Vedanta: Death and the Art of Dying

(Submitted by The Art of Living Team)

None of us can imagine ourselves ever ceasing to be. King Yudhishthira of Ancient India when asked, "What is the greatest wonder in the whole world?" replied: "That we see people dying all around us and never imagine that we too will die." Even when we fall asleep, our sense of self persists throughout our dreams. And upon awaking from dreamless sleep, we know who we are as soon as our feet touch the floor. This "I" is the thread of continuity that runs throughout our lives, from birth to death.

Vedanta says that this "I" is but a faint reflection of our true nature, which is divine. Our divinity is the Atman - the higher Self - unborn and undying. Atman is one with God - Brahman, the existent reality which is pure consciousness. So if we cannot imagine ourselves to be non-existent, it is because our essential nature is eternal, though we are unaware of it.

Spiritual beings
Most of us falsely identify ourselves with our ‘little self’, the ego, which blinds us to our eternal nature. Though fundamentally spiritual beings, we are deluded into thinking we are separate psycho-physical entities. From birth, the infant ego is falsely superimposed upon the Atman, pure Spirit. As we grow to adulthood, the ego inflates itself, reaching out more and more to identify itself with the body and mind. We say as a matter of course, "I am a man" or "I am a woman," "I am Hispanic" or "I am Caucasian," "I am standing," or "I am sitting," "I am happy" or "I am sad."

We extend the ego even further by claiming external objects and conditions as our own, such as "This car is mine", or "I am a Democrat." As superimpositions multiply, so does our ability to stretch the envelope of normalcy to include such fantastic claims as "We bombed Iraq," "I carry life insurance," or "I own a lot of property."

Though the ego continues to enlarge and identify itself with external objects of the Universe, the inner Self remains utterly detached - the witness of all our actions. Yet, at the same time, this witness-Self makes possible all of our mental activity by lending to the mind the reflected light of pure consciousness, without which our private illusions could not exist.

The law of reincarnation
When we let go of our identification with the ego, we become liberated from the little self and exist in the Atman. But the further we become entrenched in the illusory reality of the ego, the greater are our chances of reincarnating from life to life. This is the law of karma and reincarnation, as set forth in the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras, and other Hindu scriptures. In the Gita (2.12-13), while preparing for war on Kurukshetra, the battlefield of life, Arjuna listens as his teacher, Lord Krishna, describes the law of reincarnation: "There was never a time when I did not exist," Krishna says, "Nor you, nor any of these kings. Nor is there any future when we shall cease to be."

Just as the dweller in this body passes through childhood, youth, and old age, so at death he merely passes into another kind of body.
The wise are not deceived by that.

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