Chapter 3. The Shroud of Death Pt 1

Death – The Sad Destroying Voice in Things

Death in the human mind at least is associated with a number of psychological reactions. These reactions or responses spring from different levels of our nature. The nervous parts react with fear and horror, the senses with shock and disbelief, the sentiments with dismay and despair, emotions respond with the pang and pain of separation, the mind with the sense of an irreparable loss and helplessness. Sometimes other reactions can also intervene such as anger, guilt and even shame. All these reactions, especially fear, have deep subconscious roots and are extremely hard to eliminate.

Even when the mind is convinced, even when the heartstrings have been strengthened, even when the sentiments are under control, the nervous parts still react with a will to flee or fight the horror. Fear is also related with one’s own death and is therefore more intimate.

However, the most common reaction experienced consciously by the mind is grief at the death of someone whom we love. There is a sense of tragedy associated with death in the human mind that is seldom seen in the animal world except among some higher mammals like the dog and the elephant. Even animals like the beaver and some birds have been observed as grieving after the loss of a mate or an offspring, but it is rare. The elephants on the other hand almost engage in a ritual-like behaviour following the death of one of the members of their group. They are also known to take revenge for the death of their young one and even exhibit behaviour contrary to the norm. Dogs are known to go through a process of grief following the death of their master or other canine companions.

The sense of tragedy however begins with the development of the rudiments of the sense-mind as in the higher mammals. It reaches its peak in a certain type of humanity living largely in the emotional and sensational mind. Then its association with tragedy begins to decline with the development of a more rational and philosophical mentality. Finally the tragedy and grief associated with death passes out completely from the mind of the tranquil sage who dwells in oneness, as the ‘Isha Upanishad’ puts it beautifully:

तत्र को मोहः कः शोक एकत्वमनुपश्यतः॥७॥
How shall he be deluded, whence shall he have grief who sees everywhere oneness?[1]

Death itself appears at a certain stage in the evolution of life-forms and will one day disappear with the emergence of a higher form. So too the sense of tragedy arises at a certain stage of the development of mind and will pass away with the development going beyond the mind to a spiritual and supramental [2] nature.


The Sting of Death

We respond differently to the struggle and joy of life, so also to the pain of death. These different responses derive themselves from the different levels of consciousness at which we stand in a particular life, at a particular time. This level of consciousness is like a station or a vantage point from which each one of us views life and through which we transact with the world. As is the station, so is our understanding and response. In general, the higher our standpoint, the wider also it is, the more we are able to see holistically, the more also our personal autonomy and inner control over the circumstances. The reactions to death also follow a hierarchy of responses based on where we stand in our inner being. All the same, a large mass of humanity goes through certain more or less predictable stages when confronted with the sting of death.

A pioneering work has been done in this field by Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. A woman with a mission, she has been fighting for understanding ‘the dying’ almost since the early years of her life despite many an obstacle, of which the most prominent one comes from our insensitive humanity and from those very physicians who deal with the phenomenon of death almost daily in their lives. The memory of strangely antagonistic reactions from her own hospital colleagues preoccupied her. She would see in the denial of doctors regarding the sensitivity towards the dying, a mirror of their own anxieties about death. The dying were often left alone and isolated, trends which the young intern was determined to fight and reverse. In 1969, she published her bestseller, On Death and Dying, a detailed critique of the then prevailing attitude of a conspiracy of silence over death in modern medical schools. It is thanks to her that we have today a closer look at what the dying undergo while facing the enigma of death. Some of these stages as noted by her are:

Shock, Disbelief and Denial: This is the sensory level of the experience. It is through the senses that we mostly come in contact with the world. The senses have no other form of knowledge than what they perceive at that moment. They know of no other reality. But also since the sense-mind lives in the moment, its reaction is seen when it directly faces the sense of a personal loss. The thinker anticipates the reality of death and prepares himself beforehand. But the average man driven by short-term objectives and experiences feels the pain suddenly only when the hour strikes him personally. To the senses, death inevitably means a permanent loss since it will be the end of all that the senses knew and felt. And since the mass of humanity lives largely still in the senses, shock and dismay are the most common and universal reactions. Sometimes the sense of shock may take the form of denial. Such patients may go into a false euphoria and even deny the symptoms to avoid bringing to awareness a painful prospect of confronting death.

Fear and Anger: The next level of consciousness closest to the sense-bound mind is the lower vital, and after receiving the data of loss from the senses it reacts with a characteristic in-built programming, exhibiting fear or anger or both. Fear of death may take various forms including a false generation of symptoms by the sense-mind. The physicians are well aware of cardiac neurosis wherein a patient who had an angina pain may often land up at the clinic with a pain of non-cardiac origin and is not easily reassured about the benign nature of his pain. Anger, on the other hand may lead to a self-destructive cycle of putting the blame on God or the physician or someone else for the impending doom. The anger is actually at one’s own helplessness, one’s own limitations and imperfection but as is the case with human nature, it gets transposed on to something outside us, thereby trying to keep hope as well as passing on the responsibility of control elsewhere.

Bargaining: This is the next rung of the vital wherein one begins to explore means of thwarting off the danger by appeasing those who are felt to be controlling the agency of death. Here once again it is the physicians and the gods whom one tries to bribe or buy if only they could push death a little farther from their sight. We all know very well how physicians, astrologers, and priests alike exploit this weakness of man. As to gods we cannot say for they can exploit any movement of man for his ultimate good. People of an earlier generation and perhaps even now often promise certain things to God in return for something they badly desire. Whether God feels the same way about these things or not is another matter, yet it sometimes does help because faith is indeed a great power that can work miracles.

Depression: With nothing happening despite efforts, hope begins to run out. The emotions so far still hoping for a miracle that may or may not happen, begin to show signs of fatigue. A sense of failure and inescapable loss begins to slowly dawn upon the sentimental and emotional parts that are attached to life and the living. The natural result is grief and depression. It is at this stage that one may take an irrational course of action with regard to ignoring oneself and/or developing a death wish so as to get rid of the impending doom as soon as possible. Its extreme form is suicide and even willingness for an assisted escape from life’s burden and pain. It is here that the proponents of euthanasia need to be cautioned. Patients in this phase may demand irrationally for euthanasia. To fulfill such a demand would mean playing as a tool in the hands of our irrational parts. And if the moment and state of consciousness under which one departs has any import, as we shall subsequently see, then that would mean a dark and burdensome exit for the struggling soul.

Acceptance: After emotions comes the stage of reason. Over a passage of time comes the rational acceptance of death. One accepts the inevitable and takes the exit as gracefully as one can. There have been some very beautiful examples of a graceful departure especially strengthened by positive belief systems. For at the end of it, we discover that reason and faith are not mutually exclusive powers but rather complimentary ones. Faith can help greatly in strengthening reason, giving it the power of conviction that a dry and cold analysis lacks. So too we often use reason to justify our basic belief or faith (or the absence of it, which is another form of belief). Reason is like a good lawyer that can argue any case depending on the premises and the standpoint. Of course rational acceptance is different from a spiritual acceptance of death. The first is based on the mere fact of the inevitability of death and therefore even in the acceptance has a touch of negativity in it. The latter is based on the positive affirmation of the immortality of our soul and a divine evolutionary purpose that death must inevitably fulfill.

While we all encounter several instances of people who have faced death with understanding and courage, there is a story which in a sense contains and reflects an archetype of such a situation. The story goes thus:

King Parikshit has been accursed to die after a week through snakebite. Confronted with the prospect of imminent death, he goes through the predictable stages. Meanwhile, he also plans ways and means to ward off the fatal stroke through an elaborate yajna (sacrifice) that would destroy all serpents. The king attempts to isolate himself in a safe chamber where snakes cannot enter. Nevertheless he is well advised by a sage to spend his time reflecting upon what is death and contemplate the joy of God through the stories of Lord Krishna. He goes ahead with the advice. Soon he finds his fear unreasonable since all have to one day pass through the portals of death. The real issue emerges before him now, the prospect of dying before realising his soul. That is the real misery and not the mere fact of physical disintegration. The week turns out for him the most fruitful of all the moments of his life. Confronted with death, he feels an urgent and pressing need to discover the immortal soul within him. And so he does, thereby turning the curse into a boon and converting a moment of crisis into one of great opportunity. The week passes and death finds its way through devious means into the protected chambers of the king. And though it takes away his body, its sharp edge is blunted since the king has been inwardly transfigured and is prepared to face death in a luminous way.

We have seen men who are anxious till the last moments of their life as to what may happen to them. But we all have also witnessed some who have faced death with rare serenity as if they were simply preparing themselves for a long transit through unknown lands. Especially so those who have lived for a higher and deeper purpose, those who have led a life useful and worthwhile for themselves and for others, those who could find some sense in the mystery of life — they are prototypes of those who are able to face the mystery of death calmly. On the contrary those who hold on to life as a private possession, always busy, always anxious for getting and having more and more, enter as if into a narrow and blind alley within, till death shakes them out from their little burrows, haunting them with horror and terror. As in other matters we see here too that the best of human beings is not necessarily the most qualified or literally educated, but one who has lived life a little less selfishly, a little more nobly. The outer qualification is what we in our ignorance value. The inner quality is what God and Nature in their Wisdom find more meritorious. After we have scraped through the various tests of life, we face the grand finale by the sternest of examiners, Death!

We see thus a whole hierarchy of reactions starting from the senses and climbing through the lower vital and sentimental parts of our nature right up to our rational parts if we allow ourselves time and reason.

“I told you this the other day about certain mystics: if they think the suffering inflicted upon them is going to help them cross the stages in a moment and give them a sort of stepping-stone to attain the Realisation, the goal they have put before them, union with the Divine, they no longer feel the suffering at all. Their body is as it were galvanised by the mental conception. This has happened very often, it is a very common experience among those who truly have enthusiasm. And after all, if one must for some reason or other leave one body and take a new one, is it not better to make of one’s death something magnificent, joyful, enthusiastic, than to make it a disgusting defeat? Those who cling on, who try by every possible means to delay the end even by a minute or two, who give you an example of frightful anguish, show that they are not conscious of their soul…. After all, it is perhaps a means, isn’t it? One can change this accident into a means; if one is conscious one can make a beautiful thing of it, a very beautiful thing, as of everything. And note, those who do not fear it, who are not anxious, who can die without any sordidness are those who never think about it, who are not haunted all the time by this ‘horror’ facing them which they must escape and which they try to push as far away from them as they can. These, when the occasion comes, can lift their head, smile and say, ‘Here I am.’

“It is they who have the will to make the best possible use of their life, it is they who say, ‘I shall remain here as long as it is necessary, to the last second, and I shall not lose one moment to realise my goal’; these, when the necessity comes, put up the best show. Why? It is very simple, because they live in their ideal, the truth of their ideal; because that is the real thing for them, the very reason of their being, and in all things they can see this ideal, this reason of existence, and never do they come down into the sordidness of material life.

So, the conclusion:

  • One must never wish for death.
  • One must never will to die.
  • One must never be afraid to die.
  • And in all circumstances one must will to exceed oneself.”[3]


Death – The Spirit’s Goad and Soul’s Opportunity

But is this the only possibility? What about the spiritual man? What about faith and attitudes and beliefs? Well they would arguably modify the stages or even totally surpass them. There are other ways of looking at the phenomenon, which comes with our higher development. The sense of evil and suffering as we have seen comes at a certain stage of human development and passes off at another stage. The purpose that this sense of tragedy serves is to help man seek for a life and Truth that is greater than the sense-bound formula. It is more of a goad and a spur to look beyond the present. The soul by its very nature is free from grief. It is made of the stuff of bliss and is forever aware of its eternity and immortality. It knows that life and existence do not cease with the cessation of the breath and the stopping of the heartbeat. Those who have come in touch with their soul even for a moment lose the sting of death. In fact we discover that the same circumstances are received and responded to very differently depending upon the state of our consciousness. This indeed is the key to counseling those who are reeling under the shadows of death whether their own or of others.

Working Through Grief, The Rational-Emotive Way: Modern science however denies for itself the existence of life beyond death or of the soul and therefore follows a slightly different approach. Most therapists trained in the western model essentially serve as facilitators to help one accept death as an unavoidable reality. The emphasis is on empathy from those around as well as from the physician, to allow the patient to speak out and discuss his fears, to help him release his feelings by the supporting presence of a therapist, to treat depression as and when it comes and finally, when he is through with all this and ready, then to appeal to his more rational parts to accept gracefully that which cannot be avoided. The whole process is termed working through the grief. Some therapists also remind the clients about their successful mastery of past failures, difficulties and tragedies.

As to the role of rituals, most social psychologists believe that one should go through these rituals as per one’s personal beliefs. This is partly because these rituals have evolved over centuries as a method of handling the tragedy of death and therefore serve a purpose for those who believe in it. Besides the factor of personal belief, the rituals allow one to abreact (pour out and express one’s feelings), since blocked emotions can become a nucleus for future pathologies and chronic depressions. The social gathering common to such occasions also increases the social support systems and one feels encouraged and strengthened by other members of the family and community. This may be especially necessary when the loss of the person also means loss of financial and emotional support. Finally, it also helps assuage the sense of guilt that may sometimes accompany deaths due to illness. Doing something for the dead by way of rituals seems to somehow compensate for not doing adequately what one could have done for the person while he was living.

Most persons given time and support, will come out of the sense of pain one way or the other. The greatest healers are of course Time and Nature supported by the God within. Some however, especially those with sudden, unexpected and untimely loss, or those who have not worked through the grief process and suppressed their emotions may enter into a state of depression called pathological grief. These will need special intervention techniques beyond our present purview.

Beyond Grief, the Spiritual Way: The crux of counseling lies in appealing to our logical and more refined parts like reason and higher emotions. But reason and higher emotions are not the only possibilities in us. There are deeper and luminous parts, higher than reason, stronger than death. A permanent remedy lies in turning the moment of crisis into an opportunity for growth. For to the inmost soul in man, everything can and does serve as an occasion for growth. There is no grief in the spiritual parts of our nature. The same event that depresses us in the sentiments and shocks even the rational parts is seen very differently by the soul. There is a letter that Sri Aurobindo wrote to Dilip Kumar Roy[4] in response to his query on the death of a famous and good-natured singer at a relatively young age. Why did such a fine flower fade away so soon, he seemed to have asked the Master. Here is what Sri Aurobindo wrote back to him:

“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 non-fulfilment 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]

The soul can use everything as raw material for its progress and this progress gives it a sense of true joy. What is loss to the emotions and the senses is seen by the soul as liberation from bondage and freedom from false and wrong attachments. After all, much of our pain and sorrow is not for the one who has departed but for ourselves. In fact as far as the other person is concerned he is on his journey forward, he will once again begin the adventure of consciousness and joy with a fresh body, experience other countries and climes and thereby grow. It is our egoistic attachments that seek to love that is the source of our misery when the person is lost. The same is true when we confront death. Rare is the soul who feels the pain of those left behind and therefore prays for a prolongation of life. For most the pain of confronting death is because we would lose all that we cherish, from which we derive so much egoistic satisfaction. It is this egoistic attachment to ourselves, this tendency to put ourselves at the centre of our private world and God’s world that death comes to shatter, a grim reminder that life and world and people were not created thinking of one’s small ego and its little satisfactions as the goal, but for a larger purpose. That discover, for having discovered that, one shall be free from much of the suffering and agony of death. This advice of old that the god of death gives to Nachiketas [6] is an eternal truth and holds as much water today.

Spiritual counselling will simply facilitate this process, the emergence of this truth from within, by leading the sufferer in his own way towards that and bringing it to his conscious awareness. This does not mean a lack of empathy but an empathy combined with a luminous understanding. A compassion that leans from above rather than struggles at the same level as the patient. The quintessence of this process is brought out beautifully by Sri Aurobindo’s master-pen:

“…the soul understands, accepts, sympathises, but is not overpowered or affected, so that even the mind and body learn also to accept without being overpowered or even affected except on their surface… This does not mean insensibility to the struggles and sufferings of others but it does mean a spiritual supremacy and freedom which enables one to understand perfectly, put the right values on things and heal from above rather than struggling from below. It does not inhibit the divine compassion and helpfulness, but it does inhibit the human and animal sorrow and suffering.”[7]

Naturally, the spiritual attitude and healing can only be practised if the therapist himself is living these truths. It is only when we have ourselves found the nearness of our souls that we can be truly convincing and help others discover its touch. It is not by preaching but through influence that the spirit acts best. It is well-known that the sense of suffering ceases in the presence of authentic spirituality. The spiritual man carries in himself an atmosphere of peace and joy and all who open to it naturally partake of that just as one breathes the air of the place one dwells in. But apart from this direct action spiritual healing can also help by encouraging the right attitudes towards death, help one look at the larger picture beyond the physical body’s frame and truly make even of death something heroically beautiful and meaningful.

In other words, spiritual counselling will focus on the true meaning of human life and even at the personal level assist in discovering the unique deeper sense of one’s struggles and pain and inner ways to overcome them. The present affliction becomes thence a symbol of a deeper malady and therefore also an occasion for a more radical, total and permanent cure.

The essential ingredients of spiritual counselling for death and grief have been the following:

To remind the person of the transient nature of everything including the body and of those who grieve.

To remind him of the immortality of the soul or spiritual self in us that never dies.

To remind that each soul is essentially alone in its unique journey and it is only God, the ever-present reality that is a permanent friend and associate. All other associations are by their nature transient.

To remind that grief does not help the departed but only makes him suffer and struggle even more and that love and prayers are a much better way to overcome loss.

To remind that our souls have the strength to bear every tragedy. We are never given more suffering than our innate capacity and strength to bear it.

To remind that good times follow bad times and vice versa and that there is none who has not faced tragedies or struggle or suffering in life.

Finally, to see beyond death to the after-life and rebirth, to turn one’s face to the future and to God who alone is true.

वायुरनिलममृतमथेदं भस्मान्तं शरीरम्।
ॐ क्रतो  स्मर कृतं स्मर क्रतो स्मर कृतं स्मर॥

The Breath of things is an immortal life, but of this body, ashes are the end. OM! O Will, remember, that which was done remember! O Will, remember, that which was done remember.[8]

True as it is, this traditional counsel reflects shades of defeatism. The line is very thin between an enlightened acceptance of life and its difficulties and a fatalistic helpless submission to a blind fate. And while most of us would need this reminder at some point or the other, a premature and excessive stress upon this truth that is albeit one-sided, may instill a passive resignation in the being, which is not always healthy. The right approach should be to integrate this truth with a higher one that reconciles the urge to live and fight death with the fact of our material mortality. It consists in the will to live in the right manner, a long and healthy life, to reject and fight illness and death as a falsehood that has come to be associated with our souls and whatever its temporary utility, does not befit our spiritual stature. Therefore, one must will to strive so as to realise the divine and to serve Him or Truth (for those who do not believe in the Divine as a being) till the very last breath of our life. One must fight death not because of attachment to the body or for fear of these things but so that death and disease may become unnecessary for life’s efflorescence upon earth. Each such individual effort would contribute in some way. And if we do it consciously we may also be able to learn many more secrets of our own inner life and progress till the very final moments. Of course this higher way is not easy and here again the line between an enlightened will to prolong life for a higher purpose or because one clings to life through blind and ignorant attachment, can be very thin. Yet this higher way is open for the few soldiers of light:

कुर्वन्नेवेह कर्माणि जिजीविषेच्छतँ समाः।
एवं त्वयि नान्यथेतोऽस्ति न कर्म लिप्यते नरे॥२॥

Doing verily works in this world one should wish to live a hundred years. Thus it is in thee and not otherwise than this; action cleaves not to a man.[9]


[1] Sri Aurobindo: The Upanishads, ‘Isha Upanishad’, Verse 7

[2] Sri Aurobindo has used this term to describe the level of consciousness beyond even the highest spiritual mind. This Truth-Consciousness contains the seed of everything and is therefore at once conterminous with oneness and multiplicity. The details of its action and effects are best read directly through their works.

[3] The Mother: CWM, Vol. 4, pp. 354-355

[4] The famous musician, singer, poet and writer of Bengal and also a disciple of Sri Aurobindo. He lived in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram for many years before settling down at Pune as a spiritual guru.

[5] Refer to the Appendix III: The Shroud of Death for a complete version of the letter and personal case studies of Young Deaths.

[6] Refer to ‘Ancient Texts’ for the story of Nachiketas

[7] Sri Aurobindo: The Synthesis of Yoga, p.399

[8] Sri Aurobindo: The Upanishads, ‘Isha Upanishad’, Verse 17.

[9] Sri Aurobindo: The Upanishads, ‘Isha Upanishad’, Verse 2.

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