Our True Shelter Amidst Impermanence and Death

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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.

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Wise persons remember
only the soul is stable
the “solid” ground moves
appearing dependable,
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.
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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.
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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.
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To accept life, means to

To accept life, means to accept both life and death. To accept our life is to accept Krsna, because He is the Creator of it. Life of this material world is not something we should try to exploit for joy and death is not what we should endure. Our life, life and death, is something we should learn from, which we inevitably do, often without even realising it.
Death, such a powerful test indeed, can make even the sturdiest person cry. However, one should never falter, because in the long run towards our Everlasting Home, your experience- every tear, every step gets you closer to Krsna. So cry, trip and stand up again, but always be aware of the reason why one lives and dies.

Thank you for your thoughts Karnamrita Prabhu, always a worthy read to water my dry mind.

It is always so sad when

It is always so sad when someone dies but it is good advice to keep in mind that it can happen at anytime and only our creator knows when that day is going to be. Thank you for sharing.

Krishna's time

Yes, the apparently untimely death of these devotees, was surprising to some, and certainly sad from the human perspective. At the same time, I know a few young devotees in whom this sudden event shook them up and was very sobering. It helped them see the necessity of spiritual practice and focus. Often we have to acknowledge our natural human tendencies, go through them, and also take heart in the Vedic perspective, in this case, that there is not death. As devotees they were in Krishna's hands, and we can't know His plan, or what they needed to go through. It is also said, that with any action or event, Krishna serves many purposes. Hare Krishna!

Supportive verses to this theme

I had originally wanted to include verses at the end of this blog, but decided against it do to the length, but here they are, if you are interested:

“O Uddhava! The body, which is a transformation of the gunas ( three modes of nature), a transformation that is a product of avidya (ignorance), takes shelter of you, the atma (soul), and remains with you in your present condition. It is not your natural state because you are without birth and death. How can birth and death of the body belong to the atma? Even while perceiving illusions with a beginning and end, you are actually separate.”[SB 11.9.7]

"A wise person, knowing that although the material body is subject to death it can still award the perfection of one's life, should not foolishly neglect to take advantage of this opportunity before death arrives.

"Without attachment, a bird gives up the tree in which his nest was constructed when that tree is cut down by cruel men who are like death personified, and thus the bird achieves happiness in another place.

"Knowing that one's duration of life is being similarly cut down by the passing of days and nights, one should be shaken by fear. In this way, giving up all material attachment and desire, one understands the Supreme Lord and achieves perfect peace.

"The human body, which can award all benefit in life, is automatically obtained by the laws of nature, although it is a very rare achievement. This human body can be compared to a perfectly constructed boat having the spiritual master as the captain and the instructions of the Personality of Godhead as favorable winds impelling it on its course. Considering all these advantages, a human being who does not utilize his human life to cross the ocean of material existence must be considered the killer of his own soul."
[SB 11.20.14-17]