Chapter 3. The Shroud of Death Pt 2

To Grieve or Not to Grieve

“I can understand the shock your wife’s catastrophic death must have been to you. But you are now a seeker and sadhak of the Truth and must set your mind to rise above the normal reactions of the human being and see things in a larger greater light. Regard your lost wife as a soul that was progressing through the vicissitudes of the life of Ignorance — like all others here; in that progress things happen that seem unfortunate to the human mind and a sudden accidental or violent death cutting short prematurely this always brief spell of terrestrial experience we call life seems to it especially painful and unfortunate. But one who gets behind the outward view knows that all that happens in the progress of the soul has its meaning, its necessity, its place in the series of experiences which are leading it towards the turning-point where one can pass from the Ignorance to the Light. He knows that whatever happens in the Divine Providence is for the best, even though it may seem to the mind otherwise. Look on your wife as a soul that has passed the barrier between two states of existence. Help her journey towards her place of rest by calm thoughts and the call to the Divine Help to aid her upon it. Grief too long continued does not help but delays the journey of the departed soul. Do not brood on your loss, but think only of her spiritual welfare.”[1]

Some Practical Suggestions: Death is an event with a unique significance for each one. While the process of working through the pain takes some time, life must move on. To stagnate for long or to hold on to grief as a prized possession is only to prolong the misery. To get back to work, one’s routine of life and pick up the scattered threads and restart the journey is most essential. The sooner it happens the better it is. The flying squadrons of the Air Force know this only too well. If there is a crash, the other squadron pilots are told to continue their flying, thereby diverting their minds from the tragedy and even bringing about a greater solidarity, as if those left behind were carrying on the baton of the unfinished task.

Prolonged indoor confinement as used to happen to widows in olden days only complicates the grief process. Depression thrives in such isolation and confinement because it gives a greater opportunity to brood over the loss. Work is a great liberator by drawing our consciousness away from the parts that suffer and grieve. If the loss is too traumatic then it is helpful sometimes to change one’s surroundings or to change the arrangements in the rooms. The human mind conditioned to patterns can trigger memories and formations of pain in the same surroundings by sheer habit of response. It is now well known that certain environments trigger certain types of responses in an individual or a group and therefore environmental manipulation is part of therapy.

This is especially true for young children or adolescents who are brought face to face with death due to the loss of someone very close such as a parent. Unlike adults who already have a cognitive framework and a developed reason and experience of past losses as their inner resources to draw upon in times of grief, the young are rather raw and have hardly seen the different cards dealt by life. A child has neither the experience nor a developed reason to cope with sudden tragedies like death of a loved one. It is therefore a great challenge for those involved in working through the grief of these young ones, to take care not to distort their self-regard and world-view following these events. Children, with their elementary and childlike logic, sometimes tend to blame themselves for the fate of the departed person. They also feel abandoned and terribly insecure, feelings that adults do not necessarily experience. Such experiences can influence the development of the child in radical ways. Some methods that help the process of handling grief in children are as follows:

  • To provide emotional and social support to make them feel that they are and will be cared for in every aspect of life.
  • To provide genuine love by others who could fill in the vacuum of the departed.
  • To remind the child of the sweet memories and the goals that the departed would have liked to see fulfilled. This gives a cause to live and a sense of being with the loved one in one’s hopes and ideals.

It really works for many children to believe that the loved one is watching them from somewhere and benevolently monitoring their progress. It instils security and a sense of communion. And this may not be just a prop for who knows what the departed spirit can and cannot do from the beyond.

Finally, so as not to distort their world-view, to remind them that it is God who is ultimately the parent of each and everyone and physical parents are only his representatives.

Given time and emotional support especially genuine love, most children will come out very well and even grow stronger through the tragedy. By their nature, children look forward to the future and as this future unfolds itself, the past tends to fade. Time itself is a great healer, especially when we move forward. Besides, ultimately we carry the healer always within each one of us, and no tragedy is greater than the strength to bear it.

Role of Rituals: As to rituals, we have already seen the view of traditional therapies based on the materialist model of man. From a deeper point of view the rituals had their origin in a subtle truth. It is this that those upon earth can help the onward journey of the departed. The occult basis is that after departure the soul lingers for a time in the earth atmosphere. Its prolonged nearness to the physical and vital worlds delays its onward journey and therefore keeps the soul bound to the vital sheaths, which is a source of continued suffering even after death. In the shradha ceremony of the Hindus, the whole occult rites and the mantras point towards leading the soul out of the world of the ancestors (pitraloka) to the world of the gods (devaloka). The pitraloka are the worlds closer to our own and subject to pain and suffering. The devaloka on the other hand, are the higher realms where happiness and harmony reigns and suffering reaches not. Once this conversion is over, the departed are prayed for and expected to benevolently help those upon earth since they have now gone to the spheres of a greater light and power.

Something similar happens in other religions as well. If we remove the outer details and look for the essence, we find that most religions believe in a period of transit when the soul is crossing the threshold of this material world and moving on to other realms. The general time for this crucial passage is anywhere from three – thirteen days. That’s why the main ceremonies are on the fourth, tenth and/or the thirteenth day. Whether the present day pundits, a vast majority of whom are largely devoid of inner merit and occult knowledge, genuinely facilitate the process or not is another matter. But one thing is certain. It is this that for a certain period soon after departure, the soul has a difficult passage where it continues to experience earthly attachments making its transit painful. A constant earthward pull during this phase by excessive lamenting and sorrow among those left behind only makes the transit of the departed turbulent and painful. Therefore it is important not to remember the departed with pain and especially not to create an atmosphere of sorrow in the surroundings. On the contrary, the right way would be to make the transit smooth by praying for the person with thoughts of genuine goodwill and love. Even forgetting the person and being indifferent would be better than grief whether felt or expressed since the vital sheaths respond through affinity of vibrations and not necessarily through physical seeing. Thus the sooner the process of grief is over, the better it is. According to one tradition, during the first three days, the immortal parts in us are separating from the mortal’s world and adjusting to the higher spiritual world. This process can be facilitated by creating a spiritual atmosphere at the place of death. Washing the body, placing flowers and incense, offering prayers and spiritual readings for three days is a beautiful way of helping the departed and wishing them a safe journey. The best option of course is to be free of grief since after all the person whom we loved has not ‘ended’ but only passed beyond our mortal sight and will progress and move forward through another life.

A young man dying said:

Insult me not with your cries of sympathy
When I soar in the land of eternal light and love.
It is I who should feel for you
For me disease, shattering of bones,
Sorrow, excruciating heartaches no more
I dream joy, I glide in joy, I breathe in joy evermore.[2]

Helping Hands: What about the physicians and the caretakers? There are two important aspects here apart from supporting those who are left behind. The first issue is regarding disclosing the grave prognosis or diagnosis to the terminally ill. The issue is not simple and somewhat controversial. It is known for instance that denial of a terminal illness tends to somehow prolong the life expectancy. On the other hand, not informing the implications based on present knowledge may amount to breach of trust and also make the patient indifferent and delay his seeking timely help or completing some last minute unfinished acts such as executing a will. Besides that, how much do we really know? Medicine is not an exact science at all and every physician worth his work knows that each patient is unique and the behavior of illness often unpredictable. So is it fair to play God and pass a judgment on the patient’s life? It may only induce fear and bring one closer to death than otherwise. Fear indeed is a great ally of death and interferes with recovery. Perhaps the best recourse under the present state of our collective ignorance is to explain to the patient in simple terms about what’s going on in his body and what can be and should be done about it. It is indeed an art to tell the truth, even a limited one without causing the reactions of hurt, fear, disgust and revolt. It is perhaps linked to our own inner state of goodwill more than anything else. That is the sense of the ancient injunction, satyam vada, priyam vada (speak the truth, and, speak it pleasantly). All prognostications however should be suspended and the physician and the patient must work together towards recovery as the goal till the very end. This, not because one clings to the body, but because the experience of struggle without giving up is helpful for the growing soul. And if one must depart at all then, it should be in an atmosphere free of fear.[3]

 

Counselling is not the only way to help those who are left behind. One can provide still more concrete help at a deeper spiritual and occult level by infusing peace (just as one injects a medicine), or forces of joy and harmony. Even uplifting music or an atmosphere of calm and light and strength created collectively by those involved in the care can work wonders.[4] But habit and certain social traditions stand in the way and most gatherings on such occasions sadly only compound rather than assuage the grief by joining with the mourner’s weaker parts rather than strengthening him. That is the real purpose of reading the scriptures and offering the flowers so as to create a soothing atmosphere. But these should be supplemented by inner methods of calling and instilling the healing and soothing forces from a higher sphere to rejuvenate and uplift. There are instances on record as to how the visit to a spiritual Master not just consoled the person but rather filled the being with peace and joy even in the face of an incident that would normally give rise to grief. Such help need not be through words but can be transmitted in silence through the influence of the Master. Here we must understand that peace, joy, strength, etc., are concrete and real forces and the Master knows how to handle them just as the material scientist knows how to handle the forces of steam and electricity. He bypasses the mental mechanisms of counselling and directly injects the required forces just as an injection bypasses the complicated processes of the digestive tract and directly enters the blood stream.

Similarly, the Master knows life and death to be a single continuity and can therefore easily move from one to the other. It is we who make the difference since there is a whole zone of truth above and below and within that is concealed to our present sight. For the Master, death is not annihilation but a hiding behind the wall of senses. He knows how to get behind the iron wall and provide whatever necessary help to the person. He can even accompany the person to lead the soul safely and smoothly to the place of rest. Unlike our foolish and ignorant hearts, the Master does not abandon the contact with the death of the body but keeps it through life and death and afterlife and beyond till the soul arrives at the point it has aspired for. His concern is not so much for the body but for the soul. And since the soul is eternal, the relation between the Master and the disciple’s soul (or the devotee and The Lord whom he adores) is also eternal and does not cease with the life in a single body.[5]

 

The Moment of Death

Here again we find that the purely materialist approach does not offer any answer. Seen from a materialist standpoint, it does not matter how and under what circumstances one dies. On the contrary, we have scriptures telling us of the extreme importance of the psychological and inner state of the person at the moment of final departure. A scripture as profound as the Gita speaks about this:

यं यं वापि स्मरन्भावं त्यजत्यन्ते कलेवरम् ।
तं  तमेवैति कौन्तेय सदा तद्भाव भावितः ॥३॥

Whatever entity one thinks of at the time of death, he attains that and that alone in the next incarnation, simply because he has become absorbed in the thought of it.[6]

This verse is often used as a defence against all one’s life of selfishness stating that it does not matter as long as one remembers God at the time of death. True, but it must be read in conjunction with the other verses that precede and follow it, especially the one right after, that is:

तस्मात्सर्वेषु कालेषु मामनुस्मर युध्य च ।
मय्यर्पितमनोबुद्धिर्मामेवैष्यस्यसंशयम् ॥७॥

Arjuna, if you want to attain Me here and hereafter, then think of Me at all times. Even while fighting set your mind and intellect on Me. Thus thou shalt come to Me undoubtedly.[7]

Sri Aurobindo clearly states that this truth operates if one has remembered God all the while during one’s life. The scriptures also tell us the two different paths that the soul follows at the time of its departure. One is the path of the ancestors (pitrayana) or the path of the southern solstice from which one has to return back after some time, that is take birth again. The other is the path of the gods (devayana) or the path of the northern solstice from whence one does not return to the world of sorrow. What is the inner logic of this?

Well, as we have seen, the moment of death is a moment of intense concentration. It is concentration in the inward direction so that the soul can progressively disengage itself from the physical body and go to rest into its native world of the fourth dimension. The process is therefore very similar to a meditative concentration except that here it takes an extreme form of no return. Now if one can use this moment of intense concentration facilitated or precipitated by nature itself, one can achieve a remarkable boost in one’s inward journey. The Yogi therefore withdraws the soul by concentrating his consciousness in one of the higher centers of concentration which he has practised and possibly mastered during his life. On the other hand, the ordinary man is helplessly cut off from his body by the force of death and therefore feels the pain and the agony of being taken away.

Death is also a moment of intense oblivion and only that remains which has always been deep down in one’s mind. It is like when confronted with a danger in a dream, whom do we call and remember? Not necessarily the gods whom we worship ritualistically on Sundays but that person or thing or Force to whom we are inwardly attached and deeply cherish. So too during death one tends to get stuck with the predominant tendencies of life. If one has always worried about money for instance, one tends to worry about money at the time of death as well, however absurd it may seem. So too if one has been very attached to one’s children during life one thinks only of that attachment during death. So the great advice:

Remember Me at all times and fight the great battle of life. Thou shalt surely come to me.

The thrust therefore is that the significance of our death and meaningful departure lies in the significance of a meaningful life. It is not to say that life is a preparation for death. But just that we can make our death useful by leading a meaningful life turned towards the Divine. Death too is an instrument of god and can be used to give an extra evolutionary push to our lives beyond and hereafter if we can quit calmly in a state of Grace; in a state of concentration upon the Divine Presence within us. This is the best way to depart and creates the best conditions for an afterlife. Therefore the final injunction:

प्रयाणकाले मनसाऽचलेन
भक्त्या युक्तो योगबलेन चैव।
भ्रुवोर्मध्ये प्राणमावेश्य सम्यक्
स तं परं पुरुषमुपैति दिव्यम्॥ १०॥

At the moment of departure make your mind still unto Me and with devotion and the power of yoga unite unto Me. Concentrating in the middle of the eyebrows and balancing the different currents of prana thou shalt arrive to the abode of the Supreme Divine.[8]

 

Is the Moment of Death Fixed?

That brings us to the last question about the moment of departure. Is this moment of the fatal stroke fixed? Can the hour of death be postponed from an inner point of view?

The question is only of academic interest for the material scientist since as per material science the moment of death is not fixed. It is only the average lifespan of a species that is fixed and that too has a wide range in man at least. On the contrary, we have authentic instances of yogis predicting their hour of departure. A view more consistent with the experience of those who have come back (NDE) as well as with the logic of inner life would be that there may not be such an absolute fixity as is ordinarily supposed. Perhaps there are certain periods of life when for various reasons there is a strong possibility of death. The astrologers speak about such periods known in India as mrityudasha when the possibilities of death are very high. Possibility yes, but not necessarily the inevitability. But if by a higher will or spiritual intervention one is able to go through that phase then the hour of death may be postponed. Of course the common mass of humanity driven mechanically may be subject to a certain amount of fixed determinism with regard to life and death. With evolution this fixity must gradually give way to a greater mastery from within till we reach a point wherein we are in complete control of our destiny and circumstances of life and death. It is this extreme mastery that we see in the life of rare yogis who do not predict the hour of their death as much as they choose the time and circumstances. Even great beings (who are called in India as vibhutis) may be able to stall the hour of their death. The Mother recounts one such story with regard to Queen Elizabeth I, who on her deathbed, moved with the agony of her subjects gets up and remarks, “But one can die later.”

 

Spirit of Death

All traditions by and large believe in beings who come to take away the soul and help in separating it from the body. In Indian literature, such a being is known as Yamadoot. Mystic experience and the experience of few who have survived death does affirm that there is some grain of truth in this notion of a being. However contrary to popular belief they are not evil forces, much as the hangman obeying the orders of the judge is not an evil person, but simply an obedient worker doing his assigned duty. So also these beings have possibly a certain fixed number of people allocated to them, the number required perhaps to maintain the balance of birth and death (just as the balance of energy and matter must remain constant at all times). If that be so then it stands to reason, or supra reason if one may say so, that there is a certain flexibility in their working which seems to us as an element of arbitrariness. They have a fixed number to take among those who are inwardly ready to die, let’s say whose soul and inner being has made the decision to quit this present formation. Now if a person (his inmost soul and not just his fanciful outer being) makes a last minute decision to live for some more time for whatever purpose, it is quite probable that the spirit of death may go elsewhere to someone who is ‘ready’, and quite possibly this ‘ready’ surrogate may live in close physical proximity to the one originally intended.

The spirit of death too must bow and obey the command of the inner divinity in man, his secret soul.

 


[1] Sri Aurobindo: Letters on Yoga, p.462.
[2] Quoted by Sri Paramhamsa Yogananda
[3] Refer to Appendix III: The Shroud of Death for The Fear of Death and the Four Methods of Conquering It by the Mother.
[4] Refer to Appendix III: The Shroud of Death for an interesting interview with someone who plays music specifically for the dying.
[5] Refer to Appendix III: The Shroud of Death for an experience of a devotee with the Mother at the time of death.
[6] The Bhagvad Gita: Ch. 8, Verse 6
[7] The Bhagvad Gita: Ch. 8, Verse 7.
[8] The Bhagvad Gita: Ch. 8, Verse 10

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