“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes” wrote Benjamin Franklin in a letter dated 1789. Death is defined as the end of the life of a person or organism. But while it is inevitable, is death actually the end or is there more to us than a random accumulation of chemicals with a shelf life of mere decades? A sane, intelligent person would question why a being so complicated, with the ability to think about and question the meaning of life, would be wasted on one lifetime. When considering this question, two paths spring to mind. One path describes an abrupt end with a fall into oblivion or the belief that one must spend an eternity in heaven or hell, and the other path describes that a person’s existence extends beyond this lifetime into eternity.
The Western world does not encourage people to explore life beyond the current body. The mind of the Western thinker usually bounces over the idea of the permanence of the soul like a stone skimming on a lake and landing firmly in the empirical and observable. Exploration is limited to what is within the purview of the mind and senses without any considerations of the very obvious limitation and imperfections of such scientific tools. But despite this majority opinion, a number of great thinkers, politicians, authors, artists, scientists, and politicians have broken the mold and strived to seek knowledge beyond tangibility.
The nineteenth century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer stated: “Were an Asiatic to ask me for a definition of Europe, I should be forced to answer him: It is that part of the world which is haunted by the incredible delusion that man was created out of nothing and that his present birth is his first entrance into life.”
Plato had a view of death that many scholars posited was taken from mystic religions such as Orphism or from ancient India. We are pure souls who fell from the absolute reality because of sensual desire and on entering this world we acquire a human body. He stated that the highest human body was that of a philosopher because he sought after true knowledge and through this knowledge a person could return to the absolute reality. By becoming entangled in material desires, a person in a human form could be degraded to the animal species and this type of species is determined by the type of transgression committed.
The concept of reincarnation is also known within Judaism and Christianity (although this was practically wiped from the texts when the Byzantine emperor Justinian banned the teaching of the pre-existence of the soul from the Roman Catholic church).
The Zohar (one of the principal Cabalist texts) states: “The souls must re-enter the absolute substance whence they have emerged. But to accomplish this, they must develop all the perfections, the germ of which is planted in them; and if they have not fulfilled this condition in one life, they must commence another, a third, and so forth, until they have acquired the condition which fits them for a reunion with God.”
The Bhagavad-gita teaches that
“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. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change.” (2.13)
We can empirically see that within this lifetime alone our bodies have gone through many changes. We don’t look how we did when we were in a baby’s body, and science will tell us that every cell in the body is replaced every seven years, yet we are still the same person inside.
“As the soul puts on new garments, giving up old ones, the soul similarly accepts new material bodies, giving up the old and useless ones.” (2.22)
The gross material body is considered as significant as a piece of clothing. Just as we do not feel anxiety when taking off our sweater at the end of the night, knowing we will put a clean one on the next morning, we should not become distressed at the end of this physical body, because we will be awarded a new one in the next life.
Radha Prasada, a good friend of mine who has been practising bhakti-yoga for over ten years, shared with me her memories of her childhood experiences of death in her family. She shared how these early perceptions of death were influenced largely by her catholic upbringing. Heaven was a better place that people went to when they died. Her first experience came at the sudden death of a close relative. Being such a young child, her parents were reluctant to let her see the body, to be in contact with such a tangible piece of evidence of death, but she persisted, and they relented. She described looking at the body of her cousin. It looked like him but she could sense that he wasn’t there anymore; the part of him that made him himself no longer remained.
When we focus on the temporary body as the source of our existence then death is a very scary notion, especially when getting it wrong results in an eternity of hell. Having the understanding that life continues beyond the end of this physical body allows us to see it as less important than the soul, and therefore death is like changing an old, worn sweater for a new one.
Life looked at as a “one time only” event seems like pointless wandering on this planet, performing actions that have no ultimate reason or benefit. Why do anything if everything ends at death? Even if we see our actions as helping the next generation, what is the point if that aid will only be of use within another pointless existence?
So what is another way we can look at life that doesn’t throw us into a state of nihilistic depression?
The Vedic outlook sees life as more than just a oneepisode event. It teaches that the actions we perform in this lifetime influence what will happen to us in the next, and the actions we performed in previous lives have directly shaped our present situation. Our physical body, our mind, our tendencies and impressions, and even our families are all results of the subtle and intricate science of karma. From this vantage point death is defined as the “annihilation of the present body.” The physical and gross elements are the only things that come with a shelf life.
The Bhagavad-gita, which presents the ABCs of yoga knowledge, teaches:
“For the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time. It has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being. It is unborn, eternal, ever-existing and primeval. It is not slain when the body is slain.” (BG 2.20)
My friend shared that when she learnt about the Vedic perspective of life and death and began practising a bhakti-yoga lifestyle (yoga of the heart and intelligence) she was amazed at the depth of knowledge available to her. She stated that knowledge of karma created an immediate shift in her consciousness and markedly changed her outlook and way of being so much that even those who weren’t aware of her new practice could sense a positive change.
Looking at life from the Vedic vantage point can give a different outlook on our purpose in the “grand plan.” The yoga knowledge teaches that the true self is eternal. So while the physical body will one day be gone, who we are remains. We are actually unceasing, ageless, and as the Bhagavad-gita says, naturally full of “eternal, knowledge, and bliss.” Gaining knowledge from the yoga science and acting on it will make life truly meaningful, not only for the brief blip of this body, but for eternity.
1. Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol.2, chap. 15 quoted in A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Coming Back: The Science of Reincarnation (Australia: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1984), 1.
2. A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Krsna: The Supreme Personality of Godhead (India: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1996), 12.