Life, Death and Immortality

Yama and Nachiketa

On Tues. we were talking about death, resurrection, and immortality because it comes up a lot in spiritual texts, in yogic texts and of course in the Easter story. Also, because it’s the 15th tomorrow what also occurred to me was Benjamin Franklin’s great statement, that nothing in this life is certain except death and taxes. So I wanted to explore a little bit – to talk about death – and how it pertains to what we do when we do yoga. (I see the nervous glances – looking for the exit?)

Actually, a really direct discussion of this topic is in the Katha Upanishad. Briefly, it’s a story about this teenage boy, Nachiketa, who observes his father offering sacrifices, as per the orthodox religious practice – this is thousands of years ago – and he challenges his dad with: “father, how does one expect to get spiritual knowledge by giving away animals? And by the way, you are sacrificing only our sickliest cows!” The father is really riled by this, being called on his hypocrisy, and he curses Nachiketa, saying “I give you to Yama!”: Yama, Lord of Death.

One weird thing is that the Upanishad makes a point of stating that Nachiketa is full of faith – the Sanskrit word for faith is “shraddha” – and since we’ve just seen that he trashed his fathers religious tradition, what exactly does it mean that he is full faith? This word shraddha does not mean faith in religion, it is another kind of faith – it is faith in oneself, in the possibility of enlightenment. Is it arrogant to believe in your bones that you are worthy and capable of attaining Self-realization? Maybe, but in most cases it is a prerequisite to attaining it. But anyway, Nachiketa is naturally full of shraddha, and he believes in himself.

So Nachiketa, full of faith and desiring spiritual knowledge, boldly decides he will go introduce himself to Lord Yama. Who could be a better spiritual teacher than Death? Yama is very courteous and welcomes the young hero as an honored guest, and he finally asks, “So, kid, what can i do for you?” Nachiketa quickly gets down to business and asks the one question that really matters: Is there, or isnt there, life after death?

So Yama, starts to hedge and says, “look, kid, I’ll give you anything want, you can have riches and beautiful women and chariots, cows and palaces, incredible longevity, just dont ask me to tell you the answer to this, my secret.” But Nachiketa wont buy it, wont sell out for all the splendors of the world: “how can I, subject to old age and death, ever rejoice in a long life for the sake of fleeting pleasure? O Yama, does a person live after death or does he not? I ask for no other boon than the secret of this great mystery”.

Yama is moved by the boy’s sincerity and courage and finally relents: “Nachiketa, your supreme Self is Akshara: Imperishable, beyond name and form, beyond the senses, inexhaustible, without beginning, without end, beyond time, beyond space and causality, eternal, immutable..Those who realize the Self are forever free from the jaws of death. They attain the supreme goal in life, to be united with the Lord of Love. Get up! Wake up! Sharp as a razors edge is the path, and difficult to traverse. Seek the guidance of an illumined teacher and realize the Self.” (Easwaran’s translation)

Krishna says the same thing to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. It is the Guru’s job to ingrain this truth to the disciple: “The Atman (Supreme Self) is subtler than the subtlest: weapons cut it not; fire burns it not; water wets it not; and wind dries it not. [it is beyond the elements] The imperishable Self cannot be cut, burned, wetted, nor dried up. It is eternal, stable, ancient and immovable.”

So the supreme Principle within you of Consciousness is immutable and it doesn’t get reborn or anything else, it just IS. Isnt that good news? The purpose of Yoga is to wake us up to this subtle, immortal level of our being, by giving us an experience of It. It is so deeply relaxing and peaceful to touch the core of our being that is eternal. It has all the joy and satisfaction in it of a deep and mutual kiss with your beloved. A yogi considers that a life without tasting this knowledge is a kind of death.

In Yoga we actually do inventory of all our layers of being, moving from one to another, increasingly subtle, till we experience That. We take stock of our physical body by moving it through its full range of motion. We explore and pacify our pranic body through pranayama and the quieted pranic sheath allows us access to the etheric body, the place we enter in deep sleep. Suspending our awareness there in meditation leads at last to a clear encounter with the Supreme, a state known as “samadhi.” (There are several levels of samadhi). The whole process requires us to ‘die to’ or release, each stratum, and this perhaps is what St Paul is saying when he says in Corinthians “I die daily.” As far as i know, the vehicle that moves us through these layers of being is love, so that is what i practice. With love you can project your attention, attach it to the One, and you are pulled up through it into union.

Perhaps a deeper meaning of the story of Nachiketa is this: that we must have the courage to face Death, the dissolution of the sense of self in the void during meditation, in order to obtain the awareness which is the nectar of immortality.

Here’s how Laleshwari, the Kashmiri poet saint of the 1300s puts it:

“Sir, have you forgotten the promise
you made in your mother’s womb
to die before you die? when will you remember what you intended?
Don’t let your donkey wander loose…
who then will carry you naked to your own death?”

The ‘dying’ she speaks of is the spiritual imperative of ego-death. The ‘donkey’ is this human form, which can be made a vehicle to the knowledge of immortality, or will we waste the opportunity and let it ‘wander loose’?

Now dear St. John of the Cross, who was a mystic from another tradition, said something very similar in a poem where he is complaining to God, and saying come on! help me please to “die” so i can be one with You:

“I live yet do not live in me,
am waiting as my life goes by,
and die because I do not die
no longer do I live in me
and without God I cannot live
to Him or me I cannot give
myself, so what can living be
a thousand deaths my agony
waiting as my life goes by
dying because I do not die…”

For St John, being stuck in ego consciousness is death, and transcending it, is Life.

When you consider things from a scientific point of view, everything about us is eternal, or as eternal as the universe is, anyway. First, there is the molecular material which composes your physical body. Science tells us that this stuff was manifested seconds after the ‘big bang’ and will continue until the dissolution of the Universe. Ok, then there is the energy, the electro-magnetic energy, if you will, of your energy body. According to Newton, that energy is not created or destroyed, so it too is eternal. Next, the space, the emptiness in which it all vibrates? Eternal. Finally, the awareness of Being? Eternal. So what is not eternal about you? Our transient concept of our self, our ego. That is what is finite, so the ego really is death, and transcending it, Life.

Lets go. As we do our yoga today we’ll gather our “shraddha” and travel fearlessly through the three sheaths to the deathless Self. We can, if we do it with Love.

April 14, 2009

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