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Perspective on Birth and Death

Part 11 of the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening

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Inconsistency in outlook

Just because something is the truth does not mean that we can easily grasp or accept it, however sincere we may be in our truth-seeking. How many years can go by without our fully grasping that someone we dearly love has left their body–they are so living to us. Sometimes we experience intense grief at their departure and absence, and at the same time really cannot feel that they are no longer with us. After all, we are in this earth plane because we are completely irrational–especially on the subconscious and emotional levels. When my miracle-working grandmother died, I grieved and shed tears over the loss every single day for one year, and yet only on the anniversary day of her departure did I fully come to realize that she was gone! In my heart I could not believe that I would not find her in her house if I would just go there. So an intellectual understanding about birth and death does not help a great deal. If the facts will not take root in our minds, then we at least need a better perspective on things. So Krishna is now explaining to Arjuna how he should consider these matters even if he cannot take in the truth that birth and death are mere appearances only. He continues:

And moreover, if you think this Self to have constant birth and death, even then you should not mourn (2:26).

Even if we consider birth and death to be real (which they are, as impressions in the mind), even then we should have no sorrow because:

Of the born, death is certain; of the dead, birth is certain. Therefore, over the inevitable you should not grieve (2:27).

In the West, the brilliant Stoic philosopher Epictetus counseled his students to study their lives and environment and determine what lay within the scope of their power to influence, produce, or eliminate. Having done this, they should put everything else out of their minds as things they should not even worry about. Birth and death are certainly major elements to cultivate indifference to.

The truth of things can be postponed or avoided for a while. But truth is our very nature, and must eventually be faced and undergone. So how long will we continue to violate it with more illusions?

The wisdom of Buddha

How rare are those who never concede to making demands for more fantasies to make them “happy”! Buddha was one such, and even after these thousands of years there are still many (including some who call themselves Buddhists) who consider that his utter realism was pessimism or indifference to people’s feelings.

One incident that is not popular is his dealing with this subject of death and grief. A young woman whose infant had died came to Buddha and begged him to bring her child back to life. Buddha told her to go into a nearby town and bring him some rice from a family in which no one had ever died. She hastened into the town and spent the day going from house to house with her request. Everywhere she was told the same thing: death continually came to members of the family. In the evening she returned to Buddha and, bowing, thanked him for showing her the folly of her request. Having understood the universality of physical death, she saw that her grief and her request were based on ignorance–ignorance which was now dispelled. John Hay, in his poem “The Law of Death” told it this way:

And then from door to door she fared,

To ask what house by Death was spared.

Her heart grew cold to see the eyes
Of all dilate with slow surprise:
“Kilvani, thou hast lost thy head;
Nothing can help a child that’s dead.
There stands not by the Ganges’ side
A house where none hath ever died.”

Thus, through the long and weary day,
From every door she bore away
Within her heart, and on her arm,
A heavier load, a deeper harm.
By gates of gold and ivory,
By wattled huts of poverty,
The same refrain heard poor Kilvani,
The living are few, the dead are many.

The evening came–so still and fleet–
And overtook her hurrying feet.
And, heartsick, by the sacred lane
She fell, and prayed the god again.
She sobbed and beat her bursting breast:
“Ah, thou hast mocked me, Mightiest!
Lo I have wandered far and wide;
There stands no house where none hath died.”

And Buddha answered, in a tone
Soft as a flute at twilight blown,
But grand as heaven and strong as death
To him who hears with ears of faith:
“Child, thou art answered. Murmur not!
Bow, and accept the common lot.”

Kilvani heard with reverence meet,
And laid her child at Buddha’s feet.

Swami Kaivalyananda, a disciple of Yogiraj Shyama Charan Lahiri, once told Mukunda Lal Ghosh, later to be Paramhansa Yogananda, about miraculous healings done by his guru. But in conclusion he stated: “The numerous bodies which were spectacularly healed through Lahiri Mahasaya eventually had to feed the flames of cremation.” So in the end it was all the same: death had its way.

We only torment ourselves with the desire and attempt to postpone or cancel the inevitable. Years ago I heard about a hillbilly who spent the entire day in a theater, watching the same film over and over. When asked why he did this, he answered that he did not like the way it came out and so was waiting for it to end differently. It was his incomprehension of the nature of motion pictures that gave him such a foolish hope. And so it is with us.

Earthly life

Beings are unmanifest in their beginning, manifest in their middle state and again unmanifest in their end. What lamentation can be made over this? (2:28).

Like the hillbilly we either do not know the truth about this evanescent life of earthly incarnation or we refuse to face it. Our appearances on this earth are but a part of our life history. For aeons beyond number we never came into material manifestation at all. Then we began doing so, like actors entering a theater and moving over the stage in a brief play and then leaving to return home until the next performance. Not only are our “appearances” but a fraction of our relative existence, they are fundamentally unreal. As Krishna implies, life on this earth is completely unnatural for us. It is natural to be out of the body, not in it. Yet we irrationally cling to it and to our memories of it, even trying to make each life duplicate the one before it, not even wanting the drama to develop or evolve. And we insanely identify with the ever-changing temporary states, totally forgetting the unchanging eternal state that is the only thing real about us. Many metaphysically-minded people begin heaping up even more folly through striving to remember their past lives and attributing full reality to them. Rare are those who utilize the memory of past lives to illuminate the problems of the present life so that they all can be let go of in order to pass on to higher life beyond any births.

All our “lives” are really deaths–descent into the worlds of change and decay, dreams caused by the fever of samsara, a disease whose cure we must vigorously seek and even more vigorously apply. Only when we come to know that we have never been born and have never died will we have peace and the cessation of sorrow.

Read the next article in the Bhagavad Gita for Awakening: The Wonder of the Atman

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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 Abbot George Burke (Swami Nirmalananda Giri).

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

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