from Back to Godhead, May-June 1991
“Life is amply long for him who orders it properly.”
–Seneca (8 BC–AD 65)
Scientists of various disciplines are working hard to discover the principles of the biological clock within the human body that sets the pace for aging and finally signals the time for death. Thus they hope to learn how to prolong man’s life, and apparently they are making some progress. How successful their efforts will prove remains to be seen, but perhaps even more important: If they do succeed, how shall we use our extra time?
Just to live a long life is not in itself especially praiseworthy. After all, many trees live for hundreds and even thousands of years. How, then, is the longevity of a human being superior to that of a tree? One may say that human beings are superior because they breathe whereas trees do not. But the bellows of a blacksmith also breathes. Unlike the tree and the bellows, a human being eats and enjoys sex, but don’t the beasts all around us do the same? What, then, is the superior quality of human life?
The distinguishing quality of a human being is that he has the intelligence to inquire about the purpose of life. The Upanishads therefore declare: “He is a miserly man who does not solve the problems of life as a human being and who thus quits the world like the cats and dogs, without understanding the science of self-realization.”
A miser does not know how to use his resources properly. Therefore, even if science grants us more years, the extra time will be of little avail to a miserly materialist. Those who are too materialistic do not inquire into the problems of life. They spend their nights sleeping or enjoying sex, and during the day they make money and maintain their families. The temporary happiness of living in comfortable homes with their wives and children lulls them into a false sense of security. Thus although they know that everyone who came before them has died, somehow this doesn’t bring them to realize that they too will die–and that they must make their lives successful before death comes.
The Vedic literature asks, “What is the value of a prolonged life that is wasted without attention to the meaning of human life? Even a moment of full consciousness would be better, for that gives one a start in pursuing one’s supreme interest.”
In trying to extend the span of human life instead of trying to understand the purpose of the time already allotted to us, scientists are misusing their energy. They are giving their attention to the essential problems of birth, death, disease and old age, but they are approaching these problems in patchwork fashion. They are changing the way in which these problems attack us, but they cannot solve the problems. They may put off old age and death, but neither death nor old age can be stopped. They may find a cure for one disease, but they can never put an end to disease itself. Thus these problems always weigh heavily upon us. The scientists alter the way in which the problems affect us, but that is like shifting a heavy burden from one’s shoulders to one’s head and then again to the shoulders. We must all still bear the burden of the miseries nature places upon us.
Even the scientists probing into the causes of aging and death will also have to die. At the time of their death, if they have neglected the purpose of life–spiritual realization–because they were too preoccupied with their work, what will they have gained?
Of course, many scientists have avoided facing this problem by adhering to the theory that life itself is but a series of chemical reactions. According to this view, human life is no more than an intricate pattern of biochemical transformations.
If this idea is valid, however, why should scientists want to interfere with the workings of nature’s plans? Why is it that even the scientists themselves do not wish to die? If a scientist were to spill a flask of chemicals, he might be annoyed that his experiments were momentarily interrupted, but he would simply clean up the mess and go on with his work. But if his wife, son, or daughter were suddenly to die, the same scientist would react quite differently. If human life is no more than a series of chemical reactions, why should this be so? In the Vietnam War, tons of chemicals were lost through bombings and other military operations. Yet how many of us lamented for such a loss? We grieve for the lives lost in the conflict. This indicates that life must be more than merely chemical.
The Vedic scripture Bhagavad-gita explains that the living being is in reality an eternally existing spiritual soul. This being so, scientific research into longevity is unnecessary and misdirected because every living being is already eternal. The real point, therefore, is not how to prolong one’s existence within the body, but to make one’s life successful. While in this human form, one should learn how to recover his eternality. Otherwise, his life is a failure.
The Vedic history Srimad-Bhagavatam tells us that the great King Parikshit, 5,000 years ago, learned that he had only seven days more in which to live. Thus he immediately left his home and kingdom and spent his last days hearing from the self-realized saint Sukadeva Gosvami about the purpose of human life. “What is the duty of everyone,” the king inquired, “and especially of one who is about to die?” The Bhagavatam records that by hearing Sukadeva’s replies to these questions, the king, in a mere seven days, attained perfection.
The Bhagavatam therefore recommends that although one may hear about, speak about or conduct research into innumerable subjects, an intelligent person should spend his valuable time hearing from self-realized authorities about the science of self-realization. This science begins with an understanding of one’s own spiritual identity, and it culminates in an understanding of the supreme spiritual identity, Lord Sri Krishna, and our relationship with Him. As confirmed in Bhagavad-gita, an intelligent person who can fully understand this science can attain freedom from old age and death and return to his eternal spiritual position.
The ancient Indian politician Chanakya Pandit has commented that one cannot buy back so much as a moment of wasted time, even for millions of dollars. We therefore appeal to scientists, educators and, indeed, all intelligent men not to waste time, money and valuable human energy for research that will be of only temporary benefit and that will distract both them and those who follow them from the central purpose of human life. We request such men to give their attention to the science of self-realization as presented in such books as Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam, for thus they can fulfill all their present scientific goals–and go far beyond them.