An Indian Perspective on Death

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In my forthcoming book I describe questions asked by a Yaksha (in the form of a Crane):”What is the most wonderful thing?” and Yudhisthira replies: “The most amazing thing is that even though every day one sees countless living entities dying, he still acts and thinks as if he will live forever”.

On my visit to Varanasi several years ago, I was fascinated with the subject of death. This is one of the oldest cities (founded 3000 years ago, earlier known as Kashi, later Benares), situated on the bank of Holy Ganges. Every year, a large numbers of elderly Hindus go there to await death believing that cremation here would be an early entry to attaining moksha. Such is the faith of thousands who visit this sacred city to breathe their last breath. At my home, I have a painting of the Varanasi Ghat, by Jugal Kishore. It reminds me each day, that life is transient! I have grieved for many loved ones, and for some my grief has stayed with me over many years.

Death of a loved one, is undoubtedly one of the biggest stressors, that results in grief. While I recognise that the rituals are for the departed, I have also recognised that it has a profound effect on the living, to manage effectively the inevitable truth that death is a reality and to be accepted.

Let me explore the philosophy on death from an Indian perspective.

“Death is with them a frequent subject of discourse. They regard this life as, so to speak, the time when the child within the womb becomes mature, and death as a birth into a real and happy life for the votaries of philosophy. On this account they undergo much discipline as a preparation for death. They consider nothing that befalls men as either good or bad, to suppose otherwise being a dream-like illusion, else how could some be affected with sorrow and others with pleasure, by the very same things, and how could the same things affect the same individuals at different times with these opposite emotions?” – Megasthenes, Greek Ambassador in 300 BC

In India, death is indeed sorrowful but is not looked at as a calamity but as a natural process in the life of the Jiva (being).

To Hindu’s, death is the end of the mortal remains in this lifetime, but it is believed that there is migration of the soul to another entity. This reincarnation of man will continue so long as he has not attained ‘moksha’ (i.e. freedom from re-birth).

The purpose of life is to unite with the ultimate reality, the Brahman. To live life is to follow one’s sva-dharma (Individual path), following prescribed ways and achieving detachment from the illusion (maya) of the world. Hence death is an opportunity for ultimate transformation, Moksha. The human being having an ‘atman’ (soul) has now the possibility to merge with the ultimate consciousness. Tat Tvam Asi, translated as “Thou Art That.” is the underlying belief that one is part of divinity.

In the beginning there was ‘mooldhara’ Unmanifest Existence alone – One only, without a second. He, the One, thought to himself: ‘Let me be many, let me grow forth.’ Thus out of himself he projected the universe, and having projected out of himself the universe, he entered into every being. All that is has its self in Him alone. Of all things He is the subtle essence. He is the truth. He is the Self. And that … THAT ART THOU! (Chandogya Upanishad VI)

One Vedic teacher asks his student to bring him a fig. “Open it,” says the teacher. “What do you see there?”“Some very small seeds, sir.”“Open one of those small seeds. What do you see there?“Nothing at all, sir.”

Truly from what you cannot see, the whole fig tree grows. That is Reality. That is Atman. That art Thou.

In Chapter 2, verse 13 of the Bhagwat Gita, Krishna asks Arjun, the Pandava warrior not to grieve loss of life. “As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The realised soul is not bewildered by such a change.”

Again in verse 17 he adds, ‘Know that which pervades the entire body is indestructible. No one is able to destroy the imperishable soul.

Consoling Arjun, he explains in verse 20, ‘For the soul there is never birth nor death. Nor, having once been, does he ever cease to be. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, undying and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain’.

Explaining the quality of the soul in verse 23-25, he says, ‘Weapons cannot cleave it, nor the fire burn, nor do the waters drench it, nor the wind dry. It is uncleavable, it is incombustible, it can neither be drenched or dried. Eternally stable, immobile, all pervading, it is forever and for ever. It is unmanifest, it is unthinkable, it is immutable; therefore knowing it as such, thou shouldst not grieve.’

Explaining the soul in verse 27-29, Krishna says, ‘For one who has taken his birth, death is certain; and for one who is dead, birth is certain. Therefore, in the unavoidable discharge of your duty, you should not lament. All created beings are unmanifest in their beginning, manifest in their interim state, and unmanifest again when they are annihilated. So what need is there for lamentation? Some look on the soul as amazing, some describe him as amazing, and some hear of him as amazing, while others, even after hearing about him, cannot understand him at all.’

Krishna reminds Arjun, about his svadharma,‘If, however, you do not fight this religious war, then you will certainly incur sins for neglecting your duties and thus lose your reputation as a fighter.

Death marks an end of the embodied nature of the self in this world, but is a passage of the soul to the next form of existence. The presence of a soul, attaining moksha, and living virtuously, forms the tenet of Indian spirituality. Buddha’s final words before death were:“Behold, O monks, this is my advice to you. All component things in the world are changeable. They are not lasting. Work hard to gain your own salvation.”

“O thou the last fulfilment of life, Death, my death, come and whisper to me! Day after day I have kept watch for thee; for thee have I borne the joys and pangs of life. All that I am, that I have, that I hope and all my love have ever flowed towards thee in depth of secrecy. One final glance from thine eyes and my life will be ever thine own. The flowers have been woven and the garland is ready for the bridegroom. After the wedding the bride shall leave her home and meet her lord alone in the solitude of night.”

(Rabindranath Tagore, Poem on Death)

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