Did you know you have two bodies?
Yes. But before you run to the mirror for another look, let me tell you how I found out.
In America in the 1950s, many new mothers preferred to bottle-feed their babies. Breast-feeding, they feared, would lead to sagging breasts. (And what could be worse than having to buy a bigger bra?)
They sweetened the milk by adding one or another commercial syrup, and the mixture was called a formula.
A question about formulas came to my mind one evening as the family sat around the dinner table. The fragrance of hot buns wafted from the oven, and our green parakeet, Charlene, sat on a perch.
How Can a Newborn Like or Dislike?
As Mom started ladling the steaming tomato soup into our bowls, Dad looked up at Charlene. “Psst psst psst,” he said.
“Psst psst psst,” she replied. (Female parakeets don’t talk). We all chuckled.
While we dipped our spoons in the tomato soup and Mom started plopping the mashed potatoes on our plates, she told us about someone’s new baby who didn’t like his formula.
I swallowed a spoonful of the tangy soup and put my spoon down. I looked up. “But how can a newborn baby like or dislike anything?” I asked.
Dad picked up a napkin and wiped his mouth. “They’re not little pieces of meat,” he said. “They’re born with personalities.”
My mind started turning. Born with personalities? But isn’t your personality the result of your past experiences? Remember the time you fell down the stairs? Your first ice cream cone? Your first thunderstorm?
The Next Logical Question
A newborn hasn’t had any experiences, so how can he have a personality?
I didn’t think of the next logical question: How do I know the newborn has no past experiences? What if he has? But where? How?
A green parakeet. This one’s a male. (Photo: Adam Hles/Unsplash)
I put the question away in the dusty filing cabinet of my mind. And forgot about it for many years. . . until Krishna reminded me.
The Eventual Answer
In 1966 I met my spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, who introduced me to Lord Krishna’s teachings.
One day I came across a statement that would eventually show me why a newborn has a personality. It’s in Srila Prabhupada’s book Teachings of Lord Chaitanya:
On account of the conditioned soul’s eternal attitude of separation from Krishna, the spell of the material energy awards him two kinds of bodies—the gross body, consisting of five elements, and the subtle body, consisting of mind, intelligence and ego.
I knew the outer body, also known as the gross body. It’s the one I see in the mirror when I shave, the one I scrub in the shower with a loofah, the one I scratch here and there. It’s made of the gross elements: earth, water, fire, air, and ether.
Besides the body, I knew I also had an ego (the sense of “I am”), a mind, and an intellect.
But the ego, mind and intellect have something that no teacher ever wrote on a blackboard. No scientist ever published it in a journal. No rabbi, or priest ever taught it in a sermon:
These elements also make up a body, known in Vedic teachings as the subtle body.
O.K. But what has this to do with a newborn? Well, first come with me as I backtrack a bit.
Born with a personality (Photo: Pixabay)
I learned that when I, the soul, jumped down from the spiritual world into this material universe, where Krishna is largely forgotten, Maya Devi, the goddess of the material nature, covered me with a subtle body.
How Big Is the Universe?
When was it? I don’t know. The material universe I jumped into was not the one I live in now.
Most people think the universe we live in is eternal and infinitely large. We love to picture a black starry sky stretching out to infinity and lasting forever. We love hearing about some newly discovered star some 500 billion light years away.
But how can the universe be eternal if it had a beginning? Call it a “big bang” if you want and thrill at the mental image of a lonely little point suddenly exploding and throwing billions of stars out into infinite space.
But anything that has a beginning is not eternal. In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna about something truly beginningless (and endless). It’s the living entity:
Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be. (2.12)
The existence of the living entity, the soul, has no beginning. There is no time when it came into being from non-being. Thus it cannot end because it has never begun. But it exists.
Such is the nature of eternity. Our present universe does not fit the description.
What is eternal, however, is the cycle of creation of the universes, then destruction, then creation, and so on.
We’ve Got It Upside Down
We also think life has a beginning: a bunch of chemicals on a rock somewhere in the sunshine.
That’s the standard scenario, isn’t it? But the Vedas say we’ve got it upside down: What we think came last. . . really came first. Life is the source of the universe.
Want to blow your mind? Think of Krishna expanding as Maha Vishnu, his body so large that our immense universe—contained in an even bigger bubble—blew out through one of the pores of his skin as easily as a grain of dust passes through a window.
Our entire universe and billions and trillions of others, all blew out of Maha Vishnu’s pores and now float as bubbles on the Ocean of Causation. And our universe? It’s the smallest.
Don’t believe it? Think it’s a fantasy?
Then why do you believe the Big Bang? Did you hear it? Did you need ear plugs because it was too loud? Why do you believe Neil Armstrong walked on the moon? Were you there to shake his hand as he stepped out of the spacecraft?
You Don’t Have to Take it
Our so-called scientists have kept our minds imprisoned in a tiny cell. But you don’t have to take it.
No. Let the Vedas smash the prison walls and tear down the bars. Let your mind soar free and breathless into the infinite sky of Vedic knowledge. It’s bigger than the universe. And it’s yours for the taking.
But me, I ran into the tiny cell and locked myself in.
I began to look at the world through the filter of my new subtle body. “I am a product of this material world,” I thought, “an inseparable part of it.”
The sages call this the illusion of maya. But why call it an illusion?
Let me answer with a passage from the Srimad Bhagavatam. It took me years to understand it:
Clouds and dust are carried by the air, but less intelligent persons say that the sky is cloudy and the air is dirty. Similarly, they also implant material bodily conceptions on the spirit self. (1.3.31)
Because the clouds do not mix with the sky but keep their separate forms, the sky itself is not affected. It does not become “cloudy,” or mixed with clouds. Nor do the grains of dirt mix with the air.
Less intelligent persons say the sky is cloudy. (Photo: Umapati Swami)
And I the soul, remain separate from the world, though I appear to mix with it. And like everyone else, I think the world is my plaything:
“I am the enjoyer of all that I see. Let me find a nice bed partner, a scrumptious meal, a good mug of beer. I deserve it.”
Am I a Martian?
But I am forgetting something important:
“What did you say? I am the eternal servant of Krishna? Who’s that? I’ll worry about him later.”
And as I travel from one birth to another, I accumulate ideas in my subtle body:
- “I am an American,”
- “I am a Martian,”
- “I am a dog,”
- “I am a green parakeet.”
Not just me. You have a story too, and it’s basically the same, and so does everyone else, even the animals and plants.
Each time I die, I give up my gross body but no more than that. Goddess Maya Devi arranges a new life for me in one or another of the millions of species to satisfy my subtle body’s accumulated desires.
The living entity in the material world carries his different conceptions of life from one body to another, as the air carries aromas. Thus he takes one kind of body and again quits it to take another. (Bhagavad Gita 15.8)
Where are my feet?
Yes. Whatever non-human creature you see—a dog, a caterpillar, a potted plant—is a complete person who was once a human being. And because his intelligence has been covered, like the intelligence of a small child, he cannot understand—or even wonder— why he now has roots instead of feet.
Even a covid-19 virus with all those funny knobs sticking out is a fallen human being forced to live in that hellish state because of the dirt accumulated in his subtle body.
Amazing, isn’t it?
Sometimes, especially in the case of suicide, the soul may have to wander for some years with only a subtle body. He becomes a ghost—you know, the kind that rattles chains in dark old houses and scares the wits out of us with creaky footsteps at midnight.
The problem is that this ghost doesn’t have a gross body to satisfy the subtle body’s desires. “I can’t enjoy anything,” he thinks. “Not a sex partner or some spaghetti al burro or a foaming beer. So what can I do?”
“I have an idea,” he continues. “I’ll enter into some living person’s body and try to find pleasure that way.”
Then we say the living person is possessed. When Jesus cast demons out of someone’s body, he was casting out subtle-bodied souls.
Our Human Intelligence Is So Small
If the soul is destined for a human body, Goddess Maya Devi will put him into the body of some man, his father-to-be.
But how does Maya Devi know which man is planning to father a child?
I can’t say. But it only goes to show how small our human intelligence is when you think of the intelligence of a god or goddess like Maya Devi.
Then the man will put the soul—subtle body and all— into a woman’s womb at the time of sex. And we say the woman is pregnant as she begins to create a new gross body for the soul. She cannot create a body without the soul because the soul is the living force. And without the living force, how can there be a body?
Remembering 100 Past Lives
At around the seventh month, the child in the womb begins to remember previous lives:
The child thus remains just like a bird in a cage, without freedom of movement. At that time, if the child is fortunate, he can remember all the troubles of his past one hundred births, and he grieves wretchedly. What is the possibility of peace of mind in that condition? (Srimad Bhagavatam 3.31.9)
But at the time of birth, Krishna in the child’s heart makes him forget his past lives so the child can again think himself the enjoyer of the world.
But the impressions and the tendencies remain in the subtle body. Thus the newborn has a personality and may like or dislike his formula.
Now, at last, I can finish my tomato soup.
Eternally touching my head to the lotus feet of my spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada,
Photo top: Naughty Krishna holding a piece of candy (Jishnu Das)
© 2021 Umapati Swami
Scriptural passages © Bhaktivedanta Book Trust International
His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada is the teacher who brought Krishna Consciousness from India to the West and then to the rest of the world. He is the founder of the worldwide Hare Krishna Movement as well as the author and compiler of many works of Vedic knowledge. He left this world in 1977.
One of the first American devotees of the Hare Krishna Movement, he became Srila Prabhupada’s disciple in 1966. Since then, he has preached Krishna Consciousness in many countries and is the author of “My Days with Prabhupada,” available from Amazon. Now 84 years old, he has started this blog to share what he has learned.