In society today there is much talk of death and dying because of the
loss of life due to crime, cancer, AIDS, and increase in
suicide,famine and wars. Recent issues such as living wills and euthanasia also have brought the subject of death and dying
more to our attention. Even though many people are uncomfortable talking about death, especially their own or that of someone
close, it is one experience of our lives we know will occur with certainty. The least certain is the time when it will happen.
Because of this utter uncertainty about the time of death, we need to be prepared for it at all times.
Anyone researching the literature on death & dying finds an array
of books and articles. Valuable as these numerous studies
have been in shaping compassionate social attitudes toward the fatally ill and in clarifying our ways of thinking about our own
life and death, most of them lack a spiritual dimension: practical guidance in what may be called the "art" of dying.
Death is a subject we try to conceal, deny and bury, but death does
not go away. In times past when people died amid familiar
surroundings, the sight of death was not uncommon. There were no "old peoples homes," young and old lived together.
Children saw family members and friends die of one ailment or another. The full cycle of life was more visible, birth, growth,
sickness aging and death. Today, technological development has brought dehumanization and alienation to the dying person. It
is almost impossible for anyone to hear or say any last words. New drugs appear to keep people alive longer and kill the pain
but they can also diminish the consciousness, making communication very difficult.
Now, people die in the alien world of the modern medical hospital or
among strangers in a nursing home, who are dealing with
the fear of death themselves. Contemporary medicine’s approach to the dying seems to be dominated by a determined effort to
conquer death and delay its advent at all cost.
In refusing to face death, we close off a part of life. There is an
interesting tendency in Western thinking to dissociate death from
life. In Western thinking, the answer to the problem of death is to try to conquer it or postpone its arrival as long as possible
whereas, in ancient and non-western cultures, there is the recognition of the utmost importance of dying as an integral aspect of
life. In these cultures, the theme of death has had a deep influence on religion, ritual, life, mythology, and philosophy. For
ancient cultures, dying is sometimes seen as a step up in the spiritual hierarchy, a promotion into the world of revered ancestors,
powerful spirits or as an upward transition from the complicated earthly life fraught with suffering and problems.
We need to examine the meaning of human life. Ancient scriptures tell
us that human life is meant for reviving one’s eternal
relationship with the Lord. All religious injunctions are meant for awakening this dormant instinct of the living entity. The sooner
the awakening is brought about, the quicker the mission of human life is fulfilled. The awakening occurs by processes. The
process of expressing life is growth. The process of dying is growth also. From the time we enter this world, we are in a
process of growth -- physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. In order for these growth processes to occur we must
"die" a little. The dying has to occur in order to live. What is that dying? To die means there are things we put behind us. Things
we have to kill out of our "dying" experience also. We die to old ways of thinking, to doubt and fears and we are reborn to live
life more fully. These "dying" experiences continue until the final growth experience occurs, the death of the physical body when
the eternal soul is freed to return to the Lord.
Life and death are not demarcated. They are not conditions existing
independent of each other. They are merely facets of one
natural process (growth) both present at any given time. It is the denial of death, as a part of the process, that is partially
responsible for people living empty, purposeless lives. When you live as if you will live forever it becomes to easy to postpone
the things you must do. Most people live their lives in preparation for tomorrow or in remembering yesterday and meanwhile
today is lost. But if you live each day as if it could be your last, then you could use each day to grow because each day we are
in the dying process preparing for the final growth process: death.
To understand these processes, we need to have a strong belief system--religious,
spiritual and/ or philosophical that teaches us
who we are, the purpose of life, and where we go after death. We must have some understanding of who or what dies. Most
people believe they are a body and a mind, an "I", an ego identified by name, i.e "I am Jane from Boston". "I am American". "I
A spiritual perspective includes the understanding that we are more
than the body; we are spirit/soul in a body. Understanding
this is the real preparation for the process of growth called death. This means remembering the real purpose of life. This really
means developing a higher consciousness by which we perceive ourselves to be eternal.
In order to work with the concept of knowing who we are , we need to
study and examine how ancient religions and spiritual
and philosophical teachings describe death and an afterlife. You will find it is a more comforting explanation of the relationship
between life and death than that offered in many Western religions.
If we are to have true contentment we must free ourselves from the chain
of birth and death. We need to gain knowledge of the
self. To do this we go to books and teachers of higher knowledge.
The oldest of these books of knowledge are the Vedas, original scriptures
spoken by the Lord Himself. The purpose of books
of knowledge are to train us to understand our position as pure soul.
One such book is the Bhagavad-Gita As It Is by His Divine Grace A.C.
Bhakitivedanta Swami Prabhupada, in which
Krishna, the Supreme Lord, provides instructions on the nature of the self to His student Arjuna who is struck with terror by the
task of slaying his kinsmen on the field of battle. Krsna tells Arjuna that although the body perishes the soul cannot be injured
and does not die because it is eternal. Arjuna is informed that knowledge means to know the difference between matter and
spirit and the controller of both. Knowledge is the preparation for facing the process of dying leading to the final process of
growth: death. Krishna tells Arjuna that "one who has taken birth is sure to die, and after death one is sure to take birth again..."
That is until one engages in devotional service to the Supreme and moves toward ending the cycle of birth and death. Ending
the cycle of birth and death means remembering that we are part and parcel of the Supreme Lord, controlling the mind and the
senses and moving beyond the pull of the material world, to return to the spiritual world, our true home.
Unfortunately, much of modern society, feels that death is the greatest
of human misfortunes and that dying is the final agonizing
struggle against extinction. Just as people are afraid of heights, the dark, deep water, the future or the unknown, people are
afraid of death. All are a reflection of the ultimate unknown.
Many try to relieve their anxiety by more and more self gratification.
But death does not forget about us. This means always
remembering the real purpose of life and that life is nothing but a moment on our path toward self-realization.
Srila Prabhupada’s message of self-realization to this Western world
is in essence that we are not the body. We are spirit/soul,
part and parcel of the Lord. He stressed that it is not simply a matter of saying "I am not the body", but of actually realizing it.
Until we truly understand that, we will continue in the cycle of birth and death. But we are not left to figure out how to do this.
We are given a wonderful process; chant the Names of the Lord and engage in devotional service to the Lord. We will then be
less fearful about death and more fulfilled about life.