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VEDANTA KESARIFear of Death |Swami Adiswarananda  

 

 

 

 

                FEAR OF DEATH

 

 

                Swami Adiswarananda

 

 

 

               Where Do the Dead Go after Death?

 

 

     Vedanta speaks of the four courses that people may follow after death.

     First, the yogis who lead an extremely righteous life, meditate on Brahman, and follow the various disciplines of yoga, repair, after death, to Brahma-loka (roughly corresponding to the heaven of the Christians) and from there, in due course, attain salvation, known as kramamukli, or gradual emancipation. Second, die ritualists and the philanthropists, who cherish a desire for the fruit of their devotion and charity, repair, after death, to Chandraloka, or the lunar sphere. After enjoying immense happiness there as the fruit of meritorious action, tiiey come back to earth, since they still cherish desires for worldly happiness. These are called gods or deities in Hinduism. Third, those who perform actions forbidden by religion assume, after death, subhuman bodies and dwell in what is generally known as hell. After expiating their evil actions, they are reborn on earth. Fourth, the persons who perform extremely vile actions spend many births as such insignificant beings as mosquitos and fleas.(1)

 

     In regard to the universe and its various planes or spheres, Vedanta presents the following theory: "All these spheres are products of matter and energy, or what Samkhya philosophy calls akasha and prana, in varying degrees. The lowest or most condensed is the solar sphere, consisting of the visible universe, in which prana appears as physical force and akasha as sense-perceived matter. The next is the lunar sphere, which surrounds the solar sphere. This is not the moon at all, but the habitation of the gods. In this sphere prana appears as the psychic forces and akasha as the tanmatras, or fine, rudimentary elements. Beyond this is the electric sphere, that is to say, a condition in which prana is almost inseparable from akasha; there one can hardly tell whether electricity is force or matter. Next is Brahmaloka, where prana and akasha do not exist as separate entities; both are merged in the mind-stuff, the primal energy. In the absence of prana and akasha, the jiva, or individual soul, contemplates the whole universe as the sum total of the cosmic mind. This appears as a purusha, an abstract universal soul, yet not the Absolute, for still there is multiplicity. From this sphere the jiva subsequently finds his way to Unity, which is the goal of his earthly evolution.

 

     "According to the Non-dualistic Vedanta these spheres are only visions that arise in succession before the soul, which itself neither comes nor goes. The sense-perceived world in which a man lives is a similar vision. At the time of dissolution, these visions gradually disappear, the gross merging in the fine. The purpose of the Hindu philosophers in treating of cosmology is to awaken in man's heart a spirit of detachment from the relative universe." The experience of happiness in different planes or spheres after death is transitory. The dwellers in these planes come back to earth and commence again their life of pain and suffering. Even the most fortunate dwellers in Brahmaloka must wait a long time before they attain complete liberation. On the other hand, Self-Knowledge, which can be attained by every human being, confers upon its possessor liberation in this very life. He does not have to wait for a future time to taste the bliss of immortality. This attainment of liberation through Self-Knowledge, while living in a physical body, is the goal of human life. The Hindu scriptures treat of the various cycles and planes and spheres, and also of the various courses open to the soul after death, in order to spur men to strive for Self-knowledge and the attainment of liberation here on earth." (2)

 

     But none of the four courses is followed by the person who has attained Self-Knowledge. The man endowed with Self-Knowledge attains liberation in this very life. His soul does not go to any sphere, for he has realized its identity with the all-pervading Consciousness.... All living beings, without any exception whatsoever, will attain Self-Knowledge and liberation." (3)

 

 


          What Happens at the Point of Death

 

 


     Vedanta gives a vivid description of what happens at the point of death.

 

     When the soul departs from the body, the life-breath follows; when the life breath departs, all the organs follow. Then the soul becomes endowed with particularized consciousness and goes to the body that is related to that consciousness. It is followed by its knowledge, works, and past experience. Just as a leech supported on a straw goes to the end of it, takes hold of another support, and contracts itself, so does the self throw this body away and make it unconscious, take hold of another support, and contract itself. Just as a goldsmith takes a small quantity of gold and fashions another - a newer and better - form, so does the soul throw this body away, or make it unconscious, and make another - a newer and better - form suited to the Manes, or the celestial minstrels, or the gods, or Virat, or Hiranyagarbha, or other beings.... As it does and acts, so it becomes; by doing good it becomes good, and by doing evil it becomes evil - it becomes virtuous through good acts and vicious through evil acts.(4)

 

     The thought at the time of death determines the future life of the soul: "For whatever object a man thinks of at the final moment, when be leaves his body - that alone does he attain, О son of Kunti, being ever absorbed in the thought thereof." (5) Vedanta lays great stress on the thought and the state of mind at the time of death as determining the future of the soul. Thought is endowed with a self-creative power. Our inner being changes into that of which we insistently think with faith and devotion. We become that on which we keep our minds fixed and to which we constantly aspire. The ever-recurring thought of a lifetime, whether good or bad, presents itself vividly at the time of death. We cannot get rid of it, as the sleeping man cannot get rid of his dream. Since the character of the body next to be attained is determined by what a man thinks intensely at the time of death, he should always think of God if he wants to attain Him after leaving the body. This idea of the Gita is not analogous to the indulgences and facilities of popular religion. The absolution and last unction of the priest does not make death edifying and spiritual after an unedifying and profane life. Even while the priest performs his rites, the dying man may be cherishing in his mind the thought in which he has indulged all through life.

 

     The embodiment of the soul is apparent and not real. Therefore its birth and death are also apparent only. A knower of Self realizes that repeated cycles of birth and death are like nightmares and not real. A knower of Self is truly awakened. Though experiencing disease, old age, and death, he remains unruffled by them because he knows that they are charecteristic of the body and not of the Self. He is also free from desire, which arises when one is identified with the body. For if a person has realized himself to be Brahman, infinite and all-pervading, and if he sees himself in the universe and the universe in himself, he cannot desire anything. Self-Knowledge liberates the individual soul from its bondage and delusion. Only Self-Knowledge can overcome death.

 

     This is the Vedantic conception of immortality, an immortality not to be attained in heaven, but here on earth in this very body through the knowledge of the immortal nature of the self. About the enlightened person the Upanishads say: "Dwelling in this very body, we have somehow realized Brahman; otherwise we should have remained ignorant and great destruction would have overtaken us. Those who know Brahman become immortal, while others only suffer misery." (6)

 

     According to the Upanishads, unillumined souls go to heaven or return to earth for the satisfaction of their unfulfilled desires. He who desires is reborn. But the man who does not desire is not reborn. Regarding this there is this verse: "When all the desires that dwell in his heart are got rid of, then does the mortal [man] become immortal and attain Brahman in this very body." (7) The knower of Atman is like a man who is awakened from sleep and dreams no more of empty things. He is like a man who, having been blind, has received back his eyesight.

 

 


          The Soul's Journey to Freedom

 

 


     The soul's three basic desires - immortality, unrestricted awareness, and unbounded joy - are attained only when it discovers its true identity, the all-embracing Self. In search of its identity, the soul changes bodies and places, and finally, knowing the limitations of all pleasures and realizing that everything finite is shadowed by death, it practises detachment and desirelessness and realizes its immortal Self. Immortality is the return of the prodigal son to his all-loving father. It is the return of the reflection of the sun to the sun. It is the river of individual consciousness meeting the infinite ocean of Pure Consciousness. It is the realization that we are like leaves of a tree and that our true identity is the tree. It is our separative existence joining the infinite existence of absolute freedom. So the Upanishad says: "There is one Supreme Ruler, the inmost Self of all beings, who makes His one form manifold. Eternal happiness belongs to the wise, who perceive Him within themselves - not to others." (8)

 

     The journey to this final freedom is a solitary one - alone a person is born, alone he suffers, and alone he dies. By realizing his true Self he becomes united with all beings and things and attains to final freedom. Only then comes the end of all sorrow, all fear, all anxiety.

 

     The doctrine of rebirth is the most plausible theory to help us understand the meaning of life and the diversities of existence. Each person is born with a blueprint of his or her mind that carries the impressions of past lives. Death seems fearful because we died many, many times before. Although we do not remember the incidents, the effects of those experiences remain stored in the conscious mind in a minute form. Sri Krishna tells Arjuna (Bhagavad Gita), "Many a birth have I passed through, О Arjuna, and so have you. I know them all, but you know them not, О Scorcher of Foes." (9) In the Bible, Jesus identifies John the Baptist as the prophet Elias reborn. "If ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come." (10)

 

 


         The Exhortations of Vedanta

 

 


     Death is an inescapable and inevitable reality. To ignore it is utter foolishness. To avoid it is impossible. To hope for physical immortality is absurd. Vedanta exhorts in this regard as follows:

 

     (a) Make death a part of life by understanding that life without death is incomplete. As soon as we are born, we begin to die. Life is sacred and so we cannot afford to squander it in daydreams, fantasies, and false hopes. Life without death, pleasure without pain, light without darkness, and good without evil, are never possible. We must either accept both or rise above both, by overcoming embodiment through the Knowledge of the Self. Death is certain for all who are born. As the Bhagavad Gita says: "For to that which is born, death is certain, and to that which is dead, birth is certain. Therefore you should not grieve over the unavoidable." (11)

 

     (b) Develop immunity against death by practising meditation and dispassion. In meditation we try to reach our true identity, the deathless Self, by crossing over the three states of consciousness— waking, dream, and deep sleep—and becoming videha, or bereft of body-consciousness. In this practice, we partially and temporarily die in our physical and mental existence. Along with meditation, practise dispassion, which is knowing that nothing material will accompany us when we leave this earth, and that nothing in this world can be of any help to us to overcome death.

 

     (c) Build your own raft. Vedanta compares this world to an ocean, the near shore of which we know, while the far shore remains a mystery to us. The ocean has bottomless depth, high winds, fearful currents, and countless whirlpools. Life is a journey, an attempt to cross this ocean of the world and reach the other shore, which is immortality. No one can take us across this ocean. Vedanta urges us to build our own raft by practising meditation on our true Self. No practice of this self-awareness is ever lost. As we go on with our practice, all our experiences of self-awareness join together and form a raft of consciousness, which the Upanishads call the 'raft of Brahman'. Sitting on this raft of Brahman, a mortal crosses the ocean of mortality: "The wise man should hold his body steady, with the three [upper] parts erect, turn his senses, with the help of the mind, toward the heart, and by means of the raft of Brahman cross the fearful torrents of the world." (12)

 

     The word Brahman in the verse signifies Om. Repetition of the word and meditation on its meaning are prescribed for this practice. Vedanta asserts that Self-Knowledge, or Knowledge of Brahman, alone can rob death of its paralyzing fear. So long as this Self is not cognized and realized, life will be shadowed by death and the world we live in will be the world of sorrow and suffering.

 

     (d) Free yourself from all attachments. Our attachments and desires keep us tied to our physical existence. We often hope for the impossible and want to achieve the unachievable. To free ourselves from these attachments and desires, we need to cleanse ourselves. Just as we cleanse our body with soap and water, so do we cleanse our mind with self-awareness. The Mahabharata advises us to bathe in the river of Atman: "The river of Atman is filled with the water of self-control; truth is its current, righteous conduct its banks, and compassion its waves. О son of Pandu, bathe in its sacred water; ordinary water does not purify the inmost soul." (13)

 

     (e) Know your true friends. Know that our only true friends are our good deeds - deeds by which we help others in most selfless ways. At death, everything of this world is left behind; only the memories of all the deeds we performed in this life accompany us. The memories of good deeds assure our higher destiny and give us freedom from fear of death, while the memories of bad deeds take our soul downward. Therefore, a person must try to accumulate as many memories of good deeds as possible while living.

 

     (f) Perform your duties. Life is interdependent. For our existence and survival, we are indebted to God, to our fellow human beings, and to the animal and vegetable worlds. Many have to suffer to keep us happy, and many have to die for our continued existence. We are indebted to all of them. To recognize this indebtedness and make active efforts to repay them is the sacred duty of life. By doing our duties, we become free from all sense of guilt. Be a blessing to all, not a burden. Remember, when you were born you cried, but everybody else rejoiced. Live your life in such a way that when you die everybody will cry, but you alone will rejoice.

 

     (g) Know for certain that death has no power to annihilate your soul. Our soul, our true identity, is the source of all consciousness. It is separate and different from our body and mind, which are material by nature and are subject to change and dissolution. The consciousness of the soul in each of us is part of the all-pervading Universal Consciousness and is the deathless witness to the changes of the body and mind. The Universal Consciousness is like an infinite ocean and we are like drops of water. We rise to the sky from the ocean, and again we fall into the ocean as raindrops, ... will in the end, sooner or later, come together as part or me ocean. In the words of Swami Vivekananda:

 

     "One day a drop of water fell into the vast ocean. When it found itself there, it began to weep and complain just as you are doing. The great ocean laughed at the drop of water. "Why do you weep?" it asked. "I do not understand. When you join me, you join all your brothers and sisters, the other drops of water of which I am made. You become the ocean itself. If you wish to leave me, you have only to rise up on a sunbeam into the clouds. From there you can descend again, a little drop of water, a blessing and a benediction to the thirsty earth." (14)


     Concluded.

 

 

 

     References

 


     1. Swami Nikhilananda, trans., The Bhagavad Gita, (NewYork: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Centre, 1992), pp. 210-11.
     2. Ibid., pp. 211-13.
     3. Ibid., p. 211.
     4. As quoted in Hinduism: Its Meaning for the Liberation of the Spirit, by Swami Nikhilananda, Rarnakrishna-Vivekananda Center, New York, 1992, p. 50.
     5. The Bhagavad Gita (8.6), p. 199.
     6. Swami Nikhilananda, trans., The Upanishads, Volume IV (Brihadnranyaka Upanishad, 4.4.14), (NewYork: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Centre, 1994), p. 299.
     7. Ibid. (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 4.4.7)
     8. The Upanishads, Volume I (Katha Upanishad, 2.2.12), p. 175.
     9. The Bhagavad Gita (4.5J, p. 124.
     10. Matthew, 11.14.
     11. The Bhagavad Gita (2.27), p. 79.
     12. The Upanishads, Volume II (Svetasvatara Upanishad, 2.8), p. 91.
     13. As quoted in Self-Knowledge (Atmabodha), trans. Swami Nikhilananda, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Centre, New York, 1989, p. 172.
     14. His Eastern and Western Admirers, Reminiscences of Swami Vivekananda, Advaita Ashrama, 1964, pp. 265-66.

 

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International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
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