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(By- Swami Sunirmalananda)

 The Great Conqueror

Death, defined as the extinction of life, is the greatest problem of human life. All die—humans, animals, plants, microbes, germs, and so on. But we human beings become afraid and agitated by the very thought of death because we can understand the devastation death creates. Moreover, we suffer its pangs the most because we know and appreciate love and affection. It’s indeed painful to see our near and dear ones go away, leaving no trace behind. And it is painful to leave everyone behind and go away. So death is painful to human beings.

Death is always hard on our heels. Today or tomorrow, we shall all have to leave. It’s unfortunate but real and true. However much we might have loved life, however much we might have loved the world and served it, we should quit some day or other.

None can conquer death. However bold we might be, we can’t conquer death. The greatest of heroes have surrendered meekly before death. Death is assured. We may ask death not to be proud poetically (as John Gunther did), but we can’t do anything before its valour.

Life is being conquered by death since millions of years. The moment a child is born, one thing is absolutely certain: it will die one day. Time flows in only one direction. Fate can be changed; everything can be altered but not death.

Death Defies Us

Death has been looked upon with awe and fear since the beginning of time. Eschatology became concerned not only with the end of times, but of the end of life too. The dreaded death, which snatches away children from mother’s arms, husbands from wives, wives from husbands, parents from children, has caused immense terror in this world since the beginning of life. Undaunted by this terror, human beings have thought of ways and means to fight death. Let alone the field of medicine. Tens of methods have been discovered to keep the dead ‘alive’, to make the dead ‘come back’, to assure the living that their beloved will one day or other return from the grave, and so on.

Primitive cultures, the Egyptians, the Sumerians, and others painted numerous pictures of death and dying—perhaps to scare away the God of Death. Many cultures thought of death as a person—a God. They thought of afterlife (not rebirth but continuation of life after the physical death) of the individual and placed all things the dead needed inside the grave so that the soul could exist after death. Mummification was tried. Embalming was tried. Planchets were tried. Séances were tried. Mediums were tried. Every method under the sun has been tried by human beings to keep the human being from dying. Yet death has defied all attempts, and has been easily overriding all other powers.

Different Religions On Death

To the Buddhist, death is as impermanent as life itself is. Everything in this universe is a coming together—a sanghāta. So everything that is a coming together will part soon. Life is a flux, a constant flow like the water in the river. Everything is momentary. So death is an inevitable change or going apart of what had come together. Sanghāta becomes vighāta. As we know, there are several schools of Buddhist thought, but all are sure of one particular principle, and that is the momentary nature of things. Nothing is permanent. There is no Self, no Atman, no God, no Brahman: nothing that can be called permanent.

The Buddhists believe in rebirth. True, they don’t believe in anything permanent. Everything goes, and everything comes. But they can’t explain how the same individual has to suffer for the actions he or she has done in his or her past lives if he or she is annihilated with death. Yet they believe it happens.

To the Christian, death is the end of existence on this earth. There is no rebirth. The soul will be taken to God and He will judge whether it is worthy of heaven or eternal damnation. Catholics take great care to make the dying person be ready for a "good death." ‘The dying person makes his last confession to a priest and receives absolution; then he is anointed with consecrated oil: the rite is known as "anointing of the sick" (formerly called extreme unction). According to medieval Christian belief, the last moments of life were the most critical, for demons lurked about the deathbed ready to seize the unprepared soul as it emerged with the last breath.It’s more or less the same with the Islamic faith,’ says the Encyclopedia. But there are some who say that some of the Muslims believe in rebirth. The general opinion is that the pious Muslim goes to heaven and enjoys the pleasures there.

Hinduism has diverse opinions about death and dying. The fundamental concept of Hinduism is that life is trichotomous. There is the body, there is the mind, and there is the Self or Atman too. This last concept is not seen in any other religion of the world. This is the singular and momentous contribution of the Hindu sages to humanity—the discovery of the Atman. This Atman is immortal, and nothing can kill it. When Arjuna said that he would not fight because it would mean killing his kith and kin, Sri Krishna taught him the immortality of the Self and said that none can kill the Atman.

The Idea of Eternality

This idea of the eternality of the Atman is the central idea of Hinduism or Vedanta. Every other religion has attempted to formulate eternal life. But without the Self as the basis, the idea of immortality can’t stand. The Self alone is the permanent element in the universe. There is no contribution higher than this one, because here, we give to the world the knowledge of the only constituent in the universe which is eternal and true, rejecting all others—the mind, the body, the intellect, the world, the cosmos—as unreal and impermanent. Indian thinkers like Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhva, Nimbarka, and others varied in their explanations of the Atman. But they all said that the Self is immortal. How can the Self be immortal? It is unborn, and it will not die. That which is not born will not die. That which has no beginning has no end.

The body is impermanent. But the Atman is permanent. What about the mind then? The mind is relatively permanent—it stays as long as the soul doesn’t attain realization and then goes, says one school. When a yogi knows that he is not the body but the Self, the mind is said to merge in Prakriti. According to Advaita Vedanta, the mind and other things are only superimpositions having no true existence. So they will go the moment there is realization. Realization of what? Realization of the truth that we are God, that we are Brahman, that we are the Self, or that we are one with God.

Realization, as Sri Ramakrishna says, is the only ideal of all human beings. Every human being is born only to know God. Yet that is not given to all. As Sri Krishna says in the Gitā (7: 3) of the millions of human beings, only some strive for realization of God; even amongst those striving for God, only a few attain that state. For the rest of the human beings, death remains a paradox and a terror. What could be done about this?

There are some things that are in our hands, and they can be practised. These are: (a) accepting death as a fact; (b) preparing ourselves for the inevitability; and (c) leading lives of service and surrender.

Three Principles of Life

(a) Accepting Death as a Fact: It’s painful, but it is a fact that our near and dear ones will have to quit the world and leave us one day. We should accept this fact. As a corollary to this, we should know that life itself is impermanent. Life is impermanent, and love too is impermanent. No human being can fix his or her love on a single individual, which is another body, for all time to come. Those whom we love may not love us as we do. His or her attention may be on somebody else. And the so-called love is all love of the body only. Our love philosophy is skin-deep. So we should wake up to the truth that we shouldn’t waste our precious lives on impermanent things.

Shouldn’t we love our relatives then? Of course we should. But we should learn the art of loving. Our love is selfish. The Brihadāranyaka Upanishad has a dialogue between two sages—a husband and wife. Yājnavalkya tells his wife that everything is dear only due to the self. We love our relatives only for our sake. The mature lover, however, loves them for their own sake. That is, he knows that the world belongs to God and not to him. Then the idea of possessiveness goes. Then all problem ends.

Sri Ramakrishna gives the example of a maidservant who works as if everything in the master’s family is hers; but she knows that she is only a servant (Gospel, p. 81). To consider our relatives as ours, and to have a possessive love, has been called māyā by Sri Ramakrishna. He gives the name daya to pure love without the idea of my-ness. By loving everyone with daya, our love will in no way be less or inferior. On the contrary, there will be fulfilment in the lover and the loved. Such a love will be deeper and not merely skin-deep. Moreover, when death strikes the blow, we shall not be shattered but shall remain composed. What, after all, shall we gain by becoming distraught by the death of a dear one? We can’t make the dead alive. We can’t do anything but ruin ourselves. And memory is such that it fades away after a year or two. The consequence is our wasting our life away for some worthless thought. So we should be alert and accept the inevitable.

There is a beautiful and touching incident in Ramakrishna’s life. Once Adhar Sen brought a friend of his to Sri Ramakrishna. That friend, Saradacharan by name, was very sad because his eldest son had passed away. When Adhar Sen told Sri Ramakrishna about the sorrow of his friend, Sri Ramakrishna sang:

To arms! To arms, O man! Death storms your house in battle array!

Bearing the quiver of knowledge, mount the chariot of devotion;

Bend the bow of your tongue with the bow-string of love,

And aim at him the shaft of Mother Kali’s holy name.

Here is a ruse for the fray: ‘You need no chariot or charioteer;

Fight your foe from the Ganges’ bank and he is easily won.

The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, p. 209.

There are numerous statements from Sri Ramakrishna about death and dying. We can quote a few here. He, for instance, told the Brahmo devotees: ‘The world is impermanent. One should constantly remember death’ (The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, p. 589; hereafter, Gospel). Sri Ramakrishna added: ‘Be ready for Death. Death has entered the house….’ Once, when the soldiers (sepoys) of the barracks met Sri Ramakrishna, the latter gave them a wonderful advice. He told them: ‘Do your duty in the world but remember that the “pestle of death” will some time smash your hand. Be alert about it’ (Gospel, p. 428).

This is called preparing for death. We should know that death is inevitable for the body and we should be ready for it.

 (b) Preparing oneself for the Inevitable: We can’t say when we shall die. We can’t say when the last day would come. So we should be prepared. All saints, all prophets, and all great ones speak of preparedness. What is preparedness?

Sri Ramakrishna says: ‘In the hour of death you will think only of worldly things—of family, children, executing the will, and so forth. The thought of God will not come to your mind. The way to remember God in the hour of death is to practise, now, the repetition of His name and the chanting of His glories. If one keeps up this practice, then in the hour of death one will repeat the name of God…. It is good to prepare for death. One should constantly think of God and chant His name in solitude during the last years of one’s life. If the elephant is put into the stable after its bath it is not soiled again by dirt and dust’ (Gospel, pp. 309-10).

Attachments are painful. We get attached madly to people and things. People can’t be believed in because those to whom we become attached may not be necessarily that attached to us. Things of the world are not permanent. Our attachments to them are futile. And attachments themselves keep on shifting their loci. This is because our desires and aspirations are not constant and consistent. So what is the way for us? We should attach ourselves to something that is permanent. That permanent thing is God. If we attach ourselves to God—with form, without form, with qualities, without qualities, with name, without name; whichever—we shall be in peace.

Sri Ramakrishna says: ‘“I” and “mine”—these constitute ignorance. “My house”, “my wealth”, “my learning”, “my possessions”—the attitude that prompts one to say such things comes out of ignorance. One the contrary, the attitude born of knowledge is: ‘O God, Thou art the Master and all these things belong to Thee - House, family, children, attendants, friends, are Thine’ (Gospel, p. 105).

In this way, our preparation for death should be to think of God and love Him. The ordinary individual is perturbed and devastated by every little trouble. A devotee of God, on the other hand, can withstand volcanoes and earthquakes with equipoise. That strength comes from God.

(c) Leading Lives of Service and Self-Surrender: We ordinary mortals, who are busy with our worldly activities, can’t have love and faith in God all that easily. What is the way for us then? Sri Ramakrishna answers that also. He says: ‘Do your duties, but keep your mind on God. Live with all—with wife and children, father and mother—and serve them. Treat them as if they were very dear to you, but know in your heart of hearts that they do not belong to you…. If you enter the world without first cultivating love for God, you will be entangled more and more. You will be overwhelmed with its danger, its grief, its sorrows. And the more you think of worldly things, the more you will be attached to them. … Further, by meditating on God in solitude the mind acquires knowledge, dispassion, and devotion. … Together with this, you must practise discrimination’ (Gospel, p. 82).

Even if we can’t do all these or any of these, we can surrender to the Lord. Surrendering to the most compassionate Ramakrishna and Holy Mother or to any other God can save us from the fiery ordeal of worldliness, which is nothing but death. Death is like a tunnel of darkness into which our life-train is rushing. Death is gaping its mouth in order to consume us. We shall be crushed between its teeth if we don’t hold on to God. God alone can save us.

Since time immemorial, people have been trying for some means to attain immortality. All the ordinary means have failed but one method is definitely successful. And that method is to surrender to God. He will make us immortal and take us to eternal life of peace and lasting happiness. We shall then be beyond worry and sorrow. In order to give up this little mud-puddle called the world and reach Him, all we have to do is call Him. And never does the Lord forget His children.

We end with these glorious words of Swami Vivekananda (The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. 2, p. 66):

‘He alone lives whose life is in the whole universe, and the more we concentrate our lives on limited things, the faster we go towards death. Those moments alone we live when our lives are in the universe, in others; and living this little life is death, simply death, and that is why the fear of death comes. The fear of death can only be conquered when man realises that so long as there is one life in this universe, he is living. When he can say, "I am in everything, in everybody, I am in all lives, I am the universe," then alone comes the state of fearlessness. To talk of immortality in constantly changing things is absurd. Says an old Sanskrit philosopher: It is only the Spirit that is the individual, because it is infinite.’