Death, the great annihilator of the works of time, is the only thing certain about life. Yet we know nearly nothing about this event with any certainty. For all our modern and scientific development, we cannot predict death. It remains as enigmatic as it has always been. All that we know is that death exists but what it is we do not know. We have observed something about the processes of death but not the why and how of it. So too we have learnt something about what happens to the physical body after death but we have little clue about the self and its experience after death. Most do not come back to tell us what happened behind the iron curtain that abruptly ends life. The few who return, remember very little. And the rare ones who both return and remember are ignored by modern science. Thus, a useful body of evidence is lost just because it would shake the very foundations of our theory of material reductionism. For material processes are, in the final analysis, only a last step in a chain and series of events that happen simultaneously or successively on other Time-Space domains of our vast cosmic existence.
The Law and Inevitability of Death
Is death inevitable?
We are so accustomed to observing and therefore believing in the inevitability of death that is taken as a fact never to be questioned. Both philosophy and science would jointly agree on this one issue that all that is born must inevitably die one day.
Let us examine this one settled fact a little more closely. In the plant kingdom, there are some trees that have been alive since the beginning of vegetation. Not only do they live, but they continue to grow fresh shoots with every season. From a holistic and consciousness point of view, we may say that they have arrived at a certain balance and harmony with their environment and therefore they continue to thrive and grow. In other words, these trees are plastic and adaptable to the demands of life around them. Also certain simple unicellular organisms like the amoeba do not die. They may be killed outright by our drugs (that may kill us too!), but left to Nature and themselves they keep on reproducing ad infinitum rather than dying. Here again, the reason for this indefinite survival is a plasticity to change form before death intervenes. What about multicellular organisms, including man? Here too we have interesting observations to make. Groups of cells die (are shed off), but the organism does not die. In fact groups of cells die so as to renew themselves and thereby assist in the overall health and harmony of the body! The cells more exposed to the onslaught of the milieu exterior are shed off more frequently and have evolved a natural way of protecting themselves and the body from external attacks. The internal cells do so less efficiently and have a tendency to succumb once their protective coat is disrupted. All the same, death of a group of cells is more often than not a mechanism to preserve life rather than disrupt it. Indeed, certain species like the lizard and salamander can shed off old organs and grow new ones in their place!
All this is a clear hint that death is used in Nature’s economy, like everything else as a process of life and not as its opposite. The sense of the opposition comes to us when we limit our vision to individual units of life. We cut small sections of the whole and derive hasty conclusions. But in the grand orchestral vision of Nature, all life is one and must grow and progress as a single whole. Any group of cells, organisms or species that loses this sense and tries to grow at the expense of other groups without a return in exchange is inviting death.
This apart, the necessity of death arises from another secret impulse in the individual units of life. Each unit of life, though apparently and outwardly separate, remembers its secret oneness. The material form represents only one of the few facets of the all-life which is potentially infinite in its origin, scope and possibilities of manifestation. This capacity for infinite variation is very evident in Nature. No two patterns of leaf and no two fingerprints are alike (even in identical twins!). Yet each part conceals in itself the whole (potentially). This too we see in the embryonic development of human beings. The foetus repeats the previous stages of evolution anterior to human beings. As recent experiments of cloning suggest, and as is also seen in certain forms of illnesses, the specialisation of cells is only a convenient device of Nature. Even the most specialised cell never fully forgets its totipotent stage of development and can under certain conditions revert to it! Even what we call congenital malformations is nothing but the superimposition of our past animal forms mated with our human present, albeit anachronistically. The anachronism unintelligible to us may however be perfectly intelligible from a consciousness point of view that holds our past and present life in a single thread linked to the yet unmanifest future. This need for individual life to reconstitute its lost oneness, to experience the infinite on a finite basis, is another secret cause of death. An individual consciousness, however vast, needs a succession of lives and corresponding forms to embrace and experience the infinite concealed in life.
All laws, therefore, including the so-called inevitability of death are simply habitual movements of consciousness. Nature has in its wisdom devised these movements as a means to serve its purpose. Change is life, rigidity is death. Whatever is capable of a perpetual change, based upon oneness, can live forever. Whatever remains rigidly fixed in its narrow groove is dislodged one day and dies.
Death – A Collective View
What applies at an individual level applies at a collective level too. A certain influential section of the scientific community has however believed (and made us believe too!) that survival is best ensured by competitive struggle. The more capable one is in outdoing another form of life, the more likely one is to survive and live. Modern society (both capitalism and the present form of communism), built largely on this belief, is already beginning to see the ill effects both at an individual and collective level. So is modern medicine! For modern medicine, unlike our more patient ancestors, is trying to conquer death by violently crushing all that it sees as a threat to the body’s survival. It fails to note that what we see as threat is Nature’s challenge to stimulate and uncover latent potentials. The deer frolicking on the plains of Africa has survived and outlived the tiger, not because of its greater capacity for overpowering the tiger but because of its swifter foot! Nature works on a plan of oneness, and only that group and species which can base itself on this sense of oneness will survive the onslaught of death. Missing this secret led to the downfall, disintegration and eventual destruction of the great Roman, Atlantic, Trojan and other empires. Knowing this secret led to the continuity and preservation of the great Indian spiritual traditions, despite outer conquest and domination. Here too we see the same truth. Rigidity, fixity, narrowness and separateness lead to death. Plasticity, cooperation, interchange and oneness better ensure the group’s survival and growth.
Death – A Sequel to Ageing?
We see that death need not be a necessary sequel to aging. Shedding off the old cells keeps happening in a growing body too. So why does the body gradually become weaker and weaker? Here too we do not find any fixed and unvarying rule. There are people who age relatively early and deteriorate fast. Others retain their youth and vitality for a much longer period. Some simply drop dead in the prime of their youth, while others wither and fade away slowly. There are known instances in the life of certain yogis who have pushed death far beyond the norm of our species; still others have reversed the process, at least for the time being! What are the laws that govern this transition through life?
There is a tendency to pass off our ignorance under the huge umbrella of genes. While we cannot deny the role of genes in fixing much of our physical characteristics, we cannot equally deny the great role our thoughts, feelings, vitality and physical culture, as well as lifestyle and habits have on the aging process. Genes may lay the rough hardware, yet there is a flexibility provided within the species to alter the software we choose. There are people who indulge in every kind of excess yet seem to sail through smoothly enough. Others die soon despite clean living.
That our mind can radically influence matter is now well recognized in medicine, even though many physicians still choose to ignore this. Biofeedback, yoga therapy and meditation are just some of the established means of influencing matter by releasing, focusing and chastening the energies of the mind. How far can we go this way? Can we alter the genetic sequence, mutate the genes, prolong life, retain youth, suppress the harmful elements, etc.? Where are the limits? Perhaps as far as we believe them to be! Yet since all matter is one, and all life one in essence, perhaps the all-consciousness would not allow an indefinite lease to a species lest it disturb the total balance. Also the mind evolves out of life and matter and is therefore dependent on them for action and expression. That is why most of us cannot think clearly when febrile or with a disordered stomach. Even those who can liberate thought from the influence of matter are bound to it the moment they begin to act upon it. A power greater than mind and freer than thought is needed to affect the most radical of changes — the material conquest over death.
Processes of Life and Death
We mistake life for the processes through which it expresses itself in matter. We also mistake death for the cessation of those processes. For example, when the power is switched off, people say that there is no electricity. But electricity exists right there and would still continue to exist as a principle and manifest through the clouds as lightning. So too life exists as a principle, independent of our physical existence. We see life using different instrumentations in different species. What is life-threatening to us is life-giving to another. Even in the same species, we find records of inexplicable modes of living in times of grave life-threatening situations. Thus, in certain exceptionally difficult conditions, like wars or natural disasters, people have lived on despite the absence of external support systems like food, water or even air (buried under debris for days). Again, during certain religious ceremonies and fasting, people are known to draw energy directly without food and water. Instances are also known of a spontaneous return to life (as well as artificially) following cessation of life processes. As an extreme example, there are well-documented records of yogis continuing to live even when the internal processes of life like breathing and effective heartbeat have come to a halt. If this is so, then it is only logical to presume that death is not synonymous with the cessation of the processes of life like breathing, etc. In fact, today we do make a distinction between biological (clinical) and cellular death, the former preceding the latter. This distinction has a lot of practical utility, not only for organ transplant, but also from a consciousness-based approach to death and dying. It means first that death is not a cessation of processes, but a complete withdrawal of the life-force animating the body. Therefore, tampering with the body prematurely following biological death, as if it was just a bundle of matter, may not be correct.
The Self and Its Experience after Death
Is there life after death?
This question has vexed humanity since the beginning. Our allegedly not-so-scientific ancestors were not less informed about the processes of death either. It seems that our knowledge is least certain about the one and only certain event in our life! This in itself would not matter, for ignorance is understandable, especially in a domain as unknown as death. However, what is worrying is the lack of a genuine urge to know. This arises from two sources. One is a problem common to all methods of modern science. It is the belief that material reality is the sole reality. The consequence of this assumption is that our instruments are not designed to pick up and record any phenomenon of a non-material nature. We can take the analogy of dreams. Dream experience is as real to the experiencing consciousness as the waking one is to the awake. Even our body’s physiology responds to the dream experience as more real than the waking one. Thus, we may be sleeping in the most comfortable of beds, in the most secure surroundings, yet the body responds to a nightmare as if it was real! And it is indeed real to the experiencing consciousness, so much so that the fear generated may actually lead to a heart attack or paralysis. The irony, however, is that while our most sophisticated machines can record changes in blood pressure, heart rate, brainwave patterns, respiration and all the rest of our physiology and chemistry, we do not yet have a way of recording our thoughts, feelings, desires and the self-experience of the dreaming phase (unless of course the dreaming person wakes up and tells us himself about his experience). This is often not available in detail and therefore we conveniently reverse the cause-effect relationship. We say that the dreaming phase leads to certain changes in our physiology which are not very good for our heart and circulation. We do not say that the self-experience during sleep leads to the physiological changes. Is the sleep of the average man and the yogi the same in quality, both in terms of self-experience and its effects upon us? Whatever evidence we have today points to the contrary. We do not raise these questions because science deals with the average and generalizes it for the race. But the study of the rare and the exceptional is also important to the total contribution of knowledge. It is the exceptional that indicates the future possibility of the race. The exceptional and odd reptile perhaps opened the doors to the coming of an entirely new family of vertebrates!
This digression was important because the parallels between sleep, dream and death are far too many to be ignored. Sleep is like a miniature death, as far as our self-experience goes, except that we can be woken up from sleep with some memory of our previous day but not from death. In both we seem to enter into an experience whose geography, contours, navigation and sense, is generally not available to us. The maps are quite foreign to our waking state. A large chunk of the experience is invariably lost to our waking mind (or rather inaccessible, for no experience is ever lost to the consciousness). We may therefore conveniently suggest whether death is not yet another altered state of consciousness, so radically different from our waking one that the body cannot follow and hence disintegrates! At least this is what the testimony of yogis and studies of out-of-bod experience (OBE) and near-death experience (NDE) indicate.
If that be so, then we come to the second problem in the study of death. We are perhaps not asking the right questions. Instead of asking if there is life after death, we should ask if there is life after death as we understand and experience it. If we ask the right question, we are less likely to be misled by the answers. We would not, for example, pass off the dream communications of the departed with their loved ones as sheer imagination or hallucination!
We have within us many states of being and each state of being has its own life. All this is put together in one single body, so long as you have a body, and acts through that single body; so that gives you the feeling that it is one single person, a single being. But there are many beings and particularly there are concentrations on different levels: just as you have a physical being, you have a vital being, you have a mental being, you have a psychic being, you have many others and all possible intermediaries. … Suppose you were living a life of desire, passion and impulse: you live with your vital being dominant in you; but if you live with spiritual effort, with great good will, the desire to do things well and an unselfishness, a will for progress, you live with the psychic being dominant in you. Then, when you are about to leave your body, all these beings start to disperse. Only if you are a very advanced yogi and have been able to unify your being around the divine centre, do these beings remain bound together. If you have not known how to unify yourself, then at the time of death all that is dispersed: each one returns to its domain. For example, with regard to the vital being, all your different desires will be separated and each one run towards its own realisation, quite independently, for the physical being will no longer be there to hold them together. But if you have united your consciousness with the psychic consciousness, when you die you remain conscious of your psychic being and the psychic being returns to the psychic world which is a world of bliss and delight and peace and tranquillity and of a growing knowledge.
Immortality and the Conquest of Death
Is it possible?
Both spirituality and science have believed for long in the transience of earthly life. Yet both science and spirituality have also secretly believed in the possibility of immortality. In all ages, science has attempted to discover a technology that can not only prolong life but also in the end conquer death. Spirituality, arriving from the other pole of experience, has affirmed the presence of a consciousness of immortality and the means of arriving at it. There is a state of consciousness within us which is aware that we have always been and shall exist forever. The yogi is consciously in contact with it, while the scientist is unconsciously inspired by it. The whole problem consists in discovering inner and outer means of bringing that consciousness in contact with the physical substance of our body. More than anywhere else, it is here that the yogi and the scientist have to work together. The methods that science has been pursuing so far are to discover the reasons for cellular aging and death. It started with cryonics (freezing the body), went on to amines and errors in metabolism, and finally rests today on genetics (role of telomerase in cell division and aging). There has been simultaneously a parallel science of physical culture working towards an awakening of the latent capabilities of the body. The naturalistic method combines this with certain advice about food and regulation of life energies. All these methods have helped in pushing off the hour of death, but its conquest still eludes us. For all our knowledge, we do not know where the roots of death lie and where are the springs of immortality to be found.
The reason for this is well brought out by Sri Aurobindo:
As for immortality, it cannot come if there is attachment to the body, — for it is only by living in the immortal part of oneself which is unidentified with the body and bringing down its consciousness and force into the cells that it can come. I speak of course of Yogic means. The scientists now hold that it is (theoretically at least) possible to discover physical means by which death can be overcome, but that would mean only a prolongation of the present consciousness in the present body. Unless there is a change of consciousness and change of functioning it would be a very small gain.
The fact that science has begun to see the possibility of physical immortality is a sign that the mind of the race is turning towards a radical departure, exploring horizons without limits.
A dual approach is necessary to conquer death. First and foremost is the need to discover the principle of immortality within us. That would liberate us from the fear of death and, by application, liberate our inner consciousness from the spell of death. At the physical end it is necessary to awaken the physical consciousness.
Several efforts and intermediary stages may be necessary before the human body reaches a point whereby it can consciously throw away the burden and law of death.
The final conquest will come only when the principle of immortality establishes itself as a natural element in the race.
Life is the first mystery encountered by us, death is the last. We know something about the events in between and also a little about the processes of life and death. But the wherefore of life and the why of death escape our understanding. It is unlikely that a purely physical approach will make us any wiser. Its utility too is doubtful since to conquer death without changing our inner life, prone to suffering and diseases of various kinds, would mean only a prolongation of our present ills. Perhaps death is the last imperfection to be conquered since it reminds us of the transience of every earthly achievement. To conquer death would imply establishing permanence in place of transience. That would be worthwhile only when we are able to arrive at a perfection of our inner consciousness. Yet knowledge advances and evolution continues.