Serve, Love, Give, Purify, Meditate, Realize

Swami Sivananda Saraswati


By Sri Swami Sivananda

What Is Death ?
Signs of Death
Soul”s Journey after Death
Dissolution of the Elements at Death
Death Pangs
Prayer for the Dead
Last Thought-forms
Interval between Death and Rebirth
Be Not Afraid of Death


Great scientists, the inventors of many marvellous things, mighty emperors who have  done stupendous work, inspired poets, wonderful artists, many Rishis, Yogins, have  come and gone. You are all extremely anxious to know what has become of them. Do they  still exist ? What is there at the other side of death ? Have they become non-existent or  have they dwindled into an airy nothing ? Such questions do arise spontaneously in the  hearts of all. The same question arises today as it arose thousands of years ago. No one  can stop it, because it is inseparably connected with our nature.

The idea of death has ever been the strongest motive power of religion and religious  life. Death stirs a man to search for immortality.

Man is afraid of death. Man does not want to die. He wants to live forever. This is the  starting point of philosophy. Philosophy enquires and investigates. It boldly proclaims,  “O man, do not be afraid of death. There is an immortal abode. That is Brahman. That is your own Atman that dwells in the chambers of your heart. Purify  your heart and meditate on this pure, immortal, changeless Self. You will attain  immortality”.

You cannot die, because you were never born. You are immortal Atman. Birth and death  are two false scenes in the unreal drama of Maya. They  concern the physical sheath only, a false product formed by the combination of the five  elements. The ideas of birth and death are mere superstition.

Every soul is a circle. The circumference of this circle is nowhere, but its centre is  in the body. Death means the change of this centre from body to body. Why, then, should  you be afraid of death ?

What is Death?

Death is separation of the soul from the physical body. The entrance of a soul into a  body is called birth. The soul”s departure from the body is called death. A body is dead  if the soul is absent.

Death is a door opening from one aspect of life to another. Death is cessation of  bodily or physical activity, of physical and organic function, of physical consciousness.  Death is a transition from one state of being to another, a change of the from of  consciousness to another plane, astral or mental. Ice becomes water, and water becomes  steam, vapour, and invisible gas, according to the degree of vibration. So is life in the  physical, astral, and mental planes.

Death does not end your personality and self-consciousness. It merely opens the door to  a higher form of life. Death is only the gateway to a fuller life.

Death is not extinction of personality. It is merely the cessation of an important  individuality. It is only a change of form. Life flows on to achieve its conquest of the  universe, life flows on till it merges in the Eternal.

Death is not the end of life. It is an aspect of life. It is a natural incident in the  course of life. It is necessary for your evolution.

Death is not the opposite of life. It is only a phase of life. Life flows on  ceaselessly. The fruit perishes, but the seed is full of life. The seed dies, but a huge  tree grows out of the seed. The tree perishes, but it becomes coal which has a rich life.
Water disappears, but it becomes the invisible steam which contains the seed of a new  life. The stone disappears, but it becomes lime which is full of new life. The physical  sheath only is thrown, but life persists.

Dissolution of the body is no more than sleep. Just as man sleeps and wakes up, so is  death and birth. Death is like sleep. Birth is like waking up. Death brings promotion to  new, better life. A man of discrimination and wisdom is not afraid of death. He knows that  death is the gate of life. Death, to him, is no longer a skeleton bearing a sword to cut  the thread of life, but rather an angel who has a golden key to unlock for him the door to  a far wider, fuller, and happier existence.

Birth follows death, just as waking follows sleep. You will again resume the work that  was left off by you in your previous life. Therefore do not be afraid of death.

Birth and death are jugglery of Maya. He who is born begins to die. He who dies begins  to live. Life is death and death is life. Birth and death are merely doors of entry and  exit on the stage of this world.

Just as you move from one house to another house, the soul passes from one body to  another to gain experience. Just as a man, casting off worn out garments, takes new ones,  so the dweller in this body, casting off worn-out bodies, enters into others which are  new.

O man, do not be afraid of death at all. Death is Maya”s illusory phenomenon. Death is  dissolution of the elements. Thou art immortal, Amara (immortal).

Signs of Death

It is very difficult to find out the real signs of death. Stoppage of the heart-beat,  stoppage of the pulse or breathing are not the actual signs of death. Stoppage of the  heart-beat, pulse, and respiration, cadaveric rigidity of the limbs, clammy sweat on the  body, absence of warmth in the body, are the popular signs of death. The doctor tries to  find out whether there is corneal reflex in the eye. He tries to bend the leg. These signs  are not the real signs of death, because there have been several cases where there were
cessation of breathing and beating of heart, and yet, the persons revived after
some time.

Hatha Yogins (adept in hatha yoga exercises) are put in a box and buried underneath the  earth for forty days. Afterwards they are taken out, and they revive. Respiration may stop  for a long time. In cases of suspended animation, respiration stops for two days. Many  cases have been recorded. The heart-beat may stop for many hours, even for days, and then  it can be recovered. Hence it is extremely difficult to say what would be the actual or  the final sign of death. The decomposition and putrefaction of the body may be the only  final sign of death.

No one should be buried immediately after death, before decomposition sets in. One may  think that a man is dead, whereas he may be in a state of trance, catalepsy, ecstasy, or Samadhi. Trance, Samadhi, catalepsy, and ecstasy are  states which resemble death. The outward signs are similar.

Persons suffering from heart-failure should not be buried immediately, as breathing  might commence once again after a particular time. Burial should take place only after the  body begins to putrefy.

Soul”s Journey After Death

When a man dies, he carries with him the permanent Linga-Sarira which is made up of the five Jnana-Indriyas, the five Karma-Indriyas, the five Pranas, mind, BuddhiChitta, and Ahankara,  and the changing Karmasraya which determines the  formation of next life.

The soul contracts and withdraws all the senses. The physical senses become dimmer and  dimmer, just as the flame in a lamp becomes dimmer and dimmer when the oil gets exhausted.  The subtle body or Sukshma-Sarira passes out of the physical body like a mist.

The soul, accompanied by the chief vital air or Mukhya Prana, the sense-organs,  and the mind, and taking with itself Avidya, good and  evil actions, and the impressions left by its previous existences, leaves its former body  and obtains a new body. When it passes from one body to another, it is enveloped by the  subtle parts of the elements which are the seeds of the new body.

The soul has a vision of the body to come. Just as a leech or a caterpillar takes hold  of one object, the soul visualizes the body to come before it leaves the present body.

Dissolution of the Elements at Death

The physical body is composed of the five great elements or the Mahabhutas, viz.,  earth, water, fire, air, and ether. The Devas or gods are endowed with a divine or  luminous body. The fire Tattva is predominant in  them. In man, the earth Tattva is preponderating. In the case of aquatic animals, the  element of water predominates. In the case of birds, the element of air predominates.

Hardness of the body is due to the portion of earth; the fluidity is due to the portion  of water; the warmth that you feel in the body is due to fire; moving to and fro and such  other activities are due to air; space is due to Akasa or ether. Jivatma or the individual  soul is different from the five elements.

After death, these elements are dissolved. They reach their primordial sources in the  inexhaustible storehouse of nature. The element of earth goes and joins its store of Prithvi Tattva. The other elements also go back to  their sources.

The respective functions of the organs are blended with the presiding gods. Sight goes  to the sun from where it had its power of vision, speech goes to fire, life-breath to air,  the ear into quarters, the body into the earth, hairs into annual herbs, hairs of the head  into trees, and blood and semen into waters.

Death Pangs

There is no pain at the time of death. Ignorant people have created much horror and  terror regarding death. In the Garuda Purana and the  Atma Purana, it is described that the pangs of death are tantamount to the pain caused by  the stings of 72,000 scorpions. This is mentioned only to induce fear in the hearers and  readers, and force them to work for Moksha. In  spiritualism, there is unanimous report from the enlightened spirits that there is not  even a bit of pain during death. They clearly describe their experiences at death and  state that they are relieved of a great burden by the dropping of this physical body, and  that they enjoy perfect composure at the time of separation from this physical body. Maya  creates vain fear in the onlookers by inducing convulsive twitchings in the body. That is  her nature and habit. Do not be afraid of death pangs. You are immortal, Amara.

Prayer for the Dead

The departed souls remain in a state of swoon or unconsciousness immediately after  death. They cannot feel that they are detached from their previous gross material bodies.  Prayers, Kirtan, and good thoughts from relatives and  friends can give real solace to the departed souls. They create a potent vibration and an  awakening in their stupefied condition of mind, and bring back their veiled consciousness.  The souls begin to realize that they are not really in their gross material bodies.

Then they endeavour to cross the borderland, a narrow river of ether, which is known as  Vaitarani to the Hindus, as Chinnat-bridge to the Parsis, and Sirat to the Muslims.

When the departed souls are sinking peacefully and when they are ready to have a  glorious awakening in heaven, they are roused into vivid remembrance of the mundane life  by weeping and wailing of their friends and relatives. The thoughts of the mourning people  produce similar vibrations in their minds and bring about acute pain and discomfort. And  the uncontrolled grief of their relatives drags them down from their astral planes. This  may seriously retard them on their way to the heaven-world. This produces serious injury  to them.

Last Thought-Forms

The last thought of a man governs his future destiny. It determines his future birth.

The last thought of a licentious man will be the thought of his woman. The last thought  of an inveterate drunkard will be that of his peg of liquor. The last thought of a greedy  money-lender will be that of his money. The last thought of a fighting soldier will be  that of shooting his enemy. The last thought of a mother who is intensely attached
to her  only son will be that of her son only.

Raja Bharata nursed a deer out of mercy and became  attached to it. His last thought was the thought of that deer. Hence he had to take the  birth of a deer.

Man always desires to die a peaceful death with his mind fixed on God. That is the  reason why Gita, Bhagavata,  Vishnu Sahasranama, and other holy scriptures  are recited at the death-bed of the sick man; even though he may not be able to speak, he  may hear what is read out to him. This will help the sick man in forgetting the body-idea  or his ailment and think of the Lord. When his memory fails, these sacred sentences of the  scriptures will remind him of his real nature.

It is very difficult to keep up God-consciousness at the time of death when diseases  torment the body, when consciousness fades away. But, for that man who has disciplined his  mind all throughout his life and who has tried to fix the mind on the Lord through  constant practice, the last thought will be thought of God only. It cannot come by a stray  practice in a day or two, in a week or month. It is a life-long endeavour and struggle.

Interval Between Death and Rebirth

People wish to know the exact period that elapses between the time of leaving the body  and being born again. Does the soul take a new body in one year ? Does it take ten years ?  How long does one live upon the subtler planes before reappearing on the earth plane ?  These are some of the questions.

In main, two factors decide this issue, viz., the nature of the individual Karma, and the last impression before death. It may vary  from hundreds of years to a few months even. Those that work out some of their Karmas in  other planes in subtler regions take a considerable time before entering a fresh body. The  interval is very long, for a year of the earth-period passes of as a single day on the  celestial plane. There is an instance cited where, seeing the amazement and admiration of  foreign tourists at the imposing ruins of certain monuments, a saint present in the  vicinity remarked that some of these very people had fashioned the monuments centuries  ago.

Sometimes, a very sensual individual with strong cravings, or one with intense  attachment, is reborn quickly. Also in cases where life is cut short by a violent death,  or by a sudden unexpected accident, the Jiva resumes the thread very soon. Usually, in  such cases of immediate rebirth, the Jiva often remembers many of the events of its  previous life. It recognizes its former relatives and friends, and identifies old home and  familiar objects.

This sometimes leads to very queer developments. There are some instances where a  murdered person, being reborn, has declared the manner of his death and revealed the  identity of the killer. A reincarnated individual had, at times, unerringly gone and  uncovered the treasure that had been hidden away by him.

In the vast majority, this memory is not present. This is really a blessing conferred  by the all-wise Being. Such recollection would greatly complicate our present lives. The  past is veiled to you until such time as it is good and helpful to remember it. When you  attain perfection and reach the end of a cycle, all will be revealed and you will see a  whole rosary of lives threaded upon the one personality.

But such cases of immediate rebirth are not common. Generally, for an average  individual, the interval between death and rebirth happens to be a considerable period  measured in terms of earth-time. Persons who have done much good Karma spend a great deal  of time on the Daivic plane before being born again.  Great souls, spiritually advanced persons, wait for a long time before reincarnating.

In the intervening period between death and new birth, the departed spirit, especially  if the person is physically and spiritually developed, can frequently materialize upon the  earth plane if necessity arises. It takes human form, talks, and even make itself felt by  tangible touch. It is possible to photograph such an apparition.

Such materialized form is different from the astral body which is not visible to normal  vision. It is an exact counterpart, a subtle ”double” to the physical body, and forms the  vehicle in which the departed soul journeys after death.

Astral consciousness, however cannot guarantee you freedom from birth and death.  Occultism and spiritualism can never give ultimate emancipation; nor can they reveal the  full secret of the beyond. Spiritual realization and knowledge of the Self alone will  reveal the mystery of life and death and the life beyond death.

Be Not Afraid of Death

Death is painful to worldly man. A Yogi or a sage, or even a real aspirant, has no fear  of death. A desireless man never weeps when he dies. A full-blown Jnani never dies. His Prana never departs.

Your highest duty is to prepare for a peaceful life hereafter. Conquer the fear of  death. Conquest of the fear of death, conquest of death, is the highest utility of all  spiritual Sadhana. The one aim of all Yoga Sadhana  is to meet death fearlessly and joyfully.

Man is afraid of death. In old age, he tries to think of God. If he remembers God even  from his boyhood, he will reap a rich spiritual harvest in old age.

Bhishma had death at his command. Savitri brought back Satyavan, her husband, to life  through her power of chastity. Markandeya conquered death through worship of Lord Siva.  You also can conquer death through devotion, knowledge, and the power of Brahmacharya.