Among the mysteries in life, none is as intriguing as the mystery of death. No one really knows what happens after death. There are theories aplenty but none that can be objectively verified. Death is a door to exit, not to reenter. No one comes back to give a firsthand account of what happens after death. The matters related to death and afterlife (assuming there is one) belong to the field of eschatology.
All ideas concerning death and beyond are interlinked with the ideas regarding the self and the purpose and goal of life. This is clear from the study of the Kaṭhopaniṣad. The discussion there begins with Naciketa’s question (1.1.20):
“There is doubt about a person when he is dead. Some say that he exists; others, that he does not. This I should like to know, taught by you.”
What really dies when I die? Does anything of me survive death? Where does this surviving part of me go? What does my future look like after I die? Since there are many different views regarding this, there are many different views regarding death itself.
One is the purely materialistic view. According to it, life and consciousness are random and accidental products of evolution. We are material creatures. We may have some idea about when we appeared on this planet as a species, but as individuals we had no past and we have no future. Birth is the beginning of life and death is its end. Everything material has to follow the laws of matter. Anything that comes together will eventually come apart. Every composition leads to eventual decomposition. Nothing survives. Period.
The materialists say that there is no afterlife just as there was no before-life. I did not exist before I was born and I will not exist after I am dead. Some people swear by this view, but one suspects that at least some among them silently and secretly hope that they will continue to exist in some form somewhere. Nonexistence is not an attractive option. Many claim to be atheists, but it is not easy to find a real atheist in the foxhole of this messy world.
Aside from the materialist view, all other ideas about death take it as a given that death is not the end. It may be the end of this life, but it is also the beginning of another, perhaps something different. We run into many diverse views regarding what that “different” is. Philosophers have speculated about this and religious traditions have evolved elaborate theologies around it. It is a moot question whether any of those things are true. None of them is verifiable. No one has an answer that can be tested. I can, of course, discover the right answer for myself, but that will happen only when I die, not before.
What matters right now is whether the way my mind thinks will help me rise beyond my biology and give me the experience that makes death irrelevant for me. If I discover that death is no big deal, then I won’t care when death arrives or what happens when it does. It will also free me from the desperate clinging to life because of the instinctive fear of death (abhinivesa) and the accompanying anxiety that underlies my existence .
Never mind the differences between the various schools of Vedanta, they all agree that the human personality is trichotomous. It is possible to see ourselves as beings with three dimensions. Each of the three dimensions is generally described as a “body” (Sanskrit, sarira, literally, “that which wears away”), which would mean every one of us has three bodies, which certainly sounds bizarre and needlessly esoteric and mystifying. A better way to translate śarīra would be “layer,” a layer that eventually wears away or is peeled off.
What are these three layers that make up my personality?
- The outermost layer is what we call the body. It is tangible (sthula) and hence difficult to deny and the easiest to identify as “me.” But it is evident that I am more than simply a body. I am not merely a collection of nerves, bones, muscles, and blood. There is obviously more to me than that.
- Whatever that “more” is, it is the layer inside, or what at least feels is “inside” the body, although no surgeon will find it when the body is cut open. This intangible, subtle (suksma) layer includes my mind, my intellect, my ego, my will, my thoughts, my feelings, and my memories. Sometimes it is convenient to call this whole package simply “mind.”
While the mind’s presence can be felt easily within me, it is difficult to prove it objectively. Those who have tried to do that usually end up pointing to the brain and the changes that occur in it with every thought and emotion as we react to what we see and sense. It is possible to see the brain as a physiological counterpart of the mind, but it is important to recognize that the brain and the mind are not one and the same. The brain is a part of the body whereas the mind is the subtle layer distinct from the body.
- If the mind is the subtle layer, then there is an even more subtle layer within it. What could be subtler than the mind? It is that which is the cause of both the body and the mind. Hence it is called the causal (karana) layer. According to Vedanta, the cause of both the tangible body as well as the intangible mind is the ignorance of my true self. In other words, only when I forget my true self, or my true identity, do I begin to see myself as someone else, or as a creature with a body and a mind.
Now these three layers—gross, subtle and causal—what do they do? What are they layered over? We are told that under these layers is the true self (atman). It is the subtlest of all and, most importantly, it is not another layer. It is me!—the real me. There is one kind of burial we are familiar with, the burial of the body after death. But another has already occurred at the time of my birth. When I am born, I am already buried under the three layers. Worse, I don’t even know that I’m buried. So I don’t see myself as I really am. I see the layers and I think that’s who I am. Mistaking the layers as my self is sometimes likened to the experience of mistaking a coiled rope for a snake. Or in sleep mistaking the dreamworld for the real world.
Every living being passes through different stages in life. These stages are traditionally said to be six (sadvikara)—birth (janma), growth (vrddhi), transformation (viparinama), decay (apaksaya), disease (vyadhi), and death (mrtyu). When someone dies without going through some of the stages, or if these stages occur too rapidly, we tend to call it an “untimely” death. Among the three layers, the body is the most fragile, so the changes in it occur at a faster pace. The mind is subtle and lasts for a long time, so does the ignorance underlying everything.
What is commonly understood as “death” is only the death of the body. It is not the end, it is merely the peeling of the outermost layer. The inner layers are not affected at all. Not affected also, obviously, is the Atman, the real me who is eternal, birthless and deathless (Gita, 2. 20). Upon death, what “leaves” the body are the mind (a product of ignorance) and the Atman (still in the grip of ignorance).
The passage after death and the acquiring of a new body-layer (this is what rebirth means) are determined by karma (Katha Upanisad, 2.5.7). The person is reborn with a new body-layer and in circumstances that are best suited to experience the results of the accumulated karma. If those circumstances are overwhelmingly blissful and fulfilling, the life feels heavenly and we may think of the place as “heaven.” If the circumstances are overwhelmingly painful and frustrating, the life feels hellish and we may think of the place as “hell.” If the circumstances are such as to provide a curious mix of joy and sorrow, the way life feels now for most of us, we simply call the place “the world.”
No matter where the rebirth takes place, the newly acquired body is still subject to the “six stages” and will eventually die, triggering another birth with a different body and in a different set of circumstances dictated by the person’s karma. Through all of these recurring changes that involve shedding an old body and getting a new one (“like changing old clothes for new ones,” Gita, 2. 22), what remains same is the mind and, of course, the Atman.
It is good to know that while my body is with me only for this life, my mind has been with me through all of the countless lives I have had in the past. The body changes in every birth, the mind doesn’t. The mind is the link that provides the continuity as I go from one birth to the next. When I am born, I don’t come with a blank slate. I come with a mind already loaded with past mental impressions (samskara) and ready to experience the results (karmaphala) of past karma. It is the pre-loaded mind at birth that makes one baby different from another, besides the obvious physical distinctions. With age these differences increase when more karma is done, more samskaras are accumulated, and more of life is experienced.
The ordeal of death to birth and to death again only to be reborn feels like a vicious circle because it is a vicious circle. It is a circle because it has no beginning and no end. It is vicious because we are trapped in it, choked by the stranglehold of our own karma and its results, and pushed forward by the relentless power of samskara. We can keep moving in the circle but, even when we are bored or tired, we cannot stop. Imagine being stuck on a moving treadmill and unable to get off or to switch it off. This pernicious circular track (samsara) is never going to end unless the circle is shattered somehow.
What preserves the circle is the delusion (moha) produced by the power of ignorance (maya), the persistent causal-layer that seems glued to the Atman in a mysterious way. Ignorance and knowledge, like darkness and light, cannot coexist. The only way to break the circle therefore is to acquire knowledge—not simply through reading books, not through the knowledge that is mediated through the mind and the senses.
What is needed is the knowledge that is immediate and direct, the knowledge that is better expressed by the word “experience.” The experience of the Ātman is so powerful, so radically life-changing, that never again will I think of myself as a body-mind creature. I’ll see the body, I’ll feel the mind, but they will no longer appear as “me.” The “human” in me will evaporate, leaving behind only the essence of the “divine.”
Those who succeed in getting this experience and remaining in it are called the living-free (jivanmukta). They are free from the hold of the body even when they are living. When death comes, not only does their body die but their mind also “dies,” leaving behind no trace of saṁskaras or of desires, or of karma or its results (Mundaka Upanisad, 3.2.2). No seeds remain that would make a future birth possible.
The Atman, the real me, who was seemingly buried under the layers of the body and the mind, is now free (mukta). The layers disappear. It’s like the dreamworld disappearing upon waking. With no constraints of any kind, not even of time and space, everlasting bliss (ananda) is all that remains. The goal of ultimate freedom (moksha) has been reached.