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Birth and Death–The Great Illusions

Part 5 of the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

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No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heaven’s glories shine,
And Faith shines equal, arming me from Fear.

O God within my breast,
Almighty, ever-present Deity!
Life, that in me has rest,
As I, undying Life, have power in Thee!

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts: unutterably vain;
Worthless as withered weeds,
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main,

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by Thy infinity,
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of Immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy Spirit animates eternal years,
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, and rears.

Though earth and moon were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou wert left alone,
Every existence would exist in Thee.

There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void:
Thou–thou art Being and Breath,
And what thou art may never be destroyed.

Emily Bronte wrote the foregoing only a matter of weeks before her death, revealing a profundity of spiritual realization that belied her confined nineteenth-century rural Yorkshire background. Upanishadic as the above stanzas may be, the insights expressed therein seem to have arisen totally from within her own divine spirit. Years before she penned these lines, she wrote a poem in which the experience of samadhi is described as well as it can be. (There is a very slight chance that during her brief period of education in Brussels she might have come across a French translation of the Upanishads. This would not, however, account for the Advaitic content of her poetry written before that time.)

Emily Bronte has something in common with Arjuna: she was facing death, her own imminent death, and Arjuna was facing the surety of death for many he beheld on both sides assembled on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, as well as the likelihood of his own death. From the depths of her own immortal Self (Atma) the assurance of immortality arose in the mind and heart of Emily. From the front of his chariot, the voice of Krishna entered into the ears of Arjuna, awakening his innate understanding, enabling him to see, as did Emily Bronte, the truth of his own immortal being.

One thing that marks out the various world religions from the vision of the Vedic rishis is the fact that they all claim to have a “new” message for a “new” age, a heretofore unheard-of annunciation of truth. The rishis, quite to the contrary, knew and said that they were speaking eternal facts that were like the principles of mathematics. Consequently, as Sri Ramakrishna stated: “The Hindu religion alone is the Sanatana Dharma. The various creeds you hear of nowadays have come into existence through the will of God and will disappear again through his will. They will not last forever.… The Hindu religion has always existed and will always exist” (The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, p. 642). The religion of the Vedas, Upanishads, and Bhagavad Gita alone are the Eternal Religion (Sanatana Dharma), for it is oriented toward eternity, not toward time, and takes into consideration only the Unchanging in the midst of the ever-changing.

Just as it was the spirit, the true Self, of Emily Bronte that was speaking in this poem, so it is our own true Self that is speaking to us through the mouth of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. When I first read the Gita, I did not have a sense of reading some ancient document or primeval wisdom spoken through the lips of a long-departed sage or avatar. Rather I felt that my own soul was speaking to me directly, that I was being taught by my own Self guiding me toward realization of my ultimate Self: God. I did not accept or adopt a religion–I awoke to the truth of myself and God. The Vedic sages did not have a religion in the commonly accepted sense: they had a Vision. And the Gita called me to that same vision, and pointed me toward meditation (yoga) as the only means of gaining it. The Gita gave me a pretty good idea of yoga, and Patanjali filled in the rest. Although she had no such books to guide and inspire her, the Yogi of Haworth, Emily Bronte, nonetheless attained the Vision by turning within and letting her inmost consciousness lead her to the Divine Center.

Now we are about to hear our own Self tell us the truth about ourselves and “all that we see or seem” which is indeed “but a dream within a dream,” as Poe intuited.

The living and the dead
“The wise mourn neither the living or the dead,” says Krishna to Arjuna. Why? Because there are no “living” or “dead” in the sense that those with bodies are alive and those divested of a body are dead. Nor is there such a duality as life and death. These are only the illusions produced by the distorting veils of ignorance.

“Lead me from death to immortality” is not a petition to gain a state where we will nevermore experience bodily death, but a plea to be led from the outward-turned consciousness that produces death to the in-turned consciousness that produces life. It is spirit itself that is immortality–nothing else. “Change and decay all around I see. O Thou Who changest not: abide with me.” What we are praying for is consciousness itself.

The truth about us

Yes, the plain fact is this: There are no dead. For Krishna continues:

Truly there never was a time when I was not, nor you, nor these lords of men–nor in the future will there be a time when we shall cease to be (2:12).

We are as eternal as God himself because we derive our very being from God. Just as there was never a time when God did not exist, nor can there be a time when he will not exist–especially since he is utterly outside of time–so there can never come a time when we shall not exist, for we, too, exist outside of time however enmeshed we are in the experience of time through the temporal instruments of the body and mind.

Krishna is also making it clear that our distinction as individuals–both from other finite beings and from God–is also eternal. There is absolutely no place in the Gita for the teaching that in time we melt into the infinite and exist no more as a distinct entity, only God remaining, our having never really existed at all. Yet Krishna does not say we exist separately from God and from one another at any time, for that is also impossible. There is absolute unity, yet within that unity is an eternal diversity. Advaita is the true view–Not Two, which is in no way the same as One, or Monism.

Although Krishna declares that he, Arjuna, and all those present on the battlefield exist eternally, he does not mean that their present conditioned personalities are eternal and unchangeable. Just as our spirits transcend time, so our personalities, which are nothing more than masks shaped by our past and present lives, exist only within time and are ever-changing until they are dissolved in the light of spiritual knowledge (jnana). Our personalities are indeed separate from God, and as long as we identify with them we will feel separated from him and engage in the delusional “search” and “reaching out” for God. I say delusional because our true selves (atmas) are never separate from God. “He is not far from every one of us: for in him we live, and move, and have our being; for we are also his offspring” (Acts 17:27-28). Our personalities can never find or touch God because they simply do not exist as actual–much less eternal–realities. It is those who identify with the personality and think it is their true Self that fall into the trap of either Dualism or Monism.

The result of immortality

Yet we are ignorant; without facing that fact we will never effectively aspire to the knowledge of Reality. And until we attain that knowledge what happens to us? Krishna supplies the answer:

As to the embodied person childhood, youth and old age arise in turn, so he gets another body–the wise are not deluded by this (2:13).

Evolution is implied here, also continuity of consciousness/being and the utter naturalness and even painlessness of the process. It is all a matter of outer experience, not of inner reality. But we should look at the pieces of the puzzle as set forth in this verse.

The Number One Fact is the existence of “the embodied,” the immortal Self. Here lies the core of the whole matter–literally. All experience which we undergo at any time is what motion picture theaters in the nineteen-sixties used to call “sense-surround.” That is, our consciousness is surrounded by, enwrapped in, a series of sheaths (koshas) which convey all the experiences which it erroneously thinks are happening to it. Rather than understanding that it is merely watching screens on which are projected the various sensations–some seeming to be outer and some seeming to be inner–the spirit thinks that it is seeing, feeling, tasting, etc., that it is happy, sad, desolate, fulfilled, and so on (and on and on). In meditation we can think these “screen shots” are atmic experience if we are not careful.

Just how this all comes about is really in the field of Sankhya philosophy and Yoga which will be taken up later on by Krishna. For now the important point to realize is that we are ever separate from all that we see or seem. We are the tenant, not the dwelling; we are the worker of the machine, not the machine. This dweller in the body, our true Self or Atma, is the sole reality throughout our many incarnations. When we are centered in that we are free; when we are drawn out and into the surrounding show, we are bound. It is just that simple, though the process of involving and evolving is incalculably complex.

Evolution is also spoken of here. Through childhood, youth, and old age there is constant growth and development–at least for the awakening individual. That is the purpose of the cosmos itself: the evolution of the individual in order to develop the capacity for infinite consciousness. So this is the purpose of dwelling in the body–it is a tool for far more than mere learning, it is a means of evolving from finitude to infinity, from microcosmic to macrocosmic consciousness. And this evolution is as inevitable and natural as the aging of the body.

We have a great deal of fear about death and hear a lot about “hard deaths” and “death struggles,” yet those who have recovered their memories of previous lives assure us that death is the easiest phase of life, that at the Great Moment the “dewdrop” really does “slip into the Shining Sea” with a great sense of peace and relief.

“He gets another body.” This can literally be translated “he arrives at another body.” That is, in time he will again pass into the material body and be reborn in the physical plane.

The wise know

However, “the wise are not deluded by this.” Those who have gained some wisdom in previous births are able to understand, even in childhood, their actual separation from the inner and outer worlds. If their constant experience of those worlds does not overwhelm them, they are no longer deluded into thinking that their true Self has been born or shall ever die; nor do they define themselves according to the movies shown to them on the screens of their acquired bodies. They do not identify with bodily conditions or even the states of mind that arise before their observing eye. In the ripest state of wisdom development they say with Shankaracharya:

I am not the mind, intellect, thought, or ego;
Not hearing, not tasting, not smelling, not seeing;
I am not the elements–ether, earth, fire, air:
I am the form of Conscious Bliss: I am Spirit!

I am neither Prana, nor the five vital airs;
Nor the seven components of the gross body;
Nor the subtle bodies; nor organs of action:
I am the form of Conscious Bliss: I am Spirit!

I have no aversion, clinging, greed, delusion;
No envy or pride, and no duty or purpose;
I have no desire,and I have no freedom:
I am the form of Conscious Bliss: I am Spirit!

I have no merit or sin, nor pleasure or pain;
No mantra, pilgrimage, Veda or sacrifice;
Not enjoying, enjoyable, or enjoyer:
I am the form of Conscious Bliss: I am Spirit!

I have no death or fear, no distinction of caste;
Neither father, nor mother, nor do I have birth;
No friend or relation, guru or disciple:
I am the form of Conscious Bliss: I am Spirit!

I am without attributes; I am without form;
I am all-pervading, I am omnipresent;
By senses untouched, neither free, nor knowable:
I am the form of Conscious Bliss: I am Spirit!

Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: Experiencing the Unreal

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Introduction to The Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

Preface to The Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

Bhagavad Gita for Awakening links:

  1. The Battlefield of the Mind
  2. On the Field of Dharma
  3. Taking Stock
  4. The Smile of Krishna
  5. Birth and Death–The Great Illusions
  6. Experiencing the Unreal
  7. The Unreal and the Real
  8. The Body and the Spirit
  9. Know the Atman!
  10. Practical Self-Knowledge
  11. Perspective on Birth and Death
  12. The Wonder of the Atman
  13. The Indestructible Self
  14. “Happy the Warrior”
  15. Buddhi Yoga
  16. Religiosity Versus Religion
  17. Perspective on Scriptures
  18. How Not To Act
  19. How To Act
  20. Right Perspective
  21. Wisdom About the Wise
  22. Wisdom About Both the Foolish and the Wise
  23. The Way of Peace
  24. Calming the Storm
  25. First Steps in Karma Yoga
  26. From the Beginning to the End
  27. The Real “Doers”
  28. Our Spiritual Marching Orders
  29. Freedom From Karma
  30. “Nature”
  31. Swadharma
  32. In the Grip of the Monster
  33. Devotee and Friend
  34. The Eternal Being
  35. The Path
  36. Caste and Karma
  37. Action–Divine and Human
  38. The Mystery of Action and Inaction
  39. The Wise in Action
  40. Sacrificial Offerings
  41. The Worship of Brahman
  42. Action–Renounced and Performed
  43. Freedom (Moksha)
  44. The Brahman-Knower
  45. The Goal of Karma Yoga
  46. Getting There
  47. The Yogi’s Retreat
  48. The Yogi’s Inner and Outer Life
  49. Union With Brahman
  50. The Yogi’s Future
  51. Success in Yoga
  52. The Net and Its Weaver
  53. Those Who Seek God
  54. Those Who Worship God and the Gods
  55. The Veil in the Mind
  56. The Big Picture
  57. The Sure Way To Realize God
  58. Day, Night, and the Two Paths
  59. The Supreme Knowledge
  60. Universal Being
  61. Maya–Its Dupes and Its Knowers
  62. Worshipping the One
  63. Going To God
  64. Wisdom and Knowing
  65. Going To The Source
  66. From Hearing To Seeing
  67. The Wisdom of Devotion
  68. Right Conduct
  69. The Field and Its Knower
  70. Interaction of Purusha and Prakriti
  71. Seeing the One Within the All
  72. The Three Gunas
  73. The Cosmic Tree
  74. Freedom
  75. The All-pervading Reality
  76. The Divine and the Demonic
  77. Faith and the Three Gunas
  78. Food and the Three Gunas
  79. Religion and the Three Gunas
  80. Tapasya and the Three Gunas
  81. Charity and the Three Gunas
  82. Sannyasa and Tyaga
  83. Deeper Insights On Action
  84. Knowledge, Action, Doer, and the Three Gunas
  85. The Three Gunas: Intellect and Firmness
  86. The Three Kinds of Happiness
  87. Freedom
  88. The Great Devotee
  89. The Final Words
  90. Glossary

Visit our e-library page for Free Downloads of this and other ebooks in various formats.

Read the Maharshi Gita, an arrangement of verses of the Bhagavad Gita made by Sri Ramana Maharshi that gives an overview of the essential message of the Gita.

Read The Bhagavad Gita (arranged in verses for singing) by Swami Nirmalananda Giri (Abbot George Burke).

Read about the meanings of unfamiliar terms in A Brief Sanskrit Glossary

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