Lessons on life, death, and living in a spirit of devotion
ISKCON devotees commonly use the phrase, “Going back home, back to Godhead.”Have you ever thought about what this means when a traveler is anxious to return home? Home is where our family is, where there are people who love us, who trust us. It’s the place we’re comfortable and happy. It’s the place we feel most natural.
The world we live in is foreign to the soul; we are strangers in a foreign land. In this alien place we call home we experience so many misfortunes, confusions, and unnatural conditions. These miseries are there because we have forgotten our true spiritual essence and instead identified ourselves with our material body. This identification causes us pain, yet we don’t want to give it up. We are in illusion about what will bring us happiness. In our misunderstanding of who we are, we want to hold on to those things that cause us suffering. We will actually do anything to preserve and to maintain our body. We do not hesitate to commit any atrocious activity to somehow or other increase our life span. We use the body to create a home and comfort, but of course neither is possible not for long, anyway.
Living on a Bridge
Lord Jesus is quoted in the Bible as saying that this world is a bridge. We should cross a bridge, not build a house on it. A bridge is meant for one purpose only to take us from one side to another. It is not a place to stop, to make a permanent residence.
This human form of life is the bridge that can take us from the land of illusion, from the land of attachment, and from the land of birth and death to our true home: the land of the eternal, the land of love, the land of Krishna. We should use this bridge for the purpose for which it was built. But we tend to be foolish weaver age persons in this world and so spend our entire lives simply trying to set up a home on this bridge. We try hard to hold on to illusion as long as possible. However much we endeavor, we are bound to be frustrated. We must be kicked off the bridge by death.
Death is not a Dead End
For worldly persons death means “the end.” Death means being kicked out of our home, ripped from family members, friends, and all our well-wishers. It doesn’t matter that we might have given our lives to these people. We must go.
But death shows a different face to devotees; death means tasting the sweet fruit of everything we have given our lives for not losing it, but gaining it. Death doesn’t mean to be stripped from our home but to return to our home. Death doesn’t mean to be stripped from family members and other loved ones but to return to our eternal, true family members and loved ones. After a long, tiring, and frustrating journey through the foreign land we can finally return home. A devotee welcomes both life and death for this reason.
It is said in the Gita (2.69) that what is nighttime for the conditioned soul is daytime for the devotee. Krishna tells Arjuna, “Although you are speaking like a wise man, you are actually a great fool because you are lamenting for that which is not worth lamenting for. Wise persons lament neither for the living nor the dead because they know the soul is eternal.”
If there is one thing devotees lament in their hearts, it is when someone dies without having used his or her life to attain the supreme consciousness. Such a miserly person has given up the chance for self-realization and has died like a dog or cat. There is nothing to lament for those who have cultivated Krishna consciousness. Death for such persons simply means taking one step closer to their home the spiritual world. We should weep tears of sorrow for those who waste their lives on pursuits other than Krishna consciousness because for them death casts them deeper into this foreign land and further from their home with Krishna.
For devotees, death is really the time of life we most celebrate. Death is when we go back home to our real family and to Krishna. In Vaikuntha there are no more disturbances, austerities, or sacrifices; it is a place where we can simply enjoy the comforts of our eternal home. Vaikuntha means “the place of no anxieties.” Knowing we are on our way to such a place leaves devotees peaceful, joyful, and fearless.
Ultimately, there is only one fear in this world the fear of death. All other fears are corollary to that. We are afraid of the death of our prestige, of our material sense enjoyment, of our fortune, and ultimately of our body. But a devotee knows there is no death. Death is simply when the door opens and Krishna says, “Welcome home!” Just like when you walk home after an arduous journey, longing for your mother’s cooking and to see your family again, your family greets you with a “Welcome home,” so it is when you return to Krishna. Throughout our lives we are knocking on the door to Krishna’s kingdom, asking Him to let us in. That is a devotee’s life.
Those who are not devotees do not knock on the door. Rather, they knock on every other door except Krishna’s. No one in your own home will kick you out, but when you stay in other people’s homes, after a brief visit they will get tired of you and say, “Why have you been here so long? Go away!” Similarly, we knock on so many doors and go to so many temporary homes from one birth to another. We knock on this doors of this family, that family, another family, and every time, ultimately, we are told to leave. We find ourselves back on the street time and again. This body, that body, another body, and then kicked out.
The only place we are not kicked out from is the home called Vaikuntha. By practicing sadhana-bhakti by engaging in devotional service Krishna opens that door with Sri Radha and all the gopas and gopis with their wonderful smiling faces, and says, “Welcome home.” And there is a wonderful celebration death.
In this sense death means life and life means death. Therefore sadhus say, “Die before you die.” When we die to all our illusions, false prestige, and attachments before our physical death, we attain eternal life; there is no death. In this world they have a different philosophy: “Live before you die.” By that they mean, “Try to accumulate as much as you can and try to enjoy as much as you can, because you don’t know what death will bring. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow may never come.” This is what ignorant people say. Devotees have faith and understanding and, ultimately, they recognize the false propaganda when they hear it.
Lessons in Dying
When Sri Ramanujacharya was on his death bed, his disciples gathered around him, weeping. Ramanujacharya looked out at them and said, “Why are you crying? I should be crying for you. I am going back to Vaikuntha, where there is no more suffering. You have to stay here. So don’t cry. Just chant the names of Narayana.”
Ramanujacharya served his mission while performing penance. To him death meant God was saying, “All right, you have struggled long enough for me. Now come home.” Similarly, Srila Prabhupada struggled. He endured much pain to serve the Lord. He was willing to do it forever if Krishna wanted him to, but then when Krishna indicated to him that it was time to come home, Srila Prabhupada told his disciples, “Take me to Vrindavana. Krishna-Balarama are telling me to come home.” He went to Vrindavana and there performed his seva of translating holy scriptures until his last breath.
He assured us there was no need for us to be confused by his passing; Krishna was simply calling him home. He was living in his wonderful quarters in Vrajabhumi with devotees surrounding him constantly chanting Hare Krishna. In the end, he said “Hare Krishna” and went home, back to God. He had no fear, no regrets, and no anxieties. We were crying because we were now without him, but his only sorrow was that he had to leave us here since we were not ready to join him yet. That was his only sorrow. His sorrow was not like that of a materialist: “I’m losing my life, losing my body. I have 108 temples; they are mine. I’m being taken away from them.” No. He explained, “Everything is Krishna’s. These temples are all the property of guru and Krishna. The door of Goloka Vrindavana is opening for me and I want to take all of you with me, but you are not ready. Please come join me when you can.” This was his last message: that we should cooperate to show our love for him. And through this cooperation he promised that we would someday come to join him with Krishna.
By understanding life and death like this we can feel real peace and truth in our lives. We should strive every possible moment to prepare ourselves for this journey home, back to Godhead by engaging in the wonderful process of devotional service, by carefully hearing the spiritual master’s messages, and by following those messages diligently while serving the Vaishnavas in a spirit of humility, respect, and devotion. And we should very carefully and attentively, according to our vows, chant the holy names: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare. By performing this simple and sublime process of invoking the holy name we can experience the eternal truth of Krishna’s love for us in this life and joyfully engage in His loving service in His wonderful mission.
Satyananda Dasa has done his engineering and teaches Krishna consciousness to college students. He serves full-time in ISKCON Mumbai.