The Art of Dying

  • By Pravrajika Brahmaprana
  • December 2002

Courtesy & Copyright Prabuddha Bharata

None of us can imagine ourselves ever ceasing to be. King Yudhishther of ancient India when asked ‘What is the greatest wonder in the whole world? replied: That we see people dying all around us and never think that we too will die. Even when we fall asleep, our sense of self persists throughout; our sense of self persists throughout our dreams. And upon awaking from dreamless sleep, know who we are as soon as our feet touch the floor. This ‘I’ is the thread of continuity that runs throughout our lives, from birth to death.

Our True Nature
Vedanta says, this ‘I’ is but a faint reflection of our true nature, which is divine. Our divinity is the Atman - the higher Self-unborn and undying. The Atman is one, with God-Brahman, the existent Reality, which is pure Consciousness. So if we cannot imagine ourselves to be nonexistent, it is because our essential nature is eternal, though we are unaware of it.

Most of us falsely identify ourselves with our little self, the ego, which blinds us to our eternal nature. Though fundamentally spiritual beings, we are deluded into thinking that we are separate psychophysical entities. From birth, the infant ego is falsely superimposed upon the Atman, pure Spirit. As we grow to adulthood, the ego inflates itself, reaching out more and more to identify itself with the body and mind. We say as a matter of course, ‘I am a man’ or ‘I am a woman’ ‘I am a Hispanic’ or ‘I am a Caucasian’ ‘I am standing’ or ‘I am sitting’ or ‘I am sad.’ We extend the ego even further by claiming external objects and conditions as our own, such as ‘this car is mine’ or ‘I am a Democrat.’ As superimposition’s multiply, so does our ability to stretch the envelope of normalcy to include such fantastic claims as ‘We bombed Afghanistan’, ‘I carry life insurance,’ or ‘I own a lot of property.’

Though the ego continues to enlarge and identify itself with external objects of the universe, the inner Self - remains utterly detached - the witness of our actions. Yet, at the same time, this witness Self makes possible all our mental activity by lending to the mind the reflected light of pure Consciousness, without which our private illusions could not exist.

When we let go of our identification with the ego, we become liberated from the little self and exist in the Atman. But the further we become entrenched in the illusory reality of the ego, the greater are our chances of reincarnating from life to life. This is the law of karma and reincarnation, set forth in the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras, and other Hindu scriptures. In the Gita, while preparing for war on Kurukshetra, the battlefield of life, Arjuna listens as Lord Krishna, his teacher, describes the law of reincarnation: ‘There was never a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor any of these kings. Nor is there any further when we shall cease to be. Just as the dweller in this body passes through childhood, youth and old age, so at death he merely passes into another kind of body. The wise are not deceived by that.
From his cosmic standpoint, Krishna explains:

Worn-out garments
Are shed by the body:
Worn-out bodies
Are shed by the dweller
Within the body.
New bodies are donned
By the dweller, like garments.

The Three Bodies
The Atman is encased, as it were, in three bodies: gross (physical), subtle (mental) and causal (ego). At death only the physical body dies; the subtle body, along with its underlying causal body, accompanies the reincarnating soul, the jivatman, effecting the conditions of its future birth.

During a person’s lifetime, the gross, subtle and causal bodies require nourishment in order to maximize their inherent potential. To remain healthy, we provide our physical body with food and exercise. To cultivate healthy emotions and refine our mental faculties, we nourish the subtle body with artistic and intellectual stimuli. For the causal body, the innermost sheath of ego-consciousness veiling the Atman, yoga is the food that provides nourishment.

Yoga practices transform and renew the mind, spiritualizing one’s consciousness so that the Atman may be revealed. However, this food is often neglected. By starving the causal body, which permeates our gross and subtle bodies, we starve our entire psychophysical being. Thus most people remain sheathed in ignorance of their true nature and subject to the law of karma and reincarnation.

Karma and Character
Before we can transform the mind, we must first understand it. Eastern psychology, formulated by Patanjali, one of the ancient seers of India, incorporates the law of karma into a time-tested metaphysical science of mind. The word karma in Sanskrit means action: mental or physical. It also means the result of action. Past actions, springing from thought wave of desire, cultivate future desire, which in turn result in actions.

What we call character is the sum total of our karmas, which are conscious and unconscious desires, thought and actions. Like waves that disturb a lake’s surface and then form sandbanks on the lake bottom, karmas ripple across the surface of the mind, which retains their residual efforts as latent tendencies, called samskaras. These latent tendencies reside in the subconscious and unconscious recesses of the mind. Repeated karma’s - such as resentments, acts of kindness or outbursts of anger-predispose us to find occasions for their repeated expressions in our everyday lives. thus thoughts and actions work on each other to form mental and physical habits. These habits are the building blocks of character, which constitutes the subtle body and - along with the causal body, or ‘I’ consciousness - cloaks the Atman.

Karma and Rebirth
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4.4.5-6) explains how the law of karma predetermines the soul’s future birth:

As is one’s desire so is one’s destiny. For as our desire is so is our will; as our will is so is our deed’ and as our deed is so is our reward whether good or bad.

We act according to the desires to which we cling. After death we go to the next world bearing in the mind the subtle impressions of our deeds; and after reaping there the harvest of such deeds return again to this world of action. Thus whoever has desire continues subject to rebirth.

‘But’, says the Upanishad (4.4.6); one in whom desire is stilled suffers no rebirth. After death having attained the highest, desiring only the Self such a soul goes to on other world. Realizing Brahman, one becomes Brahman.

Death and Afterlife
What is the process of death? One neither sees, nor smells, nor tastes the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad describes (4.4.1-2,6):

One does not speak nor hear. One does not think and does not know; for all the organs detaching themselves from the physical body, unite with the subtle body. Then the [upper most] point of one’s heart, where the nerves join [the sushumna] is lighted by the light of the Self and by that light the dying departs either through the eye, through the gate of the skull or through some other aperture of the body. When one thus departs life departs; and when life departs all the functions of the vital principle depart. The Self remains conscious, and conscious the dying person goes to a new abode. The deeds of this life and the impressions they leave behind follow.

According to the Bhagavadgita there are two paths by which the departing soul may leave the body: the devayana or path of light and the pitriyana or path of darkness. An illumined soul departs along the path of light and may temporarily reside in heavenly realms such as brahmaloka, before final liberation. However the imperfect soul travels along the path of darkness to temporary celestial or dark realms in order to live out the effects of good and bad deeds, and then reincarnates.

The Four Yogas
Thus in Vedanta we find two separate Hindu doctrines pertaining to the continuity of consciousness after death. The first is reincarnation to which every person is subject. The second is eternal life, known in Sanskrit as moksha or liberation. Moksha comes to those who through the practice of yoga transcend the ego and, in doing so see through this world - illusion thus freeing themselves from the round of birth death and rebirth.

To those desiring liberation, Vedanta offers a smorgasbord of yoga of yoga practices. Each yoga or path to union with God corresponds to one of the four aspects of human nature. Bhakti yoga is a natural path of purifying emotions by establishing a devotional relationship with God. In this way an aspirant can ‘ripen’ the ego by raising it to the level of child, friend or beloved of God. Jnana yoga appeals to the intellect because of its rigorous scientific and logical analysis of the nature of Reality. The follower of jnana yoga refutes what is impermanent for what is abiding, a process which culminates in direct knowledge of the underlying immaterial reality of Brahman. For active temperaments, karma yoga subdues the ego by surrendering it to physical acts of selflessness and to service of God within others. For the contemplative, raja yoga calms, deepens and centers the aspirant through the daily practice of withdrawing the mind from the external world and focusing it on one’s ideal of God within the heart.

By nourishing the causal body in these ways-by ripening, negating, subduing or forgetting the ego - the aspirant purifies the veils of the three bodies (body mind and ego) that encase the Atman. A balance of the four yogas spiritually integrates all aspects of our nature. Thus strengthened, we begin to perceive ourselves more as - what Stephen Levine so aptly states in his book Who Dies? ‘Spiritual beings with physical experiences rather than as physical beings with spiritual experiences’.

Death and Spiritual Life
To intensify our spiritual life, it becomes natural to invite death into our practices. Sometimes an aspirant may study scriptural passages pertaining to death: memorize them, live with each one for a period of days, and meditate upon them until he awakens to a deeper insight into its meaning. This is one type of meditation on death.

Another way of meditating on death is to follow the example of great mystics like Ramakrishna, who sometimes chose to meditate at night in a cremation ground. In India this is possible-one of the most famous cremation grounds being Manikarnika Ghat on the bank of the River Ganges, in Banaras, the City of Light. There Ramakrishna had the vision of the Divine Mother of the Universe, walking amidst the funeral pyres of the deceased, untying the knots of their ignorance as Lord Shiva whispered into their ears the mantra of final liberation.

Any pilgrim can visit Manikarnika Ghat. At dusk one may take a boat down the River Ganges and watch as swathed bodies are borne to the steps of the ghat and placed on pyres to await the eldest family member’s sandalwood torch. It is impossible to forget the haunting sounds of chanting and wailing the smell of hot ash and golden hue of sunset reflected on the Ganges at that time. It is a vivid memory of death-and of profound and tangible holiness.

Followers of jnana yoga, who discriminate between the real and the unreal the permanent and the transitory systematically impress upon themselves the impermanence of their own body and mind and the three states of consciousness: waking dream and dreamless sleep. This is another type of meditation on death.

For many Vedantists a mantra initiation by the guru is another transformative rite, symbolizing the death of the ego and spiritual rebirth. In order to sharpen concentration and quicken spiritual progress after initiation gurus sometimes exhort their students to meditate as though Yama, the King of Death is standing at their back. To illustrate this point Ramakrishna used to tell his disciples the story of a student who asked his teacher, ‘Sir, please tell me how I can see God.’

‘Come with me,’ said the guru, ‘and I shall show you.’ He took the disciple to a lake, and both of them got into the water. Suddenly the teacher pressed the disciple’s head under the water. After a few moments he released him and the disciple raised his head and stood up. The guru asked him, ‘How did you feel? The disciple said, ‘Oh! I thought I should die; I was panting for breath.’ The teacher said, ‘When you feel like that for god then you will know that you haven’t long to wait for His vision.

A case in Point
Tim, who first used to frequent our bookstore, was a unique example of this kind of yearning for God. Patients like him diagnosed with AIDS died a social death long before their physical death. ‘My disease has become my guru,’ Tim disclosed to me, as one by one his friends declined to see him. During this painful transition of several years, time became precious to Tim and so did his visits to the Vedanta temple. At first he came once a week-then two, three times and finally daily. As AIDS increasingly ravaged his body, Tim sought refuge in the peaceful atmosphere of the temple as often as three times a day, struggling to practice the meditation instructions he had received from his spiritual teacher, the swami in charge of our center. During the last year of his life, Tim was hospitalized several times. Each time he was released we heard similar stories of his mistreatment and social outcasting often paid to AIDS patients.

On the last day of Tim’s life a senior nun and I went to visit him. The stench in his hospital room was unbearable, syringes and bloodstained pads left in the room by his night nurse. Tim was semi-conscious, in obvious pain and seemed to be suffering an inner turmoil as though his soul was alternately drowning and gasping for breath. As is the Hindu custom we offered Tim Ganges water-holy water-and he opened his mouth to receive the drops. There was a palpable sense of urgency in the room. We began to chant aloud the name of God: the name of Tim’s Chosen Ideal. Minutes passed before we noticed that Tim’s mouth was moving: he too was silently chanting the name of God. Tears trickled down his cheeks from the outer corners of his eyes. Then suddenly in his semi-conscious state, Tim lifted himself up from his bed and turned to face us. A blissful smile bathed his face. Overcome with emotion we left the room. When I returned Tim was quiet and indrawn tears still trickling down his cheeks. Ten minutes later he passed away.

As nuns we have witnessed death and have served many devotees in the process of dying. It is a privilege: each death is memorable and in its own unique way a kind of meditation. Just before one dies, Ganges water is often administered and sometimes verse from sacred scriptures relating to death are read or chanted aloud in Sanskrit or English. These rituals purify the body and mind of the dying.

The Factor that Determines Afterlife
The Prashna Upanishad (3.10) and the Bhagavadgita (8.6) tell us that the most prominent thought in one’s consciousness at the moment of death determines the course of the soul leaving the body. It is therefore; very auspicious for the dying to hear the name of God chanted aloud by those present at the bedside. Throughout, spiritual life an aspirant repeats the mantra the sacred name of his Chosen Ideal and in his so doing it permeates the conscious subconscious and unconscious layers of the mind. As a result before death when the mind is no longer able to remain focused the spiritual aspirant’s most predominant thought stored in the subconscious the mantra bubbles up of its own accord to the conscious mind.

Is Vedanta’s attitude towards death life negating? By facing death, meditating upon death and ultimately embracing death, the Vedantist overcomes a normal instinctual fear with the courage of religious conviction the strength of spiritual practice and the ground of philosophical reason. Swami Vivekananda wrote in later dated 20 January 1895 to an American woman who had lost her father:

“Coming and going is all pure delusion. The soul never comes or goes. Where is the place to which it shall go when all space is in the soul? When shall be the time for entering and departing when all time is in the soul?

The earth moves, causing the illusion of the movement of the sun; but the sun does not move. So…Nature is moving changing lifting veil after turning over leaf after leaf of this grand book-while the witnessing soul drinks in knowledge unmoved, unchanged. All souls that ever have been are or shall be are all in the present tense… standing at one geometrical point. Because the idea of space does not occur in the soul therefore all that were ours are ours and will be ours are always with us were always with us, and will be always with us. We are in them. They are in us.

With this knowledge, every death we face-our relatives friends spouse’s and ultimately our own-becomes an opportunity to expand our definition of consciousness, and – if we are open to it - to expend our own consciousness and thus transcend death”.

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