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“It was never born nor will it ever die; having come into existence, it does not ever cease to be. Birthless, eternal, changeless and ancient, it is not killed when the body dies. Knowing it to be indestructible, eternal, unborn and immutable, how can you, Arjuna, kill it or be the cause of its death? Just as a man casts off used clothes and puts on new ones, so does the self cast off used bodies and enter new ones.” BG 2.20-22
The great declaration of India: Death is no more than casting off used clothes. Krishna says it, Buddha says it, Mahavira says it, Guru Nanak says it, Kabir says it, Gorakhnath says it, Adi Shankaracharya says it, Vyasa says it, a thousand rishis of yore have said it, all based on their own personal experiences. As when Krishna tells Arjuna, “Many times I have been born, and so have you. All those lives I remember, but not you.” As the more than 500 birth stories of the Buddha, the Jataka Tales, tell us.
As far as the true you are considered, death cannot touch you. You are never born nor do you ever die. You are unborn, eternal, changeless and beyond time. Time was yet to be born when you came into being. And you exist in dimensions where time does not exist.
This is a truth you can experience yourself. It is not something you have to learn from others, nor from books. And you are not something subject to powers greater than yourself, for there are no powers greater than yourself. You are the greatest power in existence.
That is why Rumi says he is the wind and the surf, that he is the mast, the rudder, the helmsman and keel, that he is the tree with a parrot perched on its branches, that he is the rose and the nightingale lost in its fragrance, that he is silence and thought and voice, that he is all orders of being, that he is the galaxy, that he is all that is and is what isn’t.
That is why Vagambhrini of the Rig Veda says she moves with the Rudras and the Vasus, that she walks with the sun and Varuna and Indra and the Ashwins, that she is the one who gives wealth to the nations, she is the first among those to whom sacrifices are offered, that when Rudra pulls his bow it is she who stretches it for him, that she exists throughout the universe, that she has given birth to the progenitor of the universe.
And that is why Truishanku the thrice-cursed ancient man who turned into a seer could say his fame is as tall as the peak of the mountain, that it is he who gives life to the tree of the universe.
We are that which is not killed when the body is killed.
At the same time each one of us lives in a body that is subject to birth and growth, that gives birth to other bodies, that ages and dies. But that death is not the final end. It is not the final end to anything other than the body itself. Everything else continues to be, continues to exist even after what we call death, as every man and woman who has ever existed has experienced, though they may not remember that.
Dr Brian Weiss had graduated magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, from Columbia University and had received his medical degree from the Yale University School of Medicine. He had been a professor at several prestigious university medical schools and had had published over forty scientific papers in the fields of psychopharmacology, brain chemistry, sleep disorders, depression, anxiety states, substance abuse disorders and Alzheimer’s disease when his life changed completely through his fist encounter with a past life experience of one of his patients.
Dr Weiss was treating a patient of his in her late twenties called Catherine who suffered from fears, phobias, paralyzing panic attacks, depression, and recurrent nightmares. Her symptoms had been life-long and the doctor observed they were worsening in spite of treatments. In one of her hypnotherapy sessions, Dr Weiss gave her the suggestion to go back to the time from which her symptoms arose and, instead of going back to her childhood as she usually did, she went back to a lifetime of hers long, long ago. In Dr Weiss’s words, “she flipped back about four thousand years into an ancient near-Eastern lifetime, one in which she had a different face and body, different hair, a different name. She remembered details of topography, clothes, and everyday items from that time. She recalled events in that lifetime until ultimately she drowned in a flood or tidal wave, as her baby was torn from her arms by the force of the water.”
It is this experience with Catherine that piqued Dr Weiss’s interest in past life regression to such an extent that he became the world’s foremost authority on past life regression and the author of such bestsellers as Many Lives, Many Masters and Through Time into Healing.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead, originally called Bardo Thodal, is a roughly twelve hundred year old book by Tibet’s greatest yogi Padmasambhava that was first translated into English by W. Y. Evans-Wentz in 1924. In his Foreword to the English translation by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., later added to the book, Lopez says: “Buddhism, like several other Indian traditions, does not see death as the cessation of consciousness. Instead, death marks the dissolution of the physical elements of the person. The mental elements, generally referred to as consciousness, persist, to once again take physical form through the process of rebirth. The question arose in Indian Buddhism as to whether consciousness moves immediately to a new lifetime after death, or whether there is some intervening period. Certain schools postulated the existence of an intermediate state between the moment of death and moment of conception in the next lifetime; according to some formulations the intermediate state could last as little as an instant or as long as forty-nine days.” It is this intermediate state or states that is known as the bardo or the bardos and Bardo Thodal is about what happens in the Bardos and what the intelligent thing to do is in the bardos, a Tibetan word meaning in between or between two.
The bardo or the bardos are thus our experiences in the bodiless state and these experiences are decided by our mental life while we are in the body, that is to say by life as we know it. The quality of life after death is thus decided by our life before death. If we have lived a life based on daivi sampada, positive virtues, then our life after death and after our rebirth will be pleasant and happy and if we live a life dominated by asuri sampada, negative qualities, then these will be hellish.
In fact talking of asuri people, Krishna says, “These cruel haters, the worst among men in the world, I hurl them forever into evil wombs.’ Krishna does not mean he selects such people for hellish lives and the good people for heavenly life. What he means is that evil people are led to evil life, both present and future, by their karmas/ life scripts, and good people are lad to good life, present and future, by their good karmas or daivi sampada.
Daivi sampada, the qualities that lead to happy life according to Krishna, are: Fearlessness, absence of anger, absence of crookedness, absence of covetousness, absence of hatred and absence of pride; harmlessness, purity of heart, steadfastness in knowledge, steadfastness in yoga, charity, control of the senses, the attitude of sacrifice, study of scriptures, austerity, truthfulness , renunciation, peacefulness, compassion towards all beings, gentleness, modesty, vigor, forgiveness, fortitude and purity of the heart and body.
In contrast to these are the asuri sampada. negative qualities that make our life hell while living, after death and in our future lifetimes. In his list of asuri sampada in Chapter 16 of the Gita, Krishna mentions only a few qualities: hypocrisy, arrogance, self-conceit, anger, harshness and ignorance, but his discussion of asuri sampada is very thorough. After listing the asuri sampada, Krishna continues by saying that they lead to bondage. He says the asuri people know neither pravritti nor nivritti – they know neither the path of action nor the path of withdrawal from action. The path of action is the path leading to worldly good and the path of withdrawal is the path that leads to inner growth, to spirituality and mastery over oneself, over one’s mind, and to awakening. They know not how to make true achievements in the world, nor how to make spiritual progress.
The unique teaching of Krishna is the combining of the worldly with the spiritual. He combines pravritti and nivritti, blends the two into one. He teaches how the path leading to worldly achievements itself can lead to spiritual achievements, provided pravritti itself is practiced with spiritual awakening as your goal. Swakarmana tam abhyarchya siddhim vindati maanavah, teaches Krishna:. by worshipping Him through one’s actions, man attains the supreme. Our actions can be the path leading to fasting the ego and feasting the soul, the path leading to starving the ego and feeding the soul, teaches he.
But instead of fasting the ego and feasting the soul, instead of starving the ego and feeding the soul, the asuri people do the opposite. They starve the soul and feed their ego, making their own life hell and also making hell for everyone around them. For the asuri people, we are the body; born of the sexual union of the male and the female, and the mind and consciousness are by products of the body. For them we exist neither before birth nor after death – life begins in the mother’s womb and ends in the cremation ground. Bhasmee-bhootasya dehasya punar aagamanam kutah, they ask rhetorically: Where does the body return from once it has been reduced to ashes? For them nothing exists beyond the grave. So they live lives that lead to their own destruction and to the destruction of the world – the life of nourishing the ego, and starving the soul. Kaamam aashritya dushpooram dambha-maana-madaanvitaah mohaad griheetvaa asad-graahaan pravartante‘huchivrataah, Krishna says about them: “They are full of insatiable desires and hypocrisy and filled with pride and arrogance; holding on to evil ideas through delusion, they tread the path of evil, since their desires are evil.”
Our desires are important. The nature of our desires is important. “As a man's desire is, so is his destiny. For as his desire is, so is his will; and as his will is, so is his deed; and as his deed is, so is his reward, whether good or bad,’ says the Brihad-aranyaka Upanishad, one of the oldest and the largest of Upanishads. The Upanishad adds, “' A man acts according to the desires to which he clings. After death he goes to the next world bearing in his mind the subtle impressions of his deeds; and, after reaping there the harvest of his deeds, he returns again to this world of action.”
The subtle impressions the Upanishad speaks of is what India calls karmas and modern western psychology calls life scripts. Our current and future life is determined by these impressions, they give direction to our life, they steer us in this world and the next world. So what desires we entertain and how we react to the incidents life brings us is vitally important for us.
It is for this reason that the ancient acharyas ask us to live our life intelligently. Desires are fine, but don’t be a slave to them, they tell us. For Krishna, desires are sacred, so long as they are not against dharma, the common good, the good of others: dharma-aviruddho bhooteshu kaamosmi bharatarshabha, he tells Arjuna in the Gita, speaking of himself as divinity, as God: “I am desire in all – desire that is not against dharma.” Wealth is fine, they tell us, they even tell us to make us as much wealth as possible, and they teach us to worship wealth as the most beautiful of goddesses – Lakshmi, Shri. And they tell us power is good, so long as that power is not used against lokasngraha, the common good.
Instead of living in happiness and contentment with the wealth and power we have, instead of sharing them with others joyously in the spirit of sacrifice spreading joy all around, the asuri people live lives of more acquisitions, of competing with others, of destroying others, finding pleasure in harming others, in giving them pain. What motivates them is greed and power hunger. And just as good people find pleasure in giving away wealth and in using their power in doing good to others, the wicked ones find pleasure in the display of wealth and in oppressing others through their power. They say, in the words of Krishna, “I have destroyed this enemy and also I shall slay the others too. I am a lord. I enjoy thoroughly the pleasures of the world. I am perfect in every way. I am powerful. I am happy. I am rich. Who is equal to me? I perform grand sacrifices. I give away great wealth in charity. Who is as happy as I am?”
Deluded fools, Krishna calls them. Accursed to live hell here on earth and hereafter, Krishna calls them. Bound to suffer anger, jealousy, greed, lust and other insatiable passions life after life, Krishna tells about them.
In the language of the Harry potter books, possessed by the dementors,condemned to live in worlds of darkness.
They too do have their moments of joy – when others suffer, when others praise them... when they have many followers on the social media! But what they are denied is the joyfulness that is our nature, the ocean of ananda that is in our heart, the kind of joyfulness that makes great masters sing nandati nandati nandatyeva – he rejoices, rejoices, and rejoices,
Give up the constant desire for more and more wealth, says Shankaracharya. Instead enjoy the wealth that comes through your work. Shift the focus, says the acharya, from acquiring more and more wealth to enjoying the wealth we already have. Many of us become so obsessed with wealth, that we have no time for enjoying it.
Our life itself becomes for collecting more and more wealth, mountains of wealth. There is no life more useless than the one spent in acquiring wealth. Na vittena tarpaneeyo manushyah, says Indian wisdom, wealth can never satisfy you. It is anala, something for which nothing is ever enough.
Producing wealth is good, but living for acquiring wealth that you do not use is an accused life. Greed is not good. Wealth should be used – for oneself, for one’s family, for the good of others.
Chogyam Trungpa in his classic Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior speaks about two differing lifestyles – one guided by the vision of the great eastern sun and the other guided by the vision of the setting sun, one guided by the vision that life is everlasting, death is no end to living, life continues even after death and every death is followed by rebirth; and the other guided by the erroneous belief that death is the end of everything, that there is only one lifetime, ‘we live only once’ and whatever we want to do we have to do fast, in this lifetime itself, we have to be constantly in a hurry, like a tourist on a conducted tour who is given a limited time for each place to visit, and a list of things to achieve within each day.
According to this latter vision, we have to make choices in life, decide what is important each moment, and ignore what is not important. Since life is a constant journey from one destination to another, our focus should always be on the next destination, and we should never waste time on the sights on the way, should rush from one destination to the next. Hurry, hurry is the constant watchword.
When the Industrial Revolution began in the west, futurologists of the day predicted the age of leisure will arrive soon since machines will take over all production. They also predicted that soon words like hurry and haste would disappear from our languages. But we all know what happened – we are living now in a world of unprecedented haste and hurry, with no leisure available to us, people forced to work more hours than ever before.
The Japanese have a new word in their language now, a recent addition – karoshi, which means death from overwork. Instead of haste and hurry, the words that have disappeared from life are words like leisure and idle hours. I believe it is Carl Honore, the author of In Praise of Slowness, who pointed it out that his son’s first words in life were “hurry up!” We are living in the age of leisure and the predictions were words like hurry and haste would disappear from language and his son’s first words in life were ‘hurry up’, the words he hears most in his home!
That is the way of the setting sun, the philosophy that guides the west. To west every moment unoccupied is a waste, every moment spent in leisure is a waste. Successful people have to show that they are constantly busy, even when they are not!
So in our train compartments we do not see people sitting idle, watching the sights you pass through. I once took a series of photographs during a train journey and called it India by the railside. Most of India is fascinatingly beautiful as seen from a train, be it the thickets of wild bamboo, my favourite, or the paddy fields, palm clusters, the thick jungles or whatever. I remember watching an entire evening of sunset as the train sped for miles and miles at high speed across vast plains of North Karnataka, where red chilies were either growing and spread out to dry! I was on my first trip to Hubli in Karnataka, travelling all alone some half a century ago and I still remember the magical spell of the occasion.
But today you don’t see children or young people, or even old people doing that – everyone is busy with one electronic gadget or the other in their hand. The world outside, the wonderful places they are passing through, the vast empty plains of India and the crowded cities and towns, the sleepy villages, the mountains and rivers each of which has a thousand of legend and myths to tell us, do not exist to them anymore.
That is the life of the setting sun.
In the vision of the eastern sun, traffic delays are not delays but opportunities life provides us to enjoy the roadside views. And side trips are not distractions, not wastes of time, but invitations from the unknown to hitherto unknown realities, frequently of splendor and magic. If we look back leisurely we find that most of the beautiful things that happened to us happened on these side trips, we have never regretted a single side trip we made. In the vision of the rising sun we enjoy the journey itself; destinations are important, but not so important as to ignore the journeys.
One of the most beautiful movies I have seen in many years is the 2005 Malayalam movie Charlie. The two central characters in the movie, Tessa and Charlie, live from moment to moment, meeting life’s challenges as they come, enjoying the beauty of every moment, going where the winds of life take them – and their lives are filled with pure magic. They meet by pure chance, fall in love with each other by pure chance and become each other’s by pure chance. At the beginning of the movie Tessa is asked by her brother, “What is your plan?” and she replies, “My current plan is to see how to live without any plans.”
Yes it is a risky way of living, and not all of us is ready for that. But that is the way of living by the vision of the eastern sun. That is the way Krishna taught, that is the way the Buddha and Mahavira taught, that is the way Jesus taught, that is the way Bodhidharma and Laozi taught, that is the way Zarathhustra and Meera and Andal taught, the way Adi Shankara taught when he sang in the 18th shloka of Bhaja Govindam:
sura-mandira-taru-moola-nivaasah’ shayyaa bhootalam ajinam vaasah; sarva-parigraha-bhoga-tyaagah, kasya sukham na karoti viraagah
“Life under a temple tree, the earth for your bed, barks of trees for clothes, giving up all possessions and all sensory pleasures – this is vairagya and who does it not give pleasure to?”
Bhagavan Shankara does not mean you have to give up your home and only then you will be happy. He does not mean that to be happy you have to live under a tree, give up your comfortable bed and sleep on the earth, wear bark clothes, walk away from all your possessions and pleasures. If you can be happy only under these conditions, then you are bound by them, your happiness is dependent on these; it is not absolute happiness, happiness that is your nature, it is something you achieve under some conditions and not others. As Bhagavan Shankara himself points out in Jivan-muktananda-lahari, the external conditions do not matter. The wise man, the enlightened man, is equally happy in the forest and the palace, in the city and on river bank, in the company of the rich and of the poor, in the company of the wise and of fools, in the middle of crowds and in solitude.
Just as Bhagavan Shankara teaches us, what Krishna teaches too, both through his life and the Gita, is that we can be in the middle of these things and yet be unattached to these things, not cling to these things. We can possess a house and yet not be possessed by it, we can possess wealth and yet not be possessed by wealth, possess a wife or husband and children but yet not be possessed by these.
For Krishna the ideal is the lotus leaf in water – padma-patram iva ambhasaa. Be in water like a lotus leaf and yet be untouched by water. Krishna calls this anasakti yoga. This is what India has always called sannyasa, but came to be misunderstood later. So Krishna clarifies beyond any doubt that a true sannyasi is not one who physically gives up possessions and actions, na niragnir na cha akriyah, but performs all his life calls him to do and yet remains unattached. Krishna takes the name of Janaka, a king surrounded by all kinds of power, possessions, comforts and pleasures and yet remains unattached to all these, as an example for a sannyasi.
Death is inevitable, all of us are bound to die, there is no escape from that, and it is no more than discarding worn out clothes and getting new ones. And as inevitable as death is rebirth – tatha deha-antara-praapti, attaining a new body. Therefore live intelligently knowing this truth, says our timeless wisdom.
Do not be obsessed with wealth – give up the constant desire for more and more wealth, jaheehi dhana-agama-trshnaam. And enjoy whatever comes to you through your honest work – yal-labhase nija karmopaattam vittam tena vinodaya chitttam. Do not be obsessed with sensuality – enjoy them but do not be a slave to them. The beautiful body of a woman, her full breasts and deep naval, seeing these do not become slaves to them – naaree-stana-bhara-naabhee-desham drshtvaa maa gaa mohaavesham. Or the handsome male body, for that matter.
Do not be a slave to any sense object – the pleasure you get from enjoying them is actually your own ananda, your own essential nature. You desire these and the desire makes your mind restless and you lose the stillness of your mind, lose contact with your own nature. You get those things, enjoy them, for a few minutes your mind becomes still again and the still mind reflects the ananda that is your true nature – that is all there is to sensory pleasures and all else we pursue in life. We are like the dog that picks up a dry bone and chews it. The bone wounds its mouth, blood oozes out and the dog enjoys it thinking the bone is giving it pleasure, whereas the truth is that it is its own blood the dog enjoys.
Realizing this truth and living in the world as a master is wisdom. A master means not a slave to our desires, not a slave to external events. That is what Krishna means when he says such a one is a man is rooted in consciousness, a sthitah-prajna, who does not run after the desires in his mind but is happy with himself, whose mind is not shaken by situations of grief or happiness; who is without raga, bhaya, or krodha, without longings, fears, or anger, who is content with himself.
Wisdom is living what you are, being what you are, untouched by whatever life brings to you; accepting all with gratitude but at the same time remaining rooted in your own nature. Like a tree on the hilltop, a mighty tree with branches reaching out to the sky, dancing with the wind, subject to the change of seasons, but at the same its root sunk deep in the womb of earth, drawing its nourishment from that earth, not letting anything that goes on outside touch its heart, its soul, transforming the very seasons into opportunities for its growth, transforming thundershowers and burning sun and freezing cold and the violent storms as opportunities for growth.
Be part of nature and yet live above it, live untouched by it, singing your own song, dancing your own dance.
Though you are a tree that grows on the earth, that draws its nourishment from the earth, you are in fact a tree whose roots are elsewhere, somewhere far above, in some other dimension: oordhva-moolam adhah-shaakham ashwattham which ancients called avyayam, changeless while changing, growing and perishing while remaining imperishable.
For years in the ashram where I lived, our lunch every day began with this shloka that opens the fifteenth chapter of the Gita.
What an amazing shloka in an amazing book by an amazing teacher!
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