Monday, November 3, 2014



Dr. Ch. Durga Prasada Rao
Centre for Consciousness Studies
Dayalbagh Educational Institute
Dayalbagh, AGRA-282005 INDIA.      

                                            The concept of death is a mysterious aspect, daunting humanity from time immemorial.  Even the mere mention of this word 'death' makes one to tremble. It causes great anxiety, creates unbearable fear in the minds of every one.   Though man is aware of the unavoidable nature of death, is still afraid of facing it for he thinks that it is the end of every thing. But all this is due to the wrong understanding of the concept.  The fear, caused by wrong understanding of a particular concept is removed when it is properly understood. Death, according to general understanding,   is the permanent cessation of all biological functions that sustain a living organism. And if we define death in terms of consciousness, the living organism can be said to have died when consciousness ceases to exist.  In the absence of consciousness, the body is simply a lump of inert matter. So it is very essential   to understand the nature of death to overcome the fear.
                               The role played by the Upanishads in analyzing the nature of death is unique and appealing, only some of the important aspects are however   focused which give solace to the departed soul as well as the relatives of the departed soul. .  The Upanishads, also known as Vedanta are the concluding portions of the Vedas. They are the essence, the cream, the culmination of the Vedic Philosophy . Being esoteric in nature they deal with the principles of creation , nature of the ultimate reality  relation between individual soul and Supreme Soul, Dissolution of the world , goal of life and so on. The word Upanishad is derived from the root 'shad'  and the two prefixes  upa and ni  which together mean the guru's proximity. It is a curious fact that Upanishad is also derived from the root 'shad'  meaning gati, the movement , as it leads  the listener to the highest goal which is realisation of Self. There is still another meaning  for the same root 'shad'  – destruction of the innate ignorance of man that causes fear of birth , old age and death and leading  him to enlightenment and the Upanishadic salvation.  Upanishads being the quintessence of Vedic knowledge and wisdom, combined philosophy with experience and  have been influencing human mind for the last several centuries by paving the way for transcendence  from humanity to divinity.- According to  them, death is not  the complete cessation of one's existence. 

Our Sastras, by   suggesting a philosophical way out,      warn us not to be afraid of death. Oh fool! Why are you afraid of death? Do you think that Yama, the God of death will spare you even if you are afraid?  But it is certain that  he will not catch hold of  an unborn . Therefore, try not to be born again in this world.

मृत्यो: बिभॆषि किं मूढ! भीतं मुंचति वै यम: |
अजातं नैव गृह्णाति  कुरु यत्नमजन्मनि ||

(Mrutyorbibheshi kim mudha
 bhitam munchati vai Yamah
Ajatam naiva grhnati
kuru yatnamajanmani)

Here the word  Ajanmani i.e.,  birthlessness constitutes three aspects:

1. The realization of the inevitable nature of death
2. Proper understanding of the nature of death
3. Belief in the permanent existence of soul. 

The word' Mrityu ' which means death is used several times in the Upanishads. Isavasya Upanishads declares that those who devote themselves both to the Knowledge of mundane (worldly) and supra- mundane (knowledge of the ultimate reality );   by the knowledge of world they  over come death and by knowledge of ultimate Reality they  attain immortality.

विद्यां चाविद्यां च यस्तद्वेदोभयं तथा
अविद्यया मृत्युं तीर्त्वा विद्ययाSमृतमश्नुते ( ११)

For the proper understanding of the nature of death, both worldly and other worldly knowledge is essential. Hence, it is said in the Mundakopanishad that there are two kinds of Vidya  para and apara   . para is Supra-mundane while  apara is  mundane and  both are equally worthy of acquit ion as the supreme function of them bring relief from the worldly entanglements and   leads to the realization of Atman while Aparavidya   enables  one to acquire knowledge of the physical world.

द्वे विद्ये वेदितव्ये इति ह स्म यद्वद्ब्रह्मविदो वदन्ति परा चैवापरा च  | तत्रापरा ऋग्वेदो यजुर्वेद: सामवेदोSधर्ववेद: शिक्षा कल्पो व्याकरणं निरुक्तं छन्दो ज्योतिषमिति | अथ परा यया तदक्षरमधिगम्यते| ()

 By this it is evident that the knowledge of both is necessary to overcome the fear of death and to attain immortality.

The discussion about death, at length,  is found in the Katha Upanishad. Nachiketa, cursed by his father Vajasaneya reached the abode of Yama. He was bestowed with three boons by Yama,  and Nachiketa asked Yama to explain  the nature of death as the  third boon.
He asks: When a man dies , there is this doubt; some say that this Atman continues after death ; some say that it ceases to be . I would like to know the truth taught by you.. This is the third of my boons. Then, Yama to divert his attention,  told him that it was very difficult to understand even to gods. Since the  truth regarding death  is subtle, Yama  asked Nachiketa  to  choose  some other boon instead . But Nachiketa insisted to explain that knowledge as it was very difficult  to understand, and there was no better  teacher  than him  to expound of it   and nothing else  was   equal to that knowledge.  Yama again tried his best to divert the attention of the boy by granting a number of worldly pleasures such as long life, wealth and worldly comforts, but all his attempts were in vain. Ultimately,  Nachiketa's inquisitiveness and firm determination  that ' No other boon this Nachiketa will ask  made Yama   pleased   at heart and he  explained the secret of death.

The knowledge of the secret of death constitutes three aspects.


The general dictum Jatasya maranam dhruvam explains that death is inevitable to a person who is born. An allegorical expression about death depicts the same thing very interestingly.
There is a cage like body of which all the nine doors   are open.  There is dwelling an air like bird.  It is surprising how it is still surviving and nothing to surprise if it goes off.

उद्घाटितनवद्वारे पंजरे विहगो sनिल:
यत्तिष्ठति तदाश्चर्यं प्रयाणे विस्मय: कुत:                   (Udbhatacharya's poem)
Nachiketa has already an idea about the transitory nature of life.  He, without any fear, responded to the curse of his father by requesting not to repent over it and also added that like corn, a man ripens and falls to the ground; like corn, he springs up again in his season.

अनुपश्य यथा पूर्वे प्रतिपश्य तथा Sपरे
सस्यमिव मर्त्य: पच्यते सस्यमिवाजायते पुन:( कठ उपनिषद्१/)

 The un - avoidability of death is stressed in the Bhagavadgita also which is also considered to be the quintessence of the Upanishads. Lord krishna speaks to Arjuna
He says:  one that is born death is certain and certain is birth for the one that has died . Therefore for what is unavoidable, thou shouldst not grieve.

जातस्य हि धृवो मृत्यु: धृवं जन्म मृतस्य च
तस्मादपरिहार्यॆsर्थे न त्वं शोचितुमर्हसि (II-27)

On some other occasion also Krishna consoles Arjuna by explaining the nature of death. Arjuna!  every thing in this world is created for a purpose. The movement the pus pose is served it is not needed any more. . It is even so with men. Each man is set on this strange eventful journey called life. He has been sent into this world with a purpose. Once that purpose is served , the earth has no more need of him. It is the case with all of us , even  me . I have created myself on this earth for a purpose. It is not yet over. Some thing still remains . The moment it is finished , I will die too, and so will you and your dear brothers.  Do not grieve.

 In Dhammapada it is said “ Not in the sky nor in the depths 0f ocean nor having entered caverns of the mountains, nay such a place is not to be found in the world where a man may dwell without being overpowered by death. Many parables are also there in our literature to explain this truth.

Mahabharata went to the extent of ridiculing the peculiar mind set of the people  who thinks that life is permanent even though they  witness the death of every living in every movement. Yudhisthira, being asked by Yaksha  whether there is any amazing thing in the world replies  that every moment ,  some body somewhere is breathing his last ; yet the wonder of wonders is that who are alive  for the moment feel as though they are assured of their lives.

अहन्यहनि भूतानि गच्छन्ति यममन्दिर
मन्ये शाश्वतमिच्छन्ति किमाश्चर्यमत:परम्
So it is necessary to realize the certainty of death. 


As rightly pointed out by the French Philosopher Pierre Chandain “ we are not physical beings having spiritual experiences but spiritual beings having physical experiences”.  But man, being attached to mundane objects, ignores one's own   divine nature and confines himself to the physical domain. It is our bounden duty to realize our true nature to uplift the humanity
The idea of life in this world actually being a death is no means new.
The Greek Philosopher and mystic , Heraclitus ( c.535-475 BCE) , clearly fond of the word play
Suggested by the idea, wrote:

Our life is death and our death life.
(Heraclitus, in golden verses of Pythagoras, 52-53, HVPp 105)
He went to the extent of saying that life in this world, though it is called life, is in fact spiritual death. The metaphorical expression of him sounds this idea.
The name of the bow (bios) is life (bios), but its work is death.
(Heraclitus , Fragment,115,HPWp.91) A treasury of Mystic Terms,  6.2 p 160-161.

Upanishads state that death is the real state of one's own existence and it is the natural state while life is artificial. According to Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj , a yogi,  Death  is a change in the living process of a particular body. Integration ends and disintegration sets in. In the Mahabharata, when Arjuna was grieving over the sad demise of his son Abhimanyu, Krishna sought to disabuse his mind in the following way: Oh Arjuna ! This boy, whom you are claiming as your son, came down in to life from an unseen metaphysical realm. He has now gone back to that realm. He does not belong to you, even as you don't belong to him. What is the good of your wailing over a matter , over which you have no control?.

अदृश्यात्स समुद्भूत: पुनश्चादृश्यतां गत:
नाsसौ तव न तस्य त्वं कुतो हि परिदॆवना?
Kalidasa also expressed the same view when Aja, the son of Raghu was wailing over the death of his wife Indumati . It is said that we are in an unnatural state while in life and death reinstates us to our natural state. So man is expected to be satisfied with what ever span of life he lives and he should not grieve over death, because it is his natural state.

मरणं प्रकृति: शरीरिणां विकृतिर्जीवितमुच्यते बुधै:
क्षणमप्यतिष्ठते श्वसन्यदि जन्तुर्ननु लाभवानसौ|
(रघुवंश:/ Canto VIII/87.).
 Johann Gottlieb Fitchte ( 1762-1814), the German philosopher, who lived several centuries after  kalidasa  of the same view who opined that “ what we call life is perhaps death, and what we call death takes us back to the realm from which we are shot down to this life.


 In the Katha Upanishad,  Yama explains Nachiketa, in a nutshell that the man who has the knowledge of Atman neither takes birth nor dies. Because Atman  has neither cause nor effect. It is unborn, permanent and eternally remains the same ; ancient; it is not killed even if the body perishes.

न जायते म्रियते वा विपश्चि
न्नायं कुतश्चिन्न बभूव कश्चित् |
अजो नित्य: शाश्वतोSयं पुराणो
न हन्यते हन्यमाने शरीरे||(/१६)


According to the Upanishads, Consciousness which is one  without a second,   is the primary and fundamental   aspect of   Reality. It is  both  empirical and transcendental. The entire universe is cradled in consciousness which arises where there is perfect order and harmony.  It plays different roles in different states  of human life and  beyond. The  states such as waking, dreaming,   deep sleep are obvious  and mundane and the fourth state,  also known as  Turiya  is  extra-ordinary  hence it is  supra- mundane. The conscious Self in waking state  is  called Vishva, a gross enjoyer  of  external objects; in  dream state,  it  is  Taijasa,  subtle enjoyer of  internal objects. The same consciousness in deep sleep, is  prajna,  is a mass of cognition unified,  consisting of bliss  and enjoyment of bliss. The same consciousness, devoid of these qualities,  is said to be the  fourth(transcendental) state, Turiya. Unlike the other  three,  it is   supra -  normal,  unseen, beyond empirical determination, beyond the grasp of mind, unthinkable, indescribable, consciousness alone where all phenomena cease, unchanging, peaceful, non dual, action less, incomprehensible,  uninferable  and  in essence, it is the state of Pure Consciousness.

 Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says that Consciousness also known as Atman is here ; the same is there ; that which is there ; the same is here { this world)  he sufffers death after death who perceives Atman as many. Every thing is only the manifestation of Atman .  There is nothing different from it . One who finds diversity is repeatedly subject to birth and death.
By the mind I.e initiation alone it is to be perceived.
There is in fact no diversity .
 He gets death after death ,
Who perceives here seeming diversity? Br.Up. 4/4/222)

katha Upanishad also expresses the same view by using verbatim twice. मृत्यो: : मृत्युमाप्नोति य इह नानेव पश्यति| (2/4/10-11)

 On the close perusal of the Upanishads, we can realize that the underlying principle of them   is consciousness which is immortal and the realization of  which  keeps one beyond death and makes him the enjoy er of Supreme Bliss.   Chandogya Upanishad also states that the nature of Atman (soul) is Sat, Chit and Ananda; Ever-existent, Consciousness and Bliss. All beings here are indeed, born from Bliss, having been born, they remain in Bliss, and on departing, they enter into Bliss
यतो वा इमानि भूतानि जायन्ते येन जातानि जीवन्ति य
त्प्रयन्त्यभिसंविशन्ति तद्विजिज्ञासस्व तद्ब्रह्मेति (तै..-)
(yato va imani bhutani jayante
 yena jatani jivanti yatprayantyabhisamvisanti
 tadvijijnasasva tadbrahmeti)
  Taittiriya Upanishad emphatically declares that the enlightened man who realizes his own nature as Bliss is never afraid of any thing
 आनन्दं ब्रह्मणो विद्वान्न बिभेति कुतश्चन  
(Anandam brahmano vidvan na bibheti kutaschana) ( Taittiriya -2-9-1).

For  the realization of one's own nature, the knowledge of the  metaphysical nature of human body is quite essential.
   As analyzed in  the Upanishads, the human frame  consists of three  bodies and five  sheaths. The bodies are 1. Gross 2. Subtle 3. Causal and sheaths are Annamaya, Pranamaya, Manomaya, Vijnanamaya and Anandamaya.

  For example the shell of a tamarind corresponds to the Gross body. The pulp represents the subtle body. The seed corresponds to causal body. To explain the same in a scientific way, ice represents the gross body, water represents the subtle body and H 2 O represents the causal body. (Practice of Vedanta by Sivananda Saraswati- p.47)


 The gross body, also known as physical body, is made up of five elements. They are Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space. It constitutes the Annamayakosa, the food sheath. It disintegrates into its component parts only after death. This body is the resultant product of our karmas. We experience the existence of this body in waking state. When the karmas are consumed up on the dawn of the knowledge of the Supreme Self, we no longer take up any new body.


 This is composed of seventeen elements and represents three sheaths viz.,  the sheath of vital force Pranamayakosa,  mind Manomayakosa, and intellect Vijnanamayakosa. The elements constitute five sensory organs such as skin, eye, ear , tongue and nose and five motor organs such as mouth,  hand, leg,  anus and genital organ and five vital forces viz., Prana, Apana, Vyana, Udana and Samana and mind and intellect.  This body is very subtle and more expansive and extensive than physical body. This subtle body, inside the physical body is compared to be a bladder in a foot ball.             (Practice of Vedanta,  by Sivananda saraswati- p 48.)
 It is the seat of desires and emotions. It is this body that goes to the heaven and hell and comes back after experiencing the fruits of its actions. Death means the separation of this subtle body from the physical body. It is the subtle body that operates in dream state. This body has the capacity to expand and contract. It contracts in small creatures,  and expands in big animals. This subtle body will get dissolved only after  Videhamukthi. Physical body cannot do any thing without the help of this subtle body.


The causal body is the cause for the two other bodies. It is formed of the ultra-fine mental energies of causal matter and contains the impressions in a seed form. This body accommodates Anandamayakosa and   functions in deep sleep. Atman is distinct from these three bodies. So It is neither physical body nor subtle body nor even causal body. It is beyond these three. It is Pure Being, Pure Consciousness and Pure Bliss.  But it is misunderstood as the individual self or false self due to the identification of the body and senses which have no independent existence.
 Atman, being different from all these and beyond, has nothing to do with them. It never dies when the body dies.

Since the happiness we get in this world is inferior to that of eternal happiness, Death is said to be  a door way to  eternal happiness (bliss). Aeschylus, a Greek poet and dramatist ( 525-456B.C) also expressed the same opinion by saying that ' call no man happy till he is dead'.
When man dies it means that soul leaves the body but not otherwise, because, it is not soul that needs the body, it is the body that needs soul. Here Swami Vivekananda distinguishes the Indian view from that of Western by saying  that Hindus believe that a man is a soul and has a body, while Western people believe  he is a body and possesses a soul.( the complete works of swami Vivekananda, Vol:VIII, page236.) So, death is the real state of our eternal existence.

 This identification is really a mistaken knowledge and this mistaken knowledge is not the outcome of an indescribable matter. This misidentification of the Atman with the body-mind complex is in the experience of every one. This false identification has no beginning or end, but this can be eliminated by the right knowledge of the real self/Atman.  Mistaking one thing for the other is the result of not knowing the real nature of that particular thing. Knowing the Atman as the body-mind complex and the body-mind complex as the Atman is a mistaken/false knowledge. We have conceived difference between ourselves and the Supreme Reality owing to this mistaken knowledge only. If this mistaken knowledge is subjugated as such by the right kind of inquiry it is stultified by the true knowledge which results in self-realization. Then the Atman, which is the core of one's being   reveals Himself as Pure Being, Pure Consciousness and Pure Bliss. The stultification of the mistaken knowledge and the birth of the new knowledge of one's  True Being,  the all-pervading Atman,  are two events that happen simultaneously on approaching and receiving the  instructions  from a Guru who is both a Jnani (man of wisdom) and a Tattvadarshi (Seer of the truth).  (B. G. IV. 34)

  Even though there is no difference of opinion about the death as disintegration of body and soul the process differs from individual to individual. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad explains the process of death in the following way. When the self becomes weak and senseless, as it were the organs come to it .. it comes to the heart ( Br.Up- 4/4/1); again the top of the heart brightens. Through that brightened top the self departs, either through the eye or through the head or through any other part of the body ( Ibid 4-4-2). By this, it is evident that at the time of departure the soul together with the organs comes to the heart. At that moment the departing soul, on account of its past karmas, has a peculiar consciousness picturing to it its next life, and goes to the body which is revealed by that consciousness.      It further explains the plan of consciousness to its next life, the way of departure from the body, the nerves which consciousness passes through.  Various conditions of the soul at death, the condition of soul of unreleased and soul of released after death.

Then the self is endowed with particular consciousness and afterwards passes on to the body that brought to light by that consciousness. This consciousness is determined by one's past karmas. So, every one is expected to be careful of his actions. One should do good deeds avoid the bad ones. It is not a sin, if he cannot do any good to others but doing badly to others is severely condemned. Gita, the quintessence of all the Upanishads, assured us that good karma will never go waste and unnoticed. It will lead for the betterment of the individual in the next birth. The saying goes like this:

नहि कळ्याणकृत्कश्चिद्दुर्गतिं तात गच्छति (/४०)
शुचीनां श्रीमतां गेहे योगभ्रष्टो Sभिजायते| (/४१)

The span in between death to another birth is also discussed in the Brihadaranyaka. It states that just as a leech dwelling in grass , catches another support and withdraws itself , so does this Self set aside the present body -make it sense less, take up a new body and withdraw itself.
तद्यथा तृणजलायुका तृणस्यान्तं गत्वा न्यमाक्रममाक्रम्यात्मानमुपसंहरति,एवमेवायमात्मेदं शरीरं निहत्य, अविद्यां गमयित्वा , अन्यमाक्रममाक्रम्यात्मानमुपसंहरति|  (//)

 Man looses nothing in death.  As soul passes in this body through childhood, youth and age, even so is its taking on of another body. The sage is not perplexed by this.

देहिनोsस्मिन्यथा देहे कौमारं यौवनं जरा
तथा देहान्तरप्राप्ति:धीरस्तत्र न मुह्यति./१३
The statement of  Jalaluddin Rumi, a famous Sufi saint is also worth mentioning here in this context.

I died as mineral and became a plant.
I died as plant and rose to animal
I died as animal and I was man
Why should I fear when I was not less by dying?
Yet once more I shall die as man
To soar with angels blest
But even from angelhood I must pass on.Masnavi .  

It is quite evident that the study of the Upanishads dispels the fear of death. The Schopenhauer's statement that ' the study of the Upanishads has been the solace of my life, it will be the solace of my death' is the real truth.


1.     A history of Philosophy, Frank Thilly, central book depot, Allahabad.
2.     A Treasure of Mystic Terms, John Davidson, Science of soul research center, Radhasoami Satsang Beas, New Delhi, India
3.     Bhagavadgita with commentary by S. Radha Krishnan
4.     Brahma-Sutras, with text, word for word Translation,
            Swami VIRESWARANANDA, Advaita Ashrama November 2008.
5.     I am That, Sri Nisarga Datta Maharaj, Chetana pvt Ltd.
6.     Mahabharatam of Sri Vedavyasa.
7.     Some gems from the ocean of Sanskrit, by Dr. D. Arkasomayaji.TTD Religious Publication series.No.344.1989.
8.     Sri Sankara's Advaita Siddhanta, by S. Vitthala Sastri, Sri Sacchidananda Printers Jambur House, D. No.211, Kshetraiah Road, Mysore-1
9.     The Principal Upanishads, S. RadhaKrishnan.
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1 comment:

dolly satsangi said...

Very informative and easy to read.
Thanks and Regards