Appendix II: The Shroud of Death

 

Young Deaths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“X had reached a stage of her development marked by a predominance of the sattwic nature, but not a strong vital (which works towards a successful or fortunate life) or the opening to a higher light — her mental upbringing and surroundings stood against that and she herself was not ready. The early death and much suffering may have been the result of past (prenatal) influences or they may have been chosen by her own psychic being as a passage towards a higher state for which she was not yet prepared but towards which she was moving. This and the nonfulfilment of her capacities could be a final tragedy if there were this life alone. As it is, she has passed towards the psychic sleep to prepare for her life to come.”[1]

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

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

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

 

Strange Attachment – A Prophetic Poem

The letter reproduced below was written by a sixteen-year-old girl to her father on his birthday. It proved prophetic as she died of an accident five years later, at 21 years of age. The letter raises several questions (or perhaps answers them) for instance a certain capacity to foresee the moment of death, the disparity in the reactions of the outer human mind and the inmost soul and how one part feels sorrow while the other feels happy as it rises to the beyond. Of course this may not be the immediate experience of everyone but it is most certainly the essential experience. The letter is reproduced in its original form.

 

STRANGE ATTACHMENT

A still body lay beneath me,
I felt a strange bond to it,
an attachment.
It belonged to me, and I longed for another
precious minute in it.
Yet, I could not get over the excitement
of being free.
I turned away and slowly began to rise.
I could not help but look back again,
Just one last glance.
The body lay there, it was still full of
scraches and blood.
Memories of the beautiful 21 years I had
spent it floated through my mind.
I rose and rose,
the painfull sound of sobs and people
weeping faded as I assended to my new home.
I felt alone yet happy, as I entered
a whole new world —

– by A.
(31.1.95)

 

To papa,

Happy belated birthday. Sorry I’m late in giving you your present. Sorry for such a deprecing topic (death) it’s the best I could do. Hope you like it. You’d better like it I worket dam hard.

‘Luv’
always
A.

 

Behind the Iron Curtain – Encounters with Death

(The following are personal case histories of patients of the author)

Death has many faces. It sometimes comes as a reliever of human miseries, as if to give rest to someone who has walked hard and long on the rugged roads of life. To the adventurer, it comes as a sudden surprise, cutting the thread of life to break the monotony of experience and allow a variation of theme. To others it appears as a destroyer who smashes things that were beautiful and grand even as it brings down things that are mean and ugly. It can act as a great leveller who balances everything — the wicked and the saintly, the good and the vile. Its most terrible mask is when it takes away the children.

 

Case One – Death of a Child

Arun was an 11½ years old child, asthmatic since the age of 1½. He required nebulisers and steroids off and on. The onslaught of asthma had however not daunted his spirits. He came from an extremely modest background but dreamed of big and grand things. Born in an Indian village, he was fascinated by the car used by the American President and even wanted to be in that seat. He also dreamt of flying aircrafts one day and visiting many foreign lands. These dreams were not compatible with his upbringing and his parents tried to stifle them. The family shifted from Jaipur (native place) to Bangalore (on transfer) in May 2000. The child made a strange remark that he would never go back to Jaipur again. This was surprising since the climate suited him well and his asthma had nearly disappeared. On 2 July 2000, the boy’s mother had a dream where she saw a broken toy. This disturbed her very much. A few days later while offering incense to their deity she noticed the smoke rising towards a photograph of the child placed nearby. This disturbed her again and she felt a deep unease. On 8 July, the boy complained of a mild irritation in the throat which was relieved with hot drinks. The irritation returned on the morning of 9 July. There was no fever or breathlessness but the father thought it prudent to give him a check-up in a nearby hospital. The boy was admitted. Oxygen, nebuliser, asthalin and steroids were given. The child became breathless suddenly at 7.30 a.m. and he died at 8.30 a.m. despite all efforts.

The day prior to his death the boy had remarked, “My mother is an American.” His puzzled mother told him that she was not an American. The boy insisted, “You will be.” Was it a serious statement or a child’s babble? Was it his past peeping through some window of his inner being left ajar, or was it a voice from his future calling him from unknown lands and distant climes? Was it a secret inner choice to shift scenes? We may never know. But looking back, one wonders. Questions like, do we choose to die, come up and demand an answer. Here was a child endowed with an expansive vital who thought and dreamt big, yet was born with a weak body. His father often remarked, “You can’t become a pilot with this problem of asthma!” His background and environment wherein he would have to struggle to realise his dreams too was not compatible. Was death an easy way out? Or was it simply that the body broke down under the pressure of a sudden surge of vital force (as happens on entry into adolescence)? In any case there was a disequilibrium. There were only two choices before the soul. One, to struggle and arrive at a higher equilibrium. The other, to succumb and change form to one more suited to the kind of experience it needed. He chose the latter.

This naturally does not console grieving parents and others who are left behind. One is deeply attached to the form. The soul seems far from us and its intimations too rare for our surface being to hear and understand. What helps those left behind is to get in touch with the soul. And then to invoke peace. Such a peace, if properly invoked, has the power to dissolve suffering. Parents caught up in the web of pain cannot do it themselves. The physician or someone else has to do it for them. A touch with the soul shows clearly that death is simply a passage the being chooses for its evolutionary journey. One realises that the one we loved is not lost but has only changed appearances. The final liberation from the pain of death is possible only for those who can enter into the sense of oneness that exists behind all separate forms. One sees then that what one loves in different forms and names is the ‘One’ who is never lost but ever exists under different guises and smiles at us unvaryingly through different eyes.

 

Case Two – Death, an Evolutionary Necessity

To wait for a near certain and slow death is a predicament worse than death itself. This too falls to the lot of some. Rajeev, a fourteen-year-old boy was brought for counselling by his parents since he felt depressed and contemplated suicide. The reason was a diagnosis of progressive muscular dystrophy, a disease with no known treatment and an invariable slow helpless death. The diagnosis had been made a few years before as he stood on the threshold of adolescence. Normally adolescence means more power, more capacity and a greater joy and thrill of life. But here was a paradox that stared at him. He had started losing his ability to run and walk and then even to stand. He could not stand even with support. Next to go was the power of his hands leading to a near inability to write or feed himself. His speech was also affected and though clear in his mind he could not express himself fully. Bound to his wheelchair, he gazed at other boys with envy, and then with a growing sense of helplessness against his fate. When he came for treatment the thought uppermost in his mind was, “I can’t do what others can do, so what is the point in living?” A sketchy dialogue followed in this way:

Counselor (C): I understand your state, but is it really true that you can’t do what others can do?

Rajeev (R): Yes.

C: For instance?

R: Run or walk or play or eat or anything for that matter.

C: What about reading?

R: Yes (a glimmer in his eyes as he was indeed reading a lot).

C: And listening, to music for instance?

R: Yes, I like it.

C: And thinking?

R: I do a lot of that.

C: And praying?

R: Yes, I do pray.

C: You pray for what?

R: To be cured; (after a pause) to be completely cured, soon, from my disease.

I do not know what his outer nature meant but the impact of these words (vis-à-vis his outer destiny) opened a door of understanding within me. I felt there was a longing for a new body, a covert sanction to death. It seemed as if this life of his was a brief interlude where something was to be learnt from this state of abject outer powerlessness. What was it?

C: Supposing I tell you that there is something you can do which most others of your age do not do and perhaps cannot do.

R: What is it? (He looked up changing his stooped posture).

C: Now see, you can pray and think and read. You can combine these three and make it very powerful.

(The very mention of power, even a faint possibility of it made him see hope).

C: You see, it is called meditation.

He nodded yes.

(To my surprise he knew about it and had read something on it. Indeed of late he was reading a lot of religious books).

C: Now, can you imagine beautiful things?

R: Yes.

C: Even things that do not exist but you would like them to exist. Can you imagine them?

R: Yes, I can.

C: Okay, if someone told you that you had just one more moment to live and you can ask one boon, what would you ask?

R: To be cured.

C: Yes, but there is only one more moment to live.

(He contemplated this till he got the full import of the question, then spontaneously answered).

R: God.

C: Why don’t you do it then? Try finding God. See your helplessness becomes a strength now. You are not distracted like other boys of your age. Your body is weak but your mind very powerful and concentrated. If there is a choice between body and mind then which is higher?

R: Mind.

C: And that you have in abundance. So don’t waste it in negative thoughts. You can use your mind in pursuits that others can’t follow.

He was visibly happy and cheerful. His parents were relieved. They had never thought of it in this way. I told them that death will come when it has to come. Why die before that by constantly thinking and fearing it? The session ended by giving a list of books for him to read and a set of mental exercises of imagination, will and thought. And of course the need of never giving up.

In this case too, there seemed to be an imbalance, a disequilibrium between mind and body where the life-force seemed to be turned towards feeding the mind. Whether this was the primary cause or secondary to his genetic defect, I cannot say. But in either case, death was clearly a mechanism used by Nature for renewing the experience of life with a new and perhaps better form more suited to the evolutionary needs of the soul. The ‘cure’ he looked for was perhaps too radical. Today scientists can change a few organs or a few genes. But Nature, the great artificer, has been changing the entire body so that the soul can have totally new possibilities of progress. Death opens a new door to life even though it closes the door on the present one.

 

Case Three – Facing Death with a Smile

Can we transcend the horror created by the thought of death? The answer to this came to me from an eight-year-old while undergoing medical training as an undergraduate. I was attracted by this charming girl. In fact this eight year old fascinated all of us by her enthusiasm. She was bubbling with joy. To meet her was to feel refreshed and rejuvenated. Somehow we never tried to probe into her illness. She never looked sick. So we were startled one day when she asked us, “Do you know my disease?” We shook our heads in the negative. She said, “I have blood cancer.” And then a big grin as if it was all a joke. We felt a stab of misery, of the utter helplessness of life, of the unpredictability of bodily existence. But the child’s face reflected only joy. This very unpredictability made the game of life even more thrilling to her; the helplessness of the body awakened an inner strength; the misery of outer existence led as if to a greater happiness and joy!

As physicians, we are conditioned and trained to see and record gross physical facts and so the subtle escapes our notice. For instance, if we are perceptive enough, we notice that following physical death, there is the withdrawal of a glow that gives life to the form. We are so accustomed to this light that we fail to notice it unless it withdraws after death or is exceptionally brilliant in some rare human beings. At a psychological level, one may observe the ‘given-up syndrome’, or more rightly the absence of ‘a will to live’ some time before the downslide begins. As if something in the being chooses to quit and it is this that translates itself physically as a terminal illness. We are so preoccupied with the process that we do not see the cause. But this leaves many questions unanswered. The simplest is — why do some people succumb while others fight it out? Fred Hoyle rightly observed that there is something more than mere germs and immunity, for people still live despite poor hygiene and malnutrition when they should have been dead. There are perhaps many curtains behind the outer ‘mechanism’ of death and the ‘inner will’ that determines it.

As seen in these cases, one of the reasons is a disparity between the life-force and the body’s capacity to sustain it. In the first case there was also a gross inner disequilibrium both within the body and with the environment. That could have impelled the ‘choice’ of taking up a new body. I have seen in at least two other cases of young deaths (both in their early forties, dying of malignancy) where the disequilibrium between the inner aspiration and the outer milieu was quite marked. It was evident to an inner sense that their birth had been mainly to gather a particular form of experience, or more rightly to exhaust certain intrinsic tendencies so that they could start the evolutionary curve on a better and higher note.

The need for a particular intense experience appears to be the case with Rajeev, as the intensity of outer powerlessness indicates. Of course these things cannot be known unless one is acquainted with the person closely. And even then they may escape one’s attention if one does not probe deep enough. Above all, there may still be many other inner causes. It is even doubtful if the conventional methods of science, limited as they are to the physical field of observation, can really throw light beyond the dark door.

 

The Fear of Death and the Four Methods of Conquering It

“Of all fears the most subtle and the most tenacious is the fear of death. It is deeply rooted in the subconscient and it is not easy to dislodge. It is obviously made up of several interwoven elements: the spirit of conservatism and the concern for self-preservation so as to ensure the continuity of consciousness, the recoil before the unknown, the uneasiness caused by the unexpected and the unforeseeable, and perhaps, behind all that, hidden in the depths of the cells, the instinct that death is not inevitable and that, if certain conditions are fulfilled, it can be conquered; although, as a matter of fact, fear in itself is one of the greatest obstacles to that conquest. For one cannot conquer what one fears, and one who fears death has already been conquered by it.

“How can one overcome this fear? Several methods can be used for this purpose. But first of all, a few fundamental notions are needed to help us in our endeavour. The first and most important point is to know that life is one and immortal. Only the forms are countless, fleeting and brittle. This knowledge must be securely and permanently established in the mind and one must identify one’s consciousness as far as possible with the eternal life that is independent of every form, but which manifests in all forms. This gives the indispensable psychological basis with which to confront the problem, for the problem remains. Even if the inner being is enlightened enough to be above all fear, the fear still remains hidden in the cells of the body, obscure, spontaneous, beyond the reach of reason, usually almost unconscious. It is in these obscure depths that one must find it out, seize hold of it and cast upon it the light of knowledge and certitude…

“The first method appeals to the reason. One can say that in the present state of the world, death is inevitable; a body that has taken birth will necessarily die one day or another, and in almost every case death comes when it must: one can neither hasten nor delay its hour… Reason teaches us that it is absurd to fear something that one cannot avoid. The only thing to do is to accept the idea of death and quietly do the best one can from day-to-day, from hour to hour, without worrying about what is going to happen. This process is very effective when it is used by intellectuals who are accustomed to act according to the laws of reason; but it would be less successful for emotional people who live in their feelings and let themselves be ruled by them. No doubt, these people should have recourse to the second method, the method of inner seeking. Beyond all the emotions, in the silent and tranquil depths of our being, there is a light shining constantly, the light of the psychic consciousness. Go in search of this light, concentrate on it; it is within you. With a persevering will you are sure to find it and as soon as you enter into it, you awake to the sense of immortality. You have always lived, you will always live; you become wholly independent of your body; your conscious existence does not depend on it; and this body is only one of the transient forms through which you have manifested. Death is no longer an extinction, it is only a transition. All fear instantly vanishes and you walk through life with the calm certitude of a free man.

“The third method is for those who have faith in a God, their God, and who have given themselves to him. They belong to him integrally; all the events of their lives are an expression of the divine will and they accept them not merely with calm submission but with gratitude, for they are convinced that whatever happens to them is always for their own good. They have a mystic trust in their God and in their personal relationship with him. They have made an absolute surrender of their will to his and feel his unvarying love and protection, wholly independent of the accidents of life and death. They have the constant experience of lying at the feet of their Beloved in an absolute self-surrender or of being cradled in his arms and enjoying a perfect security. There is no longer any room in their consciousness for fear, anxiety or torment; all that has been replaced by a calm and delightful bliss.

“But not everyone has the good fortune of being a mystic. Finally, there are those who are born warriors. They cannot accept life as it is and they feel pulsating within them their right to immortality, an integral and earthly immortality. They possess a kind of intuitive knowledge that death is nothing but a bad habit; they seem to be born with the resolution to conquer it. But this conquest entails a desperate combat against an army of fierce and subtle assailants, a combat that has to be fought constantly, almost at every minute. Only one who has an indomitable spirit should attempt it. The battle has many fronts; it is waged on several planes that intermingle and complement each other… There is yet another way to conquer the fear of death, but it is within the reach of so few that it is mentioned here only as a matter of information. It is to enter into the domain of death deliberately and consciously while one is still alive, and then to return from this region and re-enter the physical body, resuming the course of material existence with full knowledge. But for that one must be an initiate.”[2]

 

Music for the Departing Soul

Does music help the departing soul in any way? We now know for instance the role of music in health and illness. Several studies indicate that the type of music we hear can help us recover or set in motion within us the forces of disease and disruption. But what about the extreme disruption that death itself is? We have in Greek mythology the interesting tale of Orpheus whose soul-stirring music following his beloved’s death moved even the king of Underworld Hades to give back to Orpheus his beloved. Was it just another myth or like all myths contains in its core the seed of a profound truth hidden from our earthbound sight?

There is also the tradition of chanting hymns and psalms and mantras in the East and West alike at the deathbed. Maria Parkes[3] plays the harp for those who are near the gates of death. Involved intimately with hospice care for the terminally ill, she calls her role the end-of-life midwifery. Just as the traditional midwife delivers the body from the physical womb, Maria through her music assists and ensures the smooth delivery of the soul from the dark womb of matter onto its passage through the other worlds after death. Reproduced below is an extract of her interview in which she shares some of her experiences with us.

Q: Can we have a word about you as an introduction for our readers?

Well, I was born and brought up in the USA but have settled down in Spain. I have been coming to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram since 1971. My profession, music thanatology, is a field whose practitioners provide musical comfort, using harp, voice, and a special repertoire of music, at the bedside of patients near the end of life. In the music vigil itself, however, I do not let my personal faith interfere. As all of my fellow music thanatologists, we begin by becoming silent within as we observe the patient and try and feel what type of music might aid and give comfort. The music thanatologist needs to connect to their inner self and attune to the person’s inner need at the moment. And then we begin. You see, it is important to understand that it is not a performance. If one takes it as a performance then it does not work. During the silence between musical offerings, applause or comment is discouraged. The patient and others present are simply asked beforehand to receive the music. The patient is of primary importance, but the family is also taken into account. It is recognized that the family members are experiencing grief, loss, change and a desire to support the patient. And they are encouraged to be present.

Q: How long have you been involved with this process of assisting the departure through music?

For nearly 10 years now, since 1994. I underwent more than two years of training at the only music thanatology school in the world, located in Missoula, Montana, USA. Since antiquity, music and medicine have a long tradition as allies in healing. Music Thanatology is a contemporary field rooted in that same tradition. It has developed over the last three decades through the vision and dedication of Therese Schroeder-Sheker. It is a rigorous program consisting of studies in medicine, harp, voice, medieval history, religion, and psychology.

Q: How did you get to know about it? Was it inborn, waiting to be discovered or did your interest awaken after some incident or chance meeting with someone?

Actually it all happened when I lost a friend in an accident. His death in the hospital lacked any warmth, beauty, or intimacy. I thought that there must be some better way of dying. And just about that time I learnt about this course. There were quite a few applicants and I happened to be among the lucky ones.

My teacher had an even more interesting story. While involved in the care of an exceptionally rough and difficult patient, she as if under an inner inspiration held the dying man and sang gently to him for nearly an hour. The person slowly became quiet and peacefully died in her arms. That turned her thinking about the role of music in relationship to the dying.

Q: Can you please enlighten us a little on this process of assisting the departure through music?

You see, it has a very interesting history. My teacher, Therese Schroeder-Sheker, told me that there existed a whole body of literature on this subject in the Latin world. Especially what we know now as the Gregorian chants were originally a collection of some of the finest hymns from the Western world as well as the East. These chants are in Latin and several were used in medieval times to soothe the soul in its passage through the other worlds.

In actual practice during the music vigil, we use a harp (usually a thirty one stringed instrument almost five feet high) and voice. There are preferably two of us who play from both sides of the patient, enveloping, or what could be described as bathing, the dying person with music, creating an atmosphere of serenity and beauty. I believe scientists have discovered something to the effect that one hears not only through the ears but also through the skin and the whole body. Hearing is, I believe, one of the last faculties to go which is why music plays a great role in the dying process. Whether conscious or comatose, hard of hearing or not, it can address physical and spiritual pain, restlessness, labored breathing, anxiety, sleeplessness, and emotional distress. Even slow degenerative diseases such as ALS, multiple sclerosis, end-stage dementia and Alzheimer’s are aided by music vigils. It also offers a transformative and helpful presence during the difficult experience of removing a patient from life support systems.

The music is termed ‘prescriptive’, that is, it is tailored to that particular patient’s dying process. As to the type and technique, we prefer many chants without a fixed meter. And then it is a question of attunement. Depending upon where the person is in his or her process of dying, some respond better to short and simple melodies and others might need a musical whisper rather than a melody. I have seen a well-known concert pianist who refused with a gesture whenever someone tried to play taped classical music that she knew well. Perhaps she felt tied down by that and became immersed in memories. Whereas her ‘being’ really wanted to be free. But she responded very well to our simple music as it allowed her to go forward in her journey instead of becoming caught in the past.

Q: And how did you develop it? Is there some way to discover and develop this kind of music or does one rely on inspiration? More specifically would just any good, soulful music help or is there some specific type of music that is useful in this process?

It is both training and inspiration. There cannot be a fixed rule in this process. For each one it is different as I said. My teacher however used to be wary of recorded music. She never approved of it. It is like comparing a real painting to an image or photo of it. Something extra always comes when it is being played live. There is a greater connectivity. But then that may not be possible always. So one does with the next best alternative. We describe our music as being contemplative, drawing primarily on traditions of sacred song (Gregorian chants, hymns, prayer) and lullabies.

One of my personal favorites is a chant called Ave Maris Stella, written in France in 1100 AD. Although the monk wrote it well over a thousand years ago, one can still feel his great and genuine love for the Divine Mother through his words and the rhythm of his melody. For me, when I play and sing it, it is like praying to the Mother, so I can relate and connect to it much more personally.

Q: Do you have any views on the ancient practice of chanting incantations, hymns, psalms and mantras in the East and the West during the rituals following death?

I am sure the human voice and the sacred chants must have an effect. But then it should not be a performance and instead come from within. Although I like some mantras, I would not want some priest chant them mechanically for me when I need them.

Q: Could you please share with us some interesting incidents during the course of your sessions?

Oh! Plenty, I could narrate plenty of them. There was one vigil when I was playing for a lady who had been in a coma for quite some time. As I stopped for a while (we believe in alternating with sound and silence), she opened her eyes and asked why we had stopped playing the music! After a moment of shock on our part, we continued.

Another woman, the wife of a friend, had Alzheimer’s and other problems and needed twenty-four hour care. She had not recognized anyone for over a year. Although she was not technically in the process of dying, I said that I would be happy to play for her. Her husband and daughter were present for the vigil. No sooner had I begun when she sat up, smiled, acknowledged her family and eagerly watched my hands on the harp with a huge smile on her face. She said little, but her family was able to connect with her again for over an hour before she again retreated into her own private world. I am happy to say that we repeated this vigil often, giving her and her family some final moments of communication.

The one that really struck me as exceptional was the case of the young boy who was on life support systems after being in a car accident. He was clinically dead with no brain function and the decision to remove him from life support systems had been made. The music continued to be played for his family and for the seemingly dead boy. And then after a moment, two tear drops rolled down his cheek as if the dead were listening.

On another occasion, while playing for a funeral, I distinctly heard another harpist and a voice singing. I looked around, totally surprised, expecting to see someone but there was no one playing or singing any music other than myself. Yet my experience was so very real it was like hearing me strike this tabletop.

These experiences are not only mine. All my colleagues have seen and heard so many small miracles that the music brings to the deathbed.

Q: What do you have to say to our euthanasia enthusiasts? Is it wise to cut prematurely the chord of life just because the person is seemingly irretrievably unconscious? From your account it seems that the unconscious is not really unconscious except to the outward eye. He is possibly somewhere awake in his depths waiting for some Maria to play an uplifting music to his soul!

Absolutely, I am not at all in favour of euthanasia. But then nowadays there are so many ways of prolonging life artificially, so I do not know, may be sometime people want to leave. But in general, I am against it.

Q: Have you noticed any difference in the believers and the non-believers in terms of their departure or at the time of their death?

You see, I have seen interesting things. Many persons who profess a belief do it ritualistically. I have seen regular church goers or even those professing faith in some Master show anxiety and fear of the unknown, asking ‘why me?’ Whereas I have seen some of the other types accept death so gracefully. A colleague of mine had the occasion to play for the head of a motorcycle gang who had lived, to say the least, a rather wild life. He gave up his body and welcomed death with serenity and peace. So there is something in our depths which is of much more importance than our superficial beliefs. That’s all I can say.

Q: To sum it up, what would you recommend by way of assisting departure in the immediate period around death?

It is best to have a quiet atmosphere with family and friends around you. Of course I think that music helps enormously. But it is not for anyone. What I would suggest is that when one knows that they are terminally ill, to contemplate what you would like as a support for your last moments or days on earth. Do you want a special mantra, chant, or poem read? Is there some piece of music that you feel would support your journey out of this world? Is there someone you want present? This would be wonderful not only for the patient, but also it gives the loved ones remaining something to offer the dying. Everyone’s birth is unique and so will be their death.

 

An Extraordinary Death

I returned to Pondicherry in the evening. Next morning I went to the daily balcony darshan. The Mother caught sight of me and smiled and kept looking at me for a long time. After this I went straight upstairs to see her. It was a lovely meeting, with the Mother looking deep and long into my eyes. I asked her if she would meet me for five or ten minutes alone in the course of the morning. She at once consented.

I had my interview at about 11:30. She was sitting in her chair with eyes half shut and I went and sat at her feet, placing my hands upon them. I asked her whether she had received the letter I had written after my Mamma’s[25] death, giving an account of what had happened and clearing up what I had considered as not quite understood. The Mother said:

“Yes, I got your letter, but it did not teach me anything I did not know. I had quite understood your earlier telegram and known exactly what had been happening. At the end of your letter you have asked me to tell you what took place on my side. I’ll tell you.

“There was one thing of very special interest. When you first wrote to me about your Mamma, I put the decisive force which would make the soul’s wish prevail. I found that your Mamma’s condition began to improve. This showed that the soul had not wished to go. When I looked into the whole matter I found that she might linger on for a year or two, a long-drawn-out slow illness and not at all a pleasant period.

“Several days later, on getting news from you, I again did some working. Then I went to my room and while I was walking up and down a very extraordinary event happened. Suddenly the Supreme Will came down. You see, this Will does not always intervene. One puts forth consciousness but the Will does not act. It is rarely that the Will descends like this. It is a direct action from the Highest. Well, it came down with a view to take your Mamma’s soul. And your Mamma’s soul, instead of making any kind of reaction, most readily consented. Most willingly it offered itself to the Supreme Will. I would say that it was a very pretty gesture. Connected with the soul’s movement, there was a human movement, a movement of love which said that she had troubled and bothered people enough with the illness and now wished not to trouble and bother them any more.

“Then the end came, and the soul at once, at a single sweep, jumped into my heart and passed into the Soul-World for rest. There was no passage at all through the intermediate worlds, no difficulty or halting anywhere. This was because the soul had so spontaneously and gladly responded to the Supreme Will. The Supreme Will took it straight to its destination.”

I said: “Mamma was remembering you all the time. There was no name on her lips except yours. Whenever asked what she was thinking of, she said she was thinking of Mother darling. Even to the doctors she kept speaking of you, and your picture and Sri Aurobindo’s were mostly on her chest.”

“It must be because of this that her soul so readily gave itself to the Supreme.”

“What about the open-eyed vision my sister Minnie saw?”

The Mother smiled, nodded and said: “One may say that it was in the right line. I remember reading of it in your letter. She saw my body transparent, didn’t she?”

“Yes. I’m very glad at the beautiful thing that happened to Mamma at the end. What a fine end!”[4]

 

Wisdom from the Tibetan Book of the Dead

(The following are extracts taken from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, followed by the author’s comments)

“The state of mind at the time of death is regarded as extremely important, because this plays a vital part in the situation one is reborn into. This is one reason why suicide is regarded in Buddhism as very unfortunate, because the state of mind of the person who commits suicide is usually depressed and negative and is likely to throw him into a lower rebirth. Also, it doesn’t end the suffering, it just postpones it to another life.”

This is very similar to what is proscribed in other faiths. We shall see similar views of Hinduism on the above subject regarding the state of mind and the problem of suicide.

“When considering the spiritual care of the dying, it can be helpful to divide people into several different categories, because the category they are in will determine the most useful approach to use. These categories are: 1) whether the person is conscious or unconscious, and 2) whether they have a religious belief or not. In terms of the first category, if the person is conscious they can do the practices themselves or someone can assist them, but if they are unconscious someone has to do the practices for them. For the second category, if a person has specific religious beliefs, these can be utilised to help them. If they do not, they still need to be encouraged to have positive/virtuous thoughts at the time of death, such as reminding them of positive things they have done during their life.”

An extremely practical and helpful suggestion. Many of us as healthcare practitioners begin to contradict the person’s faith or try to impose our own. This only increases the conflict and anxiety level of the recipient. Being at the receiving end, he may nod a yes but this has little meaning since it is not supported by anything deeper. Such a faith has little power of effectiveness. Faith is a spontaneous thing, a thing of the soul and not of reason and argument. It will do well for the physician to respect the client’s faith and even use it to maximise the gains of counseling. Even if there is a need to widen the faith (and not replace it as we commonly try to do) it should be done gently, keeping in mind the unique past constitution of the patient and his aspirations for the future. Faith, like love, cannot be forced. It has to awaken from within or be inspired from without by a secret interchange between the patient’s soul and the physician’s.

“For a spiritual practitioner, it is helpful to encourage them to have thoughts such as love, compassion, remembering their spiritual teacher. It is beneficial also to have an image in the room of Jesus, Mary, Buddha, or some other spiritual figure that may have meaning for the dying person. It may be helpful for those who are with the dying person to say some prayers, recite mantras, etc. this could be silent or aloud, whatever seems most appropriate.”

Speaking of faith, the Mother mentions that for a whole year in Tlemcen[5] in the early 1900’s, she was busy creating a passage through the vital worlds for those who die so that anyone even with an iota of true faith can go through this painful passage in a state of protection and Grace. There are countless instances testified several times of her going into the inner worlds to help the departed. In fact it is part of the inner work taken by all genuine spiritual Masters to provide help not only as a guidance in this life but also a concrete protection in the lives hereafter including the interregnum passage of death. Here one must add that it is not only the faith in a particular outer form or figure but the inner faith and relation we put up, in other words, what the person means to us is of much more importance than the professed outer mechanical belief.

“However, one needs to be very sensitive to the needs of the dying person. The most important thing is to keep the mind of the person happy and calm. Nothing should be done (including certain spiritual practices) if this causes the person to be annoyed or irritated. There is a common conception that it is good to read The Tibetan Book of the Dead to the dying person, but if he/she is not familiar with the particular deities and practices contained in it, then this is not likely to prove very beneficial.

“Because the death process is so important, it is best not to disturb the dying person with noise or shows of emotion. Expressing attachment and clinging to the dying person can disturb the mind and therefore the death process, so it is more helpful to mentally let the person go, to encourage them to move on to the next life without fear. It is important not to deny death or to push it away, just to be with the dying person as fully and openly as possible, trying to have an open and deep sharing of the person’s fear, pain, joy, love, etc.”

We have here a further elaboration of what is written earlier. To ensure that the departure is in the best possible conditions is the task of those who are involved in the care of the dying. The Mother has especially emphasised the need to stay calm and direct a prayer and thoughts of love in favour of and on behalf of the person. Such prayers and thoughts act like a shield of protection for the departed soul. And also to avoid grief and all its other forms that only increase the heaviness of the departed, make the journey painful and pull the soul earthward. It is for this reason also (besides the other inherent dangers involved) that planchettes and mediumistic séances are not advisable. It is seldom that the person summoned comes from the land of dead. Usually some other being or force of the vital world masquerades as the invited guest to have some fun at our expense (sometimes at quite an expense). These entities can read our feelings and wish and often communicate things favorable to our desires! A good number of such automatic phenomena are simply the product and creation of our own subconscious wishes and not an authentic brush with the other world.

“As mentioned previously, when a person is dying, their mind becomes much more subtle, and they are more open to receiving mental messages from those people close to them. So silent communication and prayer can be very helpful. It is not necessary to talk much. The dying person can be encouraged to let go into the light, into God’s love, etc. (again, this can be verbal or mental).

“It can be very helpful to encourage the dying person to use breathing meditation — to let go of the thoughts and concentrate on the movement of the breath. This can be helpful for developing calmness, for pain control, for acceptance, for removing fear. It can help the dying person to get in touch with their inner stillness and peace and come to terms with their death. This breathing technique can be especially useful when combined with a mantra, prayer, or affirmation (i.e. half on the in-breath, half on the out-breath).

“One of the Tibetan lamas, Sogyal Rinpoche, says that for up to about twenty-one days after a person dies they are more connected to the previous life than to the next one. So for this period in particular the loved ones can be encouraged to continue their (silent) communication with the deceased person — to say their good-byes, finish any unfinished business, reassure the dead person, encourage them to let go of their old life and to move on to the next one. It can be reassuring even just to talk to the dead person and at some level to know that they are probably receiving your message. The mind of the deceased person at this stage can still be subtle and receptive.

“For the more adept practitioners there is also the method of transference of consciousness at the time of death (Tibetan: po-wa). With training, at the time of death, the practitioner can project his mind upwards from his heart centre through his crown directly to one of the Buddha pure realms, or at least to a higher rebirth. Someone who has perfected this training can also assist others at the time of death to project their mind to a good rebirth.”

It is said in the ancient scriptures that there are nine gates through which one can depart but the one most favoured and that which leads straight to some kind of a higher state is the departure through the crown. The yogis are known to draw the four lower breaths and merge it with the fifth one which is higher, and through a process of concentration release the whole thing through the crown. The Mother describes such a yogic departure while talking of X, (a well-known yogi in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram) as to how he could pump out each bit of his consciousness and project it straight into union with the Divine Mother, a rare feat of heroism and yogic concentration!

“It is believed that if the consciousness leaves the body of the dead person through the crown or from a higher part of the body, it is likely to result in a good type of rebirth. Conversely, if the consciousness leaves from a lower part of the body this is likely to result in rebirth in one of the lower realms. For this reason, when a person dies it is believed that the first part of the body that should be touched is the crown. The crown is located about eight finger widths (of the person being measured) back from the (original) hairline. To rub or tap this area or gently pull the crown hair after a person dies is regarded as very beneficial and may well help the person to obtain a higher rebirth. There are special blessed pills (po-wa pills) that can be placed on the crown after death which also facilitates this process.

“Once the consciousness has left the body (which, as mentioned earlier, can take up to three days) it doesn’t matter how the body is disposed of or handled (including the carrying out of a post-mortem examination) because in effect it has just become an empty shell. However, if the body is disposed off before the consciousness has left, this will obviously be very disturbing for the person who is going through the final stages of psychological dissolution.”

Here also the emphasis is on ‘once the consciousness leaves the body’. That is the crucial event. In other words, life and death are not like a switch on and switch off phenomenon. That may be our sensory view but it is not the truth of things. There is an interval when the person is neither fully dead nor fully living. It is here that there is a role of both outer and inner human interventions. Beyond this it lies in the hands of spiritual and occult adepts who have mastered these domains.

“This raises the question of whether or not it is advisable to donate one’s organs after dying. The usual answer given by the Tibetan lamas to this question is that if the wish to donate one’s organs is done with the motivation of compassion, then any disturbance to the death process that this may cause is far outweighed by the positive karma that one is creating by this act of giving. It is another way in which one can die with a positive and compassionate mind.

“A Tibetan tradition which is becoming more popular in the West is to get part of the remains of the deceased (e.g. ashes, hair, nails) blessed and then put into statues, tsa-tsas (Buddha images made of clay or plaster) or stupas (reliquary monuments representing the Buddha’s body, speech and mind). These stupas for instance could be kept in the person’s home, larger ones could be erected in a memorial garden. Making offerings to these or circumambulating them and so on is regarded as highly meritorious, both for the person who has died and for the loved ones.”

The significance of relics of highly evolved persons is of course well-known. The body parts, or even the objects used and handled by such great yogis and mahatmas hold the vibrations and imprints of that Consciousness and can, if received with faith and receptivity impart it to those who worship them. Whether such a thing will be applicable to any other less meritorious or less evolved person is however suspect. In certain instances it may even be harmful for both by attracting to the earth forces of a lower order if that is what the person represented in his lifetime. The sword of a tyrant and oppressive king and the sword of a hero raised to protect the weak and oppressed obviously carry very different imprints. While our ordinary humanity cannot make out the difference, a yogi by feeling the sword will know its inner history and the type of psychological forces that used it.

 


 

The Kingdom Within

There is a kingdom of the spirit’s ease.
It is not in this helpless swirl of thought,
Foam from the world-sea or spray-whisper caught,
With which we build mind’s shifting symmetries,
Nor in life’s stuff of passionate unease,
Nor the heart’s unsure emotions frailty wrought
Nor trivial clipped sense-joys soon led to nought,
Nor in this body’s solid transiences.

Wider behind than the vast universe
Our spirit scans the drama and the stir,
A peace, a light, an ecstasy, a power
Waiting at the end of blindness and the curse
That veils it from its ignorant minister
The grandeur of its free eternal hour.

 

Meditations of Mandavya

I will not faint, O God. There is the thirst,
And thirst supposes water somewhere. Yes,
But in this life we may not ever find;
Old nature sits a phantom by the way,
Old passions may forbid, old doubts return.
Then are there other lives here or beyond
To satisfy us? I will persist, O Lord.

Sri Aurobindo

 


 

Beyond Death

 

Death – A Passage Through the Inner Worlds

Belief in any form of world other than our own has been common to all spiritual and religious traditions of humanity. While the eternal sceptic has continued to argue against its existence since the time of the Vedas and perhaps even before, it has not deterred others from believing in it. Some of course try to explain these other worlds as if these were material worlds existing in some other corner of the universe. Others have simply denied it without even giving a thought or investigating them. It is however probable that if these worlds exist then they would not be accessible to the methods of inquiry proper to investigating the material world.

Another domain (a qualitatively different one, that is to say) presupposes that there are other forms of substance-energy combinations than we currently know of. This assumption to begin with is certainly more open scientifically than the presumption that material reality is the sole reality. Physics today is facing this dilemma since many things and observations of this material universe cannot be satisfactorily explained if we treat the material world as the sole and closed reality. Reality escapes on both sides. There is a continuum of worlds interlacing with one another of which the material universe is only one in a series. Physics talks today of anti-matter or a dark matter, not sensed by us but existing nevertheless. Spiritual science talks about the sunlit and the sunless worlds of which our material world is a pale reflection and imperfect mixture. The Vedas speak about the seven earths or the seven principal forms of matter. Sri Aurobindo describes these different substance-energy states in great detail in the classic work The Life Divine, something that would make even the most stringent rationalist and the hardcore material scientist think again and perhaps open for him new horizons of self-discovery. The great epics of Milton and Homer and Dante, of Vyasa and Valmiki, the sublime genius of Shakespeare and Kalidasa, the magnificent tales of Odysseus, even the travels of Sindabad as narrated in the Arabian nights, the Puranas in Indian mythology, the abundant records left of the Sufis and other mystics strangely echo similarities despite being separated through large spaces of time and space. A most comprehensive and exhaustive account of these several orders of the universe is found in Sri Aurobindo’s magnum opus Savitri. This apart, the evidence comes from other sources as well such as the countless experiences of NDEs (near death experience), the experiences of the dark worlds that a psychotic undergoes, the rare visions of the clairvoyant occultist — these are all pointers to the existence of such worlds that we know not of in our waking outer consciousness. Yet unknown to our outer consciousness, they nevertheless influence our lives from within and around. It is only through death of the outer personality (which does not mean death of the body) that we have a chance of entering into these domains and pass through them to the beyond.

These inner domains have been divided by all mystics basically into two broad categories:

The Lower Hemisphere that is subject to time and death. This itself is further divided into worlds of matter, life and mind, arranged hierarchically, based on the degree of turbulence, greyness, crudeness, etc. into higher and lower worlds. Some of these worlds are objectively real, that is they are independent of human interference and have existed even before the advent of man. Others, like many of the heavens and hells, are objective creations of the human mind or else subjectively real and therefore dependent on the belief we put into them.

The Higher Hemisphere or the worlds of shadowless Light which are free from subjection to time and death. These are the worlds of Truth-Existence-Consciousness-Bliss. The soul normally transmigrates through the lower hemisphere till a certain line of its development is complete. Once it crosses the line and enters into the higher hemisphere then it is free and no more obliged to return, having escaped or transcended the domain of death. It can however still choose to come back for a specific work if it wishes to but the return thereafter is not obligatory.

The line dividing the lower from the higher hemisphere is talked of in the Upanishads as the golden lid covering the face of the sun. It is the Overmind[6] consciousness as described by Sri Aurobindo, the plane of the gods where the first shimmer of division starts. This has so far been the highest development possible for our earth-bound humanity.

Accordingly, there is after death or let us say after the fall of the body, a period of transit recognised in most spiritual and religious traditions. The period of this transit and the minor details may vary but most mystic and occult experiences confirm that the soul journeys through many zones and levels of consciousness. Each such level or station is a world in itself and the transiting soul may linger for a long or short period based upon its predilections, tendencies and affinities. The process is as follows:

While we are normally aware only of this physical body, occult experience confirms that we have other subtler bodies made up of the vibrations of our thoughts, emotions, impulses and desires. The physical body is made up of dense vibrations of our heavy and dull gross matter, therefore it is called the gross body. Beyond it are the subtle, vital, mental and etheric bodies; besides those still others that the yogi knows as his higher unchanging and imperishable self. These bodies are like so many coats wrapped around the pure and immaculate soul just as layers of clothing are wrapped around our physical body. When the physical body dies it is akin to the leaving behind of the outermost cloak. But life and consciousness continue in the other bodies that do not automatically dissolve by the dissolution of the gross body. There is a short or long time lag before that happens. During this intervening period the soul experiences the vibrations of the corresponding worlds through which it is transiting. The worlds closer to earth are naturally more painful especially if they are heavy with grief of those left behind. Grief is like a chain that drags behind the rising soul and creates an unhappy condition for it. Even though the physical body is worn out, the being continues to experience sorrow and happiness as may be the case, since the vital body through which we experience happiness and suffering continues to linger. It is this experience of the vital worlds for which the terms heaven and hell are usually ascribed. This can be a very ambiguous condition and delay the smooth transit. Most of the ceremonies and rites after death are meant to facilitate the transit through these painful vital worlds. The transit is especially very painful if it is through suicide. The soul in such cases may actually enter the darkest worlds of gloom and therefore this way of transit is considered the worst, the dark transit to the sunless worlds. The same difficult transit awaits those who have persisted in gross forms of ignorance, coercing perversely the soul or by a wrong dissolution of life in the body. The ‘Isha Upanishad’ warns,

असूर्या नाम ते लोका अन्धेन तमसावृताः।
ताँस्ते प्रेत्याभिगच्छन्ति ये के चात्महनो जनाः॥३॥

Sunless are those worlds and enveloped in blind gloom whereto all they in their passing hence resort who are slayers of their souls.[7]

Most religious traditions therefore give a warning injunction against suicide.

After the transit through the vital worlds, one enters the mental domain. It is also possible, as is recounted in the occult knowledge of Yoga-Vasistha and the last sections of the Mahabharata, that different parts of the now fragmented being no more held together by any central will, simultaneously exist upon different planes and go through different experiences in the vital and mental worlds. There is a great deal of plasticity in our inner life and no rigid rules can be made. Nevertheless, generally speaking, the next stop for the soul is in the mental worlds where it is washed free and divested of its coat of thoughts and ideas and only those are allowed to pass on to the deathless psychic worlds that have been organised around the soul and helped in its efflorescence or touched by its divinity. The rest are dissolved here including the memories and attachments that existed due to habitual association of earthly life.

Finally we pass on to the higher psychic worlds where we rest for a while so as to assimilate the experiences of this life. After a period of reconstituting sleep, the soul is ready for a new adventure and another experience for embodied life. It wakes up from its psychic repose so to say, during which it has forgotten by dissolution much of its past and only that which is needed for its onward journey remains, although altered in soul forms and no more available to the outer mind. It sees its need of a future life, the necessary experience that it must yet undergo, and based upon this inner knowledge projects itself once again into time and space. A new drama of earthly life begins again under a different form and name. Therefore, all attachments to this or that opinion, place and circumstances of our birth, are a kind of ignorance since we keep changing our country and clime, even as we keep changing our habits, customs, environment as well as the people around us. Yet nature uses this attachment for the purpose of its creative work so that we may stay focussed upon the field of our present life and action. It is through the experiences of life and not those of death that we develop in consciousness and progress godward towards Light and Truth and Force and Freedom and Love and Bliss. The experiences after death are mainly a working out of the experiences of life that has just ended, an exhaustion of certain things that we started here which yet continue by past momentum even after the body’s death, an assimilation that may be used as material for a future life. The real progress however occurs during life and not in death.

Like in all things, as in life so also in death, our own state determines the experiences we go through. We are indeed the artists of our fate in life and in death through the states of our consciousness. Just as departing in a state of luminous joy and peace opens us to the higher worlds of light so also departing in a state of depression or pessimism projects us straight into the worlds of gloom and darkness.

It is this and not some arbitrary judge outside who writes our destiny. We are like transmitters and receivers and we receive those things to which we choose to attune ourselves. The worlds of darkness as well as the worlds of light are no doubt there but we walk into them out of our own choice. This is one of the great secrets that we are here to learn in life as well as in death.

 

Self-Experience after Death

Is there a self-experience after death? One thing is clear that there are no satisfactory answers to these questions as far as our traditional materialistic science is concerned. And whatever data exists through the collective experience of humanity (which in itself is abundant) is often shrouded by a sense of mystique mingled with fantasy and superstition. The result is truth mixed with fiction fed on the milk of individual belief. Mainstream science simply disregards the evidence as fiction of the mind but that explains nothing. To disregard the very evidence and to infer even without studying is to throw away the baby along with the bath water. Not that there have not been serious studies and authentic reports. There is more than enough material available in both the East and the West that has been studied with regard to what we term today as a paranormal activity. But the divide is still there. There are the believers who believe and would continue to believe even if they had no encounter with the paranormal in their lifetime. And equally there are those who will continue to disbelieve even in the face of mounting evidence and personal encounters. Here, more than in any other field, the adage truly applies that the eyes do not see what the mind does not know. Or perhaps our eyes conditioned to a small spectrum of seeing cannot see beyond the limits fixed for them by the mind. But thankfully, the limits of our sight are not the limits of light. And so too the limits of our thoughts are not the limits of truth! The following case summarises this attitudinal divide very succinctly. It is an account selected from a TV programme on the History channel appearing on 11 January 2004 at eight o’clock in the evening IST. It is again a prototype story reported with variations several times over:

A family of four with husband, wife and two adolescent girls moved into a household in California State. Soon over the next few weeks, the girls started reporting that they felt there was someone else present in their room. The parents initially ignored the whole thing as an adjustment process to the new surroundings. But things began to happen, first in the kitchen, then in the bedroom and study and then everywhere else. There seemed to be a design and the work of an intelligent force behind the mischievous activities. The couple finally decided to consult a specialist studying such phenomena after a very important document went suddenly missing from the table and was later found in a most unlikely place, the box-yard. The ghost-busters as, they are called, went around the house with gadgets picking up signals and confirmed the presence of a poltergeist (disembodied spirits as they are called in the West). By chance certain photographs taken by the couple revealed a very misty appearance in some of the photographs. What more evidence could one want? But then comes the scientific bias. The psychologists interviewed for their comments simply brushed the whole data aside attributing it to disorganised adolescent behaviour. In other words, the two teenage girls were simply playing pranks. The events and occurrences, the record of paranormal activity, the story of a traumatic death in that house nearly a decade ago, the missing file and even the photo evidence was simply brushed aside in a single stroke! No doubt an ingenious way of explaining away the phenomenon but the eleven-year-old had the last dig when she commented on the remarks of the psychologists, “Well let them come and live here and then say the same thing!” Let’s hope the psychologists are listening.

In our own life we undergo different types or rather levels of self-experience at different ages. There seems to be a subjective self in us which is largely independent of our physical bodies and outer conditions and circumstances, even though these may be partly responsible for shaping it. This subjective self-experience may itself be a composite of many different parts that experience the world quite differently since they are primarily holding different stations of consciousness. These many selves have been called in the ancient Indian traditions as the many purushas or beings who exist independent of the body and can be separated from it, through certain forms of intensive yoga or naturally after death. But apart from these there are many smaller parts that are capable of a certain degree of independent existence and self-experience. The soul and its deputy ego hold this motley crowd together during life, very imperfectly and chaotically when underdeveloped, but with sovereign mastery and power when developed. These parts also disintegrate after death and each goes according to its innate affinity to its own natural aggregate. These conflicting parts come together in life for an evolutionary resolution. After death, the jarring elements leave the soul free of conflict but also therefore free of the evolutionary struggle. ‘No conflict no change’ seems to be one of the lessons of life, and of death.

In other words, our self-experience is not determined by the physical body, it is only to a certain extent limited by it. A classic proof of this came recently to light in the now well-known case of Iranian twins who shared identical genes and identical life experience. Why, perhaps they even had one neural basis since their heads were fused together and the brains linked with a thin strip of neurons! They wanted their heads to be separated. Not so much because of physical discomfort of two bodies held together but because they realised that they were two different persons. One wanted to study law, the other journalism. One had an affinity for one type of programme, the other for quite another. Even their physical habits were different. One gene, two beings; one brain, two persons! If that were so, it is only logical to presume that there is a self in us independent of the body. In that case, it is quite natural that the self will not die or vanish with the death of the body but continue to exist independent of it. The only difference will be that while now it experiences life and people through the material sheath and its limited senses, after death it will experience life and worlds and beings with other non-corporeal senses, the kind which take over in our body’s sleep and which are methodically developed by the yogi. It is the body that dies, while the self travels in other sheaths and other bodies through other worlds!

 

The Question of Ghosts

Modern mind discourages such queries and there is some advantage in doing so. For is not our ignorance a kind of safety? But a greater safety is truth, not the half-truth mixed with superstition and imagination, but the full truth which accounts for everything and finds the right place for all human and other experiences of life. To deny a phenomenon is easy. Far more difficult is to discover and unite each piece of truth in the jigsaw puzzle of life. To deny blindly is as much of a dogma as a blind acceptance. So let us try to see through the eyes of those who truly ‘observe’ since their vision is ‘whole’, of not just the gross material worlds but the worlds beyond and after.

“What do you mean by a ghost? The word ‘ghost’ as used in popular parlance covers an enormous number of distinct phenomena which have no necessary connection with each other. To name a few only:

  • An actual contact with the soul of a human being in its subtle body and transcribed to our mind by the appearance of an image or the hearing of a voice.
  • A mental formation stamped by the thoughts and feelings of a departed human being on the atmosphere of a place or locality, wandering about there or repeating itself, till that formation either exhausts itself or is dissolved by one means or another. This is the explanation of such phenomena as the haunted house in which the scenes attending or surrounding or preceding a murder are repeated over and over again and many other similar phenomena.
  • A being of the lower vital planes who has assumed the discarded vital sheath of a departed human being or a fragment of his vital personality and appears and acts in the form and perhaps with the surface thoughts and memories of that person.
  • A being of the lower vital plane who by the medium of a living human being or by some other means or agency is able to materialise itself sufficiently so as to appear and act in a visible form or speak with an audible voice or, without so appearing, to move about material things — furniture or to materialise objects or to shift them from place to place. This accounts for what are called poltergeists, phenomena of stone-throwing, tree-inhabiting bhutas, and other well-known phenomena.
  • Apparitions which are the formations of one’s own mind and take to the senses an objective appearance.
  • Temporary possession of people by vital beings who sometimes pretend to be departed relatives, etc.
  • Thought-images of themselves projected, often by people at the moment of death, which appear at that time or a few hours afterwards to their friends or relatives.”[8]

A close look at these can help us classify them into the following categories:

 

Disembodied Beings

Also known as ghosts or poltergeists, these are entities created when a part of the vital is suddenly thrown out following the death of a person. Usually following an extremely violent or traumatic death, these elemental entities act in a repetitive manner around a small area of their influence with which they are conversant. They usually do not have much power to harm except that by inducing fear, they open the consciousness to other harmful influences. Some such elemental entities may even be helpful and there is a whole group of occultists who perform petty magic and miracles through the service of these disembodied entities. Normally, a strong disbelief in their existence, an extremely rational mind, and above all, a strong belief in God serves as a shield against whatever little influence they may exercise. These are not souls but only fragments, and bits and parts of universal vital nature that have come to assume a seemingly independent existence.

 

Mediumistic Trance, Séances and Possession

These are states wherein a human being comes under a temporary or lasting influence or possession of beings from the other worlds, usually the lower vital worlds. They are capable of real harm by using the human body and mind for their own vicious influences. Certain cases of hysteria, obsessively exaggerated love of a weak sentimental type, certain forms of epilepsies, insanities, suicide and drug abuse may well be linked to a strong influence or even a temporary possession from these darker worlds. The worst of this category is the rare incarnation of these beings into a human mould as in the case of Hitler for instance, whence their power of destruction goes far beyond normal limits. Seldom of course one finds positive influences or partial incarnations of a higher vital, as in the case of some painters and sculptors like Michael Angelo for instance who claimed to be inspired by a higher force before executing any work.

Speaking of Hitler, it is known that he received intimations from a being of another world of a diabolical nature. This being would give him precise indications about the army placements often defying logic, nevertheless tactical moves that would surprise everybody by their success. This was a dark being whose work was to spread terror and cruelty and mass destruction in the most horrible way. It wanted to pollute the human consciousness, filling it with carnage and horror, thereby pushing the evolutionary force back by a few thousand years. It is well-known that when this being would possess Hitler he would go into a convulsion of sorts, writhing on the carpet, even trying to chew it, uttering seeming inanities, terrified and subdued, only to come out of it and take the most outlandish but accurate or perfectly cruel decisions of the gory war. The description fits into that of a classic seizure. Seizure yes, but what was the force seizing this man who had hardly any inner refinement, yet let loose such a state of war-frenzy? Contrast this with the possession of a higher kind in the case of Joan of Arc who fought against the worst odds, again defying logic but in this case to free the people of a nation, inspiring rare courage against tyranny among the weak and the oppressed.[9]

 

Phenomenon of the Double

This is usually an authentic record of soul-seeing or identification with it. Here one sees oneself outside the body, as if in another body. One can also get projected into another Time-Space domain and consciously experience other worlds. This ‘seeing’ is one of the most authentic experiences and leaves little doubt about the soul’s existence. It is more real than the physical seeing and those who go through it find their self-view and world-view profoundly changed for the better.

 

Communication with the Departed

Is it possible to help the departed in some way? Can we reach out to them? Can they hear us or communicate with us? These questions often arise and vex the heart and mind of those who are left behind. It is especially so when the departure is sudden, unexpected and before the natural span of life is over. The answers differ from person to person. Thus while it is possible to help the departed through inner as well as occult means, it is not advisable to pull them towards earth through the ambiguous and risky means of planchette, automatic writings, mediumistic trances, etc. There are valid reasons for this.

Firstly, such practices do not necessarily put us in contact with the actual departed. The vital-physical world is full of numerous elemental entities which are drawn through this lower and ignorant form of occult probe. They may enter into the atmosphere and have fun by mimicking the departed and answering questions. Most of the time they are really answering our desires, by telling us what we want to hear.

Secondly, our mind may start playing tricks with us. For we have a subliminal mind that is more powerful than our surface, waking mind. This mind in collusion with the vital imagination and the subconscious parts in us can fabricate reality, giving us the illusion of having contacted the departed. While this may provide some temporary solace to those grieving, it may also create an illusory world and a pull towards it. As a result, a person who is caught unawares may feel a greater and greater urge to live in this make-believe world.

Finally, even if we were to contact the departed, as it is sometimes possible especially when they are close to the earth atmosphere, it only creates unnecessary pain for their being. It ties them helplessly down to the earth, thus preventing any further advance.

The dead do sometimes communicate with us in the initial period especially in dreams and through some gestures, final acts, etc. This is especially in the first few days of the departure. However, frequent dreams especially after long periods need not necessarily indicate a communication from the dead. More often than not, these are images arising from our subconscious mind where these impressions are stored.

At times, the departed can also help us. This is especially true of highly evolved souls who can stay consciously near the earth to help other beings, in life as well as after death. Liberated from the bonds of the body they may even exercise a strong influence or provide guidance to those who are dear to them. In this regard, the Mother has mentioned how a pair of hands of a developed musician would enter Her hands sometimes and play the piano through Her hands. In another story, an English football team lost their star player in an accident just before the league matches. The team knew that they could never make it in his absence. Nevertheless they dedicated the matches to him and went on to win the championship, much to everybody’s surprise. Most of the team players believed that the departed star had in some way helped them win, and some felt his presence during the game as if he was running with them and looked around to see if he was actually there!

Here is an answer given by the Mother to the question of whether the inner being continues to progress after death:

“That depends altogether upon the person. For everyone it is different. There are people for example, writers, musicians, artists — people who have lived on intellectual heights, who feel that they still have something further to do, that they have not finished what they had undertaken to do, have not reached the goal they had fixed for themselves, so they are ready to remain in the earth atmosphere as long as they can, with as much cohesiveness as possible and they try to manifest themselves and continue their progress in other human bodies… I have seen the very interesting case of a musician who was a pianist (a pianist of great worth), who had hands which were a marvel of skill, accuracy, precision, force, rapidity of movement, indeed, it was absolutely remarkable. This man died relatively young with the feeling that if he had continued to live he would have continued to progress in his musical expression. And such was the intensity of his aspiration that his subtle hands maintained their form without being dissolved, and each time he met anyone a little receptive and passive and a good musician, his hands would enter the hands of those who were playing — the person who was playing at the time could play well but in an ordinary way; but at that moment he became not merely a virtuoso but a wonderful artist during the time he played. It was the hands of the other that were making use of his. This is a phenomenon I know. I have seen the same thing in the case of a painter: it was also a matter of hands. The same thing with regard to some writers, and here it was the brain that kept quite a precise form and entered the brain of someone who was sufficiently receptive and suddenly made him write extraordinary things, infinitely more beautiful than anything he had written before. I saw that taking hold of someone. It was in the case of a composer of music — not one of those who execute, but who compose, like Beethoven, like Bach, like C’ Franck (but C’sar Franck executed also). The composition of music is an extremely cerebral activity. Well, here also the brain of a great musician came in contact with one who was engaged in writing an opera and made him compose wonderful things and arranged on paper all the parts. He was busy writing an opera and it is extremely complex for the performers who have to bring out in the music the thought of the person who has composed; and that man (I knew him) when he received this formation had a blank paper before him and then he started writing; I saw him writing, putting lines, then some figures, on a big, very big page and when he reached the bottom, the orchestration of the Overture (for example, of a certain act) was completed (orchestration means the distribution of certain lines of music to each one of the instruments). And he was doing it simply on a paper, merely by this wonderful mental power. And it was not only his own: it was coming to him from a musical mind that incarnated in him… there were so many violins, so many cellos, so many altos, all the instruments: some were playing this, others playing that, yet others playing other things, sometimes all together, at other times one after another (it is very complicated, not a simple thing), well, there, while playing, hearing or even reading (sometimes he took the score and read it) he knew which notes had to be distributed to which instrument, which notes had to be played by another, and so on. And he had very clearly the feeling of something entering into him and helping him.

Q. Do these beings who want to manifest themselves keep the same desire when they are born once again?

No, it is not the same thing. It is not the whole being, it is the special faculty which remains in the earth atmosphere, does not leave it and go away, which remains in the earth atmosphere in order to continue manifesting itself. But the psychic being can very well return to the psychic world and it is the psychic being which takes a body again. I explained to you the other day that before leaving the physical body, the psychic being decides most often what its next rebirth will be, the environment in which it will take birth and what its occupation will be, because it needs a certain field for its experience. So it may happen that very big writers and very big musicians take birth another time in somebody quite imbecile. And you say: ‘What! It is not possible!’ Naturally it does not always happen like that, but it may. There was a case in which the contrary happened: it was a violin player… well, that man had most certainly in him a reincarnation of Beethoven. Not perhaps a reincarnation of his entire psychic being, but in any case, that of his musical capacity. He had the appearance, the head of Beethoven, I saw him, I heard him (I did not know him, I knew nothing, I was at a concert in Paris and they were giving the concerto in D major), I saw him coming on the stage to play and I said: ‘Strange! How much this man looks like Beethoven, he is the very portrait of Beethoven!’ Then it just started with a stroke of the bow, three, four notes… everything changed, the atmosphere was changed. All became absolutely wonderful. Three notes started off with such power, such grandeur, so wonderful it was, nothing stirred, all waited. And he played that from beginning to end in an absolutely unique manner with an understanding I have not met with in any other executant. And then I saw that the musical genius of Beethoven was in him… but perhaps Beethoven’s psychic being had taken body in a shoemaker or anybody else, one does not know! It wanted to have another kind of experience.

“For what I saw in this man was a formation belonging to an earthly plane, it was mental-vital; and as Beethoven had disciplined his whole mental, vital and physical being around his musical capacity, that had remained in form, it was a living thing, and had incarnated in that man, just as it was, but not necessarily Beethoven’s psychic being. In his former life it was the psychic being of Beethoven that had shaped all those other beings, the psychic being that had disciplined them around musical creation; but after his death, it cannot at all be said whether the psychic being remained there; it must have returned to the psychic world as is the usual rule. That however had been formed, had its own life, independent and existing in itself. It was formed for a certain manifestation and it remained to manifest itself. And as soon as it found a fit instrument, it entered there to manifest itself.”[10]

Coming back to the question of communication with the departed, it is a messy and mixed affair. What is preferable is for those who are left behind to help the departed. This can and should be done as a last act of love and acknowledgement. We can help by:

  • Remembering the departed with love and peace.
  • Praying for a safe and peaceful journey.
  • Creating an atmosphere of peace and light and strength in and around the house and in the persons left behind so that the being of the departed can find shelter for a while if it needs to.
  • Avoiding all grief and excess sentimentalism which pulls the being to the earth, making it linger unnecessarily in the painful physical and vital atmosphere.
  • Offering the being to the Divine who is by far the best guardian.

 

Heaven and Hell – Fact or Fiction?

Myths and legends in every religion describe the presence of these happy or gory worlds, at times in elaborate detail. The description is sometimes so precise as to what kind of hell or heaven one would go to for a particular good or bad deed. Philosophically the position of these hells and heavens is not very tenable except that they fortify our belief in a fair and just world where ultimately the offender will be punished and the virtuous rewarded. But strangely the punishment and the reward seem to be disconnected to our earthly life. For the wicked is punished much later in a hell that gives no moral satisfaction to the sufferer and anyway does not prevent or undo damage that is already done to life and living beings here on earth. There is also another paradox in the traditional popular belief (which is not necessarily a correct belief), a fallacious and almost mischievous logic or caprice of universal justice — the wicked is punished almost twice, first in a hell hereafter and next upon earth in a future life in the form of poverty or disease or some such earthly affliction. Such a justice may be the creation of a revengeful mind but certainly not that of one who is the heart and soul of Love. So too with the heavens for which one waits patiently to recompense in some other world for our earthly trials and long-suffering goodness.

We wonder if in a world made by God would we not prefer justice a little earlier and in a more visible manner?

It is here that we misread everything or at least read our own intentions into God’s. This world was not created to manifest justice, though some sort of justice exists but certainly not as we understand it. This world is essentially a field for growth and progress of the soul and it grows as much through the bitterness of struggle, suffering and fall, as it does through the sweetness of pleasure and the lure of transient perishable things. The lesson in the end is the same. Secondly, justice is there for each one and almost instantaneous, but unseen except by our soul. Truth is profounder than our highest ideals and subtler than our strongest sentiments. Its wisdom is incalculable and its steps certain. In short, the reward of a good deed is independent of the persons towards whom it is directed, independent of the deed itself but solely dependent on the consciousness. Thus a genuinely selfless act, even if unrecognized by others or even despised by men who invariably misread in others their own petty motives, brings a happy inner condition, a sense of lightness and gladness, even a growth in wisdom and compassion, which takes us a step towards our liberation from the case of our humanity. Similarly a selfish deed, even if it is an act of philanthropy or seemingly great and good in the world’s eyes, clouds our consciousness, binds it to the outposts of cheap pleasures and pain, gives brief and petty satisfaction and is inevitably followed after by a recoil of bitterness, restlessness and inner unhappiness. And what worse punishment than this that it clouds our soul which is the source of all true happiness and peace and wisdom and joy? This goes on through lives till we learn the lesson that our true repose lies in discovering that immortal thing within us and not outside.

And this would be a fair justice indeed than this crude notion that the downfall of my opponent in front of my mortal eyes will make me feel happy over his pain as if he were someone else other than me, in another disguise. Or this that I become rich by my honesty and therefore become an even greater slave to the petty pleasures of life and the weakness that follows them. It could be that the sufferer will grow in high endurance, preparing in him a stronger base for the manifestation of greater powers as and when he is ready for them. The soul in us, the only element that is truly wise, may even choose difficulty and defeat, things from which the desire-self and surface mind shrink in horror, as a means of its ascension. That is the logic of universal justice, a push towards growth and not a blind and ignorant human notion of retribution. And what kind of growth would it be if I refrain from evil, not because of any inner change in me, not because I am no more attracted to it but because of fear of hell? And what kind of growth would it be if I do good deeds not because they come naturally to me but because I am selfishly allured to an exact and calculated reward in heaven? Thankfully God is much less of a judge and more of a lover who has all the love of the mother and the wisdom of the master even when he seems to smite us. Even if hell there be, He would not make it in wrath as a prison for justice but out of love as a home for reformation.

Nevertheless occult experience does confirm that there do exist in some vital or other planes of consciousness, states of heightened joy and suffering. These may be largely creations of our mind existing as an annex in the mental world, not things that are true in themselves but are rather created by the human mind, by its beliefs and impressions. These are not the highest or lowest states of consciousness either but intermediary worlds of cosmic ignorance. In all likelihood they have little to do with universal justice but exist as typal worlds in their own right and for a deeper purpose in God’s play. Nevertheless, the soul may for a while after death pass through these worlds by an affinity of its member and consequently experience what they stand for. This passage especially through the dark and painful vital worlds is not mandatory and even a sinful man who has faith in the Divine would generally bypass it. Yet some with a very gross and dense consciousness may linger there for a little longer, periods that may seem like eternity. Fortunately one can say ‘seem like’, for an eternal hell would be an anathema to God and take away all hope from mankind.

“Hell and heaven are often imaginary states of the soul or rather of the vital which it constructs about it after its passing. What is meant by hell is a painful passage through the vital or lingering there, as for instance, in many cases of suicide where one remains surrounded by the forces of suffering and turmoil created by this unnatural and violent exit. There are, of course, also worlds of mind and vital worlds which are penetrated with joyful or dark experiences. One may pass through these as the result of things formed in the nature which create the necessary affinities, but the idea of reward or retribution is a crude and vulgar conception which is a mere popular error.”[11]

 

The Return to Earth – Rebirth

Not soon is God’s delight in us completed,
Nor with one life we end;
Termlessly in us are our spirits seated
And termless joy intend.

Our souls and heaven are of an equal stature
And have a dateless birth;
The unending seed, the infinite mould of Nature,
They were not made on earth,

Nor to the earth do they bequeath their ashes,
But in themselves they last.
An endless future brims beneath thy lashes,
Child of an endless past.[12]

If life after death is a mystery and a controversy, then rebirth after death is a still greater mystery. Opinions are divided even though a large body of experience and logic both suggest the validity of rebirth. Mystic experience cutting beyond the confines of religion, and individual experiences of recorded cases point towards the truth of rebirth. There even exists a type of psychotherapy that probes into the past lives through hypnotic regression. It is based upon the belief that many of our unhealthy tendencies, especially fears are due to a carry-over from some real event in a past life. There may be a good deal of truth in it. An instance (one among many) is documented wherein the roots of fear in a young child were traced to his unnatural death during war in a previous life. Dr Brian L. Weiss has reported a number of cases where he could trace the roots of his patient’s illness in some past life experience. Dr Weiss was caught unaware when one of his patients began recalling past life traumas that seemed to hold the key to her recurring nightmares and panic attacks. His scepticism diminished and ended altogether when she began to channel messages from ‘the space between lives’ which contained remarkable revelations about Dr Weiss’s family including his dead son. Using past life therapy, he was able to cure the patient and embark on a new discovery. Some of his important works include Many Lives, Many Masters, Messages from the Masters, Mirrors of Time.

Whatever the individual claims to the effects of recovery, it is interesting to note that the roots of our present problem lie buried in our bygone past. The body goes to ashes but not the karma. For karma is not just a physical action but even more an energy and a consciousness-state that continues to exist for better or for worse beyond our present formation of personality. Even death cannot destroy karma though it does exhaust (scavenge) many tendencies of a particular life.

Indeed if we admit the possibility of an after-life then the possibility of another life and yet another life becomes the natural logical consequence. For if there is a soul that is divine in essence then it will be preposterous to presume that this divine element descends into matter and upon earth accidentally, and, realising its mistake and the earthly drama as a bad joke, decides to quit. Or to take the religious viewpoint, it would be absurd to give the soul only a single chance for its final allocation in heaven and hell, without any previous experience to guide or a later chance to make amends! Such a doctrine would not only be a reductio ad absurdum[13] but also take away all significance from the soul’s embodied earthly existence, as if it was a mere testing ground where one takes the exams first and learns later. And even that later learning is of not much use since the soul will presumably never get another chance to apply it!

Such misinterpretation of scriptures and twisting of the words of the great Masters and Incarnations is done largely to instill fear among unripe minds and weak hearts. Through this fear one hopes to win adherents for the faith by saying that since one will never get another chance to prove or correct oneself, the only hope of salvation therefore is the grace of the founder god who will judge in our favour and plead on our behalf if we accept him as our master. Such playing upon the fear of mankind is not unique to any particular religion but has crept in one form or another in all faiths. Maybe it was deliberately introduced at some point to prevent too much indulgence in what religions call as sins. It is however doubtful if fear has any power to change people. At best it modifies only the surface, at worst it introduces a falsehood, deceit and cunning to the sin making it even worse. What was obviously coarse until now, comes nicely packaged, even for the unsuspecting.

Few things have done more harm in damaging, distorting and perverting the human consciousness than fear has, whether it be religious or otherwise. And if rebirth has a purpose then the purpose cannot be just a waking up from a bad dream since in that case, it had no business to go into the sleep of self-forgetfulness at all. Rebirth like birth and death itself is justified only if the adventure of life leads to something that the soul would miss by itself in its native (and so-called unfallen) divine state.

Reward and punishment are a mistranslation in the human mind of a much deeper truth. A better way to look at it is as a learning process. But that too is incomplete since what is it that the soul is here to learn and know which it does not know already in its secret self? The distinction of wrong and right, good and bad, have their relative and practical value in our present state and stage of evolution. Yet they are not absolute or even the original truths. The Divine Consciousness is not a judge weighing scales now in one’s favour, now in another’s. In that Absolute Consciousness there is none other than the One and all are nothing else but the same eternal One and His forms and symbols. The soul is here to engage in the self-manifestation of the One. And it is in this process that it brings out now this form, now another, dissolves one imperfect creation to work out another more perfect one, abolishes one structure so as to erect another that is more plastic and robust, closer to the divine Truth and Light and Love and Harmony and Ananda. Life, death and rebirth are incidents in this half-told tale that is moving from a lesser to a greater degree of perfection. The soul is here essentially to grow towards this intended divine perfection, a feat impossible in one life given the material offered to it by nature. Reward and punishment is how the ignorant vital in us looks at it. Learning through experience is how our mind iridescent with a spiritual light obscurely understands. But to the soul it is always an opportunity for growth towards Perfection. All joy is for it an imperfect hint of some hidden Ananda that has become distorted in surface phenomenon and appearance. So also, all pain is for it a pointer of the imperfection of our delight and a preparation for a higher and more intense and fiercer Ananda yet to be born within us.

To fully understand the mystery of death and rebirth we need therefore to understand the mystery of life. And is not the mystery of life engraved in bold terms in its seeking and aspiration itself? In his awakened consciousness man innately aspires for terrestrial perfection, erects figures and symbol-realities of a higher and purer truth, searches after true love and unmixed bliss. He hopes to bring infinity down in finite terms. Is it vain chimera or a deeper possibility for which the whole adventure of space and time stands justified? And if the pursuit of terrestrial perfection is valid as is indicated by the concealed aspiration in man, then rebirth becomes the sole possible means to arrive at it. Nevertheless the issue of rebirth raises the following questions:

  • Is there a rebirth at all? And who or what is reborn?
  • What is the mechanism of rebirth?
  • What is the purpose and significance of rebirth?

Mystic experience the world over affirms the existence of rebirth. Even some major religions that apparently deny rebirth, still admit some sort of an afterlife. It is also possible that the truths these founders revealed were not fully understood by the followers during their lifetime. This has happened to all religions without exception and only those religions could partially escape it where fresh experiences and influences from within were allowed to once again reproduce the realisation and rediscover its true form. Here again we find that the Sufis and the Christian mystics did affirm the presence of rebirth even though the main body of followers denied it. Whatever may be the case, as stated earlier the balance of experience tilts in favour of rebirth.

Scientific studies especially by the now well-known Dr. Raymond Moody and others who followed him all suggest the possibility of rebirth. Hundreds of case reports exist in scientific literature where there has been a genuine recall of a past life. But as with NDEs and other paranormal experiences, there are those who believe it and therefore accept and readily quote the scientific studies. There are also those who do not believe and therefore with equal vehemence refute them. As mentioned earlier, it is indeed doubtful that this debate can be resolved by the methods of a material science whose instruments are limited by the material paradigm. The only certain way is to develop the consciousness and experience the hidden worlds and all that lies there waiting to be discovered by oneself. That is the only certain way. After all we do not conduct studies to prove that we are living or walking on the road or sleeping and eating and talking and breathing and all the rest that appears so very natural and normal to us. The scientist would take my word if I said I am experiencing hunger because he too knows by experience that something like hunger exists but he would not listen if I were to say that I am experiencing love for God or Peace, since he may not have experienced either. Similarly when the experience of other worlds becomes normal to man and nothing is sealed from his awakened eye then there will be no doubt left since knowledge of other worlds will be as natural as living here. Till then man has to necessarily lean upon the staff of faith and rely on the data brought down to us by the scientists of the soul who have glimpsed the Beyond. The story given below is one of such authentic case reports. It is by Alexandra David Neel, the famous explorer of Tibet:

“Countless tales are told throughout Tibet about extraordinary proofs of memory from previous lives and wonders worked by young tulkus to testify their identity. We find in them the habitual Tibetan mixture of superstition, cunning, comedy, and disconcerting events. I could relate dozens of them, but I prefer to confine myself to the relation of facts connected with people whom I have personally known.

“Next to the mansion of the Pegyai Lama, in which I lived at Kum-Bum, was the dwelling of a minor tulkus called Agnai Tsang. Seven years had elapsed since the death of the last master of the place and none had been able to discover the child in whom he had reincarnated. I do not think that the steward of the lama’s household felt greatly afflicted by that circumstance. He managed the estate and seemed rather prosperous.

“Now it happened that in the course of a trading tour, he felt tired and thirsty and entered a farm to rest and drink. While the housewife made tea, the nierpa (steward) drew a jade snuffbox from his pocket and was about to take a pinch to snuff when a little boy who had been playing in a corner of the room stopped him and putting his small hand on the box asked reproachfully: ‘Why do you use my snuff-box?’

“The steward was thunderstruck. Truly, the precious snuffbox was not his, but belonged to the departed Agnai Tsang, and though he had not perhaps exactly intended to steal it, yet he had taken possession of it.

“He remained there trembling while the boy looked at him as his face suddenly became grave and stern, with no longer anything childish about it.

“Give it back to me at once, it is mine,” he said again. Stung with remorse, and at the same time terrified and bewildered, the monk could only fall on his knees and prostrate himself before his reincarnated master.

“A few days later, I saw the boy coming in state to his mansion. He wore a yellow brocade robe and rode a beautiful black pony, the nierpa holding the bridle.

“When the procession entered the house the boy remarked: ‘Why do we turn to the left to reach the second courtyard? The gate is on our right side.’

“Now, for some reason, the gate on the right side had been walled up after the death of the lama and another one opened instead. The monks marvelled at this new proof of the authenticity of their lama and all proceeded to his private apartment where tea was to be served.

“The boy, seated on a pile of large hard cushions, looked at the cup with silver-gilt saucer and jewelled cover placed on the table before him. ‘Give me the larger china cup,’ he commanded. And he described one, mentioning the very pattern that decorated it.

“Nobody knew about such a cup, not even the steward, and the monks respectfully endeavoured to convince their young master that there was no cup of that kind in the house.

“It was at that moment that, taking advantage of an already long acquaintance with the nierpa, I entered the room. I had heard the snuffbox story and wished to see for myself my remarkable little new neighbour. I offered him the customary complimentary scarf and a few presents. These he received with a gracious smile but, apparently following the trend of his thoughts regarding the cup, he said: ‘Look better, you will find it.’

“And suddenly, as if a flash of memory had dashed through his mind, he added explanations about a box painted in such a colour, which was in such a place in the storeroom. The monks had briefly informed me of what was going on and I waited with interest to see how things would turn out.

“Less than half an hour later, the set, cup, saucer and cover, was discovered in a casket that was at the bottom of the very box described by the boy. ‘I did not know of the existence of that cup,’ the steward told me later on. ‘The lama himself, or my predecessor, must have put it in that box which did not contain anything else precious and had not been opened for years.’”[14]

 

The Return to Earth – Karma

The soul moves on from one body to another through the cycles of death and rebirth as do the karmas that stick as labels indicating the stage where we stand in our evolutionary journey. It is a kind of reminder of the things we have not yet experienced, steps we have not yet climbed. This label of karma goes and returns with us in the form of our true mental, the true vital, the true physical — the three purushas projected by the soul to front this world and relate with it. These three inner purushas are withdrawn inside the soul in its reconstituting sleep and put forward again with the new birth. The rest of our outer being is swallowed in the darkness of death.

“The soul gathers the essential elements of its experiences in life and makes that its basis of growth in the evolution; when it returns to birth it takes up with its mental, vital, physical sheaths so much of its Karma as is useful to it in the new life for further experience.

“There may be what seems to be retrograde movements but these are only like zigzag movements, not a real falling back, but a return on something not worked out so as to go on better afterwards. The soul does not go back to the animal condition; but a part of the vital personality may disjoin itself and join an animal birth to work out its animal propensities there.

“…the soul, the psychic being, once having reached the human consciousness cannot go back to the inferior animal consciousness any more than it can go back into a tree or an ephemeral insect. What is true is that some part of the vital energy or the formed instrumental consciousness or nature can and very frequently does so, if it is strongly attached to anything in the earth life. This may account for some cases of immediate rebirth with full memory in human forms also.

“Note that the idea of rebirth and the circumstances of the new life as a reward or punishment of puṇya or pāpa is a crude human idea of ‘justice’ which is quite unphilosophical and unspiritual and distorts the true intention of life. Life here is an evolution and the soul grows by experience, working out by it this or that in the nature, and if there is suffering, it is for the purpose of that working out, not as a judgment inflicted by God or Cosmic Law on the errors or stumblings which are inevitable in the Ignorance.”[15]

In other words, there is little truth in the popular notion that the soul having taken a human birth can revert back to the animal form. The logic is very simple. There is a certain correspondence between the inmost soul and the outer and inner nature. The nature of a form originates and is supported by the individual soul. As the soul grows within towards its own perfection, simultaneously our nature also feels the pressure and develops along certain lines. Having developed beyond a point the individual soul or the psychic being cannot be held by an inferior nature. It is like trying to make a well built adult fit into a child’s clothing! The body and the form are instruments of the soul; the mental and vital nature its driving force. Karma and rebirth are means for the soul to develop. As the soul develops, it takes upon itself a better and higher nature. Of course this higher and better nature should not be confused with a brilliant intellect or a strong and robust vital (though these too may be there), but a certain sensitivity to truth and discrimination between the true and false light, an urge for higher, nobler things, a refinement of mind and heart, seeking for truth, beauty, harmony and good, and above all a certain degree of selflessness that marks out an inwardly developed being from an underdeveloped one. Moreover, this qualitative change is still not the end but goes further and further till one has found the very source of all beauty and truth and harmony and bliss and the ultimate eternal good. Thereafter, there is an unfolding happy progression to higher and higher degrees of the Infinite. Progression and not regression, as suggested by the populist notion of rebirth to lesser forms. While a temporary regression within a certain range of humanness is quite possible, a marked regression from the developed human to an animal would contradict the very logic of things. And like life and death, rebirth too is a machinery to assist the evolutionary process and not a crude system of reward and punishment. That may be our primitive human view since we like to see things according to our own nature, but that is not the Divine vision or plan. Such a God who is busy finding faults and punishing us will not be God but a human judge and perhaps hardly even that! It is not Justice but Love and Grace that sustain this world and it is Love and not Justice that will save it.

What exactly is the nature of this law of karma? In brief it consists of the following:

Every action (action includes not only physical but also emotional, mental, psychological, moral, and spiritual action as well) has its corresponding effect upon the consciousness.

The repercussion of action is not so much physical as it is psychological. A good action has the effect of making our consciousness grow in light and inner happiness (and not necessarily in outer reward). Again, a bad action binds the consciousness, making it dense and heavy. In essence the effect is of liberating or clouding the inmost soul. Having said that, let it also be clear that there may also be physical consequences.

The law is therefore essentially evolutionary and not punitive as is commonly misunderstood. Of course evolution is not necessarily synonymous with success and certainly not with the self-glorifying vain success that we often term as God’s reward for our good deeds! Evolution moves through pleasure and pain, joy and suffering, often more through apparent suffering than through apparent pleasure.

The law of karma also works at a collective level and may account for some of the collective tragedies that befall us. An army marches into another nation in one age but the roles are as if reversed in another epoch of time. In this regard, says Sri Aurobindo, “… every time we use soul-force we raise a great force of Karma against our adversary, the after-movements of which we have no power to control. Vasishtha uses soul-force against the military violence of Vishwamitra and armies of Huns and Shakas and Pallavas hurl themselves on the aggressor. The very quiescence and passivity of the spiritual man under violence and aggression awakens the tremendous forces of the world to a retributive action; and it may even be more merciful to stay in their path, though by force, those who represent evil than to allow them to trample on until they call down on themselves a worse destruction than we would ever think of inflicting.”

In another example the great and renowned Greek historian Herodotus while describing the war between the Greeks and the Persians describes how the Persian king, Xeres, led his army into Greece, invading Thrace and Macedonia, mowing down the swift and bold Athenians as well as the brave and courageous Spartans. But destinies reversed as Themistocles began to rout the Persian invaders and following hard on their heels occupied Persian cities including the last stronghold of Sestos. Throughout the tremendous narrative we get a feeling of conviction which serves as a reminder, that above the battle grounds there broods the spirit of Nemesis, a law of Providence against which even powerful monarchs are rendered powerless.

Even in recent times, could it be said that the instance of the American war against the Taliban government of Afghanistan following in the wake of the mutilation of the silent Bamiyan Buddha was a similar reaction at some occult collective level? We may never be able to say. But there is certainly more than what is revealed to the human eye.

“The ordinary theories are too mechanical — and that is the case also with the idea of puṇya and pāpa and their results in the next life. There are certainly results of the energies put forth in a past life, but not on that rather infantile principle. A good man’s suffering in this life would be a proof according to the orthodox theory that he had been a very great villain in his past life, a bad man’s prospering would be a proof that he had been quite angelic in his last visit to earth and sown a large crop of virtues and meritorious actions to reap this bumper crop of good fortune. Too symmetrical to be true. The object of birth being growth by experience, whatever reactions come to past deeds must be for the being to learn and grow, not as lollipops for good boys of the class (in the past) and canings for the bad ones. The real sanction for good and ill is not good fortune for the one and bad fortune for the other, but this that good leads us towards a higher nature which is eventually lifted above suffering, and ill pulls us towards the lower nature which remains always in the circle of suffering and evil.”[16]

Finally, karma and its consequences are a learning experience for the growing soul. But what kind of learning? Not just the practical form of learning that we know of, but even discovering the truth of life and things, and developing the power to handle life and the materials it offers better and better with a greater and greater knowledge. The soul chooses the consequence and not some arbitrary judge outside us and when the learning is over and it has gone beyond the elementary stage of karmic schooling, then the previous level of karma need not apply unless it still needs it for developing some side of its persona. That is why every spiritual man worth his name has insisted that Grace can cancel karma. The very fact of entering into and walking the spiritual path begins to change the consequence of our karma. In other words, things are not as rigid as we make them out to be. Nor are they as ridiculously absurd as paying back the karmic debt incurred by accepting a friend’s gift and therefore having to pay him back in another life, with compound interest of course! Thus seen, the law of karma no more appears as an unchangeable, fatalistic doctrine. In fact, and on the contrary, it means that our present karma can change our future (therefore also the consequences of the past) for the better, or else there will never be any hope or scope for evolution and the human soul would sink down soon after a few lives into eternal perdition.

The complexity of the karmic law arises from the fact that man himself is a complex entity and physical actions are never physical alone. There is almost invariably a mental intent, a belief or an attitude, a vital motive, an emotional impulse, even our overall psychological constitution, and who knows how many other seen and unseen cosmic forces that push us to commit deeds beyond our conscious thought. It is not just a simple mathematical equation or a mechanical law of cause and effect that we have made it to be. It is the soul within and no arbitrary judge sitting above, that sees and learns and grows using the material from its own buried past to go through tragedies and falls even as it knows the taste of happiness and success. In all likelihood, the law of karma is a self-learning process with the Supreme Master and Teacher within each one of us.

To restate the law of karma, we may note the following: Karma is all outgoing energy (not just physical but all kinds of emotional, instinctive, impulsive, thinking, moral and spiritual efforts and energy) with which we relate to this world. The nature of consequences serve as a reminder as well as a pointer (among other things) that the world is essentially unified, held in a chain of oneness. Karma is an evolutionary mechanism. The soul grows from life to life in its elements of divinity and divine possibilities through the experience that ensues through karma.

Thus karma is not a source of bondage. The source of bondage is Ignorance and Ego. The nature of karma is only a reflector of our inner state. Yet even if we were to stop all action, as happens in a catatonic schizophrenic or a person in prolonged coma, it would not liberate us since the knot is in our nature and not in the action as such. Karma is not the original cause of birth and it is not what compels the soul to pass through rebirth again and again. The soul enters into the cycle of rebirth for an evolutionary adventure, something which is not possible in its unmanifest state. And it will continue to do so until its evolutionary purpose is over.

Also, there is no inexorable law of karma. Karma and its consequences can be dissolved in three main ways:

  • By purushartha, that is learning what the consequences are trying to teach us, or in other words going to a higher level of our evolution. To take a very physical example, if one is a smoker, he is liable to suffer its consequences in the form of disorders of lung and heart. But the man may stop smoking after some time due to an inner change or realisation. Or else he may begin to exercise positive will and thought against illness. Such a person by learning or taking help from a higher plane of consciousness (using positive mental thoughts to intervene in physical mechanisms) changes the course of karma, so that the physical consequences may be entirely eliminated.
  • By tapasya, that is exercising an inner will in the direction of an inner change. The logic here is that the roots of karma are within the tangled forest of our nature. It is these roots which need to change and not just their outer manifestations. The real knot of the problem is in wrong attachment and egoistic pride or perhaps an undue sensitiveness. First that needs to be tackled to dissolve the link, for after that the consequences become redundant. Let’s take the example of a robber. It is not enough for this robber to simply wake up one day and apologise for the harm done through him, unless it is accompanied by a genuine sense of change for the better. Such a drastic change may or may not happen in one life, and certainly not through the recourse of law. The propensity towards evil in such cases remains until it is gradually thinned out, its grip loosened in other lives, perhaps it is even turned to some good use and finally dissolved. Alternatively, the person may suddenly wake up to the need of a radical change due to some shock. Then the need for tapasya comes to shorten the course of karma and dissolve its effects. An example from mythology is the well-known conversion of Ratnakar the robber into Valmiki the seer and sage, in a single life, dissolving his karma through tapasya.
  • By kripa, that is to say Grace can completely annul Karma. For that indeed is the highest secret. There is however one catch here. Grace is not a machinery dictated by any law. Yet one can open to it and ask for it in all sincerity. What is necessary here is an inner sincerity and faith. An inner sincerity which does not go on repeating the same mistake under the pretext of laziness of will and an inability or even an unwillingness to change. And an inner faith that spontaneously trusts the Divine Grace and whole-heartedly believes that the Divine will lift one out of all troubles and difficulties. Such an intrinsic faith when combined with the strength of an inner sincerity works miracles and wonders. It not only dissolves the karma but also liberates us entirely from all karma forever by taking the burden of the soul’s journey entirely upon itself.

Finally, cessation from the chain of karma and consequently the cycle of rebirth, called mukti or moksha, is not the goal. It is only a passage towards a higher evolution wherein a being that is free from Ego and Ignorance (and therefore of the chain of karma) continues to work and be consciously reborn so as to fulfill God’s purpose in humanity, that is the establishment of a Truth-Creation rather than a creation of Ignorance upon earth.

 

Recollections of Past Life

“Recollections last only for a time, not till rebirth otherwise the stamp would be so strong that remembrance of past births, even after taking a new body, would be the rule rather than the exception.

“You say ‘Relationships of one birth persist in successive births, the chances depending on the strength of the attachment’. This is possible, but not a law — as a rule the same relationship would not be constantly repeated — the same people often meet again and again on earth in different lives, but the relations are different. The purpose of rebirth would not be served if the same personality with the same relations and experiences are incessantly repeated.”[17]

Recollections of past life have often been reported even by the most sceptical individuals and under the most unassuming circumstances. What we have to understand about these recollections of past lives is that memory (any memory for that matter) is a function of the state of consciousness. We recollect things best by reverting to the state of consciousness in which we experienced them. That is why it is sometimes so difficult to remember extremely painful events (unless under hypnosis) since the mind does not want to relive it. To relive is actually to recollect. But we live and experience life on several levels simultaneously. Therefore too there are several types of recollections. Of these the most rare are the recollections of the soul. The soul does not care so much about the outer details as about the essence of things. The mind and vital however get engaged more with outer details of an event since they live so completely projected outwards. Genuine soul memories therefore relate to some exceptional soulful moments and movements of our life and not necessarily of our outer personality and name unless these too participated in the soul’s experience. What normally passes off as past life recollections are usually fragments of the vital or mental consciousness and its corresponding memory attaching itself to some person’s consciousness through affinity, or even to one’s own if the rebirth is very soon after death or before these formations get dissolved. Such rapid rebirth would however mean a relatively undeveloped consciousness with very few soul moments to assimilate. Most human beings would require a longer period of assimilative rest before a return to earth for any vital, emotional or mental memory to sustain itself.

Often this blotting out of the tablets of past memories is held as an argument against the existence of rebirth. We might as well say that we did not exist as a one-year-old since we do not remember much of it! But thank God we do not remember past lives! We do not realise what a grace this Ignorance is at times. Imagine handling the problems and attachments of past lives when we find ourselves so incompetent to handle the present itself. The law that makes us forget is a law of wisdom. It is another proof of the karmic law not being one of mere retribution. Nature makes us forget the past so that we may move into the future having gathered the essence of past experiences necessary for our evolution. Besides there are gaps in our consciousness and in our transit from one life to another, through one layer of consciousness to another, through one state of consciousness to another, and we tend to become oblivious of that which is left behind due to selective concentration. This happens in dreams as well. We forget our dreams except those that happened just close to our waking state. It is due to the gaps of consciousness during transit from one inner world to another. Interestingly the dream may repeat itself when in sleep we once again enter the same domain. All the same, we can recover the past memory through a special process of reverse concentration as is used in hypnotic regression therapies or by tearing the veils between different states and becoming conscious of the gaps as through yogic development.

“There is no rule of complete forgetfulness in the return of the soul to rebirth. There are, especially in childhood, many impressions of the past life which can be strong and vivid enough, but the materialising education and influence of the environments prevent their true nature from being recognised. There are even a great number of people who have definite recollections of a past life. But these things are discouraged by education and the atmosphere and cannot remain or develop; in most cases they are stifled out of existence. At the same time it must be noted that what the psychic being carries away with it and brings back is ordinarily the essence of the experiences it had in former lives, and not the details so that you cannot expect the same memory as one has of the present existence… ordinarily, it is only by yogic development or by clairvoyance that the exact memory of past lives can be brought back.”[18]

Thus, what is of real significance is not the outer details of our life but our inmost hopes and aspirations, what we deeply and truly aspired, worked and struggled for. The other and outer details have only a secondary significance. In fact, each part of us carries its own memories and it is possible for something of this to attach itself to the new formation. But by its very nature, the soul memories will be very few and they alone have the capacity to endure the tides of time. Linked with the immortal essence in us, they can outstrip death. The experience of soul memory is more as a soul state, a fleeting glimpse or an inmost feeling, beautiful and true, thrown up suddenly against the backdrop of some minor and incidental outer detail. The mind and vital catching upon that minor outer detail can well build up a romantic tale out of it. The real greatness however does not lie in our outer appearance but in our inmost aspiration, not as much in what we were or are in our outer self but much more in what we inwardly are and can become. The psychic being or the true individual soul in us is the repository of this authentic inner story, concealed often to our outer view but self-revealed and remembered by the inner eye.

What applies to the individual applies to nations and groups as well. Just like the individual, there are group souls that participate in a collective action and destiny. Born from age to age, under different forms and names, they take up the thread of the work left undone. Nations (collectivity of people in a certain clime and of a certain psychological type) are also born, rise high and then fall, only to rise again and resume the unfinished journey. The earth itself, according to the tradition of the yugas or cycles dies (since all upon it is destroyed) and is reborn. It then quickly recollects and gathers the past merits (and problems as well) to move further towards a new age.

“There is such a thing as yugadharma, the right institutions and modes of action for the age in which we live. For action depends indeed on the force of knowledge or will that is to be used, but it depends, too, on the time, the place and the vessel. Institutions that are right in one age are not right in another. Replacing social system by social system, religion by religion, civilisation by civilisation, God is perpetually leading man onwards to loftier and more embracing manifestations of our human perfectibility. When in His cosmic circling movement, He establishes some stable worldwide harmony, that is man’s Satya Yuga. When harmony falters, is maintained with difficulty, not in the nature of men, but by an accepted force or political instrument, that is his Treta. When the faltering becomes stumbling and the harmony has to be maintained at every step by a careful and laborious regulation, that is his Dwapara. When there is disintegration, and all descends in collapse and ruin, nothing can stay farther the cataclysm that is his Kali. This is the natural law of progress of all human ideas and institutions. It applies always in the mass, continually though less perfectly in the detail. One may almost say that each human religion, society, civilisation has its four Ages. For this movement is not only the most natural, but the most salutary. It is not a justification of pessimism nor a gospel of dumb fate and sorrowful annihilation. It is not, as we too often think in our attachment to the form, a melancholy law of decline and the vanity of all human achievements. If each Satya has its Kali, equally does each Kali prepare its Satya. That destruction was necessary for this creation, and the new harmony, when it is perfected, will be better than the old. But there is the weakness, there is the half success turning to failure, there is the discouragement, there is the loss of energy and faith which clouds our periods of disintegration, the apparent war, violence, ragging, tumult and trample to and fro which attends our periods of gradual creation and half-perfection. Therefore men cry out dismally and lament that all is perishing. But if they trusted in God’s Love and Wisdom, not preferring to it their conservative and narrow notions, they would rather cry out that all is being reborn.

“So much depends on Time and God’s immediate purpose that it is more important to seek out His purpose than to attach ourselves to our own nostrums. The Kala Purusha, Zeitgeist and Death Spirit, has risen to his dreadful work — lokakshayakritpravriddhas — increasing to destroy a world, and who shall stay the terror and mightiness and irresistibility of Him? But He is not only destroying the world that was, He is creating the world that shall be; it is therefore more profitable for us to discover and help what He is building than to lament and hug in our arms what He is destroying. But it is not easy to discover His drift, and we often admire too much temporary erections which are merely tents for the warriors in this Kurukshetra and take them for the permanent buildings of the future.

“The Pandits are therefore right when they make a difference between the practice of the Satya and the practice of the Kali. But in their application of this knowledge, they do not seem to me to be always wise or learned. They forget or do not know that Kali is the age for a destruction and rebirth, not for a desperate clinging to the old that can no longer be saved.”[19]

 

The Soul’s Choice

The important thing to understand here is that it is not our outer personality that is reborn but our inmost soul. Our name and form in this life to which we are so attached is nothing more than an outer contrivance put up by the soul. The real person is within, the personality is a mere mask. The word persona in fact means just that — a mask. It is this inmost person that chooses the next formation of its personality and the environment it would like to be born in, the kind of parentage, the experience it needs, etc. It is the soul that chooses our next fate and not some arbitrary force. And unlike our ignorant personality which is always seeking for pleasure and success, the soul may well choose a difficult life if it feels that is what will ensure its progress. Thus the soul inhabiting a king’s body may choose to be born as an ordinary man or a commoner in its next life.

After a long or short period of assimilative rest (depending upon whether the previous birth entailed few or many soul experiences), the soul decides about its next agenda and then waits for an opportune moment and appropriate circumstance (not with a mental knowledge but a soul-vision) to plunge again into the great evolutionary adventure. And for its further experiences it uses as much of its accumulated energy of past experiences or karma stored in the true mental, true vital and true physical, all of which are part of the psychic being. A new tale begins, a greater climb under a different form and name.

“As regards the stage at which the soul returning for rebirth enters the new body no rule can be laid down, for the circumstances vary with the individual. Some psychic beings get into relation with the birth-environment and the parents from the time of conception and determine the preparation of the personality and future in the embryo, others join only at the time of delivery, others even later on in the life and in these cases it is some emanation of the psychic being which upholds the life. It should be noted that the conditions of the future birth are determined fundamentally not during the stay in the psychic world but at the time of death — the psychic being then chooses what it should work out in the next terrestrial appearance and the conditions arrange themselves accordingly…

“The psychic being’s choice at the time of death does not work out the next formation of personality, it fixes it. When it enters the psychic world, it begins to assimilate the essence of its experience and by that assimilation is formed the future psychic personality in accordance with the fixation already made. When this assimilation is over, it is ready for a new birth; but the less developed beings do not work out the whole thing for themselves, there are beings and forces of the higher world who have that work. Also, when it comes to birth, it is not sure that the forces of the physical world will not come across the working out of what it wanted — its own new instrumentation may not be strong enough for that purpose; for, there is the interaction of its own energies and the cosmic forces here. There may be frustration, diversion, a partial working out — many things may happen. All that is not a rigid machinery, it is a working out of complex forces. It may be added, however, that a developed psychic being is much more conscious in this transition and works out much of it itself. The time depends also on the development and on a certain rhythm of the being — for some there is practically immediate rebirth, for others it takes longer, for some it may take centuries; but here, again, once the psychic being is sufficiently developed, it is free to choose its own rhythm and its own intervals.”[20]

Life therefore is a real adventure where the only things certain are the Goal and the Guide but it is up to each one to choose the path for reaching it. As is the will and faith, so is the man and so is his destiny. It is in this deepest sense that we can say that man is his faith:

श्रद्धामयोऽयं पुरुषो यो यच्छ्रद्धः स एव सः॥३॥

Whatever the nature of a man’s faith, that is the type of man he is.[21]

The Guide is the inmost soul and the sure compass in us and not the outer superficial soul of desire that misguides. The whole mystery of life is solved when this inner guide is found and we can consciously listen to it. Till then life remains a slave to the outer circumstances and inner forces.

Our destiny is written in double terms. Most of us regard the theory of karma in very outward terms. That is to say the outer actions are given predominant importance and so also the outer consequences. But just as there is a large unseen dimension of karma (the inner motives, intentions, faith, thoughts, feelings, past links, present evolution, constitution, etc. — things unseen by man but marked by the gods) so also there is a large unseen dimension of inner consequences (like inner growth, maturity, development of strength, perseverance, determination, soul growth, etc.) that often run even in seeming contradiction to the observed outer consequences.[22]

“It is not the personality, the character that is of the first importance in rebirth — it is the psychic being who stands behind the evolution of the nature and evolves with it. The psychic when it departs from the body, shedding even the mental and vital on its way to its resting place, carries with it the heart of its experiences, — not the physical events, not the vital movements, not the mental buildings, not the capacities or characters, but something essential that it gathered from them, what might be called the divine element for the sake of which the rest existed. That is the permanent addition, it is that, that helps in the growth towards the Divine. That is why there is usually no memory of the outward events and circumstances of past lives — for this memory there must be a strong development towards unbroken continuance of the mind, the vital, even the subtle physical; for though it all remains in a kind of seed memory, it does not ordinarily emerge. What was the divine element in the magnanimity of the warrior, that which expressed itself in his loyalty, nobility, high courage, what was the divine element behind the harmonious mentality and generous vitality of the poet and expressed itself in them, that remains and in a new harmony of character may find a new expression or, if the life is turned towards the Divine, be taken up as powers for the realisation or for the work that has to be done for the Divine.”[23]

Death thus seen is a means to assimilate the experiences of a particular lifetime and work out the future, much like a strategist would plan out the next day’s war when the sun sets. Death is also the final anvil on which our being is tested. All that is linked to the Divine Truth survives and continues enhancing us with each life while all that was given to the ego and its childish desire is destroyed thankfully by the dark and ruthless god. Therefore is death also a great liberator and its experience sobering to the restless desire-soul in us. All eyes we may deceive, but not the eyes of death. For there in that grim and sombre night, only the light of the soul and all that has gathered around it can survive. The rest is eaten up and swallowed by the darkness and returns to the uncertain and ambiguous fields of our collective Ignorance.

 

The Cessation of the Cycle of Birth and Death

The Ideal of Mukti/ Salvation/ Nirvana/ Moksha

Life, seen from the surface appears as a ‘tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.’[24] Few can ever escape the sting of life which is also a sting of death. Death seems to put a final seal upon the futility of all human effort. So much has this surface orientation preoccupied the human mind that even mystics and saints have declared that the only real utility of human life is to somehow find a door of escape from this impermanent, unhappy world. Called mukti in India, salvation and nirvana elsewhere, the highest goal kept for the human soul so far has been a final cessation from the cycle of birth and death and rebirth. This philosophy is based upon an obvious error that sees human birth and creation as an unfortunate accident or else the work of a dark and diabolic power before which even God stands helpless! The only solution proposed therefore is to somehow find a permanent release from the clutches of this dark mystery of God. But we do not pause to think as to what is this dark mystery. Is it a veil that the One has put upon Himself by His own choice; is it a shadow of His castaway past? Or is it a dark intrusion that is even more powerful than the One Himself, a dual being forever separate who can never meet and reconcile, only oppose and mar each other’s work? And what could possibly persuade the Almighty God to suffer a downfall or a veiling as if a captive of His own mystery. There is obviously an important link missing that we need to discover.

There is no easy answer but if it is God or the One Divine who created this universe and all else in it, then there must be a purpose in this dark mystery as well. The purpose cannot obviously be to terrorise people into seeking escape into some nirvana since then the very act of apparent bondage becomes absurd and meaningless! Were the souls not already free before creation? Then why allow a fall in the first place (if it is a fall at all) and then say, “I’m sorry, but this is a mistake. Nevertheless I will rectify it by sending my angels to help you come out of the dark void.” Karma is obviously not the force compelling the soul to assume birth for in the beginning there was no karma, nor can a cessation of karma and of birth be the last word of creation. Omar Khayyam, the great mystic, questions this in a meaningful verse:

O thou, who with pitfall and with gin,
beset the road I was to travel in,
Woulds’t thou with predestination around,
impute me for my fall to sin.

 

The Ideal of Divine Life and an Evolutionary Transformation

The answer comes from Sri Aurobindo. He affirms that life upon earth is not an unfortunate accident but a field of evolution of the soul and its manifestation in material terms. The cycles of death and rebirth serve a definitive purpose. This purpose is no doubt first and foremost, the growth of the individual soul within us. Having thus grown through the varied experiences of many lives, the soul arrives at a great point of departure. It is fully formed and therefore it is free, free to decide whether it wants to come back upon earth or not. It is not compelled anymore to do so since the first purpose of the cycles of death and birth are over. However it can also choose another line of development or work upon earth. This work is the transmutation of earthly life into life divine. To this we can turn later. But when can it be said that the soul has arrived at its freedom and what exactly does this freedom mean? Is this freedom only for the exceptional few or is it a state to which all would eventually arrive one day and towards which all of us are inevitably moving? Here is the Mother’s answer to this:

“The closer one is to the beginning of the formation, the closer are the reincarnations; and sometimes even, altogether at the lower level, when man is quite near the animal, it goes like this (gesture), that is, it is not unusual for people to reincarnate in the children of their children, like that, something like that, or just in the next generation. But this is always on a very primitive level of evolution, and the psychic being is not very conscious, it is in the state of formation. And as it becomes more developed, the reincarnations, as I said, are at a greater distance from one another. When the psychic being is fully developed, when it no longer needs to return to earth for its development, when it is absolutely free, it has the choice between no longer coming back to earth if it finds that its work lies elsewhere or if it prefers to remain in the purely psychic consciousness, without reincarnating; or else it can come when it wants, as it wants, where it wants, perfectly consciously. And there are those who have united with forces of a universal order and with entities of the Overmind or elsewhere, who remain all the time in the earth atmosphere and take on bodies successively for the work. This means that the moment the psychic being is completely formed and absolutely free — when it is completely formed it becomes absolutely free — it can do anything it likes, it depends on what it chooses; therefore one can’t say, ‘It will be like this, it will be like that’; it does exactly what it wants and it can even announce (that has happened), at the moment of the death of the body, what its next reincarnation will be and what it will do, and already choose what it is going to do. But before this state, which is not very frequent — it depends absolutely on the degree of development of the psychic and the hope formulated by the integral consciousness of the being — there is still the mental, vital and physical consciousness, united with the psychic consciousness; so at that moment, the moment of death, the moment of leaving the body, it formulates a hope or an aspiration or a will, and usually this decides the future life.”[25]

Life upon earth is therefore a field of growth, a great opportunity to progress, an opportunity that even the gods covet. Birth, death, rebirth, and all our struggle and pain, even deep disasters help us in this development, which for the most part takes place unconsciously (unconscious for the surface mind). A point however comes when this secret is known and the soul can then progress freely using every event and circumstance consciously as a means for its growth.


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  1. Sri Aurobindo Came to Me, 1952 ed., pp. 516-21.[]
  2. The Mother: On Education. CWM, Vol.12, pp. 82-87[]
  3. Maria Parkes and other music thanatologists can be contacted at: www.music-thanatologyassociation.com[]
  4. Mother India, Nov. 1974 as noted in ‘The Mother: Past-Present-Future’ by Amal Kiran, pp. 106-107.[]
  5. Tlemcen is a place in Algeria where the Mother spent some time discovering the deepest occult secrets and mysteries of life and death.[]
  6. The plane from where differentiation starts, where the One Reality begins to definitively put on the appearance of many, just as light splits into a rainbow after passing out of the prism. It is the plane of the true gods from where vast but separate ideas originate.[]
  7. Sri Aurobindo: The Upanishads, Isha Upanishad, Verse 3[]
  8. Sri Aurobindo: Letters on Yoga, pp. 459-60[]
  9. Refer to Appendix III: Beyond Death for words of the Mother on asuric possession.[]
  10. The Mother, CWM, Vol.5, pp. 260-263[]
  11. Sri Aurobindo: Letters on Yoga, p. 437[]
  12. Sri Aurobindo: ‘Rebirth’, Collected Poems, p. 51[]
  13. Original Latin: Disproof of a proposition by showing the absurdity of its inevitable conclusion.[]
  14. Alexandra David Neel: Reincarnation of Lamas[]
  15. Sri Aurobindo: Letters on Yoga, pp. 433-434, 445, 441[]
  16. Sri Aurobindo: Letters on Yoga, pp. 444-45[]
  17. Sri Aurobindo: Letters on Yoga, p. 435.[]
  18. Sri Aurobindo: Letters on Yoga, pp. 437, 445-46[]
  19. Sri Aurobindo: Essays Divine and Human, pp. 57-58[]
  20. Sri Aurobindo: Letters on Yoga, pp. 440-41, 444.[]
  21. The Gita: Ch. 17, Verse 3[]
  22. Refer to Appendix III: Beyond Death for the story A Dream[]
  23. Sri Aurobindo: Letters on Yoga, p. 452[]
  24. Shakespeare: Macbeth, Act V, Scene V[]
  25. The Mother: CWM Vol. 7, 16 March 1955, pp. 86-87[]