Legal and moral codes grant us exclusive control over our own bodies, but most bodily systems operate without our awareness.
Self-ow nership is an exclusive right enjoyed by every individual in a democratic country. Otherwise known as individual sovereignty or individual autonomy, self-ownership is the moral right of a person to be the exclusive controller of his or her own body and life.
From a legal and ethical point of view, individual autonomy is more important than doing good to others. For example, legal and moral obligations forbid a physician to treat and cure patients with curable cancer who don’t want any treatment. Treatment without a patient’s explicit consent, even though done by Dr. Aswini Kumar Misro with good intentions, is considered battery. A surgeon operating on a patient with right ovarian cancer who finds a left ovarian cancer cannot treat the left side surgically without the patient’s prior consent and permission. The doctor has to bring the patient out of anesthesia and discuss the findings. These examples show how important individual autonomy is in health affairs. The law treats the individual as the body’s “owner,” “proprietor,” and “exclusive controller.”
Our daily experience of control over our musculoskeletal system reinforces in our minds the concept of our exclusive controllership on the material platform. To exemplify, if I want to write something, the effector organ, the hand, executes my wish. No one in this world can make me write or prevent me from writing until I wish to do so. The combined effect of the law of the state and our day-to-day experiences consolidates within our mind the concept of exclusive controllership so strongly that we are unable to see the holistic view of reality even though it is not very difficult to understand. Let’s look at how much we really own and control our body, in light of logic, scientific knowledge, and Vedic literature.
The body’s nervous system, nourished by blood vessels, is a network that connects to various organs and tissues. The nerves control the organs, which mediate actions. There are two kinds of nerves in our body. The first type, of the somatic nervous system, enables us to voluntarily control activities like walking, dancing, weight lifting, and so on. The second type, of the autonomic nervous system, controls the involuntary activities, which run without our awareness, including respiration, heartbeat, digestion, and assimilation. The autonomic nervous system delicately manages most functions other than the musculoskeletal system and a few other structures. Even when we are deep asleep, our heart keeps beating, kidneys keep filtering, bowels keep digesting, and lungs keep oxygenating blood and eliminating waste gases from our body. Therefore, what to speak of being the total controller, we are not even aware of all the activities happening inside the body at every moment.
Consider what would happen if we had to consciously control all of our bodily activities. A person with Ondine’s Curse Syndrome (also known as Congenital Central Hypoventilation Syndrome) is cursed with voluntary control over the respiratory system. People with this condition have to stay awake to breathe by their own conscious effort. If they go to sleep, they go into respiratory arrest. Or if they simply forget to breathe, they develop symptoms arising from a lack of oxygen in the blood. Since this is a lifelong condition, patients require mechanical breathing support to ventilate their lungs, especially when they are asleep. Medication plays a very limited role.
How can we claim to be the “exclusive controller” if we are not even cognizant of involuntary activities happening in the body? Who is controlling, coordinating, and supervising these activities, vital to our sustenance? Who determines the rhythm of the heart, the rate of respiration, or the temperature of the body? Who stimulates the tissues to heal a wound or an ulcer? Who directs the immune system to destroy microbes? In other words, who understands what is required to fulfill the demands of a dynamic human body?
Atheists attribute the complex functioning of the human body to programs in our genetic material. We observe, however, that an intelligent operator consciously controls or supervises all the operations of every single machine in our experience. The genetic material, which is nothing but a bag of chemicals, cannot be the all-cognizant intelligent operator of the human body, an extremely intricate superstructure even at the microscopic level. If the bag of chemicals is the cause of all the vital processes in the body, why at the time of death is that bag of chemicals no longer able to maintain the physiology and spark of consciousness in the body? This challenge crushes the atheistic assumptions. Genetic material is not sufficient to sustain the vital functions. There has to be a superintelligent operator who is not only cognizant of the human anatomy at the macroscopic and microscopic levels, but who also directs all the vital bodily functions and energizes the genetic programs coded in the bag of chemicals.
The Super-Intelligent Operator
The timeless teachings of the Bhagavad-gita reveal this superintelligent operator. Krishna tells Arjuna, “Yet in this body there is another, a transcendental enjoyer, who is the Lord, the supreme proprietor, who exists as the overseer and permitter, and who is known as the Supersoul.” (Gita 13.23) Even though as an individual soul we are the legal occupier and owner of the body, Krishna in the form of the Supersoul supervises and maintains the life-sustaining autonomic bodily functions in a smooth, organized fashion in this splendidly engineered and programmed human body, thereby relieving the individual soul from having to stay conscious and awake all the time to look after his own body. In His form as the Supersoul, Krishna charges the body with life and consciousness. The Supersoul has sanctioned the individual soul to enjoy the body without having to worry very much about its maintenance.
One may argue that we also maintain the body. For example, we eat to nourish it. But this argument does not hold true, since a hunger mechanism that is beyond our voluntary control regulates our food intake, including its frequency and volume. A system in our body directs us to eat as soon as the glucose level falls down. It also brings satiety when we have consumed enough. In fact, those who have a defect in the regulation of the hunger mechanism end up with any of several morbid diseases, like obesity. Hence, we cannot claim we are truly maintaining our body.
In the Bhagavad-gita (13.29) Krishna emphasizes the importance of understanding this concept: “One who sees the Supersoul equally present everywhere, in every living being, does not degrade himself by his mind. Thus, he approaches the transcendental destination.” Thus Krishna assures us that upon leaving the body at death, whoever has realized the truth of the Supersoul’s control will return to the spiritual world, the abode of transcendental happiness, knowledge, and eternity, to serve the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
The Devotee’s Realization
While enjoying the freedom to control the musculoskeletal system, the conditioned living being forgets his lack of control over ninety-five per cent of the bodily functions and thereby falsely assumes himself to be the exclusive controller of the body. He also forgets that for him to exercise the five percent control, the body needs to remain fit and functional. This is taken care of by the Supreme Being. Devotees realize the role of the Supreme Being behind our minute independence and hence dedicate all they have to Krishna , as described in the Haribhakti- sudhodaya (quoted in Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Madhya 23.23): “With their words, they offer prayers to the Lord. With their minds, they always remember the Lord. With their bodies, they offer obeisances to the Lord. Despite all these activities, they are still not satisfied. This is the nature of pure devotees. Shedding tears from their eyes, they dedicate their whole lives to the Lord’s service.”
Dr. Aswini Kumar Misro is a surgeon with National Health Services in London. He wishes to thank his wife, Radhika, and Raghupati Dasa for their suggestions regarding this article.