A Reflection on Death

‘There is suffering,’ said the Buddha when he attained enlightenment. As to whether he experienced any joy or relief in the moments after his realisation is unclear. There is no record of any obvious hallelujah, ecstatic uttering or celebration. However his next statement, thankfully, was, ‘It can be overcome.’

As a young boy the Buddha’s parents protected him from seeing life’s passages. The shock of confronting illness, old age and death created such despair in him that he left everything that was dear to him in order to understand the true meaning of life. Death was an enigma and he was unwilling to settle for platitudes.

Recently I had to undergo some medical procedures. And even though my doctors were positive that I would come out of them without dire consequences, which is the case, my mind turned toward death. As a young woman anxious about the future I used to wonder, ‘What will I be like at 30? Where will I be when I am 40? What will I be doing at 50? What does the future hold at 60? Where will I be when I am dead? I felt a definite shift in attitude when I realised I was much closer to death than birth. Death could be the next big event in my life.

Every year I try to go to India on retreat. There, death is present, visible on almost every street corner. Dogs, chickens, cows and people forage in the sewers and garbage piles, beggars plead verbally and subtly for their survival, young boys pander their wares at stoplights, and workers live openly in the streets, bathing, defecating, procreating, eating—everything happens on the street. No transition is hidden. Every creature and person lives on the brink and survival is a constant threat.

God too is everywhere. Shops announce their wares with signs in brightly coloured letters: Krishna Imports, Radha Saris, and Shiva Dosa. The names of the Lord are used to entice customers into shops. Small temples, home to various deities, are visible on every other street, and not just Hindu, Jain, Sikh and Moslem also. Priests pay homage and offer prayers every moment of the day. Perhaps their prayers mitigate the fight for survival. Yet, behind the struggle the atmosphere is alive with a subtle joy.

The Vedas teach that we are more than a body/mind complex and that when we shift our identification from the material, the body, to the eternal, the inner Self, we gain a truer sense of who we are. Death is considered a return to the Divine. When the body perishes, the inner Self, the Atman, which is eternal, is reabsorbed into Supreme Consciousness. It is similar to a deep meditation in which the consciousness of an individual merges into the inner Self and becomes one with it.

Self-realised yogis take what is called maha samadhi, the great absorption, at death. Generally their lives have been devoted to service, meditation and spiritual practice. They attained the highest states of Consciousness possible for a human being. Hence they are considered conduits for the grace of God.

While in India I seek out the company of two saints who passed away many years ago. Their passing, although a cause of grief for devotees at the time, is honoured by burial of their bodies in shrines. Saints, gurus, swamis and children are buried – everyone else is cremated.

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Bhagawan Nityananda’s Samadhi Shrine Ganeshpuri

India is full of Samadhi shrines of Gurus, saints and yogis, some who died centuries ago, some more recently. These Samadhi temples (places of burial) are a haven for pilgrims looking to overcome suffering and for spiritual upliftment. At death devotees continue to worship their Guru as the pure energy of the Self. It is believed that Gurus bestow blessings, teachings, grace and love, long after they have left their bodies.

My first experience of meeting a saint long buried whose Shakti, spiritual energy is still present was in 1978 when I went on pilgrimage in India with Baba Muktananda. I wasn’t convinced that it was possible for a person’s energy to be present after death, and such a long time. We visited one of the most famous Samadhi shrines in India at Alandi, a small village where the young yogi, Jnaneshwar took ‘live’ samadhi in the 11th century. He was a brilliant and much loved Guru who attained Self-realisation in his early teens.

When Jnaneshwar was twenty-two he told his devotees that he was going to take maha samadhi. He asked them to dig a hole in the ground. He told them that he was going to sit in the hole and enter meditation. They were to cover him with dirt and leave him, which they did. The story of his death continues when several hundred years after his burial another yogi, Eknath Maharaj, had a dream in which Jnaneshwar told him that he was being choked by the root of a neem tree that grew close to his body. Eknath dug up the grave to find the body warm and alive, although Jnaneshwar was still in a meditative trance. He removed the root that was around Jnaneshwar’s neck and again covered him over. I had heard that devotees believed Jnaneshwar to be still alive. I was skeptical. It seemed impossible and frightening. I cannot think of a more terrifying death than being buried alive.

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Jnaneshwar’s Samadhi Shrine

On the day of our visit the temple was crowded with pilgrims from all over India. I could see the neem tree, in the middle of the courtyard just outside his shrine. The line was long as we waited single file. Brahmin priests ushered us one by one into a small room no bigger than a closet. The floor was dark grey stone polished to a shine from the millions of bare feet that had made their way there. It was hot and the only light came from a small window carved in the stone walls. Two priests chanted mantras as we passed by. In the centre of the floor above Jnaneshwar’s head was a square with a black lingam, an esoteric symbol of Shiva, covered in flowers. I looked down and offered some flowers. As my hand came close to the top of where Jnaneshwar’s head would be, I felt waves of energy and heat pouring out of it. In my mind I heard a rushing sound like the wind and I fell to my knees in devotional ecstasy. I heard myself muttering, ‘Oh my God, he is alive; he is alive!’

I looked up into the face of the Brahmin priest across from me as he reached out to stop me from falling on top of Jnaneshwar’s head. He was smiling in amused agreement. I unsteadily rose to my feet with his help. I was intoxicated. I couldn’t believe it. Jnaneshwar’s presence was still there. Disbelief vanished in the face of the powerful energy and love pulsating from the lingam.

In the dusty villages of India birth and death are family matters. There are few doctors in rural India and certainly no embalmer. And so it is left to tribal and village rituals to manage life’s transitions.

During my last visit to India in February this year my guru’s elderly drum teacher, Potya, unexpectedly passed away. He worked on the corner of Kailas, Bhagavan’s ashram,  handing out water to thirsty pilgrims. I looked forward to seeing his smiling face when I walked past on my way to meditate or shop. He spoke no English and he waved, or folded his hands in a silent hello.

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Potya drumming at Kothavala

A few days before I was to return to Melbourne, I noticed that the door to his water stand was closed, and the next day also. I wondered where he was. One morning Percy, the owner of the hotel where I stay told me that Potya had had a massive heart attack. Apparently, he had not been feeling well during the days he was missing from his post and had gone to the local hospital, an hour away where he had died. Percy asked me if I wanted to go to the funeral and I said yes.

On the way to Potya’s house, where the ceremony was taking place, Percy bought some marigold garlands to offer him. When we arrived, there were about 200 people, mostly men, waiting solemnly in the front garden. Potya’s close female relations were in the house bathing, oiling and dressing his body. I could hear the wailing of their sorrow as we stood waiting for them to finish. A few women were outside—some weeping, some saying mantra, some praying. The men were eerily quiet.

They say you are gone yet you are lying peacefully. Bathed, perfumed, clothed, you lay sleeping—quiet now from the sorrow of your body. Garlanded, wrapped in white, your wailing daughters weep the tears of loss. I hear their anguish and yours too…. All may be forgiven with Nityananda’s blessing. From my notes.

After about 15 minutes some men went inside and came out carrying Potya’s body. There was a palanquin covered in straw and a long muslin cloth, on which they gently laid him down. Everyone lined up to say goodbye to him by touching him or speaking some final words.

There was no smell of death, only the freshness of the bath and the scented oil they had rubbed into him. He looked as though he was in a deep sleep and at any moment would awaken to the sounds of his loved one’s grief.

After the farewells more muslin cloth was pulled over to cover him while various dignitaries spoke. They then laid white shawls across him. One of the curious cultural contrasts is that white, not black, represents death. Widows wear white, not young brides embarking on a new life. Next we placed our garlands on him. As I offered my garland I was overcome by emotion as I remembered the tender moments between my guru and Potya when they met for the first time after many years. I said goodbye and wished him a peaceful journey.

Potya’s body was now hidden underneath a colourful mound of green leaves, marigolds, chrysanthemums, jasmine and roses. His sons and male relatives carefully picked him up to carry him to the cremation ground, an isolated spot near the river Tansa which winds through the valley. At a certain point as they walked toward the burial site, the women stopped walking and we stood watching as the men continued on their way. For some reason women do not attend the actual cremation.

This farewell was in sharp contrast to a funeral I attended shortly after I returned to Australia. The funeral parlor was tastefully sterile, impersonal and almost cold. Many of the family, slightly aloof held back from expressing their grief openly. I had made a garland of flowers to offer the deceased. The family looked at me nonplussed when I asked if I could lay it across the coffin. I was remembering the unselfconscious expression of grief and love by Potya’s howling daughters and relatives, who let their loss break through the walls of their hearts to moan and complain to God. The expression of sorrow could not be stilled. Death could not dam heartbreak, but here the unspoken choked the atmosphere. The intimacy of this ceremony paled in comparison to Potya’s.

Sudden death has perhaps the most heartache. I have been shaken to the core of my being when I was awoken in the middle of the night by police with the news that my brother had just been killed in a car accident. But worse than that, was that I then had to break the news to my mother.

In 1981 the SYDA Foundation President, Ron Friedland suddenly died. Everyone was shocked, especially Baba Muktananda, who was the spiritual head and Guru. At the time I was working on the Foundation magazine. I wanted to write an obituary and knew that I had to ask Baba if it was appropriate to do so. It was early in the morning when I found Baba sitting on a little perch in the courtyard of his ashram in India. I tentatively walked up to him and said, “Baba, may I write something about Ron?”

He looked at me stunned, and then burst into tears and sobbed, “No one will ever know how much I loved that man.”

I stood there feeling the sorrow of Baba’s loss, astonished that he permitted his grief to flow and that he allowed me to see his humanity. My empathy flowed toward him. In that moment I felt like his mother. My heart went out to him and I silently offered him comforting words. After a minute or so, Baba’s tears stopped and he said, “Yes, write something.”

Grief and sorrow are natural at certain tragic moments in life. We need to find ways to pass it through the heart as we learn to accept and live with what has happened. The heart must be allowed to breathe whatever feelings arise in it from loss. Anger, fear and grief are natural companions to loss. However we also have to be careful not to cling to them or the pain. If we brood too long we risk the heart freezing in time, shutting down and turning to debilitating despair. In time sorrow will become compassion, acceptance and forgiveness. And, we become more empathic to the suffering of others.

Even though Hindus grieve the loss of the person, they are also reassured and comforted by the understanding that there is rebirth. This doesn’t necessarily still the ache of loss, but it does offer some comfort. The idea of rebirth is both horrifying and exhilarating to me. I am not certain how many of us, given a choice, would want to live again. Yet, life is precious, and the seeking and finding of God, love and meaning is a great joy. In my youth I chased death as a possible answer to existential angst. But now knowing that there is true meaning and purpose, something eternal into which all sorrow can be sacrificed, then, yes, I choose to do it all again. For love of people, for love of Self, and for love of God, I would, if given the opportunity, willingly embark on another life. Would you?

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