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The body

Veda of the body: a preface

Dr. Alok Pandey

Editor's note:

This article is an inspiration that connects the eternal truths of the Indian tradition to the modern world of drugs, diseases and medicine. It shows us the hidden links that can open the doors to self-healing and cure. For finally the real cure is inside us...

The Vedas are a living body of Knowledge.

The body is a living Veda.

The Vedas are the living body of knowledge inspired by the seers of Truth who saw in this world, a secret all-knowing wisdom and occult almighty Power at work. It is living in the sense that, unlike a man-made mental system of thought or ethics, it can be renewed in contemporary experience, stated in contemporary terms and even expanded into a many-sided richness. Of course, the bedrock or the basic foundation of the Vedas is that there is a Conscious-Force that works in the depths of creation, hidden by our surface view of life. In creation it works completely hidden from sight acting through a blind intuition of which the animal and plant forms are themselves unaware. It is there submerged in the clod and the stone, arranging the indeterminate electrical horde into ordered Space and rhythms of Time. In man it begins to emerge, to recover or rediscover something of itself. This is the great marvel of man, his exceptional privilege. The real struggle of life is not the struggle for survival, but the struggle for the emergence of this secret Wisdom and Truth. Survival is only a first condition, not the last. If that were not so, then it is doubtful if evolution would have crossed the threshold of the first micro-organisms that can still outsmart man and his machines; nay it would not have taken even the first steps towards life emerging out of rocks and minerals. The human body, in this view, has to be seen as a tool of the Almighty Wisdom that works in the heart of creation concealed behind the surface of life. Man can recover this Wisdom, first in his inner being and then in his outer life. His body is given to him for this purpose, for the recovery and the unfolding of this greatness. The unwritten pages of the Vedic text must be written in his body just as they exist in the spiritual ether.

The Vedas reveal to us that this life is an evolutionary struggle, not just between one form of life and another (the horizontal view of traditional science), but between the forces of darkness and light (the ascending view of Vedanta). In man, this struggle has reached its climax or rather a crucial turning-point. In the animal creation, there is simply a blind habitual movement, a subjection to instincts and impulse. In man, this begins to be replaced with something like a reflection, a referral and appeal to thought before action flows out through us. This is the first glimmer of light that begins to dawn in us, the light of reason, the birth of conscious thought. With the birth of conscious thought and the power to reflect and introspect, man can assist the evolutionary struggle. The Vedic lore speaks of some human beings who joined the ranks of the gods to assist them in their battle against the dark and titanic powers. Indeed man can evolve to the stature of the gods, he can become, through his thoughts and deeds, a luminous shaft of light, a power of faith and love, a bringer of hope and joy, a catalyst of a great revolution or a much needed change. This is his destiny and the secret of achieving this is also enclosed in his body as a cryptic script. His body itself is a symbol. Unlike his predecessors, man neither crawls nor runs on his fours. He can neither swim like a fish does nor fly as a bird, but his body stands upright and his eyes face forward and not sideways. His vision of the world is rainbow-hued and he is able to look into the distant horizon as well as upward. The early stir of sounds has taken in him the form of speech and thought through which he can fly higher than any bird can even dream of and dive deeper than any creature of the sea. His hands are expressive of the capacity to hold and grasp, not just objects and things but also concepts and ideas that his hands must translate into practical realities of the earth-life through the use of pen and equipment that life would offer to his awakened intelligence. His feet help him to stand erect. All the five senses refer their data to the brain, where lies his seat of consciousness, his station from where he is meant to control and act. But his true centre, the point of electrical neutrality, lies in the heart where hides the mystery of mysteries, the flame of the Vedic seers, the altar where life offers the sacrifice of his days and nights.

Conscious choices

But man has a difficulty in that he is called upon to make conscious choices. He can look upwards but downwards too. Though meant to move forward, he can take a few steps backwards too. His hand can hold not only the pen but also the sword. Strangely, he can use his pen to slay even as he can use his sword to save! He knows how to hold but knows not how to let go. The animal is not dead in his heart, it lies hidden in his underbelly and prowls near him for a moment of unconsciousness to wake and devour not just others but also the man himself. He must pass through the cycle of sleep that is a death, to live each day again. He must eat and absorb earth-stuff to resume his heavenly flight. What he gains through the day, he may lose at night. The very mind, meant to help him consciously grow and evolve, may become his greatest enemy, never letting him free of the incessant habits of the past, the chains and bonds of his animal make. Even, strengthened by the new-born powers of his mind, they may become worse and assume a hideous face or a deceiving mask. His life is a conflict and battle, not only an outer one but also an inner one. And still something in him is always dissatisfied with the past and the present and seeks to find a better and more perfect future. This persistent dissatisfaction is in a way the hallmark of man. This is his evolutionary spur, his burden of fate as well as his door to the future. Man cannot remain content, he is the eternal seeker who hardly finds, the thinker who must move with the help of his thought to the home of truth where thought is born out of the fires of revelation and a seeing idea remoulds life. He is the rebel who must destroy what he himself has built yesterday and then rebuild again under new conditions and with new materials. He alone of all the creatures is capable of educating himself, learning new and endless things, trying new and never trodden paths, adventuring into the unknown, exploring new lands and adapting to new conditions faster than anything else.


In fact all education is a way of breaking certain habits of the past and rebuilding new ones that can be good and useful for adaptation and evolution. We inherit certain processes and patterns from our past evolution. These become ingrained in our system as habitual mechanisms which were and are very useful to animal life-forms but have become counter-productive at a human stage. Let’s take the example of a typical stress response. It is designed to prepare the body for fight or flight. Faced with any stress, the animal body reacts spontaneously and automatically with the release of chemicals that activate the muscles and redirect blood to organs in ways that would be useful to undertake the flight or fight. The heart beats faster, the brain and the muscles fill with blood, while the skin becomes pale as blood is redirected. Our breath becomes heavy to draw more oxygen, the sphincters contract, there is a shot of adrenaline from within the body leading to heightened alertness, glucose is rapidly transferred to the blood as it is the energy provider. The whole body is in a state of heightened activity ready to act at any moment. This remains for a while and once the danger is passed, the response relaxes. If stress continues for long then another set of hormones come into play, the foremost of them being steroids. Now this is very useful in the animal world, where the danger and response are largely physical and usually short-lived. However, with the advent and development of mind in man, new situations arise that are very different from the animal world. In addition, new possibilities of intervention also begin to take shape. Thus, human beings can get stressed by the mere anticipation of a distant event that is still only in the realm of a remote possibility. They harbour grudges and make friends and foes for life, leading to an escalation of stress over time. Many of these stresses cannot be solved simply by an increased blood-flow to the heart and the muscles. We need to think and plan and act, find solutions through mental processes rather than pure physical ones. Nevertheless the atavistic reactions continue just as in the animal world. Even anticipatory stress leads to a heightened state of alarm, an increase in blood glucose, loss of sleep leading to diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus, cardiac arrhythmias, mental imbalance and all the rest. Thus the highly beneficial response of the animal world becomes a source of problem and disease in the human world. It is in this sense that we can truly say that disease is indeed an evolutionary challenge. Indeed, we can see today how certain meditative practices have come into mainstream modern medicine due to such stress disorders. Passing through the doors of a crisis that he alone can face, thanks to his mind, man discovers new ways and modes of life, again thanks to his mind!

Capacities of the body

But the human body has still higher and deeper possibilities than we can envisage. We can see how the body of a trained athlete and gymnast can give much more and perform astonishing feats that baffle the mind of ordinary man. But it is even possible to give a completely opposite response to the same stimuli, simply by pressing the mind into service. A man under hypnosis is operated upon but feels no pain, another walks on fire or pricks his tongue and pierces the skin but his face beams with joy. The soldier falls on the frontline safeguarding his nation and there is a smile of satisfaction in his eyes even though his body is going to pieces. Children survive crashes, even when buried under rubble for days without food, water and air. All these are the many reminders that the body not only has an enormous reserve, but can do much more if assisted by the mind. It can slow the heart (even to a vanishing point as is recorded in the life of certain yogis), change the frequency of brain waves, alter the amount of chemicals secreted in and by an organ, conquer hunger and thirst and still remain alive and energetic! The emergence of these hidden possibilities, now abnormal or rather rare and under exceptional circumstances, may one day become normal and natural. What is possible in one can and will one day generalise in the race. But before that happens, Nature may well indulge in quite a few experiments and break the existing moulds and patterns of life-rhythms.


Maybe illness is one such breaking of pattern; genius is another. What we call abnormal today may be a failed or aborted attempt of Nature towards a new normalcy. Or else it may simply be a message inviting us to a changeover. This changeover may come in one life when we read the message and follow what it is trying to tell us or else it may happen through the changeover of the physical body itself. One way of looking at the phenomenon of death is that it is a complete organ transplant! Strange though it may sound, yet it is like giving a new start to the human journey that, in the view of the Vedic seers, extends beyond a single lifetime. But even if we do not accept it at face value, and look at only the here and the now, still we can see that an illness is the end-result of a certain pattern and rhythm of life that we have acquired or inherited. This pattern becomes rigid and fixed over a period of time; the disorderly order reaches a point where it must break. An illness gives us an opportunity to look at that disordered pattern, the rhythm that is not conducive to the health and longevity of life. It must break off. But while we are pinned down by the disorder, we can utilise that experience to rethink and reshape our lives. In fact the human body is so designed that there is a subtle correspondence between the physical organs, their functions and the nature of the inner disorder.

Let’s take another example. Hypertension or high blood pressure! Now it is being recognised as a lifestyle disorder. So we already have two levels of intervention, one at the outer level through medication and supplements. Another at the lifestyle that is or was unhealthy, say a lack of exercise and bad dietary habits. So we can try to correct that and it helps. But then, if we take one more step we discover that the lack of exercise and unhealthy dietary habits are due to something more intrinsic in the body and mind, in the constitution itself. It may be a general lethargy, inertia or tamas in the system or perhaps an excessive emotionality that satisfies itself through an indulgence in food and sleep. In fact it may be a number of things alone or together. So until we correct these underlying problems we remain still prone to illness. We need to take our constitution into account when we look at the phenomenon of illness. That is how holistic systems of medicine work. They do not simply treat the symptoms but the deeper pattern. What they lack however is this ability to look beyond the existing pattern that we regard today as normal.

Towards the Light

The Vedas saw the journey of life as a struggle between the forces of Light and Darkness. Out of the Darkness we grow and move towards the Light. But this growth is not without its share of struggle. Outwardly it looks like a struggle for survival where one form of life wins over the other, at least has an upper hand. But when we look deep within, we then find that all life is essentially one. The different varied forms are all the many moods and colours, shades and hues of one life. Life is the ultimate winner; it is the forms that seem to ‘win’ and ‘lose’. Whatever form this outer struggle seems to take, it ends up kneading matter in ways that make it more and more supple and strong, plastic and stable, thus providing an evolutionary support for a future and better form. This is the game of life in which man comes at a crucial point when a much greater evolutionary leap has to be undertaken than any so far. It is a great transition from man, the thinking animal to man-divine. This evolutionary passage has to be found and worked out within the body. The truths of the Veda that one discovers in the trance of inwardness must become natural and normal to the outer waking consciousness. The animal was a living laboratory to work out the miracle called man, now man, in turn becomes a living and conscious laboratory through and in which a still greater miracle is working itself out. This is the secret that awaits its hour of revelation, not just to an inner eye of the prophet and the seer but to the outer eye of man. In other words, the human body must grow more conscious, more plastic, and more luminous even as the body of the gods. It must be naturally immune to grief and free from degeneration and disease even as the gods are free from these ills. Finally it must find an inner way, the inner power to free itself not only from the scourge of diseases but also of death. Thus the dream of the Vedic seers that saw the journey of life as moving from Darkness to Light, from Death to Immortality comes true in the most outward sense as well.

Play of forces

Indeed the human body is a field for a complex play of forces, — forces material and physical, forces psychological and subtle, forces spiritual and uplifting, even forces dark and dangerous. Depending upon the nature of the force we are attuned to, we feel or rather experience, in the very stuff of our bodies, a state of health or a state of illness; a turn towards disintegration and disorder or a turn towards harmony and order; a filling up with energy and enthusiasm or else a lulling into dullness and depression; a growth of peace and joy or an agitation and suffering, a faith and will to live or a will towards decline and death. All these impinge upon the body and have their effects. Normally our body is equipped to handle a number of these forces. Its very evolutionary journey has been carved through this field. Yet this has its limits, like the toxins that accumulate in the body are handled but up to a certain limit. Once that limit is crossed, things begin to go wrong. In fact, one of the theories of ageing refers to the accumulation of errors with each cell division. It is almost programmed into the very body itself. In the larger scheme of things one can see why it is so. The balance of life cannot be maintained if there is not this constant equilibrium between life and death, between creation, growth and disintegration. A human body in this vaster vision is nothing but one single cell of the body of the Universe!

Knowledge of the ancients

The ancients, less equipped with the means of survival we have at our disposal, knew this balance very well. They knew that one of the secrets of living a healthy life was to care about the All-life around it. They saw in this vast endless curve of Space a single Universal Being where each individual being, energy, force, person and object must be in its own proper place for the time appointed to it and for the special role it is meant to fulfil in the economy of the cosmos. This thought and this attitude towards life put them spontaneously in a state of harmony with the All-life around them. Sharing of resources, co-habitation and following the rhythms of Nature were evident in everything they did, from eating, sleeping and mating to prayers and meditation. That natural rhythm is now destroyed and replaced with an artificiality that is very lucrative in the short-term but dangerous in the long run. We are perhaps beginning to pay the price with a lowered natural resistance and an increasing dependency on external means and outer supports for survival. So too, the sense of harmony and respect for everything around has been increasingly replaced with a misplaced Darwinian meaning of life, an individual struggle to somehow survive. The result has been an aggressive competitive stress of life, where paradoxically, the aggressor suffers as much as the one who is preyed upon or outsmarted. Darwin’s observations were not wrong but the conclusions we drew and the meaning we saw in them were not correct. We saw only one side of the story, the smaller picture, where the predator seemed to outsmart the one preyed upon. But for Nature, the two are a single unit. The same great Mother that has endowed powerful teeth, paws and claws to a tiger also endows swift nimble legs to the deer. Any species that tries to overdo its capacities and becomes a threat to the totality of Nature begins to fade out. We have to reorient ourselves; instead of looking at separate things and persons and cells and organs, we have to look at the total picture, the entire cosmos and our presence in it with regard to all that is around and behind and in front and beyond.

Mere machine?

We often treat our body as a dead body. We treat it as if it were isolated from everything else. We treat it as if it were a mere machine with certain parts to be set right without any consideration of the rest of it or even its larger purpose or deep utility. To somehow survive, to prolong life at any cost, even if it means hanging on to a machine is the goal! This is fine and admirable as a technological feat but the problem is that each such technological support leads to a biological amputation. The natural ability of the body to adapt is compromised more and more till we lose it completely. The individual disorder spreads to the collective and mankind as a whole enters into a state of imbalance where the egoistic survival of a group becomes the sole overriding preoccupation. Any price seems to be worth it, — the depletion of natural resources, the pumping of chemicals, exposure to radiation and whatever else. Hopefully we are through with this kind of rampaging of Nature and are close to yet another turning-point in our understanding of man and his relation with the world around him.

But there is something still greater. It is the evolutionary aspect of man. Modern medicine hardly takes note of it. The human body has its own innate resources that help it adapt to challenges and threats, and to evolve through them. But in man this evolution takes a double or even a triple aspect. There is of course the biological and the physical side of evolution. But there is also, in human beings this other psychological and subjective side. The challenges that human beings face are not only from without but also from within. We grow not only in terms of developing new dendrites and neuronal connections or the alteration of chemistry to tackle new learning but also new attitudes. Nay, we can go still deeper, evolve still further. The human body has within it certain occult doors through which it is inwardly connected to other, now hidden realms that lie beyond the range of our present sense organisation. Within the recesses of our brain, between the gaps of our nerves lie time-loops and trap-holes through which we can project into other dimensions and experience other realms and states of consciousness. Modern neuropsychology and neurobiology has touched some of these doors but it does not know how to enter through them. In modern quantum physics too man has discovered certain worm-holes through which our consciousness can slip into other dimensions that takes us swiftly through gaps of time, but we know not how exactly to manipulate them to actually undertake time-travel. There are junction points where the gross melts into the subtle and reorganises itself. There are bridges thrown across from this side, — the material to the non-material realms where there is another substance-energy combination, another time-space continuum than what we are presently aware of. The body is merely a symbol erected in three-dimensional space of something that exists in the fourth dimension. It is a little shadow cast against the backdrop of material nature from a Light whose source is within us but in another dimension. Man can find that Light, live and grow by it, even remake his entire world, his self-regard and world-view. But for that he must break free from the trap of the sensory world and take an inward turn, a feat of which only humans seem to be capable.

Sheaths of the soul

The Vedas speak of not just one body but five. These bodies are the various sheaths of the soul, the real dweller that temporarily occupies a house built by Nature. Each of these sheaths is a layer that connects it to the universal plane from which the sheath is constituted. Of these, the most material sheath, the physical body as we call it, is the most dense and obscure. As we go further, the sheaths become subtler and quick in response. The soul shares the life and qualities of the sheath with which it is most identified. It gets limited in its action by the particular layer. One option for it is to get back to the highest and most luminous sheath. This it can do either after the death of the physical body or through certain forms of Yoga that helps us to withdraw progressively and successively from one layer after another until it takes its station permanently above. The body is then kept only for a remaining link to the physical world and only that much of it is used as is necessary for the maintenance of material life. This does not change the nature of the most material sheath, but it helps an individual to be relatively freed from its chains; relatively since complete freedom is not possible as long as one continues to dwell upon earth in a physical body. It is from this knowledge that there arose the lure for an other-worldly existence and of Nirvana and a complete cessation from birth and death. To be born upon earth meant to assume a material body, which in turn meant assuming all the problems and difficulties, the obscurities and the denseness that accompanies it. But there is another possibility and that is to work towards changing the nature of this most material sheath itself! The logic behind this effort is that though these sheaths are different, they belong to a single continuum. It is something of the self-luminous Spirit that has become this dense and obscure robe. Always in its depths it remains secretly connected to this spiritual fount. If this connection between the material and the spiritual world was not there then it would be impossible for the soul to ascend out of one into the other while in the physical body. Yoga would then be an impossibility. But if there is a connectedness, then it is possible to make this outermost robe more and more capable of transmitting the Light and Power of the Spirit and thereby getting rid of this seemingly incurable defect that accompanies it. Naturally, this has to be a general collective achievement since it involves a change of the law and properties and qualities of the most material sheath.

Divine destiny

The seers of the Vedas foresaw this luminous possibility for the earthly body, its grand and divine destiny. The same was reaffirmed in Sri Aurobindo’s own experience with the realms that surpass the material domain and reach out to the kingdoms of the Spirit’s worlds. He also saw how this can be done and that the time to do it is here and now. Naturally since this is a collective achievement, it cannot be done in all its finality in one body but will need a certain number of physical bodies, a certain quantity of matter that can be thus converted into a higher type of matter. Once a critical mass is reached, the process of this glorious change would be self-perpetuating like the chain reaction in a laboratory. Man’s body is precisely such a laboratory where Nature has prepared grooves for the reception and transmission of forces and energies of the life-worlds and mind-worlds in the form of an impulse to action, desire, emotion and thought. But now it strives to create new grooves within the physical body that can receive, hold, transmit higher forces and spiritual energies, without breaking down or distorting them in any way. It is this new impulse that is stirring in Nature, an impulse originating in a hidden intuition and will-to-be that is there in creation, occult and unseen and yet it pushes and presses all things from behind to exceed and excel, to achieve their utmost possibility and even to surpass it. It is this game and not just a blind game of survival that Nature plays with her creatures!

A great experiment

A great and unprecedented experiment has been going on in the most sophisticated of all labs in the world. This lab is the physical body or matter itself upon which Nature has been acting through various forces down the millenniums and trilleniums to create a perfect home for the indwelling soul. All the problems that accompany our birth arise from this natural limitation of the material sheath in which the soul enters. The soul itself is pure and untouched, unaffected and unafflicted. It is the true and the most beautiful part of our being. But trapped within the body, it suffers just as a great musician would suffer if the instrument placed in front of him is poor in quality and incapable of creating good music. If the instrument itself can be changed, if the most material sheath that we call the body can be refined, subtilised, purified, spiritualised and divinised then being born upon earth would no longer be a problem. It would even be a great opportunity, for then the great musician will have the delight of playing the perfect music that he always carried within him. The completion of this task would mark a great transition for earthly life. It will be not only the end of all our bodily and other miseries that arise from the very nature of things but also the fulfilment of the dream of the ages, — the dream of terrestrial perfection about which man has dreamed since he first began to consciously think. It is the dream of earth that man has inherited along with the earth-nature. It is the dream implanted in the heart of earth by the Wisdom that works within its depths. It is the real dream-destination of our life, the destiny that has been bequeathed to us, but for which we must work out and which will unfold itself as the next stage of the evolution of earthly life. It is the great adventure for which we are born and death and disease are only some of the challenges we face as we march on this path of the great epic of the human soul, braving perils and hazards on the one hand and filling its lungs with the delight of fresh discovery and new conquests. This is the new discovery that awaits us and all our pain is nothing but the labour of this new birth.

A beginning

This is the Veda of the body whose first few chapters only have been written so far on the pages of matter with the ink of life and embodying the thought of the mental worlds. Higher still must reach the climb, out of the candle flares of the mind our physical Nature must embody the Light of the Supramental Sun. Our bodies must hold the immortal fire and our nerves and tissues and flesh thrill to the rapture of the Infinite Love that has built the worlds. This is man’s inevitable destiny, the destiny of his body, the destiny of earth:

“More and more souls shall enter into light,
Minds lit, inspired, the occult summoner hear
And lives blaze with a sudden inner flame
And hearts grow enamoured of divine delight
And human wills tune to the divine will,
These separate selves the Spirit’s oneness feel,
These senses of heavenly sense grow capable,
The flesh and nerves of a strange ethereal joy
And mortal bodies of immortality.
A divine force shall flow through tissue and cell
And take the charge of breath and speech and act
And all the thoughts shall be a glow of suns
And every feeling a celestial thrill.
Often a lustrous inner dawn shall come
Lighting the chambers of the slumbering mind;
A sudden bliss shall run through every limb
And Nature with a mightier Presence fill.
Thus shall the earth open to divinity
And common natures feel the wide uplift,
Illumine common acts with the Spirit’s ray
And meet the deity in common things.
Nature shall live to manifest secret God,
The Spirit shall take up the human play,
This earthly life become the life divine (1).”


1. Sri Aurobindo. Savitri, SABCL,Volume 29. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 1970, p. 710.

Dr. Alok Pandey is a psychiatrist practising at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

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The body


First glimmer of light


The sword


Stress response




The gymnast




Vedic seer


A single cell


Charles Darwin


Modern medicine


Sheaths of the soul


Sri Aurobindo


Perfect music


Flares of the mind