Death—Our Final Journey to the Unknown

— Swami Vireshananda —

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow.

—William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, Sc. V.

When we continue to experience the world around us, accumulate things of pleasure for future use, make plans for a better tomorrow, and dream of a life with no misery—someone puts an end to all these endeavours that make up our life, and snatches us away to the realm of the unknown through a process full of pain and disease. We go to the realm of the unknown unplanned and yet we know with certainty beforehand that it will surely happen to each one of us on any day of our life. Still, we pretend to be ignorant of it and so, do not talk about it often and get terrified if someone mentions it even by chance. However, despite our wishful thinking and circumvention, we all end up in death, which is one of the existential realities of human life.

The sage Yajnavalkya asks a pertinent question to his disciple king Janaka about this last journey: ‘Your majesty, as one who wishes to go a long distance would procure a chariot or a ship, even so you have fully equipped your mind with so many secret names of Brahman. You have also studied the Vedas and heard the Upanishads. But do you know where you will go when you are released from this body?’ King Janaka replies: ‘Venerable Sir, I do not know where I shall go.’ The teacher assures him: ‘Then I will tell you where you will go.’1

Death and Dying

A distinction is to be made between dying and death. Death is the cessation of life, as we have understood, while dying is the process that leads to death, often referred to in the context of terminal illness or old age. However, the whole life is a journey towards death, a certain state, beyond which lies the unknown realm. The fear of death is not due to death itself, but because of the process of dying that involves excruciating pain, mental suffering, and anxiety of the unknown. It is also due to our total ignorance of what lies beyond death. This fear is fundamentally caused by our awareness of the certainty of mortality in our life, to which we have clung dearly and firmly throughout our existence on this earth.

The concept of abhiniveśa in Yoga Sutra of Patanjali appropriately suggests this clinging to mortal mundane life. Patanjali says: ‘Svarasa-vāhī viduṣaḥ-api samārūḍhaḥ-abhiniveśaḥ; the firmly established inborn fear of annihilation found even among the learned is the affliction called abhiniveśa.’2 Vyasa, in his commentary on this aphorism, explains that every creature has this craving: ‘Let me never be non-existent; let me be alive.’ He also argues that the fear of death cannot arise in a person unless one has felt this earlier. This indicates the experience of death in previous births. This anxiety that gives rise to suffering is but spontaneous and universal, found in ordinary humans as well as learned. Vyasa’s proposal of the possibility of experiencing numerous instances of death in our previous births reinforces the idea that it is the process of dying which is the cause of death-fear in us, but not the actual death itself.

Psychological Perspectives about Death3

The termination of all the functions and faculties of the organs, especially the heart and the brain, that results in the cessation of consciousness is termed death by biologists and medical practitioners. Death is understood through three main theories in psychology. The Terror Management Theory says that humans have the cognitive capacity to realise their own mortality, which allows for the realisation of their inevitable death. According to this theory, the fear of death is the root of all other fears and what we call civilisation is but an attempt to keep the death anxiety under control. Sigmund Freud says that the apparent anxiety about death conceals the real problem and so, it is not the root of the problem. Contrary to this, following mass death and grief in the Second World War, some psychologists suggest that fear of death can be a primary neurotic symptom. According to them, it is not wrong to fear death, but one has to contemplate death and thereby, live an enlightened and fruitful life.

Western Metaphysical Ideas on Death4

Western science including biology and psychology has kept the subject of death at distance for centuries, though some scientists have tried to explain the process of biological death, the psychological effects of thinking about death, and also the mental condition of a dying person. In fact, it is the ancient Greek philosophy, the mother of Western civilisation and science, that greatly dwelt on this mysterious phenomenon of death. The ancient Greek philosophers put forward three main theories to explain death and the rationale behind the fear of death.

  1. Stoicism: The stoics of ancient Greece did not consider death to be terrible. They said that it was a natural process not to be feared. They advised momento mori (meditation on the mortality of human beings) and to remember always that all have to die. Marcus Aurelius said: ‘Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.’
  2. The Idealism of Socrates and Plato: In his work Phedo, Plato reconstructs the last hours of Socrates before he consumes hemlock, the poison, and dies. It is a retelling of the conversation between Socrates and his friends. Here Socrates upholds the immortality of the soul and the after­life. Any person who has prepared one’s mind well will have a good future after death. It is the philosophy which helps one in this preparation. According to Socrates, death is but the separation of the soul from the body and the soul exists by itself in that state. Through this, the soul liberates itself from the sense organs, which torment the soul with their afflictions. We will not be fearful of death if we spend our lifetime preparing for death.
  3. The Realism of Epicurus: Epicurus, another ancient Greek philosopher, agrees with Socrates that contemplating death will be the best preparation for death. However, he takes a realistic stand saying that death takes away all kinds of sensations; good and evil as well as pleasure and pain are completely lost in death. Hence, there is no rational reason for a person to be afraid of death. It is because death is but a state of ‘nothing’ in which neither evil nor pleasure is experienced.

What Survives Death?

In the world of religious literature, perhaps it is the only instance of this sort, that a boy Nachiketa met Yama, the god of death, in the latter’s abode. Still striking is one of the boons the boy asked for from Yama. The Katha Upanishad describes: ‘Nachiketa said: There is this doubt about a man when he is dead: Some say that he exists; others, that he does not. This I should like to know, taught by you.’5 Yama tried hard to dissuade the boy from his resolve to know what was beyond death. Nachiketa did not budge even an inch from his determination despite numerous worldly allurements offered by Yama. The rest of the Upanishad consists of the teaching of the immortality of Atman, the Self of all creatures, and how one should pursue to realise it.

A more detailed description of how a human dies and what exactly happens after death is found in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, which is one of the earliest of the Upanishads. The Upanishad gives a rational explanation of the transmigration of the soul from one body to another. It says that the recurring states of consciousness—namely waking state, dream state, and deep sleep—act as testimony to the fact that Atman is different from the conglomeration of body, senses, and the mind. Sri Shankaracharya succinctly puts such an idea as deha-vyatirikta ātmā (Atman, which is separate from the body). Hence, the Atman can move from one state of consciousness to another—from waking state to dream state, from dream state to deep sleep state and so on. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says that this logic also holds good in the case of the transmigration of the Atman from one body to another. Then, what is death? It is but giving up one set of body-senses-mind conglomeration and entering into another set of the same nature.

How will it be determined that the Atman enters into a particular body? It is the accumulation of puṇya, merit, and pāpa, demerit, which one acquires through the performance of good and bad actions in this life, that guides a person to enter into a new body. What transmigrates and enters into a new body is the subtle body composed of the impressions one has gained in this birth and the past births. Atman, out of ignorance, identifies with it and seems to think itself a transmigrating entity.

A graphic illustration is given in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad of how a person leaves one’s body: ‘Just as a heavily loaded cart moves along, creaking, even so, the self, identified with the body, being presided over the Atman, which is all Consciousness (Supreme Self), moves along, groaning, when breathing becomes difficult (at the approach of the death).’6 The Upanishad further says that when the body becomes emaciated through old age or diseases, the Atman detaches itself from the parts of the body, and moves on (in the same way as it has entered into this body) to another body. It is just like a ripened mango or a fig or a fruit of the peepul tree that gets detached from its stalk.

Graceful Way of Dying

We have two parallel illustrations in both Eastern and Western traditions as to how one should invite one’s own death and die in a dignified manner. Socrates was accused of impiety and sentenced to death, which he accepted without any ill will. He rejected the option of extradition from Athens and chose to die by consuming the poison. His friends were ready to take him away from the prison house stealthily, but Socrates refused to save his life by any such move. He was of the firm conviction that death should not be feared by anyone, especially by a philosopher, who spends all his life preparing for death. Socrates had a long conversation with his friends on perplexing philosophical issues moments before his death. He argued that the soul properly prepared by philosophy would not fear death, and emphasised that the practice of philosophy was indeed ‘the practice of death’ (being fearless and ready for death). The state of death, being a detached state of the soul from bodily association and pleasures, offers freedom to such a wise person. In conclusion, Socrates clarified that death was not an escape from anything. At the end of his conversation, Socrates drank the poison with no sign of restlessness or grief and died in peace without any remorse or pain.7

This singular striking account of the death of one of the luminaries of humanity, recorded by Plato in his Phedo, finds resonance with the Isha Upanishad, which perhaps was composed much earlier than Plato’s great works. The last section of this small Upanishad is a great illustration of how a Vedic sage, not only welcomes death but visualises it as the culmination and fulfilment of all of his life-long spiritual endeavours. The sage, who has worshipped and meditated on the Sun-god all his life, is now on his deathbed. He prays to Sun-god for the realisation of his cherished ideal: ‘The door of the Truth is covered by a golden disc. Open it, O Nourisher! Remove it so that I who have been worshipping the Truth may behold it.’8 Then the sage comprehends he is dying and wishes it to be a process of spiritual accomplishment. He says:

वायुरनिलममृतमथेदं भस्मान्तं शरीरम् ।

ओं । क्रतो स्मर कृतं स्मर क्रतो स्मर कृतं स्मर ॥

अग्ने नय सुपथा राये अस्मान्विश्वानि
देव वयुनानि विद्वान् ।

युयोध्यस्मज्जुहुराणमेनो भूयिष्ठां ते नम उक्तिं विधेम ॥

Now may my breath return to the all-pervading, immortal Prana! May this body be burnt to ashes! Om. O mind, remember, remember all that I have done.

O fire, lead us by the good path for the enjoyment of the fruit of our action. You know, O god, all our deeds. Destroy our sin of deceit. We offer, by words, our salutations to you.9

Conquest of Death

The endeavour of Western science and medicine has always been to prolong the earthy life of human beings. They aim to facilitate humans to ‘live life in full’ as there is always uncertainty about what will happen after death. The Indian traditional wisdom of Vedanta takes a more pragmatic view in this respect as echoed in the words of Sri Krishna in the Bhagavadgita:

जातस्य हि ध्रुवो मृत्युर्ध्रुवं जन्म मृतस्य च ।

तस्मादपरिहार्येऽर्थे न त्वं शोचितुमर्हसि ॥

For to that which is born, death is certain, and to that which is dead, birth is certain. Therefore, you should not grieve over the unavoidable.10

Also, Vedanta speaks of the conquest of death through wisdom and realisation. It has been beautifully expressed in the Kena Upanishad: ‘Ātmanā vindate vīryaṁ vidyayā vindate’mṛtam; by Atman alone one obtains strength; by knowledge, Immortality.’11 Immortality, which is impossible in terms of physical existence, is the very nature of the Atman. True immortality is attained only when we realise the Truth that we are the Atman in essence. It requires relinquishing all the ideas of ‘I am the body’, ‘I am the mind’, and the like, which, Vedanta says are due to ahamkāra, the wrong identification with body and the like. The Atman is defined in the Taittiriya Upanishad as: ‘Satyaṃ jñānamanantaṁ brahma; Brahman which is Reality, Knowledge, and Infinity.’12 It means that the Atman is in no way different from Brahman, the ultimate Reality which is pure existence, pure knowledge which is akin to pure awareness or consciousness, and infinite. The realisation of this Truth alone will make one conquer death in real sense and make one immortal. Thus, in Vedanta, true immortality is the very nature of Atman, the spiritual nature of every human being. This is the only way we can overcome the fear of death and attain everlasting peace and blessedness in life. Hence, Yajnavalkya says to king Janaka:

स वा एष महानज आत्माजरोऽमरोऽमृतोऽभयो ब्रह्म;
अभयं वै ब्रह्म; अभयं हि वै ब्रह्म भवति य एवं वेद ॥

That great, birthless Self is undecaying, immortal, undying, fearless, and Brahman (infinite). Brahman is indeed fearless. He who knows It as such becomes the fearless Brahman.13

Giving Up the Love of Life

According to Swami Vivekananda, life and death are the same thing (looked at from different points). Hence, ‘the only way to get beyond death is to give up the love of life’.14 There cannot be happiness without misery or life without death. The wise men see this contradiction and give up both. Swamiji also analyses what is meant by death. Death is but going back to component parts, which can happen to only compound objects like the body. Atman, being an uncompounded entity, can never get destroyed. Swamiji remarks that ‘it is sheer nonsense to say It (Atman) dies’.15

What is the difference between life and death? Self is beyond matter, force, and thought. Being a simple entity, It cannot die.

That which does not die cannot live. For life and death are the obverse and reverse of the same coin. Life is another name for death, and death for life. One particular mode of manifestation is what we call life; another particular mode of manifestation of the same thing is what we call death. When the wave rises on the top it is life; and when it falls into the hollow it is death. If anything is beyond death, we naturally see it must also be beyond life.16

Following the same logic, Swamiji, in his poem ‘The Song of the Sannyasin’, calls for renouncing our thirst for life to overcome death. This is, by all means, the last word on how to conquer death.

Let darkness go; the will-o’-the-wisp that leads
With blinking light to pile
more gloom on gloom.
This thirst for life, for ever quench; it drags
From birth to death, and
death to birth, the soul.
He conquers all who conquers self. Know this
And never yield, Sannyâsin bold! Say —
‘Om Tat Sat, Om!’17


1 Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 4.2.1; trans. Swami Nikhilananda.

2 Yoga Sutra, 2.9.

3 See Alexina Hupp, ‘A Psychological and Philosophical Understanding of Death: An Analysis of Platonic and Epicurean Philosophy in Modern America’ (2017), Honors Bachelor of Arts, 32. See <http://www.exhibit.xavier. edu/hab/32>, 5.

4 See Ibid., 52.

5 Katha Upanishad, 1.1.20; trans. Swami Nikhilananda.

6 Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 4.3.35; trans. Swami Nikhilananda.

7 See Alexina Hupp (as cited above), 20.

8 Isha Upanishad, 16; trans. Swami Nikhilananda.

9 Isha Upanishad, 17–18; trans. Swami Nikhilananda.

10 Bhagavadgita, 2.27; trans. Swami Nikhilananda.

11 Kena Upanishad, 2.4; trans. Swami Nikhilananda.

12 Taittiriya Upanishad, 2.1.3; trans. Swami Nikhilananda.

13 Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 4.4.25; trans. Swami Nikhilananda.

14 The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1.104.

15 Ibid., 2.234.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid., 4.393.

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