Neuroscience and Karma ► 03. Internal Forces of Life

Posted: 29.06.2015

0. Characteristics of Living Organism (Jain View)

It is clear from the preceding chapter that a living organism depends upon an 'organization' that regulates all its actions. What exactly, then is 'living'? In other words, what is the difference between 'animate' and 'inanimate'? According to Jain Philosophy, animation (life) is caused by the unity of a non-physical (or non-material) entity called SOUL or spirit with a material body. That is, there is a subtle spiritual self associated with the gross physical body during the life; death is the separation of the two. Until emancipated, the soul 'is always enveloped by karman (as karma-śarīra). Thus, on death, what is separated from the physical body is soul-cum-karma-śarīra. It is the karman that is responsible for the 'organization' of the physical body. The role of the non-material soul is somewhat akin to a catalyst. An organism 'lives' for the duration of the life-span which is determined by one of the eight main categories of karman viz. āyuṣya karman.

Body and Soul

Birth of an individual organism in a particular species at a particular time and in a particular place is neither arbitrary nor accidental but the very precise result of the individual's karman which again is the result of its actions in the past life or lives. The determination of the species, the life-span, the social status, feeling of pain and pleasure and such other fundamental factors of the individual's life' are the combined result of four ghātin main categories, viz.,

  1. nāma-karman
  2. gotra karman
  3. vedanīya-karman and
  4. āyuṣya karman and their relevant subcategories.

The Soul

No one has yet been able to synthesize a living cell in the laboratory, although we know now, in some detail, what the various material substances involved are in the making of a cell, because life is not merely a composition of material substances. A non-material soul-substance (jīvāstikāya) is also essential to create a live cell. Soul is a substance but not a physical one. And this non-material/non-physical substance is eternal; it can neither be created nor destroyed. A soul animates a particular organism and manifests itself in various vital functions of a living organism. They can be classified into ten groups, called prāṇa [vital force or bio-energy].


  1. Āyuṣya prāṇa - ability to keep alive for a predetermined lifespan which maintains the unity of the body and soul; when it terminates, death occurs.
  2. Swāsocchvāsa prāṇa —ability to breathe —an essentially vital function for continuing life.
  3. Śarīra bala - vigour of the physical body as a whole.
  4. Vacana bala or bhāṣā bala - ability of vocal expression, both articulate and inarticulate.
  5. Manaḥ bala - ability to think.
  6. to (10) Indriya prāṇa—ability of utilising the perceptive power of each of the five sense-organs.

Now it is not difficult to see that any of these psychic faculties (prāṇa) is of no empirical use without its physical counterpart called paryāpti [1] (bio-potential). This means that only a saṁjñi pancendriya organism (five-sensed organism with brain) is possessed of all the ten prāṇas, while the lower ones will be possessed of less. Thus, in a one-sensed organism, such as a plant, only four prāṇas, which is the bare minimum, could be active and manifested, viz. āyuṣya prāṇa, Swāsocchvāsa prāṇa, śarīra bala and only one indriya prāṇa, that of touch. All the rest would be dormant. It should be remembered that faculty of communication (bhāṣā bala) is possessed by two-sensed and higher organisms.

There is much evidence that bodies of all living organisms on earth from plants, bacteria, jellyfish (the simplest of animals that has a nervous system) to apes and humans, all use the same DNA Code and similar amino-acids. And yet, no two organisms are totally identical. True, that all members of a particular species and sub-species would possess the same genetic code but the genes, themselves, would vary from member to member. This is because, the genes are not only hereditary but are also significantly influenced by the karman of the individual member. Thus, while the general behaviour of all the members of a species would be the characteristic one of the species, it would infinitely vary from member to member. This is because, though humans alone appear to have consciousness or minds distinct from their bodies, each and every living organism, also, has a non-material soul associated with a material body. The existence of the soul distinct from the body is not merely a concept but a metaphysical reality.

1. Basic Biological Principles

According to biology, living organism is qualitatively distinct from the non-living matter. Functioning of the former is governed by some unique biological laws. The essence of living organism is the set of principles determining the transmission of genetic information from one generation to the next.

Living organisms are composed of the same constituents as the rest of the earth, but it possesses, besides free will, which is the characteristic of life, all of the following attributes: organization, excitability, conductivity, contractility, metabolism, growth and reproduction. One or more of these, but not all, may be possessed also by non-living matter.

Vitality and Homeostasis

In its composition, a living organism contains no special element but is mainly made up of some 16 of the 92 elements that occur naturally on the earth. Not only are these elements a very special set but they are combined together to make molecules more complicated than any others known in the universe. Biologists do not accept that living depends upon a non-physical soul or spirit but they agree that a vital force is produced by these unique large molecules, i.e. they are organized into living organisms which are not closed systems in equilibrium, but in a steady state of interchange with the external environment maintained by continual intake of fuel and expenditure of energy. Thus, carbon which is the most common constituent of foodstuffs, goes through the stomach and intestines into the blood and from there to a muscle where it is burnt to give energy when the muscle contracts. In a couple of hours after eating, it will be breathed out of the lungs as carbon dioxide. This process of self-maintenance is called homeostasis. It is not a static condition but a dynamic equilibrium. In most parts of the body, there is a rapid turn over in many tissues and even the cells themselves are continually replaced by new ones. And yet, as all these interchanges go on, the integrity of the whole organism is preserved. Thus the process of homeostasis, which consists, as it were, of a continual death and rebirth, is the essential property of life. A vital force or vitality is the principle at work, which prevents the dissolution of the body inspite of continual expending of energy. End of vitality results in death.

2. Survival/ Saṁjñās

Living involves using information to make choices between alternatives, with the aim of achieving the goal of continuation of life. Every organism carries in its DNA, the instructions for doing this by dealing with various eventualities that may arise. Life continues because organisms make repeated choices among previously established sets of possible alternative actions. The very essence of living is the presence of varied possibilities of actions allowing selection of those that ensure survival.

Thus, one of the fundamental characteristics common to all living beings without exception is the aim of survival. Every organism achieves it with efficiency rarely approached in man-made machines. The apparatus which is perfectly adapted for this purpose is supplied by nāma karman and āyuṣya karman which provide suitable reference standards or Saṁjñās (unlearned instincts) for every category of organism. In humans, the pattern of nerve cells of the hypothalamus of the brain are the physical embodiments of fundamental standards. The patterns of human actions are set originally during embryonic development under the control of DNA which in itself is partly inherited and partly karmic. These reference standards are the primal drives or the unlearned instincts. Throughout life, they generate wants and desires, influence hunger and satiety, longings and satisfactions, love and hate, revulsions and fears. Of course, these are not the only or even the main influences and one does not follow only the hypothalamus. In human life, the standards include many further subleties derived from learning and culture. In all cultures, from the most primitive to the most sophisticated, people are continually faced with situations where they must choose what to do, what to say, what to ask for, what to buy, what to give and so on, of course their choices depend upon all sorts of individuals needs, preferences and cultural influences. Thousands of other equally powerful influences, not necessarily instinctual but learned, interact with the primal drives. They may reinforce or countermand a primal drive.[2] But all of these are subordinate to a fundamental method of acting that is embodied in the programs of the brain.

3. Reference Standards

Every living organism acts in a directed way, each moment of its life, this is because the highly stable DNA molecules give instructions and information providing standards indicating what to do. For humans, instructions of the genes provide, during embryonic development, the system of reference standards at which to aim, e.g., the cells of the hypothalamus ensure (as we shall see in a subsequent chapter) that the right amount of food and drink are taken and the right amount is incorporated to allow the body to grow to its proper size. Throughout life, the genes continue giving instructions to the cells as to how to select the right chemical action to fare the eventualities that are likely to cause the body to disintegrate. The information is embodied in an enormous long string that we describe as genetic code, provided by the sequences of three nucleotide bases. The reference standards in our brains influence our wants and desires, our satisfaction and revulsions, our longings and our fears. The causes of actions of a given man will include not only all the above variables but also his free will.

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Title: Neuroscience and Karma
Jain Vishwa Bharati, Ladnun, India
Editor: Muni Mahendra Kumar
Edition: Second Edition, 1994

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