It could happen to you …
As the train speeds on through the grey light of early morning, I think of my destination and make plans; my mission is most important.
Suddenly the train begins screeching a halt. “Your stop,” the conductor says. I protest, “But—but—I don’t want to get off here. I’m going to …”
“No arguments! You must get off!” He pushes me out of the train onto the platform, without even a chance to collect my luggage from the rack.
Here I am in an unknown place, with no friends, no possessions, and all my plans ruined. What am I to do?
Now the alarm saves me, ringing opportunely to bring me back awake. What a horrible dream! It hits on one aspect of our existence so dismal we usually prefer to ignore it.
Yet when we view death objectively, it’s not such a difficult thing to understand. At one time or another, by disease, by accident, or by providence, every one of us will be forced out of our body for what seems an unknown destination. Death’s stroke doesn’t wait for us to resolve our unfinished business, nor does it heed our careful moves to stave it off. When it’s time to go, you go.
What actually goes on at the time of death? Bhagavad- gita explains that just as we take off old garments and put on new ones, each of us must leave our present body and accept another. It’s not so difficult to understand.
Still, though we’re not able to escape the harsh reality of death, we’re scarcely ready to face it when it comes. Every person reading this article will come face to face with death. How many of us will be prepared for it?
We all fear death. Witness how carefully we protect our bodies against unknown enemies. We spend millions for medicine, billions for defense, practically every home has some kind of weapon. We’ve invested everything in this body—to lose it would mean to lose our facility to enjoy. Only an insane man would want harm to come to his body. Especially for one who knows nothing of the eternal self within the body, death means the end of everything. But the Vedic literatures explain that one who is self-realized, who has understood himself to be a spiritual entity, is not bewildered by the changing of bodies that takes place at death.
Man is proud of his achievements in science and technology, yet he has failed to come to a scientific understanding of death. Recently we have been trying harder, but more often than not we simply try to ignore that death is approaching. Our technological sophistication insulates us. In the Western countries, we never see a dead body: someone covers the corpse with a clean white sheet and whisks it away. Birth and death are things that happen to other people, off in a hospital somewhere. It’s easy to forget that this will happen to us some day.
A great saintly king named Yudhishthira was once asked, “What is the most wonderful thing within this world?” He replied, “Everyone is seeing his family and friends die one by one, yet he is thinking, ‘I will not die.’ That is the most wonderful thing.”
Our fear of death arises from this duality: on the one hand we want to enjoy bodily pleasures, but on the other we never seem to have enough time. This duality is explained in the Vedic literatures. Every living entity is pleasure-seeking by nature (ananda-mayo ‘bhyasat). He doesn’t want death and suffering. But they are forced on him for his foolishness in accepting the material body as a source of pleasure. Instead of getting pleasure from this body, however, we experience constant frustration. There is a story of a man on his deathbed who asked the doctor to prolong his life another four years. “Sir,” the doctor said, “I can’t give you another four minutes.”
Modern scientific research doesn’t aim at understanding this dilemma, but ancient Vedic literatures describe it clearly:
bhayam dvitiyabhiniveshatah syad
ishad apetasya viparyayo ‘smritih
“Fear arises from the duality of material existence [dvitiya]. When one is attracted by material illusion, his conception of life is reversed. Instead of being the eternal servant of Krishna, he becomes Krishna’s competitor.” In other words, we accept an illusory existence because of our rebelling against the Supreme Lord. Material nature then awards us a temporary body so that we can try to fulfill our plans for independence, but along with the body comes suffering. The material body is made in such a way that it will give us trouble and eventually break down. Planned obsolescence.
We are all eternal spiritual beings, meant to serve the Supreme Lord, but we have forgotten this connection with Krishna and have accepted bodies that grow old and die. This is what puts us in duality and fear. I am eternal, I am not meant to die, but I have to undergo death because I have identified myself with the temporary. When we come to understand that we are eternal—when we no longer identify with the body—we have nothing more to fear.
The soul in the material world continually changes from one body to the next, just as in one lifetime we change from boyhood to youth to old age. Death simply means that the spirit soul changes from his residence in one body to a residence in another. So if one has realized his eternal relationship as a servant of Krishna, he cannot be frightened or bewildered by this change.
This is the real solution to the problems of life. We must awaken to our forgotten relationship with Krishna before we are forced out of the body:
tan mayayato budha abhajet tam
“To nullify the mistake of duality, one who is actually learned and advanced worships the Supreme Personality of Godhead under the guidance of a bona fide spiritual master, whom he should regard as his worshipful deity and as his very source of life. He thus worships the Lord by unalloyed devotional service.”
Anyone can take to this process of Krishna consciousness, or pure devotional service, and become completely fearless. We have made the mistake of identifying ourselves with the temporary body, and therefore we must always live in fear of its demise. But by practice of Krishna consciousness we take up our eternal identity as servants of Krishna, and this fear of material existence is nullified.
Bhakti-yoga, or Krishna consciousness, is the process for establishing our long-forgotten relationship with Krishna. It is not an artificial practice; it is the reawakening of our dormant consciousness of Krishna. As soon as we awaken our Krishna consciousness even slightly, all fear departs, and we begin to relish the pleasure we are seeking—on the eternal, spiritual platform. We begin this process easily by chanting the maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Not only do the Vedic scriptures analyze the problems of life; they also give us the perfect solution. The centers of the Krishna consciousness movement have been established so that anyone can take up this process and become fearless. We invite everyone to come and experience an atmosphere free from fear and anxiety.