The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
July 2014 – Vol. 17 Issue 5
Long ago the Bhagavad Gita was inserted within the great epic of India, the Mahabharata, to call attention again to the ageless path of self-unfoldment. The episode takes place during a great war, with the opposing armies ready for battle, and Arjuna – man – in his chariot between the two forces, unable to lead his troops into the fray since his relations and friends on both sides will surely perish. In reality, the field of struggle is we ourselves, who behold the prospect of turning from material ways of living to walk the path of enlighten-ment. At this critical point Krishna, his highest self, reasons with Arjuna about human and divine existence. Krishna discusses the different schools of discipline (yoga) and philosophy, and all are shown to lead the disciple eventually to him as the highest spiritual being. Next is developed a course of conduct recommended for the acceptance of mankind: perfect control over oneself. And finally, by a discourse on the qualities of spirit and matter, he demonstrates how all things are brought into existence and karma is produced, along with our mental, moral, and emotional attributes. Thus Krishna leads Arjuna to realize the true state of being.
T. Subba Row in Notes on the Bhagavad Gita, a particularly valuable interpretation, is most concerned with Krishna in cosmic creation and his relation to ultimate human salvation. To align our thought with Hindu concepts, we must conceive of all manifestation as a form of consciousness. Consciousness and self are everywhere present. If we recognize a cosmos as the expression of cosmic Being (Brahman), in much the same way a person’s body is his own reflection, we can conclude that all existence which is outside that particular cosmos may be called "beyond Brahman" or Parabrahman. From the boundlessness of Parabrahman, innumerable Brahmans or cosmoi spring into existence, to live their lives in cyclic time and then to disappear. Subba Row states that Brahman or the Logos can know the inexpressible Parabrahman only by its appearance or veil of primal substance – the "mighty expanse of cosmic matter" thrown before or over it.
In the beginning of time, the first individualized focus in Parabrahman was the Logos or self. This Logos had existed in Parabrahman in a latent condition, unborn and eternal, much as our self-conscious egoity is dormant while we sleep. It became a "center of conscious energy" with the sounding of the Word – the Logos appeared as the first "ego in the cosmos." Every other ego and self in all manifestation is but its image: "the light [of the Logos] comes down, reflection after reflection, to the plane of the lowest organisms."
Krishna as the Word, sends forth both divine light and force or motion; and the cosmos then unrolls down through the various planes as substance is moved and molded into proper form, with self reflected in every portion and part. For "the universe exists in idea in the Logos, it exists as a mysterious impression in the region of force, and it is finally transformed into the objectively manifested cosmos, when this force transfers its own image or impulse to cosmic matter." Here we have the whole pantheon of gods awakening and becoming active, some as architects and others as builders, to create the vast temple of universal manifestation.
In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna remarks: “Even though myself unborn, of changeless essence, and the lord of all existence, yet in presiding over nature – which is mine – I am born but through my own maya, the mystic power of self-ideation, the eternal thought in the eternal mind. I produce myself among creatures, O son of Bharata, whenever there is a decline of virtue and an insurrection of vice and injustice in the world; and thus I incarnate from age to age for the preservation of the just, the destruction of the wicked, and the establishment of righteousness.” Here he alludes to his function as an avatara, and Subba Row describes the two ways of becoming infilled with the Logos: individuals who by their own spiritual stature raise themselves in consciousness to the logoic plane of being, and those who become a vehicle for the Logos by its descent into them.
More practical teachings are not neglected. The author comments briefly on the various yogas, pointing to Krishna's statement to Arjuna that "in whatever way men approach me, in that way do I assist them; but whatever the path taken by mankind, that path is mine." In this regard his remarks on extreme asceticism are of importance, for most people are not in a position to give up their duties as citizens and members of families. Krishna “distinctly states that these duties, if not reconcilable with ascetic life in a forest, can certainly be reconciled with that kind of mental abnegation which is far more powerful in the production of effects on the higher planes than any physical separation from the world. For though the ascetic's body may be in the jungle, his thoughts may be in the world. . . . it is in the power of a man to make definite progress in the development of his higher faculties, whilst there is nothing noticeable in his mode of life to distinguish him from his fellows.”
Nature works in practical ways, and so our unfolding life must be acted out in the karmic milieu natural to us. Everyone is an expression of the Logos, and yet within each of us exists our own Krishna who is ourself. This is our true savior whose light we must learn to follow. – Kirby Van Mater
Death is a complex question, as Dick Teresi shows in The Undead. He quotes Dr. Gregory Sorensen: “What’s alive and what’s dead breaks down when we get above the cellular level. Pathologists don’t feel comfortable that a brain is dead until the cell walls break down. True cell death is a daylong process.” Cell death starts when heart and breathing stop, which is why the transplant industry wants death declared before this time, at brain death.
While brain death is now universally accepted, some anesthesiologists have difficulty with it because they deliberately place people into the same state and then revive them. They know brain death is not necessarily irreversible: “We give drugs to make them die. And we bring them back,” one explained. “The only test you fail under anesthetia is irreversibility.” When beating-heart cadavers are having their organs harvested, they sometimes manifest symptoms that would ordinarily indicate pain, but surgeons routinely refuse to let anesthesiologists administer anesthetic because it might taint the organs. A few experiments would show if giving anesthetic stopped these physical indications and settle the issue of whether the brain dead are unfeeling, unaware corpses. But it is a question many in the US transplant industry don’t want to raise. However, anesthesia is now being used more often in Europe and Great Britain during organ retrieval.
What about other types of coma? In 1972, shortly after adoption of the brain death standard, degrees of coma were defined. In brain death the patient can’t breathe or regulate blood pressure. In Persistent Vegetative State (PVS) patents have sleep/wake cycles and wakefulness without awareness, they breathe on their own and maintain blood pressure, but can’t swallow and are incapable of willful activity. Just as Descartes held that animals couldn’t feel pain because by definition they couldn’t think, so PVS patients are assumed not to feel pain because of brain trauma. “These assumptions … put the onus on patients to prove that they are aware. The two main questions – Do they feel pain? Can they recover? – are removed from the debate by building irreversibility and lack of consciousness into the very definition of PVS. Pain behavior in a vegetative state is thus disregarded as meaningless.” Those in a Minimally Conscious State can in addition track with their eyes, react to pain, touch or words, and may utter sounds or words. Those in a coma are not awake and have no sleep/wake cycles. In Locked-In Syndrome, the patient is fully conscious and aware but paralyzed except for one small area, such as an eyelid or finger. If no eye blink is observed, they are diagnosed as PVS.
A few patients have escaped their PVS diagnosis after receiving brain scans that revealed they were conscious, feeling beings. In a 1993 Texas study, 37% of PVS patents had been misdiagnosed, and a 1996 London study found a 43% rate of misdiagnosis. In sum, it is impossible for a physician to gage accurately from bedside tests and observation alone what degree of consciousness comatose patients retain. Only brain scans and similar technologies can tell.
US organ donation is a $20 billion a year industry, and there has been discussion in the transplantation community of widening the donor pool to include those diagnosed as PVS. There is widespread public support for organ donation and popular feeling that coma patients are a financial burden who serve no useful purpose and who would be better off dead. A survey in Ohio showed 45% of respondents were willing to harvest organs from patients considered alive, including PVS and coma patients. Some doctors claim that death is a zone stretching between persistent vegetative state and cardiopulmonary death, but as brain death proponent Julius Korein said: “To consider a vegetative state as death is not practical. If you pronounce them dead and they’re breathing on their own, what do you do? Take them out and shoot them? Smother them?” Dr. Alan Shewmon agrees that the “act of transplantation should not be the cause of death nor the hastening of death.” To thus expand the donor pool, “We’d have to change the laws about homicide.”
Today clinical death often precedes biological death and is not yet irreversible. For example, “A recent study reports that ‘the use of ECMO [extracorporeal membrane oxygenation] in cardiac patients unresponsive to cardiopulmonary resuscitation can result in a 31.6% survival to hospital discharge. Declaring patients dead before administering ECMO … can deprive some patients of the chance of survival and full recovery.’ ” The Undead reveals that death is becoming divorced from biology in many areas – law, the military, hospitals – which “turn it into a construct for their convenience.” Society as a whole would benefit from a deeper discussion of what it means to be a person, what death is, and whether brain death is at times a form of euthanasia.