At Varanasi, Richard (now Radhanath Swami) was intrigued by the way the Hindus dealt with death. Richard observed that the Hindus carry their relatives’ dead bodies in a procession and then burn them. From sunrise to sunset, Richard sat on the banks of the Manikarnika burning ghat, where the dead bodies were burnt by the relatives. Richard meditated on the inevitability of death and the eternality of soul. He carefully observed the final moments of the corpse; the hairs sizzling into nothingness, flesh shriveling away. Richard observed that the flames devoured the entire body and in the end nothing but a pile of ashes remained, which was then carefully swept into the current of Mother Ganges, the final resting place. Richard realized that the river of time was the ultimate equalizer that would eventually carry away all bodies, regardless of race, nationality, religion or creed.
Once Radhanath Swami explained why in the Vedic/Hindu culture, the procession of a dead body is taken. It is to make all realize the futility of life in this world. Radhanath Swami explains that by seeing a dead body carried by the relatives, even those not related to the person sober up. Radhanath Swami gives the example of Gautama Buddha who developed renunciation on seeing a dead body being carried in procession. Buddha realized that all have to die and therefore it’s not worth to seek gratification of the senses while living in this temporary body.
Radhanath Swami’s brilliant observation is seen by his description of a typical news telecast. He reveals how the entire show is about murder, death, terrorism and war. Even sports coverage is occasionally paying homage to a former sports hero who dies at his old age. Only the advertisements invite the viewers to enjoy a car or a holiday; the illusion of enjoyment thus appears so real. Radhanath Swami says that an unbiased study and observation of life will reveal that history, present and future is nothing but the piling up of corpses and vanquishing of empires. Although there is nothing startling about people dying, what is indeed surprising is our refusal to face up to the inevitability of our own death. Radhanath Swami often quotes the Mahabharata, a great epic of Vedic times, “Every day millions of living beings are forced to the kingdom of death. Yet those who remain aspire for a permanent life in the material world. What could be more wonderful than this?”
Superficially, we all recognize that we shall die one day. We take out insurance policies to provide for those who will live after us. We make out wills bequeathing whatever we own to our loved ones. We may even put money aside for our own funeral, cemetery plot, and gravestone. But Radhanath Swami assures that this is not real preparation for death. Radhanath Swami expresses that it is surely lamentable that most people don’t inquire into these questions seriously; they keep up the illusion that death won’t come to them. Unwilling to face death, they concentrate wholeheartedly on enjoying their present life, with no concern for the next.
Quoting Vedic teachings that probe deeply into the meaning of death—and beyond, Radhanath Swami cites the examples from Bhagavad Gita. When Lord Krishna found His friend Arjuna aggrieved over the future deaths of his relatives, He counseled, “Those who are wise lament neither for the living nor for the dead.” He then taught Arjuna that there was never a time “when I did not exist, nor you nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.” Radhanath Swami says that according to the knowledge of transmigration of the soul, as given by enlightened sages in Vedic scriptures, we can understand that the real self, the real person, is different from the perishable body. The body dies, but the soul goes on to take another body according to its deeds (or karma) in this life. Because the soul is eternal, we should not overly lament the death of our friends, or our own death.