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Hinduism Death: The Elephant In The Room


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
by Gadadhara Pandit Dasa

Since I'm an only child, and since my parents and I migrated from India away from our immediate family in 1980, I haven't directly experienced the loss of someone close to me. I was very close to my grandmother, but by the time she passed away from the world, I had already been in America for over 12 years, and time had diminished any attachment I had for her.

My dad cried like I had never seen him cry before. His father had passed away when he was only seven years old, so he was quite close to her. His major regret was that he couldn't be with her when she passed.

These memories come upon me every once in a while, as I meditate on the rooftop of our monastery in the East Village. Looking across the street I witness a he{censored} pull up to the funeral home. The driver opens the back door and pulls out a coffin with a recently deceased individual and rolls it into the home.

It's a constant reminder that, all around me, restaurants, delis, and a variety of other businesses are opening or going out of business, but the one establishment that seems to remain constant and unaffected by the economy is that funeral home.

I also can't help but wonder how not too long ago, the person in that casket was a living, breathing individual with family and friends, and now they're gone. What must it be like for those they left behind? What was their final experience the few moments before their departure? It seems like such a mystery. A few moments before, they were here and now they've disappeared off the face of the earth.

There's little doubt that it's an unpleasant experience. The entire body and all its functions are coming to a halt. Everything we hold dear is on the verge of being stripped away from us. Losing simple things such as a cell phone or wallet can be quite stressful and frustrating, so what to speak of losing everything, all at once! Often times, death can show up at the door without giving any kind of an advance notice.

Is there anything we can do to prepare for that final moment of our lives? Or, are we to remain helpless victims? I heard one of my teachers explain that "Life is the preparation and death is the final examination." Obviously, we're not going to be able to ward off death. The death rate is and always will be one hundred percent.

However, just as we prepare for any exam in our life, whether it's a driving test or an academic test -- preparation for death is very much required. The more we prepare, the better equipped we'll be in dealing with the inescapable truth of the situation. Death is not a test we can cram for the night before.

We have a subconscious tendency to deny our mortality. Even though it's happening all around us, and everyday we're reminded of it in so many ways, we just never think that it'll actually happen to us. Driving by a cemetery might make us a little reflective, but somehow we're not able to connect that to our own life.

Death is like the elephant in the room. It can't be ignored, but we do a really good job of it. It's natural for us to be fearful of our own mortality.

This reminds me of a conversation that takes place in the famous Hindu epic Mahabharata between a wise king and a realized sage. The sage asks the king, "What's the most amazing thing you've seen in life?" The king replies that "The most amazing thing I've seen is that death is taking place everywhere, but no one ever thinks it's going to happen to them."

The Hindu scriptures explain that we come into this world with a certain number of breaths and the countdown begins the moment we exit the womb. Since we don't really know when it's going to happen, every moment should be lived in such a way that we're preparing our consciousness for the final moment.

This doesn't mean that we're constantly thinking of our demise and getting depressed by such thoughts. It means living life in such a way that we're constantly endeavoring to create a balance between our material and spiritual lives.

The wisdom found within the Hindu/Vedic tradition of India can provide us with a less fearful and brighter outlook on our own mortality, while teaching us to better prepare for our final moments. Their teachings can also help us better deal with the loss of a loved one.

As an example, I'd like to share a few passages from the Bhagavad Gita, which can provide us with a beautiful and broad perspective on life, death, and our ultimate existence:

As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.
The soul can never be cut to pieces by any weapon, nor burned by fire, nor moistened by water, nor withered by the wind.

These verses alleviate our very basic and most fundamental concern, the fear of ceasing to exist. The Gita explains that the only thing about us that deteriorates and dies is the body, which is compared to an old set of garments.

The real person, the soul, continues to live on without being affected by any of the elements of this world, including the factor of time, which is ultimately responsible for diminishing the life of all matter. Time, however, has no effect on the spiritual self (soul).

This isn't our first life and it's not going to be our last. The soul is eternal and it will continue to exist even after the demise of the body. Knowing this can provide some solace about our own existence and the existence of those we care for.

It also teaches us that in order to properly prepare for that final exam, we need to engage in spiritual acts, which will help us to realize the nature and reality of our soul, and simultaneously help distance us from the bodily concept of life.



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