Chapter 3. The Shroud of Death Pt 3

Staring into the Eyes of Death

(Predicting the Unpredictable and Altering the Predictable)

Authentic instances are known wherein people predicted their own death. Among some well-known instances are those of great yogis like Swami Vivekananda and Paramahamsa Yogananda among others. Obviously one does not expect a yogi to go around beating his drum and make pronouncements that sound extravagant. Yet the hints are sufficient and point towards the subtler mystery of death and the fact that self-mastery is also one of the keys towards the mastery over death.

Even though seers may be able to predict the precise moment and place of death, they may not actually interfere with it since they know its purpose and the totality of the cosmic rhythms. There is a plane of consciousness of Time-eternity wherein the three modes of time — past, present and future — fuse and co-exist. The division is created due to the veil of Ignorance that hangs over the mind thereby dividing the one indivisible unity into small fragments. But the seer may rise into the house of undivided time and see things together in one sweep.

There is also the question of clairvoyant dreams and visions. The Mother recounts one such story wherein a man saw in his dream a boy asking him to enter a coffin. The next morning this man stood at the gates of the lift to go down when to his horror he saw that the boy of his dream was the very same boy operating the lift. Awakened suddenly to the true significance of his dream the man politely declined, choosing to take the flight of stairs instead. No sooner had the lift descended than the wire snapped, killing all the occupants. Coffin indeed! There are many such instances of premonitory dreams and strange sudden inexplicable decisions that have saved or taken one’s life through accidents.

In another case, a colleague was suffering from an advanced stage of malignancy. An avowed rational atheist earlier, she had recently turned to the Divine. Perhaps the close brush with death along with tremendous goodwill in her nature opened in her an unexpected faculty of inner vision. Most of her visions were true and concerned largely her own inner and outer state, so much so that she could actually see the cancerous cells floating in her abdomen while the tests including the CT scan showed none. Around the 27 or 28 May 1991 she saw an interesting dream wherein she was unsuccessfully trying to move the needles of a clock that were stuck at 6:30. The colour of the clock was an unusual pink and she saw plenty of her favourite jasmine flowers all around it. The intuitive feeling about the dream was that she had six and a half more months to live. The clock suggested that. The colour pink and the presence of jasmine flowers (named purity by the Mother) suggested that the dream-vision was originating in her soul depths. This interpretation was however not told to her. But sure enough she left her body exactly six and a half months later on the 14 December 1991!

However, it must be noted that seeing oneself die in a dream does not necessarily indicate a premonition of death. More often than not it indicates the leaving behind or dropping of something of the past. It is therefore mostly a dream with a positive significance, important symbolically. On another level, one can also suggest that even physical death is a leaving behind of the past, so that our soul may move into the future.

There are also instances wherein the intervention of a higher power has seemingly altered the fixed and fatal stroke. The instance of the Mughal king Babur praying for his son’s life in exchange for his own when the crown prince suffered a fatal illness is well documented in history. The story has it that as a result of his prayers the son survived while the father left his body. The ancient Indian tale of Ruru moves along similar lines. Ruru is a youthful rishi whose young wife Priyumvada is bitten by a snake and dies. The rishi is overcome by grief but soon composes himself and with all his occult knowledge travels to the nether worlds where lies the abode of Death. He pleads there his cause so much so that Yama himself is moved. He agrees to return back the beloved of Ruru if the young rishi agrees to forgo half of his own life. The rishi readily agrees only to find the dead wife return back to life. Sri Aurobindo captures this significant tale in one of his beautiful poems “Love and Death”:

Thy dead I yield. Yet thou bethink thee, mortal,
Not as a tedious evil nor to be
Lightly rejected gave the gods old age,
But tranquil, but august, but making easy
The steep ascent to God. Therefore must Time
Still batter down the glory and form of youth
And animal magnificent strong ease,
To warn the earthward man that he is spirit
Dallying with transience, nor by death he ends,
Nor to the dumb warm mother’s arms is bound,
But called unborn into the unborn skies.
For body fades with the increasing soul
And wideness of its limit grown intolerant
Replaces life’s impetuous joys by peace.[1]

These possibilities of partial conquest over death may be rare and not yet accessible to the mass of mankind that still must labour under the terrible yoke. Nevertheless they point to a deeper possibility that may well become more generalised in the race as mankind advances in its evolutionary march and the exceptional becomes the common, and the rare becomes frequent. The legend of Savitri conquering back her husband from the hands of death is just such a tale, opening doors to the possibility of conquering death by a higher power, the power of true love.

Thus we have a whole range of possibilities:

The lowest in the scale is the mass of humanity, not yet awakened to a deeper and higher possibility, who apart from rare instances of special intervention are subject entirely to the law of death even as they are helplessly driven by the force of life and desires.

Then there are those who can to some extent alter the balance and at least stall the moment of departure through a deeper will.

Finally we have the example of the rare yogis who have mastered their lives and are therefore masters of their destiny and of death. They are free from the law of death even though they seem to die like anyone else. Death becomes their instrument and not they its slaves. Such individuals can and perhaps always consciously choose the conditions of their departure and its hour. In other words, the secret of mastering death lies in the secret of mastering life.


The Question of Cremation

As to the method of cremation, it actually does not matter so long as sufficient time has been given for the connection to be cut. However, two considerations follow. One, the custom of burning is generally considered as more hygienic and acts as a last rite, even a symbolic one of cutting the earth-bound ties. Second, the giving of body to the fire is also a powerful symbol of purification since the soul has often been represented as fire by the Vedic seers. There is also the advantage that the relics left behind in the form of bones can be dispersed at the place of one’s possible preference.

However, timing plays a crucial role. The Mother has described the state of some beings shivering during cremation since their bodies were being given to fire prematurely. The link was not yet fully cut (on an average it takes twenty-four hours as mentioned earlier) but most people find it inconvenient to keep the body for so long and rush through the disposal. This is unfortunate. But if one could wait till the final withdrawal has taken place, then it makes no difference whether one uses this method or that. For, once the soul has detached itself from the body with all its sheaths then it is just a corpse. Some may ask if burial is a better method? Not necessarily, since the body in this case may serve as an attraction to the earth for the departed as well as other forces that feed upon the corpse. Nevertheless, the bodies of those rare great souls (Mahatmas) were not burnt but given a burial called samadhi. The reason is that the body of a Mahatma continues to act as a transmitter of higher vibrations and thereby enriches the earth.

And what about the glorified pyramids with their mummies entombed within? It seems that the people of that age and land took death more as an extension of life upon earth. Considering the amount of money and manpower spent on the task, the retinue and livestock as well as sometimes human beings buried alive to satisfy the comforts and desires of the king who was no more is highly questionable. This is not to deny a developed occult knowledge (knowledge of the hidden forces of life and death) among the Egyptians, but greater than occult knowledge is spiritual wisdom, which must inform and enlighten all knowledge. That seems to have been missed out or still not completely understood if the pyramids are any testimony to the age and times of the Pharaoh kings.

Mummification is often confused with embalming but the two are very different. Embalming is a modern procedure based on a material and chemical knowledge. It consists in preparing the body in such a way as to prevent decomposition for some days. It is a physical process. Mummification as practised in ancient Egypt was based upon an inner occult knowledge. There is the mind of matter, of the cells, that is the last to withdraw after which the body begins to disintegrate. The ancient Egyptians knew how to preserve this spirit of form through the special process of mummification. Thus the body did not disintegrate for long since the spirit of form was preserved. In fact some of those belonging to the royal lineage were themselves initiated into secret mysteries, like the daughter of a Pharaoh who was the head of a secret school of initiation in Thebes. The Mother has even mentioned that the mummified form of this woman is believed to have been responsible for quite a number of catastrophes and for obvious reasons. With regard to the curiosity that targets mummies the Mother has said, “You see, they begin by committing an outrage: these mummies are enclosed in a box of a particular form according to the person, with all that is necessary to preserve them; now, the box is opened, more or less violently, some wrappings are stripped away here and there to provide a better view… And considering that it was never ordinary people who were mummified, these were beings who had attained an appreciable inner power or who were of royal birth, people more or less initiated.”

There are also other faiths that believe in leaving the bodies for the elements to wither naturally. However, such things are ultimately a matter of personal belief and it is best to follow the injunctions of one’s own faith in this regard. Each method and practice has its own unique logic and justification and therefore is best left to one’s inner belief system.[2]


Death of a God

Is there a difference between the death of ordinary mortals and that of beings of a higher consciousness like saints and sages or incarnate gods and higher still, that most deceptive appearance of God in humanity — the phenomenon of the Avatara? Gods (beings of a higher luminous plane of consciousness) do not die except when they take up a human body for a particular work. But even here it is not the kind of death that we understand but a conscious withdrawal from the mortal to the immortal planes unlike the mortal’s death which is an unconscious withdrawal. Is it the same as any other death? Surely not. Since these are cosmic powers their repercussions are also not individual but universal. The mere presence of such beings in a human form attracts forces of a higher dimension towards the earth thereby reducing much of our burden and opening the earth to higher things. Some rare beings may strategically absorb many of the darker forces to annul them through their own death much like Shiva did symbolically by consuming the poison of the earth.[3] The result is a partial victory of light even through death. Of course not all beings of this higher order disappear from the earthly scene with their withdrawal. Some continue to stay linked consciously to the earth until their work is over. The physical disappearance from the human sensory world gives them a great advantage since they can now fully focus and continue their earthly work without the constant interference of our petty minds. But we are easily deceived by appearances and fix a date for birth and death and think they are no more. However, those who have the fire in their heart can not only get the inner response but also see and communicate with them. Appearances deceive the mortal eyes, but not the eyes of the soul. And of all appearances the most enigmatically deceptive is the appearance of death!

I made an assignation with the Night;
In the abyss was fixed our rendezvous:
In my breast carrying God’s deathless light
I came her dark and dangerous heart to woo.
I left the glory of the illumined Mind
And the calm rapture of the divinised soul
And travelled through a vastness dim and blind
To the grey shore where her ignorant waters roll.
I walk by the chill wave through the dull slime
And still that weary journeying knows no end;
Lost is the lustrous godhead beyond Time,
There comes no voice of the celestial Friend,
And yet I know my footprints’ track shall be
A pathway towards Immortality.[4]


Appendix III: The Shroud of Death

Young Deaths

Nothing hurts our human sensibilities and belief in a just and fair world as the death of a young one. While it is easier to accept death when one has lived an average lifespan, it is very difficult to accept an untimely death, with the sudden shattering of all hopes and dreams. Did a cruel god devise all this just to inflict pain? Is there a contrary power that mars the all-loving Creator’s Work? Is it some ghost of a bygone karma returning from the land of the dead? Is it just to make us painfully aware as if through a shock, the transience and impermanence of earthly life? How to take it all and still carry on with life and hopes and dreams?

These are questions that do not find an easy answer. When Dilip Kumar Roy, the famous musician-singer-poet of Bengal who later became a disciple of Sri Aurobindo, asked this question in relation to the passing away of a young singer at the age of twenty-five years, what followed is an answer to the riddle and enigma of the paradox of life. The question and the full text of the reply he received is as reproduced below:

Dilip Kumar Roy: “But why did such a lovely flower fade away prematurely even before blossoming — thus casting a gloom on all who knew her and loved her for her exquisite singing and snow-pure character? And then look at the lengthening shadows all over the world! I do believe in Grace but it acts, I take it, only under certain conditions which seem exceedingly unlikely to be fulfilled by recipients such as we. So why waste your precious time and energy on such a world where the divine guidance looks almost accidental and out of place, to all intents and purposes?”

Sri Aurobindo: “The question you have put raises one of the most difficult and complicated of all problems and to deal with it at all adequately would need an answer as long as the longest chapter of my Life Divine. I can only state my own knowledge founded not on reasoning but on experience that there is such a guidance and that nothing is vain in this universe.

If we look only at the outward facts in their surface appearance or if we regard what we see happening around us as definitive, not as processes of a moment in a developing whole, the guidance is not apparent; at most, we see interventions occasional or sometimes frequent. The guidance can become evident only if we go behind appearances and begin to understand the forces at work and the way of their working and their secret significance. After all, real knowledge — even scientific knowledge — comes by going behind the surface phenomena to their hidden process and causes. It is quite obvious that this world is full of suffering, and afflicted with transience to a degree that seems to justify the Gita’s description of it as this ‘unhappy and transient world’, anityam asukham. The question is whether it is a mere creation of Chance or governed by a mechanical inconscient Law or whether there is a meaning in it and something beyond its present appearance towards which we move. If there is a meaning and if there is something towards which things are evolving, then, inevitably, there must be a guidance — and that means that there is a supporting Consciousness and Will with which we can come into an inner contact. If there is such a Consciousness and Will, it is not likely that it would stultify itself by annulling the world’s meaning or turning it into a perpetual or eventual failure.”

“This world has a double aspect. It seems to be based on a material Inconscience, error and sorrow, death and suffering are the necessary consequence. But there is evidently, too, a partially successful endeavour and an imperfect growth towards Light, Knowledge, Truth, Good, Happiness, Harmony, Beauty — at least a partial flowering of these things. The meaning of this world must evidently lie in this opposition; it must be an evolution which is leading or struggling towards higher things out of a first darker appearance. Whatever guidance there is, must be given under these conditions of opposition and struggle and must be leading the individual certainly, and the world presumably, towards that higher state but through the double terms of knowledge and ignorance, light and darkness, death and life, pain and pleasure, happiness and suffering; none of the terms can be excluded until the higher status is reached and established. It is not and cannot be, ordinarily, a guidance which at once rejects the darker terms, still less a guidance which brings us solely and always nothing but happiness, success and good fortune. Its main concern is with the growth of our being and consciousness, the growth towards a higher self, towards the Divine, eventually towards a higher Light, Truth and Bliss; the rest is secondary, sometimes a means, sometimes a result, not a primary purpose.

“The true sense of the guidance becomes clearer when we can go deep within and see from there – more intimately the play of the forces and receive intimations of the Will behind them. The surface mind can only get an imperfect glimpse. When we are in contact with the Divine or in contact with an inner knowledge or vision, we begin to see all the circumstances of our life in a new light and observe how they all tended without our knowing it towards the growth of our being and consciousness, towards the work we had to do, towards some development that had to be made — not only what seemed good, fortunate or successful but the struggles, failures, difficulties, upheavals. But with each person the guidance works differently according to his nature, the conditions of his life, his cast of consciousness, his stage of development, his need of further experience. We are not automata but conscious beings and our mentality, our will and its decisions, our attitude to life and demand on it, our motives and movements help to determine our course; they may lead to much suffering and evil, but through it all the guidance makes use of them for our growth in experience and consequently the development of our being and consciousness. All advance by however devious ways, even in spite of what seems a going backwards or going astray, gathering whatever experience is necessary for the soul’s destiny. When we are in close contact with the Divine, a protection can come which helps or directly guides or moves us: it does not throw aside all difficulties, sufferings or dangers, but it carries us through them and out of them — except where for a special purpose there is need of the opposite.

“It is the same thing though on a larger scale and in a more complex way with the guidance of the world movement. That seems to move according to the conditions and laws or forces of the moment through constant vicissitudes, but still there is something in it that drives towards the evolutionary purpose, although it is more difficult to see, understand and follow than in the smaller and more intimate field of the individual consciousness and life. What happens at a particular juncture or the world-action or the life of humanity, however catastrophical, is not ultimately determinative. Here, too, one has to see not only the outward play of forces in a particular case but also the inner and secret play, the far-off outcome, the event that lies beyond and the Will at work behind it all. Falsehood and Darkness are strong everywhere on the earth, and have always been so and at times they seem to dominate; but there have also been not only gleams but outbursts of the Light. In the maze of things and the long course of Time, whatever may be the appearance of this or that epoch or movement, the growth of Light is there and the struggle towards better things does not cease. At the present time Falsehood and Darkness have gathered their forces and are extremely powerful; but even if we reject the assertion of the mystics and prophets since early times that such a condition of things must precede the Manifestation and is even a sign of its approach, yet it does not necessarily indicate the decisive victory — even temporary — of the Falsehood. It merely means that the struggle between the forces is at its acme. The result may very well be the stronger emergence of the best that can be; for the world-movement often works in that way. I leave it at that and say nothing more.

“X had reached a stage of her development marked by a predominance of the sattwic nature, but not a strong vital (which works towards a successful or fortunate life) or the opening to a higher light — her mental upbringing and surroundings stood against that and she herself was not ready. The early death and much suffering may have been the result of past (prenatal) influences or they may have been chosen by her own psychic being as a passage towards a higher state for which she was not yet prepared but towards which she was moving. This and the nonfulfilment of her capacities could be a final tragedy if there were this life alone. As it is, she has passed towards the psychic sleep to prepare for her life to come.”[5]

Three things stand out: First is the deceptiveness of appearances. This is something that we encounter again and again in life but much more in our dealing with Death since it is an appearance that neither science nor reason can penetrate. Till we develop the faculties and instruments of a higher knowledge within us we have to rely on the eye of faith and turn to those who have pierced the veil and seen through the darkness of death’s night. Nothing is really lost, certainly not the person except to our sensory appearance.

Second, there are several factors at play in this complex play of world forces, factors helpful and harmful, things that aid and things that hinder. In this world play, truth and falsehood are locked together and everything that happens is not the direct expression of the Divine Will. There are accidents and delays. The symmetry we look for is not there except in our minds. Yet through all this the soul grows and that is the hope, and not an uninterrupted success and happiness in each and every life. The soul chooses and utilises all this as material for its upward progress. Life and Death from the soul’s point of view are like a game of snakes and ladders. There is a joy in the game and a sense of achievement and mastery and victory against odds, even if it means losing the game a few times.

Finally the choice itself of the soul is not the choice that the vital and mind prefer which seek after an ignorant happiness and temporary gain alone. Thus a soul may decide to quit early if it finds a new body is needed to start life afresh and move faster as in the instance above. Or else it may leave even as a child if some trace of experience was all that it needed for the next rung. If the body is not able to support the inner soul then it must change. Many are the inner and subtle causes that we are yet to know and discover. Even the so-called accidents are ultimately used for the soul’s quick progress. In fact greater the difficulty, greater the progress.


[1] Sri Aurobindo: ‘Love and Death’, Collected Poems, pp.253-254.

[2] Refer to Appendix III: The Shroud of Death for the Wisdom from the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

[3] Legend has it that once upon a time the gods and the titans united their efforts to churn the ocean of consciousness and discover the nectar of immortality concealed within it. But before the nectar, there emerged out of the depths of the Inconscient the poison Kalkoot, which threatened the existence of every being. None knew what to do until moved by their agony, Shiva appeared on the scene to consume the poison and kept it in his throat earning him the name of Neelkantha, the blue throated one. The story is deeply symbolic for to conquer immortality one must first conquer the fear of death and be able to consume the bitter poisonous stuff of life without a wince.

[4] Sri Aurobindo: ‘The Pilgrim of the Night’, Collected Poems, p.132.

[5] Sri Aurobindo Came to Me, 1952 ed., pp. 516-21.

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