Q. I’ve been thinking about death for a long while and last night something came to me that I wanted to share with you. It’s not so much a question, though. Rather, I’m just wondering whether my thinking is ‘on the right lines’.
Ok, imagine a dead body lying in a coffin. Let’s say that this person lying there is called John Doe. Many people would believe that now John Doe is dead, something would have left the body, that this ‘John Doe’ identity is no longer there. My thinking from what I’ve learned about Vedanta so far, is that this ‘John Doe’ was probably never there as was perceived in the first place. When a child is born, it can (usually) speak, look, hear, smell, taste, touch and interact with its world around it. This functionality of the body is what we give an identity. We say that these abilities, these functions, that the body has are what constitute the ‘self’ and so one would have labelled that ‘self’ as John Doe. And when the brain ceases to function as it had done in life (i.e. the person dies), all the abilities that the body once had stop and so those characteristics that we had labelled as being integral to John Doe’s self would also stop (the ability to speak etc.). So we believe that something has gone, something has left, that the John Doe that was once a part of the body is no longer a part of the body. My understanding is that John Doe as a ‘self’ never really existed any way, so nothing is lost when a body dies. All that happens is that a few functions of the body mechanism cease to work, that is all. The ‘self’ is what gave the body the power to exist in the first place, Brahman. So the self is still there, in the coffin, only now it has moved around a bit. I am no different from the body I am looking at in the coffin, because my true self is not David Jansen, it is Brahman and since the body in the coffin is also Brahman, we are exactly the same – non-duality. What I’ve tried to explain here hasn’t come out exactly as I understand it. I’m finding it a little difficult to put into words. What I’m basically trying to say is that the true self is not confined to mechanical abilities like talking, looking and thinking; the true self is that power that allows such functions to come about. In death, these abilities do cease, but since the body is still there, so is the self, in a sense any way. In truth, the ‘self’ is also a part of the coffin, the pillow in the coffin and everything around it. Nothing is really lost. As the analogy goes, it’s like putting salt back into the sea. When a body dies, the self merges with the rest of existence that is Brahman…but this brings me on to my next concern: the localisation of consciousness.
If everything I am is Brahman and everything around me is Brahman, why do I not experience existence from other perspectives? When I walk on the pavement, why am I the one walking on the pavement and not the pavement on which one is walking? Why does my consciousness seem localised to the body? Or is this just an illusion? (June 2010)
A. Very well thought-out questions! Essentially you are right but there is still a slight misalignment of understanding.
Firstly, there is only brahman in reality – ever and always. So the perception of a separate entity, John Doe, is an error; a superimposition brought about as a result of ignorance. The John Doe form emerges from the womb of his mother, takes in food and grows, takes in ideas and forms opinions and so on. And eventually the body develops diseases, grows old and ceases to move, returning to the earth from which it came. Consciousness animates the form whilst ‘alive’ and – this is the answer to your second question – it is reflected in the mind of John Doe, thus appearing to give independent existence to that form. But, like the image in a mirror, it does not really have any independent existence at all; there is only really the original source – in this case, Consciousness itself.
So you might imagine a pool of water on the ground. The sun is reflected in it and you might be misled into thinking that the pool has its own source of light. But, eventually (ignoring the possibility of rain for the purpose of this metaphor!), the pool dries up and the light disappears. But the sun is completely unaffected throughout. The brain ceasing to function is the equivalent of the pool drying up. Similarly (an answering your last point), there could be many separate puddles of water on the ground after heavy rain. Each appears to be separate and has its own reflection of the sun but every one is reflecting the same, single, real sun.
And, you are right, everything *is* brahman – including the coffin. Everything is brahman (and brahman does not move – it is already everywhere). But there is only the appearance of life and consciousness in a form that is capable of reflecting it. Plants have limited capability; humans have correspondingly much more. Similarly, there is no ‘merging’ with brahman on death (or enlightenment); it is like the rise and fall of waves on the ocean. Nothing really changes; it is all always only water.
Hope this clarifies.