While researching the life of Adiguru Shankaracharya for the book Living Shankara, I became intrigued by what appeared to be authentic evidence of him living at quite different times. It began to be clear to me that this great yogi had taken birth several times over the last three and a half thousand years or so. Each time he had been recognized as a great authority by his contemporaries, and had continued the work of preserving and teaching the ancient wisdom or vidya. This led to renewed reflections on rebirth, and how rebirth is accepted in many eastern traditions but is often rejected or regarded sceptically in the West.
I wondered if many of the emotional problems of people in the West, and the way western society has become so estranged from nature, could be traced to this view that our present life is the only dimension of consciousness that we will ever experience. It’s a very isolating perspective; in fact, it’s hardly a perspective at all. A much wider perspective is that reality encompasses and transcends this present existence, and that death is a portal into the next phase of our evolution.
Humans, and human society do not have to be ruled by materialistic concerns, the consciousness of humankind can be expanded to incorporate concern for all human beings and for all of nature. It’s an unsettling experience to come face to face with embodied consciousness in the form of a dog, an elephant, or some other animal that society treats as unaware, and to realize that this denigration of other life forms is happening routinely around the world. Human sensitivity needs to evolve beyond ‘me and mine’, and we need to be able to maintain this sort of expanded awareness if we wish to evolve into human beings who are ready for the next step in evolution.
The scriptures speak of the soul evolving as it takes birth in the form of various creatures, and in various dimensions. It’s a long journey through expanding states of consciousness, but we can start work on ourselves right away. Swami Satyananda Saraswati in 1976 had the slogan, ‘Yoga is the way to uplift the consciousness of mankind.’ He was speaking about how one can live with more awareness – but to complete the circle, we have to die with more awareness too. And in the end, he also demonstrated how to do that – transforming death into mahasamadhi.
We so often avoid communicating with people on the subject of death, even if they are dying, or suffering because someone they love has just died, but we need to learn how to die well, as a peaceful conclusion to a well-lived life. Death is not defeat, and the attitude towards death that people have as they are dying is crucial to the actual process of dying, and to what happens to the spirit after death and in the next birth.
We should embrace the perspective that life and death are part of a full circle. We may not be able to approach such mastery in life or death right now, but even lesser yogis, who are not enlightened but who have experienced out of body experiences, or faculties such as telepathy and clairvoyance, which operate beyond the senses, are more likely to understand and accept the scriptural view that the body is merely a dwelling place for a spirit that is multi-dimensional.
Ramana Maharshi and Paramahamsa Ramakrishna remained peaceful and concerned with the welfare of others throughout their long and painful fatal illnesses – and transformed their deaths into mahasamadhi. Swami Satyananda voluntarily, wilfully, raised up his pranas while chanting Aum and dropped his body while his consciousness achieved maha-samadhi. His mastery was such that, when he died, he used the opportunity to perform this greatest of all the kriyas as a teaching for all of us. It led to wanting to know what the teachings concerning death are in our own tradition of yoga and Vedanta.
The longer we live, the more often we meet death, whether of family or friends or of people we hardly know at all, and our own experience of death is coming closer each day. Why not look into this subject of death more closely? Why not try to overcome our fears and build up sure understanding of how we can help ourselves and others through death into new dimensions of consciousness?
Once I began talking with people about death, I found many have had out of body experiences, or experiences communicating with the dead, or have remembered past lives, but have not ‘put them together’ to form a larger picture of reality. It is necessary to integrate this deeper understanding of who we are so that we can live this life better, and so that we can help those who are suffering as death approaches.
In this learning process, I particularly found the satsangs of living masters to be most helpful. Hardly surprising as they are not here because they have to be; they have chosen to return to preserve the ancient teachings and wisdom about the journey of the soul, and to establish goodness. They not only give techniques from their different traditions that we can practise to strengthen the mind and increase our awareness and concentration in life and death; they emanate wisdom, confidence and joy in life, and unshakeable faith in the divine connection guiding us through.
Printed in Life and Death – Full Circle