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Do the Dead “Die”?

Crashing Waves“These bodies inhabited by the eternal, the indestructible, the immeasurable [illimitable] embodied Self, are said to come to an end, therefore fight, Arjuna!” (2:18) —Krishna, from the Bhagavad Gita

We are tossed about and drowned in the ocean that we are meant to sail over unruffled and unaffected by wind or wave. See what Krishna says: We cannot be either limited or destroyed. This is incredible to us who are entrenched in the hypnosis called Maya.

But the challenge is inescapable: this truth must be consciously experienced and permanently established in us. How to accomplish this is the message of the whole Gita.

Let us look at the implications of this. If we are in any way limited it is a result of our blindness. Remove the blindness and the limitations vanish. They need not be overcome but seen through as the mirages they really are.

If we think that we can die or be annihilated, we are deluded to the point of spiritual psychosis. For what can we do, then, but live in continual fear and despair? Just look at the death and burial customs of the world’s religions, except for Hinduism. They affirm the immortality of the individual and assure those who remain behind that “they are in a better place.” It is only natural to feel grief at losing the presence of those who are loved, but see how the bereaved act.

Affirming death

Not only is there a sense of hopelessness at the inevitability of death, the bodies are treated as though they are the departed person. In the West we dress them up, put makeup on them, style their hair, and put them in metal boxes with innerspring mattresses (“So they will rest easy,” explained one mortician to a friend of mine.) Grave sites are often chosen with a view the departed (?) will be sure to like. And after burial they are “visited,” given flowers, and often spoken to. In some cultures the families put food on the graves and even have a picnic there to share a meal with the dead.

In Cairo, when you go to the pyramids you pass through a vast section of the city that is the City of the Dead, composed of small houses set along a labyrinth of streets. Each house is a tomb. On holidays the families visit these houses and have lunch with the dead–who their religion says are not there at all but in another plane of existence altogether. This is craziness.

Affirming Life

On the other hand, in India the body is wrapped in bright-colored cloth and borne through the streets as the bearers chant over and over: “Rama Nama satya hai”–the Name of God alone is real–or a similar affirmation that spirit is real and death is an illusion. Reaching the crematory ground, scriptural passages affirming the immortality of the spirit are recited as the fire is kindled. When the cremation is finished the bearers walk away without a backward look. A television documentary entitled Forest of Bliss, showing a day at the burning ground of Varanasi (Benares) is worth viewing as it shows belief in immortality being lived out.

The key thing in all this is actual realization of our immortality, not just a hope or belief. And this is a matter of spiritual practice, as Krishna will inform Arjuna.

Therefore fight

Something must be done. We must enter the dharma-field of our inner awareness and do the needful. “For the protection of the good and the destruction of evil doers, for the sake of establishing righteousness [dharma], I am born in every age” (4:8). Like Krishna we must release the holiness of our spirit and annihilate the delusion of sin. Then we will be righteous. Like Arjuna we will shrink back, get “confused,” and try to abandon our duty.

But if, also like Arjuna, we make spirit-consciousness our “charioteer” we will come out all right. Victorious and wise.

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