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Lessons from Death

The story touched a nerve with my usually placid co-workers. Sympathizing with the deep grief of family and friends of the deceased, many were incensed and spoke out with anger. Every day the news media bombard us with so much violence and human misery that we tend to become desensitized to others' suffering. I know I am. But my co-workers' reaction to the incident pushed me to examine my own attitude toward suffering, and to consider my responsibility to share relevant, compassionately applied spiritual knowledge as I've learned it from Srila Prabhupada.

(from a Back to Godhead article volume 36, number 06, 2002,
copyrighted BBT international)

EARLY THIS YEAR [2002] law enforcement officers, acting on a tip, visited the Tri-State Crematory on sixteen acres in Noble, Georgia, owned by the Marsh family. When police found a skull and a torso floating in a lake on the property, they kept looking and eventually unearthed more than three hundred bodies in various states of decomposition.

For many years, the Marshes had accepted bodies for cremation but had instead dumped them, still in body bags, into shallow "graves," heaped on other bodies. The gruesome sights rivaled the worst horror movie and traumatized workers and family members of the deceased. Many witnesses to the gory scene needed extensive counseling.

The story touched a nerve with my usually placid co-workers. Sympathizing with the deep grief of family and friends of the deceased, many were incensed and spoke out with anger. Every day the news media bombard us with so much violence and human misery that we tend to become desensitized to others' suffering. I know I am. But my co-workers' reaction to the incident pushed me to examine my own attitude toward suffering, and to consider my responsibility to share relevant, compassionately applied spiritual knowledge as I've learned it from Srila Prabhupada.

Generally speaking, I see that uninformed people, lacking knowledge of the eternal soul, fear death and don't know the purpose of life. This cloud of uncertainty surrounding life and death causes unnecessary anxiety and misery. Ironically, to live joyfully and peacefully, we must know what death is, and understand how to die.

The Tri-State Crematory news made me think that although many people in the United States rate themselves high in their standard of living, they score low in their knowledge of death, as shown in their rituals for death, which reinforce their illusion. As soon as a person dies here, the body is whisked away to a funeral home to be prepared for viewing. An artificial, cosmetic process makes the body appear as alive and as beautiful as possible, perpetuating the myth that we are the body. Because we ignorantly think our self (soul) to be the body, we want our body to look good even when it's dead.

Although materialistic culture does not give much stock to the next life or the eternality of the soul, costly, lavish funerals can exploit people's sentiments. Funeral eulogies by the minister or the family—a good chance to help people understand death—are usually merely flowery, sentimental words meant to make people feel good.

Unfortunately, Western culture hides, denies, and disguises death. This life is taken to be everything, so there's no use worrying about an unproven afterlife. Confusion about death underlies the sterile, superficial, and impersonal rituals, whether at burials or cremations.

Vedic Cremations

I've seen that Hindu ceremonies for death in India are a different story. They still follow ancient edicts from the Vedic scriptures. Traditionally, dead bodies are carried in procession to a burning place, usually a ghat at a holy river, with all the loved ones of the deceased present. Seeing the body burn and then placing its ashes in the river shows participants dramatically that they must develop detachment for temporary, material things (like the body), that they should connect instead to the soul and focus on the permanent spiritual objective.

Another reason for burning the body (instead of burying it) is to benefit the so-called deceased. Some souls stay attached to the body even when it's dead and refuse to leave it (remaining as ghosts). The Vedas inform us that ghosts are tormented souls living in their subtle, or astral, body, without the benefit of a physical body. Some people can sense ghosts through eerie feelings at graveyards or in old houses, or in others ways. Burning the body can help the soul move on to the next life.

Unfortunately, we tend to forget our impending death soon after witnessing a cremation. In Sanskrit this is called smasana-vairagya, or the temporary feelings of renunciation at the crematorium. To learn and remember these spiritual truths, we should repeatedly hear them from advanced holy teachers. Srila Prabhupada reminds us not to forget the inevitability of physical death. Thinking about death is not "morbid," as some would say. Rather, it's meant to remind us where our real shelter lies—with God—and not with the temporary.

Death is a doorway between lives. We must prepare for it by absorbing our life in pursuing spiritual truth. Our actions and motivations will determine what happens to us at death. Will we have to accept another material body, or will we return to God in His spiritual kingdom? The Bhagavad-gita (8.6) says that what we primarily focus on because of our attachments will carry us to the next life at the time of death. What we do in life is tested at death.

Justice And Compassion

As I try to empathize with the victims of the Tri-State Crematory—the grieving family and friends—I remember that in my own father's death I was more fortunate then they. Even though he took his own life, in my sadness I was at least able to sprinkle his ashes in the holy water of the Ganges River. Knowing that such an act, done with sincere prayers, would benefit him, I felt at peace. I did as much as I could for him in life, and then, at death, I was able to feel closure with our earthly relationship.

I wonder how I would have felt if I'd discovered that my father's so-called ashes were some other substance, and that his body lay decomposing in a shallow makeshift grave?

I'm sure I'd feel angry at being cheated, and disappointed that I hadn't helped my father leave this world. I'd want to see someone punished.

My indignation would have support. The Vedas say that civil laws and their consequences, though imperfect, help to lessen a person's karmic reaction for wrongdoings. In addition, punishing a guilty person gives some consolation to the victims.

To feel shock and outrage when we hear about reprehensible behavior, and to seek punishment for the guilty, is natural. But we must be careful to hate the sinful mentality and not the person. Otherwise, our heart will become closed and unable to feel compassion, an important spiritual quality.

Loving Krishna includes loving His children, which we show by teaching them essential spiritual knowledge. That makes us dear to Krishna. But if we don't care about others, how will we want to give them spiritual solutions?

In the Chinese language the symbol for danger also means opportunity. A dangerous mentality is an opportunity for spiritual growth. In the face of increasing inhumanity, insensitivity, and violence among human beings (and toward animals), as well as our own tendency to be lethargic and uncaring, we can decide to think and act differently. We may not care as much as we'd like or act with great compassion, but we can pray for compassion and the desire to help others in distress. We can also become inspired by studying the saintly qualities of pure devotees, and by hearing about the lives of great compassionate devotees like Shrila Prabhupada, Prahlada Maharaja, and Haridasa Thakura.

When we're with those in pain, we can sympathize and let them vent their distress. Then, according to our relationship with them, we can share the truth of the soul and God, the key to becoming free from suffering.

Krishna reciprocates with our sincere desire. We must be committed to acting with kindness and compassion as an important part of our spiritual practice. If we do so while we seriously follow the principles of spiritual life given by Srila Prabhupada, we'll make spiritual progress and develop the good qualities of the soul.

Krishna consciousness is the process of converting our illusory bodily consciousness—the cause of our suffering—into our original blissful spiritual nature. Lord Caitanya came five hundred years ago to teach us how to do this practically by chanting the Hare Krsna mantra and living a pure life. Chanting the holy name and giving the rare treasure of the holy name to others are practices of real compassion, and the best contributions we can make to suffering humanity.

Combined comments from old site

Wed, 08/20/2008 - 07:45 — Snehal
Over coming Maya at the time of death

Hare Krishna!

Having read this I remember something that I heard from His Holyness Radhanath Maharaj in this regard. Would like to share it

He said, "at the time of death Maya will force you to think about your possessions and your loved ones. And this is the final test. If you give in and leave your body with material thoughts, you will have to come back. And so to avoid giving in to Maya, we must prepare during our life time. If we can practise making correct KC choices in our daily life then and then only we can make choice to think about Krishna during death when Maya is forcing us to think about worldly matters. We have to make simple choices in our every day life such as whether to chant now or watch TV etc. If we practice to over come our attractions and attatctments for such simple things, it only then we can over come Maya at the time of death. Otherwise, without this practice its difficult to think about Krishna at the time of death."




Wed, 08/20/2008 - 18:50 — kandakumar Rattanam
Maya devi as determiner

Dear, Snehalji
Hare krishna, my humble obeisancens to your lotus feet,
i would like to add/comment also.
In human form of live we do not know a)whom is our actual spouses that we going to married. b) livelihood c) Our death sentences. this was what i learned from my muslim friends.
Thus towards the spiritual journey in this material planet we do need to determined carefully that only living in Krishna consciuosness manner. So we are not cheating this Maya devi, whom are very dear to Sri Krishna.
Apart from that, let say we are death due to accident cases or sudden death under any circumtances, i think we no need to worry, because Sri Krishna is very merciful, this body is temparament, only soul is living.Thus Sri krishna will choose for us which blissful tunnel shall He sent our soul to attain His abode.
Untill then we shall never keep forgeting KC. And Maya devi always monitoring our determination.The correct determination is only KC by neglecting the 3 modes of material nature.Because Visnu, Brahma & Siva are the Prison Supretandant of this 3 modes of material nature.Thus, if we has material determination then this 3 modes will design for us the next body cause us the bondage & repeatable of birth,illness,old age & death.hare krisna.


Thu, 08/21/2008 - 09:50 — Karnamrita.das
No disagreement

I don't think you two are really disagreeing, just emphasizing different things.

We are all born ignorant. Maya is Krishna's agent to facilitate the soul's desire to enjoy apart from Krishna. When we are blessed with piety or "accident" to meet Krishna's devotees and engage in devotional service, we can begin to understand our fallen, limited condition in matter. By sincerely serving Krishna, Maya becomes our friend. "Declaring war on Maya", means to me, not engaging in material allurements. We have to understand what is helpful for making spiritual progress and what isn't. Gradually we will have the realization to be steady in our service, and be firmly situated in Bhakti.

It is not a question of "cheating Maya". She has her service, and when we are really able to take shelter of Krishna, then there is no contest----we naturally serve Krishna and avoid illusion or Maya. Actually, Maya devi wants everyone to serve Krishna, but as Radhanatha Swami said in the lecture Snehal quoted, her service is to see if we are truly reading for returning to Krishna.

There are tests in school to determine if we can go to the next grade, and there are tests to determine our eligibility for different stages of devotion and ultimately going to Krishna's abode. We can say Maya's test, or also Krishna's test, as she is his agent or helper. She helps determine whether we want Krishna or to stay under her influence. As marginal potency, or jiva soul, we have to be under some influence, either by the force of illusion or out of love for Krishna. We are a product of our association.

Your friend in Krishna,



Wed, 08/20/2008 - 20:42 — Snehal
Thinking of Krishna

Dear Rattnam prabhu!

Following Krishna consciuos way of life means declaring war against Maya. Maya tries to keep the living entities involed and attached to material affairs and being Krishna concsious means we are trying to get rid of our material attatchnents. So there is no question of cheating Maya.Its an open war.

Secondly, when we do all the activities for Krishna, they get spiritualized. And no more are in any modes of material energy. Our thoughts at the time of death important as Krishna has Himself said in Gita that one who quits the body thinking of me surely attains My abode." Bharat Maharaj was emperor who renounced his family, kingdom, wealth everything to live in forest to undergo austerities just to attain spiritual perfection. But got attached to a deer in course of time. He thought about that deer at the time of death and had to take birth as a deer. He being highly realized soul, could remember his orginal state of soul even in deer body, but we might not get such oppurtunity.So its important to think about Lord at the time of death, to avoid a material body and this is possible only if we train ourselves to give up attatchments during we are alive. Otherwise these attatchments will try to hold us back.

This is my understanding, but lets hear from Karnamrit prabhu further about this subject.




Thu, 08/21/2008 - 10:22 — Karnamrita.das
Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati

Hi Snehal. Here are some comments by Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati that you might find interesting. They have been translated from his magazine "The Harmonist".

Question 1: Is it necessary to be in the association of saintly persons (sadhu-sanga) at all times?

Answer: We must be in sadhu-sanga at every moment. I am weak. Without sadhu-sanga I cannot possibly save myself. If I remain far away from sadhu-sanga, then I will fall pray to the ill-mentality that “I am the master.” If we do not live in accordance with the instructions of the sadhu or the guru, then we will be plunged into great calamity. The moment we are without shelter, maya will capture us. Consequently, we will roam here and there in this material world as a servant of maya.

Question 2: How is one delivered from the cycle of material existence (samsara)?

Answer: Without the mercy of Bhagavan, no one can ever be delivered from material bondage. We are the eternally purchased slaves of Krsna. As soon as we forget this, we must become the slaves of maya. Only service to Bhagavan constitutes bhakti. The desire for sense gratification is not bhakti (abhakti); it is entanglement in material existence. The only way to be delivered from this disastrous material existence is to hear krsna-katha from Sri Guru and the Vaisnavas, accompanied by self-surrender, submissive inquiry and a service attitude. By hearing hari-katha with affection (priti), the tendency to get entangled in material existence will come to an end.

Your friend in Krishna,


Tue, 08/19/2008 - 07:50 — Go-Seva
I wish I would've known then...

what I know now. About 10 years ago, my mother died after a short battle with cancer. She had requested to be cremated but my stepfather insisted she have a funeral and enlisted me to help him make the arrangements. I remember thinking that the whole "funeral" ordeal was ridiculous because, for reasons I didn't know at the time, she wasn't that dead body and had already moved on.

Afterward, whenever I would pay a visit to the family, I was expected to visit the gravesite. I felt very uncomfortable doing this, thinking once again that it was a waste of time and energy; eventually, I quit visiting. I chose instead to remember my mom in quiet times (even now) when something comes up that reminds me of her. She was a wonderful, gentle soul.

I am so glad I finally found out why I felt so strongly about those issues, and that I am much more informed about death and how to prepare for it. My children are continually informed about the purpose of life and I tell them, "You were born to die." Even though they probably don't fully understand now, I am sure they will be better prepared about the facts of death than I was growing up. I thank Srila Prabhupada everyday for helping me understand the facts of life and death.



Wed, 08/20/2008 - 07:21 — Karnamrita.das
Krishna's timetable

As the Bible says (and the Byrds sang), "For everything, there is a season. A time to live, a time to die," etc. For our coming to Krishna there is a schedule of unfolding---and we don't have the details, though Krishna has his arrangments!

I think everyone has thoughts like you expressed, "If only I had known sooner".

When I think of all the time I wasted growing up I can certainly sigh and shake my head. Even the time I have wasted as a struggling devotee, and the things I have done and still do because of not having enough taste for chanting and Bhakti activities. Alas!! Dear Prabhupada, my dear Gurus, Shri Shri Gaura-Nitai, please save me!

On the positive side, we have to go through a lot of experiences in the material world to be "ripe" enough to be picked by Krishna. If we are not at the right point to take up Krishna Bhakti or ripe enough---too green, we may rot, and fall to the ground!

From my perspective, our previous life was preparing us to take to Krishna consciousness at just the right time. Other times may not have worked. Still, no harm in lamenting wasted time and for acting out of ignorance, if that helps us go ahead. Now we have to look forward and do better, and be determined not to be in ignorance again! I look at it all around me, and no, I don't want to forget Krishna. I want to get it right, yet I have to pray for the mercy to rise up out of the material ocean I have thought was home for so long. And we have to use the fact that we are creatures of habit to our advantage!

Your friend in Krishna,