What is death from the perspective of your tradition?
I belong to a Vaiṣṇava, Hindu tradition that is situated in Vedānta, so our view of death is colored by this “dual” influence.
On the one hand, like other Vedāntic traditions, we see death—and re-birth (and re-death)—as part of the cycle known as samsara. The true self (ātman) is, by its very nature, deathless; by over-identifying with the body and mind we bind ourselves to the temporal and are forced to experience death and re-birth. Thus, by cultivating knowledge of the self (ātma-jñana) and non-attachment (vairāgya), one can come to be free of this cycle and transcend death.
On the other hand, as a devotional tradition, we also see everything in light of our eternal relationship with a personal God (Īśvara), our Divine Beloved. In this paradigm, the material world is likened to a school designed by God to help us in our growth and reformation. Death is envisaged as a portal that allows us to move from one “grade” to the other in our spiritual and educational journey, and ultimately to “graduate” from the school itself and return to our true home. We see the fact that all embodied beings must die as a reminder of the urgency to connect ourselves with good teachers—books of wisdom, wise guides, efficacious practices, and uplifting sanga. We see death itself as a teacher or, perhaps, as the final examination administered by a loving proctor. For the devotee, death is ideally the culmination of a life lived practicing devotion and service. By cultivating devotion (bhakti), we can come to appreciate death as a sweet homecoming, or a loving reunion with the Divine.
What transmigrates, if anything, from the perspective of your tradition?
We believe that the true self (ātman) is that which is immortal, continuing to exist even after the body ceases to function. It is this unchanging self that transmigrates from lifetime to lifetime, from changing body to body.
What key text, verse, or poem offers insight or clarity around the experience of death?
In the Bhagavad Gītā, Sri Kṛṣṇa offers insights throughout the text and explicitly addresses death in some key passages. In the book’s second chapter, he articulates the distinction between the death of the body and the eternality of the ātman. He likens death and re-birth to the changing of one’s garments.
In the sixth chapter, he describes how mystic yogis of yore would focus their consciousness in order to foster the most auspicious passage beyond the material realm—concluding that the devotees who fix their consciousness on Kṛṣṇa himself, however, are blessed by grace and thus experience the most auspicious departure of all. The Gītā returns to his theme of grace later in the text as well, suggesting that one whose consciousness is absorbed in the Divine at the time of death attains the Divine after death.
The Kaṭha Upaniṣad (which parallels the Gītā in many ways) describes the young spiritual seeker Nachiketā, whose earnest quest to unravel “the mystery of death” brings him to the realm of Yama, the god of death. After testing the boy’s resolve, Yama accepts Nachiketā as a worthy student and teaches him the secret wisdom of death. By cultivating discernment, the god of death teaches, one can learn to pursue self-realization rather than chase promises of fleeting happiness in the ephemeral. The practice of self-realization—dedication to self-study, meditation, and dependence on the grace of God—frees one from the shackles of illusory desires and cravings. One who seeks to realize the self, Yama assures us, lives in light and so conquers the darkness of death.
How has an experience of death in your life informed your teaching?
In 2019, my aunt passed away. She was an extraordinary woman who faced numerous challenges in life but exhibited strength, dignity, and wisdom through them all. Since she didn’t have children of her own, and we have always been close, she regarded me as her son. In her final days, I could experience her passage from this world into the next. She modeled a letting go—at times it was painful and heartbreaking to witness, but it was also beautiful and inspiring to behold. I could also discern a tension between the experience of the person departing and the ones they leave behind. Even as I tried my best to be present to her imminent departure and facilitate her joyous journey home, I felt the weight of responsibility as a son (a significant role in traditional Hindu culture) and the pain of anticipatory sadness in separation. I realized that spiritual caregiving and wisdom teaching must engage that tension and hold both of these experiences with grace, kindness, and honest acknowledgment. It is not either/or… it is both/and.
What are some resources, practices or philosophies that support bereavement in your tradition?
It is customary, in traditional or orthodox Hindu traditions, to ritually recite the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gītā at the time of death or as part of the funeral or last rites for the recently departed. While I think this is a beautiful ritual practice, as a chaplain I have struggled with relying too much on the philosophical teachings around the immortality of the ātman in holding others in their grief. I seek to draw from other teachings and resources in my tradition to support bereavement.
My tradition often emphasizes the importance of spiritual accompaniment and community (sanga), and this is one powerful way to hold space for a bereaved person. Sanga can facilitate compassionate and empathic listening (rather than rushing the bereaved person to return to normalcy or giving advice to “fix” their sadness), encourage reflection on legacy and memory (rather than avoidance), and assurance and support in the wake of a loss of security. Along with the sanga of other practitioners, my tradition encourages the bereaved to turn to sanga with the Divine, who is believed to be one’s ever-present companion. In the Bhagavad Gītā(6.30), Kṛṣṇa declares, “For one who sees me in all and sees all in me, I am never lost to such a soul, nor are they ever lost to me.” This is one of my favorite passages of the Gītā, and a resource I look to in supporting others in their bereavement. Death can feel like the greatest loss—the loss of one’s loved ones, the loss of security and certainty, the loss of happiness or peace of mind. And yet even in the midst of the greatest loss, our Divine Beloved—our well-wishing dearest friend—is never lost, and we are never lost to him.