The Experience of Dying:
A Hellish Ordeal or A Glorious Transition?
A recent article of mine contained an ancient account from the Srimad-Bhagavatam dealing with Ajamila’s frightening near-death experience. Several readers have since written me to say that this view of death as horrifying contradicts the accounts of near-death experiences recorded by Dr. Raymond Moody, author of Life after Life, and other researchers. Of course, there are researchers, such as Dr. Maurice Rawlings (of the Diagnostic Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee) and Dr. Philip Swihart (of the Midwest Colorado Mental Health Center), who have recorded near-death experiences fully as horrifying as Ajamila’s. But it seems that people who describe such ordeals have a much harder time remembering them than people who describe pleasant experiences. Thus they’re not reported as often.
The Vedic literature agrees, of course, that death is not always terrifying. For the successful transcendentalist entering the spiritual world, death is a glorious experience. For the sinful person, however, death is ultimately a painful and horrifying passage into a hellish life of suffering. In either case, understanding death and rebirth is essential for everyone. We appreciate hearing from our readers, many of whom accept that there is life after death and who want to understand the subject of reincarnation scientifically.
The science of how, when, and under what conditions one should leave the body has been presented in the Vedic literature as the science of yoga. Formerly, expert yogis knew this science so well that they could determine the exact time they would leave their body. Bhagavad-gita tells which months and times of day are auspicious or inauspicious for the soul’s departure. Yogis would practice for many years and then, at an astrologically auspicious moment, give up the body and enter one of the higher planets or the spiritual world, according to their specific desire.
Bhagavad-gita also describes the bhakti-yogis, who do not need to wait for a particular auspicious moment to leave the body. Because the bhakti-yogis are always absorbed in meditating on the Supreme Personality of Godhead, every moment is auspicious for them. They are therefore ready to leave their body at any time Krsna desires. The Vedic literature relates accounts of both pleasant and unpleasant experiences at the time of death, and some of our readers who were disturbed by the article on Ajamila may be relieved to read the Srimad-Bhagavatam’s account of the passing away of Bhismadeva.
A contemporary of Lord Krsna, Bhisma was a great general as well as a yogi and a pure devotee of the Lord. As a yogi, he knew the art of leaving the body at will. After the Battle of Kuruksetra, Bhisma lay severely wounded, pierced by many arrows. But by his yogic prowess he was able to keep his life within his body. He had chosen to keep body and soul together a while longer so that he could impart some invaluable instructions to his nephew Yudhisthira, who would ascend the throne after the battle. After instructing Yudhisthira, Bhisma entered into deep meditation on the Supreme Lord, Krsna, and thus transcended all pain.
Being a pure devotee of Lord Krsna, Bhisma was neither afraid of death nor interested in elevating himself to the heavenly planets in his next life. Nor was he anxious simply to gain liberation from the material world. His only concern at the time of death was to be rapt in thoughts of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krsna. As Bhagavad-gita explains, one’s thoughts at the time of death determine one’s next life. And Bhismadeva, in his pure devotion, thought simply of being always engaged in loving service to Krsna. In response to the great devotion Bhisma had for Krsna, the Lord personally came to his side as he lay on the Battlefield of Kuruksetra during the last hours of his life.
Fixing his attention on the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Bhismadeva said, “Let me now invest my thinking, feeling, and willing, which were so long engaged in various subjects and occupational duties, in the all-powerful Lord, Sri Krsna. . . . He has appeared on this earth in His transcendental body, which resembles the bluish color of the tamala tree. . . . May His glittering yellow dress and His lotus face, covered with paintings of sandalwood pulp, be the object of my attraction. . . . Let my mind thus go to Sri Krsna” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.9.32-34).
Bhisma, a perfect yogi, fully absorbed his mind in Krsna meditation (samadhi) by remembering the various transcendental pastimes of the Lord. First he remembered Krsna fighting on the Battlefield of Kuruksetra, defending His devotee Arjuna. Krsna’s flowing hair had turned ashen from the dust raised by the horses’ hooves, and beads of perspiration had wet His face. Bhisma next remembered the Lord as Arjuna’s chariot driver, standing with a whip in His right hand and a bridle rope in His left. Bhisma prayed that at the moment of death his mind would be fixed on Lord Krsna’s lotus feet.
Next Bhisma remembered Lord Krsna in Vrndavana, enchanting the milkmaids with His graceful gestures and loving smiles. Then Bhismadeva recalled Lord Krsna in the great assembly of world leaders, where the elite royalty had accepted and worshiped Him as the most exalted of all, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Finally Bhisma meditated on Krsna as the Supersoul within everyone’s heart. (Although one, Lord Krsna is simultaneously present everywhere as the Supersoul.)
Srimad-Bhagavatam records these Krsna meditations of Bhismadeva’s, and just as they benefited Bhisma, they can benefit us. Anyone can fix his mind on Lord Krsna by hearing these descriptions.
Because Bhisma was such a great personality, many eminent Vedic figures joined Lord Krsna in witnessing his death. And everyone who saw his glorious death understood that he had reached the ultimate destination of life: returning back home, back to Godhead. The Bhagavatam (1.9.44) relates, “Thus knowing that Bhismadeva had merged into the unlimited eternity of the Supreme Absolute, all present [on the battlefield] became silent, like birds at the end of day.”
The lives of Ajamila and Bhisma were vastly different, yet their ultimate goal was the same. As I described in the article about Ajamila, he beheld with horror the messengers of death coming to take him, but because he was fortunate enough to chant the name of God at the last moment, he was saved. So the essential thing is to remember Krsna at the time of death. Regardless of outward circumstances, whoever dies remembering Krsna with sincere devotion and helpless prayer will transcend the cycle of birth and death and enter the spiritual world. And this is truly the harmonious and peaceful destination that the subjects of Dr. Moody’s research might hope for.