IN literature, art and cinema, death has been almost always depicted as a terrible thing, the final end, although in reality it is merely a release from the burden of the physical body.
Every religious tradition recognises that to reach the final truth, one must pass through death. This is the meaning behind Aanea’s descent to the underworld in Virgil, of Dante’s descent into hell in the Divine Comedy and the Christian baptism: “You were baptised into the death of Christ”.
In the Katha Upanishad, Nachiketa asks Yama, “What lies beyond death?” The Upanishad states: “The wise man, who, by meditation on the self recognises the ancient, who is difficult to be seen, who has entered into the dark, who is seated in a cave, who dwells in the abyss, just as God, who has left both joy and sorrow, friends and foes behind, has already known what lies beyond death”.
Death is merely the loss of the physical body which is a piece of cloth to cover the soul. After death, the mental and emotional states are as active as ever.
In the Chandogya Upanishad, there’s a description of the four stages of consciousness: Jagrat or wakefulness, Swapna or dream-state, Turya or meditative-state and Sushupti or the highest state of awareness.
A topic with which each and every human being is concerned with and yet remains amazingly ignorant of, is the topic of life and death and their relationship. Plato, in his discourse with Socrates, asked: “Is it simply the release of the soul from the body? Is death nothing more or less than this, the separate condition of the body by itself when it is released from the soul, and the separate condition by itself of the soul when released from the body?”
All major religions of the world affirm that there is a subtle and death-surviving element, vital and psychical in the physical body of flesh and blood, whether it is the permanent entity of self, such as the Brahmanic atma of the Hindus, the Islamic ruh, the Christian-Judaic soul, or a complex of activities with life as their function according to the Buddhist concept. Thus, to none of these faiths is death an absolute ending. It is merely the separation of the psyche from the gross-body. The ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead refers to death as “the snapping of the silver-cord”.
Death remains a tragedy, a problem, a heart-rending experience and a source of great suffering though it has existed since eternity. Why? As long as there is identification with and dependence on the external form, the gross physical body, as the only reality, death is tragic.
However, if consciousness can be focused beyond the external form and labels (i.e. the labels of father, mother, son, daughter, etc) then death loses its terror. In every religion we find guidelines on how to move from life to death. Tibetans have the Bardo Thodol or the Book of the Dead, which gives instructions on how to condition the next birth through mental yoga — of course, within the limitations of karma.
In Zoroastrian religious literature, it is stated that “every tear shed for the departed soul becomes a raging astral-river which retards the spiritual progress of that soul”.
Not surprisingly, in Celtic death-ceremonies, there is dancing and feasting signifying joy at the departed soul’s liberation. Similarly, neo-pagan death rituals are a form of celebration, accompanied by music and presents of rice and flowers for the departed.
In James Barrie’s Peter Pan, Peter says, “To die will be an awfully big adventure”. So also in J R Tolkein’s Lord of The Rings: The protagonist Frodo boards death’s ship to heaven when he “heard the sound of singing by his friends on earth”.
Just as we have a physical body, we have a mental body, an emotional body, an energy body and a subtle body (sukshma-sharir). All these bodies cover the soul or atma like sheaths (or layers of an onion). But once you realise that you are the soul (atma-swaroop) and not any of the other bodies, then you have gone beyond time and space and, consequently, beyond birth and death.
The subtle body is the electro-magnetic body (aura) that permeates the physical body and extends beyond it in space.
During the process of death, the subtle body gradually starts to withdraw from the physical body, and when this process is completed, the soul (atma) withdraws from the subtle body. It was this moment which was referred to as “the snapping of the silver cord” by initiates of the ancient mysteries in Egypt