The Mantram at the Time of Death
By Eknath Easwaran
By Eknath Easwaran
Often I hear people say they want to face death with courage. It is good to face death with courage and with dignity, but that is not enough. It is necessary to face death with understanding – not at an intellectual level, but with the deep understanding that transforms our outlook on death.
After the age of sixty, according to India’s age-old tradition, it is time to consider death as a fast-approaching friend that one should prepare to meet. I used to be terribly afraid of death as a child. Today all that fear is gone. It has not been replaced by courage; it has simply disappeared. Today I look upon death not with fear but as a friend that will conduct me to a much higher future. When we grasp this in the deepest levels of our consciousness, the fear of death goes and the dawn of immortality comes.
The Bhagavad Gita explains this in verses that are written on the very seabed of my consciousness:
As the same person inhabits a body through childhood, youth, and old age, so too at the time of death he attains another body. The wise are not deluded by these changes.
You were never born; you will never die. You have never changed; you can never change. Unborn, eternal, immutable, immemorial, you do not die when the body dies.
As a person abandons worn-out clothes and puts on new ones, so when the body is worn out a new one is acquired by the Self, who lives within.
These are marvelous verses which can open our eyes. A baby is born, and we marvel at the appearance of a new life. We continue to marvel at how swiftly the little one changes – different in appearance sometimes even from day to day, but always the same person too. Childhood passes to youth with equally dramatic changes. Then comes adulthood, then middle age, and finally old age as the body declines.
Just look at your old photo albums; you will see how different you once appeared. And yet, as the Buddha says, though you are different, you are still the same. These are changes to the body, not to what the Gita calls “the dweller in the body.” The house has aged; the resident is the same. So the Gita adds, the wise are not deceived by all this, any more than you or I are deceived when we see a child grow up or a friend grow old. We see through these changes, see that underneath it’s the same person always.
But then comes the last great change called death, and the Gita wants us to see that this too is simply another phase in the cycle of living and dying.
To grasp this, we need to understand what takes place at the time of death, which has never been described so accurately as by the Upanishads. As the body begins to die, the Upanishads say, the vital energy that throbs in the senses is withdrawn. The eyes cannot see, the ears cannot hear, the skin cannot feel; vitality is withdrawn into the mind, so the body can no longer move or respond to external stimuli. Yet even though the eyes cannot see nor the ears hear, there is still the agony of deprivation and bereavement in the mind. All the fierce attachments that we have cultivated throughout life now tie us down in the mind, so completely that we cannot break free and death has to tear us away.
My grandmother, who was not intellectually oriented, had a vivid way of getting this point across. I remember asking her why death should involve so much suffering. She didn’t answer directly; she just told me to go sit in a big wooden chair there in our ancestral home. “You hold on to this chair as hard as you can,” she said. “I’m going to try to pull you out.” I held on to the chair with all my might, and she began to pull. She was a strong woman, and when she started to pull I thought my arms were going to come off, but I held on for all I was worth. Finally, despite all my resistance, she wrenched me out of the chair. “That hurt, Granny,” I said. “Let’s try it again,” she replied, “but this time don’t hold on.” I didn’t, and there was no struggle, no pain; she raised me effortlessly and gracefully into her arms.
It was an eloquent answer. Death is going to take our body anyway, no matter what we do, and the more we try to hang on to the body with all its desires and fears, the more we are going to suffer when death wrenches these things away. On the other hand, when we overcome identification with the body and ego through meditation and the repetition of the mantram, we know from direct spiritual experience that the body is not us, but only a jacket which we have been wearing all these years. Then, when the jacket has become worn and can no longer serve us, we do not cry because it has gone the way of all jackets; we simply take it off, hang it up carefully, and go home.
I am all for alleviating pain at the time of death, but there is nothing physical we can do to relieve the suffering in consciousness. That is where the mantram has to reach – and that is where the mantram can reach, if we start from now on to repeat it at every opportunity and do our best to fill the mind with the love of God.
Even when the dying person has lost awareness of the external world, because consciousness has been consolidated at this deeper level, we can still be receptive to the mantram. Similarly, even when there is confusion in the mind of the dying person, it is possible for a God-conscious man or woman to dispel that confusion and enter with a clear ray of light. That is why devotion to a spiritual teacher plays an invaluable role at the time of death. Then our teacher stands like a lighthouse at the entry to this most mysterious of worlds, directing us towards the bridge that is the Lord and protecting us as we make the crossing.
Interestingly enough, we all have experience of this withdrawal of consciousness. The Upanishads tell us penetratingly that there is some similarity between this state and the state of dreamless sleep between two periods of waking. This can be a source of great consolation to those who are facing death. In dreamless sleep, the Upanishads add, our problems all disappear for the time being; we are not conscious of either the body or the mind. But when it comes time to wake up, don’t we still wake up the same person, with our consciousness very much the same? Similarly, the Upanishads and the Gita say, even when we are completely unconscious externally, in the deepest recesses of our consciousness there is still some vital content, and it is this vital content at the core of our being that continues after the body dies.
When the mind withdraws into this level, it is not possible to think about God. If you have been thinking about money and physical pleasures for eighty years, when you see death coming you want to tell your mind, “Now you quit thinking about money and pleasure and think about the Lord.” The mind at that deep level will say, “Sorry, boss, I just can’t.”
This is one of the secrets that comes out in the Gita. When vitality has been withdrawn from the mind into the core of personality like this, we have actually gone beyond the stream of consciousness that we call the mind. All that activity has ceased, which means that there is not much we can draw on at the conscious level. There isn’t even much memory. It’s a terribly practical problem because to remember the mantram consciously at this time, you need a powerful memory and the capacity to follow the sequence of thought, and at this level all of that is gone. This is where the mantram will come of its own accord if you have become established in it. Then you don’t need memory, you don’t need connection, you don’t need coherence; the mantram will go on by itself.
That is why I say keep using the mantram at every possible opportunity. Even if it takes twenty or thirty years to become established, at life’s last ebb the immense power of all our desires pours into the mantram, which becomes a lifeline we can hold on to while the body and the mind are shed. This lifeline can stretch deep below the conscious level, enabling us to hold on to the Lord long after awareness of the outside world is gone. Then all the panic of loss and self-dissolution is gone, together with the fear of the unknown that so fills the human heart with anguish. We know that our story is not ended, and that the next chapter will be richer and more fulfilling than the last.
According to the Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, when consciousness is consolidated at the time of death, our last thought will encompass our entire life. At that time all the desires of our lifetime are consolidated in one deep, driving desire which determines our destiny. It is this desire that impels us to take a body again, so that our desires may be satisfied.
In this way of looking at things, none of us is lost. We are all working towards the discovery of the unity of life, however long it may take. This is a very practical, positive conclusion, and in fact reincarnation does such a good job of explaining the human condition that it is very difficult to question it, even intellectually.
But I always emphasize that when it comes to making wise choices in life, it makes not the slightest difference whether we believe in reincarnation or not. It is possible to believe in a thousand lifetimes and still lead a selfish life, and it is possible to believe in only one lifetime and still learn to become established in the mantram and realize for ourselves the supreme goal of life.
This excerpt is from the Blue Mountain Journal.