Death, Dying, and Compassion--On my Father's Death Anniversary

Karnamrita Das

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[This is republished from August 5th 2014, which I publish today, on Father's Day, as my tribute to my father. Though he was the tragic figure of his worldly drama, I know he loved me and did his best to raise me. He went to the temple at my first wedding, loved prasad, and said Hare Krishna frequently to shock his friends and acquaintances about the strange group I was part of. So he was blessed in many ways.]
[An interesting fact is that other than a few baby pictures with my parents, I only have the above picture and one other of them together during my childhood, and they both show my father pretending to be attacking my mom--but in fact, that was the nature of their relationship. I also have no pictures of my father and I. Life leaves us many clues!]
August 3rd will be the death anniversary of my father who, as we devotees say, “left his body” in 1986. “Leaving our body,” means someone, the soul, has left the physical covering behind and moved on. I don’t remember many dates, but this one is etched in my memory—along with a few birthdays, and my wedding anniversary (very important date for those of you who are married). When I was with my mom in her last days in 2010 I obtained his death certification and some family memorabilia—presently of interest only to me, as the last surviving blood member of my family. This should tell us something about such memorabilia!

My mom was a collector, and saved even her baptism certificate, though she was an unbeliever, brought up by a strong religious mother, and, as fate would have it, had a Hare Krishna son! We are strongly karmically connected to our parents and children. Part of a successful life is to make peace with our past and current life—since our present is very much a reaction to our past, and our present choices becomes our future. Thus, part of bhakti is cutting the worldly cords of attachments by attachment to the spiritual via the “cords” of our beads which we use to chant the maha-mantra, as well as all the practices of devotional service.

I wanted to at least say a few words about this day to honor the lessons I learned from my “dear old dad,” though mainly to share some perspectives in dealing with the death of loved ones. Though the soul is eternal, due to our bodily dress, we calculate the age of the body. So he isn’t really old in a physical sense, but he died when he was 65—you could say he retired his body to ashes (he was cremated) at the age of retirement, since he was tired of living.
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As I have shared before, my parents were both tragic figures in the drama of their lives, which saddens me to think of, yet they both heard the holy name and took spiritual food or Prasad, and my mom had an auspicious death—in spite of herself! I cared about them and choose to be loving (love is a choice beyond the feelings which may or may not be present), but I can’t say I missed them when they checked out. Due to the tumultuous nature of my upbringing, along my reactions to it, and also my immaturity as a young devotee, we weren’t that close.

We all have unique experiences, and yet loving our parents is natural, as is missing them when they appear to die and are no longer visible to our worldly eyes. Devotees sometimes deny this reality, our humanness, and expect others to be stoic and philosophical, but even when older devotees suffer the death of a love one, they may take some time to be equipoised and to go through the natural stages of grieving. Ideally, after grieving or before, we will find solace in Vedic literature like the Bhagavad Gita and Shrimad Bhagavatam and in the holy name. Combining this with realization of the eternality of the soul by spiritual practice, we won’t keep grieving for our loss, but will know that no one dies, but only the biological self does. Death of loved ones can depress us if we don’t properly deal with it and let the person go—so to speak—or it can be an impetus for our personal spiritual journey by reminding us that we must face our own death as well. Our predecessors, gurus, and the heroes of scripture are meant to be our teachers and point us in a spiritual eternal direction beyond the physical coverings.
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In most of the world death anniversaries are not acknowledged, but in India, there are special observances to honor the so-called deceased, and to help them move on, should they be stuck in their material or spiritual progress. I mentioned in a blog last year around my dad’s birthday, the work I did in an attempt to release his soul in case he had been bound as a ghost in the house he committed suicide in. ( ) I also have fasted on a special ekadasi for fathers, and offered to his picture maha-prasad (blessed food offering to our Deities) on this anniversary day, and took his ashes to the holy Ganges. As a regular practice, I offer him and my mom, the articles I offer our Deities, as their mercy or Prasad. Since his death anniversary was on Sunday, I had his picture near the temple altar, and after I offered each item in the ceremonial arotik, I offered him these blessed items at the end.
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Spiritual compassion should also include compassion for the physical and mental reality of others. The Gita teaches us in the 6th chapter that the true yogi or devotee feels the suffering of others as his or her own. Thus it is a mistake to merely be callous to other’s misery and simply label it as “tough karma.” We are not like some detached philosophers who don’t believe we are individual conscious persons (jivatma), but only aspects of the one Spirit. Bhakti is about softening the heart through wisdom and experience, and feeling for Krishna and his devotees, and all living beings. In our compassion for others, we try, if possible, to educate them about their true spiritual identity that is eternal, full of knowledge, and blissful, as well as about our relationship with the true beloved, Shri Krishna. Not being able to do this, as least we can be cordial and kind, offering silent prayers for their benefit! Example is better than merely our words.

While it is a funny thing to say in the face of conventional, physical, thinking, the truth is that all our problems come from our physical body and mind—the very thing we are all trying to enjoy, and help other’s enjoy. If we can understand this and act upon it by taking up spiritual practice as our most important activity then we are on the path of everlasting success. Most people won’t be able to grasp this truth, or if they do, to act upon it in earnest. Thus we have to deal with them accordingly with love, patience and compassion.
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When some of us first became devotees we immediately held our parents to the highest standard, and often strongly criticized or condemned them, practically closing the door of their being able to hear anything we had to say. At least I did, and many I know. Hindsight is 20/20, but with much tact and compassionate love, my parents might have at least been favorable to bhakti. Actually, my father was never as upset as my mom. He even came to the temple for my first wedding, while my mom said that she wouldn’t be caught dead in one.

Having studied my father’s upbringing, his addiction to alcohol, and violent behavior, I have been able to appreciate his struggles and the fact that he was clueless about what do to about his conditioned, reactionary behavior. He just considered he was who he was, and was powerless to change. My father was tormented about his life—the things he did, and didn’t do, his failed relationship with my mom, and his personal inner demons. I wanted to help him, but it was too little, too late, and I didn’t learn many personal growth tools till after he died. I did learn from him about the importance of changing our conditioning by prayer and personal growth work--because he didn't--and how intoxication is a very poor way to deal with our personal problems. I also learned that no matter how difficult our childhood, we have to forgive ourselves and our parents for our everyone's benefit--in other words to cut the cords of karma and release them to their highest good.

While I would do things differently if I could change the past, I can’t, but I have come to peace and acceptance with my relationship with my parents, and continue to send them light, love, and prayers for their spiritual progress. I have released them and our relationship into Krishna’s hands. No matter where we begin on our path of forgiveness and reconciliation with our parents (if we need to do this), the important thing is to begin the journey—not staying stuck in pain, anger, or resentment—and see how our parents were perfect for us in teaching us valuable life lessons, and bringing us to Krishna. God bless my father!

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