What does it mean to be ‘eternal’?

Q: During yoga classes, teachers often talk about how everything, with the exception of our eternal spirit, is impermanent. Using the word ‘eternal’ implies permanence so I just want to confirm my understanding that all is impermanent except for our eternal spirit. Is this a correct understanding?

A: Yes, you’re understanding is correct: according to yoga philosophy, everything in the material world is temporary except for us. Both the Yoga-sutras and the Bhagavad-gita confirm that our existence is not dependent on the existence of our physical bodies:

“There has never been a time when I did not exist, nor one when you did not exist, nor one when all these kings did not exist; nor is there any possibility that in the future any of us shall ever cease to be.” – Bg 2.12

The weather changes, popular tastes in music change, and civilizations come and go over the course of time. The material bodies that we inhabit are also temporary. However, the first assertion of yoga philosophy is that we are not our bodies; we are eternal spiritual beings having a temporary material experience.

The bodies are perpetually changing. The body you’ll have when you finish reading this will not be the same body you had when you started. Our material bodies come into being, remain for a relatively brief time, and then disappear. It’s like a magician’s trick: now you see it, now you don’t.

We don’t see consciousness, either, at least not directly. What we do see is evidence of consciousness: we can perceive that others are conscious and we experience consciousness our selves but we never actually ‘see’ consciousness because consciousness is categorically different from matter and is thus beyond the range of material vision.

We speak of our bodies in the possessive: ‘my hand, my legs, my body.’ Who is the possessor? The person who resides in the body. The symptom of the presence of a person residing in a body is consciousness of one level or another.

When consciousness is absent we understand that the person is gone.
Where did they go? Since consciousness is neither a product of matter nor dependent on matter, a person who leaves one body moves on to another body in accordance with their destiny:

“Just as the wind carries aromas from their source, a person carries different conceptions of life from one body to another. Thus a person takes one kind of body and, upon leaving it, takes on another.” – Bg 15.8

Here’s a little more to think about in this regard: we are eternally individual people. In Vedic yoga, such as in the Yoga-sutras, we make a distinction between purusa – a conscious person and prakriti – unconscious matter.

What does it mean to be a person? It means to be conscious of one’s own individuality, to have the power to think, feel, will, and act. It means to have senses with which to experience the world and respond to the world, which implies a world and other people with whom to interact within a shared environment.

In other words, just as there is a temporary material world within which we live temporary lives in a material body, it stands to reason that there is an eternal spiritual world within which self-realized people live eternal lives in a spiritual body.

This is an important distinction between the goal of yoga described in the Yoga-sutras and the yoga of the Bhagavad-gita: in the Yoga-sutras, the person who has reached the ultimate goal experiences nothing other than their own pure consciousness. In the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna describes a relationship between himself and all beings that finds its ultimate fulfillment in his own abode:

“Yet there is another, unseen world that is eternal and transcendental to this world of manifested and unmanifested matter. When all in this world is annihilated, that part remains as it is. Described as unmanifest and infallible, it is known as the supreme destination from which, having attained it, one never returns. That is my supreme abode.” – Bhagavad-gita 8.20-21

Having already established a clear distinction between himself and all other beings, Krishna’s description of his own ‘supreme abode’ amounts to an invitation to join him there. But to get there one has to develop an awareness of one’s original, spiritual form, of which our material bodies are a distorted reflection.

When we come to the point of residing in our true nature, we arrive at the point of realizing our true, spiritual form. So to be eternal doesn’t necessarily mean to merge into formlessness. On the contrary, we have an eternal form made of pure spiritual energy through which we experience our eternal individuality in relationship with all other individual beings and, ultimately, with the Supreme individual being, who is the sum and substance of all individual beings.