"Fear not, Oh! brilliant one! There is no death in you! There is a way to cross over the ocean of samsara. I shall instruct you in that very path by which the ancient rishis walked to death's beyond." Vivekachudamani, v.43
Imagine a world without death. The population would grow unchecked. The invisible bacterium on its own could take over the world. A bacteria breeds so quickly that in a few hours it could produce a mass equal to the height of a man. As every ounce of soil contains a hundred million of such potential patriarchs, in less than two days the entire surface of the earth would be completely covered by mounds of bacteria. Protozoa could do the same thing in less than 40 days, houseflies in 4 years, rats in 8 years, clover plants in 11 years, and elephants in 100 years.
Death is essential. It has been programmed into life so that all may survive. Without it there would be utter chaos. However, fear of death is still one of the biggest obstacles a man has to face. After all, the instinct to survive is the most deep rooted of all the psycho-biological drives. It is because of this instinct that many of us look ahead to old age and death with such fear and loathing.
Fear of death is a real and tangible entity with power and force behind it. It causes us pain and sorrow, and even high levels of anxiety. It can paralyze us to our very roots, stopping some people from going out of their homes. It prevents us from experiencing life and exploring our fullest potential.
Fear of the extinction of the ego, of our individuality, actually derives from ignorance of what will happen after death, as well as from a wrong understanding of life in general. In his Yoga Sutras, Patanjali has said:
"Ignorance, I feeling, likes, dislikes and fear of death are the pains (kleshas). Abhinivesha is the desire for long life sustained by its own force, which dominates even the learned." (Y.S.2:3,9)
It is a fact that our fear of death has certain evolutionary significance in terms of the survival of the individual and the species. Yet, if we succumb to the fear of death by superimposing tensions and worries on the smooth flow of life, we cause unnecessary pain and disease at all stratas of life. The old must make way for the new, but for many the fear of death is sublimated into a fear of any kind of change. We become cemented in our attitude, unable to accept new opinions, and beliefs and the changing state of society. This rigid attitude leads to stagnation and premature old age.
Death is the most natural and inevitable of all experiences, and none may avoid it. Unfortunately, however, few of us have ever thought about this subject very clearly. We have been taught that death is painful and frightening. Thus we tend to become confused, possessed of half beliefs, superstitions, fears and repressions. Many of us have let our emotions get the better of us, and in order to avoid any kind of painful experience, have insulated ourselves by handing over all responsibility for the dying process and disposal of the dead to licensed experts.
The confusion about dying is made worse by the media. The newspapers bombard us with news of murder, war and disasters, while television and cinema present us with death's most gruesome and violent aspects. Yet when all the murder and killing are finished and the body has fallen to the ground, the scene changes and we forget. Thus we perceive and learn a distorted version of the truth.
Of course, the concepts or methods developed to cope with the fear of death vary from culture to culture and society to society. A more balanced approach can be seen in the Solomon Islanders who envisage death as a state which, like puberty or menopause, lasts for a certain length of time and then leads on to other levels of life. The Tibetan, Hindu, Egyptian and Buddhist traditions talk of a similar state, while the Judeo-Christian traditions speak of heaven and hell.
These concepts are designed to help us cope with our fears, so as to maintain mental and spiritual balance. However, religions have not really succeeded in eliminating the fear of death. Nor has the pure rationalism of science given us a proven answer on the question of death, for intellectual reasoning-is not strong enough to conquer the realities of this fear, especially when we are actually facing the situation ourselves.
Finding no solution in religion or reason, let us now come a little closer to home and have a look into the world of the child. Recent reports from all over the world point out that children share a concept of life and death that may be nearer to the truth for it is unlearned, unconditioned and yet ubiquitous. Children below the age of 5 years show no innate response to a dead object, though they do respond to pain and dying. Everything is perceived as being alive. They make friends with dolls and rocks, and live in a world inhabited by fairies and imaginary friends. They assume a perfect continuity, making no attempt to distinguish between living and nonliving. By 5 to 7 years children talk about death as temporary and possessing various degrees, for example, a pet or doll may be only 'a little dead'. By the age of 7 to 9 years most children have given up their childish notions of death and have learned the concepts of the family and society.
This development corresponds to the time that the pineal gland starts to atrophy in preparation for puberty. It could be that the child below the age of 8 years, whose pineal is still intact, is more in touch with the cosmic, reality, the natural laws and instincts, for according to yogic physiology the pineal gland is related to intuition, inner knowledge and cosmic awareness.
The yogi aims to regain the child's view of death in his efforts to reanimate his pineal and to transcend conditioning, time, space, and all limitations. This leads to a state of expanded awareness which frees him from all fear of death for it is direct perception of the truth, which unfortunately is not directly communicable to others.
The ancient sages and rishis taught that there was no need to fear death, that there is a way to overcome death and to cross the ocean of this world. The method is yoga. All forms of yoga lead us eventually to realization of the immortal self which is beyond death and suffering. In the Bhagavad Gita, for example, Krishna exhorts Arjuna to face the problems of life, the fears of death, the despair and the suffering, and reveals to him the highest yoga:
"Thy tears are for those beyond tears... The wise grieve not for those who live; and they grieve not for those who die..." "Because we have been for all time; I, and thou, and those kings of men. And we shall be for all time, we all for ever and ever." "If any man thinks he slays, and if another thinks he is slain, neither knows the ways of truth. The eternal in man cannot kill; the eternal in man cannot die." (B.G.2:11,12,19)
In order to overcome the fear of death, we can use the following sloka from the Bhagavad Gita as a mantra or object of contemplation:
"All things born, in truth must die; and out of death in truth comes life. Face to face with what must be, cease thou from sorrow." (B.G.2:27)
When we realize and accept the fact that the possibility of death is always with us, that at any moment we might die, we learn to make every act count. We do our best. Life then becomes sacred as we begin to take responsibility for our actions and experience each moment as though it were our first and last. We receive a kick that makes us wake up and really look at ourselves, that spurs us on to deeper self-discovery. With courage and confidence, we will realize that we are not our bodies and that the real 'I' cannot die.