A hard look at the problems we all face.

You may have heard Krsna's devotees use the term conditioned soul, and you may have wondered what it meant. A conditioned soul is one controlled by the insurmountable forces of material nature, especially the miseries of birth, aging, disease, and death.

For us conditioned souls in the material world, all the rewards and pleasantries of life the tender love of our friends and relatives, our homes, hobbies, studies, dinners at eight, and tennis on Sundays all are fleeting because of these relentless impositions of nature. Some souls, desiring to attain lasting pleasure, try to become unconditioned, free from the influence of material nature.

To do this they require a qualified spiritual teacher, as well as guidebooks, like Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam, elaborate treatises on material and spiritual knowledge. Bhagavad-gita describes one aspect of knowledge as "the perception of the evil of birth, death, old age, and disease." This unabashedly pessimistic view of material life is an impetus for those who want to become unconditioned.

In the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Third Canto, this impetus is strengthened through a discussion between Lord Kapila, an incarnation of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and His mother, Devahuti.

"Devahuti said: My dear Lord, please describe in detail, both for myself and for people in general, the continual process of birth and death, for by hearing of such calamities we may become detached from the activities of this material world."

In answer to her question, Lord Kapila explained in detail how the life force, the soul, enters the womb of a woman through a particle of male semen during sexual intercourse, how the fetus develops over the weeks and months of pregnancy, and how it suffers.

Owing to the mother's eating bitter pungent food, or food which is too salty or too sour, the body of the child incessantly suffers pains which are almost intolerable. Covered outside by the intestines, the child remains lying on one side of the abdomen, his head turned toward his belly and his back arched like a bow. The child thus remains just like a bird in a cage without freedom of movement.

Although scientific researchers have confirmed many of the Bhagavatam's statements about the development of the fetus, they have yet to discover how much it suffers. As we have forgotten the pain of injuries or illnesses we suffered years ago, we have similarly forgotten the pain of the fetal condition.

And what to speak of the birth itself! "Pushed downward all of a sudden by the wind that helps parturition," Kapila describes, "the child comes out with great trouble, head downward, breathless, and deprived of memory due to severe agony."

As any mother knows, the infant's miseries continue after birth. The helpless babe can't express what he wants, nor can he refuse the undesirables given him. He can't scratch himself or even move properly, and he cries from indigestion, colic, teething, teasing, and from pains that only he knows.

Just as a farmer neglects his old and worn-out animals, so, in Lord Kapila's words, "seeing the old man unable to support them, his family members do not treat him with the same respect as before." Thus old people, regarded by their relatives as too difficult to live with and care for, languish in homes for the aged. If they do stay home, "they remain just like a pet dog and eat whatever is negligently given to them." Afflicted with many illnesses, Kapila explains, they eat only small morsels of food and remain idle invalids, while their bodies dwindle and deteriorate under the imperceptible yet indomitable influence of time. The old person's body becomes a time-ravaged shell, like an abandoned house, a barren structure without facilities or comfort.

In the form of old age, time serves a summons of death that no one can refuse. But instead of preparing for death, senior citizens erect a lackluster fasade of painted wrinkles, dyed hair, and sporty clothes. Living on their "golden years' " retirement funds, they enjoy shuffleboard, mild surf, and shopping expeditions until death comes and their body, along with its fasade, returns to dust.

Despite extensive medical research, sophisticated hospitals, and hard-working doctors, disease has not decreased. Just as the body must take birth and must die, so it must be wracked by one or more of myriad diseases from arthritis to AIDS, from muscle sprains to mental imbalance. Though considered an abnormal condition, disease is actually the normal condition imposed on the bodies of all conditioned souls subjected to the impositions of nature.

"What is the most amazing thing?" a sagacious king was once asked. "The most amazing thing," the king responded, "is that although everyone knows he is destined to die, just as his relatives and friends have died, no one prepares for his own death. He acts as if he will live forever."

Time vanquishes everything material. With each rising and setting of the sun, with each passing moment, the balance of our life is being snatched away. Each passing birthday means one year closer to death.

Lord Kapila describes a dying man's final moments:

In his diseased condition, the old man's eyes bulge due to the pressure of air from within, and his glands become congested with mucus. He has difficulty breathing, and upon exhaling and inhaling he produces a sound like ghura-ghura, a rattling within the throat.
In this way he comes under the clutches of death and lies down, surrounded by lamenting friends and relatives, and although he wants to speak them, he no longer can. Thus he dies pitiably, in inconceivable pain and grief.

Unable to finish his plans, dissatisfied with the provisions he's made for his family, and unaware of his own fate, the dying man is as helpless as a newborn.

Our brief lifetime is likened to a bubble in the ocean. The tossing of ocean waves produces many small bubbles that stay together for some time and then separate, never to reunite. Similarly, our family, friends, and countrymen cluster like bubbles, only to be separated by death.

Although all conditioned souls, as eternal spiritual beings, are not meant to die, they are subject to death because their existence is intertwined with material nature. But it is possible to become disentangled, to solve the problem of death.


"The saints and sages," Devahuti said, "being freed from all the disturbances of the senses and mind, meditate upon the Supreme Personality of Godhead, for by His mercy only can one become free from the clutches of material nature."

Lord Kapila appreciated her realization and said.

The path of devotional service is very easy. You can execute this system without difficulty, and by following it you shall very soon be liberated, even within your present body. Persons who are not conversant with this method of devotional service to the Supreme Lord certainly cannot get out of the cycle of birth and death.

Since the conditioned soul doesn't know of the spiritual science called devotional service, he works hard and neglects to look philosophically at the causes of and cures for his miseries. But the unconditioned soul withdraws his senses from material activities and, well-equipped with knowledge and detachment, engages them fully in the service of the Supreme Lord. Anyone whose only aim is to serve the Supreme Lord under the direction of a bona fide spiritual master is liberated even within the material body. Although he will still have to satisfy the body's basic needs, he is not disturbed by the forces of material nature.

"You mean an unconditioned soul doesn't grow old, get diseases, or die?" you may ask in disbelief. Of course, from an external viewpoint he does experience these conditions. But in a higher, spiritual sense he doesn't, because he has realized that he's not the material body but the spirit soul within. Just as my wearing an old coat and blouse won't make me old, similarly the conditions of the body and mind can never actually affect the eternal soul.

So even death the ultimate material condition has no influence on the liberated soul. For example, when a cat holds a rat in its mouth, the rat feels terror, knowing that death is near. But when that same cat holds its kitten in its mouth, the kitten feels comfort. Similarly, when death comes for a conditioned soul, he's terrified, but for an unconditioned soul "death" means that the Lord has come to carry him back to Godhead, back to the spiritual world.