Recently a question arose, What defines a Living being? What is Alive and What is not Alive? During this discussion I took the position that Rocks are full of life. Put differently, my position was that all manifest reality is alive. This is a rather controversial and confusing position. Especially in light of the fact that “life” is not a well-defined term. There are various definitions of life. Often the definition depends on the context. A biologist has a strict and scientifically testable definition of life. However in the context of Vedanta, I will argue that the definition of life is expanded to a universal being.
First, it is important to ground the discussion in Upanishads. This needs be our pramana (basis).
Jāgaritasthāno bahihprajñah saptānga
ekonavimśatimukhah sthūlabhug vaiśvānarah
Agnir mūrdhā, cakṣhuṣhī candra-sūryau, diśah śrotre, vāk vivṛitāsca vedāh;
vāyuh prānah, hṛidayam viśvamasya, pādbhyām pṛithivī; Eṣha sarvabhūtāntarātmā.
This is the same virat purusha described in Purusha suktam. Vaisvanara is Viswa + Nara, implying cosmic man or cosmic purusa. Virat is the name given to consciousness as animating the physical universe.
Just as we have consciousness animating our physical body, there is a Consciousness animating the physical universe. This vast cosmos; with all its stellar and planetary systems, with all its milky ways, with all its space-time and causal laws, is the physical cosmos, and this is animated by a Consciousness, just as our bodies are animated. This animating Consciousness is the antaryāmin, so called because of His being immanent in all things, hidden behind all things, secretly present in everything, whether conscious or unconscious. For this virātpuruṣha, there is no difference between living being and dead matter. There is no such thing as inorganic substance and biological stuff, the distinctions that scientists do make, because inanimate matter, the vegetable kingdom, the animal world and the human species are distinctions made on account of the observation of degrees in the manifestation of Reality, by us, as human beings. No such distinction obtains to the virāt Himself.
So the question is, why can we not see this dynamic living being everywhere? The credit for our lack of awareness goes to Maya. Maya is the sum total of perceptual barrier between the “seer” and the “seen”. This means maya includes the external world and the internal perceptual elements like the brain, mind, intellect and ego. Evolution’s goal is survival, not accuracy. Over eons, living beings developed perceptual capabilities that aid survival. Conceptual distinctions between mobile and immobile elements of reality aid our survival. They are not fundamental aspects of reality, they are simply short cuts that enable us to deal with survival.
When we view a rock as inert, we are viewing the rock through the tamasic lens. In this lens, rock is an element of universe. It is immobile and inert. It is a useful tool helpful for building structures etc. In this perspective, the true nature of rock is fully veiled.
When we view a rock as full of dynamic energy, we are viewing the rock through the rajasic lens. Inside a rock, there are trillions of electrons buzzing at light speed around a zillion atoms. Inside the rock, pools of molecules are constantly aligning themselves with changes in the magnetic fields around it. Inside the rock, there are trillions of constantly vibrating chemical bonds, absorbing and releasing heat. On its surface, rock molecules supply minerals to living beings. Many fungi, algae and even some trees cannot live without these minerals. Rocks hold up giant mountains like Mt.Everest and tiny man-made structures like the pyramid of Giza. Now you start seeing the rock as an active participant of the universe. In this perspective, the nature of rock is seen as energy. This is the rajasic view point.
When we view a rock as existence itself, we are viewing the rock through the saatvic lens. Rock simply becomes a continuum of “existence” attribute perceived everywhere. It is indistinguishable from the rest of existence. Its existence is self revealed by the rock consciousness and your consciousness being one and not two separate. In this perspective, rock is Brahman, just as you are!
To summarize, our perception of the rock says more about us than the nature of the rock. The infinite enlivens all, it is only due to limits of our perception that we cannot see life everywhere.