Anticipation and nervous excitement filled the atmosphere. It was the first day in the dissection room for the three hundred new medical students in my year. Entering the foyer area, we slipped into our white coats and prepared our surgical kits. The doors to the interior theatre swung open, and we were hit by an overwhelming smell of formaldehyde, the chief embalming agent. Inside lay fifty veiled cadavers, evenly spaced around a large white hall. Many of us, having not even attended a funeral before, were confronting a dead body for the first time in our lives.
Stunned by the intensity of the situation, I was caught off guard by the stillness that permeated the theatre of death. While my eyes scanned the veiled bodies, I felt my heartbeat race. Reflecting on the unavoidable reality of material existence, a chill shot down my spine. It was certainly ghastly to imagine how my own body might look, lying dead on a dissection table.
My meditation suddenly broke to the sound of retching. As we assembled into allocated teams, three on either side of each corpse, several white-faced students fled, their medical careers terminating already.
After the professor of anatomy soberly welcomed us, we prepared to begin. Our tour of human anatomy would start with an exploration of the upper limb. Lifting the veil from the body, we saw the frame of an old man, “Mr. X,” lying supine on the table before us.
Soon, my group elected me to the position of first dissector. Taking a moment to settle myself, I took a deep breath and unsheathed my scalpel. Identifying the anatomical landmarks, I cut down through the cold skin, half expecting the body to jump up and cry out in pain. It felt wrong to be cutting through human flesh; simultaneously, I was eager to explore the mysteries of the body. Receiving encouraging looks from my group, I continued. Carefully dissecting away the adipose (fatty) tissue, we uncovered key nerves, muscles, blood vessels, and bones.
Over the next few months, we dissected nearly every part of the body: limbs, thorax, abdomen, pelvis, and back. Finally, the time came for studying the head and neck, which require a highly technical and intricate approach.
First we investigated the face. Removing lip, tongue, cheek, nose, and eye, we were shocked at how ‘depersonalised’ the body had become. When I held a dislocated eye between finger and thumb, any romantic misconceptions were rapidly dispelled. I was amazed to consider just how strongly we identify people with their faces, despite the fact that we can survive without one, as many trauma victims testify.
Next, it was time for the ultimate step. Penetrating the thoracic cavity to investigate the heart and lungs had been exciting, but studying the anatomy of the brain promised even more. As a prospective neurosurgeon, I had eagerly been awaiting this pinnacle.
According to many mainstream scientists, consciousness originates from the brain. They claim that as purely material entities, our very personhood is merely a by-product of neuronal interaction. Therefore, inspecting the brain would be tantamount to understanding Mr. X himself; we would have arrived at the essence of life.
With months of study under our belts we no longer hesitated to take the next step. Obtaining the surgical saw, we fixed the head in position and called upon a rugby-playing colleague to do the needful. Slipping my gloved hands into the now open cranium, I carefully examined the jelly-like brain, working to separate the organ from surrounding membranes. Moments later, I triumphantly presented the cerebrum to my colleagues.
The grey brain gleamed under the dissection lights. Noting the gyri and sulci (ridges and furrows), which mark the upper surface of the cerebral cortex, we passed it around, discussing and inspecting.
So how did I feel at this greatly anticipated moment? Did I experience the inspiration and wonder required to propel me into a neurosurgical career?
Amazingly, I experienced quite the opposite. Gripped by a gnawing sense of anticlimax, I was shocked to note just how mundane the gross brain actually looked. Practically speaking, it resembled little more than an old, deflated football. Was I really prepared to accept that everything about Mr. X could be explained and defined by this lump of dull matter?
Pausing for further reflection, I envisioned medical students of the future endeavouring to remove my own brain. Would they then be holding ME and all of my previous thoughts, feelings, and desires within their hands? I was unable to accept this theory. Having sliced and sawed through the entire human body, I concluded that there had to be more to life than gross biology.
In general terms, modern western science aims to explain life by reducing physical phenomena to basic elements and principles. Indeed, many physicists dream of ultimately arriving at a simple formula to “explain all that be.” Yet, despite having performed a comprehensive reduction of the human form, I realised we had completely failed to understand life itself.
It wasn’t until after graduating as a doctor some five years later, however, that I obtained the knowledge to support and further explore my convictions. Inspired by a trip to India, and anxious to become more balanced, I started attending yoga classes at Govinda’s, the small ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) centre in Swansea, Wales. Nourished and inspired by the rich association of the staff, my desire to find conclusive knowledge resurfaced and intensified. Inquiring further, I was directed to Bhagavad-gita As It Is, for a comprehensive education in knowledge of the self.
On opening the book, I was immediately captured. Here at last was the sublime and essential knowledge I had been seeking for so long. Krishna’s opening words to Arjuna, in chapter two, particularly hit home:
“Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.” (Text 12)
"As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change.” (Text 13)
“That which pervades the entire body you should know to be indestructible. No one is able to destroy that imperishable soul.” (Text 17)
So clearly, endeavouring to understand the essence of life through dissecting a cadaver will always prove fruitless, since the soul, from whom consciousness is emanating and pervading the whole body, has already left.
In text 29 of the same chapter, Krishna goes on to explain:
“Some look on the soul as amazing, some describe him as amazing, and some hear of him as amazing, while others, even after hearing about him, cannot understand him at all.”
Krishna infers here that through the elevation of one’s consciousness, it is possible to identify and see the soul. This is the real sum and substance of Bhagavad-gita. After presenting this metaphysical hypothesis, Krishna goes on to present the methodology by which we can perceive the spiritual reality. Indeed, since we are all ultimately part of this higher spiritual reality, the true interest of the self lies not in anatomical investigation, but in spiritual illumination.
Nowhere in Bhagavad-gita however, does Krishna ask for blind faith or fanaticism. In chapter nine, entitled “The most confidential knowledge,” Krishna describes His instructions as being:
“The king of education, the most secret of all secrets. It is the purest knowledge, because it gives direct perception of the self by realization.”
Indeed, as the great acaryas (teachers) of Krishna Consciousness explain, sincere engagement in Krishna’s scientific process of self-realisation is so powerful that it enables the sincere candidate to verify the existence of the spiritual dimension, even whilst living within the material world. Furthermore, this ultimate life experiment can be conducted by anyone, regardless of one’s social, educational, or occupational position. To begin, all one requires is the humility to admit that a higher reality could exist. So what are you waiting for?[ brain ] [ death ] [ essence ] [ medical-studies ] [ soul ]