By Sharmila Bhosale
Do the strikingly similar experiences of the beyond narrated by people who survive clinical death prove that the soul survives the end of the body?
Do people close to death see their departed loved ones? Does consciousness continue after the heart stops beating and the brain goes silent? Does death mean the end of life, or is there more to it than meets our senses?
These questions assumed an urgency and an intensity after my aunt, who was like a mother to me, passed away. I remember the last two days of her life when she kept telling me that she saw her mother, and that her mother had come to take her. I didn’t want to hear that, much rather face the connotations of that statement – was I going to lose her forever? The thought was unbearable, but her constant ‘sighting’ of her mother, even as she slipped in and out of consciousness, was too stark to dismiss.
I lost her that night.
My grief-stricken mind was consoled only with one thought – if her mother indeed had come to take her, surely she must be living on too? I may not be able to feel her physical presence, but evidently she was around me in some form that I could not understand.
What is NDE?
Scientific studies focussing on Near Death Experiences (NDEs) have tried to uncover this conundrum. Is consciousness limited to our brain or mind or does it exist apart from it? When our brain ceases to function, do we still inhabit our consciousness? The Bhagavad Gita’s answer to these questions is an emphatic yes. “The soul never takes birth, and never dies at any time nor does it come into being again when the body is created. The soul is birthless, eternal, imperishable and timeless. It is never destroyed when the body is destroyed. (Chapter 2, Verse 20).
Do NDEs then reveal the final frontier between life and death? Do they serve as proof that there is indeed life after death? And will NDEs be the only way we will find out that consciousness exists and transcends the physical framework of the human body and its processes?
Dr Sam Parnia, certainly thinks so. Which is why the eminent scientist from Cornell University has put his professional skills, stature and reputation on the line in devoting much of his medical research to NDEs. Sam Parnia devised an experiment in which he placed hidden targets in the form of pictures near the ceiling of patients who were having a cardiac arrest. He surmised that if these cardiac patients had an NDE, they should be able to report seeing the target, since they would leave their body and float upwards, which they wouldn’t be able to spot while lying in bed. The remarkable results of his research, which demonstrates the emerging link between science and spirituality, was published as What happens when we die.
More than answers, the book raises pertinent questions through the studies that he has carried out, that cause a shift in our understanding of consciousness and challenge stoically held beliefs of science. Could the mind and brain be separate from consciousness? Can consciousness actually be a very subtle type of matter that interacts with all the other energy forms that exist? Are we all really at a quantum (and fundamental) level energy waves? Not just our physical bodies but our consciousness and thoughts? Dr Elahi, who has conducted extensive research into the subject, is quoted in the book as suggesting that consciousness is very similar to electromagnetic waves.
As Dr Parnia points out, electromagnetic rays have existed long before science discovered the means to measure them and use the technology in 19th century, and the use of radio waves came much later after 20 years. So perhaps it will be with consciousness. And NDEs would be the only way to determine whether consciousness survives after the brain has been clinically dead. A bridge that lets the cynical scientist take the crucial leap of faith that spirituality has held as its foundation.
Life after death
NDE is a term coined by Dr Raymond Moody whose book, Life After Life, published in 1972 (see box) declared that there was a set of phenomena which he termed as Near Death Experiences (NDE) that could provide clues about what we experience immediately after we die. A good analogy of our current theory of consciousness assumes that consciousness is not localised in the skull.
|In the last two days of my aunt’s life, she kept telling me that she saw her mother and that her mother had come to take her.|
It assumes that consciousness is like a television signal that exists in the air waves and is being processed by a television set (the brain) to produce images on the screen (brain chemistry) representing a television programme (a near-death experience). Using this analogy, current scientific theories claim that the near-death experience is a product of the television set. In other words, the television programme is caused by the television set.
However the analogy itself is false because it is the television signal working with the television that produces the television programme. Some scientific claims state that death is the end of consciousness – like shutting of the television set is the end of the television signal in the air waves. But clearly shutting off the television does not affect the television signal in the air waves.
Some of the top consciousness researchers believe this analogy fits, that is, consciousness is like the television signals in the air waves and that death is not the end of consciousness. Shutting off the television set does not affect the signal in the air waves.
NDE researchers have obviously met with stiff resistance to their theories and experiments. Sceptics argue that NDEs are hallucinations caused by the brain as it shuts down slowly.
But NDE supporters counter that if NDEs are just hallucinations, why do all those who have undergone an NDE get the same one? Why do a majority of the people report being told that their time is not yet up and they have to return? How can all of them hallucinate the same response?
In his book Life after Death Deepak Chopra recounts the story of a woman named Dawa Drolma who sits in a tent at the base of a Himalayan peak. She is renowned throughout Eastern Tibet for her amazing ‘coming back’ from the dead. When she was 16, she died from a sudden illness, and for five days her corpse remained untouched by priests as well as family. After that, Dawa re-entered her body with a full memory of what had happened in the life beyond.
Dr Pim Van Lommel, a Dutch cardiologist, has conducted a major study on NDE and was surprised that patients were having a full blown NDE after their brains had ceased activity – which means they were experiencing an event (NDE) even after the brain’s clock had stopped! The NDE accounts of children have been particularly relevant since they offer unbiased, innocent accounts of consciousness after death. And there are many, from children as young as two-years-old.
With mounting evidence, even diehard sceptics would be reluctant to deny that people do have NDEs. People from all cultures and across class, gender, ethnicity and education have come forward to share their experiences of NDEs and how deeply it has affected their lives. What they do dispute is what causes a NDE and what it means. There are two main strands of research: one takes the psychological approach, which looks for reasons for human beings to behave the way they do, and to think and possibly to hallucinate the way they do. The other is the straightforward physiological approach, which is searching for that part of the brain which malfunctions and causes a NDE. Increasingly, as in all brain research, the two approaches overlap.
There is a third theory which is strongly supported by Eastern philosophy. Our essential self does not die but takes birth repeatedly in different bodies in order to vent our karmas. This understanding puts together the jigsaw puzzle of NDE seamlessly, though scientists are as yet to buy it completely.
Growing circumstantial evidence points to the conclusion that consciousness survives bodily death. Some people believe that science needs better tools to quantify what consciousness is. Perhaps when we discover what consciousness is we will be on the road to providing absolute scientific evidence that there is indeed life after death. Till then, the burden of proof rests with science, which now has to establish that consciousness does not survive death.
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Typically, people who go through an NDE share many common experiences of which Dr. Raymond Moody constructed a composite model in his book, Life after Life. An excerpt
“A man is dying and, as he reaches the point of greatest physical distress, he hears himself pronounced dead by his doctor. He begins to hear an uncomfortable noise, a loud ringing or buzzing, and at the same time feels himself moving very rapidly through a long dark tunnel. After this, he suddenly finds himself outside of his physical body, but still in the immediate physical environment, and he sees his own body from a distance, as though he is a spectator. He watches the resuscitation attempt from this unusual vantage point and is in a state of emotional upheaval.
“After a while, he collects himself and becomes more accustomed to his odd condition. He notices that he still has a ‘body’ but one of a very different nature and with very different powers from the physical body he has left behind. Soon other things begin to happen. Others come to meet and to help him. He glimpses the spirits of relatives and friends who have already died, and a loving, warm spirit of a kind he has never encountered before – a being of light – appears before him. This being asks him a question, nonverbally, to make him evaluate his life and helps him along by showing him a panoramic, instantaneous playback of the major events of his life. At some point he finds himself approaching some sort of barrier or border, apparently representing the limit between earthly life and the next life. Yet, he finds that he must go back to the earth, that the time for his death has not yet come. At this point he resists, for by now he is taken up with his experiences in the afterlife and does not want to return. He is overwhelmed by intense feelings of joy, love, and peace. Despite his attitude, though, he somehow reunites with his physical body and lives.”…
…The experience affects his life profoundly, especially his views about death and its relationship to life.