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Plastic Surgery: Facing the Facts

“Across the nation last week,” Time noted recently, “surgery offices were under siege by callers who had seen the results of a notable example of cosmetic surgery, evident in before-and-after pictures of the former First Lady in the Sunday newspapers.... There is a growing national tendency to regard cosmetic surgery as a badge of sophistication rather than of vanity.”

Yet we can’t help being reminded of the words of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.” We are also struck that Americans are so willing to undergo great hardships for temporary, material happiness. A materialist may argue, “If a face-lift makes someone happy, then what’s the objection?” Here’s the objection—no one can find real happiness in a face- lift.

Both the materialist and the Krishna devotee claim that their goal is happiness. But they disagree totally on how to obtain it. For the devotee, face-lifting is an utter waste of time. “But,” the materialist points out, “it works!” “The woman looks absolutely spectacular!” said newsmen who saw Betty Ford after her operation. Yet they admitted, “If all goes well, the face-lift will last from four to eight years.” That means her “absolutely spectacular” face is an illusion. The wrinkles will reappear; the chin and neck will sag again. Time waits for no plastic surgeon. Before-and-after photos may convince fools to get face-lifts, but it’s only sleight of hand, an illusion.

Besides, even normal, nonsurgically-simulated youth is temporary, another deception. Does youth really give people happiness? It doesn’t seem so. Happiness lies much deeper than skin-deep. It means much more than becoming “youth-oriented.” In fact, people who run after temporary solutions are indirectly admitting that material life is not a natural state of happiness. But if they can just hold off this ever-present feeling of frustration, at least momentarily-either by surgery or by drugs, alcohol, music, clothes, travel, anything—thenthey look upon this temporary holding action as happiness.

So? Where is the proof that happiness has ever been anything but temporary? That proof is available for whoever will sincerely inquire. Since time immemorial, whoever has taken the authorized path of self-realization has found the bliss that the spirit soul enjoys in relation to Krishna. Unfortunately, though, many people never take up the path of self-realization; without any serious examination, they discount the importance of the soul.

The reason people don’t inquire into spiritual life is that they have already taken a vow to pursue the path of material sense gratification. Thousands of years ago the great devotee Prahlada Maharaja analyzed the situation: “Because of their uncontrolled senses, persons too addicted to materialistic life make progress toward hellish conditions and repeatedly chew that which has already been chewed. Their inclinations toward Krishna are never aroused, either by the instructions of others, by their own efforts, or by a combination of both.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.5.30)

Although champions of cosmetic surgery would like to ignore the laws of nature and the Supreme, they have inadvertently reached some of the same conclusions. For example, Lord Krishna declares, “As a person puts on new garmets, giving up old ones, similarly, the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.” (Bhagavad- gita 2.22)And there is a similar meaning in Betty Ford’s statement, “I’m sixty years old and I wanted a nice new face to go with my beautiful new life.” Both Lord Krishna and Betty Ford understand that although the body is changing, the self remains the same. The assumption in plastic surgery is that the body should be treated just like clothing: if your clothing wears out, there’s nothing wrong with replacing it. But the surgeons don’t have the knowledge or power to bring their clients any lasting bodily improvement.

As Krishna goes on to explain, not just the face but the entire body will be lifted at the time of death, by a delicate operation which is ultimately in His hands. “As the embodied soul continually passes in this body from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.” (Bg. 2.13)Those who are flocking to the surgeons seem to have some small awareness that their real self is different from their body. They seem to know that however they may change their face, their inner identity will remain. But precisely because cosmetic surgery is no more than a superficial meddling, it brings no real happiness to the permanent inner self. A prominent plastic surgeon, Dr. Lawrence Robbins, has admitted, “We can’t change what they are.”

At the time of death, karma—nature’s reactions to the actions we perform in this body—will carry the inner self to another body. This is transmigration, the ultimate face-lift. And just as the plastic surgeons admit “some faces are changed for the worse,” so by nature’s way if we misuse our present body, our next one may be a change for the worse. We all want to be happy and youthful, but if we go counter to the codes of God, especially by neglecting self-realization and committing sinful acts, then the law of karma will force us to take our next body in a lower species.

A plastic surgeon named Dr. Peter McKinney partially recognized this fact when he warned that face-lifting has its risks: “If you buy a bum toaster, you can take it back. You can’t take your face back.” He might have added that if you waste your human body (with its refined facial features), in your next life you may have to make do with the face of a dog or a mouse, with no chance of going to the plastic surgeon. A person who has gotten himself into an animal body has to live millions of lives in lower species, until he can fully evolve again to the human form of life. So the human form of life is not meant to be wasted in vanities. It has a relatively short duration, and it’s intended for developing self-realization, culminating in love of God. If someone fails to achieve love of God in his human lifetime, this is the greatest tragedy.

Behind the fad of face-lifting is the inner desire to be permanently happy and youthful. This is the soul’s constitutional nature, and it’s quite normal for us to want these things, but people are going about it in the wrong way. We have to investigate how we can revive our spiritual knowledge. The Krishna conscious process of chanting the holy names of God (the Hare Krishna maha-mantra) involves no loss or risk. Saintly persons and scriptures have recommended this treatment for thousands of years. By chanting the names of God we can purify our hearts and attain to the eternally youthful and blissful spiritual existence.