Everybody will die one day. When somebody is surviving on a breathing machine after a terrible accident or incurable disease, he is declared clinically dead by the doctors.
The ancient Yogic gurus of India have demonstrated how to stop the breath while still living, and how to simulate death in between two breaths. This is what leads to Samadhi and finally to Mahasamadhi. Moreover, the ancients say that to reach ultimate Bliss or Enlightenment one has to die to the world. Buddha showed how one has to die to all attachments and longings of the material and bodily by following the middle path.
Many Lives, Many Masters
In Many lives Many Masters Dr Brian Weiss shows how people have reached their past lives’ experiences in many incarnations. People have given vivid descriptions to medical doctors of their Near Death/post-life experiences while on the operation table, or after serious accidents or situations where their lives were endangered. But somehow they survived death, with angels talking to them, or they go to post-death situations through tunnels of light, and come back again to normal life.
Death frightens humans. All over the world, myths and legends, stories and anecdotes abound around death. The Bhagavad Gita says that for those who are born death is “nischit” – unavoidable. Only the body, though, dies: but the soul is immortal and does not die. Therefore one should not grieve. But for us humans this is very hard to swallow, as people are unable to accept the departure of a loved one.
This apprehension has led human civilizations to devise several types of rites and traditions to prepare one to go to the other world, such as the Egyptians’ ‘Scroll of Death’. If only such scrolls could be written to guide mankind about how to live a good life full of sharing and caring, perhaps then death would not be as frightening but a beatitude!
Après La Mort La Tisane
When we lose a loved one, we all cry and grieve at the sudden departure. Relatives, neighbours and friends, politicians all come to pay their last homage. But while alive, people have no time to spare and share abundance of love and company. Everyone is caught in an infernal cobweb of hectic life or distracted on their smartphones, which have made people unsocial even while in company.
But we rush to go and pay visit after somebody close dies; alas, it is too late. We feel more than ever tender and sad, become introspective and regrets or guilt crop up. But ‘après la mort la tizane’: too late to make amends.
Somehow we pray and grieve and our hearts become lighter, though we start questioning the futility and the transience of life, about which poets, saints and even Bollywood lyrics writers have brought out such beautiful verses. As soon as the corpse of the beloved has been either cremated or buried or left to vultures as in the Parsi system, and the funeral rites are over, each one goes back to his routine. Soon all the philosophizing stops as the hoarding, corruption or looting and plundering and savouring of life’s pleasures begin afresh.
The Story of the Mustard
There is a well-known story of the young mother who came running to the Buddha when he alighted in her village in Bihar. She had lost her baby, and she thought that here is a Saviour, the Enlightened one who could do the miracle of bringing back to life her son. A man of abundant wisdom, the Buddha had tackled the agony of pain and pleasure, life and death by meditating for six years under the Peepal Tree in Bodh Gaya, discovering how to go beyond the aches and pains of life by remaining detached. He consoled the young mother, and told her to go and fetch some seeds of mustard from the house which Death has not visited. She came back without the mustard seeds, for there was no such house. She thus learnt that though it is hard to accept, death was a reality.
My Encounter with Death
In December 2008 around Christmas I was in Benares, After a tiring day visiting with friends, including the Buddhist ruins at Sarnath, followed by a copious dinner I was taken with a terrible continuous pain in my chest at night, with sweating and vomiting. My host John Ganesh thought this a gastric problem, but when it would not stop he drove me to the hospital, where a diagnosis of severe heart attack was made. My husband Harish was informed and reached Benares promptly, by which time I was on artificial ventilation.
I saw many people dying in my ICU common cabin, and could not eat or drink. At night, I had visions of and heard classical music of the Benares gharana being played, with singing like a whole night mehphil. But in the morning when I asked Dr Singh whether there had been a “mehphil” upstairs he said “No!” On another occasion I heard Dalai Lama’s voice; he was to visit Sarnath on the 5th of January 2009. I heard the Buddhist gongs and bells chiming and Pali mantras being chanted!
Harish was worried, friends and relatives prayed in Mauritius for my well-being, but I felt I could not take it anymore. I told Harish, since we were on the banks of the Ganges, this was the best place as a Hindu for me to die. After all I would be turned to ashes whether in Mauritius or Benares.
On the 1st January 2009, I had a vision which people tell me was a hallucination, though it seemed real to me. At night, I saw a very beautiful, typical Indian village “hat” or bazaar, bright and beautiful with all types of goods and food and many voices. I met several beautiful ladies all looking so ravishingly charming in their pristine beauty! I could not believe my eyes. There was an unbelievable light all over. Touching me and showing me some dresses on the hangers, the ladies asked: “Which one would you like? This one?” Then I woke up and they had disappeared! They were angels, I believe. After that experience, I knew I would pick up.
Nachiketas’s Encounter with Death
But another encounter with Death is that of the young boy Nachiketas of nine in the Kathopanishad. This is a very well-known anecdote in Hinduism.
Nachiketas’ learned father, old Vajasravasa, was also a Guru, but was very attached to his wealth. To please the Gods he was performing a Vivwajit sacrifice, which required giving a number of cows to the poor as a sacrifice. But he gave the cows that were lean, old, dying and barren, whereupon Nachiketas asked his father, “Father to whom wilt thou give me?” When he persisted with his questioning the father was so enraged that he replied “Unto Death do I give thee”.
Being a dutiful son, Nachiketas left his father’s house stealthily and entered the Palace of Death, only to learn that Yama the Lord of Death was away for three days and nights. Nachiketas waited outside until Yama returned. Nachiketas wanted to learn about the secret of Death from him.
Death tries to dissuade the Young Disciple
Yama tires to dissuade him by offering him attractive boons, which he refuses, confirming the sincerity of his quest. .
The Lord Death then teaches Nachiketas what happens to the soul after Death. ‘The Atma does not shine by any other light, except its own. In the plane of Higher Consciousness, there is no need for another agent of light to illuminate it.’ Finally, he tells Nachiketas that a wise man is he who realises that the senses are distinct from the Atma. Therefore one does not grieve for the departed soul.
By controlling the senses through the discipline of yoga, one can become free from all the distractions of the Mind and cravings of the heart. When all desires in the heart of man die, he becomes immortal and attains Brahman even on this Earth. Nachiketas being thus guided by Lord of Death in the whole process of Yoga, became liberated and attained Brahman.
In the true Puranic Dharmic tradition and indeed in all old civilizations, Truth is imparted through a series of stories. That is why we have thousands of such Kathas or myths and legends in all mythologies of the world. The example of Nachiketas going to the House of Death in the Dharmic tradition and arguing with him about the path to Brahma Vidya is but a technique of pedagogy used by the ancient gurus to convey Truth to the raw mind.
* Published in print edition on 15 May 2015