Birth and Death

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.


  1. 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.
  2. Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi. Sri Ramanashramam, Tiruvannamalai, 1994. No ISBN. Buy from Amazon US or UK.
  3. 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.
  4. Sri Laksmidhara’s Advaita Makaranda, with the commentary Tattva Prakasika by Swami Tattvavidananda Saraswati, Brahma Vidya Kuteer, 2009. No ISBN.

20 thoughts on “Birth and Death

  1. Mind arises. is this you?
    Body arises, is this you?

    The observer arises, is this you?
    Awareness arises, is this you?

    Nowhere does a self arise apart from thought, is this you?

    Where in the body is this self?
    Where in the universe is this self?

    Deception is at the root of this thought of self, but this is not seen. You struggle to find a permanent self, but it doesn’t exist and how could Mind know anything other than itself?

    All this talk of absolutes or relatives, only arise in Mind. It is part of the culture and not part of the universe. It is only your craving that wants something to attach to. This is the deception at work in all of us. This is the truth and not something ‘other’ to understand or realize. No dead voice is going to help you out of this deception. It is actually part of the deception that we believe in. Your own existence is what is threatened and like a man overboard, we grasp at ‘lifesavers’ that will give us the continuity that we seek. This continuity is the deception. Every synapse, electrical impulse and perception is converted into a ‘continuity of me’.

    • Anon-ji,

      “Mind arises, is this you?”


      “Body arises, is this you?”


      “The observer arises, is this you?”

      Depends what you mean by observer, but probably no.

      “Awareness arises, is this you?”

      Here is where we part company in our understanding. Awareness does not “arise.” Awareness is always there, and all “arisings” like body and mind appear within It.

      “Nowhere does a self arise apart from thought, is this you?”

      The Self does not arise, agreed. Consciousness=Self=Awareness is the “substrate” in which all apparent “arisings” occur.

      “Where in the body is this self?”

      Nowhere. The body arises in the Self, or apparently so. The body is just one of the “sheaths,” made entirely of food. The body is an apparent manifestation in the Self, not the other way around.

      “Where in the universe is this self?”

      Nowhere. The universe arises in the Self, or apparently so.

      “Deception is at the root of this thought of self, but this is not seen. You struggle to find a permanent self, but it doesn’t exist and how could Mind know anything other than itself?”

      I don’t think you understand what Vedanta means by Self then. You are just stating your own conceptual belief here, same thing you accuse everyone else here of doing. How do you KNOW there is no permanent self?

      Where does your mind go when you are in deep sleep? When you wake up again, aren’t you still “you,” same as before? Clearly, the mind is not present during deep sleep. So how is this awareness of continuity possible then? You know that you slept well (or not), yet there is no mental process that accounts for this.

      Best Regards,

      • Charles,

        You say awareness is always there. Where?
        Body and mind appear within it?

        Consciousness=Self=Awareness is exactly what the deception is. This is as far as Mind is able to go in its identification with ‘something’. However, you are only deducing that this is a ‘substrate’ and are still in the realm of ‘experience’ which is the domain of mind. Mind may speculate about its origins or nature, but it can never ‘know’ these things as it is an ephemeral appearance itself.

        Your belief in a Self where the universe arises is just that, a belief. It is part of a cultural set of conditions that thought identifies with and takes as real. Again, a deception and another arising in mind. Self can only be imagined in mind just like thinking that there is a ‘you’. It’s a deception. Only in the Indian model is there this Self. It is a cultural model imbedded into the body and mind through the deception of identification.

        You posit a Self and you ask me the question ‘how do I know there is no such things as a Self?’ I can turn it around and ask if you don’t posit a Self, is there a Self? Thinking all of this out only leads back to the deception of there being a ‘you’, a separate entity somehow existing. This is the problem that exists for every human being. Positing a Self or God does not dissolve the deception. It actually prolongs it. Nothing the mind can come up with can dissolve this deception. It is not in its power.

        • Anon-ji,

          “You say awareness is always there. Where?”

          Nowhere. The “where” you ask about is dependent on spatiality, and space is just a cognitive construct, as I discussed in my series on Kant’s philosophy.

          Anyway, I see that, as usual, you did not answer my questions. They were not rhetorical. 🙂

          How do you KNOW there is no Self?

          Where does your mind go when you are in deep sleep?


          • Of course, space is cognitive. What gives you the certainty that there awareness exists outside of spatiality? Anything not in the field of the known, or cognition, cannot be ‘known’. If you wish to speculate on what ‘might’ be, you can do so. That is not my point, though.

            How do I ‘know’ there is no Self? It is not known and I don’t see why it would have anything to do mind and the deception that I speak of. Why bring something speculative into the picture? There is no way to prove or disprove the existence of Self. It is just mind spinning on itself. No need to go there.

            Where does mind go in deep sleep? Nowhere. Just because it doesn’t arise in deep sleep doesn’t mean anything. It arises the moment ‘you’ awaken and awareness is recognition of it. Whether it arises or not, has nothing to do with the deception. Can you follow what I mean by deception?

            • Anon-ji,

              Yes, I follow what you mean by “the deception.” I just don’t agree with your analysis, that’s all. Neither, for that matter, would have Shankara, Gaudapada, Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta Maharaj, or virtually any traditional Advaitin. I hope you realize that there are no new philosophical positions to stake out in this discussion, and that you are by no means original in your criticisms. Every argument you have attempted to muster against Vedanta has been already dealt with by Shankara in his commentaries on the Brahma Sutras.
              You say that the fact that mind isn’t there during deep sleep is meaningless. You are quite mistaken about this. It’s not meaningless at all if you grasp the subtly of Gaudapada’s analysis of the three states. If the mind vanishes during deep sleep, where do “you” go in that state? If you are the same “person” when you wake up, where were “you” in the meanwhile? Clearly, the continuity points to something more than “mind,” and that something can only be Pure Consciousness without an Object. This is NOT speculative philosophy, but rather inquiry grounded on the common human experience of waking, dreaming, and sleeping. Like all others before you that have rejected Vedanta, you are focused exclusively on the waking state, and have ignored the dreaming and deep sleep states. I must be who I am while in any of these states, and if mind is gone while sleeping, then mind is not me.

              “There is no way to prove or disprove the existence of Self. It is just mind spinning on itself. No need to go there.”

              There are all just pre-conceived metaphysical assumptions that you are making, the ontological kit with which you approach discussion of these questions. Through practicing the seer-seen discrimination espoused by Shankara, one can distinguish between “mind” and the Self that shines behind it and illuminates it. Mind is just another object arising in awareness. When we talk about the Self, we are talking about that which is doing the see-ing, that which is doing the know-ing. It is pure Subject, not an object. So it’s quite correct to say that it cannot be “seen,” nor can it be “known” in the ordinary objective sense of that term, simply because seeing and knowing pertain to objects and do not touch the Subject that sees and knows. It is the white screen on which these digital words appear in black, or the light that illuminates a mirror hanging on the wall. You see the reflection, not the light itself, but logically the light must be there. So, yes it can be proved, if you understand the logic of the teaching.

              Best Regards,

              • Reading someone else’s commentary doesn’t disprove a thing. In fact, it taints your own view.

                You’ve learned the party line quite well.

  2. Great post, Dennis, thank you. I’ve probably cited my favorite Mark Twain quote in a previous comment, but it seems appropriate again here: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

    And … “What is dead may never die.” Prayer to the Drowned God of the Iron Islands, George R. R. Martin. 🙂

  3. Thanks, Charles! I love the Mark Twain quote – hadn’t heard it before. Here are two of my favorites:

    Swami Chinmayananda – “Every body dies; nobody dies.”

    Sri Poonja – “You have agreed that you will die only because you have accepted from someone that you were born.”

  4. Here are two more… elegies?… tributes to death?… celebrations?

    Let the sleeping soul arouse its senses and awake, to contemplate how life passes, how death approaches so silently; how quickly pleasure goes, and how once remembered (on waking) it gives pain, (and) how, as we see it, any time in the past was better.

    For if we see the present, how it has gone and is over in a flash, (and) if we judge wisely, we will count the future as already past. Let no one at all deceive himself by thinking that what he is expecting will last longer than what he has seen. For everything will pass in the same way.

    Our lives are the rivers that flow out into the sea, which is death. There lordships go straight to their end, to be consumed. There the great rivers, and there the others, of middling size and smaller, are equal when they arrive: those who live by their hands and the rich.
    — Jorge Manrique. Elegy on his father’s death – XV Cent. (prose translation – unknown author).

    Our experience tells us of this living
    That man, while thinking he lives,
    Dreams, till he wakes, what he is.
    Dreams the king, and believing
    He’s king – in body and crown –
    Governs, commands, and decrees.

    Lo! all the applause, all the praise
    Are but written in the wind
    And ashes becomes that glory
    In the end: death’s own decree.
    Wha is this life but a frenzy,
    What is it but an illusion,
    A moving shadow, a fiction?
    The greatest good is but little,
    For all of life is a dream,
    And dreams are nothing but dreams.
    (‘Life is a Dream’, P. Calderón de la Barca – my translation)

  5. Charles, Why, rather than playing Anon.’s game of speculation in which he is a master, not position him on the lecture platform, as it were, and ask him questions, e.g. what does he really know or understand; what is knowledge, and what is the role of the mind (which seems to have a claim to ultimacy for him)? What is reality/real?This could be helpful, given that he is not entrapped in beliefs as the rest of us clearly are.

    Anon.: ‘Of course, space is cognitive. What gives you the certainty that there awareness exists outside of spatiality? Anything not in the field of the known, or cognition, cannot be ‘known’. If you wish to speculate on what ‘might’ be, you can do so. That is not my point, though.’

    Apart from he inanity of that paragraph, we have to admit hat we all use words and their implied concepts in debates and expositions, or in clarifications, etc… And therein lies one’s Achilles tendon, because words can be given innumerable turns and twists as to their meaning, implied or intended (remember Alice in Wonderland!)… it may be never ending.

    One way to eliminate this problem is to say along with Shakespeare: ‘What’s in a name?’ Why be stuck with one word, for example, Self, wich is only a symbol? Other terms can be employed to refer to ultímate reality (for there is one, ‘not-two’ rather), such as Space, Void, Emptiness, the absolute, the unnameable, etc.

    Unfortunately (or not), one cannot refer to one’s personal
    experience, as in Greg Goode’s definition of Nonduality: ‘Nondualism is an experience, or a metaphysical view about reality’.

    So, our case is lost from the start.

    For completion and corroboration of what I wrote above, the following is the first paragraph of GG’s excellent booklet ‘Nondualism in Western Philosophy’:

    ‘Nondualism is an experience, or a metaphysical1 view about reality. As an experience, it is a sweet, nonobjective sense of presence, of borderlessness, and lack of separation. As a metaphysical view, nondualism holds that reality is not composed of a multiplicity of things. This seems vague, and it
    is because beyond this point, the varieties of nondualism disagree. If reality is not a multiplicity of things, is it then just one thing? Or less? Just what is reality? Some nondualists say that reality is awareness. Some say it is voidness. Some say it is a net of jewels, where each jewel is composed of the reflections from all the other jewels. And some nondualists say that the nature of reality is that it has no nature.’

    • Martin,

      Thanks for weighing in. I have tried before on multiple occasions to point out that we use terms like “Self,” “Brahman,” “Atman,” and so on, as mere placeholders, a way of talking about something that cannot actually be captured by words. “Words fall back from it.” But this point seems so far to have been lost on our Anonymous friend. I keep trying anyway, ever the optimist. 🙂 But you are right. Vedanta is so very counter-intuitive that the case seems lost at the start. One would have to be actually interested in learning about it, rather than simply trying to tear it down without first actually studying or fully understanding it.

      One of my favorite examples of a placeholder term is the square root of negative one. We can’t “really” talk about this number at all, since there is no real number, that when multiplied by itself, will yield -1. Yet we use it in mathematics all the time, with the symbol i to stand for the “imaginary number” that solves the quadratic equation for this root. Further, this is not just a theoretical construct. Imaginary numbers, as well as complex numbers (which combine real and imaginary numbers) are required to solve the wave function equations of quantum mechanics. In simpler terms, your radio would not work if i was just an intellectual piece of knowledge with no relevance to our daily lives. Yet there is nothing in the “real world” that corresponds to it. So we use the i to point to something else that cannot be described in words that apply to our daily experience. It is no different with words like Consciousness, Awareness, Self, Brahman, and so on.

      Best Regards,

  6. Neither Charles nor Martin seems to acknowledge the deception that is at the root of every experience and perception, that there is a separate ‘entity’, a someone who is thinking about all of the above and looking for an ‘answer’, a ‘reality’, an ‘absolute’, that will somehow give them ‘understanding’, ‘knowledge’, ‘insight’, and ultimately ‘Union’ with it.

    We can always change the words, but we cannot change what actually is. Nothing in your power can touch or resolve this deception. It is evident to me that both of you have not understood this. Otherwise, you would have stopped trying to use your mind, which only knows what is already experienced, and cannot give ‘you’ resolution to this deception. Try as you may to explain away what is going on, the deception of self is still going on, whether you capitalize it or not. It’s the same with your comparisons and analogies. No need to quote dead voices. All you need to do is ‘look’ and you will see that all you are doing is repeating dead voices. They are not sacred. You use them to continue the deception. All you need to do is pay attention to what is taking place in your mind and body. The rest follows…………..

    Vedanta, Atma-Vicharya, Zazen, Vipassana, all are about engaging the deception and having a look first hand at what is, not what you want it to be. The problems begin when you hold on to anything that you experience and try to make it into something that fits your conceptual views. If there is no recognition of this basic activity, you are on the wrong track.

    • “Neither Charles nor Martin seems to acknowledge the deception that is at the root of every experience and perception, that there is a separate ‘entity’, a someone who is thinking about all of the above and looking for an ‘answer’, a ‘reality’, an ‘absolute’, that will somehow give them ‘understanding’, ‘knowledge’, ‘insight’, and ultimately ‘Union’ with it.”

      This is a totally false characterization of what I said, what I think, and what I understand. These are YOUR thoughts and misunderstandings, not mine. The deception you are talking about is what we understand to be Avidya, Ignorance, Nescience, whatever you choose to call it. This is one of the most basic aspects of the Advaita teaching, and here you are trying to tell us that we don’t acknowledge it. I tell you I already know that the apparent body-mind “Charles” is just an object in awareness, not a separate entity, and you write back and tell me that I don’t acknowledge that there is no separate entity! Further, I am not seeking anything, not looking for ‘Union.’ That is your dualistic misunderstanding, not mine! I have stated this repeatedly in prior comments, yet here you are telling me I’m looking for something that I am not actually looking for. You are PROJECTING.

      • Pardon me if I mistakenly called you a seeker. From what you say about the deception, it seems you only get it intellectually. There is more to it than only ‘knowing’ it. It stops you from involvement in conceptual thinking and alters the perception of what arises. It has a physical side to it as well.

        I do understand that Vedanta tries to explain all of this, but you cannot use this information to dissolve the deception. It becomes food for it. The mind automatically uses this for its own sense of survival. This is why I say it is not in your power to undo this. Utter honesty is needed.

        • This is precisely why the Advaita tradition insists that a teacher is required to properly unfold the teaching. Otherwise, the mind/ego plays all its usual tricks, constantly trying to objectify That which can never been known as an Object. One cannot simply read one’s way to Moksha. And the teacher must be approached with the utter honesty that you describe (shradda). So in that context, I’ll agree with the substance of what you wrote in your second paragraph above.

  7. Charles,

    Apologies for my non-involvement in this discussion but, you (and Martin) seem to be managing admirably! I butt in merely because the following occurred to me reading Anon’s latest comment (I am not addressing him/her because I resolved not to get involved in any further, fruitless arguments):

    “In an old fable by Aesop, a hungry fox noticed a bunch of juicy grapes hanging from a vine. After several failed attempts to reach the grapes, the fox gave up and insisted that he didn’t want them anyway because they were probably sour.”

    It seems to me that, presumably through lack of sAdhana chatuShTAya sampatti, Anon is unwilling/unable to make the effort to understand Advaita properly. Instead, he/she adopts an intellectually supercilious stance in an attempt to ridicule the teaching (sour grapes) and thereby justify his failings to himself. Up to a point, this is ok, because it permits clarification of aome aspects which may also be confusing to others. But it does also become rather tedious…

    The silly thing is that, as you say, all his questions have been answered in one place or another. If he just made the effort to discover them, instead of railing against all of the misunderstood or incompletely understood concepts he has, he could at last attain that which he clearly wants but believes he cannot have – mokSha.

    • Thanks, Dennis. I’ll take this opportunity to plug *Vedanta, or the Science of Reality*, which Martin kindly called to my attention recently. It is one of the clearest expositions of the teaching I’ve yet encountered, simply brilliant from start to finish. Wish I had read it long ago, for it has clarified many subtle points about the “tri-basic” view compared to the “mono-basic” view of virtually all other traditions and teachings. I mention it here for the possible benefit of other readers who may be looking for additional material.


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