The Art of Dying
from Back To Godhead Magazine #24-10, 1989
Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami
According to “The Lost Art of Dying,” an article in the Sunday Telegraph of London, people nowadays are trying to avoid the thought of death. One proof of this is that the dying are no longer cared for at home. Whereas a century ago only five percent of the British population died in a hospital, today more than seventy percent do. And the more people seek to keep death at arm’s length, the more perfunctory its rituals have become. Supposedly, there is very little weeping, and seventy-five percent of those who die in England go without any church ceremony.
Surviving relatives are also getting less sympathy these days. A medical director of a prominent London hospital says. “How do we treat the bereaved? By crossing the road and walking down the other side of the street.” The reason people cross the road, he says, is that they don’t know what to say. “There is no longer any language of religious consolation in our society.”
The cold-hearted attitude toward death provides a contrast between present-day society and the ancient Vedic society. According to Vedic histories, people often went to the other extreme and fell into great grief and bewilderment when a beloved relative died. Today people send a dying relative to the hospital so that he won’t die in their home. In contrast, formerly husbands and wives would sometimes stay with a dead person and have to be torn away so that the funeral could take place:
"The time was appropriate for the body to be burned, but the queens, not allowing it to be taken away, continued lamenting for the dead body, which they kept on their laps."—Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.2.35
It was to such bereaved relatives that great sages like Narada used to appear, consoling them with transcendental knowledge. The sages would speak about the inevitability of death, about the unalterable temporality of our bodies, and most important, about the eternal nature of the soul. While the real purpose of the sages’ teachings was to give spiritual enlightenment, their humane purpose was to give solace to the bereaved.
But if nowadays people aren’t made thoughtful by death, that makes it much more difficult to impart eternal knowledge. At least many are pretending not to be affected, as they show a “business as usual” face to the world.
Of course, sensitive people continue to take a humane and philosophical attitude toward death. The Telegraph quotes John Baker, Bishop of Salisbury, who is saddened that as a society we try to hide death: “We should think about death far more. because it sharpens one’s priorities as very few other stimuli can. It makes you say. ‘What are the really important things I should be doing with my life, not just selfishly but also for other people?’ What we are doing by pushing the thought of death away is robbing ourselves of the power to make our lives what they are meant to be.”
Vedic teaching probes deeply into the meaning of death—and beyond. When Lord Krishna found His friend Arjuna aggrieved over the future deaths of his relatives. Krishna gave a two-hour course in dying, death, and life after death.
Lord Krishna began, “Those who are wise lament neither for the living nor for the dead.” He then taught Arjuna that there was never a time “when I did not exist, nor you. nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.”
According to the knowledge of transmigration of the soul, as given by enlightened sages in Vedic scriptures, we can understand that the real self, the real person, is different from the perishable body. The body dies, but the soul goes on to take another body according to its deeds (or karma) in this life. Because the soul is eternal, we should not overly lament the death of our friends, or our own death.
The modern attempt to put death out of sight and out of mind is not only inhuman, but impossible. Fear and grief will overtake us all, despite our attempt to distance ourselves from them. Therefore, just as the excessively grieving relatives in the old days needed counsel, so do we need it today.
The immortality of the self, as taught in literatures like Bhagavad-gita and Srimad-Bhagavatam, is not a religious sentiment but is analyzed in a scientific way, with logic and evidence. The first lesson—to understand that the self in our body is different from the physical body—is not an esoteric idea: it is common experience. If we happen to be in the presence of some old-fashioned bereaving relatives at a funeral, we might hear them cry, “Oh, he’s gone!” and yet the body of the deceased person is lying right there in the coffin, perfectly whole.
So why the lamentation? The bereaved relatives will say, “This is only the body—the real person is gone!” By this admission, which everyone observes to be true. we are actually admitting that the real person is different from the body. We are also admitting that we never really knew the real person during his lifetime but always mistook him for his physical body.
During a lifetime the body changes but the real self remains the same. Thus Lord Krishna reasons by analogy that the same process continues after life: “As the embodied soul continuously 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” (Bhagavad-gita 2.13).
The Vedic literature teaches the science of eternality in many stages. The individual soul and its relationship with the Supreme Personality of Godhead, how to live in this life to ensure a better next life, how to act at the very moment of death, the ultimate perfection of life after death—all these are discussed reasonably and from the vantage of perfect, transcendental knowledge.
It may be that we have lost the art of dying nowadays, and that people pretend they don’t care about it. But in any case, whether we turn away from death or weep too much because of it, our death is sure.
Faced with this powerful reality, a civilized human being should become as informed as possible about it. In the opening chapters of Bhagavad-gita, you can find out everything you will ever need to know.