Recently one of my college friends was diagnosed with an incurable cancer and was told by the doctors that he would live for only another year. The family panicked and consulted a wide range of doctors and healers from various alternative fields of medicine. They even approached different astrologers, demigod temples, and even a mystic tantric. As the inevitable day of death is approaching, his family is fighting a lost cause; and there are many who are assuring them that there could be a cure available that they haven’t yet tried. I was sad to learn about my friend’s disease and wanted to help him through the Krishna consciousness process of chanting and hearing of Krishna’s holy names, the panacea on the spiritual plane, to help him tide over the crisis. I failed in my attempt to reason that as we are trying various treatments, we also need to face the reality and prepare for our after lives. I was unhappy to see even my dying friend’s eighty-year-old father disinterested in the spiritual dimension to life; on the contrary he is determined to save his son.
Death the Greatest Wonder
I remembered the observation of a devotee friend, “One may be admitted in the best hospital, treated by the best doctors, administered the best medicines. Still if he is destined to, he can’t avoid an appointment with Mr. Death.” The philosophical writings of Vedic India explain that there is a controller of death who will get us one day, and we can’t escape his calling. When Mr. Death strikes, a rich man cannot bribe him away, a beautiful lady cannot charm him to excuse her, a strong man cannot wrestle Mr. Death to submission, nor can a wise person defeat Mr. Death in a debate. Mr. Death gets us all with no exceptions.
In the ancient epic Mahabharata, King Yudhisthira is asked a question on what’s the greatest wonder of this world. The wise king replied, “Every day thousands are sent to the abode of death. Yet those who are living lead their lives as if death would never occur to them.” These words of wisdom helped me come to terms with the stubborn reluctance of my friend’s family to understand Krishna consciousness, and the refusal to accept the inevitability of death.
First Lessons in Spiritual Life
One of the first lessons I learnt in spiritual life is the inevitability of death. Friends in college ridiculed me for subscribing to a fatalistic philosophy presented in ISKCON teachings. I wondered then if the Hare Krishnas were pessimistic, but I soon realized that the acceptance of the unavoidable reality of death equips us with an internal fortitude and calmness. The Hare Krishnas also learn to see the world and its fleeting promises in a detached manner. A devotee of Krishna faces tragedies such as these with grace and dignity.
This, however, doesn’t mean that a devotee ignores his bodily conditions and makes no attempt to avoid death. A spiritualist cares for the body with a desire to serve God and others. Since the goal is service and not bodily maintenance, the devotee is detached even while caring for the body, and prepared to face inescapable death.
Teachings of the Vedas
The Vedic traditions explain that our existence doesn’t end with death. We are not these temporary bodies, but eternal souls that reside within these perishable bodies. When the body dies, the soul continues to live although in a different state of existence. By cultivating Krishna consciousness we nourish the soul, and our consciousness transcends petty material pursuits; we learn to live on the spiritual plane of reality and connect to God, Krishna, through the spiritual practices. These practices of hearing and chanting God’s holy names help us transcend material happiness and distresses of this world, and assures us eternal happiness and a divine journey after death.
The Vedic literatures speak of many examples who teach us how to prepare ourselves to face death. The Srimad-Bhagavatam begins with the enquiry of King Parikshit regarding the duty of a person about to die. The king had been cursed to die in seven days and seven nights, and he happily accepted his fate; he could now immerse his consciousness in remembrance of the Supreme Lord without any distractions. King Khatvanga is another example who, on learning that he had only a moment to live, relinquished all his riches and welcomed death.
Srila Prabhupada’s Appeal
The founder-acharya of ISKCON, Srila Prabhupada, taught that life is a preparation and death an examination. All the values and principles that we cherish and hold dear to our lives are tested at the time of death. Our attachments to the body and to people and things connected to this body are also challenged at the time of death. A devotee of Krishna leads a life centered on service to God and carries out his worldly responsibilities maturely, knowing that the unpleasant vicissitudes of this world could bring all of it to an end. Eventually when time in the form of disease, old age or death threatens to take away all of the devotee’s possessions and positions, he or she is prepared, for he has already invested his consciousness in remembering and loving God. Thus a devotee is peaceful and prepared to meet Mr. Death cheerfully.
Srila Prabhupada also repeatedly said that in this material world there is danger at every step as death could come at any moment. He appealed to his readers and audiences that a spiritualist spends every moment remembering God so that during the eventual moment of death, he or she is fixed in an inner state of bliss, ready to enter the divine realm of God.
Srila Prabhupada was himself such an example. In October 1977, when he realized that his body would give away soon, he retired to Vrndavana, the holy place of Lord Krishna’s appearance and activities, to engage in exclusive remembrance of God. When he was asked if he had any unfulfilled desires, he calmly said, “kuchh iccha nahi…” (“I have nothing to desire or hanker”). Srila Prabhupada led a dedicated life of loving service to Krishna, and when Krishna was taking him back, he was ready.
Facing Death Cheerfully
In a recent spiritual festival of hearing and chanting of the holy names, I had a sobering and educational experience. During the day-long kirtanas and discourses at Mumbai, I was seated next to thirty-year-old Rohini Tanaya Dasa who is diagnosed with a malignant bone cancer. Like my college acquaintance, he has four months to live. However the way he is responding to the crisis has inspired all the members of our community. He is absorbed in devotional activities; his face is beaming with happiness springing from a deep internal connection with Krishna.
While sitting next to him during the program, I initially caught my mind feeling sorry for him. However, I soon realized that he is in the best state of consciousness, and I wished I too had the same faith that he had in the holy names and in the process of devotional service. Later we spoke together on chanting of the holy names, and the various aspects of Krishna conscious process. He reflected, “I welcome this disease and consider it as Krishna’s calling. Now my definition of what’s important and irrelevant has changed; I seek to make Krishna as my exclusive goal.” I was humbled and enlivened in his association, and I wished my dying college friend and his other relatives also took a cue from him.
Rohini Tanaya reminded me that for a sincere spiritual seeker, death is not an end; rather it is the beginning of entrance into a realm of eternity, knowledge and bliss. For a materialist, death is simply the end of everything he or she identifies with; therefore such a person is in great distress at that moment. On the other hand a God-lover doesn’t mind getting old or nearing death, because he knows that as the body is coming closer to death, the soul is getting closer to the eternal spiritual youthful form. Death for a devotee means joining Krishna in the spiritual world for an eternal life of bliss and service.
The two contrasting experiences with a college friend and a devotee has convinced me that the process of devotional service makes a person mature far beyond his age. A thirty-year-old, due to spiritual connection to God, can have the sagacity and maturity far beyond the myopic vision of even an eighty-year-old bereft of spiritual knowledge.
Note: Rohini Tanaya Dasa recently left his body in the loving association of Krishna’s devotees, chanting the Lord’s holy names. He was serving as a brahmachari, a full-time resident devotee in the ISKCON temple of Nigdi, near Pune, Maharashtra.