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Close to the Edge

Without an understanding of the soul, where is the comfort when death strikes?

One moment he was there, youthful and confident. Then, he was gone. I was standing before him on the edge of the cliff when he stepped backward. First he fell about eight feet, landing on a small ledge that jutted out from the steep incline. He lay, frozen in time, peering up at me. No fear showed in his expression. Not at first. But gradually, as I watched, the terror came. His anguished eyes held my gaze for several long seconds. Helpless and horrified I stood as the boy slowly slipped from the tiny precipice, his right hand grasping a twig, his left arm waving mutely like a broken wing in the open air. I could do nothing to reach him, nothing to help him, yet I desperately tried to hold his gaze, as if by willing I could pull him back from his destiny.

In his eyes I could see surprise, anger, intense fear. Did he know he was going to die? He fell without a scream. All was still and silent. The only sound to punctuate his death was a gentle thud, and even that was nearly lost in the cool spring air.

A virtual stranger to me, the boy had come to the countryside with a group of boisterous. college students for rappelling, a sport in which you bound down the side of a cliff using ropes and harnesses. My girlfriend Lori and I had happened upon the group that day, and their enthusiasm for the sport had infected us. Soon we found ourselves rigged up to descend along with the others. One of the boys had come around in front of me to check my ropes, when he had distractedly stepped backward.

The group of us now stood hushed at the top of the cliff, stunned. So quickly the change had come, it seemed almost as if nothing had happened. Yet there it was, in a glimpse of plaid so far below, the most devastating of all tragedies.

By the time my fumbling fingers had untied the ropes, someone had run to call an ambulance, and the others were already down below. I shakily scrambled down the side of the cliff, no longer seeing the beauty of the countryside, but thinking the world was cold and cruel. We stood helplessly around the boy, unable to touch his broken form. Someone remarked that we should find his glasses, and ludicrously, we began to search. It seemed no more incongruous than the crumpled body of this young man, dying in agony while the birds sang happily in the trees, no more senseless than the harsh intrusion of death on this magnificent spring day.

And equally incongruous: although death is inevitable, everyone present on that day—whether victim or bystander—was caught by surprise, unprepared. Everyone stood in shocked disbelief, as though such a thing as death was a rare, little understood phenomenon. How little we understand of our own existence. In the final moments of life, who cares for the complexities of world politics or the social indiscretions of famous movie stars or the acquisitions of our neighbors? Suddenly a whole life, however glorious or shameful, is left to the past. And our immediate destiny is cloaked in mystery. This moment awaits us all.

Perhaps it seems unforgivably cruel that mothers lose their children, children lose their parents, husbands lose their wives, and so on. Indeed, how can a person be truly happy knowing that in the course of time everything dear will be lost?

I wish I had known then something of the nature of the soul. I could have benefited the passing soul of that poor dying boy. And I could have solaced the others. I could have told them that we don’t belong to this material world, a place of death and suffering. I could have reassured them that we exist eternally as spiritual beings, that we are only temporarily encased in flesh and blood; our physical bodies have a beginning and an end, but the soul is forever.

It would have eased our pain to have meditated on the ancient Vedic revelation that death is painful only when we accept the material body as the self and this material world as home. The Vedic scriptures compare this world to a prison. The purpose: to reform the lawbreakers so that they might again enjoy the benefits of freedom. In other words, although this material world incarcerates the eternal soul, it also rehabilitates. Ultimately its purpose is to persuade the spiritual living entities to return to their original position as eternal servants of God.

A person who is completely realized in his relationship with the Supreme Lord has no need to fear death. Death simply means that we change to a new body, one designed to facilitate our specific desires and aspirations. Thus, a person who lives like an animal, oblivious to the laws of God and to his own spiritual nature, is awarded an animal body, which better facilitates his mentality. A God conscious person, however, will receive a body that will allow him to further glorify and serve the Lord. One who successfully focuses on cultivating love for God beyond all else relieves himself simultaneously and automatically of the burden of future births. Thus he terminates his life-after-life sentence and returns to Lord Krishna, where he belongs, to live eternally in love with God.

All this was unknown to me on that spring day long past. I remember how we earnestly searched through the weeds until we found the shattered spectacles. Useless, of course. They were as useless to their owner now as were our tears. But we placed the glasses gently in his shirt pocket. Perhaps we sought to comfort ourselves, to reassure ourselves that all our values and day-to-day activities hadn’t suddenly, in the face of inevitable death, become meaningless and absurd. Almost mystically my outlook had changed: even my deepest material concerns now appeared petty, and my usual responses and sentiments seemed inappropriate, even ludicrous. I had no knowledge of the eternal self within the temporary body. Now I know what a difference spiritual understanding makes. Without realizing the spiritual self within the body, we will find no comfort when death strikes. Comfort will come only when there is Krishna consciousness, transcendental knowledge of the eternal soul in contact with God. Only then can we divest our life of all absurdity and our death of all tragedy.