|"Even transcendental knowledge (jnana) cannot cure disease because it
does not have the power to stop karma that is already manifesting
(prarabdha-karma). Scripture says that only bhakti has this power."
Q. Some religions believe that blood transfusions and organ transplants
are contrary to the laws of God. What are the teachings of Gaudiya
Vaisnavism in regard to these and other modern breakthroughs in
biotechnology and medical science?
A. Today's scientific and medical breakthroughs, such as organ
transplants, stem cell research, bioengineering, and genetic
modification, are of great interest because they force Gaudiya
Vaisnavism to cover new ground, as the science and technology that make
them possible today was not readily available centuries ago when the
Gaudiya scriptures were written. Thus they bring up ethical and
spiritual questions that Gaudiya Vaisnavism has no pat answers for, as
there are no scriptural verses that devotees can refer to that would
definitively answer all the questions that many of these medical
Perhaps the appropriate emphasis here is that humanity must think
deeply before tampering significantly with nature. Reverence for nature
is important. It is not merely superstition. The systems of nature are
unlimitedly complex and powerful, and we, either individually or
collectively, are but a small part of nature. In the pursuit of
short-term advances, which are often only as far as one can see
(especially for those lacking a spiritual worldview), the long-term
outcome can often be disastrous. Therefore it is important to determine
values. What kind of humanity is most desirable? Will our technological
or scientific leaps make people more kind and compassionate?
For example, if through genetics the way that we approach medicine is
significantly altered in the future, will it make for a kinder world?
That is to say that if we know from birth by the study of a child's
genes that he or she will be likely to develop a life threatening
disease, then how will this alter the way in which society relates to
that child? Will he or she be able to get health insurance? Will he or
she be less desirous or will the quality of his or her life--the
sacredness of life--continue to be honored? It would be disastrous if
through technological advances we live longer but meaner lives.
After all, although evolutionary theory posits that the more complex an
organism is the more advanced it is because it thereby has the power to
dominate over others and survive, our human sensibilities seem to say
that the most advanced species would be the kindest species, and that
might does not always make right. I have often said that the only
apocalyptic scenario that made much sense to me--that had the most
potential to come true--was an environmental one. The line between
appropriately conducting oneself as a steward of nature and playing God
is a fine one. To the extent that we err on the side of the latter we
stand to lose significantly.
Q. Did Srila Prabhupada take any position on blood transfusions and
A. The Bhagavad-gita says that the soul is seated on a machine made of
matter, yantra rudrani mayaya. Srila Prabhupada often refers to it as
such. When necessary certain parts of that machine may be replaced.
Indeed, in several conversations about heart transplants Srila
Prabhupada said that changing a part of the body has no effect on the
soul. In one such conversation Dr. Singh asked, "We know that the
spirit soul is within the heart. What happens (in the case of a heart
transplant) to the spirit soul in each heart?"
Srila Prabhupada replied, "The Vedas describe the heart as a sitting
place for the soul. So when they transplant hearts, they simply change
the soul's seat. The same soul remains.Changing hearts is just a change
of material bodily organs. The heart is not the real source of life
therefore changing the heart does not prolong the duration of life. The
soul is destined to live in a particular body for a certain number of
years. You may change whatever part of the body you like, but you
cannot change the duration of the life of that body."
When specifically asked about blood transfusions Srila Prabhupada
replied, "Well, that is not bad. Because if one life is saved by
transfusion admission... He is not dying. He is living. He is
contributing his blood. So if he is contributing, you are saving some
life, there is no harm."
Q. Srila Prabhupada said that an organ transplant would not change the
duration of one's life. Can you explain this?
A. Ayurveda or Vedic "life science" (ayuh = life + veda = science) and
traditional yoga practice have much to do with pranayama or the
regulation of the breath. When Srila Prabhupada says that one cannot
change the duration of life in a particular body, he is referring to
the yogic worldview, which teaches that one's lifespan is determined by
the number of breaths a person is allotted by their karma. Apparently
it may be possible to increase one's duration of life by regulating
breathing and changing lifestyle, but the ability to do so is still
within the realm of karma. The yoga tradition teaches that with one's
final exhalation the soul leaves the body through the mouth, taking its
next birth in the situation that corresponds to one's karmic destiny.
Thus Srila Prabhupada is merely emphasizing to his students that
longevity is determined more by one's karmic destiny than by medical
science and that in spite of all its prospects, medical science will
never be able to increase one's life unlimitedly. His statement was
made more than thirty years ago when the very first heart transplants
were being performed and some hypothesized that organ transplants
offered the potential for eternal life. Today organ transplants are not
primarily aimed at increasing an elderly person's life for a few years.
More often they are for those who are still young but will have little
or no life without them. Can an organ transplant increase the duration
of one's life? Obviously a transplant may allow one to exist longer in
a particular body, if of course it is that person's karma to receive
and survive the operation.
Q. A life-threatening illness can be a huge impetus for a healing
journey of purification and self-correction on many levels, what to
speak of offering an opportunity to reach out to God. Why should a
person be cheated out of such an opportunity through unnatural and
artificial means such as drug therapies and organ transplants performed
by members of a corrupt medical establishment that kills millions of
babies every year through abortion?
A. Organ transplants do not deny one the opportunity to go on a healing
journey. Transplant patients have merely selected a particular healing
methodology that differs from one that you would have chosen. Surely
many of them pray before and after the transplant, and undergoing such
a medical procedure requires one to be just as introspective about
spiritual life as does any other life-threatening situation.
Furthermore, sometimes babies are born with defective organs, and
transplants are their only chance to survive to the point where their
mental faculties are developed enough to allow them to "reach out to
Otherwise, we acknowledge that the world is full of corruption, but
whatever corruption exists in the medical establishment does not make
organ transplantation equal to abortion. Modern medicine is also full
of good intentions and organ transplantation is lauded by almost
everyone as a great achievement. Over the past decade scientists have
made major inroads into regenerating damaged organs and tissues.
They've successfully grown liver cells, skin, bone and cartilage, and
now there are promising signs that bladders can be grown and
transplanted without fear of rejection. Scientists are also growing
organs from would-be recipients' own cells. In the future transplanting
organs grown from one's own cells may be a common practice.
In any case, one has the choice to receive or reject the procedure-to
donate organs or not to donate them, so why should anyone try to
dissuade educated people from endorsing this practice? Although I
remain open to well-considered and truly compelling reasoning against
organ transplantation, that is not to be found in your statement. The
only argument you offer against the practice is that it is unnatural
and thus against God's law. The same argument could be used against
every technological development since the industrial revolution. To
label scientific breakthroughs that one dislikes as unnatural while
embracing other developments seems questionable. Who doesn't drive or
ride in a motorized vehicle? Our param guru Srila Bhaktisiddhanta
Saraswati Thakura did so at a time when religious protocol for a
sannyasi dictated otherwise. His message was to use everything that the
new technological world has to offer in Krsna's service.
Q. Doesn't Gaudiya Vaisnavism favor naturopathic and other types of
alternative medicine that deal with the root cause of disease, rather
than so-called modern medicine, which more or less treats only
A. As for treating the root cause of disease, bhakti is the only viable
method. Why? Because according to scripture disease is caused by karma,
which in the ultimate issue is rooted in ignorance of the soul
(avidya). Even transcendental knowledge (jnana) cannot cure disease
because it does not have the power to stop karma that is already
manifesting (prarabdha-karma). Scripture says that only bhakti has this
power. So if we were to follow the reasoning that modern medicine does
not treat the root, we would be led to the same conclusion with regard
to naturopathic medicine, homeopathic medicine, acupuncture,
chiropractic, or whatever-that they only treat the symptoms without
getting to the root because they do not engage people in suddha-bhakti.
By this line of reasoning hearing and chanting Krsna nama is the only
real cure for disease. There is no doubt some truth in this, but we do
not insist that no other approach to treating disease is worth
Q. Should devotees donate their organs to others at death? Should they
accept donated organs?
A. Interestingly, there are a number of stories in the Puranas about
organ transplantation. In one Siva is said to have transplanted an
elephant's head onto his son Ganesa. Srila Prabhupada was not against
blood transfusion and organ transplantation. It has also been brought
to my attention that a respected present-day Gaudiya acarya has just
received a blood transfusion. So overall we can conclude that there is
no prohibition in Gaudiya Vaisnavism against these two medical
procedures, although I feel that there may be a subtle distinction
between blood transfusions and organ transplantation, in that blood is
All considered, your question brings up an issue that is as complicated
as it is interesting. Not complicated from the secular or scientific
point of view, but complicated from the devotional point of view.
Devotees believe that an organ is a manifestation of a person's
prarabdha karma and that a devotee's body (sadhaka-deha) is special
because it is a material body that is gradually becoming spiritualized
and free from karma through the influence of Krsna's internal energy
(svarupa-sakti). Death is said to be the expiration of one's
prarabdha-karma, but in the case of a transplant, the organ and the
karma appears to live on and become part of someone else's karma.
So it is one thing to say, "I am not this body," and another to say,
"This body belongs to Guru and Krsna." The first is Vedanta--the second
is bhakti. We bhakti-Vedantins are not free to do with our bodies as we
like, or as the secular world dictates, because the tradition's
emphasis on respect for a sadhaka-deha is considerable. This respect is
not just for those who have perfected their sadhaka-deha, but for all
devotees and ultimately for bhakti. We see the body as a sacred temple
of God, a vision brought to life by the serious practitioner and backed
by a wealth of philosophy. Thus the idea of dissecting and dismembering
a body that has been completely dedicated to Krsna's service in order
to donate its organs may be somewhat unsettling to most devotees, and
rightly so. Yet should a Vaisnava out of compassion for people in
general choose to donate his or her organs, it would be hard to argue
against such an act of mercy. Out of compassion, Vasudeva, the uttama
bhagavata leper, allowed worms to feed on his body, and if they fell
off, he would pick them up and put them back on. Who can argue with
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