What is Death?
Death – The Annihilator of Time’s Works
For all our knowledge of life, death continues to remain a mystery. Just as we know something about the processes of life rather than about the life-principle itself, so also we know a little about the process of death rather than about the death-principle that exists as a universal force in Nature. We (the sense-mind at least) normally associate death with the visible dissolution of the physical form. But the principle of death is much more universal than that. There is first the process of decay and disintegration that is almost a part of all material forms that we know upon earth at least. Perhaps there could be or are forms of a subtler make, of a different substance-energy combination, if one may say so, that are more plastic and therefore less subject to the phenomenon of decay and death. The immortal gods existing on other planes of consciousness where matter is differently organised are supposed to have such a plasticity and a consequent immortality for practical purposes at least. Practical, because they too have their term of existence following which they dissolve back into their parent Source. Thus at a higher plane, death represents a beginning and end of things in Time, the great annihilator of its own works! For all events are worked out by the Time-Spirit and maintained and later even destroyed by it. That takes us immediately to the phenomenon of death beyond the mere visible dissolution of physical forms. We may thus say that there is death not only of physical forms but also of forms of thought, of ideas, of philosophies, sciences, arts, of great civilisations… death not only of mind-made structures but even of quasars and distant stars and galaxies. Whether they die or simply change their forms as both material and spiritual science confirm, is another matter but the existing form does perish, and that is the equivalent of death.
“The life of the society like the physical life of the individual human being passes through a cycle of birth, growth, youth, ripeness and decline, and if this last stage goes far enough without any arrest of its course towards decadence, it may perish, even so all the older peoples and nations except India and China perished, as a man dies of old age. But the collective being has too the capacity of renewing itself, of a recovery and a new cycle. For in each people there is a soul idea or life idea at work, less mortal than its body, and if this idea is itself sufficiently powerful, large and force-giving and the people sufficiently strong, vital and plastic in mind and temperament to combine stability with a constant enlargement or new application of the power of the soul idea or life idea in its being, it may pass through many such cycles before it comes to a final exhaustion.”
Death – A Partner in the Game of Life
Another idea about death is that it is a device of nature used as a process of life, albeit complementary to life itself. In other words, individual forms seen in isolation perish but by their death they only go on to strengthen the survival for a larger collective truth. Individual life forms in this view are seen as part of a great unbroken chain of Life or All-life, if we may say so. While the individual suffers the shock and defeat by death, the larger unity grows by this individual sacrifice. Yet the totality of the physical body continues to not only exist but even grow through this process. Take for instance, the fact that within a single lifetime, individual cells and groups of cells die several times. The human red blood cells for example have a lifespan of about 90-120 days. That means they change themselves through a process of internal destruction combined with a commensurate process of internal manufacture every three-four months on an average. The balance is evidently a delicate one. If the cells were to survive abnormally longer, that would create danger for the organism. It would block the blood vessels due to the excess of cells in the system. It would also lead to excess of old and therefore relatively less capable cells leading to an overall inefficiency in their functioning. Nature seems to respect efficiency more than mere age. In fact excess of red cells or for that matter the white ones or any other cells in the system leads to a threat for the life of the whole organism. What else is cancer but the relative immortality of a group of cells due to excess production (beyond the norm necessary for a smooth balance) combined with a degree of freedom from the whole that signals danger for the rest of the body! Here too we find a lesson from nature. Freedom does not exist in isolation but in relation with the whole. And immortality too will be meaningful if it comes only by discovering that part in us which is conscious of its oneness with the whole. There is nothing like immortality for the separate ego-self of man. That would obviously be a dangerous thing to happen and therefore neither nature’s deep wisdom nor the boon of gods would allow it.
Death is a certainty, nay a necessity so long as we live in the separate ego-sense. As with the cells so also with more complex living systems. The individual organisms die and thereby make way for future growth which would become increasingly difficult if the past continued to linger ad-infinitum as fetters around the feet of time that flees faster than we know. The body we are born with is not the body that eventually dies — if we live the average lifespan. It has changed over several times or shall we say died and reborn many times over. So rapid is the transition, so imperceptible the process, and so well coordinated a mechanism that we do not even notice it. The sense of being the same self and person continues even though everything is changed, as if something central takes care of the rapidity of the complex changes occurring within. So then when do we actually die and do we die at all except to the limited and narrow view of our fragmented self? Is death the spur towards recovering the Wholeness that we secretly are? Is physical death just yet another great transition, maybe too sudden and a bit prolonged so as to make us take notice of it? Is it a temporary decentralisation and dispersal till out of the dust we gather ourselves and rise again like the mythical bird of immortality, the phoenix, and resume the great epic of life?
The Two Faces of Death
Not only philosophy and mystic lore but science also recognises two forms of death. One that is natural and normal as a process complimentary to life, called Apoptosis; the other as something unnatural and superimposed upon the organism, called Necrosis. Death, through apoptosis is woven into the very fabric of life. The fingers of a six-week-old embryo separate following the death of cells located in the web between the fingers. The death of these specific cells allows the appearance of the hand as it is. Even before the full organism begins to breathe and before the heart begins to beat with new life, the game of death and life has already begun. Sometimes they play as partners as in the phenomenon of apoptosis, at other times as opponents, as in necrosis. Apoptosis, meaning ‘falling leaves’ in Greek, refers to the continuous process of death within life, as natural and necessary for the body’s physiological balance just as leaves falling from trees in Autumn are necessary for the fresh blossoms of Spring.
In apoptosis or programmed cell death, the dying cell sends signals to the neighboring cells which then engage in swallowing all the important organelles which can be utilised. The process is fine-tuned and perfectly coordinated. In contrast, death through necrosis seems to be an external superimposition necessitated perhaps by the conditions of life itself. We may call it an accident, something that perhaps could be avoided by human intervention. This itself will make life (and death) so much easier to handle! Necrotic cell-death is an abrupt process liberating toxins in the environment. The result is proneness to damage in the surrounding cells. The disturbance in favour of death leads to aging and death. On the other hand, a disturbance in favor of life leads to malignancies and therefore an even more premature death.
Thus, biologically as well as psychologically, we can distinguish two types of dying. One, where death appears as a liberator from a burdened past. The other comes as a face of terror destroying ruthlessly a beautiful gift, making the very first moment of birth also into a moment of death.
The Scientific View of Death
The material scientist has studied the phenomenon of death purely at the physical level. Physically, the scientists distinguish at least two levels of death. Physiological or clinical death wherein one observes external signs of the absence of life. Prominent among these is the absence of any form of brain activity as recorded electro physiologically, next there comes the cessation of respiration and the heartbeat. Of course, we know today that the breathing may stop much earlier and the heart may still go on beating for some time. The shadow of death then descends lower down and affects the liver, kidneys and other organs. This is the temporal march of death, from above downwards. As a last step there intervenes cellular death which leads to the final dissolution and decomposition of the very cells that constitute the body.
In other words, there is a period of time when the fundamental functions and processes that sustain life in the organism — breathing and circulation have stopped but the cells continue to live sustained by a minimum of life-force or by a past momentum. Once the decomposition sets in it is a sure sign that life has withdrawn completely without any possibility of return. Of course from a clinical point of view, the person is considered dead when the brain-death has occurred irreversibly and the heart and respiration has ceased. At this point, the law permits cremation as well as organ transplant/ donation. It is believed that hereon it is only a matter of time for the degeneration to set in. This though true in most cases may not however be an absolute rule. For there are several instances on record of those declared clinically dead returning to life. To this we will turn later.
In fact there is a state of suspended animation where the respiration and heartbeat can stop for as long as 48 hours and yet life may resume thereafter. Some of those buried under debris for long and resuming their normal life afterwards may well be cases of suspended animation. It is a state where the energy transactions are withheld at a minimum much as an account may be suspended but not closed. This is well comprehensible from the yogic point of view.
Seen from a deeper perspective, the processes of life — respiration, circulation, etc., are simply some of the material means that nature uses to circulate the life-force within the body. The life-energy however also flows simultaneously through a subtler and supraphysical route. The yogis traditionally identify five such channels and movements of the life-energy within us. Under certain conditions as in trance or cataleptic states the life-energy may continue to flow and animate the body even though the physical means are no more at its disposal. This can provide enough energy for the minimum support of the physical body, much as a blind man under the stress of his disability may develop his other senses to compensate for his seeing. These things are obviously not so well recognised by a purely material science and therefore it erroneously regards the cessation of life processes and its material means as the cessation of life itself. Life ceases when the force of life withdraws from the form that it animates and not when the material processes have stopped functioning. Though in most cases the two occur hand in hand, yet, this subtle distinction is necessary and can have a practical bearing upon issues like organ transplant and burial.
There have been cases of premature burial necessitating sometimes laws to prevent cremation until decomposition sets in. According to Swami Abhedananda of the Sri Ramakrishna Order, “There have been cases of many prematurely killed by putting them into the coffin and burying them under the ground. As the premature burial is objectionable, so the premature embalming is objectionable. The embalmers have killed (unknowingly) many before they really died. They might have been revived and might have lived for a long time. Trance, catalepsy and ecstasy are the conditions which resemble death. The outward signs are similar. But what happens to the soul after trance or ecstasy? Science does not know, because it denies the existence of a soul other than the mind. A person might go into a trance and remain in that state for hours. There are persons who can stop the heartbeat by their will. I know a Hindu Yogi who came to America a few years ago and who, in New York, went through all the medical tests to prove that he could stop his heartbeat at his will. The medical practitioners were all dumbfounded, and questioned how he could do it. It is possible, because it obeys the will of the individual, and the individual will commands and directs the organic functions.”
This is not the only incidence of such a feat. There have been others even more rigorously authenticated, the case of Pilot Baba for example who remained buried inside an underground air-proof chamber for twenty-one days and came out alive to the amazement of the scientists and the sceptics. The rarity of such events is only because it is still a possibility for most, a possibility not yet realised or even attempted. But the yogis in India have always known and frequently experienced a cessation of outer breathing and an activation of subtle breathing during deep meditations.
In fact there are parallels in the animal world as well wherein certain animals mimic death including stiffness (rigor mortis) as a defensive strategy. These may be called for want of a better term, ‘counterfeits of death’. The black bear for example can stay without food for around three – six months. During this period its heartbeat and respiration drops progressively to much below its normal. Certain species of foxes and other animals can lie stiff and motionless, practically without breathing to deceive the predators. Snakes resemble the dead when they go into collective hibernation. This is just a pointer that the traditional signs of death such as the stopping of heartbeats and respiration can be deceptive. Even modern science has recognised this and therefore the strict criteria are no more clinical (though still followed in practice) but electrophysiological (the electrical records of the heart and brain taken through the ECG and EEG must show a complete and sustained absence of activity). Naturally, if the animal mind can do things of this order then how much more can the human mind and still more the mind of the yogi striving for conscious mastery achieve is left to anybody’s guess. As we have already seen even scientifically it is not so incomprehensible today. It is just that the heartbeat and the respiration have so far been regarded as autonomic and therefore beyond the person’s voluntary control. But so was gastric secretion and many other human activities regarded as autonomic and beyond the control of the human will. Today we know that human will can indeed master these. Extensive scientific research of yogic practices have revealed the latent possibilities of human will in controlling the brain waves and many other things, for example, the heart rate, gastric juice secretion, blood pressure, etc. Sri Aurobindo reveals in the essays on physical education that it is necessary to bring under voluntary control those activities of the body that are driven largely by a mechanical and subconscious will. It is this mechanical and subconscious will that assumes the autonomic pathways. With education, however, the body can override these pathways and link them to a higher and more conscious voluntary control. In fact we are on the threshold of learning that there are no ineluctable laws as far as the human body is concerned but only fixed habits that mimic law. And who knows we may well discover someday that death and aging themselves are nothing more than habits, bad ones at that!
Of course, both the material scientist probing the physical body and the spiritual scientist probing the soul and other subtle bodies, as well as their mutual relation agree on one point. It is this that cellular death and the consequent signs of decomposition are sure indications of death. The only exception to this would be mummification or desiccation. The commonest explanation of this phenomenon is attributed to dehydration and certain other chemical changes. But there are inner reasons as well of which we are presently ignorant. Nevertheless, we may become aware of these as we grow in inner sight and vision. The inner reason is that in such instances the ‘spirit of the form’ (that part of our material vitality that is in close link with the body) remains around the body. This supplies just enough vital forces to create an interchange with the environment and thereby prevents decay. But it also provides a certain degree of life to the dead. Perhaps this could have been one of the reasons for the tragic and mysterious deaths of those who were exploring the pyramids and mummies. We do not know but the immediate practical implication of all this is, that it is wise to wait for the process of withdrawal to complete itself before one undertakes any step towards the post-death rituals for the body of the deceased. To hurry through the process may mean that the consciousness of the person inhabiting the body may lose some of the experiences embedded in the material cells. While this may be of little consequence to the mass of humanity, it would make a difference to one who is spiritually uplifted and whose body has gathered a wealth of inner experiences through the consciousness of its noble and worthy inhabitant.
There is nothing unscientific about this. Normally the traditional signs of death like the cessation of breathing and heartbeat and the stilling of brain waves is based on the assumption that these are vital functions under the control of an autonomic nervous system. The word autonomic (as opposed to voluntary) is itself an assumptive word indicating that this part of the nervous system works automatically without the control or intervention of our voluntary will. But this, after all, may be an assumption based on our present experience of the body and its functioning. It has now long been known that athletics (a voluntary activity) does tend to alter the way our autonomic nervous system functions. In other words, a voluntary activity can affect and alter the balance of functioning of even our most ‘autonomous parts’. If so then where do we set the limits? Why can’t one train the body to continue living for a longer time than feasible now, even after cessation of the heartbeats and respiration through methodical training? Why limit the scope of the human will when we have not discovered any such limiting pathways for it? In fact if anatomy is any indicator then the parts representing the conscious human will are the highest placed with possible linkages to all other pathways, one way or the other. The central seat of the body’s will is in the brain, the most developed and, ontogenetically, the most recent in evolution, the prefrontal cortex. The parts controlling respiration and heartbeats are placed down below in the third layer of the brain. Keeping in view nature’s logic of telencephalisation or to put it philosophically, ascent and integration, these lower parts have to be under the control of the higher. Recent evidence suggests it as well. It is just that we have not been trained to look at it from that angle but it can be developed methodically in such a way that our conscious mental will controls even the ‘autonomous parts’. From our point of view that is indeed one of the things Sri Aurobindo has suggested for the body — to bring the now subconscious parts under a conscious control. It is perhaps just a question of reactivating these sleeping paths. The only problem remaining then would be of working out alternate means for the flow of the life-current. The yogi is precisely such an explorer discovering hidden possibilities of the body, mind and the soul, other than those normally known to man. Let us not brush away their heroically scientific and even path breaking efforts as mere dreams of some madmen. Dreams perhaps for the common lot who strive not for something higher than what nature has provided but it is thanks to these dreams that we can still dare to hope and strive to conquer life and Nature. Thanks again to this madness that we can try to exceed ourselves and dare the impossible and reach out to the unreachable summits beyond our little humanity!
The Inner Dimension of Death
From an inner and occult point of view therefore death seems to encompass at least three distinct stages. To understand this we need to take a look at what holds the different organs of the body together in a smooth and harmonious functioning. Though the organs appear as separate and distinct entities, they are linked both anatomically as well as physiologically, mainly through the nerves, blood, glands and the lymphatics. Each is a specialised group of cells, yet they do not work in isolation but with a fine, intricate, delicate as well as complex balance that would beat the orderliness of a megalopolis. Where does this intelligent order come from except as an outer reflection of a vast and concealed intelligence hidden and working from behind in matter. Much in the same way as an event’s coordinator who smoothly controls all different aspects of an event, even while not being directly involved in each aspect, this intelligence too, coordinates, orders, sets to motion a smooth functioning of the diverse systems in our material and other universes, from the galaxies to the atoms and subatomic particles. It differentiates itself at each level and plane of consciousness and each individual particle and aggregates, to further co-ordinate the billions of processes in our manifold and complex universe. The ancient seers saw this as a Consciousness-Force that permeates, operates and works everywhere. But this Consciousness-Force is obviously not a mechanical inconscient energy as is evident in its working at all levels but a vast and supreme Intelligent-Will that knows its steps and goal. This Intelligent-Will works in the body also to hold the diverse elements and processes together. In man, the mental being, its primary seat is in the brain, and it holds the replica of the body as a whole in the physical consciousness behind, so that the gross outer manifested body can be compared for faults and rectified to the extent possible. This central Will must abdicate first before the smooth and harmoniously coordinated functioning of the body begins to give way to a disorder, dispersal and death. The stages therefore:
First, is the stage of Decentralisation. The universal will that held the body as a single unit or its representative decides to withdraw. This is the most important unseen and occult-determining factor. It is this Will that gives us the sense of a cohesive whole and coordinates its manifold events despite the diversity of functioning of the different body tissues and organs. In the absence of such a Will the body organs may well end up destroying each other since each is like a little primordial organism specialised in operations and symbiotically linked to other organs/organisms. The force that holds all these together is the Will that operates in the organism. It is the same force that holds the atomic constituents and the distant stars and galaxies together and is therefore universal. Modern science recognises such a force of cohesion between the molecules as well as the cells. Yet it is not a blind and mechanical force but an Intelligent-Will as is evident from its operations. It is this Will that begins to decentralise thereby starting a chain reaction of disintegration, dispersal and finally death and decomposition.
Centralisation is indeed the process of focal concentration necessary for creating anything. For without such a centralising concentration there would be nothing but an indeterminate chaos. The universal planes of consciousness themselves are formed through a process of concentration and condensation of the One Consciousness. These universal planes in their turn get focused and reflected in an individual once again through the same process. The soul in us chooses the elements out of universal nature and channelises them through its Will so as to form a unique body with its unique life-mind constitution based upon its need of certain experiences for growth and mastery. It is like a gymnast choosing certain equipment out of a wide variety so as to develop one aspect of his body through a certain set of physical exercises. So too the secret soul in us chooses certain formations of nature including the difficulties and challenges so as to develop certain sides of our self-experience in each birth. The choice is made based upon its past experiences, the need for a certain developmental training in the present and most importantly, its hidden agenda for the future. It is this and not a mechanical machinery of karma and heredity that forms us. And it is from this deepest standpoint that we say that our soul is the author of our fate. Heredity, environment, karma are all nothing else but machineries and processes of nature that the soul uses to make its choices. It chooses our life and circumstance, it chooses the experiences of life and when the need for a particular experience is over and it can go no further, then it chooses to move out of a particular formation of nature, rest for a while to gather the essence of its experiences, and return back for further growth. The Will of the soul binds it to the earth with a divine purpose and not some illusion or accident and it is the Will of the soul that makes it leave this house of matter and not some frightful agency of death.
Second, is the stage of Withdrawal. There starts a process of withdrawal wherein the mind withdraws followed by the life-force. This goes on till the body enters into a state of suspension of life activities. Here the vital functions stop but the body cells continue to hold the life-force reserves. The connection has not yet been severed and can re-establish itself under certain circumstances. This is the twilight zone wherein medical science may declare a person dead since his vital functions have stopped, yet there is some life in the body and therefore return is possible. It is a tacit recognition of this possibility that has led to a whole science of resuscitation. It has led to the inclusion of a new criterion in the certification of death.
A third and final stage supervenes — the Point of No-Return. Herein the life-force has withdrawn near-completely and whatever is left is busy with the process of disintegration. It is at this point that decomposition begins to set in and the being that inhabited the body moves on from the world that links the earth to the beyond.
Medical science is not yet aware of the first stage. It recognises the second stage in its outward aspects only and terms it as Clinical Death. The last is of course well known as the stage of decomposition or Cellular Death though here too, it is only the visible process (to the naked eye) that is described without any reference to the inner process. That leaves a big gap in our understanding. It is therefore that medical science is unable to explain cases of return, of NDE (near death experience) an of personality changes known in some of those who have survived death.
It is on this basis that we can also understand the pain of death. A question is often asked, is death painful? The answer is a yes and no. It is not painful once the central being has detached itself completely from the form and earth atmosphere. This may be easy for yogis and the spiritually accomplished but is by no means easy for the normal earth-bound mass of mankind. Though insensible to the outer surface, there is a real pain of death that arises due to a tearing of the life-force from the body and the subtle nerves that feed it. These nerves built of a subtle substance are attached to the gross body much as the physical nerves are. Their cutting asunder leads to an agonising wrench that constitutes the ‘pain of death’. That is why there is so much attachment to life in the body and if the euthanasia enthusiasts were to know or experience it once, they will be likely to change their views regarding this matter.
“What is it that the Soul draws out from the body when it casts off this partial physical robe which enveloped not it, but part of its members? What is it whose issuing out gives this wrench, this swift struggle and pain of parting, creates this sense of violent divorce? The answer does not help us much. It is the subtle or psychical frame which is tied to the physical by the heart-strings, by the cords of life-force, of nervous energy which have been woven into every physical fibre. This the Lord of the body draws out and the violent snapping or the rapid or tardy loosening of the life-cords, the exit of the connecting force constitutes the pain of death and its difficulty.”
The Tragedy of Inner Death
Thus we see that death is not just the stoppage of the body machine but even more importantly the driver-soul leaving behind a broken and frail machine. As the driver moves away, the force of life using the fuel of matter soon wears out. The machinery thence comes to a complete halt. We may envisage a situation wherein the soul leaves the body but the machinery continues. In such cases certain forces of the vital world may possess or inhabit the body temporarily and use it for its own destructive purposes. Such instances of a vital possession may arise following a seemingly spontaneous recovery or after an artificial resuscitation. The hallmark of such an event is a sudden personality change for the worse. Since it is the soul that gives man his true value, its absence leaves the field of the body a prey to the animal and demoniac forces from the nether worlds. There is a sudden downward tendency characterised by an increasing propensity to satisfy the crude and animal aspects of nature, a turn towards cruelty, an absence of faith and will, an absence of the urge to progress even outwardly, a missing of the finer and nobler movements that constitute our humanity, an undue appetite for vulgar display of power, wealth and sex. Such instances have been recorded in human history and passed off as psychotic madness due to brain damage but whose inner significance is yet to be discovered.
Man harbours dangerous forces in his house.
The Titan and the Fury and the Djinn
Lie bound in the subconscient’s cavern pit
And the Beast grovels in his antre den:
Dire mutterings rise and murmur in their drowse.
Insurgent sometimes raises its huge head
A monstrous mystery lurking in life’s deeps,
The mystery of dark and fallen worlds,
The dread visages of the adversary Kings.
The dreadful powers held down within his depths
Become his masters or his ministers;
Enormous they invade his bodily house,
Can act in his acts, infest his thought and life.
This is a graphic description of certain severe forms of madness. Whatever be the outer cause, the real inner reason is always a possession (except in certain organic brain disorder). The ‘possession’ is not just a being but more importantly a force and a consciousness. And since everything in this world is essentially a play of consciousness and forces at different levels interacting with each other, here too this dark and clouded force of a lower consciousness disrupts the links of thought, colours our feelings with suspicion and fear or an exaggerated self-importance and undue vanity, alters the brain chemistry by filling the cells with a perverse force and finally creates confusion and forgetfulness; the soul unable to find the right instruments for its growth and self-expression decides to depart, and that indeed is the inner death. With the departure of the soul, there departs from us faith and will, hope and courage, love and light. What remains is an empty shell like an automaton. The body continues to live supported by an inert and dark force of life that drives it only to satisfy certain gross animal propensities or else turns it into a dumb unthinking stone that can neither think nor feel like a human being. Drugs work only at the last step of the process and for some time alter the balance since at least the physical substance (which is the main instrument of expression and medium of growth) is prevented from disruption. But they are not enough. In others, the disorder silently and ominously creeps into the cells and tissues till the man gradually turns from good to evil like the black magician and cannibal in J.K. Rowling’s books, or like Hitler, Mussolini and the perpetuators of Tianamen in real life. The gory history of many dictators is witness to what happens next.
Impotent to quell his terrible prisoners,
Appalled the householder helpless sits above,
Taken from him his house is his no more…
This evil Nature housed in human hearts
A foreign inhabitant, a dangerous guest:
The soul that harbours it it can dislodge,
Expel the householder, possess the house.
Thus, Faith and Will are in their essence spiritual elements and derive from the inmost soul in us. Faith is the reflection of knowledge and Will the reflection of power, the two things that constitute the divine element within us along with that other element termed Ananda or a deep unconditional joy of being. Broken and deflected from their true purposes in our outer nature, they are yet the reflections or shadows of something true and deep in us. However, such a complete break is rare for it would mean an extreme form of regression (reverting back to a previous developmental stage of our evolution) to an animal existence. Nature usually does not allow such drastic regressions but we do encounter it sometimes in extreme cases. That as we have seen is indeed the real tragedy. The body’s death is only a temporary pause in the soul’s journey but the death of Faith and Will, of godward and upward aspiration, is a great fall and loss, a defeat of the soul at least for that particular lifetime.
Often the pilgrim on the Eternal’s road
Ill-lit from clouds by the pale moon of Mind,
Or in devious by-ways wandering alone,
Or lost in deserts where no path is seen,
Falls overpowered by her lion leap,
A conquered captive under her dreadful paws…
The mortal perishes to God and Light,
An Adversary governs heart and brain…
His subtle defeatist murmur slays the faith…
From the veiled sanctuary the God retires…
This is the tragedy of the inner death
When forfeited is the divine element
And only a mind and body live to die.
The Pervertors of Life and Death
The presence of such demoniac forces in some form or the other have always been known in every civilisation. Indian yogis and mystics have classified them into three main types:
The asuras or the disturbers of light, who inflict doubt and pervert truth to suit their darker ends. These act mostly in the domain of the ordinary mind giving it an entirely wrong turn of thoughts and a distorted interpretation of all religious, scriptural and spiritual truths.
The rakshasas or the eaters of light, who eat away will and aspiration and faith thereby diverting all efforts towards hideous and diabolic ends. They act mainly in the domain of the vital life parts in man, giving to these an excess and inordinate sense of power and ambition, leading to its misuse for entirely selfish and egoistic purposes.
The pisachas or the robbers of light, stealthily enter through the doors of the senses exciting lower vital propensities thereby depriving man of whatever inner gains he may have made through the touch of his soul. Their field of action is in the most unguarded and vulnerable parts of the lower vital nature with its animal desires and give to such craving, a perverted hedonistic element with an excess of lust and greed.
It may be difficult for a sceptic shut in the prison-house of matter to appreciate that there are other and occult dimensions of our being and existence. Nevertheless, the evidence comes through the experiences of humanity, that there are indeed hidden levels of the universe whose nature unfolds before us sometimes. One such everyday entry into the inner realms is during the body’s sleep, the other comes through the hallucinations of a psychotic. The full and conscious experience of these realms lies with the mystic and his visions and voices. Whether admitted by the die-hard sceptic or not, nevertheless the normal ordinary life of humanity is in any case an easy field for their action since the soul parts in us are relatively underdeveloped.
But even the relatively refined and developed human being, the pilgrim of truth has to safeguard against these beings that are on the watch out for those who are humanly striving to escape their fiefdom. It is not easy to play the detective upon them since they come wearing many appealing masks. It is only an awakened soul sense, a sincere aspiration unmixed with lower motives, and an unflinching trust in God or the Master which can save one from this inner downfall that is a far greater tragedy than the body’s death. If the trust and faith are missing then one normally goes through the full curve of the experience, touches rock bottom if need be, then comes up again, invariably so since whether acknowledged through faith or unacknowledged by our outer nature, the deeper truth of soul and God and Grace are always there and stand behind the drama of life, to intervene and rescue and succour. Once the necessity of the dark experience is over, the being comes up again, the Will in us restarts its titanic climb after a period of inertia, faith wakes up again after a long or short period of slumber, hope is rekindled in the human heart and the Lord of Life resumes his rounds through the upward spiral of his journey.
Here must the traveller of the upward way —
For daring Hell’s kingdoms winds the heavenly route —
Pause or pass slowly through that perilous space,
A prayer upon his lips and the great Name…
Only were safe who kept God in their hearts:
Courage their armour, faith their sword, they must walk,
The hand ready to smite, the eye to scout,
Casting a javelin regard in front,
Heroes and soldiers of the army of Light.
By its very nature it cannot perish but rise again and again till it has charted all time’s curve, till it has discovered at last God, Freedom, Light, Immortality. The soul that has once taken the upward curve cannot rest and returns again and again till it arrives. The path shines once again and the soul relieved of passage through the inner night lifts up its head once again towards the sun. And above all we must remember the greatest truth of Grace that guards us in our passage through the Unseen and the Unknown.
But there is a guardian power, there are Hands that save,
Calm eyes divine regard the human scene.
- Sri Aurobindo: The Renaissance in India, p. 334[↩]
- Pilot baba was an air force pilot whose plane crashed over the hills but he was miraculously saved. Since then his life took an inward turn. The feat described above was undertaken by him to demonstrate before the medical fraternity about the hidden possibilities of man that can be explored and developed through yoga.[↩]
- Refer to Appendix I: What is Death? for the Paul Brunton episode.[↩]
- Sri Aurobindo: Essays in Philosophy and Yoga, Vol.13, pp. 274-75[↩]
- Could the latter part of King Solomon’s life be a reflection of this inner death? A seemingly just ruler in his earlier years he is supposed to have turned into an unreasonable and cruel tyrant in the later part of his life.[↩]
- Sri Aurobindo: Savitri, p. 480[↩]
- Sri Aurobindo: Savitri, pp. 481-82[↩]
- Sri Aurobindo: Savitri, pp. 224-25[↩]
- Sri Aurobindo: Savitri, pp. 210-11[↩]
- Sri Aurobindo: Savitri, p. 482[↩]