Our True Shelter Amidst Impermanence and Death
(this blog is recorded on the full page: quick time player needed)
Recently three devotees of Krishna were tragically killed in a car accident near Alachua, Florida, and this short poem was my response. I wanted to wait some time before publishing this, to at least let the grieving process begin for those directly involved. Spiritual philosophy will eventually soothe, but if presented without compassion, and prematurely, it can make healing more difficult in the short term. In spite of our human grief or sadness at such events, in the larger scheme of things, they are meant to help us examine our own mortality, the shortcomings of matter, and the fact that we have to leave behind everything material at death. It is natural that this is easier as we age, and seem to be materially closer to death, but one of these devotees was in his twenties, and newly married. Old means, one will soon die. Thus we can question, since we don’t know who among us will die sooner, who among us is old?
My teacher, Shrila Prabhupada, encouraged us to keep death before us, not in a morbid sense, but in the sense that life can be finished at any moment, with or without specific notice. Therefore, we have to all be serious about our spiritual life by giving it the attention and heart it requires. We don’t want to only have “smasana-vairagya,”or the detachment that may come at a cemetery or place of cremation (or at a funeral). Ideally, to fully live in the present, and for a spiritual purpose, we should have a constant remembrance that any day could be our last in our current body. By reading books like the Bhagavad Gita, or other traditional Gaudiya Vaishnava literature, we are meant to remember, and thus act to revive, our true eternal spiritual nature, even as we have to maintain our bodies, and deal with our material desires and aspirations. Our spiritual interest is meant to inform all of our other interests and activities.
Wise persons remember
only the soul is stable
the “solid” ground moves
then changing to another aspect
matter transforms, is plastic
we miss obvious implications
blinded by sensual pursuits
the status quo appears real:
when sand castles are home
at high tide, we cry
angrily screaming: “Why this, God?”
Illusion takes much for granted:
the heart beats, brain functions,
we breathe without thinking,
our car safely transports—
in an instant destiny strikes
vital symptoms flatline
four wheels, a killing machine
unsought, merciful wake-up call
the Gita’s so-called basics
take on new relevancy.
Matter can’t fulfill the soul
wanting permanent bliss
only Krishna touches our heart
pain, old age, death, teach us
that we must become aware
expecting the unexpected
preventing complacency, distraction—
insufficient to be a casual devotee
if death catches us unaware, attached.
Are we actually ready to let go
accumulated baggage, everything external?
do we use things only to support bhakti?
hearing the spirit instead of our mind?
remembering the soul animates
while matter continually frustrates
everyone is about to die
so intensely call to Krishna in love—
at least pray and try to—
finding our unique way to
see Him as our true shelter
making this our life’s success.
I am reminded of a saying Prabhupada taught us: Rock-hay Krishna ma-ray ke/ ma-ray Krishna rock-hay ke. "He whom Krishna protects, no one can kill—but if Krishna wants to kill someone, no one can give him protection." While it is true that Krishna acts through his energies and agents to give everyone the natural consequences of their actions by the law of karma, devotees see the hand of Krishna behind everything. Thus, the important point here is that Krishna protects his devotees, though we have to consider the matter carefully, going beyond appearances. What His protection means may be questioned when someone, specifically a devotee, dies, apparently “untimely.” If we understand that our true identity is consciousness, or a spiritual spark of Krishna, that will help us to realize that while Krishna may protect our body, His lasting, and more important, protection is of our soul, as well as the spiritual progress we have made. Although we naturally give thanks to God when we, or a loved one, appears to be saved from death, we should also think of the value of His spiritual, and lasting, protection of our soul and our devotion. Krishna tells Arjuna, to declare it boldly that His devotee never perishes [spiritually that is]. (BG 9.31)
At some point, we all have to face life’s final exam, and leave this world behind. When we no longer want what the material world offers, then we no longer require to remain here. Devotees should be reassured that Krishna is our true well-wishing and loving friend. He is helping us to come to Him, even when, in life we suffer, are in pain, or feel any number of difficult human emotions. In bhakti, or Krishna consciousness, we are practicing to always remember Krishna in love. The spiritual vision is to perceive, or see Him, as our shelter, within everyone, and the sustaining reality in everything and every life event. In such awareness, all of life has meaning, and we look for the lessons. Then, when we are aware that we are about to have an accident, or face death, we will not be habituated to say “O s***” in anger, as my wife once did when driving with our son, Narayana, as a car crashed into hers, but we'll say “Hare Krishna,” as she was admonished by him to do! This is why the theme of my recent blog, “Practicing the Presence of God,” is so important. What we think of at death, due to attachment or desires, is where we go in the next life (BG 8.5 & 6). We can have what we want, if we actually know who we are, spiritually.