Definition of Death in Hinduism

The Katha Upanishad begins with the story of Nachiketa. There was in ancient times a very rich man who made a sacrifice which .required that he should give away everything that he had. But, he was not sincere and wanted the fame and glory by giving away only the things that were of no use to him.

His son, Nachiketa asked him again and again, “To whom are you going to give me? For your sacrifice requires that everything shall be given.”

The father was vexed at this and tried to avoid him. But the boy was persistent. Then the father got angry and blurted out, “Thee I give unto Death (Yama).”

And the story goes on to say that the boy went to Yama and waited three days to meet him because he was out on an errand. Yama granted him three boons for the three days. The first two boons the boy asked for were his father’s forgiveness and the knowledge of a sacrifice to go to heaven. In the third boon, Nachiketa asked Yama to explain death.

He said, “When a man dies some say he is and others say he is not. Tell me what is true.” The Upanishad begins with this question and the explanation follows. Yama answers the question— “What becomes of a man when the body dies?”

“This Wise One never dies, is never born. It arises from nothing, and nothing arises from It. Unborn, eternal, everlasting, this Ancient One can never be destroyed with the destruction of the body. If a slayer thinks he can slay, or if the slain thinks he can be slain, they both do not know the truth, for the Self neither slays nor is slain.”

This is the crux of the Vedanta Philosophy. The Wise One referred to in the Katha Upanishad is the pure and perfect soul, the Atman that is neither born nor dies. It is eternal; it cannot be killed. Infinitely smaller than the smallest, infinitely larger than the largest, this Lord of all is present in the depths of every heart.

Death is therefore not a great calamity, not an end of all, but a natural process in the existence of the soul as a separate entity, by which it reassembles its resources, adjusts its course and returns again to the earth to continue its journey. Death is a temporary cessation of physical activity, a necessary means of recycling the resources and energy and an opportunity for the jiva (that part which incarnates) to review its programs and policies. When a person dies, his soul along with some residual consciousness leaves the body through an opening in the head and goes to another world and returns again after spending some time there.

What happens after the soul leaves the body and before it reincarnates again is a great mystery about which we can form in idea after studying the scriptures.

Death is the shadow of life. They must go together because they are not contradictory, not two separate existences but different manifestations of the same unit. The difference does 110C exist in kind, but only in degree of intensity. Just as all the apparent duality of good-bad, joys-sorrows is in essence one and the same thing, viewed from different angles, so is life and death. The thread of that One runs through the manifold diversity. So if you can catch that One, you can be free. “Do not run after the manifold; go towards the One that moves in all.”

As rain falling upon a mountain flows in various streams down the sides of the mountain, so that one soul of the universe is manifested in all the various forms.

Man has been trying to find answers to this question. Is there nothing which does not die when the body dies? Is there something which survives the fire which burns the body into ashes? And if so, what is its destiny? Where does it go? Whence did it come? The question was answered once and for all thousands of years ago, and through all subsequent time it is being restated and re-illustrated. Yet, each one has to find it in his heart to comprehend it.

The answer is that the divine light that illumines the body is the soul. Life is when it enters the body and death occurs when it moves out of the body. The body-mind is not self-luminous; if it were, it would be so in a dead man too. That which is self-luminous cannot decay. The nature of the soul is self-luminous; it is independent of any other existence. It always existed an ever will exist. Time, space and causation do not affect the journey of the soul. It takes up a body, uses it, and when that body has failed and is used up, it takes another body, and so it goes on. This is called reincarnation.

The question that has been asked most often is: What after this? What happens to a soul?

The answer can only be derived from experience. All human knowledge proceeds out of experience; we cannot know anything except by experience. We look around and see the plant comes out of the seed, grows into the tree, completes the circle, and comes back to the seed. The animal comes, lives some time, dies and completes the circle. So does man. The mountains slowly but surely crumble away; the rivers slowly but surely dry up; rains come out of the sea and go back to the sea. Everywhere circles are being completed; birth, growth, development and decay following each other with mathematical precision. This is our everyday experience. This is called evolution.

But what does this evolution come from? A seed becomes a plant; a grain of sand cannot become a plant. And the seed was once a tree and it has all the possibilities of a future tree. The ancient philosophers called it involution. Nothing can be evolved which is not already there. As such evolution does not come out of zero. Then where does it come from? From previous involution. The child is the man involved and the man is the child evolved.

Then there is the continuation of life. From the lowest protoplasm to the most perfect human being, there is really but one life. The whole of this life which slowly manifests itself evolves from the protoplasm of the perfected human being, the incarnation of God on earth.

The effect is the cause manifested. When the cause is changed and limited for a time, it becomes the effect. And, there is nothing new, nothing destructible in the universe. The same series of manifestations are presenting themselves alternately, like a wheel, coming up and going down. All motion in this universe is in the form of waves, successively rising and falling. Systems after systems are coming out of fine forms, evolving themselves, and taking grosser forms, again melting down as it were, and going back to the fine forms. Thus, it is the form that comes up and goes down and comes up again.

When death happens, this form, this body dies. This body that you see from the outside is but one layer of the form that manifests the soul. The ancient sages have looked within and described seven bodies. The first body is the physical body the sthul sharir which we all know. The second is the etheric body, the bhava sharir and the third is the astral body, the suksham sharir. The fourth is the mental or psychic body, the manas sharir and the fifth is the spiritual body, the atma sharir. The sixth is the cosmic body, the brahmaa sharir, and the last is the nirvana sharir or the nirvanic body, the bodiless body.

Thus, the body and soul are not separate; they are linked. The five bodies in between are like the rungs of the ladder that connect the first rung with the last. Now even modern science recognizes that when matter is analyzed it is ultimately reduced to electrons which are not matter but particles of electricity. Nothing like substance remains in the end — only energy remains. This is what the sages called the soul. This energy is sheer light, which passes through six bodies and becomes quite dim by the time it reaches the physical body. This is why we do not seem to have much control over the physical body. But if you begin to travel within, you gain more control over the body, exactly in proportion to the depth of your inner journey.

Not long ago mind was considered the opposite of matter. But now we know that mind is a more subtle form of matter, and matter is the condensed form of mind. When atoms of the astral are broken they become thought waves.

Life and death are two limbs of existence. If you accept only one, you will be crippled. Until the time comes when you accept the other this disability will remain. Both limbs are important—being and nonbeing. If a child longs for death he is ill and should be treated. If an old man longs for life, he too should be treated because he is ill also.

Death descends from the seventh plane as life comes from the first plane. Life begins with the physical body in the mother’s womb and the other bodies follow later. So he who clings to the physical body is afraid of death. But as he becomes more and more detached from the physical body, he accepts death. Then he is liberated in the true sense of the word because then life and death become two parts of the same thing, and he is beyond both. This is moksha.

Life After Death

What happens after the death of a mortal being on earth depends upon many factors, such as his previous deeds and his state of mind at the time of death. A soul can exist in many planes. It is not necessary that after death a jiva should go to only one world. Depending upon its activities on earth, it may stay in many worlds, one after another before returning to the earth. It may stay in some hellish worlds before moving to the heavenly worlds or vice versa. Whatever may be the pattern, at the end of it, the soul should have learned some important lessons for its further journey on earth.

According to Hindu scriptures the best way to attain salvation is to think of God all the time through dhyana (contemplation), remembrance and repetition of god’s name. If a person trains his mind to remember God all the time, very likely at the time of his death he will be able to concentrate his thoughts on God and attain Him. Through mastery of their senses and minds, many saints and seers gain complete control on the process of death and develop an intuitive awareness of when and in what manner they would depart from this world. When the time comes, leaving necessary instructions to their disciples, they leave their bodies, immersed in a state of samadhi or deep trance.

In the Bhagavad-Gita Sri Krishna declares that at the time of death he who concentrates his prana between the two eye brows with the strength of his yoga and is engaged in devotion with an unwavering mind he attains the Divine and transcendental Brahman (8.10).

Hinduism teaches that a person’s atman or spirit is permanent and cannot change while the physical body is not permanent and can change. As a man casts off his worn-out clothes and takes on other new ones, so does the embodied soul cast off his worn-out bodies and enters another new one. Death is a natural event so that the atman can move nearer to a final release from rebirth when it reaches moksha.

When the atman finally reaches moksha it can rest.

~ Satjit Wadva, Excerpt from the book Life IS, Death is NOT