In May this year we published an interview by Sri T.K. Sribhashyam about his book Emergence of Yoga. Sribhashyam has written three other books with his sister Shrimati Sheshadri Alamelu. In July Steve Brandon of Harmony Yoga presented a series of questions about these books to Sribhashyam in a live interview. This interview is currently being transcribed and prepared for release. A question regarding the practice of reflecting on the certainty of death was asked. Sribhashyam subsequently took up this theme in an expanded and more in-depth reply. This question and the answer from Sribhashyam is presented in the following transcript.
Q. In the practical exercises in Way to Liberation: Moksha Marga: An Itinerary in Indian Philosophy p.250 it is recommended that a devotee reflects on the certainty of death. It seems very important to do this and it was also recommended by Buddha as a daily contemplation. Could you give any guidance on the purpose of this contemplation and how to introduce this into our practice?
A. This practical exercise is recommended not only in Hinduism and Buddhism but also in Jainism.
Even if there is a tendency to hide ourselves from the certainty of death, a frequent reflection on it is an absolute necessity not only for a devotee but to all human beings.
In Sanskrit, it is called ātma parīkṣa, a sort of internal examination of our actions and thoughts without judgement and being a neutral witness to our conduct and thoughts.
Our fear of death or refusal to admit death is a silent expression of our intense desire to live. We foster this desire (to live) by developing a strong attachment to sense pleasures, by cultivating a deep sense of identity towards our objects of possession and our refusal to admit the inevitable old age. The love of the body, the love of relatives, the love of wealth, the love of position, various types of loves as also the negative emotions like anger, vengeance, contempt, ridicule, dislike, hatred, grudge, resentment, etc. play a great role in our fear of death in such a way as to avoid even mere thinking of death.
Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad gives an example: Just as a bullock cart which is heavily loaded with material, dragged by two powerful bulls, creaks and groans because of the weight and moves slowly and reluctantly, so too man, when he is about to expire moves out of the body unwillingly pulled by the forces which belong to the other world, with creaks and groans caused by the weight of attachment and negative emotions that he maintains even at the final moment of his departure. These weights do not allow him to leave this world freely; the physical body shows a tendency to disintegrate, the senses become feeble and refuse to energize the mind and the mind shows a reluctance to maintain its relation with the body…
Very often, this condition of leaving this world may last for many days. Everyone does not face this situation in a similar manner. Every person’s manner of death is different from that of others depending on the burden of attachment charged during his or her life.
Birth and death are two states of the existence of any living being. The time between birth and death is usually called life.
In as much as we take conscience of our life, we should also be aware of the time of death, which cannot be preprogrammed. While we are conscious of our life, we admit that we were born, because to be conscious of our life is accepting that we were born; without birth, there would be no life. Logically, when there is life, there has to be invariably death. It is almost like the day and night that we live all through our life.
During our lifetime, we go through different stages, often called childhood, youth, adult and old age. Rarely do we think of the ultimate stage which is death. Even if we are aware that our body is subject to weaknesses, we decline that we experience them every day; we hope to be alive forever. This is the greatest blindness, we carry all our life, because we do not want to accept the reality; since we are born, we have to die.
Even if we liked some of the clothes to the extent of being attached to them, we go in for new ones. However, we do not feel sad when we discard the old ones nor do we carry them all the time over the new ones! A more practical example would be: we are the tenant or owner of a house. When we leave the house, we do not carry it along with us! When we sleep in this house, we are not conscious of our house. In the same way, we are not the factual owner of this body that we obtained at birth, even if we consider to be the owner. In fact, like during our sleep, we are without any feeling of the presence of our body, leave alone the ownership.
Very often we think (we are even convinced) that we are alive when our desires are fulfilled or when we are able to obtain satisfaction from our desires. The more our desires are satisfied, the more we are assured of our ‘life’. Even though we are aware that these satisfactions are transitory, we refuse to accept it in the same way as we deny the transition from life to death.
We are aware that everything in this world is subject to the law of mutation. In our present-day world, this is what we appreciate because we dislike monotony. If this world is subject to change, so too our own existence. These changes are birth, life and death. In Indian philosophy, we say: birth, life, death and rebirth and so on until we liberate our chain of repeated births and deaths.
Since, meditation, prayer and invocations are part of our daily routine, we should cultivate the habit of recollecting that our life is not a permanent state. That is to say, we should accept peacefully that our life has an end (which is called death), and should give a few moments of thought about this uncertainty before each meditation session, prayer and invocation. In fact, this thought should be kept alive in our daily activities because death is a reality in every human being, whether or not we believe in God, in a spiritual goal of life or in rebirth.
Here in the west, this preparatory contemplation would require much courage, more than what is needed to practice meditation or to talk of God, because the mere thought of death awakes a sort of ‘inborn fear’ in everyone. However, the challenging spirit that the western mind develops should enable everyone to get rid of this fear. To begin with, we should start to avoid talking of death with fear not only with oneself, but also with our surroundings and especially with children. Instead, start to think of it or talk about it with as much freedom as you would talk of any subject so that the concept or the image of death becomes a peaceful reality, as talking of childbirth, acquisition of material comforts, etc.
The purpose of this preparatory contemplation is to accept death as a permanent reality and to accept it with peace. Our practice of meditation and our devotion would be sterile without the acceptance of death as a reality.