While recently watching the evening news, I saw that almost the entire show was about killing and death: a murder, a rash of drug poisonings, a massacre of refugees by military forces, and a sampling of wars and preparations for war. For a kind of relief, the half-hour report ended with sports coverage. Yet even the world of games mourned: the news gave a two-minute homage to a former baseball hero who had just died at seventy. Only the commercials provided sheer, unadulterated illusion, inviting viewers to enjoy true happiness from Shredded Wheat or a new Volkswagen.
Was the TV news editors’ emphasis on killing sensationalistic? Or was my taking notice of it too extreme?
In one sense, history is nothing but the piling up of corpses, the vanquishing of empires. So there’s nothing startling about people dying.
But what is startling is our refusal to face up to the inevitability of our own death. As expressed in 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 this is not real preparation for death.
Who really knows what will happen after death? Even if we profess a theory or a theology that explains death, do we know for certain where we will go after death? Most people don’t in quire 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.
Yet a small but growing number of people are concerned about their own death and are trying to do something about it. Recent years have seen the increasing popularity of a psychology of death, a discipline aimed at mentally preparing a person for a peaceful demise. Taking death to be inevitable, psychologists try to relieve our anxiety about the end. And often their death therapy rests on speculations about a uniformly pleasant hereafter.
In reaction to the “death psychologists,” atheistic humanists have condemned many death studies as symptomizing a morbid fascination or an escape from the realities of life. For such humanists, temporary bodily life is the all-in-all. They want to go on boldly trying to enjoy this material world, or sometimes to improve it by political or altruistic efforts. At best, they hope to die with a cavalier attitude of “no regrets.” But they also can’t say for sure what death is.
Real knowledge about life and death begins with a clear understanding of the self beyond the body. Suppose at a wake the grieving widow says, “Oh, my husband is dead and gone!” Another person may say, “Why do you say he’s gone? He’s lying there.” But she will say, “No, he’s gone forever.” The very language suggests that the person who was her husband, the real self, was different from his body.
Whether the body is old or young, white or black, man or woman, it is simply a covering for the real self, the eternal spiritual particle within the body. This lesson we must learn. Then we can understand that we do not really die when our body dies.
The Vedas say that to think the body is the self is to think on the level of the animals. When a cow’s calf has died and the cow will no longer give milk, the farmer sometimes tricks the cow by bringing the calf before her. The cow licks the body of the dead calf and allows herself to be milked. People with a bodily conception of the self are similarly foolish. They take shelter of materialistic science and sometimes think that when they die scientists will be able to freeze their dead bodies so that in the future they may live again. But no scientist can return a departed soul to the body, any more than a cow can bring her calf back to life. We must know first of all that the soul, not the body, is the self. Only then can we progress toward an understanding of death.
According to Vedic information, when death occurs the vital bodily functions stop and the eternal self, or soul, transmigrates to another body. But for each of us the question remains: “Where will go after death?”
The answer is that our destination is determined by the laws of karma, the subtle laws of action and reaction that work under the direction of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Thus we will take our next body according to our activities in this life. If now we live in goodness, next time we will get a better body—one in the human species or higher. But if we misuse the human form of life and act out of passion or ignorance, in our next life we will be degraded, perhaps to an animal species or even lower. So it is intelligent to live the present life in preparation for the next.
Still, even if we amass “good karma” and get a better body in our next life, this doesn’t solve the problem of death. The flaw of mortality always remains, no matter what body we get. So for materialists death remains an insoluble problem, whether they fear death, try to forget death, try to prevent death, or pretend to accept death. Only Krsna consciousness solves the problem of death.
The solution? To raise our consciousness out of beastly, bodily identification up to spiritual knowledge, to love of God, so that when death comes we can transcend the cycle of repeated births and deaths. If a person dies completely enlightened about the self and God and about this world and the next, he can go to the eternal, spiritual world and attain immortality in his original identity as a servant of God. This is the good news that is unfortunately never reported on television.—SDG