Death is a subject which most of us try to avoid thinking about. We prefer to pretend it does not exist, or that it is a long way off in our particular case. For what are all our strivances worth if at any moment death can bring them to an end? It seems to make a mockery of them. But let us face up to the problem and ask—granted that death is a universal fact of experience, is it possible to conquer it?
One is tempted to reply to the question in the way that Professor Joad used to reply to difficult questions: “It all depends what you mean.” What do we mean when we ask, can man conquer death ? Can he make the physical body immortal ?
It is well known that there are forms of Yoga devoted to acquiring abnormal powers, and that there are Yogis who are reputed to have lived far longer than the normal life span. In the Japanese tradition Zen Master Hakuin relates stories of pupils going to see the so-called Immortals of the Mountains, ancient sages who were masters of life and death and who had retained their physical bodies in order to be available to those who were seeking for wisdom. But they were only immortal relatively speaking. The body is undergoing changes all the time—it is not immortal, and sooner or later they too would lay down their bodies.
In our case, since we do not possess as much indifference to the body as the sage does, let us ask ourselves why should we want to go on living for ever ? To what end ? Our body is bound to deteriorate gradually, we cannot arrest it for ever. Do we want to go on living after our faculties have declined? Once, after many years of hearing nothing about him, our Teacher received a letter from a great Yogi who was now a very old man and living the life of a complete renunciate, on the banks of the Ganges.
He wrote in his letter, in a very shaky hand, “My servants are all leaving me.” Somebody asked, “What does he mean, he has no servants?”. Our Teacher explained: “He means his senses.” This is the normal procedure in old age, the body gradually declines. It was here for a purpose—it is up to us whether we take full advantage of it—but after a certain period no further purpose can be served by it, and it is time for it to go.
In the old film of The Barrets of Wimpole Street there was one particularly striking passage. Elizabeth Barret was an invalid, confined to her room, and had been receiving visits from Mr. Robert Browning, and the day came when he asked her to marry him. She looked at him in astonishment and said, “But, Sir, don’t you realise, I’m a dying woman?” And he replied very gravely, “Madam, we are all dying men and women.” From the physical point of view this is literally true. We are dying now.
From the moment we are born, we begin to die. Every moment some cells of our body are being destroyed while others are being created. At first the rate of creation is greater than the rate of destruction, but after a certain age the process is reversed. “We are all dying men and women.”
In one of the Upanishads, the teacher says to the pupil: “This body is held by death.” And the commentator explains that it means—do not just think that it dies at a certain time. It is always held by death. Death is its very nature. It is changeability through and through, and all change is ultimately death. Mountains may stand for centuries apparently untouched by time, and yet in fact they are changing and will ultimately crumble. Even more so is the case with the human body.
And what about our personality? Will that be destroyed on the death of the body? The personality is also held by death. Like the body, it is dying and being born every moment. Thoughts come and go. Even tendencies of character are modified, they are not absolutely fixed. And this is something that should give us hope, for it means that we do not have to remain the same kind of person that we are now. Our character is of our own making and it can be changed by effort.
The Yogis say that when guided by the light of wisdom it can lead us beyond death. For the personality is far more durable than the body and also superior to it.
Does this mean that the personality is or can be made immortal? Not in the sense that we understand personality. It, too, is made up of change, is constantly dying and being remade; and that which is changeful by nature can never be made eternal and changeless. The one is contradictory to the other. Man can therefore only conquer death if there is already an element hidden in the depths of his personality which transcends the changes of body and mind. This is the whole problem —has man an immortal spirit, or rather, is man in his true nature immortal spirit, although he feels himself to be mortal and finite?
Is the personality destroyed when the body is destroyed? Christianity and other religions teach that it is not, that there are other spheres of existence which are open to it, where it can continue to develop or be purified, or enjoy bliss—purgatory, heaven and so forth. Many people think that heaven means eternity. But if heaven is a place, or even a state, that man can go to, it is also a place that one can come away from. It is part of the realm of change and is not eternal, nor does it confer immortality on those who go there.
The Teachers of Yoga, too, speak of heavens where the soul goes after death to reap the fruit of its good deeds, like enjoying a well earned rest after a busy day. But they say that such a state, like the state of blissful sleep, is not eternal—eventually the soul so to say “wakes up” again in a new body on earth, and the whole cycle is repeated again. Birth and death, death and birth, one is inevitably followed by the other, and so it goes on. They are two sides of the same coin, which is the process of becoming. The whole universe is under its sway, and all that dwell therein. Is there no escape from this process then, is there no conquest of death ? The only possibility of conquering death is if there is already an immortal element in us, and this is what we have to find out.
In one of the Upanishads the answer to this question is given in the form of a story. It tells of a young boy called Nachiketas who comes face to face with the God of Death, who grants him three boons. First he wishes to re-establish goodwill between himself and his father, between whom there has been an estrangement, and this is readily granted.
Next he asks for instruction as to how he may attain heaven after death, and he is given the details of an elaborate ritual.
Then comes his third boon, and he asks the question—is it possible to conquer death ? “I want to know what becomes of a man after death,” he says, “is he, or is he not?” He is trying to find out whether there is an element in a man which never changes, which is untouched by the radical change called death. It is a very penetrating question. And it applies not only to the final dissolution of the body, but to the continual process of death which the body undergoes, and the mind also, in the form of the rise and fall of the emotions.
The question is—are we entirely made up of change, and so ultimately death, or is there something underlying all this which remains constant. It is really an enquiry into the true nature of the Self—what am I? Am I fundamentally different from what I was 10, 20, 30 years ago ? Something in me says no, I am the same. Am I old, am I young—this is a question which does not seem to apply to my consciousness of “I”. So it is that there is something in man which can never fully accept age or death as applying tohis real Self. Is there any justification for this?
In the story of Nachiketas he asks this question of the god of death himself. Who is more likely to know the answer than he ? He reigns supreme over life and death. If he were to divulge the highest secret he would have no power over men. They would conquer him. He therefore tries to get Nachiketas to change his mind by offering him other things instead. This is symbolic of the fact that when a man wants to know the highest truth about the real nature of his own Self, if it is immortal in essence or if it is not, he is a candidate to absolute freedom and supreme bliss, but it will not be lightly won unless he is resolute. The forces of nature will rise up and try to divert him, to keep him in their grip as a mortal being.
The god of death therefore says to Nachiketas: You ask about the true nature of the Self, but this is a waste of your third boon, as it is a most subtle question and most difficult to understand. You will never grasp it. I, as your well-wisher, advise you to give it up and ask for something more profitable to yourself. You know my power—ask for anything you like. Ask for long life, for children and grandchildren, for unlimited wealth. Or ask for the more subtle delights of heaven—for ethereal music, to be loved by divine nymphs. All this I can give you. Don’t insist on your other boon, I implore you.
But Nachiketas, though young in years, is mature in understanding. He has developed an important faculty, called in Sanskrit viveka, which means spiritual discrimination. He says to the god of death: What use are all these things you have offered me ? Indulgence in sense delights gives transient pleasure and weakens the senses. Even the longest life comes to an end. And it is well known that wealth can never fully satisfy man. In fact nothing less than immortality can satisfy him. Therefore I want to know if it is my nature, and if so how I can claim it and be free.
After this Nachiketas got the teaching. Death was unable to withstand him. He only has a hold over those who are infatuated with worldly things. Our destiny is governed by that which we are attached to by love. If we love perishable things we experience the pangs of mortality. But when we learn to love the imperishable element in our own being, to unite our consciousness with that, then we can transcend the bondage of mortality.
What is the teaching which the god of death gave to Nachiketas after he had scorned the worldly delights offered to him? The god of death said:
“Oh dear child, blessed are you that your heart is fixed on the goal of all desires, the one support of the whole universe, the region of fearlessness, the one really praiseworthy state which is majestic and infinite. You have courageously rejected all that is opposed to it”.
The man of keen intelligence restrains his mind from the objective world and focuses it on his true Self, Atman, which is most ancient, hard to perceive, and abides secretly in the cave of the intellect. He transcends joy and grief by realising the Atman which is seated, as it were, in the dark surroundings of the mind.
This Self is not born, nor does it ever die. It does not come from anywhere, nor is it anything that can be seen as an object. It is unborn, eternal, everlasting and most ancient. It survives the death of the body. This Self is more minute than the minutest. It is greater than the greatest. It abides in the heart of every living being. He who is free from desire and whose senses and mind rest in undisturbable serenity can see the majesty of the Self, and is no longer subject to worry or grief.
“Arise! Awake! Come to the spiritually superior ones and learn the Truth.”
This, then, is the supreme secret which is revealed by the sages of Yoga—that the Self is immortal, ever-blissful and free. But we have forgotten our true nature and identify ourselves with the perishable body. We are like a king who has lost his memory and wanders about as a poor beggar until someone tells him of his royal nature and he reclaims his kingdom. So man is living under an illusion, feeling himself to be a finite limited being. He does not know that his real nature is infinite, ever-blissful, changeless spirit.
What then is this body and personality? They are disguises, phenomenally assumed by the spirit within. They come forth from the One Supreme Being, whose myriad forms make up the world of appearance. But the outer forms are not absolute: they are appearances only.
Get behind the outer appearance of any object, say the Teachers, and you will find God. Get behind your own apparent nature, withdraw to the depths of your own being and find out what is unchanging in it, and you will discover your own divinity.
In the end the question “Can man conquer death?” really comes to this: Does he want to? He can if he really wants to, nothing can prevent him if his desire is strong enough, for the means of conquest is right at hand—it is the infinity within him. But for the main part, surprising though it may seem, he does not conquer death because he does not want to. We are in love with death, infatuated with it—all love of perishable things is love of death, for as the Upanishad says, they are all held by death, however beautiful they may appear to be. They put on a fine show, like the glorious tints of autumn, but they are dead.
Their life is lent to them by the immortal spirit shining through them, and it is this which really attracts us in all things, but we make a mistake and give our love to the outer form instead. We have to learn to recognise and love the spirit, for we do become what we love. When we give our love to the perishable, then we become identified with it and live the life of perishability; and death, disease and suffering are stern realities to us. But when we give our love to the spirit, we discover the Truth, that we are That, immortal and free, and death cannot touch us.
This is the revelation which the sages make. It is so tremendous that the mind cannot grasp it. But maybe we are stirred in our heart by it. If so, then we are extremely fortunate, for it is the spirit within that stirs when it hears of its own nature, like a slumbering man who stirs when his name is called. How do we get it to awake fully, and conquer death by reclaiming our real immortal nature? The instructions which the Teachers give are extremely simple, and can be put under three headings:
- Firstly, learn about the real nature of the Self from an enlightened source. Hear about it, read about it, reflect about it again and again. Read the Scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita, the Holy Classics; these works are charged with light and power and act as awakeners when studied in faith.
- Practice meditation every day. During meditation forget the life of the apparent self. Stop the activity of the body. Silence the thoughts, and then place before the mind a statement of the real nature of the Self, and sink into that.
“I AM INFINITE BLISS. I AM INFINITE BLISS.” It is through meditation that intuitions of our real spiritual nature come.
- Practice discipline; learn to re-educate desires in the light of true understanding, learn to recognise that they are errors of judgement, and so become detached from them. Why are finite desires said to be errors of judgement? Because they do not give what they promise, or what we really want. Thirsting for abiding happiness, men go on looking for it where it is not to be found—in transitory things.
The Bhagavad Gita reveals that the real Self of man is immortal spirit and ever one with God, but it is hidden under many veils which have to be torn away. They are made up of illusions and they can be dispersed by the study and practice of the Holy Truth. Then we shall cast off all fears and sufferings and live as free beings. Of the Self, the Bhagavad Gita says:
“Him weapons cut not, Him fire burns not,
Him water wets not, Him wind dries not.
He cannot be cut nor burnt nor wetted nor dried up.
He is everlasting, all-pervading, stable, firm and eternal.
Therefore knowing Him as such, thou shouldst not grieve.”