Souls and Cells

Question: What happens at the time of conception? How does an ātmā choose a sperm or an egg cell? Does each sperm cell have an ātmā?

Answer: There are certain mysteries in this universe, which are not known to human beings. Karma, birth, and death are three such mysteries. These mysteries are under the control of Paramātmā, who is the regulator of this universe. How karma gets attached to a particular jīva and how it unfolds in future lives is not known to human beings. They will never be able to have complete understanding of these mysteries, even though science is presently trying hard to understand them.

The mechanism of birth and death, that is, how a particular ātmā takes a particular body, and how a particular ātmā gets a new birth after death, are two major mysteries about life. They can only be known by the sages. There are some hints of these mysteries in śāstra, but there is no detailed explanation available. 

The answer to your questions is hinted at in a Bhāgavata verse spoken by Śrī Kapila. (SB 3.31.1)

karmaṇā daiva-netreṇa jantur dehopapattaye

striyāḥ praviṣṭa udaraṁ puṁso retaḥ-kaṇāśrayaḥ

“By the action of daiva or Īśvara/Paramātmā, the impeller, a particular living being, taking shelter of the sperm of a man, enters into the womb of a woman for accepting a body.”

The important words to be noted in this verse are karmaṇā daiva-netreṇa. Karmaṇā means by action, daiva refers to Paramātmā, and netreṇa means “under the guidance” or “being impelled.” So the meaning of this verse is that an ātmā enters into the womb being attached to the sperm of the man. It is not that the ātmā, which is inside the sperm, takes the human body, but a specific ātmā is attracted to the sperm cell, being impelled by Paramātmā. This ātmā may enter inside the womb even without the sperm, if Paramātmā so wills. There are many stories about kings who had no progeny and then performed a yajña or whose wives were given a specific fruit to eat and then became pregnant. In the 6th chapter of the Ninth Canto, we find such a story about King Yuvanāśva: 

This king married one hundred wives, but he had no sons, and therefore he entered the forest. In the forest, the sages performed a sacrifice known as Indra-yajña on his behalf. Once, however, the king became so thirsty in the forest that he drank the water kept for performing yajña. Consequently, after some time, a son came forth from the right side of his abdomen (SB 9.6.25–30).

Another interesting story relates the birth of sage Jamadagni, the father of Paraśurāma:

There was a king named Kuśāmba, whose son Gādhi had a daughter named Satyavatī. Satyavatī was married to sage Ṛcīka. Once Satyavatī and her mother both requested Ṛcīka to bless them with a son. Ṛcīka took two pots of rice cooked in milk and empowered them with mantra. In one pot of sweet rice, he infused brāhmaṇa potency, and in the other, he infused kṣatriya potency, because he was a brāhmaṇa himself and wanted a son with brāhminical character for his wife Satyavatī. As her mother was a queen, he wanted a kṣatriya son to be born to her. Therefore, he made two separate pots for them. However, when Satyavatī brought the pot for her mother, the mother thought that the sage Ṛcīka favored his own wife and must have given a special pot of sweet rice to her. Therefore, she asked the daughter to exchange the pots. The daughter, being obedient to her mother and being ignorant of her husband’s intentions, gave her own pot to her mother and ate the sweet rice meant for her mother. 

As an outcome, Satyavatī and her mother both became pregnant. As the pregnancy advanced, Ṛcīka Muni could sense that the face of Satyavatī carried the radiance of kṣatriya potency. Upon inquiry, she innocently told her husband that she exchanged the pot with her mother. Hearing this Ṛcīka was upset and said that a kṣatriya son would be born to her. Satyavatī did not like that and begged her husband for a solution Being thus implored, Ṛcīka said that she would have a brāhmaṇa son, but her grandson would be of kṣatriya character. By the grace of sage Ṛcīka, Jamadagni, who had brāhminical character, was born to her. However, his son Parasurāma had the nature of a kṣatriya. Satyavatī’s mother, on the other hand, gave birth to Viśvāmitra who did very severe penances and acquired the status of a brāhma-ṛṣi. 

Another such incident is related in the Rāmāyaṇa with King Daśaratha:

As King Daśaratha was originally unable to have children, he reached out to the gods by performing an Aśvamedha, a horse sacrifice, and asked them to bestow a child upon him. King Daśaratha gained this magical substance that would ultimately lead to the birth of his sons.All three of his wives received portions of it. Instructed to divide the potion between his wives, King Daśaratha gave half to Kauśalyā due to her seniority, and the other half to Kaikeyīdue to his fondness for her. Unfortunately, this did not leave any for Sumitrā which caused Kauśalyā and Kaikeyī to each give her half of their portions. As Sumitrā technically received two servings, she bore two sons. Kauśalyā bore Rāma, Sumitrā bore twins, Lakṣmaṇa, and Śatrughna, and Kaikeyī bore Bharata.

 Although Lord Rāma is Bhagavān Himself and does not depend on such technicalities, still the stories convey the point that it is not just the semen that carries the soul. Similarly, there are stories that kings would do yajña to get a child (putreṣṭiyajña). One such example is King Drupada, who did such a yajña to get a son to kill Droṇācārya. As an outcome of this, Drṣṭadyumna and Draupadī were born from the fire of the yajña. Another example is Vṛtrāsura, who was Viśvāmitra’s son. He came out from the fire to kill Indra. 

From the above stories, you should understand that a separate ātmā takes shelter of a specific sperm and then combines with the ovum to become a zygote.

Question: If all cells have souls, when a sperm and an egg cell combine, what happens to the soul in the egg cell? [As the body gets the soul from the sperm].

Answer: The soul of the sperm and the ovum remain together in the zygote. The presiding soul of the body also remains there, separate from these souls. 

Question: Also, as the zygote divides to form the embryo and then the full body, by what program or mechanism do new souls get into the newly formed cells? Which of these daughter cells has the original soul (from the sperm)?

Answer: The new souls that come into the cells may come from the food eaten by the mother. None of the daughter cells have the original soul, which is separate.

Question: How does the master soul end up in the praṇavāyu area (near the heart), given that it was originally in a cell?

Answer: It was originally not in a cell, but outside, and it is already with praṇavāyu because every conditioned soul is attached to a subtle body, which contains the praṇavāyu. This is hinted at by Kṛṣṇa in Gītā 15.8–10. In fact, in 15.11, he also says that only yogīs can see this and not ordinary people. 

Question: Since the souls in individual cells suffer or enjoy according to the karma of the main soul, are these souls karmically linked somehow?

Answer: Yes, they are linked and therefore they end up together in the body provided by the main ātmā. 

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Comments ( 12 )
  1. Mats Eklof

    Dandavat Pranams.

    If many souls are residing in the body together with the main soul, do they take advantage of the main soul being an awakened sadhaka chanting the holy name of Sri Krishna? Are they sensitive to sound vibration, to Krishna prasadam etc.?

    • Babaji Post author

      They are not in a position to take any such advantage consciously. They are not aware of any such thing. But they can be benefitted by the Bhakti of the sadhaka.

  2. Vic DiCara

    This is a great post. Thank you.

  3. harihara

    Ok, none of the scripture quotes above suggest that there is Atma in the sperm and egg and that they somehow exist together in the zygote? And what this “new souls in the newly formed cells”?? I think this is getting way deep into speculation territory and it should be clarified as such for the benefit of devotees who are reading this.

    • Babaji Post author

      Please refer to SB 3.31.1 for an ātma being within the sperm (retaḥ-kaṇāśrayaḥ). As far as ātma being within a cell, please refer to Bhagavad Gita 13.27 (13.28 in some editions). In this verse, Śrī Kṛṣṇa says that anything that is born has ātmā (kṣetrajña). The cell takes birth and dies, so there must be an ātmā in it. By new soul I do not mean that the soul is created. New means a different. Souls are everywhere – sarvagataḥ (Gita 2.24), because life is everywhere. We may not perceive life everywhere because of the limitation of our senses.

    • HariSharanam

      Pranam Babaji. When you say, and I do believe the Katha that by intent or by a glance, sages could will impregnation to happen, but the genetic material, the actual DNA with its own characteristics, was from the particular sage. So yes the Jivatma can descent and adopt the body created by the sperm and egg meeting, however the sperm itself was sent across into the woman’s womb to fertilize the egg. This is unmistakable. Yes, it’s a siddhi that the sages had, however to say that the sage directly willed an Atman into the egg, with no genetic DNA material (which is what the sperm carries) seems illogical. The progeny of the sage and the woman impregnated would have been with particular racial characteristics unmistakable from the race of the sage himself.

      As far as you assertion about new souls getting into the multiplying cells in the embryo, now that’s nowhere mentioned in the quotes you have referred to. The quotes talk about Atman, singular. It’s absolutely a speculation to say as many cells are there in the embryo that many Atmas are there.

      As long as we are speculating, I believe that this is accomplished by Sri Baladev’s potency and the Atman is just sent there to inhabit and incur karma. If we take your statement Babaji that means a fetus in the womb has not just 1 soul attached to it, but billions. It makes no sense.

    • Babaji Post author

      Thank you for pointing out my speculation.

    • Harihara wrote: “Yes, it’s a siddhi that the sages had, however to say that the sage directly willed an Atman into the egg, with no genetic DNA material (which is what the sperm carries) seems illogical. ”

      Actually the egg has DNA just like the sperm has DNA. A sperm cell and an egg cell are haploid cells, with one copy of chromosome each (one from the father and one copy from the mother). They are formed by the process of meiosis. When they combine, the resulting cell gets two copies of chromosomes. The racial makeup of the child would be not of the sage alone but also of the mother.

  4. kiara5089

    A “master soul” along with millions of cells with corresponding souls in them?? the body is a single entity, functioning as 1. If there can be lakhas of souls in the zygote, why cant there be countless more in the adult? I have not heard any modern acharya with this kind of take on the matter.

    • Malatimanjari Post author

      The body is a single entity, but it consists of many entities, called cells. And every cell has an atma. But only one atma’s ahankara identifies with the body, claims ownership and takes charge of it. There also billions of germs in your body, each of them having atma, but they don’t identify with the body just as the atmas of the cell don’t. Why it is so difficult to understand this?

    • Babaji Post author

      I already gave a reference from Bhagavad Gita where Krishna says that anything that has life has a soul. So each cell has a soul whether in a zygote or in an adult body. Just as you live in your house and you identify with it as your house but there are so many other living beings also living in the house similarly you are the main soul in the body and there are billions others living in it. The whole universe is the body of cosmic person and we are like cells in it. We do not identify with the universe but Cosmic person identifies with it. This is not my speculation but based on sastra.

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