2016-06-30
Arvind Sharma (Hindu)
Arvind Sharma is Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University and author of 'Classical Hindu Thought: An Introduction.'

The question of souls in Hinduism is a bit tricky, because two terms are often translated by the word "soul," but they are different. One is the atman and the other is the suksma sarira, or subtle body. And it is the subtle body that migrates from one life to another. Now, breathing belongs to the subtle body. So the soul as subtle body will be there as long as the person is not physically dead. But in a brain-dead person, the subtle body is there in potentiality, since the other functions are not there.

So in a person like Terri Schiavo, the suksma sarira was still residing in her body while she was alive.

As to the question of what Hinduism teaches about the proper course of action in deciding whether to preserve life in a circumstance like that of Ms. Schiavo: Hinduism as a tradition accepts the presence of moral dilemmas as authentic. It accepts ambiguity as a part of life.

If you are a rationalist, then you might conclude that if only you have enough reason, you will find the answer to the moral question before you. And if you are a person of faith, you can hold the view that with enough faith-or through revelation, if that is part of your religious belief system-you will find the answer to all moral dilemmas. The Hindu position has been that you have to acknowledge the fact that life presents you with authentic moral dilemmas, meaning that you will only be able to follow one moral course, at the expense of another. It's not right and wrong; you have to deal with two rights, and you have to sacrifice one to live by the other.

It's not that there are no guidelines left for the Hindu, but Hinduism recognizes this fact of life. And that is why you have the doctrine of karma, because it addresses the fact that it is the individual who has to make the decision, and you'll have to live with the consequences of that decision. You are making the moral choice, and that helps determine your karma.

But Hinduism does provide some guidelines about how you should go about making your moral decision. In this particular situation, the guideline is a basic presumption in favor of life. This is in the whole of Hinduism. However, there are important qualifications. Three come to mind: One, you might call sublime passion. It is like giving your life for your country. Self-willed death. You decide you've lived long enough, you've had a good run, you fast to death. Not everyone does it, but it's quite accepted in Hinduism. A person decides I'm going to stop eating and drinking, and just fade away. But remember, it cannot be a decision made out of despair. Hinduism is opposed to suicide out of dejection. It has to be positive, heroic. It cannot be a negative emotion, running away from life, because you cannot handle life. All of that is bad karma. Taking one's life-or anyone else's life-in that frame of mind is bad karma.

Second is plain compassion. The very famous example, because Mahatma Gandhi faced this situation: There was a calf in great agony, and Gandhi had poison administered to the calf to die, although he was an advocate of non-violence. And everybody jumped on him for this. Gandhi said, "Look, this is not some kind of iron-clad rule. In this case, its suffering was so great, relieving it was a greater act of non-violence. Leaving him suffering was violent."

Third, the claims of others. If you want to prolong your life, you also have to look at what it's doing to others. For example, in Terri Schiavo's case, the amount of resources that were spent in keeping her alive, which could have been used in many cases of benefit. So, again, this guideline will not yield a clear-cut decision. As a Hindu, looking at the same factors, you might decide on course A, and I might decide on course B, because I attach different weights to the various arguments.

The Schiavo case is a very useful case in promoting this kind of reflection, to bring it to self-consciousness.

Here is where the doctrine of Karma kicks in a very interesting way. In one interpretation, suppose you had the power to make the decision. Then what you are going to do is exactly what will happen to you in a similar situation. So if you make the decision to withhold a life-support for a person in a vegetative state in this life, and you find yourself in a similar state in your next life, life-support will be withheld from you. If you let her have it in this life, you will have it in the next.

In death, the fate of the soul is decided by the sum-total-the balance-sheet-of karma. The sum-total of actions she's performed in this life will determine her soul's future.

Both her parents and her husband are acting in good faith. It's very important to recognize that, because it is a genuine moral dilemma. In general, Hinduism does not regard people as evil; people do evil. It doesn't essentialize evil. There is no devil. There will be a series of events in which one might play an evil role, but once you have played that evil role, you will get your evil karma and you will have to suffer for it. But you are not evil; you have done evil deeds, and you will get karma for that.

As to why Terri Schiavo fell into the vegetative state in which she languished for so long: The standard line from within Hinduism would be that she suffered that outcome because of actions in previous lives. When one finds oneself in such a situation, it is probably the outcome of what one has done in a past life before. This perspective is actually clearest in Buddhism.

Buddha was once asked whether if someone dies in a famine, is he dying because he has done some bad karma in the past, or is he dying because social and economic arrangements have failed? Buddha answered in an extremely interesting way: It can be either, and only Buddha's insight can help you determine it. In other words, these deaths can be purely natural developments.

So the basic guideline for Hindus is that one should act compassionately as wisely as possible in any given situation you should choose that option that is most consistent with compassion and wisdom. Because otherwise we will get lost with all the arguments and counterarguments and finessing of various concepts of Karma. So the central concept is to do good, to refrain from evil, and to calm the mind, as the Buddha teaches.

Robert Thurman (Buddhist)
Robert Thurman, a former Tibetan Buddhist monk and director of Tibet House in New York City, is the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University.

From a Buddhist perspective, a brain-dead person is unlikely to have the soul-continuum intact within the body, perhaps roaming around the body uncomfortably, now free to move on to other lives, not able to return to this life. Testing could probably be done on a comatose person. If no dream-like MRI activity is detected, she is likely to have lost her soul connection.

If dream-level activity were detectable in her brain, life-prolongation could be of benefit for a comatose person. If the level of brain activity was purely vegetative, i.e. simple monitoring or registering of autonomic functions of the body, artificial life-prolongation probably would be harmful to her soul-continuum, impeding its progress into a better future life embodiment.

Tara Brach (Buddhist)
Tara Brach, founder and senior teacher of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, D.C., is a lay Buddhist priest and the author of "Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha."

Buddhists describe our essence as "Buddha nature"--the awakened heart and mind. This true or original nature is prior to and not dependent on the changing circumstances of our bodies, our brains, our lives. All beings, including someone who is brain-dead, have Buddha nature. It is our changeless, timeless source.

The belief that all beings have Buddha nature would not lead to the preservation of a life, if someone is brain dead and without any hope of resuscitation. All schools of Buddhism hold as a central teaching the reverence for life and a commitment to non-harming. Each school also has a profound acceptance of the nature of all conditioned things--including these individual lives--to pass. Reverence for life means we do want we can to nourish and protect life, and then, out of respect for the natural way of all life, let go when we need to let go.