Through the ages Western man has alternately
pondered or ignored death, the most
persistent yet least understood fact of our existence.
by Vicitravirya Dasa
In the year A.D. 138, the great Roman emperor Hadrian lay dying in a villa overlooking the Bay of Naples. For many years he had been the mighty ruler of the Western world, governing an empire that stretched for thousands of miles. In the course of his eventful life as soldier/statesman, he encountered diverse peoples of many customs and faiths. From these people he had perhaps heard various ideas on the supreme challenge that now faced him as he gazed out onto the bay.
He was, of course, familiar with the civic cults of Rome and Greece and also with the metaphysical speculations of the Greek philosophers. He had seen how the religion of the Mediterranean peasant had eschewed such speculations in favor of the more immediate numina of the fields and hearth. He knew of the savage gods of the Germanic tribes to the north and west of the civilized world. He had had to face and forcibly solve the problems with the Jews, a people who, unlike the rest, were fiercely loyal to their jealous God. He must also have marked the spread within his empire of the new, secretive Christian sect, whose adherents worshiped as God a Galilean carpenter executed a century earlier by a Roman procurator.
All of these faiths, though, were of no comfort to Hadrian now, as he lay tossing with pain and wrestling with his thoughts. Just before life slipped away, he took his pen and wrote a five-line poem. It is inscribed on a tablet in a ruined mausoleum in Rome, where the urn holding his ashes once stood:
Animula vagula blandula,
Hospes comesque corporis,
Quae nunc abibis in loca
Pallidula, rigida, nudula
Nec ut soles dabis iocos!
This celebrated poem, which became known as “Hadrian’s Address to His Soul,” has been translated hundreds of times. One version comes from the famous Romantic poet Byron:
Ah! gentle, fleeting, wav’ring sprite,
Friend and associate of this clay!
To what unknown region borne,
Wilt thou now wing thy distant flight?
No more with wanton humor gay,
But pallid, cheerless and forlorn.
With this mournful lament for his mortality, Hadrian voiced the dread and doubts of everyman. We may live to old age, but all of us must confront death directly, first when it comes for our friends and relatives, finally when it comes for us. We can expect to grieve for loved ones, endure the devastation and emptiness of loss, and be progressively weakened by the assault of old age and infirmity, which prepare the ground for our eventual end.
All these crises of life raise questions that are not merely speculative but urgently practical and personal. Is my existence coming to a meaningless end? What is to become of my consciousness, through which I experience all my hopes, joys, and fears? Although in my mind I can span the universe looking for values and truths that transcend matter, am I after all nothing more than a temporary aggregate of material elements? What happens at that mysterious moment when life ceases? All these questions arise naturally in the mind of a thoughtful person facing death. They reflect an instinctive clutching for survival, a sense perhaps that there is a spiritual component whose nature is foreign to the decaying shell it inhabits.
There is something overwhelmingly appalling in the thought that the “I” upon which my experience rests will no longer be. The sun will rise, my family will make new friends and think up new plans for enjoyment, the human drama will play inexorably on—but I won’t be there. In the face of this looming certainty, all the efforts of life seem futile.
Consider the young mother who has painfully brought life into a dangerous world. She lovingly cares for her child and protects him from a host of dangers. The child is fed, clothed, and sheltered, vaccinated against disease, taught how to safely cross the street, and told not to talk to strangers. But even so, the mother’s fragile charge can easily, instantly be destroyed. An automobile accident perhaps, when death screeches in and in one pitiless impact reduces to nothing all that loving care. Then the poor mother’s attempts to delay death are revealed as just that and in a moment rendered meaningless.
Death yanks us out of a network of comforting relationships that, in some inscrutable way, give us a sense of protection from the inevitable. Bound up in thoughts of this world, in our endless aspirations for pleasure, we are never prepared for the unwelcome intruder. It taps on our shoulder when we are planning our next summer vacation or painting the extension to the kitchen. It ignores our pleas to finish incomplete business. It is deaf to our rage at the incomprehensible injustice we think has befallen us. It pays no heed to the putative advances of material science. It takes us from a place of apparent security to an unknown realm, the prospect of entering which, as the mournful Hadrian noted, leaves us “pallid, cheerless, and forlorn.”
Death remains the greatest challenge to our understanding and enjoyment of life. Yet it is remarkable that, despite mankind’s supposed development since the time of Hadrian, little progress has been made in solving this fundamental enigma. Indeed, the wistful agnosticism Hadrian displayed has generally been replaced by a kind of Epicurean philosophy, whose founding preceded Hadrian by hundreds of years. The followers of the Greek philosopher Epicurus scoffed at any pretensions to immortality and frequently adorned their graves with this brave epitaph: “I was not, I was, I am not, I care not.”
Clearly, for the Epicureans life now is the all-important consideration. Useless speculations on immortality should not distract us from appreciating the only thing we can know for certain: that we are alive, that we exist now. This view increasingly prevails the more we come to believe that the body represents the sum total of our being. We then understand life and consciousness to be no more than results of complex chemical interactions, and we re-reject metaphysical yearnings for immortality as aberrant biological phenomena. Once freed from the superstitions of less enlightened times, our evolving intellect can absorb itself in the only thing that matters: the pursuit of worldly goals.
These ideas, once held solely by an intellectual elite, are now the common property of all. They have even penetrated the great religious institutions, which now more than ever are joining forces with the giant edifice of scientific and liberal humanism. Humanism brazenly announces its ability to solve the problems of man while quietly fostering the hedonism at the problems’ core. Humanists regard Hadrian’s question as a relic of the fanciful myths to which the human race has too easily given credence in the past. The naive notion of the soul going forth somewhere is irrelevant to the social and ethical concerns of human welfare and the progress of man.
The influential existentialist writer John Paul Sartre expressed this viewpoint, al-biet from a slightly different perspective, in the following words: “It is absurd that we should be born, it is absurd that we shall die. Life, so long as it lasts, is pure and free of any death. For I can conceive of myself only as alive. Man is a being for life, not for death.”
Do I hear you protest at this point, having detected a critical tone in my presentation? Are you perhaps saying, “Well, what’s wrong with living life to the full? These thinkers have done a great service to humanity by liberating us from the stultifying, morbid preoccupation with questions that are impossible to answer. They have allowed us to concentrate on the real issues affecting us in the here and now.”
Certainly, to want to lift the burden of humanity is a noble sentiment, but there is no denying that the greatest problem we face is death, which is an inescapable dashing of all our hopes. Humanism proposes to solve all our problems by totally relying on the abilities of man, but its response to the greatest problem of all—death—is to ignore it, submerging its significance in the frenzied search for pleasure.
Direct results of this affectation of indifference toward death are the triumph of trivia and the virtual disappearance of death in a cloud of euphemism. The Belgain poet Maurice Maeterlinck lamented: “We deliver death into the dim hands of our instinct, and we grant it not one hour of our intelligence.” No one dares speak its name. We now have “long illnesses,” “tragic circumstances,” and finally we just “pass away.” The constant intrusions of death into our orderly existence are seen almost as a social gaffe—what another poet, Yeats, called “the discourtesy of death.” But no matter what genteel urbanities we use, the horrifying reality remains.
Leo Tolstoy examined the psychology of a man facing death in his short masterpiece The Death of Ivan Ilych. Ivan Ilych, a judge who has lived his life with all regard to the conventions that befit his status, becomes ill. A gnawing pain consumes his insides, a pain unlike any other he has experienced in that it does not respond to treatment. Instead of fading away after the usual few days, it remains and grows to the point where it dominates his consciousness. It is no longer a question of treatment of diseased kidneys or intestines; it is a matter of life and death. His life and death.
For Ivan’s family, his terminal illness is an awkward interruption in the ordinary course of their lives. Their reaction to the inconvenience of death is to simply pretend it is not happening, and thus they continue to make obligatory small talk with Ivan as though nothing has changed. No one is willing to recognize that Ivan is undergoing the most important and traumatic event of his life. Even his doctors are part of the quiet conspiracy, offering hope when no hope exists. His friends pay him polite visits and encourage him, yet secretly they are relieved it is not they who are dying and wonder about the prospects for promotion that Ivan’s death will open up. Ivan, however, facing reality all alone, finds less and less meaning in the tedious demands of propriety that hitherto governed his life. Ultimately, it is the futility of a life that did not face up to the ultimate terror of death—as much as the terror itself—that frightens Ivan Ilych.
Modern medicine has added to the fatuity of our philosophy of death. It has moved death from the bedroom to the hospital room. There, already screened behind the language of unconsciousness, death is wrapped in the white sheet of clinical taboos. The medical establishment furiously attempts to make it disappear, as if attacking a stubborn stain with a powerful detergent, and when all attempts fail death is consigned to statistical anonymity.
Does this kind of vacuous obscurantism afford any solution to the problem of death? It certainly didn’t for Ivan Ilych, and I suspect it doesn’t for anyone else. For Ivan, death was a final, impenetrable threat. He could not, to paraphrase yet another poet, Dylan Thomas, go gently into that night. But he raged, oh how he raged, against the dying of the light.
Why should we rage at the dissolution of the body? If we are just a conglomeration of material elements, why should we be terrified at the prospect of a transformation of state, or even the annihilation of our existence?
Some years back I worked as a research chemist. Often I would transform chemical compounds, combining one with another to form completely new substances. But I never heard them complain, and of course it is absurd to think that they could. And yet isn’t it also absurd to think that these same compounds, when arranged in more complex combinations called human bodies, have somehow evolved the faculty to do just that? At what stage do these inert, unfeeling chemicals come alive, develop an awareness of their existence, and with that awareness attain the ability to cry in anguish at the imminence of their annihilation?
Despite great endeavors, those at the vanguard of the scientific revolution can offer no satisfactory answer to this question. Indeed, they offer no plausible explanation for the phenomena of consciousness, for life itself. Nobel Prize-winning scientist Albert Szent-gyorgi wrote, “In my search for the secret of life, I ended up with atoms and electrons, which have no life at all. Somewhere along the line, life has run out through my fingers.”
Leaving aside Western attempts to explain life and death, let us turn our attention elsewhere. As Hadrian lay pondering the mysteries of his eternal fate, to the southeast of his empire there flourished a civilization that had from the very distant past lived with an understanding of death far in advance of Hadrian’s and our own. Hadrian would likely have heard something of the religion of India—of ascetics, mysticism, and devotional sects—but he did not, apparently, come in contact with the Bhagavad-gita, the great philosophical treatise that has for thousands of years shaped so much of Indian life and thought.
The Bhagavad-gita does not offer vague speculations on death. Rather, it presents itself as the literal words of God, and as such it offers the most cogent explanation of that most significant human experience. In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, explains that the vivifying principle in the body is not the chance interaction of chemicals but an eternal spiritual particle, the soul. In a stroke, then, the mystery of the urge for immortality is explained. We, the souls, are eternal and are, in the words of the Bhagavad-gita, “unborn and undying.” We are “not slain when the body is slain.”
This world of physical birth and death, where pleasure is ultimately drowned in the bile of impermanence, is foreign to our nature. Our great mistake comes when we assume that consciousness and life arise from matter and that we ourselves are thus temporary material bodies. We have held this misconception since time immemorial, and therefore knowledge of our true spiritual nature is now just a vague, almost buried, instinct. All that is left is a feeling of the futility of the transient and a grasping after the infinite.
If there never was a time when we did not exist, where do we come from? And if we never die, where do we go after the body disintegrates? The Bhagavad-gita explains that the soul exists eternally as part and parcel of God, the supreme soul, just as the sun’s rays exist eternally with the sun. Our constitutional position is to eternally enjoy our relationship with God, a relationship that is by nature full of happiness. Our part in the relationship, however, is one of servitude—not abject and unfeeling enslavement but a full, personal reciprocation with the source of all pleasure. Out of envy, however, we have rejected our subservient position. Thus we have taken birth within the world of matter and have forgotten our eternal, spirital nature.
The material sphere gives the rebellious souls the opportunity to act out their independent desires. Therefore, a prominent characteristic of the material mentality is the desire to master one’s surroundings. But these plans all fail because we always remain in servitude. If we are not serving God willingly in love, we must become the slaves of material nature. And death is the ultimate proof of this. For no matter what relationships or plans we make, they are all terminated by death.
At the time of death, the soul who hankers after material pleasures is, according to the Bhagavad-gita, reborn in another body. There he enjoys or suffers the results of actions performed in his previous lives and is again subjected to old age, disease, and death. The Gita explains that it is the individual’s consciousness at death which determines the nature of his next body. Whatever thoughts or desires occupy one’s attention at that time propel the soul toward another gross body.
This weary wheel of metempsychosis can be stopped only by assiduous cultivation of God consciousness. The Bhagavad-gita explains the method by which this consciousness can be achieved: the simple and sublime process of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service to God. Bhakti-yoga enables us to engage in purifying service to God so that the attitude of service, cognate with our original consciousness, becomes firmly established. In that consciousness we can directly perceive the truth of the Bhagavad-gita’s statements regarding our actual nature, and thus we can face death fully absorbed in thoughts of God and not in thoughts of this world. We then gain release from the cycle of misery and fear and enter into the eternal atmosphere that is our constitutional position.
Our approach to the problem of death, then, has direct implications for how we lead our lives. Therefore contemplating the mystery of death is not an unnecessary and regressive fascination; rather it is a natural function of human intelligence and so cannot be abjured. It is in the best sense a life-enhancing philosophy because it directs us toward a God-centered life that is both fulfilling now and conducive to our ultimate liberation. Indeed, the routinization of death and the consequent ignorance surrounding it constitute a great tragedy for us because they prevent us from coming to terms with the most persistent fact of our existence. Death should not be separated from life because it cannot be. It is never a matter of just death; it is always life and death.
We cannot pretend to understand life or to live our lives properly if we ignore life’s most obstinate corollary. Rather, we should realize that an understanding of death is the key that opens the door to the mystery of life itself. Whether our life is memorable, like that of Hadrian, or apparently mundane, like the lives of the millions who encounter death even as you read, if we live it in spiritual awareness it will gain infinitely in significance.