Ethical Issues involving Death and the Dying
Death raises many an ethical question and as with everything else related to death, none have a simple answer. The reason is that we do not know with certainty the state of an individual who is dead or is in coma. We do not know whether there is an inner psychological life going on during coma or after death, independent of the body. We do not know whether the surface choice of a man reflects the choice of his soul or is it simply rendering into mental terms, the recoil from pain of the nervous and sensational parts of his being. For man is not made up of one piece. Our reason often cancels the choice made by our emotions. Our emotions can be at war and at variance with our vital desires. Our sentiments may play at cross purposes with our idealism, not to speak of the inmost soul within us which may not consent or agree to the ignorant choice made by our surface being! The physicians and caretakers, well-wishers included, are not much help either since it is not only the man on the deathbed but all those around him who are also afflicted by a general ignorance of these deeper issues.
So how are we to decide about the ethical issues arising out of death? The one simple, practical answer is that no hard and fast rule can be made about these things. Each case has to be dealt with as uniquely independent. The person who is called upon to decide has to be guided by the highest light available to him. This highest light may be the prevalent norm during his time or else that other equally ignorant and imperfect but nevertheless partial light of reason. The best of course is if the person can command the deeper vision of his soul. But that is rare. So until that happens, the answer is to do whatever best one thinks or can, without letting oneself sway towards one extreme or the other, and by offering the act to God within, seeking for the growth of a deeper vision. As long as one does not have the arrogance of the intellect but instead is armed with an opening to a higher power, this greater seeing will dawn sooner or later. And even if it isn’t soon enough, this act of offering with humility will be like a corrective to balance the general state of our ignorance and its many errors. It is against this background and with the greater Light now available to us than the narrow and ill-lit lamp of rational ethics or an equally imperfect body of religious or social conventions that we shall turn to the specific issues.
To name a few of the ethical dilemmas, there is euthanasia, artificial life support, resuscitation, post-mortem examination, abortions, suicide victims and survivors, homicide, capital punishment and animal experiments. A lot depends upon the premises we hold dear to our heart, our individual belief systems and conditioning to existing norms. It is difficult to generalise. For many are the strands along which our nature moves and what is best in one situation may not be applicable in another. To hold one single principle or standard, however high, as an infallible ideal to be followed by all under every circumstance may be a dangerous oversimplification of human nature and its possible movements. At the same time to leave each one to decide as they please or will, may be an even greater risk in the present state of our collective ignorance. Only broad outlines can therefore be attempted; the gaps have to be filled up by each one according to the need of the hour and the situation.
Broadly speaking, ethics rests upon two main pillars as its lampposts — first, the consideration of what is truly good and, second, what is nobly beautiful. Both of these are relative values. At best these are crutches that we hold to walk in our journey through the forest of human ignorance. At worst these are fetters that we tie to the growing soul and its limitless expansion. A little consideration of real issues will reveal the difficulty.
Until recently, suicide was a punishable offence. Rarely was it understood that the act of suicide is in itself a punishment, a kind of self-punishment that the person inflicts upon himself in a state of gloom. The cosmic laws are not forgiving either since as we have seen, the scriptures describe this particular mode of exit as among the worst ones, from an inner point of view. “Sunless are those worlds…” Whether the cosmic laws have changed or not, there is nevertheless a little more humane understanding of the suicidal situation. With spreading awareness of psychological illnesses and their hold upon the human mind, the suicidal man is seen more as a victim of a pathological state of mind rather than a criminal. Most suicides are done in a state of depression under whose spell they see the world and themselves in a negative way. There is usually an exaggerated sense of self-depreciation, a heavy inner state called tamas in the parlance of the Indian mystic. It is this dark and heavy principle of tamas that comes over and clouds the soul, throwing the nature into a state of utter despair much as the world would so thrown if it came under the spell of a prolonged eclipse. The adverse and hostile forces take advantage of this inner eclipse and get hold over the human nature. These terrible agencies thereby distort perception in a most unreasonable way, create an abundance of confusion, suggest failure, and fill the heart with gloom and self-pity. The ego-sense doubling up upon itself enters into utter despair, abandoning hope and will and faith. Once faith is lost, then all is lost or seemingly so. Suicide as the only escape is the last extreme suggested by the dark whispers of this nether world. Reason, emotions, will, impulse are seized and perverted by this darkness. Our soul, the only sure guide, is thrust far behind a thick veil and its promptings and word of hope and courage do not reach the outer nature and the receiving brain. The parts of vital impulse are finally fully seized and made to act out the gruesome tragedy. A curtain falls upon the inmost sun-touched parts and in ruin ends the epic of a soul.
The soul suffering this darkened state and caught in its terrible mesh needs help and perhaps does cry out for it. But the outer nature is obviously closed to every available help and needs a persistent effort to pull the inner light out so as to illumine the dark outer chambers once again. Maybe the soul under these circumstances is helped to depart with minimum possible struggle, but of this inner transaction nothing much can be said and besides it would differ from case to case. Generally speaking, however, it is dragged by the heavy chains of tamas and the cloak of its darkened nature acts as fetters in its upward journey. One thing is certain — it is absurd to justify assisted suicide under any circumstance. A case was recently reported wherein a mother assisted in the suicide of her son, who pleaded for her assistance while undergoing physical pain. The mother could have been better informed and known that this pleading of the son was really an aberrant and perverse mistranslation of the will to be free from the pain. Suicide does not help the situation but only makes it worse. What if the physical pain and the illness or the outer circumstance leading to the psychological pain is unchangeable? Well, even if it were so, there is still much that can be done. One can help the person in becoming detached from the physical pain and its ensuing circumstances. One can help the person develop the right inner attitude and face the difficulty with courage, perseverance and faith. One can help the person see the light of reason and assess the situation realistically. Most often things are not so bad as we perceive them to be. There is a silver lining behind every dark cloud, a positive by the side of every negative. It is the task of well-wishers and counsellors to bring out this silver lining in bold relief and present the positive perspective which the individual himself is unable to see. This positive need not be necessarily on the same plane. An outer insurmountable problem may carry a deep inner possibility of growth — a growth in wisdom that inevitably follows if we care to wait and see after we have weathered the storm; a growth in strength that comes when we have faced the rigorous and uncertain trials of life; a growth in compassion and a generous understanding of others when we have confronted and struggled with our own difficulties. All these are no cheap or easy gains and if the moment of intense inner crisis can be used to acquire them, then we will find our pain more than rewarding and grow mightier with each stroke of what we in our ignorance term as misfortune, failure and fall. To assist the soul in emerging and stepping out from behind the clouds, even using the moment of crisis for this purpose, is the only true assistance. In contrast, to aid the person in his suicidal impulse is to unwittingly fall prey oneself in the hands of the dark and hostile forces that sometimes come upon us. Therefore, all talk of assisting suicide or legalizing it is a dangerous plea, a cover for increasing the darkness and suffering of the world, and certainly not reducing it as we may be ignorantly led to believe.
As a matter of fact, the grief generated after such a death in the home and surrounding atmosphere is much more dense and heavy. Those who are left behind often suffer from nightmares, undue guilt and are sometimes themselves caught by the impulse to die. The reasons for this may be more than what our superficial psychology may suggest. The person departing under such a burdened state of the soul naturally leaves a thick black trail in the occult worlds which begins to attach itself to those who are near and dear. Thrown out of the body through a sudden violent act, the consciousness may remain confused and not knowing whether one is with or without a body, it seeks shelter somewhere. The atmosphere of most hospitals is often felt heavy by perceptive people because of such disembodied beings. Some actually find place in others who are sick, which is one cause of the sicknesses taking a turn for the worse. Some patients may return with heavy limbs, feeling inexplicably exhausted, a common experience attributed to prolonged sickness or effect of drugs. But there may be other causes. A case was recently reported on the Discovery channel about a woman who was discharged from hospital after a minor surgery but developed unexplained exhaustion on return. The surgeons washed their hands off while the physicians put her through a series of tests but to no avail. After sixteen years of suffering, she consulted an occultist whose clairvoyant vision saw a disembodied being who after suicide had taken shelter in the patient’s body. The being was released from the woman’s body through certain occult practices and she became free of her heaviness. Such things may actually be more common than we choose to observe and record. And it is true that there may not always be good and expert occultists at hand to deal with these problems. But there is a simpler way to tackle this in the everyday life of average human beings. It is to bring peace in the atmosphere and create a zone of deep spiritual vibrations through faith, concentration and whatever outer means we may have at our disposal. The disembodied beings dissolve soon if they are not fed by the vitality of others. And no meal is tastier to this dark state than the bitter taste of grief, suffering and fear.
One last word about a common misconception. There is a prevalent view which is undoubtedly ignorant, that the yogi’s samadhi and departure by choice is the same as suicide. Nothing can be farther from the truth. We have already seen that the possibility and power of iccha-mrityu (self-willed departure) develops at a certain high stage of our inner self-development. Along with this power and will are given the inner knowledge of the means, the hour, the precise indication, and the wisdom to discern between an impulse to throw away life in a fit of despair vis-à-vis the decision to leave the shell of this body because more work is not possible with the existing frame. The first is a state of helplessness in nature that sets in because the soul is utterly veiled; the second is a luminous state of the soul that has earned its rest since it stands master over its nature. The first is a state of gross and thick coating of ignorance, the second a state of knowledge, not only knowledge of one’s own self, but also the knowledge of the cosmic forces and their movements. Besides, even the process used is very different. The man under a spell of depression whose nature is held captive by the hostile forces chooses violent physical means for his exit. The yogi, in sharp contrast, departs of his own choice by an inner process of withdrawing his consciousness from the physical and detaching his soul from the different sheaths. The first therefore is an utterly unconscious movement, the other a luminous and fully conscious one. Of course such yogic withdrawals are very rare and never recommended, nor even possible for the common humanity. One should not delude oneself into believing that one is in an exceptional state and can decide about one’s hour to quit. These things are usually a cover for some defeatist part in our nature that wants to avoid the struggle, spiritual or otherwise, and gives up easily for lack of perseverance in nature. One should not confuse the two. Therefore the dictum for most of us is a calm indifference towards death, neither to will it nor to be afraid of it.
Homicide and Capital Punishment
If suicide is anger turned upon oneself then homicide is anger turned against others. Anger, gloom, frustration, self-depreciation, these are part of the internal constitution of a suicidal man which attracts the dark adverse forces. The homicidal man is under the sway of very similar forces. He is caught up in a net of a morbid lower-vital state of anger, jealousy, frustration, suspicion, etc. Some of those committing homicide (and this may be a sizable number) are seized by beings with a strong and vital impulse to kill. Driven by this uncontrollable urge to slay, these beings and their human representatives combine a vicarious insensitivity to pain (one’s own and other’s) with a perverse pleasure in acts of violence. Cruel in their thoughts and deeds, with very little beauty and nobility of an inner life, or soul-development, these beings are upon earth only to create destruction and chaos. The Gita revealing the internal constitution of such an extreme asuric type of humanity describes them thus:
Given over to egoism, power, arrogance, desire and wrath, these maligning characters despise Me dwelling in their own and others’ bodies.
These vile men of the world, despising and cruel and evil, I cast into continual Asuric births.
Drawn into the Asuric womb birth after birth, these deluded ones, O Kaunteya (Arjuna), not attaining to Me, go eventually to the lowest state of being.
The fate of such men of evil deeds is as bad as slayers of their own bodies since they have obviously closed the doors to Grace. However, this state of perdition is not permanent and absolute. Having touched rock bottom of their consciousness, chastened by this experience of darkness and its aftermath, they once again come up to enter the normal evolutionary cycle. It is believed that these two (suicide and homicide) are utkata karmas, that is to say karmas whose repercussions are inevitable and cannot be mitigated by subsequent good deeds. While utkata karmas are hard to remove by our own efforts and take many lives due to the strong impress (creating a strong predisposition to commit the same act, suicide for example, in other lives as well), they can not only be mitigated but totally effaced from the soul by the action of Grace. Therefore the famous injunctions of the Gita again and again, to leave things in the hands of Grace for them to be worked out:
सर्वधर्मान्परित्यज्य मामेकं शरणं प्रज।
अहं त्वा सर्वपापेभ्यो मोक्षयिष्यामि मा शुचः॥६६॥
Abandon all dharmas and take refuge in Me alone.
I shall deliver you from all fear and evil. Do not worry.
Now such a provision of inner consequence already exists in the cosmic law. But what about our human law? Humanity can take one of the two positions. One is to punish murder with murder (capital punishment). While this could be an understandable albeit purely emotive human reaction at the spur of the moment, is the impulse to punish the killer by killing him much different from the original act? Revenge and hate, individual or collective, stands much at the same level as jealousy and fear and anger. We have also to take into account the occult fact that most of these offenders are under the possession of dark and violent hostile forces. The body of the individual is destroyed through capital punishment but the force escapes, only to take hold of other individuals who are in the same frequency. It is said that following a guillotine execution, the force or being inhabiting the one executed would soon depart only to inhabit some other body in the crowd, someone who is open and receptive, thereby perpetuating its reign in one body or another!
Besides, recent research claims that it is yet to be proven substantially and irrefutably that capital punishment acts as a deterrent. People who commit such ghastly crimes act under a strong impulse over which they have little conscious or rational control. While they are being swept and swayed by this violent impulse their minds are neither attuned nor receptive to any reason, rational arguments or the previous experience of others. Why, even their own experience of previous punishments does not deter criminals, as any police record file would suggest. An inner change is needed and capital punishment certainly cannot bring that about. In fact what most people fail to realise is that serving life imprisonment is far more difficult to bear than losing one’s life. In the course of serving such a sentence, cut off from one’s family and a life of freedom, the prisoner is likely to go through a series of introspective phases, each of which can prove both torturous as well as enlightening, for it is no lie that the way to truth is long and difficult. If, at the end of it, he comes out a better human being, then that would leave a more lasting impact on people rather than a speedy delivery from this world.
An interesting parallel occurred in very recent times. A news item reported the atrocities committed by the American and British soldiers towards the Iraqi POWs. An important point was missed in the report which expressed surprise that these atrocities on Iraqi POWs were committed in the same prison where Saddam and his men used to torture their captives in much the same way. Could it be that the very same forces that had possessed the dictator’s regime suddenly seized the soldiers who entered these places? Is it the same phenomenon wherein the oppressed who seize power themselves become the oppressor? Of course, the American soldiers were not the oppressed in this case, but perhaps there was something of a transfer of forces knowingly or unknowingly, between the older regime and the present one. We have to learn much about the play of these occult forces that seize men as puppets and play mischief and havoc upon this world. The Mother has something very interesting about this occult phenomenon:
“The death of Stalin (unfortunately not any more than the death of Hitler) has not changed the present state of the world. Something more than that would be necessary. For this is like the assassin who is guillotined; when his head is cut off, his spirit remains behind and is projected outside him. It is a vital formation and it goes and takes shelter in one of the benevolent spectators, who suddenly feels a criminal instinct in himself. There are many men like that, specially very young criminals who when questioned have acknowledged this. They have been asked: ‘When did this desire to kill come to you?’ and the frequent reply is: ‘It got hold of me when I saw so-and-so executed.’”
What this seeing means with relation to TV and public executions in certain countries is anybody’s guess.
A better strategy than execution would be to isolate the murderer through some kind of a prolonged term and then to work towards reforming him. Mere isolation can never be enough. One has to also simultaneously provide some kind of a reformative atmosphere which brings about a change in the inner being of the individual. Numerous instances are quoted to illustrate that wild animals lose their natural born propensities in the atmosphere of a sage or enlightened being. It is as if the power of his peace counteracts their tendency to attack and harm. We have the famous example of Angulimaal, a man who garlanded himself with the fingers of those whom he killed, turn into a highly respected monk known as Ananda (the very opposite of suffering that he inflicted upon others) through Buddha’s Grace. Such examples, and there are others, are not isolated individual cases but instances that open up a general possibility for the race. And while we cannot transform our prisons into ashrams overnight nor transform our jailers in one go, we can however introduce a ray of hope even among those who are considered as ‘the fallen ones’. Such experiments have been done in recent times among prison inmates by a few daring police officers and with rewarding results.
Anton Chekov in an interesting story, The Bet, reveals this truth in a remarkable way. Two men, a businessman and a lawyer, take a bet as to which is better, capital punishment or life imprisonment. The lawyer advocates for the latter since he is of the opinion that men can change. The businessman, on the other hand, believes that it is not possible for anyone to live for a long time in isolation without suffering much more than the short term intense suffering of the man who is sent to the gallows. The bet has it that the lawyer must prove his point by actually staying in isolation in a room provided by the businessman. He will be provided with whatever he needs except that he will have no contact with the outer world of humanity. If the lawyer completes the term successfully he will win the bet as well as a huge sum of money from the businessman. Years roll by, the lawyer spends most of his time reading and writing. The businessman in the meantime goes through the ups and downs of life. But as the last few weeks and days of the bet draw nearer, he grows increasingly restless. He has suffered great losses in his business and now dreads the prospect of losing money through the bet to the lawyer. As the days close upon the businessman, he draws a nasty plan to do away with the lawyer. A day before the bet comes to an end, he steps stealthily into the lawyer’s room while he is asleep with an intention to kill him. But before he can execute his plan, his eyes catch sight of a piece of paper whose contents startle the businessman. It says something to the effect that the lawyer has in all these years realised the vanity of life. He does not need any money now and has come to peace with himself. Having realised this he has already decided to deliberately lose the deal by walking away from the room five minutes before the fixed time. The businessman is touched and shaken and walks out of the house quietly, perhaps deeply moved.
Even in this section, we have to distinguish the act of homicide from the patriot facing the bullet, or the man of war battling for his country, and of course the judge doing his duty by sending the criminal to the gallows — all are moved by a very different impulse and therefore cannot be put in the same category. This difference is important since there exists a body of thinkers who make a fetish of non-violence as if all killing is evil. These men of little thinking would let the world be run over by forces of terror and darkness. Such weak souls and weaker minds often take refuge in popular religious beliefs or a sentimental idealism without caring to probe the deeper issues involved. Love and kindness and gentleness and peace and non-injury to living beings is no doubt divine but we must also see and recognize the divinity in strength and courage and hard sacrifice that lays down its body at the altar of a higher truth or to save humanity. That the sacrifice and courage is physical does not make a difference to its essential nature. Therefore again the Gita, which so beautifully describes non-violence as an important divine attribute, nonetheless exhorts Arjuna to fight and slay the champions of evil but with a difference — not with personal hatred, anger, jealousy or any of these lower motives that delude our minds and souls, but with a larger vision and truth that sees the divine in all beings and hates not what it slays. Therefore when we speak of killing we have to draw a distinction between the different intentions which inspire an act. In a sense it is true of all action. Law itself recognises this and draws a line between actus rea (the has to be ‘guilt’ action) and mens rea (the has to be ‘guilt’ intention). The essential thing is whether the motive behind it is a selfish gain (as in aggression resorted to for monetary or power gain purposes or even for religious domination or the forced domination of one group over the other) or there is a larger purpose involved (as in a war of self-defence, protective violence, etc). The first is a low and ghastly act, the other noble and courageous. To fight a just war as an inner offering and for the purpose of a greater truth is equally divine and cannot be done away with in the world in its present stage of evolution.
 Sri Aurobindo: The Upanishads, ‘Isha Upanishad’, Verse 3
 The Gita: Ch. 16, Verse 18-20.
 Sri Krishna in the Gita: Ch. 18, Verse 66
 A Hollywood film called Fallen has tried to illustrate this phenomenon, giving its own interpretation to it.
 The Mother: CWM, Vol.5, p. 377