Death is a time of great sadness for those who are materially conditioned. People mourn and grieve over the losses of loved ones, friends, family, and others that they know. The news media have wall to wall coverage when celebrities pass away. On the surface, death seems like a sad moment, but the Vedas tell us that the changing of the body is nothing worth lamenting.
Succumbing to the influence of maya, the living entity falsely identifies with the gross material body. There is a difference between something material and something spiritual. Spiritual qualities are those possessed by Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. He is not subject to the effects of material nature. We living entities, being part and parcel of God, are also spiritual in quality, but somehow or other, we have come in contact with material nature and become illusioned by her energy known as maya. This is the difference between the jivas, the living entities, and the adi-purusha, God. The Lord is not subject to the four defects possessed by human beings; they being the propensity to cheat, to be easily illusioned, to commit mistakes, and to have imperfect senses. The Mayavadis, impersonalist philosophers, mistakenly take Krishna and His various forms to be products of material nature, maya. The Lord refers to these people as mudhas, or fools.
“Fools deride Me when I descend in the human form. They do not know My transcendental nature and My supreme dominion over all that be.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.11)
If we are not our bodies, then what are we? Aham brahmasmi, “I am a spiritual soul” or “I am Brahman.” Brahman is one of God’s features, the all-inclusive energy of creation. We are spirit souls, but we falsely identify with a body composed of gunas, or qualities. The five gross elements of earth, water, air, fire, and ether, along with the three subtle elements of mind, intelligence, and false ego, make up the bodies of the living entities in the material world. Not only do we personally have material bodies, but all other living entities do as well. The specific type of body we are put into is determined by our karma, or fruitive desire and work. So in essence, this body is nothing but a dress, a temporary container for our soul. It undergoes the process of birth, old age, disease, and death, but the spirit soul is not subject to any of these processes. The soul is eternal, meaning we actually never die.
What we refer to as death, is nothing more than the changing of bodies. For example, we were all infants at one point in our life, though we have no memory of it. We take it on authority from our parents that we were indeed once small children who roamed around in tiny bodies, not having much intelligence. As we became adults, what changed? The body, that’s all. Our identity hasn’t changed. We didn’t have a different name when we were children. Our parents and family members were the same back then too. The body is always changing, but the spirit soul remains intact. In a similar manner, death represents the complete change of body, the transmigration of the soul.
“As a person puts on new garments, giving up old ones, similarly, the soul accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.” (Bg. 2.22)
This changing of the bodies and the cycle of repeated birth and death is referred to as reincarnation in today’s vernacular. Our consciousness at the time of death determines what kind of body we receive in the next life. The majority of the world is ignorant of these facts, and for this reason, they overly indulge in lamentation upon witnessing the death of others. The news media and atheists especially subscribe to the notion that sense gratification is the ultimate aim of life. “Acquire as much money and fame as you can and then spend all your time enjoying.” This is the motto of life for the gross materialists. It is for this very reason that they become so sad when the occasion of death arises. Death is a tough pill to swallow, for it represents the end of the line for sense gratification. No more sex, gambling, intoxication, or meat eating. We witness this overindulge in grief and sorrow when a famous celebrity dies. Television news networks go wall to wall with coverage of a celebrity funeral, interviewing friends, family, and even fans all the while. It doesn’t matter how old the celebrity was when they died. They could be over eighty years old at the time of death, and still the people on television will talk about how sad they are.
“A man fallen in the ocean of nescience cannot be saved simply by rescuing his outward dress—the gross material body. One who does not know this and laments for the outward dress is called a shudra, or one who laments unnecessarily.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bg 2.1 Purport)
The Vedas tell us to avoid overly lamenting over death. In the varnashrama dharma system, the shudras are considered the fourth class citizen. Since they are untrained in any Vedic discipline, one of their trademark characteristics is that they overly lament. Intelligence tells us that we are going to die at some point. Experience tells us that good and bad fortune comes and goes all the time, even without one seeking it. Thus a smart person doesn’t overly rejoice during the good times, nor does he overly lament during the bad times. However, in this age especially, everyone is born a shudra.
There is virtually no spiritual education taught at all today. In the government run school systems, the atheistic doctrines of evolution and the Big Bang Theory are taught. Naturally what results is a society completely unaware of the eternal truths of life contained in the Vedas.
We all have to die, especially the elderly. Why should we be sad over something that we know will happen? Death is actually one of God’s greatest gifts to us. For the materialists, death represents a new beginning, a chance to start another life of sense gratification. When the body becomes old and decrepit and no longer useful, the Lord is kind enough to provide a fresh new body, specifically tailored to one’s karma.
For those with an eye towards religion, death is the much needed wake up call. If we see a friend or family member taken from us too soon, we may ask ourselves the question, “What happened to them? Where did they go? Why did they have to die? Why do we all have to die?” It is at this point that we take the first steps towards transcending death. The first aphorism of the famous Vedanta-sutras is athato-brahma-jijnasa, “Now is the time for inquiring about Brahman, or God.” This inquiry must be there if one is to achieve the true mission in life, which is returning back home, back to Godhead. Although reincarnation is guaranteed for the living entities with accumulated karma, those who are conscious of Krishna, or God, at the time of death, they never have to take birth again.
Our aim should be to make this current life our last one. If we think of Krishna at the time of death, then we never become subject to the laws of karma again.
“One who knows the transcendental nature of My appearance and activities does not, upon leaving the body, take his birth again in this material world, but attains My eternal abode, O Arjuna.” (Bg. 4.9)
So we should take a great lesson from the occasion of death. It is our wake up call to get into shape spiritually. This human form of life is our opportunity to know and love God. Death can come at any time, but if we practice thinking of God in our day to day affairs, then we are sure to think of Him at the time of death. We each have our own prescribed duties, but if we carry out them in full Krishna consciousness, then we have nothing to fear. These were the exact instructions the Lord gave to His cousin, friend, and disciple, Arjuna, on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
“Therefore, Arjuna, you should always think of Me in the form of Krishna and at the same time carry out your prescribed duty of fighting. With your activities dedicated to Me and your mind and intelligence fixed on Me, you will attain Me without doubt.” (Bg. 8.7)
This is the definition of devotional service, also referred to as bhakti yoga. Let us have union of the soul with God. Let us always act in His interest. Following the path of devotional service, we will never have to fear death again.