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The Mystery of Death (II)

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The self and its experience after death

Is there life after death?

This question has vexed humanity since the beginning. Our apparently less scientific ancestors were not less informed about the processes of death either. It seems that our knowledge is least certain about the one and only certain event in our life! This in itself would not matter, for ignorance is understandable, especially in a domain as unknown as death. What is however worrying is the lack of a genuine urge to know. This arises from two sources. One is a problem common to all methods of modern science. It is the belief that material reality is the sole reality. The consequence of this assumption is that our instruments are not designed to pick up and record any phenomenon of a non-material nature. We can take the analogy of dreams. Dream experience is as real to the experiencing consciousness as the waking one is to the awake. Even our body’s physiology responds to the dream experience as more real than the waking one. Thus we may be sleeping in the most comfortable of beds, in the most secure surroundings, yet the body responds to a nightmare as if it was real! And it is indeed real to the experiencing consciousness, so much so that the fear generated may actually lead to a heart attack or paralysis. The irony however is that while our most sophisticated machines can record changes in blood pressure, heart-rate, brain wave patterns, respiration and all the rest of our physiology and chemistry, we do not yet have a way of recording our thoughts, feelings, desires and the self-experience of the dreaming phase! Unless of course the dreaming person wakes up and tells us himself about his experience. This is often not available in detail and therefore we conveniently reverse the cause-effect relationship. We say that the dreaming phase leads to certain changes in our physiology which is not very good for our heart and circulation. We do not say that the self experience during sleep leads to the physiological changes. Is the sleep of the average man and the yogi the same in quality both in terms of self-experience and its effects upon us? Whatever evidence we have today points to the contrary. We do not raise these questions because science deals with the average and generalises it for the race. But the study of the rare and the exceptional is also important to the total contribution of knowledge. It is the exceptional that indicates the future possibility of the race. The exceptional and odd reptile perhaps opened the doors to the coming of an entirely new family of vertebrates!

This digression was important because the parallels between sleep, dream and death are far too many to be ignored. Sleep is like a miniature death, as far as our self experience goes, except that we can be woken up from sleep with some memory of our previous day but not from death. In both we seem to enter into an experience whose geography, contours, navigation and sense, is generally not available to us. The maps are quite foreign to our waking state. A large chunk of the experience is invariably lost to our waking mind (or rather inaccessible, for no experience is ever lost to the consciousness). We may therefore conveniently ask if death is not yet another altered state of consciousness, so radically different from our waking one, that the body cannot follow and disintegrates! At least this is what the testimony of yogis and studies of OBE (out of body experience) and NDE (near death experience) indicate.

If that be so then we come to the second problem in the study of death. We are perhaps not asking the right questions. Instead of asking if there is life after death, we should ask if there is life after death, as we understand and experience it? If we ask the right question we are less likely to be misled by the answers. We would not, for example, pass off the dream communications of the departed with their loved ones as sheer imagination or hallucination! In fact, “We have within us many states of being and each state of being has its own life. All this is put together in one single body, so long as you have a body, and acts through that single body; so that gives you the feeling that it is one single person, a single being. But there are many beings and particularly there are concentrations on different levels: just as you have a physical being, you have a vital being, you have a mental being, you have a psychic being, you have many others and all possible intermediaries. Suppose you were living a life of desire, passion and impulse: you live with your vital being dominant in you; but if you live with spiritual effort, with great goodwill, the desire to do things well and an unselfishness, a will for progress, you live with the psychic being dominant in you. Then, when you are about to leave your body, all these beings start to disperse. Only if you are a very advanced yogi and have been able to unify your being around the divine centre, do these beings remain bound together. If you have not known how to unify yourself, then at the time of death, all that is dispersed: each one returns to its domain. For example, with regard to the vital being, all your different desires will be separated and each one run towards its own realization, quite independently, for the physical being will no longer be there to hold them together. But if you have united your consciousness with the psychic consciousness, when you die you remain conscious of your psychic being and the psychic being returns to the psychic world which is a world of bliss and delight and peace and tranquillity and of a growing knowledge.”(1)

Immortality and the conquest of death

Is it possible?

Both spirituality and science have believed for long in the transience of earthly life. Yet both science and spirituality have also secretly believed in the possibility of immortality. In all ages, science has attempted to discover a technology that can not only prolong life but in the end conquer death. Spirituality arriving from the other pole of experience has affirmed the presence of a consciousness of immortality and the means of arriving at it. There is a state of consciousness within us which is aware that we have always been and shall exist forever. The yogi is consciously in contact with it, while the scientist is unconsciously inspired by it. The whole problem consists in discovering inner and outer means of bringing that consciousness in contact with the physical substance of our body. More than anywhere else, it is here that the yogi and the scientist have to work together. The methods that science has been pursuing so far is to discover the reasons for cellular aging and death. It started with cryonics (freezing the body), went on to amines and errors in metabolism, and finally rests today on genetics (role of telomerase in cell division and aging). There has been simultaneously a parallel science of physical culture working towards an awakening of the latent capabilities of the body. The naturalistic method combines this with certain advice about food and regulation of life energies. All these methods have helped in pushing off the hour of death, but its conquest still eludes us. For all our knowledge, we do not know where the roots of death lie and where are the springs of immortality to be found.

The reason for this is well brought out by Sri Aurobindo:

“As for immortality, it cannot come if there is attachment to the body,– for it is only by living in the immortal part of oneself which is unidentified with the body and bringing down its consciousness and force into the cells that it can come. I speak of course of yogic means. The scientists now hold that it is (theoretically at least) possible to discover physical means by which death can be overcome, but that would mean only a prolongation of the present consciousness in the present body. Unless there is a change of consciousness and change of functionings it would be a very small gain.”(2)

The fact that science has begun to see the possibility of physical immortality, is a sign that the mind of the race is turning towards a radical departure, exploring horizons without limits.

A dual approach is necessary to conquer death. First and foremost, is the need to discover the principle of immortality within us. That would liberate us from the fear of death and, by application, liberate our inner consciousness from the spell of death. At the physical end it is necessary to awaken the physical consciousness.

Several efforts and intermediary stages may be necessary before the human body reaches a point whereby it can consciously throw away the burden and law of death.

The final conquest will come only when the principle of immortality establishes itself as a natural element in the race.

Conclusion

Life is the first mystery encountered by us, death is the last. We know something about the events in between and also a little about the processes of life and death. But the wherefore of life and the why of death escape our understanding. It is unlikely that a purely physical approach will make us any wiser. Its utility too is doubtful since to conquer death without changing our inner life, prone to suffering and diseases of various kinds, would mean only a prolongation of our present ills. Perhaps death is the last imperfection to be conquered since it reminds us of the transience of every earthly achievement. To conquer death would imply establishing permanence in place of transience. That would be worthwhile only when we are able to arrive at a perfection of our inner consciousness. Yet knowledge advances and evolution continues.

References
1. The Mother. Collected Works of the Mother, Vol. 5. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 1976, p.134.
2. Sri Aurobindo. Letters of Yoga, Part IV. Pondicherry; Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust, 1970, p.1234.