The Time of Death


by Damodara dasa Adhikari
(ISKCON-Washington, D.C.)

I offer my most respectful obeisances unto His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, my spiritual master and the spiritual master of the universe, from whose lotus lips has sprung the eternal message of the Vedas in the purest line of disciplic succession from Sri Krsna, the Absolute Truth, through Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu and His Divine Grace Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Gosvami Maharaja. He is spreading the teachings of Krsna consciousness around the planet for the benefit of all living entities, and just by his kindness so many of his faithful disciples are being delivered from the clutches of impending death. Please allow me to address myself to this subject. The death of the body is an inevitable fact for each one of us, so let us find out what the Vedic literature says about this.

The final purport of the Vedas is stated by the Supreme Lord Krsna in Bhagavad-gita: “Just surrender unto Me.” (Bg. 18.66) But surrender is made difficult by our attachment to the gross and subtle bodily coverings of the soul. We must control the various senses and gradually extract ourselves from the predicament of material life. In Bhagavad-gita the Lord states: “O mighty-armed son of Kunti, it is undoubtedly difficult to curb the restless mind, but it is possible by constant practice and detachment.” (Bg. 6.35) For the yogi this practice is most severely tested at the time of death. The Supreme Personality of Godhead says, “Anyone who quits his body, at the end of life, remembering Me, attains immediately to My nature; and there is no doubt of this.” (Bg. 8.5)

For example, the Vedic literature cites the case of Ajamila. Ajamila, who had been born into a good brahmana family, fell into bad association after having seen a man and a woman embracing on a public road. His lust drew him into worse and worse circumstances, and finally, sick and wretched, he found himself dying and went to the house of the prostitute he was currently favoring. She threw him out mercilessly, seeing his abject state. He had no one present to help him, and so his thoughts turned to his son, and as he fell down to die, he called out his son’s name, Narayana. Now, it so happens that Narayana is a name of God, indicating Krsna’s four-armed form. So just by the potency of the sound vibration of the name of God, uttered even in this indirect manner by the dying Ajamila, he was not taken away by the constables of the lord of death, Yamaraja, who were waiting for him, but instead was transported to the realm of Vaikuntha, the abode of Lord Narayana. On the other hand, Bharata Maharaja, although advanced in spiritual understanding, thought of a stag at the time of his sudden death, and he became a stag in his next birth (although an extraordinary stag who could remember his previous life’s activities).

Everyone, from the smallest germ, known as indra-gopa, up to Lord Indra, the King of heaven, is subject to the stringent laws of material nature. We are attempting to win over these laws, but in fact we are simply becoming more and more entangled in illusion’s complexities. Even Lord Indra himself was once subject to the influence of the deluding potency. Indra once became captivated by the superior facilities for sense gratification available on his heavenly planet, and therefore when his spiritual master, Brhaspati, the guru of the demigods, scolded him, Indra acted offensively toward him. Brhaspati then decided to teach his student a lesson. He cursed him to take birth on a lower planet as a pig. Sloshing around in mud and stool, Lord Indra as a pig felt that he was enjoying life very much. He thought to himself, “I am very fortunate. Here I have my nice sow for sex life, so many nice piglets, and the farmer serves me daily with a nice big bucket of stools to eat. How lucky I am!” Meanwhile the upper planets fell into confusion in Lord Indra’s absence, and Lord Brahma flew down to Indra’s farmyard on his swan to bring the King of heaven back to his post. But Indra would not leave: “I am very happy here, thank you.” So, with controlled intelligence, Lord Brahma took his sword end killed the sow and piglets. “No! No! What are you doing?” cried Indra. “My beautiful wife and children! You have mercilessly killed them!” Brahma then reminded Lord Indra that his death was going to come next anyway; at that very moment the farmer was sharpening his knife for the kill. The king of heaven was shocked into awareness, and he gladly returned to his duty as administrative head of the demigods.

The death of the body is approaching for all of us. But Lord Krsna begins Bhagavad-gita by teaching that we are not the material body, but pure spirit soul. After confirming the eternal character of the individual soul (Bg. 2.12), the Lord says: “As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth and then to old age, similarly the soul also passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.” (Bg. 2.13)

Later in the Gita, the Supreme Personality of Godhead elaborates on this: ”From the highest planet in the material world, down to the lowest, all are places of misery where repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains to My abode, O son of Kunti, never takes birth again.” (Bg. 8.16)

Why should we go to Krsna’s abode? We should go there because that is our natural home. As confirmed in Bhagavad-gita, this material world is a foreign place for us, for the soul is made of the same spiritual energy as Krsna is, and he belongs in the spiritual sky. Therefore, in order to enter into the abode of Sri Krsna, we must be delivered from the womb of material nature. We have been impregnated into this womb by Krsna because we desire to lord it over dead matter. This is confirmed in Bhagavad-gita: “The total material substance, called Brahma, is the source of birth, and in that Brahma do I create pregnancy. Thus come the possibilities for the births of all living beings. It should be understood that all species of life, O son of Kunti, are made possible by birth in this material nature, and that I am the seed-giving father.” (Bg. 14.3-4) After the living entities, or jivas, are injected into maya, they lie dormant for some time. Since the living entities come into material existence due to envy of Krsna, it can be said that they are in a state of spiritual death. Spiritual death means to forget that one is spirit. The conditioned living entities come into the material world due to a desire to identify with the deluding energy. Therefore they lie dormant in this state of spiritual death. Then, after some time, “those jivas who had lain dormant during the cataclysm are awakened.” (Brahma-samhita 5.20)

But it must be admitted that this awakening is itself illusory, since we are still within the womb; we have not actually been born yet. Nor are we awake. Sukadeva Gosvami says in the Srimad-Bhagavatam, “The conditioned souls hover in a dream of heavenly illusory pleasures, but actually they do not relish any tangible happiness in this way.” (Bhag. 2.2.2)

What is needed is known as dvija, or second birth. This second birth occurs when we are initiated by a bona fide spiritual master. He can deliver us from illusion just by his causeless mercy. After this kind of birth, there is no death any more just eternal, blissful life in Krsna consciousness.

The great saints and spiritual masters can give us advice on the proper method of passing out of this present body. One illustrative account is found in Srimad-Bhagavatam First Canto, Thirteenth Chapter. The gist of the narrative is as follows.

In the course of losing the Battle of Kuruksetra, King Dhrtarastra’s one hundred sons, led by Duryodhana, had all been killed and so the aged father was living in the palace of the victor, king Yudhisthira. Yudhisthira was very kind to his former enemy, and, according to the Vedic custom, he allowed him all the privileges of a member of his family, regularly paying his respects to the elderly king every morning. Dhrtarastra, who had been blind throughout his life, was thus living in Yudhisthira’s palace in peace and friendliness, along with his wife Gandhari.

This placid domestic scene was not to continue for long, however. Dhrtarastra’s brother Vidura, who had left Duryodhana’s palace just before the great battle, now at last returned from a long pilgrimage to holy cities and temples. He had sat at the feet of his spiritual master, Maitreya Muni, and thereby received the gracious gift of absolute knowledge. Vidura was not an ordinary human being. Actually he was a demigod, Yamaraja, the lord of death, who had taken birth on this planet as the result of being cursed by the sage Mandavya Muni. So Vidura was particularly qualified to ascertain the flaws in his aged brother’s present way of life.

Vidura’s arrival at the court of Yudhistthira was filled with gaiety. For the members of the royal family, it was like regaining consciousness after a long period. They had been distressed by Vidura’s absence, and now they all offered their most respectful obeisances to the great saint and embraced him heartily, crying affectionately due to their long separation. King Yudhisthira arranged for a nice place for Vidura to sit, and a festive reception was offered, with sumptuous foodstuffs for the brother of Dhrtarastra. After taking sufficient rest, Vidura was given a comfortable seat, and, after paying his respects, King Yudhisthira asked him about Lord Krsna and the Lord’s immediate relatives, the Yadus.

Now, it so happened that the Supreme Lord Sri Krsna had brought His earthly pastimes to a close, and He and His relatives had departed for the spiritual sky. But Vidura did not disclose this unbearable news to the assembled devotees. They were to find out soon enough just by the laws of nature, and Vidura did not want to hasten their inevitable distress. Instead he turned to Dhrtarastra and addressed his remarks to him directly:

“My dear King, please get out of here immediately. Do not delay. Just see how fear has overtaken you. This frightful situation cannot be remedied by any person in this material world. My lord, it is the Supreme Personality of Godhead as eternal time that has approached us all. Whoever is under the influence of supreme eternal time must surrender his most dear life, and what to speak of other things, such as wealth, honor, children, land, home, etc.

“Your father, brother, well-wishers and sons are all dead and passed away. You yourself have expended the major portion of your life. Your body is now overtaken by invalidity, and you are living in the home of another. You have been blind from your very birth, and recently you have become hard of hearing. Your memory is shortened, and your intelligence is disturbed. Your teeth are loose, your liver is defective, and you are coughing up mucus.

“Alas, how powerful are the hopes of a living being to continue his life. Verily, you are living just like a household dog and are eating the remnants of food given by Bhima. There is no need to live a degraded life and subsist on the charity of those whom you tried to kill by arson and poisoning. You also insulted one of their wives and usurped their kingdom and wealth. Despite your unwillingness to die and your desire to live even at the cost of honor and prestige, your miserly body will certainly dwindle and deteriorate like an old garment.

“He is called undisturbed who goes to an unknown, remote place, and freed from all obligations, quits his material body when it has become useless. He is certainly a first-class man who awakens and understands, either by himself or from others, the falsity and misery of this material world and thus leaves home and depends fully on the Supreme Personality of Godhead residing within his heart.

“Please, therefore, leave for the North immediately, without letting your relatives know, for soon that time will approach which will diminish the good qualities of men.” (Bhag. 1.13.18-28)

Because Vidura spoke the truth from the platform of direct realization, Dhrtarastra followed his brother’s advice, and he and his wife both left at once for the Himalayas and took up yoga practice under Vidura’s guidance in order to purify their consciousness so that they could be liberated from the attachments of material life. After perfecting their austerities, they voluntarily accepted death in the fire of mystic yoga. The yoga which they performed, however, was not sufficient for attaining the highest knowledge. Mere liberation is not sought after by pure devotees of Krsna. It is not such a great achievement. Even the most demonic of all living entities, Hiranyakasipu, was also liberated at his death, simply because he was killed by the Personality of Godhead in His form as Nrsimhadeva. Such is the grace of Krsna that He awards salvation even to the lowest of the low, if, through their atheistic activities, they are so corrupt as to necessitate their being annihilated by God Himself.

Mere impersonal salvation is not considered worthwhile because it is temporary. Thus it is on the same level as religion, economic development and sense gratification. Only pure devotional service of God can render the living entity completely free from birth, death, disease and old age. Sukadeva Gosvami says in Srimad-Bhagavatam, “For those who are wandering in the material universe, there is no more auspicious means of deliverance than what is aimed at in the direct devotional service of Lord Krsna.” (Bhag. 2.2.33) His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada writes in his purport to this verse, “Srila Sridhara Svami and all other acaryas, like Jiva Gosvami, etc., agree that bhakti-yoga is not only easy, simple, natural and free from trouble, but that it is the only source of happiness for the human being.”

Commenting on the kind of yoga practiced by Dhrtarastra, His Divine Grace writes: “In olden days such practice was very common for the transcendentalist for the mode of life and character in those days were favorable. But in modern days, when the influence of the age of Kali is so disturbing, practically everyone is untrained in this art of bodily exercise. Concentration of the mind is more easily attained in these days by the chanting of the holy name of the Lord. The results are more effective than those derived from the inner exercise of the life air.” (Bhag. 2.2.19, purport)

So here is a hint for all of us not to be dissuaded from attempting for spiritual emancipation. The human form of life is given to us as a chance to surpass the hurdle of birth and death. How, then, can we transcend the material nature at the time of death? Let us take the example of King Pariksit.

King Pariksit had offended a sage, Samika Muni, and the son of that holy man had subsequently cursed the King to be killed in seven days by the bite of a snake-bird. Having been informed of this by the Muni, the King was in the unique position of knowing exactly when he would die, and therefore he immediately prepared for death. He accepted the news of his death as “well and good for its being the cause of his indifference toward worldly attachments.” (Bhag. 1.19.4) He left his palace and sat down tightly on the bank of the most holy Yamuna River, observed fasting, and simply depended on Lord Krsna. As he sat there, the most auspicious saints and mystics arrived on the scene; they could foretell what was going to happen. The demigods, seeing the great assemblage, scattered flowers over the earth. Then at last, Sukadeva Gosvami arrived, and he took the most exalted seat as the chief guest of Pariksit. He is described in Srimad-Bhagavatam as “surrounded by saintly sages, demigods, and kings, just as the moon is surrounded by stars, heavenly bodies, and planets in the sky. He was gorgeously represented in that manner, and factually he was also respected by all of them.” (Bhag. 1.19.31)

The King then put a question to Sukadeva Gosvami: “You are the spiritual master of great saints and devotees. I therefore beg to inquire from you the way of perfection for all persons, and especially for one who is just about to die.” (Bhag. 1.19.37)

Sukadeva answered: “The highest perfection of human life, achieved either by complete knowledge of matter and spirit, by practice of mystic powers, or by perfect discharge of occupational duty, is to remember the Personality of Godhead at the end of life.” (Bhag. 2.1.6) “Those who drink through aural reception, fully filled with the nectarean message of Lord Krsna, the beloved of the devotees, purify the polluted aim of life known as material enjoyment and thus go back to Godhead, to the lotus feet of the Personality of Godhead.” (Bhag. 2.2.37) In the remainder of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Sukadeva Gosvami tells the King about Sri Krsna, His energies, His opulences and His activities; and just by hearing this transcendental sound vibration, the King was transferred to the spiritual sky at his death.

Here is the conclusion of the Vedas. The first principle of spiritual life is hearing, and Sukadeva Gosvami assures that this is the most important factor at death. The hearing must be submissive. One should not hear in a challenging spirit. In Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krsna tells Arjuna: “Because you are never envious of Me, O Arjuna, I shall give you this most secret wisdom, knowing which you will be relieved from the miseries of material existence.” (Bg. 9.1) Elsewhere the Lord says, “That very ancient science of the relationship with the Supreme is today told by Me to you because you are My devotee as well as My friend; therefore, you can understand the transcendental mystery of this science.” (Bg. 4.3)

Our attitude towards Krsna and the spiritual master must not be envious, but favorable and devotional. Lord Caitanya prays, “In such a humble state of mind one can chant the holy name of the Lord constantly.” (Siksastakam 3) In the Gita the Lord tells us how to act in relationship with the spiritual master: “inquire from him submissively and render service unto him.” (Bg. 4.34)

So, with this in mind, let US hear something of that supreme destination, the goal of the bhakti-yogis, described nicely by Srila Prabhupada in Bhagavad-gita:

“The supreme abode of the Personality of Godhead, Krsna, is described in the Brahma-samhita as the cintamani dhama. That abode of Lord Krsna, known as Goloka Vrndavana, is full of palaces made of touchstone. There the trees are called desire trees, and the cows are called surabhi, and the Lord is served by hundreds and thousands of goddesses of fortune. He is Govinda, the primal Lord and the cause of all causes. There the Lord plays His flute; His eyes are like lotus petals, and the color of llis body is like a beautiful cloud. On His head is a peacock feather. So attractive is He that He excels thousands of Cupids.” (Bg. 8.21, purport)

The real meaning of eternal deathlessness is to perform devotional service for the eternal Supreme Lord, and therefore pure devotees do not even desire to attain to the Lord’s eternal abode, Krsnaloka, as just described. Lord Caitanya prays, “O almighty Lord, I have no desire to accumulate wealth, nor have I any desire to enjoy beautiful women, nor do I want any number of followers. What I want only is that I may have Your causeless devotional service in my life birth after birth.” (Siksastakam 4) Similarly the great acarya of modern times Srila Bhaktivinode Thakur, offering a poem on the death of a great devotee, says:

He reasons ill who says that Vaisnavas die
When thou art living still in sound.
The Vaisnavas die to live and living try
To spread the holy life around.

Devotional service to Krsna is eternal and cannot die. So the devotees pray, “Whether I attain to Vaikuntha, the spiritual sky, or whether You wish to send me to hell, whatever You desire is all right. I simply pray to always remember You.” Therefore when the Lord grants devotional service, it means that deathlessness is assured. When a devotee takes up Krsna consciousness seriously he becomes very dear to Krsna, and although the devotee may not desire it, his going back to Krsnaloka is assured.

We urge our readers to consider these topics seriously and with all reason and cool logic. Srila Prabhupada has said that actually our desire to live eternally is indirect evidence that we are actually eternal by nature. These propositions on how one can go beyond death by performance of devotional service unto the Supreme Personality of Godhead are not mere word jugglery. Death is not the most wonderful thing; it is life that is most wonderful, and Krsna consciousness is real life. Death can be conquered. Krsna promises that this freedom from death can most assuredly be attained by His devotees. By becoming purified through hearing of the Lord from the spiritual master and by chanting the holy name of God, the devotees learn to take everything as the mercy of God, and thus they become eager to serve Him. That change from material consciousness to God consciousness makes one eligible to enter the kingdom of God for eternal blissful life.

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