By Swami Veda Bharati
When we understand the secret of death, which lies in the realising of the immortality of the soul, we will be able to leave the body consciously and without fear
From time immemorial, humanity has attempted to solve the riddle of birth, growth, old age and death. Nothing has been more mysterious for the human mind than death. In fact, religions of ancient man had their basis in death and ancestor worship. The Egyptians, Babylonians, Chinese and the people of South America believed in a soul that lived on after death. For the Egyptians, the human body contained another being similar to it; and when a person died, this double went out of the body and lived on as long as the dead body remained intact. This is why they built huge pyramids in which dead bodies were preserved through mummification, and were buried along with materials of enjoyment.
Christianity and Islam also believe in the soul, where the body may perish but there is no death for the soul. There is also an attempt to preserve the dead body as long as possible by burying it in a coffin.
India has had a rich and varied history as far as philosophies of death and dying are concerned. In the Katha Upanishad, translated by Sir Edwin Arnold as Secret of Death, the hero of the Upanishad, Nachiketa, asks Yama, the god of death: “There is this doubt; when a man dies, some say that he is gone forever, that he does not exist. While others hold that he still lives; which of these is true?” Various answers have been provided to this question; metaphysics, philosophy, science and religion have tried to solve this problem.
At one end of the spectrum are the atheistic and agnostic thinkers of the Charvak school, who denied the continuing existence of the soul after the death of the body. They believed that the body is the soul, and that the soul does not exist outside of the body after death. Their motto was: “As long as you are alive, live comfortably and enjoy the pleasures of life. Even by borrowing, consume ghee (procure material pleasures), for when the body is burnt to ashes, no one will have to be accountable for your deeds.”
A diametrically opposite view from the Charvaks was put forth by ancient Indian rishis (seers) in the form of the law of rebirth or transmigration of the soul. According to this, as long as the desires of the soul are not quenched, it transmigrates from one body to another.
The Chandogya Upanishad describes the process of birth thus—through the rains the soul enters food, from which it enters the parents’ bodies, through the combination of semen and blood it enters the womb of the mother, and then is born as human or animal. This soul then lives in that particular body until death.
What is death? There is no death of the soul, for it is eternal and immortal. Death is nothing but leaving the worn out gross body (made of flesh, blood, bones). The soul through its subtle body (sukshma sharira) enters the higher spheres (Deva Loka, Pitri Loka and so on) or the atmosphere to return by the process mentioned above. Sri Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita (chapter 2, verse 22): “Even as a man casts off worn-out clothes, and puts on others which are new, so the embodied (soul) casts off worn-out bodies, and enters into others which are new.”
What then, is soul? Its understanding varies from religion to religion, from creed to creed. Shankaracharya (advaita), Ramanujacharya (visista advaita) and Madhvacharya (dwaita) differ from one another in this regard. But everybody accepts that there is an embodied soul that exists in the bondage of maya (illusion) in this world, and which will be liberated through purification of the mind and by becoming desireless.
This embodied soul has as its limiting adjuncts three bodies—sthula sharira (gross body), sukshma sharira (subtle body), and karana sharira (causal body), corresponding to the waking state, dream state and deep sleep state. The soul goes through the cycle of birth and death till it becomes enlightened. Through self-enlightenment or God-realisation, the soul merges in pure Divine Consciousness. This is called mukti or liberation of the soul—it ceases to be reborn.
How to attain that state where one will not be reborn? Sri Krishna says in Bhagavad Gita (chapter 8, verse 16): “All the worlds from the realm of Brahma down to the earth, are subject to rebirth. But, O Arjuna! One who has attained to Me (God) is never born.”
This attainment is a process spread over one’s entire life, or possibly, many lifetimes. What we have practised during our lives will come to our aid in our last moments. There are some incidents from the lives of the disciples of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa that illustrate the importance of a spiritual discipline when coufronting death.
Pratap Chandra Hazra had been suffering from fever. One evening, he told his wife that by 9 a.m. the next day, he would leave his body. At the appointed hour, he started doing japa with his rosary. Suddenly, he addressed an invisible figure: “Sri Ramakrishna Deva, you have come! How fortunate I am.” He asked his wife to spread an asana and then asked Sri Ramakrishna to sit on it. He also called out the names of two more disembodied disciples of Sri Ramakrishna and invited them to sit.
He then addressed Sri Ramakrishna with folded hands, saying: “Master, you are so gracious to me. Please come with me to the tulsi grove (an auspicious spot in the courtyard) where I want to give up my body.” When there, he continued his japa and repeated thrice ‘Hari, Hari, Hari’ and passed away.
Another incident involves Chambu Raju, an industrialist from Tamil Nadu, who had two mild heart attacks in succession. He was recovering when one day, he suddenly called his son and asked him to bring Sri Ramakrishna’s picture to him. He then gazed at the picture for some time and with satisfaction asked his son to replace it. When the son came back, Chambu Raju had left the body. His face was full of peace.
Sri Ramakrishna himself knew his time of death. He asked his disciple Swami Yogananda to read the almanac. When Yogananda reached August 16, Sri Ramakrishna asked him to stop. On that very day in 1886, Sri Ramakrishna left his body and attained samadhi. In the Mahabharata, we read of Bhishma who lay on a bed of arrows waiting for the auspicious time to leave his body.
From these examples, one sees that if death is inevitable, should we not prepare for it? It is believed that what one is thinking at the moment of death influences one’s future birth. If you have spent your time doing noble deeds and in devotion to God, these are the very thoughts that will enter your mind at the point of death.
Sri Ramakrishna gives the example of a parrot repeating ‘Ram, Ram’ but when the cat attacks it, the parrot changes its tune out of fear. So until one’s devotion to God is genuine, one will not be able to remember God amidst death pangs. Those who have attained spiritual perfection are able to lift their mind beyond body consciousness and leave the body consciously.
There is no mystery in death. When we understand the secret of birth and death, we can leave the body without fear.
Swami Deshikatmananda is a monk in the Ramakrishna Mission, New Delhi.
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