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.
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