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
“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.