The media's constant reminders of the unavoidable horrors of death give us legitimate cause for fear. How does a devotee of Krsna react to the dangers of this world?

In the Face of Danger

Fear: the emotion caused by the expectation of danger or unfavorable circumstances, or by the consideration that at any moment our material stability will crumble. We are all familiar with the feeling of fear; it is as natural as eating, sleeping, or mating. Indeed, fear underlies the hundreds of arrangements we make daily to avoid expected pain. And why shouldn't we be afraid? After all, this world is a temporary, miserable place. Consider these pressing topics that dominate the news media: drought, car accidents, destruction of the ozone layer, increase in the world temperature, poisons in our food and air, wholesale slaughter at a weekend air show, AIDS . . . As soon as we take birth, we carry with us the natural fear of death. For one who has taken birth, death is certain. No one can avoid it. Perhaps we are not always aware of the imminence of death, but an underlying fear of death dominates our lives. To understand that death is a major concern for all, one need only consider the vast network of social laws, medical care, safety regulations, and so on we have set up to protect ourselves from death. And we fear for others' welfare as well. A mother's protective care of her child is an example of our natural fear for the safety and security of our loved ones. Of all forms of danger, death is the most mysterious and therefore the cause of the greatest fear. Lord Krsna explains in theBhagavad-gita that we have died or changed our bodies at the end of each of our many lives within this material world. By nature's arrangement, however, we have forgotten the experience of death, and thus it remains a great, unknown, fearful event.

Yet since the problem of death is unsolvable, we tend to put it aside with a fatalistic shrug: "I can't do anything about it anyway, so what's the use of worrying about it now?" Once Maharaja Yudhisthira, the great emperor of the world during the time of Krsna's appearance, was asked to describe the most wonderful thing he had ever seen. His answer was simply "Although everyone has seen that his father has died, his grandfather has died, and his great-grandfather has also died, he thinks that he will never die." Since we are eternal spirit souls, we cannot die, but as long as we are ignorant of this fact, there is no avoiding the danger of death.

The attempt to ignore death does not really salve our consciousness. The media's daily presentation of the theme of violent or catastrophic death underlines man's conscious and unconscious preoccupation with his own demise. The news magazines' main business is to sell their product. What better way than through the presentation of themes that are simultaneously shocking and yet deeply relevant? Striking deep into our psyche, the news media probe our own convictions that death is an unavoidable horror. Feeding off our hidden paranoia, the media's reportage of the misfortunes of others acts to stir up wonder within our hearts.

Sometimes' we try to take shelter in the understanding that the reported events are not directly affecting us and therefore are not to be feared. Unfortunately, such rationalizations are not sufficient to conquer all fearful situations. Who can say that the destruction of the environment is someone else's problem? Cancer, heart disease, and other modern ailments of the body or mind are very real dangers that likely will soon become part of our lives. If someone in our family becomes afflicted by disease, his suffering pains us as well. And since many diseases are inherited, the suffering of our parents or grandparents maybe a warning indicator pointing to our own future distress.

The major problems of the world also affect each of us. The severe droughts, eroding ice caps, thinning ozone layer, and the famous AIDS virus all burden our consciousness with more nagging doubts about our own capacity to survive. There is no use trying to hide on an island of self-created security, for the troubles of the world become our own sooner or later. The Vedic literature speaks about fear as one of the basic ingredients of material life. Whether one be a bird, beast, worm, insect, fish, human being, or something higher, fear of death, fear of pain, fear of loss, and hundreds of other fears constantly plague our lives. Franklin Roosevelt once tried to soothe the minds of those distressed by the economic conditions of the Great Depression by telling them, "There is nothing to fear but fear itself." Such positive words may pacify those who ascribe to the philosophy that ignorance is bliss, but for the rest of us there seem to be an awful lot of other things to be feared as well. Or as another political pundit remarked, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're notout to get you!" In other words, there is more to fear than fear itself, since there are actually dangerous conditions brewing that could cause our personal or collective destruction.

The Srimad-Bhagavatam states, padam padam yad vipadam:"There is danger at every step." No one can say that he will live forever, and no one can guarantee himself a painless life. Money cannot solve all problems; even opulent paranoiacs like Howard Hughes have to die. Fear follows us like our shadow. And like our shadow, sometimes we are aware of it, and other times we choose to ignore it. One may ignore his death, his old age, or his disease, but these facts of life do not ignore us. One may be forgetful of his appointment in court or his payments to the bank, but the harsh reminder of reality soon comes in the form of law enforcement. We may attempt to forget the problems of life through the various forms of intoxicant freely available in modern society, but we are invariably rudely awakened by the next disaster reported in the media.

One may try to avoid fear by considering it simply a mental concoction or the product of a deranged mind. Going to a psychologist to learn the art of facing fear with some attitude of detached resignation will not solve the problems of life. Despite our mental situation, disease is disease, old age old age, and death the invariable end. One may temporarily succeed in forgetting the fearful conditions, but as soon as they begin to cause trouble, the suffering is the same. Everyone becomes at least somewhat fearful during periods of pain. The conclusion is that as long as one remains within the confines of the materialistic mentality, fear will be a constant factor in life.

Devotees of Krsna, on the other hand, are trained to understand the root cause of fear and thus are given a means to conquer fear at its source. Most devotees join the Krsna consciousness movement with a good understanding of the problems of the material world. Indeed, most join because they understand that there is no material solution to the many problems of life. Vivid worldly experiences help us understand the indications of the Vedic literatures. By reading the words of Lord Sri Krsna in the Bhagavad-gita, we come to realize that fear is part of material existence. It arises from our false conception of our own identity and of our relationship with this world.

Surely a fearful situation stirs up emotions within the body of a devotee, but a devotee relates to these material reflexes in a Krsna conscious manner. Therefore, even if faced with his own violent death, he can climb out of the deep well of horror and remain determined that he will serve Krsna even in his next life. It has been seen over the last twenty-odd years in ISKCON that sometimes a devotee will die unexpectedly, perhaps in an automobile accident. But because a devotee knows there is danger at every step, he responds to danger by taking shelter in the holy name of Krsna. Although the adrenalin level in his body surely increases proportionately to the dangers facing him, his consciousness remains fixed in the conviction that Krsna will carry him over this danger. Even if the devotee dies in some unexpected way, Krsna, being kind upon His dear servant, brings him back to His own spiritual abode. Krsna states in the Bhagavad-gita (8.5), "And whoever, at the end of his life, quits his body remembering Me alone at once attains My nature. Of this there is no doubt."

In one sense fear is a state of mind. Factually there is nothing to fear, since Krsna guarantees protection to all souls surrendered to Him. For one who knows that the body is temporary and the soul eternal, what meaning does death have? For him, death is simply a change of dress. The Srimad-Bhagavatam states that one who learns the art of depending on Krsna will find that the ocean of dangerous conditions in the material world shrinks to the amount of water in the hoof print of a calf. By Krsna's mercy and protection, therefore, even the fear of death has a transcendental value and purpose: it can inspire us to turn to Him.

Queen Kunti, Krsna's aunt and the mother of the Pandavas, expressed this uncommon understanding of the value of fear. She said, "While we were living in the forest, having been banished from our kingdom by political intrigue, and all kinds of fearful conditions appeared before us, we would become at once relieved by remembrance of Your lotus feet. May those fearful conditions come to us again and again so that we may remember You again and again." For her, fear was an impetus to expand devotional surrender. From that point of view, it was a welcome addition to life, not something to be avoided at all costs. Just see the difference in mentality between a devotee and a nondevotee!

Rather than fearing death, an advanced devotee looks forward to serving Krsna in his transcendental, spiritual form. A materialist wants to cling to his body even after its usefulness is finished, because he sees death as the end of all existence. A professor in Moscow told Srila Prabhupada, "Swamiji, when the body is finished, everything is finished." When one has such a fatalistic philosophy of life, death is certainly a great disaster. Gone are the days of enjoyment of the various delightful spices of life, for when death comes, everything is taken away.

A devotee can never be fooled into complacency by the materialists' shallow and unsubstantiated arguments. Persons brainwashed by the propaganda of the scientific community may unconditionally accept death as the end of existence, but no devotee can agree with such foolish idealism. The materialist may wish that death will end his suffering, but the devotee knows that this attempt to deny the ultimate existence of life's miseries is simply the result of thousands of lifetimes of conditioning in this material world.

A devotee becomes peaceful through knowledge. He understands the meaning of life, and he understands that death is simply a change of body. Just as he is not bewildered by the changes of body he experiences within this lifetime, he is not bewildered by the change of body at death. He constantly strives to purify himself of his dependency on the facilities of the material world that are meant to pamper the needs of his material body. Living simply, but thinking on a highly evolved platform of spiritual awareness, the devotee gradually transforms his consciousness to the highest level of ecstatic relationship with Krsna, the supreme controller and enjoyer.

For a devotee, the greatest fear is to forget Krsna, or to somehow lose the opportunity to serve Him. Therefore a devotee never indulges in the obsessions of the materialists. The constant reminders of the temporality of life spur him on to greater philosophical and devotional heights. A devotee considers the creation of maya to be like the glittering of fool's gold: although it captures the eye, it has no value. This material world is a phantasmagoria, like the creation of a showman in a haunted house in an amusement park. But the devotee sees clearly and remains aloof from the plans and designs of the material civilization. This sometimes creates doubts in the minds of materialists, who cannot conceive of someone being factually detached from the material world. Despite the occasional opposition created by such doubtful and small-minded persons, the devotees continue to advance on the path of devotional service to the Lord.

What is fear ultimately? It is the platform of forgetfulness of one's original relationship with Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. As soon as one thinks he is anything other than the eternal servant of the Supreme Lord, he immediately falls into a situation of intense fearfulness. The material world is meant to be a fearful place, for its purpose is to awaken us to our original, constitutional condition of spiritual life. When one surrenders to Krsna in pure love, material fearfulness goes far away. Material fear, therefore, has no place within the spiritual realm.

The bhavausadhi, or the medicine for the pangs of material existence, is to chant the holy names of the Lord: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Please chant Hare Krsna and be happy.