Death is the most mysterious of mysteries. There are 2 groups of people on planet earth: one group who believes in life after death and those who do not believe in rebirth. In the Western philosophy, they don’t believe the concept of rebirth because their logical minds do not allow them to believe it since there is no proof. That is why the secret of death is not a popular concept in the West because it can never be proved scientifically. Hence people in the West are in a hurry and great anxiety to fulfil all their desires as soon as possible since they think they don’t have a second chance. With this belief driving their cognition, they start to search for the maximum comfort and joy from the outer world. It also creates a sense of purpose in life and the concept of God in them.
On the other hand, the Eastern philosophy is based on the experiences of great enlightened masters and sages. They believed in many births. They believe in the idea of unlimited space, time of life and death of the East religions gave birth to spirituality. When we are caught in the cycle of life and death, enacting the same drama of life, eventually we feel tired of this drama. This is the time we look for liberation, the moment we start thinking about liberation (moksha) or enlightenment. Spirituality is all about the path to liberation from the cycle of life and death.
There is a beautiful Zen saying “Learning the art of dying is learning the art of living”. Our idea and understanding about death will change our whole understanding about life. Unless we understand death, we don’t know how to live. If we know the secrets of death, our attitude and quality of life will change in this moment.
Death is not something that happens at the end of our lives, it is happening every moment of our lives. When the understanding of death starts permeating our consciousness, we will have a clear idea of life. Death is the ultimate agent of change, the ultimate teacher! Only when we understand death, will we understand the preciousness of life itself. If we can face death without fear, we will understand that death is not the end of life but the climax. Death is the deep relaxation, letting go or dropping the old and starting of the new. When our being recognises that it cannot achieve what it wants through this body, it decides to move on – this passing over is called death.
Who can speak about death? Those who have seen death have never come back; those who have come back have not seen it. No one can speak about death except enlightened beings because they are authorised to speak since they have already undergone the death experience before enlightenment.
Death is the beginning, not the end. It is celebration, not mourning. It is liberation, not the finishing line. One who realises this truth is enlightened. Time and again, great masters have taught how to live life by understanding death. If one does not understand what death is, what the process entails, how one goes through the process and what lies at the end of the process, it is impossible to be aware of how to live one’s life meaningfully.
I’ve extracted some accounts of enlightened masters which will give us a better understanding of unconscious death and graceful exits.
- Paramahamsa Nithyananda’s witnessing of the death of a normal man. He was in Varanasi, taking care of an elderly monk who was sick. He was in the ICU and he was sitting by his bedside. There was a man in that same ICU who was dying. He could see the struggle of the soul leaving the body. The body was in tremendous pain as if a knife was ripping across his entire body, like a thousand scorpions were stinging him. Suddenly, he saw the being fell into coma because coma is an automatic anaesthesia of the mind for the body to step feeling the unbearable pain. The being had to go through the 7 layers of body – physical, pranic, mental, etheric, casual, cosmic and nirvanic. The moment the spirit was leaving the physical layer, it underwent a tremendous pain because the consciousness will be torn from the body. Then the soul went through all the different layers tormented by engraved memories of unfulfilled desires, intense guilt and different pains accumulated over this birth. When one lives unconsciously, the death experience will be extremely painful and unconscious. In the state of pain, he assumed another body hastily and started the same cycle of life and death again.
However, if we can learn the science of death from enlightened masters and plan for our graceful exit, the death experience can be used as a jumping board into liberation. Here are some of the accounts of how spiritual masters gracefully exit their bodies because to them, there is no death only liberation.
- Sonam Namgyal. According to the Dzogchen teachings of the Nyingmapa school of Tibetan Buddhism, advanced practitioners can end their lives in a remarkable way, causing their bodies to be re-absorbed back into the light essence of the elements that created them, called the “rainbow body”. In 1952, there was a man named Sonam Namgyal, he was a humble person, an itinerant stone-carver of mantras and sacred texts. No one really knew he was a practitioner, he was truly a “hidden yogi”. Before his death, he would go up into the mountains and just sit, silhouetted against the skyline, gazing up into space. He composed his own songs and chants and sang them. He fell ill yet still seemed increasingly happy. When the illness got worse, his family called in masters and doctors. Just before his death at 79, he said “All I ask is what when I die, don’t move my body for a week”. When he died his family wrapped his body and invited lamas and monks to practice for him. They placed the body in a small room in the house and they could not help noticing that though he had been a tall person, they had no trouble getting it in as if he was shrinking. At the same time, an extraordinary display of rainbow-coloured light was seen all around the house. When they looked into the room on the 6th day, they saw that the body was getting smaller and smaller. One the 8th day morning, the day the funeral was arranged, the undertakers arrived to collect his body. When they undid its coverings, they found nothing inside but only his nails and hair.
- Swami Vivekananda. He was one of Sri Ramakrishna’s greatest disciples, approaching the end he said “A great tapasya and meditation have come upon me, and I am making ready for death.” His disciples could not help but remember the words delivered by Sri Ramakrishna many years earlier, following Vivekananda’s Nirvikalpa Samadhi: “Now the Mother has shown you everything. But this realisation, like the jewel locked in a box, will be hidden away from you and kept in my custody. I will keep the key with me. Only after you have fulfilled your mission on this earth, will the box be unlocked, and you will know everything as you have known now.” As Vivekananda approached death, his disciples remembered his experience in the cave at Amarnath in 1898; at that time he received the grace of Shiva not to die until he himself willed it. As his guru had done before him, Vivekananda consulted the Bengali almanac before his death to help determine the day he should discard his mortal shell. Three days before they left, Vivekananda pointed out the site on the monastery grounds where he wanted to be cremated. On the July 4, 1902, he awoke early and meditated for 3 hours. Later the same morning he asked a disciple to read a passage from the YajuVeda. Although he normally ate alone because of his illness, that day he partook in the community meal with great relish. He then gave Sanskrit grammar lessons for 3 hours and took a long walk with another Swami. At 7 pm, he retired to his room and meditated alone. Following his meditation, he called a disciple and asked him to open all the windows and fan his head. As he lay quietly on his bed, his attendant thought he was sleeping or meditating. At the end of an hour, he breathed once very deeply. After a few minutes, he did so again, his eyes became fixed between his eyebrows and his face assumed a divine expression. A disciple noted that a little blood was visible in his nostrils, around his mouth and eyes. According to Yogic scriptures, the life breath of an illuminated yogi passes out through the opening at the crown center. As it does so, it causes the blood to flow into the nostrils and the mouth. The great ecstasy of Swami Vivekananda occurred at the age of 39, fulfilling his own prophecy that he would not live to be 40 year old.
- Ramana Maharishi. In 1947, Ramana Maharishi’s health began to fail. When the doctors suggested amputating his arm above a cancerous tumour, he replied with a smile: “There is no need for alarm. The body is itself a disease. Let it have its natural end. Why mutilate it? A simple dressing on the affected part will do.” Two more operations had to be performed, but the tumour appeared again. Indigenous systems of medicine and homeopathy were tried but the disease did not yield to treatment. The sage, supremely indifferent to suffering, was quite unconcerned. He sat as a spectator watching the disease waste the body; his eyes shone as bright as ever and his grace flowed toward all beings. He insisted that the crowds who came in large number should be allowed to have his darshan (sight of a holy being). The devotees profoundly wished that the sage would cure his body by using the supernatural powers. Ramana had compassion for those who grieved over the suffering and he sought to comfort them by reminding them of the truth that Bhagavan was not the body: “They take this body for Bhagavan and attribute suffering to him. What a pity! They are despondent that Bhagavan is going to leave them and go away but where can he go and how?” The end came on 14 April 1950. That evening the sage gave darshan to all the devotees in the ashram. They sat singing Ramana’s hymn to Arunachala, the name of the holy mountain the sage loved. He asked his attendants to help him sit up and opened his luminous and gracious eyes for a brief while. There was a smile, a tear of bliss trickled down from the outer corner of one of his eyes. At 8.47 pm, his breathing stopped. There was no struggle, no spasm, none of the signs of death. At that very moment, a comet moved solely across the sky, passed over the summit of the holy hill, Arunachala and disappeared behind it!
- Zen Master Shen-t’san. When Zen Master Shen-t’san was preparing to depart this life, he shaved his head, bathed himself and had the temple bell sounded to summon the congregation and announce his departure. Then he asked “Brothers, do you understand the voiceless Samadhi?” Those assembled answered “No, we do not” The master said “ Listen quietly without cherishing any ideas.” With the congregation on the very tiptoe of expectation that they would hear about the voiceless Samadhi, master Shen-t’san withdrew from the world.
- Lahiri Mahasaya. Six months before Lahiri Mahasaya left his physical body, he told his wife: “The body will go soon. Do not cry at that time.” During the summer of 1895, the master developed a small boil on his back which he didn’t want to treat. Some of those near him thought perhaps he was working out in his own body the negative karma of some of his disciples. When a few disciples became insistent, he simply replied: “The body has to find a cause to go. I will be agreeable to whatever you want to do.” A few days before his final departure, disciples of Lahiri Mahasaya gathered around him. Some having been called internally, arrived from long distances. For hours the master expounded on the Bhagavad Gita then he simply said: “I am going home.” This remark provoked an outpouring of anguish among his devotees. He responded: “Be comforted. I shall rise again.” Following this statement, Lahiri Mahasaya rose from this seat and walked in a circle 3 times. He then assumed the lotus posture, facing north and gloriously entered the final Maha Samadhi (great meditative state).
From the lives of many masters, we learn that a graceful exit is possible for every human being. Death is a passage, just like we grow from childhood to adolescence, then adulthood to old age, we pass on from life to death and then once again from death to life. Just like dropping the old torn clothes for a fresh set of clothes, the soul assumes a new body through new parents, a new place and a new mental setup. Once we understand the true nature of our own self, the mystery resolves and fear also dissolves. Remember that our time on planet earth is limited, so do not waste it by living someone’s life, trapped by some rigid doctrines or being in depression or agitation about life.
The truth is our death is dependent on how we live this life. In yogic terms, one of the vital energy, Udana prana moves within the main subtle nerve channel and carries the soul to its appropriate exit. The soul of one who has become united with Supreme Consciousness in this life or who is completely focused on that direction that he will reach that state after death, passes through a tiny aperture in the crown of the head. As said by Katho Upanishad (Vedic Secret Teaching) “Going upward through that, one becomes immortal”. This can be accomplished only if one’s focus is attuned by constant practice that is totally one-pointed. Those whose actions on earth have been lacking in virtue leave the body through lower openings and travel a path of darkness to experience the karma of bad actions until the next cycle of birth begins. Fundamentally, the direction that Udana prana takes is determined by the final thoughts a person has at the time of death. Our last moments of thought create the impetus and circumstances of our rebirth. Only with constant spiritual practice, we can bring about a purified last thought before death. For a highly evolved soul, it has the complete freedom to take another birth, out of sheer compassion, in the family and place of its choice to continue its work on planet earth or simply merge into the light of Supreme Consciousness. Namaste 🙂