One of the most startling passages that I encountered when I first began to study advaita was that in chapter 2 of the Bhagavad-Gita in which Arjuna bemoans the fact that he is expected to kill his teachers and relatives. Krishna responds with the following amazing statement (II.19 – II.20): “He who thinks that the spirit kills, and he who thinks of it is killed, are both ignorant. The spirit kills not, nor is it killed. It was not born; it will never die: nor once having been, can it ever cease to be: unborn, eternal, ever enduring, yet most ancient, the spirit dies not when the body is dead.” (Ref. 1)
Needless to say, the idea of death is one that disturbs most people. Indeed, it is probably the most feared event for the vast majority whether or not they believe that it signifies the literal end of their existence. Life appears to have the profile of a hill. We start at the bottom; slowly we begin to make an impression on life, ‘making a name for ourselves’, acquiring all of those things that are considered to make life significant – job, spouse, peer recognition, house and money etc. And then, there comes a time when we feel that we have achieved all that we are going to achieve. Ambitions cease; physical and mental capabilities decrease; ailments become more frequent; there is a gradual slide into physical decay and ultimate death. As Macbeth puts it so depressingly:
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.
Or, as Jaques puts it in ‘As You Like It’:
Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
On a rather more optimistic note, Ramana Maharshi has the following to say (Ref. 2 Talk 244):
M.: Why should one think of birth and death? Are you really born? The rising of the mind is called birth. After mind the body-thought arises and the body is seen; then the thought of birth, the state before birth, death, the state after death – all these are only of the mind. Whose is the birth?
D.: Am I not now born?
M.: So long as the body is considered, birth is real. But the body is not ‘I’. The Self is not born nor does it die. There is nothing new. The Sages see everything in and of the Self. There is no diversity in it. Therefore there is neither birth nor death.
D.: If sleep be such a good state, why does not one like to be always in it?
M.: One is always only in sleep. The present waking state is no more than a dream. Dream can take place only in sleep. Sleep is underlying these three states. Manifestation of these three states is again a dream, which is in its turn another sleep. In this way these states of dream and sleep are endless. Similar to these states, birth and death also are dreams in a sleep. Really speaking, there are no birth and death.
To return to the gItA verse, Shankara says (Ref. 3) that the word ‘never’ (Sanskrit na kadAchit) is intended to deny all kinds of change; i.e. It is never born, It never dies. We could only say that something is ‘born’ (jAyate) when it comes into existence having previously been non-existent. We know that the body is like this: “That which is only living can only die“, as TS Eliot says in his Four Quartets. But the Self is not like this – it is not born but birthless (aja). It is eternal (nitya).
An interesting observation which might influence one’s attitude to death occurs in a passage in Advaita Makaranda. This is what verse 15 has to say:
Also, any entity cannot know its own birth or death, because birth is the last moment of its prior non-existence, whereas death is the first moment of the post non-existence. (Ref. 4)
We can see this more clearly if we think in terms of an object, such as the perennial clay pot. We (should) know that a pot is only name and form of clay and has no real existence of its own. While the clay exists as an amorphous lump, the pot has no existence at all. Once the potter has moulded it into shape, the pot’s prior nonexistence (prAgabhAva) comes to an end or, more colloquially, it is ‘born’. The pot then lives for a while but, eventually, it is broken. Subsequent to that moment, it can be said to have post non-existence (pradhvaMsAbhAva) and we could say that it has ‘died’. The prior nonexistence has an end (but no beginning) when the pot is born. The posterior nonexistence has a beginning (but no end) when the pot is broken.
If we now think in terms of a conscious being rather than a pot, we can see that this being cannot be said to ‘know’ its birth, because to know anything, we have to be present at the time of the event. We can know the birth and death of the pot because we are present at the birth, at the moment before the pot’s prior non-existence came to an end. And we are present at the death, after the pot’s posterior non-existence begins. But, in the case of our own birth, we were non-existent prior to the event so could not be aware of its occurrence. This birth is effectively the last moment of that prior non-existence. Similarly, death is the first moment of our post non-existence; since we do not exist then, we cannot know it.
But, in terms of the metaphor, we are the potter and not the pot. We are the unchanging Self upon which all the apparent changes seem to take place. All births and deaths are mithyA only. I am not the walking shadow; I am that unborn and eternal Atman.
If the following question occurs to you: “If I am really the Atman, then why am I not aware of my birth and death?” read my post on ‘chidhAbhAsa‘, which was published back in April.
- The Geeta, The Gospel of the Lord Shri Krishna, translated Shri Purohit Swami, Faber and Faber, 1935. ISBN 0-571-06157-5. Buy from Amazon US or UK.
- Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi. Sri Ramanashramam, Tiruvannamalai, 1994. No ISBN. Buy from Amazon US or UK.
- Bhagavad Gita, with the commentary of Shankaracharya, translated by Swami Gambhirananda, Advaita Ashrama, sixth impression 2003. ISBN 81-7505-041-1. Buy from Amazon US or UK.
- Sri Laksmidhara’s Advaita Makaranda, with the commentary Tattva Prakasika by Swami Tattvavidananda Saraswati, Brahma Vidya Kuteer, 2009. No ISBN.