomes very hard at this point to say whether the virus is alive or dead for they live somewhere in between.

Nature is arranged so that the growth of a species is self-limiting. Food is limited or predators keep the population checked. This provides room for others to live. Life grows on life. Just as some cells within the body must die so that we can grow and live at the microcosmic level, we individuals must die so that the earth can survive. We are all part of a larger picture: cells in bodies, bodies on planets, planets in solar systems, galaxies, universes, and so on. It is this awareness that the yogi aspires to attain; transcendence of his little self to a greater cosmic awareness.

Death is a biological necessity, but what is it? When a starving wolf kills and eats another wolf, so that it is reabsorbed into the community, is it dead or does it live on in others? When a body dies and is invaded by living bacteria, is that body dead?

When a bacteria divides and produces two offspring identical to itself, is it alive or has it immortalised itself in them? When a man is able to transplant a living heart, or eventually perhaps even a brain, does a part of the donor live on in the recipient? After a brain transplant, who would wake up? These are the scientific, philosophical, legal and moral questions asked today in an effort to define death... and life.

As yet no one has succeeded in defining death. Yet this is of the greatest importance, especially when we remember what happened to Andreas Vesalius, the Italian 'father of anatomy', in the 16th century. He was dissecting the corpse of a Spanish nobleman when the 'corpse' suddenly came back to life. The nobleman recovered, but Vesalius was sentenced to death by the Court of Inquisition.

Since ancient times numerous tests have been made in an effort to determine if someone is dead or not, but there are too many exceptions. One can never be sure. Yogis, for example, using such techniques as khechari mudra, can slow the metabolism and thereby reduce oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide elimination to levels that would normally be lethal.*1 Some yogis can stop their hearts. People have recovered after being frozen, their body temperature dropping as low as 17°C (normal is 37).

Such exceptions led Swami Sivanandaji of Rishikesh to state:

"It is very difficult to find out the real signs of death. Stoppage of the heartbeat... pulse or breathing are not the actual signs of death... because there have been numerous occasions where... the person revived after some time. The decomposition and putrefaction of the body may be the final sign of death, before decomposition sets in. One may think that a man is dead whereas he may be in a state of trance, catalepsy, ecstasy or samadhi... all states which can easily resemble death. The outward signs are quite similar."

What is death?

The United Nations Department of Vital Statistics defines death as "the permanent cessation of all vital functions". The laboratory of Experimental Physiology of Resuscitation in Moscow describes clinical death as "a state during which all external signs of life (consciousness, reflexes, respiration and cardiac activity) are absent, but the organism as a whole is not yet dead; the metabolic processes of its tissues still proceed, and under definite conditions it is still possible to restore all its functions".

Modern science can keep the body going indefinitely through blood filtration, artificial respiration and so on. The brain seems to have the capacity, under normal conditions, to live longer than other tissues.

The three main causes of death are said to be respiratory, circulatory or nervous system failure, but the ultimate cause of death is brain damage, usually through a lack of oxygen.

Researchers have classified death in 2 basic categories:

  1. Clinical death: the cessation of vital functions, The organs continue to work: hair grows, the liver produces glucose, cells taken from tissues can grow in special fluids, organs of the body can be taken for transplantation. This is one degree of death, when we can legally dispose of the body, but it is not absolute... some people revive.
  2. Absolute death: the breakdown of cells and the process of putrefaction in which bacteria grow and life goes on, but in a different form.

Professor V.A. Negovskii of the Soviet Academy of Medical Sciences describes 4 stages of dying.*2

  1. Shock: loss of blood, oxygen and nutrients causes the brain to start compensating mechanisms, such as the release of more sugar into the blood.
  2. Pre-agonal: chemical changes in the brain increase the activity of the cortex so that sugar is consumed faster than it is provided. The EEG shows fast beta waves interrupted by prolonged alpha, a similar picture to that seen in meditation.
  3. Agony: respiration stops, eye reflexes disappear, brain activity dwindles.
  4. Clinical death: the brain stops. Resuscitation is possible if the blood supply is restored in approximately 6 minutes.

Thus the definition of death is a concept that varies with our society's ability to resuscitate. On its own, death has no logical, clinical or biological reality. It exists only as a statement or measurement of relative changes in the body.

What happens to the consciousness?

According to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, there are definite stages in dying during which different reactions are experienced:

Denial: the individual attempts to rectify the situation physically and mentally, struggles, disbelieves. Anger and frustration: he asks, "Why me?" and may try to bargain and seek a last way out. Fear and depression: the full realisation of imminent death sinks home. This occurs only in adults and varies culturally.

Peace and contentment: finally come if there is sufficient time and support. Then we realise that death is not as bad as we had thought. Some people have spiritual awakening and experience bliss and transcendence. If they recover, all fears of death are lost.

The yogic definition

Yoga defines life and death as the presence and absence of prana, the life force or universal energy found in all matter but at different degrees and levels of subtlety. The more prana we have, the more alive we are. Prana supplies the brain with power to activate all the innate faculties just as electricity runs various mechanical appliances.

When we have an abundance of prana, we fulfil the prerequisites of a full life: energy, awareness, perception, movement, control, involvement, interrelationship, and ability to influence our environment. We live vital and active lives.

Death, on the other hand, is the withdrawal of prana, control and interrelationship; the inability to respond to stimuli. It is not absolute, however. For example, if a part of the brain dies, causing us to lose the use of our arm, prana is withdrawn. The arm is still alive, but it exists at a lower level of energy.

When the body dies, prana is gradually withdrawn and the processes of cell metabolism slowly dwindle. The gross body returns to the earth and a lower level of energy. It rots and is combined with the earth, bacteria, worms. The individual personality dissolves, but the energy and consciousness return to their source just as the body returns to its source. It is said that first the earth element dissolves into water (consciousness moves up the chakras from mooladhara to swadhisthana), water into fire, fire into air, air into ether, ether into the light of consciousness.

According to the yogi there is no birth and no death. The individual consciousness is the infinite, eternal, immortal self. Man is that, but has become engrossed in his body consciousness. This is explained by the allegory of the man who watches the reflections of the sun in various pots filled with water. He does not realise that the source of light is the sun. The pots break and the water spills out, but the sun still shines. It is this sun, this self, this atman, which is the spark of consciousness that gives life to inanimate matter. The body dies and the personality is lost to us, but the spark of life is not extinguished. The spirit is eternal.


*1. B.K. Anand, et al, "Studies on Shri Ramanand Yogi During His Stay in an Airtight Box", Ind. J.Med. Res., 49:82, 1961.

*2. V.A. Negovskii, Pathophysiology and Therapy of Agony and Clinical Death, Megdiz, Moscow, 1954.

*3. E. Kubler-Ross, On Death and Dying, MacMillan, New York, 1969.