Appendix I: What is Death?

 

Paul Brunton was a British author and journalist who came to India with the view of recording his independent findings about the acclaimed yogis. A man endowed with a critical intellect, he traveled far and wide in order to understand the mystic phenomenon. He was neither credulous nor an avowed disbeliever. He searched impartially and recorded truthfully. His book In Search of Secret India is a record of his findings where on the one hand he exposes charlatans, and on the other hand, he is struck with genuine awe and admiration with cases that are authentic, delving in the supernormal. The book mentioned is a fine document both because of his lucid style of writing as well as his impartial and non-sectarian approach to things mystical. Reproduced below is an extract of a strange and authentic phenomenon that defies traditional scientific logic.

 

Stopping the Heartbeat – Fact or Fiction

‘…After the celebrations of my visit are finally over, the old lady departs and we settle down to serious talk. I plunge anew into that matter of breathing which seems to play so important a part in Yoga, and which is wrapped in such secrecy. Brama regrets that he can show me no further exercises for the present, but he is willing to tell me a little more of his theories.

“Nature has measured our 21,600 breath-rhythms in every man, which he must use up daily and nightly from one sunrise till the next. Quick, noisy and tumultuous breathing exceeds this measure and therefore shortens one’s life. Slow, deep and quiet breathing economizes this allowance, and so lengthens life. Every breath which is saved goes to build up a great reserve, and out of this reserve a man can draw extra years for living. Yogis do not take so many breaths as other men; nor do they need to for — but, alas! How can I explain further without transgressing my oaths?”

This reserve of the Yogi tantalizes me. Is it possible that a knowledge which is hidden away with so much pains cannot have something of real worth in it? If that is really the case, then one can understand why these strange men cover up their tracks and conceal the treasure of their teachings in order to ward off the superficially curious, the mentally unready and perhaps the spiritually unworthy. Is it likely that I, too, may come within one of these latter classifications and eventually leave the country with little more than my trouble for reward?

But Brama is speaking again: “Have not our masters the keys to the powers of breath? They know how close is the connection between the blood and the breath; they understand how the mind, too, follows the path of the breath; and they have the secret of how it is possible to awaken awareness of the soul through workings of the breath. Shall I not say that breath is but the expression in this world of a subtler force, which is the real sustainer of the body? It is this force which hides in the vital organs, though it is unseeable. When it leaves the body the breathing stops in obedience and death is the result. But through the control of breath it is possible to get some control over this unseeable current. But though we bring our body under extreme control — even to the point of controlling the beats of the heart — do you think that our ancient sages had only the body and its powers in view when they first taught our system?”

Whatever I think about the ancient sages and their purpose, disappears in the intense curiosity which is suddenly aroused in my mind.

“You can control the working of your heart?” I exclaim in surprise.

“My self-acting organs, the heart, the stomach and the kidneys, have been brought to some degree of obedience,” he answers quietly, without a trace of boastfulness.

“How do you do that?”

“One gains the power by practicing certain combinations of posture, breathing and will-power exercises. Of course, they belong to the advanced degrees of Yoga. They are so difficult that few persons can ever do them. Through these practices I have conquered somewhat the muscles which work the heart; and through the heart muscles, I have been able to go on and conquer the other organs.”

“This is indeed extraordinary!”

“You think so? Place your hand upon my chest, just over the heart, and keep it there.” With that, Brama changes his position, takes up a curious posture, and closes his eyes.

I obey his command and then wait patiently to see what is going to happen. For some minutes, he remains as steady as a rock, and almost as motionless. Then the beating of his heart begins to diminish gradually. I am startled to feel it become slower and slower. A thrill of eerieness spreads over my nerves as I distinctly feel his heart completely stop its rhythmic functioning. The pause lasts for about seven anxious seconds.

I try to pretend that I am hallucinated, but my nervousness is such that I know the attempt is useless. As the organ returns to life from its seeming death, relief seizes me. The beats begin to quicken and normality is safely reached at length.

The Yogi does not emerge from his motionless self-absorption till some minutes later. He slowly opens his eyes and asks:

“Did you feel the heart stop?”

“Yes. Most distinctly.” I am certain that there was no hallucination about the feat. What other strange Yogi tricks can Brama play with his internal mechanism, I wonder?

As if in answer to my unspoken thought, Brama says: “It is nothing compared with what my master can achieve. Sever one of his arteries, and he is able to control the flow of blood; yes, even to stop it! I, too, have brought my blood under some measure of control, but I cannot do that.”

“Can you show me that control?”

He requests me to take his wrist and grip it where I can feel the flow of blood through his artery. I do so.

Within two or three minutes I become aware that the curious rhythm which beats under my thumb is lessening. Soon it comes to a definite halt. Brama has brought his pulse to a stop!

I anxiously await the resumption of circulation in his artery. A minute passes but nothing occurs. A second minute, during which I am acutely conscious of each second, likewise ticks itself away in my watch. The third minute is equally fruitless. Not until halfway through the fourth minute do I become conscious of a faint return to activity within the artery. The tension is relieved. Before long, the pulse beats at its normal rate.

“How strange!” I exclaim involuntarily.

“It is nothing.” He modestly replies.

“This seems to be a day of strange feats, so will you not show me another?”

Brama hesitates.

“Only one more,” he says at length, “and then you must be satisfied.”

He looks thoughtfully at the floor and then announces:

“I shall stop the breath!”

“But then you will surely die!” I exclaim nervously.

He laughs but ignores the remark.

“Now hold your hand flat under my nostrils.”

I obey him hesitantly. The warm caress of exhaled air touches and retouches the skin of my hand. Brama closes his eyes; his body becomes statuesque in its steadiness. He appears to fall into a kind of trance. I wait, continuing to hold the back of my hand immediately under his nose. He remains as still and as unresponsive as a graven idol. Very slowly, very evenly, the caress of his breath begins to diminish. Ultimately it completely ceases.

I watch his nostrils and lips; I examine his shoulders and chest; but in no single case can I discover any external evidence of respiration. I know that these tests are not final and wish to make a more exhaustive test, but how? My brain works rapidly.

There is no hand-mirror in the room but I find an excellent substitute in a small polished brass dish. I hold the dish under his nostrils for a while, and again in front of his lips. Its shining surface remains unmarred by any dullness or moisture.

It seems impossible to believe that in this quiet conventional house near a quiet conventional city, I have established contact with something significant, something that western science may one day be forced to recognize against its will. But the evidence is there, and it is indubitable. Yoga is really more than a worthless myth.

When Brama ultimately emerges from his trance-like condition, he seems a little tired.

“Are you satisfied?” he asks, with a fatigued smile.

“I am more than satisfied! But I am at a loss to understand in what way you can do it.”

“It is forbidden me to explain. The restraint of breath is a practice which is part of advanced Yoga.”

“But we have always been taught that man cannot live without breathing. Surely that is not a foolish idea?”

“It is not foolish; nevertheless it is not true. I can hold my breath for two hours, if I wish. Many times I have done that, but I am not yet dead, you see!” Brama smiles.

“I am puzzled. If you are not permitted to explain, perhaps you can throw a little light upon the theory behind your practices?”

“Very well. There is a lesson we can draw from watching certain animals, which is a favoured method of instruction with my master. An elephant breathes much more slowly than a monkey, yet it lives much longer. Some of the large serpents breathe far more slowly than a dog, yet they live far longer. Thus, creatures exist which show that slowness of breathing may possibly prolong age. If you can follow me so far, the next step will be easier for you to grasp. Now, in the Himalayas, there are bats which go into winter sleep. They hang suspended in the mountain caverns for weeks, yet they do not draw a single breath until they again awaken. The Himalayan bears, too, will sometimes sink into trance throughout the winter, their bodies apparently without life. In deep burrows of the Himalayas, when food cannot be found during the winter, there are hedgehogs which pass into sleep for some months, a sleep in which breathing is suspended. If these animals cease to breathe for a time, and yet live, why should not human beings be able to do the same?”

His statement of curious facts is interesting, but it is not so convincing as his demonstration. The common notion that breathing is an essential function in every condition of life is not to be thrown aside at a few minutes’ notice.

“We Westerners will always find it difficult to understand how life can continue in a body unless breathing continues also.”

“Life always continues,” he answers cryptically. “Death is but a habit of the body.”

“But surely you cannot mean that it may be possible to conquer death?” I enquire incredulously.

Brama looks at me in a strange manner.

“Why not?” There is a tense pause. His eyes search me, but they do it in a kindly way.

“Because there are possibilities in you, I shall tell you one of our old secrets. But I must first demand your agreement to one condition.”

“And that — ?”

“You shall not attempt to practise any breathing exercise as an experiment, except those which I may teach you later.”

“I agree.”

“Keep your word, then. Now you have hitherto believed that the complete stoppage of breathing brings death?”

“Yes.”

“Is it not reasonable to believe, also, that the complete holding of the breath within one’s body keeps life within us for so long as the breath is held, at least?”

“Well — ?”

“We claim no more than that. We say that an adept in breath control, who can completely retain his breath at will, thereby retains his life current. Do you grasp that?”

“I think so.”

“Imagine, now, an adept in Yoga who can keep the locked breath, not merely for a few minutes as a curiosity, but for weeks, for months and even for years. Since you admit that where there is breath there must be life, do you not see how the prospect of prolonged life opens up for man?”

I am dumb. How can I dismiss this assertion as preposterous? Yet how can I accept it? Does it not recall to memory the idle dreams of our European alchemists of medieval times, dreamers who sought an elixir of life, but who succumbed to the sickle of death one by one? But if Brama is not self-deceived, why should he seek to deceive me. He has not sought my company and he makes no effort to acquire disciples.’[1]

 


 

“Death is the question Nature puts continually to Life and her reminder to it that it has not yet found itself. If there were no siege of death, the creature would be bound forever in the form of an imperfect living. Pursued by death he awakens to the idea of perfect life and seeks out its means and its possibility.”

Sri Aurobindo

 

“…a fixed form was needed in order that the organised individual consciousness might have a stable support. And yet it is in the fixity of the form that made death inevitable. When the body has learned the art of constantly progressing towards an increasing perfection, we shall be well on the way to overcoming the inevitability of death.”

The Mother

 


 

The Why of Death

 

Death – The Paradox of Life

Is death inevitable? Do we have to die? If so, then why? This is a question that every sensitive mind raises one time or the other. The sting of death and its horror is not so much in the fact of our bodily disappearance but it lies in the abrupt end to all our hopes and dreams, ideals and sentiments, longings and attachments. It is as if a blind and giant unfeeling and unthinking force took a perverse joy in turning all happiness to dust. It is as if an irony of fate ultimately mocks at all human effort. Few see death as a release, except perhaps from long suffering. And here too the will to live is far stronger than the pain and struggle of life. Most feel helpless before its inflexible, harsh and iron law that afflicts one with grief and loss and pain. And yet most human beings at some point come to reconcile the inevitability of death with the jest of life. It is like a race where the final winner has already been declared even before the start and yet one is expected to run well right up to the end.

Perhaps it is because something or someone survives and even benefits from this race. Perhaps it is because thus alone can the spirit in us grow in strength and force and light. Perhaps it is in fact the soul itself that chooses this change of scene and clime through the dark and impregnable tunnel of death to experience new life and new adventures in other countries and forms and names.

Yet through all this, something has persisted in the aspiration and faith of man, that one lives and would live forever. A short story from the great Indian epic the Mahabharata brings home this truth in a paradoxical way:

The god of dharma, who in his frontal aspect is the god of death as well, confronts Yudhisthira, the crown prince in exile. He puts forth several questions before the prince who himself is none other than an embodiment of dharma itself. After being thoroughly satisfied with the wisdom of the prince there comes a last question — “Kimashcharyam?” (In other words) what is the most surprising thing in this world? Yudhisthira, the wise prince, replies pointing to a subtle paradox in human nature: “The most surprising thing in this world is that though we all see death everywhere and everyday, yet somehow we believe that ‘I’ am not going to die.”[2]

The story is often interpreted as pointing to the fatality of life but seen in another way it brings out a deeper truth that behind and despite all appearances there is a faith in man of his immortality. That we physically die is a phenomenal fact. That hid in us is a deeper consciousness of immortality is another subtler fact of our existence. And who knows if human life were not given to resolve this very paradox of the visible outer and the sensible inner truth. That there is an immortal consciousness within man is a fact testified by the spiritual scientist (something which we shall turn to later). But what about the material scientist? Here is an excerpt by someone working in this field:

“We can resolutely affirm that, in the actual terrestrial conditions of life, the immortality of the cell is an indubitable fact… And what characterises most a living organism is its potential immortality and not its death.”[3]

Indeed, as we do observe that unicellular organisms do not die. They live as if in perpetual immortality by transmitting their genetic material and thereby duplicating themselves through asexual reproduction. A complex and multi-cellular organism too dies only partially. Genetically it does not perish since it transmits the genetic material to other cells one way or the other. Besides, as we have seen, groups of cells perish and are reborn several times in a single lifespan of complex organisms. This lifespan also sometimes prolongs itself for a fairly long time as in certain species of plants and trees that given the appropriate conditions continue to throw fresh shoots up to hundreds of years and some even for millenniums. Trees like the Ginkoba biloba are known to exist from the Palaezoic era of the dinosaurs right up to our own times. Closer to home, the big Banyan tree in Bangalore has been living and growing for at least a few thousand years! Even higher in the scale we see certain animal species, like the salamander and the lizard, rejuvenating entire limbs and body-parts if they are lost accidentally. Above all, if we do not brush aside history as mere fantasy when it goes beyond our understanding, then we do find records of rare instances in ancient Indian and Tibetan literature of an indefinite prolongation of life. The ancient Hindu scriptures state that the average lifespan of human beings varies markedly in each age. Thus, the kings and rishis of the golden age or the age of Truth are supposed to have lived for a thousand years. The lifespan thereafter has gone on decreasing until it has touched around a hundred in this iron age of matter or Kaliyuga. Even in our own times there are tales of those like Swami Brahmananda on the shores of Narmada who had lived beyond a few centuries at least. The Ramayana speaks about the lifespan in different epochs and the historian records the life of certain kings of that era as exceeding over a thousand years. One such story is especially interesting since it gives a subtle clue to the process of prolonging life in the body. Whether a myth or a subtle hint of a deeper reality, the story goes thus:

‘Markandeya was an illustrious child of a pious couple. The couple had been childless for a very long time and received the child as a boon from the great god Shiva after engaging in an arduous tapasya (penance). But there is a flip side to the boon. It was prophesied that the child though of a great inner merit would however live only for twelve years. Thus the shadow of death continues to chase the boy till the hour of doom arrives. The god of death, meticulous in his account and unhesitating in his hard task, appears to take back the boy even as he is sitting before his favourite God Shiva in meditative silence. No sooner that the god of death commands the boy to follow him, Markandeya puts his arms around the Shivalinga and holds it tight. Then there appears from behind the shrine the great and luminous god, greater than death itself and asks death to release the boy from his clutches. Power bows down to a greater power and the god of death returns empty handed. Markandeya, in turn, is granted the boon of eternal life.’

Shiva in this story clearly represents the Eternal. It is only by clinging to the Eternal within us that we can arrive at immortality. To put it in another way, that which is given to the soul survives and death loses its hold upon it. While that which is given to mutable transient things perishes one day and death takes them away. To be free of our sense-bound vision that is ever lost in transient things is to be free of the fear of death or the hold that it has over us. To rise above the little plot of the drama of mortal life to a higher and deeper vision that sees and embraces God everywhere is to discover immortality.

Sri Aurobindo, the Seer-Poet, brings out the deeper subtler truth through the masterly stroke of poetic genius:

I Morcundeya whom the worlds release,
The Seer, but it is God alone that sees!
Soar up above the bonds that hold below
Man to his littleness, lost in the show
Perennial which the senses round him build;
I find them out and am no more beguiled.
But ere I rise, ere I become the vast
And luminous Infinite and from the past
And future utterly released forget
These beings who themselves their bonds create,
Once I will speak and what I see declare.
The rest is God. There’s silence everywhere.
[4]

 

Death – The Hooded Mask of Life

This question regarding the why of death has little sense for the physical scientist who does not give any more importance to the existence of life upon earth than in the formation of a lump of hard rock. For him this world and its events are a play of chance without any definitive aim or purpose. But what about the occult scientist and the spiritual realist? Here too we often find a dead end. Most philosophies simply accept death as part of nature and of life. It is a fact that has to be accepted, that’s all. Is that really all or is there more to it? For in the vast economy of nature death too must serve a deep purpose. And since life is essentially about evolution through struggle then death too must be somehow contributing if not actually hastening this evolutionary purpose. Perhaps it is a goad that pulls us out of our inertia and the sense-bound life of small joys and grief.

Perhaps it teases us to think beyond the mere present and thereby pulls us out of the limitations of our thoughts.

Perhaps it gives to us an insatiable urge to probe the beyond.

Perhaps reminding us of the transient nature of things, it pushes us to further and further heights of perfection.

Or perhaps, we may well discover, as the Upanishadic sages did, that death indeed is a spur towards our immortality!

Indeed, for we see how death of individual cells serves the larger purpose of the organism. Disintegration and renewal of substance are both complementary processes and both are necessary for life. It is necessary not only for collective life but for individual life itself. For what else is individual life but a smaller collectivity of cells just as the cell itself in turn is a conglomeration of still smaller units of life. And who knows we may well discover one day that even matter has life involved in it, is pregnant with life so to say. Seen thus we indeed discover that death is not the opposite of life but its complementary process. It is needed in the present state of the imperfection of life itself. In fact if cells did not get replaced through the agency of death, the organism as a whole would die much earlier of cancer than otherwise! Could it then be said by extending the logic of Nature that men die so that the larger unit of humanity and the entire earth-life may survive?

The very first thing that we need to be clear about is that all life is one. It is only in appearance that separateness exists for a purpose. Therefore to a deeper sight death does not exist at all. It is the form that changes. The force of life moves on from one instrument to another and would continue till it finds its purpose. The fine balance of the play of life and death has so far helped life establish itself through death. It appears as an opposition only to a fragmentary view of existence. We feel bad when we individually suffer the sting of death. And that’s natural since every organism is shot through and through with the instinct to live and grow. But seen impersonally, these individual deaths pave the way for the survival and growth of the larger totality of living beings.

The real question therefore is why does the instrument of nature called the body break down after a certain point of time? We have seen the mechanism of the breakdown but a mechanism is after all just a process. Why does nature introduce this seeming error deliberately? What justifies this colossal waste of human effort if one day it has to be buried in the grave or go up in flames leaving behind a handful of dust and smoke? Is that all there is to life as a poet moved in a moment of pessimism puts it thus:

Dust unto dust and under dust to lie
Sans wine, sans song, sans singer, sans end.[5]

What the sensitive poet touched by the tragedy of life seems to miss out is the Great Mother’s wisdom that is trying to reach out to a high post beyond our present maps. Dust mingles with dust to mutually enrich. The wine and the song end for a tastier wine and a lovelier song to follow. The singer returns to a mute ecstasy to learn of a sweeter song residing in the bosom of silence.

In other words, through the agency of death there goes on an enrichment of matter. The vibrations of a true consciousness imprinted in a cell are never lost. They awaken and continue to awaken similar vibrations in matter all over. The great mistake we make in all our understanding whether of God’s ways or of Nature is to see ourselves as separate from the world and others. It is this that leads to a constant sense of struggle and discord with its culmination in death. But all life is one just as all force is one. The electricity in the clouds that brings down a tree in a flash is no different from the electricity that lights up the home. So too all life is essentially one and returns back to the One. It is only our excessive preoccupation and identification with the outer form and appearance that makes us feel that life is gone. Gone yes, but where — into the common pool of All-life. The flowers and leaves that fall upon the ground after their term of life is over, end up enriching the soil thereby increasing its fertility. The bodies of men of greater merit crumble to dust but their spirit survives and grows mightier by the fall. Their very death attracts many more souls to fill the vacuum and therefore aids the evolutionary process. To put it paradoxically, the spirit of Christ survives victoriously and rises from the cross to redeem those very men who executed him. The place of his martyrdom becomes a pilgrimage in times to come, to inspire people to the way of life opened by him. So too a Socrates is done away with, seemingly unceremoniously with a cup of hemlock, but he grows even more powerful by his death ushering in a new era in Greece. Guru Teghbahadur gives himself to martyrdom but by this very act paves the way for the freedom of a nation from the shame and ignominy of an alien rule. The son of Arabia falls having been persecuted by his opponents but his sacrifice changes the face of a nation and brings sobriety and discipline among the very barbarians who victimised him. These and many such others are glorious examples but the same holds true at a lower level for the law is indeed the same, the only difference is that one may not see the evidence so visibly. All this hints at a deeper working that we do not quite understand. There is a greater mystery and all does not end with the death of the body and the mingling with dust.

The other and individual cause is that the soul, the true individual in us, has descended to experience the Infinite on a finite basis. The life-force by its very nature seeks change. Restless as it is in pursuit of an aim it still does not know or understand. There is in life this seeking and dissatisfaction with the present thereby urging it to move constantly to the new and the unknown. Normally and on a smaller scale, this happens through a variety of interests and different activities. Death is simply an extraordinary change, a leap across time, a radical jump towards the future. Though we have come to associate death with the sense of a tragedy, in reality, many a time a long life may well itself be unfortunate in our present state of imperfection and ignorance. Indeed the Mahabharata has this interesting tale of a curse bestowed upon the warrior chieftain Aswatthama. Following his heinous act of killing unguarded sleeping men and then trying to kill a baby in the womb by the use of a deadly missile, a strange curse is laid upon him by Sri Krishna, the hero of the war. It is not death for death would be instant, but the curse to live for 3,000 years wandering alone upon the earth carrying the stench of blood, the horrors of the war weighing heavily upon his soul. No doubt this gives him the chance of conscious purification, yet is the long life a painful one, when we have to carry the burden of our past and live alone in a world that has changed beyond our recognition. Human beings by and large, find it difficult to adjust psychologically to the rapid changes in the world around as they grow old. They fall back reminiscing about an old and foregone past as their support, sharing it with the friends of their generation. The older ones try to rebuild a familiar world that they have been habituated to, while the young who have not shared that environment find it increasingly difficult to relate with. There is therefore an increasing gap between oneself and the march of the world that ever moves forward one way or the other. There is an increasing sense of being out of tune with the people and places or with the spirit of the times. Death comes thence as a boon of sorts to give us the necessary relief and jump. Through death we become oblivious of the past in its outer details at least, and through rebirth we get a fresh lease of life, a leap through gaps of time to relive once again the dreams and ideals under newer and who knows maybe even better circumstances. Better or worse, one thing is certain — Death is a device that nature uses to replenish life. In this sense, it is more like a prolonged sleep that helps by making us forget the previous day and its acute troubles, thereby once again instilling within our hearts fresh hopes and strength to face life.

Therefore perhaps Nature in her deep wisdom and sense of balance has created this device of death. Once again returning to the mechanism of cells, there seems to be at work an inbuilt programming. It seems that a cell normally generates a variety of molecules, some of which send survival signals while others send death signals to the cell. So long as survival signals dominate, the cell stays alive. Dominance of death signals leads to the phenomenon of programmed cell death, termed Apoptosis, meaning to fall away. This phenomenon of apoptosis has been engaging the attention of scientists since the last quarter of a century. Various regulatory enzymes have been identified in the series of chain reactions leading to death. The final common pathway appears to be due to certain enzymes called Caspases that attack and destroy crucial cell structures such as the proteins of the nuclear lamina. What is however of great interest is that the life-giving oxygen itself becomes a vehicle of death, by creating as a by-product of reactions certain molecules, leading to oxidative damage to the very cells it nourishes. Even physically we may say that death is nothing but life turning upon itself!

“Death is imposed on the individual life both by the conditions of its own existence and by its relations to the All-Force which manifests itself in the universe. For the individual life is a particular play of energy specialised to constitute, maintain, energise and finally to dissolve when its utility is over, one of the myriad forms which all serve, each in its own place, time and scope, the whole play of the universe. The energy of life in the body has to support the attack of the energies external to it in the universe; it has to draw them in and feed upon them and is itself being constantly devoured by them. All Matter according to the Upanishad is food, and this is the formula of the material world that ‘the eater eating is himself eaten’. The life organised in the body is constantly exposed to the possibility of being broken up by the attack of the life external to it or, its devouring capacity being insufficient or not properly served or there being no right balance between the capacity of devouring and the capacity or necessity of providing food for the life outside, it is unable to protect itself and is devoured or is unable to renew itself and therefore wasted away or broken; it has to go through the process of death for a new construction or renewal.

“Not only so but, again in the language of the Upanishad, the life-force is the food of the body, and the body the food of the life-force; in other words, the life-energy in us both supplies the material by which the form is built up and constantly maintained and renewed and is at the same time constantly using up the substantial form of itself which it thus creates and keeps in existence. If the balance between these two operations is imperfect or is disturbed or if the ordered play of the different currents of life-force is thrown out of gear, then disease and decay intervene and commence the process of disintegration. And the very struggle for conscious mastery and even the growth of mind make the maintenance of the life more difficult. For there is an increasing demand of the life-energy on the form, a demand which is in excess of the original system of supply and disturbs the original balance of supply and demand and, before a new balance can be established, many disorders are introduced inimical to the harmony and to the length of maintenance of the life; in addition the attempt at mastery creates always a corresponding reaction in the environment which is full of forces that also desire fulfilment and are therefore intolerant of, revolt against and attack the existence which seeks to master them. There too a balance is disturbed, a more intense struggle is generated; however strong the mastering life, unless either it is unlimited or else succeeds in establishing a new harmony with its environment, it cannot always resist and triumph but must one day be overcome and disintegrated.

“But, apart from all these necessities, there is the one fundamental necessity of the nature and object of embodied life itself, which is to seek infinite experience on a finite basis, and since the form, the basis by its very organisation limits the possibility of experience, this can only be done by dissolving it and seeking new forms. For the soul, having once limited itself by concentrating on the moment and the field, is driven to seek its infinity again by the principle of succession, by adding moment to moment and thus storing up a Time-experience which it calls its past; in that Time it moves through successive fields, successive experiences or lives, successive accumulations of knowledge, capacity, enjoyment, and all this it holds in subconscious or superconscious memory as its fund of past acquisition in Time. To this process change of form is essential, and for the soul involved in individual body change of form means dissolution of the body in subjection to the law and compulsion of the All-life in the material universe, to its law of supply of the material of form and demand on the material, to its principle of constant intershock and the struggle of the embodied life to exist in a world of mutual devouring. And this is the law of Death.

“This then is the necessity and justification of Death, not as a denial of Life, but as a process of Life; death is necessary because eternal change of form is the sole immortality to which the finite living substance can aspire and eternal change of experience the sole infinity to which the finite mind involved in living body can attain. This change of form cannot be allowed to remain merely a constant renewal of the same form-type such as constitutes our bodily life between birth and death; for unless the form-type is changed and the experiencing mind is thrown into new forms in new circumstances of time, place and environment, the necessary variation of experience which the very nature of existence in Time and Space demands, cannot be effectuated. And it is only the process of Death by dissolution and by the devouring of life by Life, it is only the absence of freedom, the compulsion, the struggle, the pain, the subjection to something that appears to be Not-Self which makes this necessary and salutary change appear terrible and undesirable to our mortal mentality. It is the sense of being devoured, broken up, destroyed or forced away which is the sting of Death and which even the belief in personal survival of death cannot wholly abrogate.”[6]

The following practical conclusions follow: Death is necessary to maintain a balance between individual life and All-life, between the part and the whole. If any individual or group were allowed to survive indefinitely in our present state of imperfection then that would mean the thwarting of other modes and forms of life. We could compare the process with cancerous cells that begin to grow rapidly at the cost of other cells thereby felling the whole organism. Due to ignorance of any other life and environment our attempt to mastery creates a natural reaction from all that is around us leading to progressive disharmony and death. The environment in which we live and breathe is not a vacuum. Our very effort at mastering the environment creates a kind of reaction from other forms of life thereby threatening our balance of energy.

However strong we may be, we cannot be stronger than the whole. Sooner or later it is a decided battle. Ego and Ignorance with their attendant consequence of separateness lead to disharmony with all that is around, culminating finally in death. Death becomes inevitable at some point or the other since the balance of life is very precarious. It is a question of one part against other parts. Human beings are very complex. Each part in us has its own reasonable or unreasonable demand. It is like a crowd where each one is jostling against the other and yet they have to be somehow kept together with a fair distribution of the force and energy that drives the body and mind in its various pursuits. That energy is one, it is the life-force or prana which supplies and feeds the different parts for their various activities. Now if one part tries to overshadow others and the regulating and balancing mechanism is not smooth enough, then there is an inner war of sorts. The result is a progressive disharmony, imbalance, disease and finally death. Added to this are the rapid and unforeseen changes in our inner and outer milieu plus our own habits that disturb the simple natural rhythm of life. The price we pay for this one-dimensional progress is a progressive dislocation and imbalance at other levels leading to disease and death. The inability of all the different parts in our nature to progress at the same pace and function harmoniously leads to an inner dislocation with disease and death as attendant consequences.

Life consumes life and thereby fells the form to death, so say the Upanishads and there is obviously a profound truth in this. The body is the fuel that is burned by the life-force to generate itself. Thus if there is not a constant supplement of the form from outside, the life-energy will start eating the body to replenish itself. This is what happens when we fast. The life-force continues to supply the energy required for maintaining the life processes and for mental and physical work, but it does so at the expense of the body. Sooner or later the flesh would wear off unless ways and means are found to replenish it. The same happens to animals in hibernation who sometimes do not eat, drink or pass urine for months. They survive but come out weak, having lost a substantial amount of weight.

Death of the material and finite physical basis of life is thereby used by the secret soul and life in us for growth through a variety of experiences. Each of these experiences from one life to another enriches us and unveils the many (nearly infinite) possibilities concealed within our soul. It is only through the agency of death that we can undergo a radical change of form and place leading to the varied experiences that the life-force in us demands for nurturing the soul.

 

Death – The Passport to Immortality

Thus seen we discover that death is not just a senseless passage from one life to another or a meaningless change of form driven by some mechanical law of karma but something much more. It is a forward journey wherein the soul in us breaks free from the chrysalis of one life that it has woven around itself for a certain experience. The crust is left behind but the essence is carried forward. This goes on till the butterfly is formed out of the moth and no longer needs the limiting casing of ignorance for its growth. Then are we freed from the law of death and birth since its purpose is over — the rediscovery of the infinite soul in finite terms. Through the repeated experience of death and rebirth we are made fit and ready to discover the immortal soul within us. In other words, death is our passport to immortality. That is what these repeated cycles are meant for. The secret soul in us grows through the experiences of many lives till it becomes strong and free. Strong, in the sense that it is no more weak and indifferently consented to nature’s acts, a mere spectator of the complex drama of life but in fact an active participant, the decision-maker, anumanta. Free, in the sense that it is no more bound to the determinisms of nature but the author and artisan of its own fate, free of its circumstances of birth, free from life and death. Not that we cannot choose to be born again for that would be an imperfect and a conditional freedom, incompetence for a soul grown fully conscious of its divinity, but in that case, it is a conscious birth for a conscious work in Matter and upon earth. A soul that has arrived at freedom (traditionally called mukti or moksha) need not descend upon earth for the growing experiences. However, it need not cease from works upon earth either. A new possibility opens before it. The possibility of consciously helping other human beings to grow in soul terms and/or the new possibility of participating in the conscious transformation of matter and material life upon earth.

For indeed if freedom is the first term and need of the growing soul in us then unity is its second and even more important term. No soul is truly free from the clutches of death till there is even one soul struggling for freedom from the law of death. There is an essential freedom of the individual soul which at a point of time can become free from the cycle of birth and death. But this is a conditioned and partial freedom. For the soul though individual in its manifestation is always linked through the Universal Soul with all beings. Nor is there perfect peace and bliss of life as long as there is a single being striving for relief from pain and suffering.

Thus runs a significant verse in the Bhagavata[7]:

न कामयेऽहं  गतिमीश्वरात्  परामष्टर्द्धियुक्तामपुनर्भवं  वा ।
आर्तिं प्रपघेऽखिलदेहभाजामन्तःस्थितो येन भवन्त्यदुःखाः ॥

I desire not the supreme state with all its eight siddhis nor the cessation of rebirth; may it assume the sorrow of all creatures who suffer and enter into them so that they may be made free from grief.[8]

Savitri echoes a similar aspiration in Sri Aurobindo’s great epic:

Earth is the chosen place of mightiest souls;
Earth is the heroic spirit’s battlefield,
The forge where the Arch-mason shapes his works.
Thy servitudes on earth are greater, king,
Than all the glorious liberties of heaven.
…In me the spirit of immortal love
Stretches its arms out to embrace mankind.
Too far thy heavens for me from suffering men.
Imperfect is the joy not shared by all.
…A lonely freedom cannot satisfy
A heart that has grown one with every heart:
I am a deputy of the aspiring world,
My spirit’s liberty I ask for all.
[9]

Death serves as a grim reminder of the imperfection and impermanence of life. Instead of depressing us it should act as a spur to goad us towards a greater perfection since that is what death and indeed all apparent destruction secretly is. In our present state of ignorance and imperfection, death becomes necessary so that we may realise our deficiencies and do not get locked forever in a fixed and rigid and ignorant mould. It is a movement forward, the last stage of our growth in a single lifetime, the transit from greater to lesser ignorance. As Ignorance vanishes, death too shall vanish, having served its purpose.

To weep because a glorious sun has set
Which the next morn shall gild the east again;
To mourn that mighty strengths must yield to fate
Which by that force a double strength attain;
To shrink from pain without whose friendly strife
Joy could not be, to make a terror of death
Who smiling beckons us to farther life,
And is a bridge for the persistent breath;
Despair and anguish and the tragic grief
Of dry set eyes, or such disastrous tears.
As rend the heart, though meant for its relief,
And all man’s ghastly company of fears
Are born of folly that believes the span
Of life the limit of immortal man.
[10]

 

 


 

“This world was built by Death that he might live.
Wilt thou abolish death? Then life too will perish.
Thou canst not abolish death, but thou mayst transform it into a greater living.”

What is this Talk

What is this talk of slayer and of slain?
Swords are not sharp to slay nor floods assuage
This flaming soul. Mortality and pain
Are mere conventions of a mightier stage.
As when a hero by his doom pursued
Falls like a pillar of the world uptorn,
Shaking the hearts of men, and awe-imbued
Silent the audience sits of joy forlorn,
Meanwhile behind the stage the actor sighs
Deep-lunged relief, puts by what he has been
And talks with friends that waited, or from the flies
Watches the quiet of the closing scene,
Even so the unwounded spirits of slayer and slain
Beyond our vision passing live again.

…a great departing Soul can say this of death in vigorous phrase, ‘I have spat out the body.’

Sri Aurobindo

 


 

The Shroud of Death

 

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?[11]

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[12] 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.”[13]

 

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[14] 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.”[15]

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[16] 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.”[17]

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.[18]

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.[19]

 

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.”[20]

 

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.[21]

 

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.[22]

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.[23] 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.[24]

 

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.[25]

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.[26]

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.[27]

 

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.

 

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 Paramhamsa 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.
[28]

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.[29]

 

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.[30] 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.
[31]


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  1. Paul Brunton: In Search of Secret India.[]
  2. From the ‘Van Parva’ of the Mahabharata by Veda Vyasa.[]
  3. S. Metalnikov: Immortalité et Rajeunissement dans la Biologie Moderne[]
  4. Sri Aurobindo: ‘Morcundeya’, Collected Poems, p. 117[]
  5. Omar Khayyam: The Rubaiyyat as translated by Edgar Fitzgerald[]
  6. Sri Aurobindo: The Life Divine, pp. 192-94[]
  7. The Srimadabhagavat Purana is the story of Sri Krishna, the Divine becoming human, so as to show us the inner path leading to Him. Book 9-21 – 12[]
  8. ibid[]
  9. Sri Aurobindo: Savitri, pp. 686 and 649[]
  10. Sri Aurobindo: ‘To Weep because a Glorious Sun’, Collected Poems, p. 124[]
  11. Sri Aurobindo: The Upanishads, ‘Isha Upanishad’, Verse 7[]
  12. 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.[]
  13. The Mother: CWM, Vol. 4, pp. 354-355[]
  14. 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.[]
  15. Refer to the Appendix II: The Shroud of Death for a complete version of the letter and personal case studies of Young Deaths.[]
  16. Refer to ‘Ancient Texts’ for the story of Nachiketas[]
  17. Sri Aurobindo: The Synthesis of Yoga, p. 399[]
  18. Sri Aurobindo: The Upanishads, ‘Isha Upanishad’, Verse 17.[]
  19. Sri Aurobindo: The Upanishads, ‘Isha Upanishad’, Verse 2.[]
  20. Sri Aurobindo: Letters on Yoga, p. 462.[]
  21. Quoted by Sri Paramhamsa Yogananda[]
  22. Refer to Appendix II: The Shroud of Death for The Fear of Death and the Four Methods of Conquering It by the Mother.[]
  23. Refer to Appendix II: The Shroud of Death for an interesting interview with someone who plays music specifically for the dying.[]
  24. Refer to Appendix II: The Shroud of Death for an experience of a devotee with the Mother at the time of death.[]
  25. The Bhagvad Gita: Ch. 8, Verse 6[]
  26. The Bhagvad Gita: Ch. 8, Verse 7.[]
  27. The Bhagvad Gita: Ch. 8, Verse 10[]
  28. Sri Aurobindo: ‘Love and Death’, Collected Poems, pp. 253-254.[]
  29. Refer to Appendix II: The Shroud of Death for the Wisdom from the Tibetan Book of the Dead.[]
  30. 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.[]
  31. Sri Aurobindo: ‘The Pilgrim of the Night’, Collected Poems, p. 132.[]