Do the Dead Go after Death?
speaks of the four courses that people may follow after death.
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)
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.
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."
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."
Happens at the Point of Death
gives a vivid description of what happens at the point of
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)
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, Î 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.
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.
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)
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
Soul's Journey to Freedom
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)
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.
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, Î Arjuna, and so have you. I know them all,
but you know them not, Î 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)
Exhortations of Vedanta
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
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)
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.
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)
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.
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. Î son of Pandu, bathe in its sacred water; ordinary
water does not purify the inmost soul." (13)
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
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.
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:
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
Swami Nikhilananda, trans., The Bhagavad Gita, (NewYork:
Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Centre, 1992), pp. 210-11.
Ibid., pp. 211-13.
Ibid., p. 211.
As quoted in Hinduism: Its Meaning for the Liberation of the
Spirit, by Swami Nikhilananda, Rarnakrishna-Vivekananda Center,
New York, 1992, p. 50.
The Bhagavad Gita (8.6), p. 199.
Swami Nikhilananda, trans., The Upanishads, Volume
IV (Brihadnranyaka Upanishad, 4.4.14), (NewYork: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda
Centre, 1994), p. 299.
Ibid. (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 4.4.7)
The Upanishads, Volume I (Katha Upanishad, 2.2.12),
The Bhagavad Gita (4.5J, p. 124.
The Bhagavad Gita (2.27), p. 79.
The Upanishads, Volume II (Svetasvatara Upanishad,
2.8), p. 91.
As quoted in Self-Knowledge (Atmabodha), trans. Swami
Nikhilananda, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Centre, New York, 1989,
His Eastern and Western Admirers, Reminiscences of Swami
Vivekananda, Advaita Ashrama, 1964, pp. 265-66.