Sri Swami Sivananda
This article is a chapter from the book “Bliss Divine”.
Swami Sivananda has also written a book titled “What Becomes of the Soul After Death?”. This book is available at our free books page.
What Is Death ?
Signs of Death
Soul’s Journey after Death
Dissolution of the Elements at Death
Prayer for the Dead
Interval between Death and Rebirth
Be Not Afraid of Death
Great scientists, the inventors of many marvellous things, mighty emperors who have done stupendous work, inspired poets, wonderful artists, many Rishis, Yogins, have come and gone. You are all extremely anxious to know what has become of them. Do they still exist ? What is there at the other side of death ? Have they become non-existent or have they dwindled into an airy nothing ? Such questions do arise spontaneously in the hearts of all. The same question arises today as it arose thousands of years ago. No one can stop it, because it is inseparably connected with our nature.
The idea of death has ever been the strongest motive power of religion and religious life. Death stirs a man to search for immortality.
Man is afraid of death. Man does not want to die. He wants to live forever. This is the starting point of philosophy. Philosophy enquires and investigates. It boldly proclaims, “O man, do not be afraid of death. There is an immortal abode. That is Brahman. That is your own Atman that dwells in the chambers of your heart. Purify your heart and meditate on this pure, immortal, changeless Self. You will attain immortality”.
You cannot die, because you were never born. You are immortal Atman. Birth and death are two false scenes in the unreal drama of Maya. They concern the physical sheath only, a false product formed by the combination of the five elements. The ideas of birth and death are mere superstition.
Every soul is a circle. The circumference of this circle is nowhere, but its centre is in the body. Death means the change of this centre from body to body. Why, then, should you be afraid of death ?
What is Death?
Death is separation of the soul from the physical body. The entrance of a soul into a body is called birth. The soul’s departure from the body is called death. A body is dead if the soul is absent.
Death is a door opening from one aspect of life to another. Death is cessation of bodily or physical activity, of physical and organic function, of physical consciousness. Death is a transition from one state of being to another, a change of the from of consciousness to another plane, astral or mental. Ice becomes water, and water becomes steam, vapour, and invisible gas, according to the degree of vibration. So is life in the physical, astral, and mental planes.
Death does not end your personality and self-consciousness. It merely opens the door to a higher form of life. Death is only the gateway to a fuller life.
Death is not extinction of personality. It is merely the cessation of an important individuality. It is only a change of form. Life flows on to achieve its conquest of the universe, life flows on till it merges in the Eternal.
Death is not the end of life. It is an aspect of life. It is a natural incident in the course of life. It is necessary for your evolution.
Death is not the opposite of life. It is only a phase of life. Life flows on ceaselessly. The fruit perishes, but the seed is full of life. The seed dies, but a huge tree grows out of the seed. The tree perishes, but it becomes coal which has a rich life. Water disappears, but it becomes the invisible steam which contains the seed of a new life. The stone disappears, but it becomes lime which is full of new life. The physical sheath only is thrown, but life persists.
Dissolution of the body is no more than sleep. Just as man sleeps and wakes up, so is death and birth. Death is like sleep. Birth is like waking up. Death brings promotion to new, better life. A man of discrimination and wisdom is not afraid of death. He knows that death is the gate of life. Death, to him, is no longer a skeleton bearing a sword to cut the thread of life, but rather an angel who has a golden key to unlock for him the door to a far wider, fuller, and happier existence.
Birth follows death, just as waking follows sleep. You will again resume the work that was left off by you in your previous life. Therefore do not be afraid of death.
Birth and death are jugglery of Maya. He who is born begins to die. He who dies begins to live. Life is death and death is life. Birth and death are merely doors of entry and exit on the stage of this world.
Just as you move from one house to another house, the soul passes from one body to another to gain experience. Just as a man, casting off worn out garments, takes new ones, so the dweller in this body, casting off worn-out bodies, enters into others which are new.
O man, do not be afraid of death at all. Death is Maya’s illusory phenomenon. Death is dissolution of the elements. Thou art immortal, Amara (immortal).
Signs of Death
It is very difficult to find out the real signs of death. Stoppage of the heart-beat, stoppage of the pulse or breathing are not the actual signs of death. Stoppage of the heart-beat, pulse, and respiration, cadaveric rigidity of the limbs, clammy sweat on the body, absence of warmth in the body, are the popular signs of death. The doctor tries to find out whether there is corneal reflex in the eye. He tries to bend the leg. These signs are not the real signs of death, because there have been several cases where there were cessation of breathing and beating of heart, and yet, the persons revived after some time.
Hatha Yogins (adept in hatha yoga exercises) are put in a box and buried underneath the earth for forty days. Afterwards they are taken out, and they revive. Respiration may stop for a long time. In cases of suspended animation, respiration stops for two days. Many cases have been recorded. The heart-beat may stop for many hours, even for days, and then it can be recovered. Hence it is extremely difficult to say what would be the actual or the final sign of death. The decomposition and putrefaction of the body may be the only final sign of death.
No one should be buried immediately after death, before decomposition sets in. One may think that a man is dead, whereas he may be in a state of trance, catalepsy, ecstasy, or Samadhi. Trance, Samadhi, catalepsy, and ecstasy are states which resemble death. The outward signs are similar.
Persons suffering from heart-failure should not be buried immediately, as breathing might commence once again after a particular time. Burial should take place only after the body begins to putrefy.
Soul’s Journey After Death
When a man dies, he carries with him the permanent Linga-Sarira which is made up of the five Jnana-Indriyas, the five Karma-Indriyas, the five Pranas, mind, Buddhi, Chitta, and Ahankara, and the changing Karmasraya which determines the formation of next life.
The soul contracts and withdraws all the senses. The physical senses become dimmer and dimmer, just as the flame in a lamp becomes dimmer and dimmer when the oil gets exhausted. The subtle body or Sukshma-Sarira passes out of the physical body like a mist.
The soul, accompanied by the chief vital air or Mukhya Prana, the sense-organs, and the mind, and taking with itself Avidya, good and evil actions, and the impressions left by its previous existences, leaves its former body and obtains a new body. When it passes from one body to another, it is enveloped by the subtle parts of the elements which are the seeds of the new body.
The soul has a vision of the body to come. Just as a leech or a caterpillar takes hold of one object, the soul visualizes the body to come before it leaves the present body.
Dissolution of the Elements at Death
The physical body is composed of the five great elements or the Mahabhutas, viz., earth, water, fire, air, and ether. The Devas or gods are endowed with a divine or luminous body. The fire Tattva is predominant in them. In man, the earth Tattva is preponderating. In the case of aquatic animals, the element of water predominates. In the case of birds, the element of air predominates.
Hardness of the body is due to the portion of earth; the fluidity is due to the portion of water; the warmth that you feel in the body is due to fire; moving to and fro and such other activities are due to air; space is due to Akasa or ether. Jivatma or the individual soul is different from the five elements.
After death, these elements are dissolved. They reach their primordial sources in the inexhaustible storehouse of nature. The element of earth goes and joins its store of Prithvi Tattva. The other elements also go back to their sources.
The respective functions of the organs are blended with the presiding gods. Sight goes to the sun from where it had its power of vision, speech goes to fire, life-breath to air, the ear into quarters, the body into the earth, hairs into annual herbs, hairs of the head into trees, and blood and semen into waters.
There is no pain at the time of death. Ignorant people have created much horror and terror regarding death. In the Garuda Purana and the Atma Purana, it is described that the pangs of death are tantamount to the pain caused by the stings of 72,000 scorpions. This is mentioned only to induce fear in the hearers and readers, and force them to work for Moksha. In spiritualism, there is unanimous report from the enlightened spirits that there is not even a bit of pain during death. They clearly describe their experiences at death and state that they are relieved of a great burden by the dropping of this physical body, and that they enjoy perfect composure at the time of separation from this physical body. Maya creates vain fear in the onlookers by inducing convulsive twitchings in the body. That is her nature and habit. Do not be afraid of death pangs. You are immortal, Amara.
Prayer for the Dead
The departed souls remain in a state of swoon or unconsciousness immediately after death. They cannot feel that they are detached from their previous gross material bodies. Prayers, Kirtan, and good thoughts from relatives and friends can give real solace to the departed souls. They create a potent vibration and an awakening in their stupefied condition of mind, and bring back their veiled consciousness. The souls begin to realize that they are not really in their gross material bodies.
Then they endeavour to cross the borderland, a narrow river of ether, which is known as Vaitarani to the Hindus, as Chinnat-bridge to the Parsis, and Sirat to the Muslims.
When the departed souls are sinking peacefully and when they are ready to have a glorious awakening in heaven, they are roused into vivid remembrance of the mundane life by weeping and wailing of their friends and relatives. The thoughts of the mourning people produce similar vibrations in their minds and bring about acute pain and discomfort. And the uncontrolled grief of their relatives drags them down from their astral planes. This may seriously retard them on their way to the heaven-world. This produces serious injury to them.
The last thought of a man governs his future destiny. It determines his future birth.
The last thought of a licentious man will be the thought of his woman. The last thought of an inveterate drunkard will be that of his peg of liquor. The last thought of a greedy money-lender will be that of his money. The last thought of a fighting soldier will be that of shooting his enemy. The last thought of a mother who is intensely attached to her only son will be that of her son only.
Raja Bharata nursed a deer out of mercy and became attached to it. His last thought was the thought of that deer. Hence he had to take the birth of a deer.
Man always desires to die a peaceful death with his mind fixed on God. That is the reason why Gita, Bhagavata, Vishnu Sahasranama, and other holy scriptures are recited at the death-bed of the sick man; even though he may not be able to speak, he may hear what is read out to him. This will help the sick man in forgetting the body-idea or his ailment and think of the Lord. When his memory fails, these sacred sentences of the scriptures will remind him of his real nature.
It is very difficult to keep up God-consciousness at the time of death when diseases torment the body, when consciousness fades away. But, for that man who has disciplined his mind all throughout his life and who has tried to fix the mind on the Lord through constant practice, the last thought will be thought of God only. It cannot come by a stray practice in a day or two, in a week or month. It is a life-long endeavour and struggle.
Interval Between Death and Rebirth
People wish to know the exact period that elapses between the time of leaving the body and being born again. Does the soul take a new body in one year ? Does it take ten years ? How long does one live upon the subtler planes before reappearing on the earth plane ? These are some of the questions.
In main, two factors decide this issue, viz., the nature of the individual Karma, and the last impression before death. It may vary from hundreds of years to a few months even. Those that work out some of their Karmas in other planes in subtler regions take a considerable time before entering a fresh body. The interval is very long, for a year of the earth-period passes of as a single day on the celestial plane. There is an instance cited where, seeing the amazement and admiration of foreign tourists at the imposing ruins of certain monuments, a saint present in the vicinity remarked that some of these very people had fashioned the monuments centuries ago.
Sometimes, a very sensual individual with strong cravings, or one with intense attachment, is reborn quickly. Also in cases where life is cut short by a violent death, or by a sudden unexpected accident, the Jiva resumes the thread very soon. Usually, in such cases of immediate rebirth, the Jiva often remembers many of the events of its previous life. It recognizes its former relatives and friends, and identifies old home and familiar objects.
This sometimes leads to very queer developments. There are some instances where a murdered person, being reborn, has declared the manner of his death and revealed the identity of the killer. A reincarnated individual had, at times, unerringly gone and uncovered the treasure that had been hidden away by him.
In the vast majority, this memory is not present. This is really a blessing conferred by the all-wise Being. Such recollection would greatly complicate our present lives. The past is veiled to you until such time as it is good and helpful to remember it. When you attain perfection and reach the end of a cycle, all will be revealed and you will see a whole rosary of lives threaded upon the one personality.
But such cases of immediate rebirth are not common. Generally, for an average individual, the interval between death and rebirth happens to be a considerable period measured in terms of earth-time. Persons who have done much good Karma spend a great deal of time on the Daivic plane before being born again. Great souls, spiritually advanced persons, wait for a long time before reincarnating.
In the intervening period between death and new birth, the departed spirit, especially if the person is physically and spiritually developed, can frequently materialize upon the earth plane if necessity arises. It takes human form, talks, and even make itself felt by tangible touch. It is possible to photograph such an apparition.
Such materialized form is different from the astral body which is not visible to normal vision. It is an exact counterpart, a subtle ‘double’ to the physical body, and forms the vehicle in which the departed soul journeys after death.
Astral consciousness, however cannot guarantee you freedom from birth and death. Occultism and spiritualism can never give ultimate emancipation; nor can they reveal the full secret of the beyond. Spiritual realization and knowledge of the Self alone will reveal the mystery of life and death and the life beyond death.
Be Not Afraid of Death
Death is painful to worldly man. A Yogi or a sage, or even a real aspirant, has no fear of death. A desireless man never weeps when he dies. A full-blown Jnani never dies. His Prana never departs.
Your highest duty is to prepare for a peaceful life hereafter. Conquer the fear of death. Conquest of the fear of death, conquest of death, is the highest utility of all spiritual Sadhana. The one aim of all Yoga Sadhana is to meet death fearlessly and joyfully.
Man is afraid of death. In old age, he tries to think of God. If he remembers God even from his boyhood, he will reap a rich spiritual harvest in old age.
Bhishma had death at his command. Savitri brought back Satyavan, her husband, to life through her power of chastity. Markandeya conquered death through worship of Lord Siva. You also can conquer death through devotion, knowledge, and the power of Brahmacharya.