Phenomenon of Death


*Gopinath Raina
Death must be something extraordinary, as life is. Life is a total thing. Sorrow, pain, anguish, joy, absurd ideas, possession, envy, love, the aching misery of loneliness- all that is life. And to understand death, we must understand the whole life, not take just one fragment of it and live with that fragment, as most of us do. In the very understanding of life there is the understanding of death, because the two are not separate. -J Krishnamurti

hough the phenomenon called death is perhaps more real than that of birth, yet it is an unwelcome visitor. Unlike birth, which we know at least nine months in advance, death comes unannounced, even in cases of acute malignancy. While one’s journey toward death begins from the moment of one’s conception in the embryo itself, yet, any talk of death is regarded as a taboo.

Human existence oscillates between two metaphysical postulates of Joy and Sorrow. Life, indeed, is both a Tear and a Smile and there is a very thin line separating the two. The secret of Death, if any, is to be found in the Soul within, which is subtler than the subtlest, greater than the greatest, eternal and everlasting.

Our scriptures, right from the Vedas to Bhagwadgita, speak of life and death and the enlightened want us to deal with death much the same way as we deal with living. Life is eternal and death does not signal its end. Death is a part of life, not the end of it and therefore we must even plan for it. Sri Ramana Maharishi would often say: “Sleep is temporary death and death but a longer sleep.”

Fear of Death

There are people who despise and fear death and even take pride in temporarily escaping it. To such people, Marcus Aurelius would say: “Don’t despise death but be well content with it, since it, too, is one of those things which Nature wills. As thou waitest for the time when the child shall come out of thy wife’s womb, so be ready for the time when the soul shall fall out of this envelope.”

Death unlocks the door to a wider existence. According to Swami Sivananda, “The soul is a circle whose circumference is nowhere but its centre is in the body. Death means the change of this centre from one body to another. “

Fear of death arises because we identify ourselves with our physical body, forgetting that essentially we are pure consciousness which is eternal. But there are the few wise that wait for death, embrace and welcome it. They treat it as a fitting finale to a fulfilled life. A noble example of a serene attitude towards death is to be found in the letter a well-known Antarctic explorer, physician, artist and a naturalist wrote to his wife just before the ill-fated expedition, of which he was a member, had run short of food and fuel. The letter found near his ice-sheathed body said "Don't be unhappy. We are playing a good part in the great scheme arranged by God himself... We will all meet after death, and death has no terrors..."

Mozart was even more forthright and realistic in acknowledging the certainty of the phenomenon of death when he wrote a letter to his dying father saying, “The image of death is not only no longer terrifying to me, but is indeed very soothing and consoling, and I thank my God for graciously granting me the opportunity... of learning that death is the key which unlocks the door to our true happiness. I never lie down at night without reflecting that young as I am I may not live to see another day.”

Nature’s Design

Death comes to one and all, high and low, big and small, rich and poor. And when it finally comes, it invariably causes pain and sorrow. No amount of sermon helps overcome the sense of loss of a loved one that can throw you into deep depression, and wreck you emotionally, physically and mentally.

We fail to acknowledge and understand that death is universal. When there is birth, there will be death, too. Death is a part of Nature’s providence and design. It plays a part in the scheme of things by accident, disease, violence or simply because the body wears out. The decay of the body is as certain as the falling of a leaf from a tree.

Man and woman, bird and beast, rich and poor, the weak and the strong have to mix with dust one day. The hammer of time does its work and the flowers that bloom in the morning fade away by the evening. In the words of Tennyson “Death closes all.”

Knows no Calendar

Yet the human mind is reluctant to accept this truth. Here it would be pertinent to recall the words of wisdom from the mouth of Yudhishtir in Mahabharata in reply to a question as to what was the most wonderful and amazing thing in the world. He told the questioner “that, though man sees people around him dying every day, every moment, he thinks he is not going to die.”

We seldom, or, perhaps, never, think of death, particularly of our own. No one has the time to contemplate on death despite the fact that there is nothing more certain than death. We also know that no adequate defense can be offered against Death that knows no calendar and which comes at any time without a warning.

In fact, Death is one such event the people won’t mind being late for. At this point, the question that could bother one’s mind is whether a person could choose the time to leave the physical body. Our scriptures, however, stipulate that it is the Cosmic Law, the Law of Karma, which determines the time and the circumstances of death on the basis of our past deeds.

Knowing too well that death follows us as a shadow, would it not be prudent to cultivate the will to shed our mortal coil, the way we cultivate the will to live. Were we to deem it a physiological necessity like thirst and hunger, we would aspire to die, as the great French philosopher, Nietzsche said, "like a torch which dies exhausted and glutted with relief".

Let go our Attachments

We refuse to let go our worldly attachments and relationships. That is why our minds become dumb when a loved one dies. Dealing with the loss of near and dear ones is not easy. But, willy-nilly, one has to face it. There is not a single person out there, who has not suffered this pain. What has gone by is always history and what is to follow is always a mystery. What is true is the living moment which must be lived to the full. Who knows the world may end tonight and tomorrow may never come.

However, physical death does not destroy the good name, the virtuous and meritorious deeds. We can defeat death by performing noble actions, by indulging in art and literature and by extraordinary intellectual and spiritual achievements. Only those, who live for themselves, whose lives are dominated by narrow vision, personal aggrandizement and ignorance, flinch in the face of death.

Death kills only the body, not the spirit, self, the soul. For the soul never dies. Lord Krishna has struck a realistic note saying that “there is neither birth nor death for the soul. Nor, having once been, does the soul ever ceases to be. The soul is unborn, eternal, ever existing, undying and primeval. The soul is not slain when the body is slain." (Gita: II-20)

Gita rightly tells us not to grieve for those who leave their bodies. It explains beautifully: “As a person puts on new garments, giving up the old ones, the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.”

Though we are the denizens of time, we are really the citizens of eternity. The belief that life is a passing phase can be the best motivation for making us lead a truly good life and be good to our fellow-beings in all respects.

The only way to deal with crises and life-threatening situations is to resolve to do our best and let Nature do the rest. And when one loses a near and a dear one, the best thing is to illumine our heart and soul with the fond memories of the loved one and utilize the painful loss as a stepping stone toward one’s spiritual evolvement and learn to tread the path of love and compassion.
A journalist by profession, a scholar by temperament and a writer by choice, Gopinath Raina was inclined to the study of religion from his very young age. It was Swami Vivekananda?s dynamic exposition of Hindu thought that fired his imagination while he was still at school, and by the time he entered college, he had been drawn to the writings of Gandhi, Aurobindo, Narayana Guru, Radhakrishnan and Bertrand Russel.
After retiring from Indian Information Service (I.I.S.) in 1983 where he distinguished himself as an editor, correspondent, commentator and administrator in All India Radio, he edited, AICC Journal, Varnika, (Jan.'84-Dec.'90), Koshur Samachar (March'91-Oct '95, Sanatana Sandesh,(1997-2005) and KASHEER (2003-2004),
He has been writing profusely on various aspects of Hindu thought. He enjoys writing, particularly on saints and sages, not only of Kashmir, but of the other parts of India as well. Presently he lives in Miami, and spends his time writing personal memoirs.

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