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Articles by Swami Veda Bharati

On Death

We all begin in silence, pass through the music and the song of life, and return to silence. Silence is eternal, the underlying stream. Life, as we know it, as a process, is only from one short end to another short end - brief. The eternal life that we speak of is the life force ever in silence. In this, the state, up to birth and the state from the point of the so-called death, is one and the same - identical.

I leave this room in which I was with you. I enter another room. For your eyes, I disappeared. That absence of appearance is a silence given to your sight. I go to the next room, and those who were there say a child is born and rejoice. Over the same event of my leaving one room and entering another room, you grieve, they rejoice. Thus it is that all the sages and the saints of the past have spoken of death contemptuously, have said that it is a myth, a figment of imagination. Something produced by our fears. Not something substantial that we fear, but something that our fear has produced. Those who have demolished the myth are the realized ones.

Many of you may have read a text called the Vidura-niti. It is the teaching of the wise elder named Vidura in the Mahabharata. After he has given his teachings to the blind king, Dhrtarashtra on life and its principles and folly, Dhrtarashtra has one remaining doubt. He asks Vidura about the meaning of death.

And Vidura says, “I’m afraid I’m not qualified to answer this question.”

“How would I have my question answered,” asks the blind king. “The greatest one who may guide you on this is a great sage known as Sanatsujata. You need to ask him.”

“Where will I find him?” asks Dhrtarashtra. “How will I know him?”

“There is not much effort required,” says Vidura. “Simply close your eyes and remember him. That is how the disembodied saints, the realized ones, who are beyond death, manifest themselves when someone truly deeply remembers them.”

The king closes his eyes and intently remembers the sage, and the sage manifests himself and appears before them. And the king asks him the question of death. Sanatsujata says there is no such thing as death. Like the Bhagavad Gita and the Vidura-niti I have just mentioned, there is a text which is part of the Mahabharata, one of most deeply philosophical text called Sanatsjatiya, the teachings of Sanatsujata, (someday we may study together), but the statement that appears again and again and again is that death is a myth.

Why is it we call it a myth? The question arises: What is it that dies? Who is it that dies? The body as we know it is a composition. A compound, a very complex compound of chemicals. There is nothing more to the body. A compound must discompose in time. No compound can last forever. It is a simple law of nature. When one goes through what you call the process of dying, says the Upanishad, the sage Uddalaka teaching his son Shvetaketu says that at that moment, the speech is withdrawn into prana. Prana is withdrawn into the mind. Mind is withdrawn into an inner light, the principle of tejas which is an emanation of the spiritual Self, Atman, and that tejas, the emanation, the corona of the rays of that spiritual Self, the Atman, is withdrawn into the Atman itself.

When people approach a dying person and ask him, do you recognize me? So long as his speech is not withdrawn into prana and prana is not withdrawn into the mind, he says I recognize you. Yes, I know you. But as his consciousness elevates itself, is withdrawn, he no longer recognizes you. As one goes through the dying process, something very sublime occurs. One loses the awareness of the body. Some principle of the speech remains. The speech is withdrawn, and then one’s consciousness is totally that of prana force, knows himself to be prana. From there, he rises to the next state of consciousness, knows only the mind. Rises from there, and knows only the rays of light that are emanating from the Self and is absorbed in the consciousness of those and then further into the Atman itself.

Not everyone may be aware of even this process going on but especially those who are blessed to be initiated by a great sage, great saint, those who have received a mantra, they are guided. Death, our Guru Dev Swami Rama says, is a habit of the body. When he was preparing to leave the body, he had his disciples compile his final work titled Sacred Journey. At that time, we did not realize he was speaking of his own forthcoming sacred journey, and it is in that he has said death is a habit of the body.

Elsewhere, in the book titled The Path of Fire and Light, he says those who are realized ones rejoice at the prospect of dropping their bodies. Then he has said repeatedly those who have been initiated with a sacred mantra within a genuine tradition that has an enlightened being as the Guru, then the consciousness of that mantra remains. As the process of death begins in such beings, the mantra comes on as though the entire cosmos, the entire universe, as though all the devis, rishis, saints, sages are, all are singing his mantra, and his awareness is absorbed and that mantra then gently leads him through these various stages that I have just described and the momentum of the past karma takes him to the next life, but the mantra guides him through.

Therefore, for those who are on the path of enlightenment, the experience of death is like that of Nachiketas in the Katha Upanishad. He goes into the realm of death seeks and finds him, finds out its secret, and comes back. And what he has told us of that secret is studied and read with keen awareness by all the yogis, all the practitioners of the spiritual science.

I’m not saying these things simply by way of giving solace. I’m not saying this only to console the grief-stricken. This is the reality. This is the truth. As to our worldly awareness, of the way we perceive life and death, you know in the great epic Ramayana, Bharata finds his way into the forest and falls at the feet of his elder brother, Rama. “Brother, our father has left this world, has died.” Rama who had cultivated himself speaks to his younger brother who is not so well cultivated and says some verses that are recorded in the Ramayana -

All things gathered end in being scattered. All risings end inevitably in falling. All unions have their natural end in separation. Not ends in dying, it does not end, but we perceive its end as dying. As a fruit ripe on the tree has no other fear and no other danger but the fear and danger of falling, so being once born has no other danger and fear but the danger and fear of dying. All our other fears are part of this fear. People rejoice as the sun rises, enjoy the sight of the sunset, celebrate the changes of seasons, and greet each other with the greeting of Happy New Year.

But with each sunrise and with each sunset, with each change of season with each year passing, they do not realize death day by day, sunrise to sunset, season to season, year to year, their karmically allotted life span is diminishing. As two logs of wood, oh, Bharata may fall from two different trees in two different forests and float down in two different tributaries and then come to come to the main river, and there, by a force of waves and wind, they may join together, floating down the river as companions. And then another wave, another gust of wind, and the two separate and go their way. Oh, Bharata, as a pedestrian walking on foot may greet someone who is going on a fast chariot with speedy steeds and says, you go along ahead. I, too, am coming behind you on the same path. So, oh, Bharata, the sons and friends and kinsmen and relatives and the treasures and wealth come together, and in due time, separate and go their way. So our father has gone on the same path as how many ancestors of ours have already gone and we too are going in the same direction.

Said the Buddha: In how many lifetimes from times almost eternal, in how many births have you cried for how many mothers and fathers and sons and brothers, and sisters, and relatives and kinsmen and other beloved ones? He said if you were to collect all those tears from those past lives, you would make a whole ocean. Now you are adding a few drops. Do you still grieve for those?

So, just as that grief has passed, let this grief also pass. Understand the law of karma. Our acts of the body, speech and mind, leave their cumulative imprints on the subtle body.

Now it takes three persons to have a birth: the mother, the father, and the soul to be born at the right time, and the right karma. The mother marries a father; the would-be mother marries the would-be father because that is how her karma will be fulfilled. He will marry her because through her his karma will be fulfilled. From the moment of that marriage, you pool your karma. From that moment, you cannot say who has given how much happiness, who has granted how much pleasure, who has caused how much pain. It is all pooled together and enjoyed or suffered jointly.

Then another soul whose karma can be fulfilled can ripen only in the presence of that chemistry which the mother and father have created karmically. So according to his karma, now he comes here and his karma will be fulfilled because of the temperament, choices, inclinations of the mother and the father and the sister who is not yet born and now comes the soul who is to be a sister. Whose karma is to be fulfilled by having such and such brother? Such and such mother? Such and such father?

And when the force of that momentum created at the moment of the last death which the Yoga Sutras has called mūrchana (moorchana), when that momentum is exhausted, there is not one single moment you can hold back that person. You will grab into the breezes and the wind. You will grope to catch hold of the empty sky but no. There is no way you can hold back that soul, and in any case, again the question arises who dies?

It is said that Atman, the spiritual Self is like akasha. Like this vast space indivisible, intangible, unlimited. Here I cup my two hands together. What have I done? Here I have made a clay pot. I’ve enclosed a piece of the sky inside. Have I really divided the sky when I take this clay pot from point A to point B, from one end of this room to the other end of this room? Is the sky, the spaced inside it moved? Does anything happen to that akasha? Nothing happens. That clay pot bursts. Shall we say that the akasha is now liberated or shall we say where is the akasha that was within that clay pot gone? So it is thus that you ask where did the soul go. Who dies? Does the shard of the clay pot die? This body. the clay pot that is referred to as ghata, containing within it the space. Space like spiritual Self , also that akasha. This ghata, this clay pot, does the clay pot die? Does a lump of clay die? Who dies? Does Atman die?

This shawl, this clothing I am wearing, does this clothing die? I take off this shawl. Then is the shawl dead or am I dead by removing that shawl, by removing that garment? Understand the reality. When you really analyze and then contemplate and then meditate and then realize you find that death is a myth. Those who understand this principle they say when you have seen the oneness of Atman what grief, what attachment, can there be? What attachment, what grief can there be? The Upanishads have said, therefore, realize that one. He who is inside the Earth, that is this Earthly body, is inside the Earth. Who knows this Earth from within, this Earthly being from within? Whom the Earthly being the Earth does not know. Know that one. In a very long passage the Upanishad goes on to say the same thing of the waters and the fires and the mind, and then says he who is inside that death the principle of mortality, inside that death whom the death itself does not know but who knows the death? That Atman, the Self of yours. The indwelling one is amrita, immortal.

The prayer that we have, the Mrityunjaya prayer, the prayer of the death conqueror, prayer of the death conquer, it is not a prayer to be removed from death. It is not a prayer to be released from death. It is a prayer for moksha. May I be released. May I be liberated. May I attain moksha from bondage that is death. Bondage is the death, the karmic bondage. It is for this reason that when a liberated being leaves the body, at least at that time, one is supposed to rejoice at his liberation. We don’t. That is our ignorance, but for him it is a moment of greatest pleasure. The greatest reunion - the entry into that mother silence from which he or she was born.

If you do not feel attuned to the process I have described of moving from the body consciousness and speech to prana, prana to mind and so forth, look at your sleeping process. What happens? The same thing happens. You withdraw from the body. Do you grieve? Do others grieve that you have fallen asleep because you have withdrawn from the body and are not answering?

The yogis take to the path of meditation. In the first half of this century was a great sage named Ramana Maharishi. Blessed are they who have seen him and those who have read his writings. You can go and make a pilgrimage to the town of Madurai. That room is still preserved where at the age of thirteen he said to himself this death, death, death, people are so afraid of, what exactly is this death? Let me die, and find out. Master of his life force and consciousness, he lies down and dies. Oh, ah, ha, this is what they call death. He, the being of light, is standing there watching the clay pot that is the body. Is this what they are afraid of? Well, I still have some use for this body. I better not die right now. Let me get back into the body again, and he gets up. A few years later he walks out of the house in time to be known as one of the greatest enlightened sages.

When we meditate we go through the same process voluntarily. You know there is a principle of life. What will be snatched away from you involuntarily, let that happen voluntarily. Before you wealth is snatched away and you suffer its loss, give it away and enjoy the act of having shared. So also with this physical life process. A meditator voluntarily dies every day. He goes through the same process. Withdraws his consciousness together with the mantra from the physical awareness to prana, from prana to mind and as he advances to the inner light which is an emanation of Atman and from that consciousness knows the Atman itself. This is daily vaccination of a small dose of death to realize our immortality.

The moments of separation called death especially of those who are initiated on the path should not be moments of grief but reminders of the principle of immortality. I pray that all of you realize in yourself this principle of immortality. Shanti. Shanti. Shanti.

October 1998