Many people haven’t given much thought to the question of whether there is life after death, and many even prefer to ignore death. Still, we all must die. Like a tiger, death stalks each of us. Sooner or later it will strike.
So what happens after death? In the West there has been much speculation about reincarnation, the existence of repeated personal lives. Plato, Emerson, Thoreau, Jung, Schrodinger, Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, and Henry Ford all believed in reincarnation, and their ideas have helped fuel popular speculations on the subject.
Today the speculations continue. Some people think that once a person evolves up to the human form he never goes back down to lower life forms in future lives. Some think of reincarnation only in terms of taking birth after birth in the material world, eternally. Some groups take an interest in finding out exactly what a person did in his past lives. Others put forward an idea of liberation, release from the cycle of reincarnation, wherein one loses his personal identity and merges into a light or “the void,” or becomes one with the eternal energy. In the East, certain Buddhist sects describe that a person’s character traits are reborn in another person, without any connecting link of continuing personal identity.
The oldest, most authorized, and most widely revered teachings on reincarnation are found in the Vedas, India’s ancient books of wisdom. “What extracts from the Vedas I have read,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “follow me like the light of a higher and purer luminary, which describes a loftier course through a purer stratum-free from particulars, simple, universal.”
Bhagavad-gita, the best known of all Vedic texts, explains that life doesn’t end with the demise of the body. The life within the body—the atma or “self”—is eternal. And at the time of death the atma transmigrates from one body to another. The Gita explains that at death one’s karma may cause him to descend to a lower species of life, and he may have to transmigrate among the trees, fish, birds, and so on before coming again to the human platform.
The human form of life offers a rare opportunity. As Bhagavad-gita explains, if at the time of death a person remembers Krsna (God), he can transfer to the eternal spiritual world and become free from repeated birth and death in the material world. If a person forgets Krsna, however, whatever else he may have attained will be destroyed by death.
Remembering Krsna is not very difficult for one who chants His name: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. There is no difference between God and God’s names. One can associate with Him simply by chanting. This simple meditation fixes the mind on the Supreme. So if a person chants regularly, he will easily be able to remember Krsna at the time of death.
Otherwise, remembering the Supreme at death may be very difficult. Death is often sudden. Frequently it is accompanied by disease, pain, unconsciousness. The time of death is the most disturbing time of our life—not the ideal moment to begin meditation.
Taking up the chanting of God’s names doesn’t mean stopping our regular duties. One can chant anywhere, at any time. In Bhagavad-gita, Krsna assures His warrior-friend Arjuna, “Therefore, Arjuna, you should always think of Me in the form of Krsna and at the same time carry out your prescribed duty of fighting. With your activities dedicated to Me and your mind and intelligence fixed on Me, you will attain Me without doubt.” This is Krsna’s advice to all men. He doesn’t say that a person has to give up his normal life and become a monk, or retire from economic or family duties. You can continue such activities and at the same time think of Krsna by chanting Hare Krsna.
Reading Vedic literature like Bhagavad-gita is another way to remember Krsna. We are already accustomed to reading newspapers, magazines, and novels. And this ordinary reading absorbs us in subjects of this temporary world. If we read transcendental literature and discuss it among devotees, then we shall revive our relationship with the Supreme Lord. Reading Vedic literature helps us transfer our thinking power to spiritual subjects. This will make it possible for us to remember the Supreme at the time of death. And by remembering Krsna one returns to Krsna in the spiritual world, thus ending the cycle of reincarnation within this material world.
Bhagavad-gita explains that this release from the cycle of birth and death does not involve the annihilation of our personality. The Supreme is not an impersonal light or void; He is the Supreme Person Krsna, the all-attractive. Krsna isn’t an ordinary person. He has a transcendental body with inconceivable potency. From Him everything emanates. He is eternal, full of knowledge and bliss. Everything we desire but can never perfectly realize in our relationships in this material world can be found complete in our eternal relationship with Krsna in the spiritual world. Although we have now forgotten our relationship with Krsna, human life is meant for reviving that God consciousness.
And what if one doesn’t cultivate God consciousness? What happens to him at death? According to Bhagavad-gita, as long as the atma is absorbed in material consciousness, forgetful of his real, eternal relationship with Krsna, he is compelled by karma to take repeated births in this material world, life after life. “Whatever state of being one remembers when he quits his body,” Bhagavad-gita says, “that state he will attain without fail.” So a man who misuses the special gift of human life and degrades himself by material consciousness may have to take his next birth as an animal or plant, while a man who is pious and morally good may take his next birth in a fortunate human family. But in all cases, rebirth means another life of mixed happiness and suffering, and, irrevocably, death again . . . and again . . . and again. . .
An intelligent human being, the Vedic literature explains, must live his life with these facts in view. While carrying on our activities in this world, we should cultivate remembrance of Krsna and chant Hare Krsna. The tiger of death is stalking each of us, and he will strike sooner or later. But if we remember to chant God’s names, then Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is feared even by death himself, will save us from the tiger’s jaws.—SDG