Three generations of women were waiting at the bus stop. The eldest woman, wearing a loose floral print over her ample form, appeared to be somewhere in her fifties. She was leaning back against the bench, listening wearily to her daughter's spirited attacks on the welfare office. The middle woman (the daughter) seemed the most animated of the group, fanning herself with a newspaper and expressing herself with vigor. The youngest, a twelve-yearold girl, gazed absently at the passers-by, singing under her breath and holding a large shopping bag between her bony knees. All three faces bore the family markings: wide brown eyes, prominent cheekbones, receding jaw. Yet a certain difference caught my eye. One face was fresh and pleasing, one was full with flesh and assurance, and the third was gaunt and weathered. I wondered if they could see the pattern of destiny as it was so profoundly exposed under the hot summer sun.
Every physical body ages. It's a fact of life. The rich, the beautiful, the intellectual-everyone witnesses the deterioration of his or her body due to age. And we are puzzled: Why does time ravage our bodies, while within we are still full of youthful desire?
Instinctively we loathe this gradual deterioration of our physical and mental faculties. Every grey hair, every wrinkle, suddenly becomes a threat. Soon we will lose our energy, our eyesight, our memories, our physical beauty. And we feel that universal dread that underlies all human existence: we must die.
We long for permanence. Although aging is foretold by our very birth, we nevertheless fight to stave off its insidious encroach. Faced with mounting evidence that we will grow old and die, we may resort to various psychological schemes for relief. Some people enter their senior years with wild abandon, acting more like teenagers than adults. They smear color into pallid cheeks and force weakening bodies to endure strenuous exercises. Thinking young and struggling to play hard, many older people desperately cling to a youth that will never return. Unfortunately, this only increases their attachment to that which they are destined to lose. Thinking young may be better than thinking old, but it can't make us young. And it certainly can't save us from death. Consequently, our most ardent desires for youth and immortality are frustrated. What we need is reassurance that indications of advancing age do not signal the end of all hopes for happiness.
This reassurance can be found by studying the Vedic scriptures under the guidance of a spiritual master. This will help us to understand that the physical body has no relation to the eternal soul (the self) within. The hapless soul is illusioned, thinking himself to be the physical body. And this mistaken identity is the source of his greatest fear and pain. He sees his body deteriorating, yet he has no knowledge of his destiny after death. Although old age and death are both foreign elements for the pure spirit soul, his attachment to the physical body and identification with it force him to think that he is aging unto death. This ismaya, or illusion.
Independent of this illusion of bodily identification, the eternal soul possesses a consciousness rich with unlimited fulfillment and happiness, free from the annoyances of old age and death. The real self, the pure spiritual entity, is eternally linked with the Supreme Lord, the source of all pleasure. When this consciousness is awakened, fear of death and old age are banished. This point is explained by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada:
Apparently a devotee may grow old, but he is not subjected to the symptoms of defeat experienced by a common man in old age. Consequently, old age does not make a devotee fearful of death, as a common man is fearful of death. A devotee knows that after death he is going back home, back to Godhead; therefore he has no fear of death. Thus instead of depressing a devotee, advanced age helps him become fearless and thus happy. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.27.24, purport)