By Barbara Briggs
We fear death due to wrong identification of the self with the body. In death, all the components of the body, senses and mind disintegrate until only the Self remains. If we have become acquainted with our Self, then death holds no fear, only an opportunity to come face to face with the very essence of Life
Om! Asato ma sad gamaya,
Tamaso ma jyotir gamaya,
Mrityor ma amritam gamaya
Om! Shanti! Shanti! Shanti!
Om! Lead me from untruth to truth
From darkness to light
From death to immortality
Om! Peace! Peace! Peace!
A mother, who was mourning the death of her only son, once came to me for solace. I sought for a way to help her. The words came: “Only the body of your son is gone. His soul is eternal and in spirit, he will always be with you. Read chapter 2, verses 11-30 of the Bhagavad Gita until your grief diminishes.” A few weeks later, she returned and told me how much better she felt.
What was in these 20 verses of the Bhagavad Gita that was powerful enough to lift the weight of sorrow from her heart? In these verses, Krishna teaches Arjuna about the indestructible nature of the Self, the atman. Stationed on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, with Krishna as his charioteer, Arjuna is caught between the call of love and the call of duty. He is faced with the prospect of having to kill his dear ones that are on the enemy’s side, or to forsake his duty to protect society. Unable to heal the conflict between his mind and heart, he surrenders completely at the feet of God.
Smilingly, as if to indicate that the problem is never so serious as it appears to be, Krishna draws aside the veil of ignorance in Arjuna’s mind by imparting to him Sankhya Yoga, the knowledge of the perishable and imperishable aspects of life. Krishna teaches Arjuna that there is no reason to grieve for the dead because the inner aspect of life, the Self, is eternal, unchanging, imperishable, and only the outer aspect, the body, is subject to change, decay and death. The soul is eternal, omnipresent and immovable; it is immutable. Death of the body is like shedding a worn-out garment so that we can continue evolving in a vehicle more fit to carry us forward. The cycle of human existence is from the unmanifest state before birth, manifestation between birth and death, and back to the unmanifest state at death. Because it is a natural progression, there is no cause for sorrow.
Why then is the fear of death so prevalent? This is due to wrong identification of the self with the body. In death, all the components of the body, senses and mind gradually disintegrate until only the unmanifest Being, the Self, remains. If we have not become acquainted with the innermost aspect of our nature, if we have not nurtured the inner silence of the Self, then the grim visage of death, which entails the stripping away of all that we are familiar with, will elicit great fear. But if we were to intuitively follow the concept of death to its logical conclusion, we would come face to face with the very essence of Life.
Catalyst for awakening
The death experience can, in fact, be a catalyst for enlightenment, as in the case of Ramana Maharshi. On July 17, 1896, Ramana experienced total Self-awareness, triggered by a “sudden and unmistakable fear of death”. In his own words: “One day I was alone in the first floor of my uncle’s house. I was in my usual state of health. But a sudden and unmistakable fear of death seized me. I felt I was going to die. Why I should have so felt cannot now be explained by anything felt in the body. I did not however trouble myself to discover if the fear was well grounded. I did not care to consult doctors or elders or even friends. I felt I had to solve the problem myself then and there.
“The actual inquiry and discovery of ‘Who am I?’ was over on the very first day, after a short time. Instinctively I held my breath and began to dive inward with my inquiry into my own nature…. I stretched myself like a corpse, and it seemed to me that my body had actually become rigid—‘I’ was not dead, ‘I’ was, on the other hand, conscious of being alive, in existence. So the question arose in me: ‘What was this ‘I’’? I felt it was a force or current working, despite the rigidity or activity of the body, though existing in connection with it. It was that current or force or centre that constituted my personality, that kept me acting, moving, etc. The fear of death dropped off. I was absorbed in the contemplation of that current. So further development or activity was issuing from the new life and not from any fear.”
Ramana Maharshi’s dive inward led him to discover the unfailing current of life-energy, the source of all activity and the very basis of existence. Having become fully conscious of who he really was, the fear of death was vanquished. His awareness experienced a permanent shift from body consciousness to pure consciousness centred in the atman. He realised that even when the body died, and all physical indicators of life were absent, the ‘I’ did not die. The ‘I’ exists eternally. It is who we really are.
Anandamayi Ma maintained constant awareness of her immortal Being. When Paramahamsa Yogananda asked her to tell him something of her life, she replied: “Father, there is little to tell. My consciousness has never associated itself with this temporary body. Before I came on this earth, ‘I was the same’. I grew into womanhood, but still ‘I was the same’. When the family in which I was born made arrangements to have this body married, ‘I was the same’. And, Father, in front of you now, ‘I am the same’. Even afterwards, though the dance of creation changes around me in the hall of eternity, ‘I shall be the same’.”
Anandamayi Ma maintains: “In reality, birth and death do not exist. There is only the One Supreme Self that manifests Itself in countless forms, in numberless names…and every single form is in fact I.” The source of all sorrow is the wrong identification with diversity, the ever-changing sphere of life whereas in truth we are never changing, immortal, infinite, the omnipresent wholeness of life—Brahman.
Illusion vs reality
The sting of death has its basis in maya—that which is not. Death is an illusion. It implies an end, a stop, and annihilation. In reality, life is a continuous process of change. In our bodies so many cells are constantly being born and dying, yet the body appears to be the same. Where is the cause for mourning the disappearance and reappearance of new cells?
When asked: “What happens when I die?”, Nisargadatta Maharaj replied: “I shall obviously be back where I was before I was ‘born’, back where the sound goes after it disappears. Death is an event whereby the body disappears in one way or another—buried or cremated—and the breath in the body ceases and mingles with the air outside, and consciousness which had trapped itself within a body (and had identified itself with it) is released and becomes the universal consciousness like a drop of water falling in the river.”
Writing on the death of his master Lao-Tzu, Chuang-Tzu says: “The Master came because it was time for him to come. He left because he followed the natural flow of events. Be content with each moment of eternity and be willing to follow the flow. Then there will be no cause for joy or grief. In the old days this was called freedom from bondage. The wood is consumed but the fire burns on, and we do not know when it will come to an end.”
The answer to the question ‘what happens when we die?’ is that we do not die. According to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, all problems in life stem from some weakness of the mind, which in turn is due to ignorance of the essential nature of the Self—the unified wholeness at the basis of life. This unified wholeness underlies all forms in the universe but because it is invisible to the senses, it is easily overlooked. If we forget the invisible, unified source of life and focus only on its diversified expressions, we will get caught in the field of change which is the arena of death. What we see and attend to, we become.
Maharishi says: “It is as if the ‘I’ becomes identified with outward objects and loses its essential nature…. The segregation of the individual from the cosmos is very unnatural, and anything that is unnatural is non-evolutionary, non-progressive, and damaging to life, because the very nature of life is to evolve.”
If we view death as the shedding of one garment in order to take another, we will understand it as a necessary step on the path of our evolution toward God-realisation. The Buddha consoled a mother who lost her only son by asking her to bring him “a little mustard seed from any house where no man hath yet died”. She found that there was no family where death had not entered and so discovered that it is the law of all things to pass away.
Attuned to the immortal
In order to let go of the body gracefully, calmly and with dignity, we must have made adequate preparations during life. How do we prepare ourselves to meet death? By attuning ourselves to the immortal imperishable aspect of life. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi teaches that the cure for every disease is based on reconnecting the diversified values of consciousness (senses, mind, body) to the Self. In Sanskrit, the word for health is swasthya—swa being the Self and sthya meaning ‘established’. Thus health means being established in the Self. “Being established in the Self means being established unshakably in the wholeness of life,” says Maharishi.
In Yoga Vasishtha, Rishi Vasishtha teaches Rama: “He who is ever full of the supreme Self (or engaged in the meditation of the Self), who always looks within and is happy and who always inquires into the Pure Consciousness, is never oppressed by sorrow. On the dissolution of the mind and egotism, there arises that greatest delight which is the manifestation of the Supreme Being, existing within all objects (or living creatures).” To go beyond sorrow, we must experience the field of eternal Bliss, the Self. Meditation on the Self leads to eternal happiness. Instead of remaining caught up in the external names and forms of the moving and unmoving universe, one has to train the mind to become still to fathom the divine wholeness of life.
In the words of Swami Ramdas: “With the destruction of ignorance…the sense of individuality which makes us feel that we are merely physical vehicles, disappears and we come to realise that we are the immortal all-pervading Spirit. The moment ignorance is destroyed, we realise that we are not the body, but the universal Spirit. That is why when the mind becomes still, we know that we are not an individual but the cosmic Reality. The feeling that we are separate individuals and the conception that we are bodies, are due to the restlessness of the mind. The Biblical saying is: ‘Be still and know ‘I’ am God.’ When the mind is perfectly still, we know we are one with the universal Sprit. When it is restless, naturally, we are not aware of our true nature. The awareness comes when the mind is still. When the mind is absolutely still, then it is no longer mind, but pure Spirit…
“When the mind is said to die, what is meant is that the mind transforms itself into the Universal or Cosmic Spirit. The feeling of separation of the soul, of the jiva, from the Universal Spirit disappears the moment the mind ceases to exist. The mind is the veil between the soul and the immortal Spirit which is its true being and existence.”
Symphony of life
Any spiritual practice that enables us to transcend the surface level of the mind and experience the inner silence of the Self will be useful in preparing us to meet death in a state of equanimity. Practices such as japa (repetition of God’s name), meditation, prayer, reading of scriptures, singing bhajans, done with love and devotion will gradually transform the ego-centred life to a more God-centred life. Tukaram says: “Through repeating God’s name, the body becomes divine.” In the God-centred life, ‘I and mine’ are transformed into ‘Thee and Thine’… ‘I am Thine. All is Thine. Thy will be done.’ The ego sense is what makes us think we are the doers and gives rise to pride, whereas God within us is the doer. When we surrender to the Almighty Supreme Power that guides, protects and sustains the entire universe, and dedicate all our actions to God, we become free from the ego sense.
To live well means to see and accept what is, to enjoy life, to take things as they come, to live in the Now. Truly living is accepting what is, without the ego wanting to replace it with what it thinks should be. Ramesh Balsekar explains that “appreciation of the truth means dying every moment to your present attachments, your past experiences and guilts, your future fears, hopes and ambitions. Then you forget about life and death, and LIVE—or, more accurately, ARE LIVED—with love and humility, accepting what comes every moment with willing surrender. In this way, one becomes an infant again with its sense of unity and its universal oneness with all that it sees and hears and feels.”
To live fully, we must die to every moment and be reborn in freshness in the next. The silence between movements is as important as the movements themselves, for it is in the silent pauses that we catch a glimpse of that eternal essence from which all life springs. When we feel the one thread interconnecting all life, we know that the pattern of the cloth, the design of our life could not be other than what it is. We must have complete faith that all is as it should be because every thread of life is woven, warp and woof by the Supreme Power, God and God is all beneficent; God is Love.
Life’s greatest teacher is love. To live well, we must open our hearts and learn to love all living beings equally. When our vision expands, we will experience the inexhaustible spring of happiness that originates in universal love and service. Where love is, fear is not. Love is the greatest unifying power on earth. May the infinite ocean of love lead us to the shores of immortality so that when death comes, we can accept it as an inevitable phrase in the vast symphony of life.
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The answer to the question ‘what happens when we die?’ is that we do not die. Death as an end is an illusion. In reality, life is a continuous process of change
How do we prepare to die? By attuning ourselves to the imperishable aspect of life, by experiencing the inner silence of the Self