“Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is omnipotent, and if He wants to kill someone, no one can save that person. Similarly, if He wants to save someone, no one can kill him.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 2, Ch 17)
An untimely death is certainly a cause for sadness. Friends and family of the departed are left to ponder over what could have been done to avoid the death. “If only they ate better during their lifetime. If only they exercised more, maybe they could have lived longer.” With accidental deaths, this second-guessing becomes even worse, for we think of little things that could have been done to avoid the tragedy. The fact of the matter is that we have no control over when birth and death occur. God is the Supreme Controller, and through His energies every event in this world takes place. For those who God wants to save, no one can kill them; and for those He wants to kill, no one can save them (rakhe krishna mare ke mare krishna rakhe ke).
One may wonder why God would want to kill someone. After all, aren’t we all sinners? This is most certainly true. We are all guilty of the original sin of wanting to imitate God. Though we don’t have the ability to remember, we have actually had many previous lives on earth. The reason behind our repeated births lies in the fact that we want to imitate God. It is seen that young children often try to imitate the activities of their parents. Parents are adults and as such they can perform adult activities that are prohibited for children. Even things as simple as walking and talking are difficult to perform for infants and small children. In a similar manner, we spirit souls are children of the supreme father, Lord Shri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. We too have a desire to imitate our father by thinking ourselves to be God. This material world was created to facilitate this desire. The earth and all the other planets in the universe serve as a playground of sorts. Just as youngsters head out to the baseball field and pretend to be their favorite baseball player, we living entities perform karmic activity with the aim of pretending to be just like God. We think in terms of “I” and “Mine”, when in fact God is the original proprietor of everything.
“I envy no one, nor am I partial to anyone. I am equal to all. But whoever renders service unto Me in devotion is a friend, is in Me, and I am also a friend to him.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.29)
In our material pursuits, God plays no direct role. We are all His children, so He is by default neutral towards all of us. So what causes our birth and death? With every action that we perform, there is a commensurate reaction. The merits and demerits of our deeds must come to fruition, either in this life or the next. This is the law of karma. They say that justice is blind, but we see that it is often administered unfairly. Friends and contributors of government leaders often get a pass when it comes to punishment for law breaking. Sometimes the wealthy can buy their way out of trouble by hiring expensive lawyers to get them off on legal technicalities. Karma doesn’t work this way. It is completely fair and applies to everyone. God doesn’t play favorites when it comes to those who want to imitate Him. In essence, He tells us, “Go ahead, but remember that karma is there to govern things. You are not the only person who is performing fruitive activity. Other people have desires as well and they have an equal right to pursue them.”
When you put billions of living entities together in one playground, there are bound to be injuries and calamities. These result from the collision of desires. In football, there can only be one Super Bowl champion each year, meaning that the other teams in the league will be considered losers at the end of each season. The winners and losers change year to year, and the material world is similar in this regard. Birth and death constantly occur based on the activities of the living entities. Lord Krishna tells us that death is simply a changing of bodies, for the soul remains intact throughout our various lifetimes.
“As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 2.13)
Birth and death occur according to our desires. Knowing this, we shouldn’t overly lament over the death of others, even if the deaths occur through tragedies. When horrific tragedies occur, we often wonder what could have been done to stop them. The 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 were an example of this. Thousands of innocent people died simply because they showed up to work one day. If they had just taken the day off, they would have been spared. Several people were scheduled to be on the airplanes that crashed that day, yet for some reason or another, they missed their flights and were saved.
The material world is a replica of the spiritual world, but there is one key difference. The spiritual world is eternal, but the material world is not. Just as our bodies come into being, live for some time, and then get discarded, the universe is the same way. God creates, maintains, and then ultimately destroys everything. After some time, He creates again; thus even the planets go through cycles of birth and death. So in essence, the world we live in can be classified as a miserable place due to its temporary nature. What goes up must come down. When will the actual rising and falling happen? No one knows except God.
During the Treta Yuga, the second time period of creation, Lord Krishna incarnated on earth as Lord Rama. In His youth, Rama was sent to the forest along with His younger brother, Lakshmana, to accompany and protect the venerable Vishvamitra Muni. Lord Rama appeared in a kshatriya family, so His occupational duty was that of a military man. Since He was God Himself, He was a great fighter, but Vishvamitra also helped things along by teaching Rama and Lakshmana how to chant mantras specific to the art of warfare. When God comes to enact pastimes, He not only gives pleasure to His devotees, but He sets the proper example for mankind to follow. Rama didn’t require a spiritual master, for He is the source of all Vedic knowledge. Nevertheless, He humbly submitted Himself before His gurus, Vashishta and Vishvamitra, in order to show us how we can advance in spiritual life.
One of the primary duties of a brahmana, or sage, is the performance of Vedic sacrifices, or yajnas. During Lord Rama’s time, the forest was a great place for performing austerities and sacrifices because it was peaceful and quiet. However, many demons were ranging the forest at nighttime and disrupting the sacrifices of the sages. It was for this reason that Vishvamitra sought the aid of Rama and Lakshmana. On one particular occasion, Vishvamitra had a fire sacrifice going when the demon Maricha came and attacked. Lord Rama quickly strung His bow and struck Maricha so hard that he was thrown miles and miles away into the ocean.
“My dear Ravana, that hero did not wish to kill me then, and thus my life was spared. Yet due to the great force of Rama's weapons, I was completely vanquished and left bewildered. Thus I remained fallen in the deep ocean water due to Rama’s efforts. O my dear Ravana, after finally regaining my senses, I made my way back towards the city of Lanka.” (Maricha speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 38.20-21)
In the above reference statement, we see that Maricha realized that Rama easily could have killed him, but didn’t. Though God is neutral towards all living entities, He makes an exception for His devotees. Unlike the gross materialists, devotees have realized that this world is not their permanent home. The spiritual world is our natural home, but we can only return there if we want to. Our desires at the time of death determine the type of body we receive in the next life. If we have spiritual desires, we will get a spiritual body. We can only receive a spiritual body in the spiritual world where Lord Krishna and His various expansions reside. It is nearly impossible to guarantee what our desires will be at the time of death since we never know when exactly death will come. For this reason, it is important to take to devotional service, or bhakti yoga, as the primary occupation in one’s life. This will increase the likelihood that we will think of Krishna while quitting the body.
Vishvamitra was a great devotee of God, so Rama made sure to protect Him. There was nothing Maricha or another any Rakshasa could do to harm the sages while Rama was present. Maricha had attained great boons from Lord Brahma, and on account of this, he thought he was powerful enough to defeat Rama. He was sorely mistaken. Yet we see that Rama spared Maricha’s life on this occasion. This proves that if God wants to save someone, there is nothing that anyone can do to stop Him. Maricha realized Rama’s true power and relayed this information to Ravana, the king of the demons. He tried his best to prevent Ravana from attacking Rama or angering Him in any way. Sadly, Ravana would not heed Maricha’s advice, and instead went through with his plan to kidnap Rama’s wife Sita. Maricha was forced into helping Ravana with this plan by acting as a decoy. Maricha assumed the guise of a deer and appeared again in front of Rama to distract Him. This time Maricha wouldn’t be so lucky, as Rama would end up killing Him with His arrow.
The lesson is that there is nothing we can do to prevent death. We may make minor adjustments here and there, but death is bound to happen. We do have a way to stop birth however. If we take to devotional service and think of God at the time of death, we are guaranteed to never come here again. The other benefit to performing bhakti yoga is that God personally sees to it that we remain protected from demons. He takes charge of our life, meaning that karma can never touch us. Since God pays special attention to His devotees, death turns into a welcome occasion, for it signals the time that we get to return to the spiritual world.