By Praghosa Dasa
A common denominator for practically each of the unlimited varieties of material bodies is that the spirit soul dwelling within is to one degree or another attached to the particular body they reside in.
In turn most resided in bodies have others who are also attached to them, generally family members, or what Srila Prabhupada often referred to as ‘skin disease’. He specifically used this term to describe excessive attachment to family members which leads to increased illusion and the bizarre hope that one thinks they are able to save other family members from death – an impossible dream:
“One is often attached to family life, namely to wife, children and other members, on the basis of “skin disease.” The krpana thinks that he is able to protect his family members from death; or the krpanaa thinks that his family or society can save him from the verge of death. Such family attachment can be found even in the lower animals, who take care of children also.” BG 2.7 Purport
As devotees we are well aware that no matter how attached anyone is, to any particular body, it doesn’t matter, death of the body is inevitable. As Maharaja Yudhisthira famously commented when asked what most amazed him in this material world:
ahany ahani bhutani gacchantiha yamalayam
sesah sthavaram icchanti kim ascaryam atah param
“Day after day countless living entities in this world go to the kingdom of death. Still, those who remain aspire for a permanent situation here. What could be more amazing than this?” MB (Vana-parva 313.116)
These above words were spoken 5000 years ago but still they ring as true today as they did then. I guess our refusal to accept the impending reality of death can be put down to a couple of different factors, not least the intense attachment we all have to our body. It is surely fascinating that no-one (or practically no-one), will seriously argue that the body will live forever. In that sense we all do accept that the body dies but unfortunately that acceptance doesn’t translate into the required urgency to make sure this impending death is our last one:
Those who are actually advancing in spiritual life, they should always keep in front that “We may advance in so many things, but these four things—birth, death, old age, and disease —cannot be solved by our so-called material advancement of science.” SBL December 16th 1970
I remember reading about a certain South American dictator who flew his opponents out to the middle of the ocean and then threw them out – falling to their death. While no doubt their experience was traumatic, it would more than have focused the minds of those descending to their death. The reality is that we are all falling to our death but most of us do not identify with the urgency that Pinochet’s victims experienced.
This of course also applies, in different measures, to devotees, and there is little doubt that the more we advance in spiritual life, the more and more reluctant we will be to waste even a moment of our time away from serving Krishna:
The greatest loss in life is passing time without understanding Krishna. Every moment of our lives should be utilized properly, and the proper use of life is to increase devotional service to the Lord. Without devotional service to the Lord, the activities of life become simply a waste of time. SB 4.27.3 Purport
Another reason is simply fear, as conditioned souls we are pretty expert at avoiding those things that we fear and there is little doubt that there is nothing that generates greater fear in us than death and rebirth. The fear of death or thanatophobia as it is quaintly named is surely the mother of all fears. In Greek thanatos means death. Thanatos was also a ‘mythological’ figure who interestingly had the following siblings – Geras (Old Age), Oizys (Suffering), Moros (Doom), Apate (Deception), Momos (Blame), Eris (Strife), and Nemesis (Retribution). We just need to add birth and we have the full set (given that Oizys/suffering qualifies as disease). Whatever the reason, death is a major issue for all of us, even if we want to blank it out. I recall one interviewer, who in his innocence, came to the temple to report a story for his media outlet. Unbeknown to him Srila Prabhupada, as ever, had other ideas and immediately began preaching to him. During that exchange Srila Prabhupada made the following point:
Interviewer: “Ah, my spiritual ness is strongly absent from my own person. I…”
Prabhupada: “How? Why do you say absent? You are talking.”
Interviewer: “Well, in the sense that I, I look beyond who I am now, I don’t look very far. At this point in my life, I haven’t made the decision that I need to look.”
Prabhupada: “You may decision or not decision, there are two things. There are two things. One is your body and the other, the living force which is moving your body. There is no question of decision; it is already decided.” Interview June 10th 1976
So whether we face death or try to put it on the back burner, it really doesn’t matter as death isn’t going away and we will have to deal with it, or it will deal with us accordingly.
Another interesting aspect of death is that it can strike indiscriminately. Old/Young, Sick/Healthy, Man/Woman, Rich/Poor etc. padam padam yad vipadam.
Of course we tend to be more horrified when a young, healthy person dies as opposed to an old sick person. That of course is somewhat natural but it is interesting to note that both young and old have so much in common. One thing that they don’t always share is that only very close family and friends tend to love an elderly infirm person, whereas the vast majority of people are enamoured by babies. Again this is somewhat understandable as babies are naturally so cute and loveable. While this is very true it strangely cannot be denied that both old and young have so much in common, particularly if the old person is suffering from some kind of dementia.
baby walkers / zimmer frames
nappies / incontinence Pads
baby food / liquidized food
baby speak / rambling
baby bath / bathing chair
play with them / entertain – humour them
educate them / re-educate them
watch them / oversee them
coax them to sleep / make sure they’re asleep
One thing the old and young do not have in common is their enthusiasm for birthdays. As we get older we tend to wish our birthdays would take longer and longer to come around. Whereas young children are hilarious in as far as wanting their birthdays to come around as quickly as possible. I saw a mother and child the other day having the following conversation:
4/5 year old child; “Mummy how many weeks is March away”
Mother “Your birthday is 5 weeks away dear”
Another fascinating thing is that it is so hard to tell the difference between a male and female baby (assuming both have a nappy on). It is equally difficult to tell the difference between an elderly male and female if they have no hair. In that sense both at birth and death this body that we are so attached to – becomes increasingly androgynous.
Androgyny is a term derived yet again from Greek, avrip (aner, meaning man) and yuvn (gyne, meaning woman)
So both from a material and spiritual point of view this body has little to offer unless it is exclusively engaged in the service of spirit. As devotees we know this reality (even if we don’t always act in full realization of it), therefore we should strive to do all we can to offer protection, shelter, compassion and love to all, even if they are resistant to our approaches.
After all it is only those who know the realities of death [the illusion that is death] who can reveal the secret of eternal life.
“The living entity is eternal. Thus he has neither birth nor death (na hanyate hanyamane sarire [Bg. 2.20]). According to the reactions of one’s fruitive activities, one takes birth in various species of life among the birds, beasts, trees, human beings, demigods and so on, thus rotating through various bodies. For a certain period of time, one receives a particular type of body as a son or father in a false relationship. All our relationships in this material world with friends, relatives or enemies consist of duality, in which one feels happy and distressed on the basis of illusion. The living entity is actually a spiritual soul who is part and parcel of God and has nothing to do with relationships in the world of duality. Therefore Narada Muni advised Citraketu not to lament for his so-called dead son” SB 6.16 Summary