What is matter? According to popular definition, anything that occupies space and has mass is known as matter. It is distinct from energy (physics), mind and spirit.
For example, a stone is made of matter; so is wood, metal, plastic, rubber, water, air, etc. Even the human body, all forms of animal and plant life, the sun, the moon and the stars above us are all made of some form of matter. The chemical composition of these various forms of matter may be different, leading to difference in appearance, texture, colour, behaviour, etc, but essentially, they are all physical entities which occupy space and have mass. One can touch matter and feel it’s presence.
Having understood the basic nature of matter, it is time to dig a bit deeper and understand it’s chemical composition, properties and behaviour. Matter is composed of metals and non-metals, also known as elements. Metals like copper, gold, silver and iron are lustrous, malleable and conduct electricity whereas non-metals such as hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, boron and chlorine are non-lustrous, non-malleable and do not conduct electricity. Matter can also be segregated into organic (carbon-based) and inorganic (non-carbon based) forms. Living organisms such as humans, animals and plants are primarily made of organic matter whereas inanimate objects are primarily made of inorganic matter.
If we split any element, we get sub-particles such as molecules, and further down, atoms. It is the atom or molecule (collection of atoms) which imparts specific properties to an element (matter) and which defines its nature and appearance. Thus, an atom of oxygen is different from an atom of gold or an atom of carbon. As science has progressed, humanity has been able to look beyond molecules and atoms. Today, we are aware that atoms are made of electrons (negatively charged particles), protons (positively charged particles) and neutrons (neutral particles with mass). Every atom has an equal number of electrons and protons, with the positively charged protons counter-balancing the negatively charged electrons. The hydrogen atom has 1 electron, the carbon atom has 6 electrons and an atom of gold has 79 electrons. They are all different in properties, appearance and behaviour and the difference is attributed to the varying number of electrons (or protons) in each type of atom. However, if we analyse the behaviour of each electron, we find no difference. An electron taken from an atom of carbon is indistinguishable from an electron taken from an atom of gold or iron. In fact, an electron taken from any form of matter (living or non-living) on Earth would be identical to an electron taken from any other form of matter anywhere in the universe. If the fundamental sub-atomic particles of matter are identical, what is it that differentiates living organisms from non-living entities? If an electron taken from a human body is identical to an electron taken from a stone or pebble, what is it that makes us, humans, intelligent, aware and conscious of our surroundings? What gives us the power of speech, thought, vision and locomotion? What drives our the growth in our bodies that the stone or pebble is not capable of? What is it that makes us “living”?
Let us take another example. A horse is a living organism which is capable of running at high speeds. A car, on the other hand, is a man-made mechanical device which is capable of high-speed locomotion. Smart Cars developed in the 21st century are capable of autonomous locomotion as well. Does that mean that a car and a horse are similar in nature? Can we treat the car as a living entity although the underlying sub-atomic electrons are identical in both? Popular belief and perception would say no. According to ancient wisdom and spiritual thought, there exists a life-force, a creative energy, an intelligence and consciousness which pervades every atom in the universe. It is this spark of creative energy or life force manifesting itself as intelligence, awareness and growth, which creates the distinction between living and non-living entities. Then again, if the universal consciousness and creative energy pervades every atom in the universe, it must be present in the atoms of non-living entities as well. Does this mean that the human perception of living and non-living is not well-defined? Does this mean that what may appear to be non-living in plain sight, may actually turn out to be an intelligent and “living” entity? We must remember that trees and plants were not considered to be living organisms until a renowned Indian scientist, Jagadish Chandra Bose, proved the contrary. It may, therefore, be possible that all forms of matter in this universe have an inherent creative force and consciousness embedded in them. In some entities it is manifested as “life” while, in others, it is dormant. How we communicate with that consciousness is a matter of debate and introspection.