Cheating Death

The great motivator and aggravator Change ever morphs our internal and external world, exacting responses from us. Beginnings bring endings; endings bring beginnings. Again and again, Time’s forward movement propels us into inescapable realities. Whenever I think of saṁsāra, the cycle of birth and death, a vision of a tumbling dryer comes to mind and I hear the thump-thump of an item hitting the dryer wall, driven by persistent revolutions. The thump-thump conjures aview of myself trapped in karma’s cycle from beginningless time. Unwittingly, the association of the dryer and saṁsāra has become so consistent and vivid that when I hear the dryer run or think of saṁsāra, my stomach turns with an ache. It’s a negative impetus that encourages me to remain committed to my daily spiritual practices (sādhana). I want release from material life, which includes dying, and the only way out is through a spiritual door. If we move toward that door, we can harness the nature of Change.

The ancient Bhāgavata Purāṇa, the author’s own commentary on his Vedānta Sūtras, relates the story of Dhruva, a young lad of five who set off for the forest to meditate on Viṣṇu. The child was so uncompromising in his pursuit that six months after he began his sādhana, Śrī Viṣṇu descended and blessed him. Years later, it was time for Dhruva to die. The fourth canto of the same book describes, “When Dhruva Mahārāja was attempting to board the transcendental plane, he saw death personified approach him. Not caring for death, however, he took advantage of the opportunity to put his feet on the head of death, and thus he got up on the airplane, which was as big as a house.”

Not everyone perceives death the same. A cat carries its kittens in its mouth, and it also catches a rat in its mouth. When the cat catches the rat, it means death for the rat, whereas when the cat picks up the kitten by its neck, the kitten is peaceful and happy. 

What to speak of death, even life is appreciated differently by people with varying values. Seers have stated that those who don’t pursue a spiritual goal are dead while living. They haven’t begun living! Living and dying aren’t always what we think they are. To illustrate this lesson, a sage came into a king’s assembly. Everyone there sought the sage’s blessings. To the king’s son, the sage said, “You live forever.”

To a yogī’s son, he said, “Don’t live; you should die.”

He told a hunter’s son, “Don’t die; don’t live.”

And then turned and addressed a bhakti-yogī, “Either die or live; it is the same.”

The king inquired from his ministers about the meaning of these blessings. They replied, 

“Your son is enjoying his senses and unrestrictedly taking from the environment. He will go to hell after death. Therefore he should live forever. The yogī’s son is undergoing many austerities. Since that is a difficult life, he should die now and reap the rewards. The hunter is living a miserable life now, and because he is causing suffering to others, he will suffer in the next life too. So he shouldn’t die or live. The bhakti-yogī is living a peaceful and wholesome life and has a bright future, so his living and dying are the same.”1


Left: Dhruva sitting before Vishnu. Raja Ravi Varma, Dhannarayan. ca. 1948–1906, India. Ravivarma.org

How we die is up to us. Our death aligns with how we live our life. In Bhagavad-gītā, Kṛṣṇa says that what we remember at the moment of death we will surely attain. Our thoughts are guided not by our minds but by our hearts. What we love, we remember. If we are to be transferred to the spiritual world, we’ll have to unconditionally love the inhabitants and the Supreme Person who reside there. 

There are several fascinating points in the description of Dhruva’s ascendency beyond the fetters of matter. 

By definition, death is the end of a life; it takes life away. But Dhruva is very much alive as he “dies.” He retains an individual identity, which includes cognition, will, desire, and emotions. In the verses just prior to the one quoted above, Dhruva is described as bathing, dressing, and offering respect to sages and seers. Further, as he prepares to set off on the self’s ultimate journey, he thinks of his mother, who was his first guru, and he desires to bring her with him. His wish is immediately fulfilled; she appears and boards the vehicle that is to take them into transcendence.

What is going on in this scene? What kind of life after death is he traveling toward with his mother? What was the practice that awarded Dhruva the ability to cheat death? Dhruva not only deprived death of its due, but he also took advantage of its presence to propel him forward. Who wouldn’t like to nonchalantly step over death? 

Before we discuss Dhruva’s sādhana and his sādhya, or goal, we need to more clearly define death: what is dying? 

At death, the gross body expires; the machine on loan to us has simply worn out. But the subtle features of our existence – the ātmā/self and our psychic body (mind, intelligence, and ego) – continue on. At death, with the subtle body leading the way, we enter a new physical body. When that new machine then fails, we’re forced out, spinning in Change’s cycle. Over and over again.

The saṁsāra engine is fueled by the psychic body. Material impressions (vṛttis or saṁskāras),2 desires, and an egoic misidentification with matter create a necessity for us to reside in a gross body: a vehicle is required to give us an opportunity to fulfill our desires. 

We can unplug the wheel of saṁsāra when we free ourselves from the subtle body. We need to extinguish the mental body; we welcome that death. But I’m not just talking about controlling the mind, living in the present, or another psychological adjustment. I’m talking about dispensing with all aspects of the subtle body. When we accomplish this, we no longer have to endure any deaths.

Distinguishing the ātmā from the mental body, and identifying the subtle body as the culprit that keeps us bound, is an important and compelling insight in Vedānta. Freeing the self from the subtle mental body is what spiritual practice is all about. Each of the yogas attempts this, using different methods.

Once you’ve identified the problem – if you can see through the illusory covering of the mind-body with the torch of knowledge – you can do something about it. When you accept the task and begin a sādhana, you make an interesting discovery. To achieve freedom from death of the physical body, you must die many deaths of the mental body. This is referred to as ego effacement. It is the most important undertaking any of us will ever tackle, the end result so blissful that we can’t truly imagine it. 

We need to die to the false self in order to cheat death. Swami B. R. Sridhar of the Bhakti tradition liberally used the maxim “die to live” to repeatedly coax the spiritual aspirant’s focus toward the primary and challenging work at hand: effacing the false ego. All the layers of predispositions, masks, misconceptions, misidentifications, bad qualities, resistance, the social, familial, career selves – all the transitory selves – have to be dismantled. The ego must be completely effaced. 

When we think of death we think of darkness and struggle. We think that something is being stolen from us. We feel resistance, fear, and denial. The idea of choosing to die can be shocking, even revolting. But death equals misery only for those who are attached to the body (or the ego). The death of the ego is only misery for one attached to false identities. It’s the ego creating the misery in both deaths. The ātmā isn’t losing anything in either case. Spiritual awakening isn’t about loss but gain. We have to change our angle of vision. 

Admittedly, “die to live” isn’t an easy motto to swallow. When I hear the expression, I sometimes initially recoil, even though I’m trying to live its ideal! But “die to live” is rich with meaning and promise. The phrase speaks to the great gain awaiting us. We’re not just dying; we are preparing to live in the original plane of reality.

In the story of Dhruva, we see that his selfhood is not extinguished; he’s not in a state of void, nonexistence, or contentless awareness. All aspects of his personhood are very much intact. But his state of being is not the contaminated selfhood that we know now. He has developed a transcendental identity fit for entry into the world beyond death. 

In bhakti, we die to the false self, not to extinguish the self, but to make way for a spiritual body and identity. This prospect is unique in the yoga world. Neither jnāna nor yoga presents us with this opportunity. Both paths find their ultimate success only in freeing the real self from the false self. But citta vṛtti nirodha (removing material impressions, or saṁskāras), the culmination of yoga and jnāna, is the beginning of bhakti, which takes us further, to establish us in an eternal identity. Not only do we remove the material saṁskāras that have us bound, but we create spiritual saṁskāras that facilitate our transformation into a fully developed spiritual identity with a transcendental body. We are incomplete, unfulfilled people until we reach our fullest potential as spiritual beings. Those who hope for greater possibilities in transcendence will be joyful to learn of bhakti’s prospects.

But we’re not invited to board the transcendental plane, as Dhruva was, until we’re fit to engage in relationships free of envy, jealousy, anger, and hatred. We must make way for saintly qualities like tolerance, humility, patience, and deep compassion. More than that, pure love has to permeate every cell of our existence. Our consciousness needs to be fully attuned to the land of love and the harmonious relationships there. We require a thorough attitude adjustment. We need to move from arrogant self-centered absorption to a humble serving disposition; we need to move from the taking ego to a serving ego. 

This is the way of the mystics which leads to true universal brotherhood, and bhakti makes this wholesale, superhuman transformation accessible to even the most entrenched of us. A bhakti sādhana cultivates our hearts so that we can be welcomed into a different world, the world of divine love. We’re not invited there to create discord in that realm of nondual being in relation to our Source. We cannot enter there if there is even a slight chance we could disrupt the flow of pure love between the residents and the Supreme Person. We have to be completely changed. Therefore, in bhakti, there are stages of internal development in addition to ego effacement. We have to culture love as a state of being.

And we need to die to the false self. How do we do that?

Jnānīs traditionally sat naked on the ground surrounded by a ring of fire in the midday summer sun, or submerged themselves up to their necks in the freezing waters of a river in winter. Yogis, also by sheer force, whipped the mind into submission by continuous breath control with prāṇāyāma and body control through āsanas. Bhakti’s way is more gentle. It is the way of heartfulness, of developing divine love, primarily through mantra meditation.

In a previous cosmic season, Dhruva called Śrī Viṣṇu to him by chanting the mantra oṁ namo bhagavate vāsudevāya.3 Bhāgavata Puraṇā 4.8.54. His heart call was so imbued with love that Viṣṇu, who is controlled by love, had to appear. Our Original Conscious Source is always attracted and forever bound by divine love. The Upaniṣads direct our attention to the love anthem for the current cosmic time by recommending the sādhana of meditating on the mahā-mantra

Hare Kṛṣṇa, Hare Kṛṣṇa, Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa, Hare Hare/

Hare Rāma, Hare Rāma, Rāma Rāma, Hare Hare

Above: Cropped: Śrī Kṛṣṇa painting.
Raja Ravi Varma. ca. 1948–1906, India.
Ravivarma.org

The sacred texts describe the power of the mahā-mantra, a mantra of names. On the spiritual platform, there is no difference between the name and the named. When we chant with attentive devotion, we associate directly with the Supreme Person, Śrī Kṛṣṇa. By chanting, we turn the citta inward toward the ātmā/self and toward the Supreme in the form of his name. Chanting occurs on the ātmā platform. It isn’t an activity of this world; the sound has descended from the spiritual world. The mantra of the names completely purifies the citta because we are in the direct presence of the supremely pure. This association through the names creates spiritual saṁskāras, specifically bhakti saṁskāras. It works something like this: If we have a glass filled with black ink and we pour in pure milk, the ink will gradually be removed if we keep on pouring.

In addition to purifying the citta by displacing its mundane contents, when we keep company with the Supreme in his names, our affections for him are aroused. Thus we cultivate pure love and become inclined to act lovingly toward him and everyone else. As love matures, our heart becomes fixed on the object of our meditation, preparing us for a very different experience of death and modifying our destination. In other words, the mantra grants fearlessness from death and a divine identity.

But we have to be willing recipients of the milk. Besides taking up a sādhana of mantra meditation, we enable the flow of bhakti by ego effacement. Though bhakti is not as severe as jnāna or yoga, we have to participate and respond as the mantra guides us to areas requiring work. And work it is. We can’t expect that a transcendental vehicle will descend from beyond to pick us up unless we’re serious.

We voluntarily face the death of the ego. In contrast, we’re forced to face the death of the body. The death of the body is repeated; the death of the ego is undergone once. Actually, a complete ego death is a process of working through layers of falsity. As each layer is discarded, we step further into illumination and happiness. Our abiding connection with the mental body mandates that the process of dying to the ego happens in stages: should all the layers be dismantled in one go, we wouldn’t be able to survive with any sanity! The death of the gross body that we occupy for fifty, sixty, or a hundred years is troublesome and frightening. Can you imagine what we have to wrestle with when we face the ego, which we’ve been with since beginningless time? There will be resistance! 

A number of years into my bhakti practice, it was undeniable: I was living many lives in this one life. My bhakti sādhana was rapidly propelling me forward through what would normally take many lives, sometimes at a pace that my physical body could barely keep up with. Each death event improved the quality of my being and living. And each death had its own drama, trauma, grief, deep sense of loss, then renewal and improved beginnings. 

After a while, I could recognize the pattern. This is how it usually runs. When I first get a glimpse of the next internal obstacle to tackle, I stare in disbelief. It may occur to me that my increasing anger with a friend is only partially due to the way she treated me (which even objectively may warrant upset) but stems more from an intractable desire to always get my way. How could I really be like this? No, I’m not like that. I’m a good girl, right? But no. It isn’t so. I may ignore this dawning realization for a while. If the matter is daunting (or maybe not), I will justify why my thinking or behaving exists – almost as if that will take me off the hook for removing it. I wrestle with what I must do – and with my resistance, yet again, against doing it. 

My mantra meditation brings these insights, but more; it brings me closer to my ideal. As I grow closer to my goal, my happiness increases – a happiness greater than any material pleasure. In other words, the journey is joyful even as I fight the obnoxious, ugly, and counterproductive. And so it is that I bolster myself with honesty and resolve. Sometimes I only take up the work when I’m forced – when the trait or thinking simply creates too much suffering for me. Through a straight or circuitous route, I begin wrestling with the obstacle itself, intentionally checking patterns of behavior and thought. Instead of nursing the justifiable anger with my friend and feeling indignant, I acknowledge how the same personal desire to have things my way has caused problems in the past. I admit that my friend’s lapse is slight and may in fact be innocent or simply not worth troubling them about it. With honesty, I have to concede that the real issue is my self-centeredness. 

There are times when it takes much effort and repeated attempts to remove just one layer, and I seem to cycle around for what seems forever. Over and over again, I face the same issue and try to root it out. As long as I’m persistent, eventually, the issue is resolved – sometimes without my even realizing it at first. At other times, I easily dispense with some nonsense aspect of my personality or thinking. In fact, this is more often the case now. Being buoyed by the increased connection I feel with my Divine Friend through my chanting sādhana, I’m more willing to release and let go. As the taste of chanting becomes sweeter and I feel progress, I more easily abandon anything that keeps me from pure love.

I’ve shared notes with many yoginīs, and we all have a similar experience. We come to realize that ego effacement can’t be completed by our own endeavor. We’re facing a limitless pool of conditioned existence. Pulling up one thing, we find another and another. Five coverings are discovered where one alone stood. There are twenty layers beyond those five. And the work gets more and more subtle. As we dig deeper, we’re forever surprised what new, lame, and destructive aspects cover the self – how inconceivably deep the roots run. Ultimately, we’ve noted, this is not an undertaking that we can master by brute force, astute intelligence, or undeviating sincerity. We require help outside ourselves. 

Therefore we turn to the chanting of the holy names with increased fervor, seeking mercy and love and – in dependence, like a child calling for her mother – we seek our Divine Friend’s shelter. The more my petition is heartful, the more I feel my Friend’s presence resolving conflicts, clarifying confusion, calming angst, removing layers of ego, lighting a way forward. The chanting is done as kirtan or japa. Kirtan, the call-and-response song/prayer popular in the āsana community, is a group mantra meditation. Japa is a private meditation, and the mantra is counted on mālās, or prayer beads. It can be done while dying – even if you can’t sing out loud or pick up your mālā.

A few years ago, I lay in a hospital in Delhi on the verge of death. The surgeon had mistakenly cut my left ureter and only discovered her mistake after I had lost much blood. I couldn’t go into the required emergency surgery because I needed multiple blood transfusions. But they were having trouble getting blood into me quickly enough. 

My senses began shutting down first. Before I was unable to speak, I took two short phone calls. One from my mom to say goodbye and the other from my husband. I couldn’t make a call to my son or any of my many friends, so I said goodbye in my mind, visually drawing each person up and sending them love.

I closed my eyes; they didn’t want to open anymore. My legs and arms lay immovable. Busy hospital sounds faded into an unnoticeable background. Searing pain dulled. Pretty soon, I couldn’t think clearly.

I cried no tears, had no regrets. As I faced death, I was calm and peaceful. Unable to chant, I listened to the mantra on tape, a passive recipient to the transcendental sound vibration. This dying, I thought, is easier than my work of ego effacement!  

Or possibly the work I had done prepared me for death. It seemed so. Perhaps we can say these voluntary deaths develop eyes to see reality. Ego death opens the soul’s eyes; the eyes of flesh will not see the self or any other aspect of transcendence. 

Grief and other responses to deaths of all types aren’t necessarily avoided with a spiritual practice, insight, and perspective, but to whatever degree we’re illuminated by a genuine practice, we stand on a foundation that helps us navigate through these events – and we may even cheat death. There’s something deeply pervading from a genuine sādhana that keeps us going, moves us through, and enables us to step back, observe, witness, and then pick up acting on the spiritual platform. It’s a process. A worthy one.

How will you navigate toward death? What can you do today, this moment, to make progress? While studying sacred texts nourishes and enlightens me, it doesn’t afford the experience of a spiritual life. And for me, sitting surrounded by fires in the Florida sun is not an option. I’ll pick up my mālā and look to remove the next obstacle in the way of divine love.

Effacement

Is a golden gun.

It was not easy to hold it against my head

And fire!

I needed great faith in my master

To suffocate myself

With his holy bag

Full of truth.

I needed great courage

To go out into the dark

Tracking God into the unknown

And not panic or get lost

In all the startling new scents, sounds,

Sights,

Or lose my temper tripping on those scheming

Night and day around me.

Hafiz,

Effacement is the emerald dagger

You need to plunge

Deep into yourself upon

This path to divine

Recovery—

Upon this path

To God.

– Hafiz


Footnotes

  1. This fable was told many times by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami. It is derived fromAnuccheda 252 of the Bhakti Sandarbha by Śrīla Jīva Gosvāmī.
  2. Yoga Sūtras 1.2
  3. “I offer my obeisance to Bhagavān Vāsudeva [Kṛṣṇa, son of Vasudeva].