“The arrows decorated with gold released from His [Rama’s] bowstring will eradicate your body, just as the waves of the River Ganga strike against her banks.” (Sita Devi speaking to Ravana, Valmiki Ramayana, Aranya Kand, 56.7)
Death is like an ocean current that cannot be stopped. For one who takes birth, death is guaranteed; there is nothing anyone can do to stop it from happening. The human being is intelligent enough to eventually realize this fact, and thus finds different ways to deal with it. Of all the different strategies employed, the Vedas tell us that the best one is that used by Vishnu bhaktas, or devotees of God. The aim of human life is to seek out one’s best friend, the supreme object of pleasure, and original proprietor of everything. The devotees understand that God fits all of these qualifications, thus they use everything in their power to remain attached to Him.
People usually deal with their mortality in one of two ways. The first class chooses to ignore the imminent nature of death and simply goes about their daily lives. By default, we human beings are born into ignorance. We walk around in diapers for the first few years of our lives, being completely dependent on our parents for everything. We would actually die if it were not for the care given to us by our elders in the early stages of our lives. Due to the inherent ignorance of the jiva soul, it doesn’t realize its mortality until later on in life. Because of this, most of us grow up to be worshipers of matter.
The Vedas tell us that there is one God for all of mankind. He takes many different forms, but His original form is that of Lord Shri Krishna, who is also known as Bhagavan, or the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Krishna, being the energetic, takes two direct expansions, or energies. One of the energies is known as prakriti, or the inferior energy. Prakriti is matter. Krishna’s other expansion is that of purusha, or spirit. Spirit is known as the superior energy because it controls matter. We can see this principle in action in our daily lives. Our hands, legs, feet, etc. are all composed of gross material elements. They are essentially useless without the spirit soul residing within us. It is the presence of the soul that gives something life. The event that we know to be death is actually the exiting of the soul from the material body.
The jiva souls are technically part of Krishna’s marginal energy. Constitutionally we are the same as Krishna, meaning we are spirit souls at the core. Yet, unlike Krishna, we have the propensity to associate with matter, or God’s inferior energy. For Lord Krishna and all His personal expansions, there is no difference between matter and spirit. For example, Lord Krishna’s hands, legs, and arms are all completely spiritual and non-different from His identity. The same can’t be said for the living entities. As spirit souls, we are meant to associate exclusively with the spiritual energy, but due to our subordinate nature, we can fall victim to association with matter, or the inferior energy. God is the energetic and we are His energy. When the energy and the energetic meet, there is peace, harmony, and bliss. The embodiment of this union can be seen on the planet of Krishnaloka, where the Lord directly associates with His pleasure potency expansions, the gopis. The greatest gopi, and the perfect representation of God’s energy, is Shrimati Radharani. Radha and Krishna are always worshiped together because they are the symbol of perfection in life. They symbolize what our goal in life should be: the union of the soul with God. At the same time, Radha and Krishna are more than just symbols; they factually exist and constantly enjoy with each other in the spiritual world.
The living entities have a choice as to which energy they associate with. The jiva souls, those of us who take birth in this material world, had some past desire to associate with matter. That is the reason for our birth. While our current body is perishable, the soul is eternal, so this means that we have suffered or enjoyed through many previous births. The work we performed and the desires we accumulated from our previous births determined the circumstances of our current life. In this way, nothing is an accident. Since we have a desire to associate with the inferior energy, it is not surprising to see that most of us end up being worshipers of matter.
What does this mean precisely? How does someone worship matter? Sex life serves as a nice example. Sex is considered the highest material pleasure, thus it also serves as the greatest hindrance to the cultivation of spiritual knowledge. Sex life is based on physical attraction. We see a beautiful man or woman and we desire to associate with them intimately. In this way, we are essentially worshiping a person’s bodily attributes, features which are nothing more than matter. The body is composed of all sorts of disgusting elements like blood, pus, mucus, and urine. Yet it is precisely this body that we find attractive. Not only is the body material, but it is ever changing. It is subject to old age, disease, and death. So in this way, we see that exclusive worship of matter is a flawed engagement.
There are other ways to worship matter, namely the acquisition of material wealth, strength, and fame. The news media provides a great example of this. They chronicle the day-to-day lives of famous celebrities, movie stars, and athletes. These people are famous because they have succeeded in some material venture. They garner great attention from the general public because most of us wish we were like them. Having a high paying job, a beautiful wife, nice children, and a big house are seen as the goals of life. High schools and colleges hold reunions every year where students who graduated together ten or more years prior meet up with each other and catch up. At these reunions, we find out what our fellow classmates have done with their lives, and then we use that as a barometer for measuring our own success. The Vedas tell us that this is a flawed mindset because while acquiring material perfections is certainly nice, death will eventually take everything away.
There are others who deal with death in a different way. They become angry with God and material nature in general. They understand how fleeting material happiness is and how gross matter fails to provide any happiness. As a result, they take to the negation of activity. Being frustrated with material life, they hope to stop all activity through deep philosophical study and meditation. They want to make everything zero, shunyavada. This is the cornerstone of the Buddhist and Mayavada philosophies. Buddhists aim to cancel out the effects of the senses and hopefully reach a state of complete void. This type of liberation is known as nirvana, an end to material life but no engagement in spiritual life. The Mayavadis are similar, except that they believe in God, but a God who has no form. Thus their aim is the same, the cessation of all activity, but their hope is to merge into Brahman, or God’s impersonal effulgence.
The Vedas tell us that both the worshipers and haters of matter are missing the point in their ultimate conclusion. Worshiping matter is flawed because one is still required to take birth again after the current life. This means that one will have to start the whole process again. The haters of matter are also flawed because it is the inherent nature of the soul to be active. We crave individuality. Thus if we achieve liberation through the cessation of all activity, we lose our identities. This in essence represents a form of spiritual suicide. Eventually, we will crave our identity again, which will result in us being thrown back into the material world.
If both of these philosophies are flawed, what is the right way to deal with death? For the answer, we simply have to look to the example set by the great Vaishnava saints and devotees of the past. Perfection in life comes when we achieve pure Krishna, or God, consciousness. The discipline to achieve this mindset is known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. As mentioned before, the soul is happiest when it is associating with God in a loving way; when the energy and the energetic are combined. God resides in the spiritual world, and He certainly can never associate with matter. However, He appears on earth from time to time in a spiritual body to enact pastimes and give protection to the devotees. Not only does He appear in His avatara form, but the Lord also incarnates in other ways, such as through His names, stories about Him detailed in the Vedic literatures, and His deity form.
It is through the mercy of the incarnations that the spirit souls are allowed to directly associate with the Lord during their current lifetime. The secret to success comes from using matter to our benefit. Matter is certainly inferior, but if we use it for Krishna’s service, it becomes spiritualized. The deity is a great example of this. We can take something as simple as stone or wood and use it to construct a statue representation of the Lord. Some people mistakenly believe that Hindus take part in idol worship, but there is no similarity between an idol and a deity of an authorized form of the Lord. Krishna’s body factually exists, for it is eternal and full of bliss and knowledge, sach-chid-ananda-vigraha. The deity is known as the archa-vigraha because it is a spiritual body that can be worshiped by the devotees.
There are many other ways to practice this same principle of using matter for one’s spiritual pursuits. The tongue and the stomach are also products of nature, but we can spiritualize both by regularly chanting the Lord’s name, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, and by eating Krishna prasadam [vegetarian food offered with love and devotion to the deity]. The mind is considered a subtle material element, but we can also purify it by regularly thinking of God. Devotees use everything at their disposal to increase their God consciousness. Once they develop pure love for the Lord, they can never forget Him.
One such great devotee is Sita Devi, the wife of Lord Rama. Sita represents the perfection of God’s energy, for she never thinks of anyone except Rama. For this reason, Lord Rama is always worshiped together with His wife as Sita-Rama. During her pastimes on earth, Sita was unfortunately kidnapped by the Rakshasa demon Ravana. This was preordained since Lord Rama needed an excuse to take on the demon in battle. In the above referenced statement, Sita is informing Ravana that his death is coming very soon at the hands of Rama. Ravana had just kidnapped Sita and taken her to his island kingdom of Lanka. He tried his best to persuade her into giving in to his amorous desires, but she was having none of it.
Ravana was a devotee of matter. He was extremely wealthy and possessed tremendous fighting skills. He propitiated Lord Brahma and Shiva and was rewarded with great material boons. Yet his wealth and fame weren’t enough; his lust drove him to chase after another man’s wife. Sita knew Ravana’s nature, so she made sure to remind him that Rama’s arrows were plated with gold. Ravana thought that Rama was a pauper since the Lord was roaming the forests as an exile from His kingdom of Ayodhya. Ravana couldn’t understand what Sita saw in her husband. Sita reminded Ravana that everything associated with Rama was brilliant, including the weapons He used.
Sita also mentions that the force of Rama’s arrows would be just like the force of the River Ganga hitting her banks. In the Vedic tradition, the Ganges River is considered sacred because she is known as the demigod Ganga Devi, who emanates from the lotus feet of Lord Vishnu. Vishnu is God’s four-handed form. By using this comparison to Ganga Devi, Sita is reaffirming Lord Rama’s divinity. Since Lord Rama, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, is the source of Ganga Devi, it would make sense that His weapons would have the same power as the sacred river.
Death is just like a tidal wave, sucking up everything in its path. It plays no favorites; it will affect all of us at some point. Though we have no control over when the river known as death will swallow us up, we do have a choice as to where it will take us. Ganga Devi is completely spiritual, and those who give up their bodies while on her banks receive liberation from the repeated cycle of birth and death. She takes the soul back to the spiritual world wherefrom it never returns. Those who are washed up by the material ocean, however, are forced to take birth 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.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 4.9)
We should use the knowledge of our impending death as a wakeup call to take to devotional service. This way we can guarantee that our soul can cross over the ocean of nescience at the time of death. Sita’s words would hold true as Ravana, even for all his heinous crimes, was eventually washed up by the sacred river, for he thought of Lord Rama, or God, at the time of death. If we can think of God in a loving way at the time of quitting our body, our reward will be even greater.