Preparing for a Good Death



The Gracefulness of Death

Become Me

I was borne in my Mother’s womb

but she did not create me

I eat the salt of this Earth

but I do not belong to her

It is through this body that I walk

but I am not it

It is my mind through which I work

but it could not contain me

In the limitations of time and space I live

but it has not denied me unboundedness

I was born like you, I eat like you,

sleep like you and I will die like you

but the limited has not limited me

Life’s bondages have not bound me

As the dance of life progresses

this space, this unboundedness has become

unbearably sweet

Become love and reach out

Become me

chapter 6

Preparing for a Good Death

Most people in the world believe that if they die in their sleep, it is wonderful. What a horrible way to go!

Does Death Need Preparation

If death is inevitable, what is the need to spend time and energy preparing for it? You must understand that what you refer to as death is a unique happening. It is the very last moment of your life. Almost everything else in your life may happen many times over, but the final moment when you transcend the limitations of your physical body will happen only once in your lifetime. It is the last thing that you will do in your life. Moving from the physical to the non-physical is the greatest moment in your life. So is it not very important that you make it happen most gracefully and wonderfully?

Moreover, let us say, you want to go to Coimbatore city from the Yoga Center. It is just 30 kilometres away, so, typically, you just hop on to some bus and go. You don’t book a seat on the bus ten days in advance, take a huge suitcase, pack your lunch and water bottle and all that. If there is no transport available, you may even walk the distance. But if you want to go on a long journey, you book your tickets, take food, water and whatever else you may need for this long journey. Now, if you want to go to Antarctica, you take just about everything with you, isn’t it? You should know, when compared to the journey after death, the journey from your birth to death is just a short one. The time a being spends in an embodied state is nothing compared to the time one spends being in a disembodied state. Yet you have done too much preparation for this. You have bought enough clothes to wear for three lifetimes, footwear for eight lifetimes and a whole lot of other things. But for the journey after death, which is a very long one, should you not make adequate preparations too?

Why dying well is very important is because, when a being is disembodied, whether one’s experience becomes heavenly or hellish largely depends on how one dies. Not entirely, but largely so. Preparing for death is not about gathering a lot of information and satisfying one’s curiosity about something to come. If you want to make use of the opportunity that death presents, you cannot approach it with fear. This is not something that you can handle all of a sudden at that moment. So it is important that on many levels we prepare for death beforehand. If you can manage this last conscious moment of your life gracefully, you will at least go through the disembodied phase well. You will not make it hellish.

Unfortunately, most people create fear at that moment. They just cling on, saying, ‘I don’t want to die.’ Some people actually desperately cling on to a bed sheet or someone’s hand or something. This is not a good way to go. With just a little bit of preparation, guidance and even a bit of help, what is now considered a catastrophe can become a huge opportunity for spiritual possibility. In a way, from a spiritual perspective, what did not perhaps happen in life can be accomplished at the moment of death, if it is handled sensibly. This is because it is very easy to untie the knots of everything that you have accumulated at that final moment. But if you are unprepared or become fearful of it or are ignorant of the ways of life, you will create resistance towards it and miss that possibility completely.

Everyone should know how to die by themselves. I have been telling people that when I die, I will make sure that no one has to even carry me to my grave. I will walk to my grave. You know, they had built a samadhi for me at the Yoga Center many years ago. It is still there at the Yoga Centre. We had always planned to leave at a certain time, once the Dhyanalinga was done. So we prepared this. We had many discussions about it like, ‘Don’t put too many steps because maybe at that time I will not be able to climb down too much,’ and so on. We worked out details of how the door, the bolt and the locking mechanism should be for me to lock it from inside, one final time. We did this because I was planning to walk into my grave myself so that those four people would be spared some labour. But the samadhi structure did not get used and money got wasted—that is another matter, though.

So everyone must make preparations for their death—not just externally, internally too. You must be able to sit quietly and die. When death is imminent, most wild animals will withdraw to a place where they just sit. They don’t eat anything and they die. When even animals, creatures that crawl, have that much dignity about their death, why do human beings want drama around them? In life, they want drama, but at least death should be conducted in a dignified way.

Ideally, I would like to teach the whole population a way where they can live beautifully, blissfully, every moment of their life. Then, naturally, one will leave in the best possible manner. But as I am getting older, I am realizing that it is taking a lot of time and effort. So if that is not possible, I would like to at least teach them how to die well, so that they can manage at least the last moment of their lives sensibly. It is my wish that for some reason, if people cannot live blissfully, they must at least die well. But much more is possible if one makes an effort in this direction. This possibility is available not only for accomplished yogis but also for any sensible person who is willing to take instructions that are beyond one’s understanding.

People on the spiritual path often go one step further and choose the time, date and place of their death. They are able to fix it beforehand and leave at that time, because they have created the necessary awareness within themselves so that, when the time comes, they can bundle the life energies and leave the body consciously. To leave this body consciously and walk away without damaging it, just like taking off your clothes, is the ultimate possibility in your life. If your awareness has grown to such a point that you know where you as a being and this physical body which you gathered are connected, then you can disentangle yourself whenever the moment is right for you. This is the ultimate kind of preparation you can make for your death.

When we talk about making preparations for death, people ask, ‘What if the death is sudden? How can such a person die well?’ Death is never sudden. You may not have foreseen it, but it is never sudden. Today’s movies are big culprits in spreading this fallacy of instantaneous death. They think of life as a quantity which is sitting inside that goes pop! when someone is shot. It is not like that. Look at it this way: suppose I shoot you in the head right now, will all your breath go off at once? No, it will happen slowly. Once the compression of the ribcage is gone here, it will slowly dribble out. Similarly, life dribbles out, over some time. But the moment the body turns inert, your experience of life is gone. Your experience of the body and your senses is gone, but the experience itself is still there. This is so even when you are sleeping. There is an experience there, but you are unable to turn inward and access this experience. Once your senses are disconnected, you have no experience of the world or the body, but the experience of presence is still there.

Now, suppose a man was shot in the head, does he also have the opportunity to die peacefully? Let us say, a man fell down from the roof and died. From your perspective, because you see the body breaking up, you may think this is a violent death. But for the man who has fallen down, he may have died a very peaceful death within himself in those last few moments. Or he may have died a violent death. The violence is not in the way the body breaks. The violence is in the way that the human being experiences it in that moment. As an outside observer, you are judging the violence by what happened to the body. But you cannot know what happened to the being. Only he knows, unless you know the ways to know it.

Someone may die surrounded by his or her family, but at the last moment, they may have just looked at their fiendish relative. You may think they died peacefully in their bed, but, no, they might have become terrified and died a violent death! Someone might have died in a car crash where their body broke into bits, but at the last moment they might have just said, ‘Shiva’, or some other thing and died peacefully, we don’t know. The violence of the death is not determined by what happened to the body; it depends on what happened within that person.

A man who is shot in the head is in no way in any kind of disadvantage compared to a person who is dying of some disease or old age or whatever. You need to understand this: however sudden the death is—whether it is a heart attack, car crash, air crash or a bullet in the head—still, there are a few moments between injury and death. Even if a man’s head is chopped off all of a sudden, he has still got a few moments between that injury and death. Those few moments can become moments of awareness if he has put in a certain amount of awareness into his life. On the other hand, even if someone gave some people a hundred years of lifespan, it is possible that in these hundred years they do not become aware. That is the reality of life. Someone who is suddenly shot has just a few moments, but it is still the same reality. If you had lived a life of awareness, then it is very much possible that even at the last moment you could become aware. If this has to come, you have to build a life of awareness. Only then you can be aware in your death.

That is why it is important to develop this awareness during your life so it does not matter how death comes to you—you will have the ability to die well. Some people are able to live well only if good situations come to them. Some people live well whichever kind of situation comes to them. This is so with death as well. If you develop the necessary capability, whichever way death comes, you can maintain your awareness and die well. If you have not lived a life of awareness, the possibility of you suddenly becoming aware in an extreme situation like death does not arise at all. Let us say, the doctor tells someone, ‘You have cancer, you have got just one month to live,’ how many of them become aware because they have one month’s preparation time? They may just become paranoid. Only a few become aware and make use of this advance intimation.

Sleep, Ojas and Death

There are certain preparations that one can do for death involving sleep and generation of ojas .  Now, is there any connection between sleep and death? Fundamentally, the dynamism of the physical has to touch the inertia of the non-physical. This is the Shiva–Shakti principle. Shiva is inertia, Shakti is dynamism. Everything in the physical Universe has to go through that. It is happening in so many ways in Existence. Whether it is an atom, an amoeba, a human being, the planet, the solar system, or the Universe—all of them are going in these cycles of dynamism and inertia because this is the most fundamental cycle. Lifespans are different depending upon who you are, what you are, but it is the same principle in operation. Inhalation–exhalation, wakefulness–sleep, day–night, life–death, creation–dissolution—all these are fundamentally the same process.

In a way, what you call sleep is also like death. You die, but you wake up with the same old goddamn body. Actually, even with sleep, if you are very tired and go to bed after a good sleep, it feels like you woke up with a new body. Death is when you went to sleep and woke up to find the body has shrunk. You have to grow it again! Now, if you are conscious during this transition between the states of dynamism and inertia, you may get off the bus. If you can move from wakefulness to sleep while remaining fully conscious, you will very effortlessly move from life to death also fully conscious, because in its fundamental essence, it is not different. It is just moving from dynamism to inertia. If you are able to move consciously from one state to another in these cycles from Shakti to Shiva, then you have transcended a whole lot of things.

You can try this with your sleep tonight. When you are falling asleep, when you are going from the state of wakefulness to sleep, see if you can be aware at that moment. If you can be aware at that moment, then you can be aware at that moment when you go from body to bodiless state. Most people sleep without any awareness. But that final moment when you are transiting from wakefulness to sleep, if you can simply be aware, you will be awake in your sleep. If you can manage this awareness, something tremendous will happen.

Now, if you consciously bring some quality to the last few moments of your falling asleep, that will continue into your sleep as well. Let us say, you make the moment of falling asleep very loving or happy within yourself, you will see that quality will continue through the sleep also. That is exactly what will happen with death also, but far more enhanced. If, at the final moment, a certain quality is brought in, then that quality will continue.

Instead of learning to stay awake when you are sleeping, which is much more difficult, you can learn to sleep when you are awake. This is easier to get. If you do some sadhana, you can get it. This is what happens in Shoonya  meditation—you are awake but you are asleep. The body thinks you are asleep, that is why it drops the metabolism. But you are awake. When you are sitting in Shoonya, suddenly, the body thinks you are gone and, in your experience, your hand disappears, your leg disappears, and so on. You kind of sneaked up on the body. The body does not know you are awake, but if one thought arises, suddenly, it realizes that you are sneaking up on it and the legs and hands come back. Staying awake in your sleep will take much more but sleeping when you are awake is a possibility. But if you learn to maintain awareness during either of these transitions, it will help you immensely to go through the transition from the embodied to the disembodied state. A much simpler but not so effective way forward is Isha Kriya. 

The process of death can also be greatly assisted if you are able to generate or gather a lot of ojas. In some Far East cultures, an Enlightened being is referred to as an enso . The word enso means a circle. Why a circle? Why do you think your automobile wheels are all circular? Triangular wheels would be jazzier, isn’t it? Why is it circular, not triangular or rectangular or whatever? Because anything that is circular has the least amount of resistance. So an Enlightened being is referred to as an ‘enso’ not because they are round of body but because they have generated sufficient ojas that their passage through life and death happens with the least amount of resistance.

In Yogic culture, this is sort of fondly or mischievously referred to as stealing from the Earth. This body is a loan that you have taken from Mother Earth. She is very generous with this, but when it comes to reclaiming, she is very stringent. She will not let you take even one atom as a souvenir. She will collect every atom back. So the yogis learned how to steal from the Earth. That is, they convert the physical into the non-physical. Now, she cannot claim it back. She cannot recognize it. This non-physical thing is known as ojas.

Sometimes there are people on certain types of sadhana and, during that time, they will eat huge volumes of food. Usually, it is handled in seclusion, so people don’t get to see these things. They eat the kind of volumes that no human body can consume. They eat ten people’s food, but they will not gain an ounce and they will not have any kind of health problems. If you eat that much food, your stomach would burst. But they will not gain any weight because, at that particular phase, they are transforming the physical into the non-physical. Normally, the food that you eat becomes flesh and blood. But if you do certain things with your system, it will transform the physical into the non-physical. You will develop ojas, not body. If you have sufficient ojas around you, your passage through life and death will become very effortless. You will go through the whole process smoothly.

Having ojas gives you a certain body when you lose yours. It is like you are not made for water, you are not a fish. So if you are lost in the ocean, you would like to have at least a piece of wood. A piece of wood would mean a lot in those circumstances. If you have one piece of the kattumaram , it is good enough. If you have two pieces of the kattumaram, you can ride and go where you want. So when you lose your physical body, if you have a piece of body, you will see you can direct your boat which way to go. That is the intent of developing ojas. If you have ojas, then you also lubricate your life so that your movement through this world also becomes easy.

So how does one gather ojas? The kriyas that you practise in the morning and evening are one way of generating ojas. If you are doing kapalabhati ,  if you do it powerfully enough, you develop ojas. Right now, when you do kapalabhati, you may feel the general heat in the face and head. That is okay for health and well-being. If you do proper kapalabhati, it will become one-pointed; heat will get generated at one point, just at the top of your head. If you do kapalabhati like that, then ojas will develop. Right now, the brahmacharis are doing various sadhanas of Surya Kriya. If you do that, ojas will develop. The kumbhaka sadhana  that they practise will develop an enormous amount of ojas. When you develop ojas, if you watch carefully, you will not have a clear-cut shadow. Because of the ojas, the light will get confused or diffused. Erasing of physical boundaries not by damage but by enveloping oneself with ojas is also Yoga or union.

Why Do People Fear Death

The fear of death has come because of a certain sense of ignorance and unawareness. Most people are terrified even by just seeing a dead body. I understand that for people who loved them, for people who cared for them, losing someone dear is a big loss. But why are people afraid of seeing a dead body? Living bodies can be dangerous, I can understand that. They can do many things to you. They can pretend to like you, but tomorrow they may kill you. But dead bodies are absolutely safe, yet people are afraid of them!

In many parts of the world, children are told not to even utter the word ‘death’ inside the house, because they have a stupid hope that if you don’t utter this word, it will not enter the house. This morbid fear of death is not natural. Maybe the majority of people have subscribed to it, that is different, but the fear is not a natural process. Death is a natural process. If life happens, then death is natural. Being afraid of something natural is unnatural. The fear of death is simply because we are not in touch with reality. The fear of death has come to us because we have gotten deeply identified with this body. Our identification with this body has become so strong because we have not explored other dimensions. If we had explored other dimensions of experience, if we had established ourselves in other dimensions of experience, the body would not be such a big issue.

You talk of your body as if you came with it. You did not. You only gathered it. You gathered it while in your mother’s womb and continued gathering it after your birth. Whatever we accumulate, we can say, ‘This is mine.’ But you cannot say, ‘This is me.’ Now, if I take the cup from which I drink water and say, ‘This is my cup,’ you will think, ‘Sadhguru seems to have some problem. But let me listen some more, everyone says he is wise.’ But after some time, if I say, ‘This is me,’ then you will definitely say, ‘Let me get away from this person.’ But you are doing the same thing with your body, which is why you make such a big fuss about shedding it.

Suppose you overate and gathered a lot of body during the next few weeks and then worked out and dropped some of it, you don’t call it death. You gathered something and you put it back. No big deal. You would be happy and relieved, not distressed, about it. It should be the same with death. What you know as death is just a little bit of purging. With age, the flesh is beginning to lose its vigour, so it needs to be cleaned up. Either you put back what you gathered joyfully or you put it back crying. That is a choice you have. Death is like you picked up a spadeful of soil and threw it back. But, instead, if you look at this spadeful of soil and get very attached to it, you will cry like a child when it falls off your spade. It is like a child, who picked up a little pebble from somewhere, came home and lost it. He is heartbroken. He cries inconsolably. If all that you know is just the body, then this is what will happen to you. But if you had known something in your life that is more than the body, then shedding the body will not be a big deal for you.

What you refer to as life is essentially like a term loan from a bank. They may give you a ten-year loan, but it is not yours; you must pay back. With some tricks, you can extend it to twelve years. If you are very tricky, you can stretch it to fifteen years. If you are super tricky, maybe you can stretch it to twenty years. That is about it. Beyond that, no one has stretched it until now. People may tell you stories that someone lived for 4000 years, or 10,000 years because they probably want to make a movie, but no one has stretched life that much. There are ways to hibernate life so that you still maintain your intent beyond the body and you can once again take a body and come back. That is a different matter. That is not stretching your life. That is handling the natural cycle consciously.

Now, generally, in society, people have been convincing you that, after all, the fear of death is natural. Whatever the majority of people do, they say it is natural. If the majority of the people were smoking cigarettes, people would say smoking is a natural thing, isn’t it? This was happening in the past. Even now, certain groups of people say it is natural. A human being is not made to smoke; you are not an automobile! It is not natural for you to smoke. But people will make it natural.

When I was growing up, my lack of fear caused a lot of anxiety to my father. He would keep saying, ‘What will happen to this boy? There is no fear in his heart about anything.’ One day, I turned around and asked him, ‘When did fear become a virtue?’ Fear is not a virtue, but people have made it so natural that they think something is missing if there is no fear. Similarly, right now, the fear of death has been made natural by society.

Somewhere along the way, the fear of pain has become mixed with the fear of death because a lot of people think death is going to be painful. This is why they request doctors to give them something so that they can go painlessly. Death is not painful, believe me. It is very nice. It does not happen because of any particular thing. It is just happening all the time. It is just that at some point people realize that it has happened to them, other times they don’t realize it. The breaking of the body can hurt. That can be painful, but not death. The disease that causes death may be painful, the injury that causes death may be painful, but death itself is not painful. It once happened: Shankaran Pillai fell off the second floor and screamed. People gathered and asked, ‘Why? Did the fall hurt you?’ He said, ‘You idiots, it is not the fall, it was the stopping.’ In people’s understanding, often one thing gets mixed up with the other.

The fear of pain is a physiological thing. The body builds this up as a survival mechanism, in anticipation of pain. It is a physiological reality and you don’t want to go through that because you know how unpleasant it can be. But the fear of death has no basis because death is not painful. Yet why do people fear death? Let us say, you took a loan of a million dollars from me, and in ten years’ time, it grew to a billion dollars. Now, if I tell you that I am coming to your house, you will welcome me wonderfully. If I ask for my million dollars, you will happily give it back and maybe something on top of it too. You will regard me as your great friend because I gave you the money ten years ago. But if you have squandered the million dollars I gave you, if I say I am coming to your house, I will feel like death to you. You will shiver in your pants. Actually, for many people, their debt collectors create more fear in them than their death!

The fear of death is also like this. Planet Earth is telling you it is time to pay back your loan. No interest, nothing. If you made something truly wonderful out of it, you will joyfully pay it back and go. But if you made nothing out of it except living your life psychologically, you will be terrified. Those who have not made good use of it will always try to dodge. Those who are successful in knowing and existing as a full-fledged life are willing to pay back joyfully without any problem. Those who never really lived and only thought about it are scared and bewildered.

If you really look at it, you are not afraid of physical death as such. Suppose you have grown old and God offers you a deal, ‘Okay, you give me this old body and I will give you a new body,’ who would not want to take it? So you are not really afraid of losing the body as such. The fear of death is about what you think you will lose by death. The fear of death is essentially the fear of loss. If someone is going to lose their job or all their money or someone who is very dear to them or a person whom they are very dependent upon, they will have greater fears. What they go through is just like what they go through if they are going to die. People even kill themselves rather than go through that. The real fear is not that the body is going to break one day. ‘What will happen to me?’ is the real fear.

Fundamentally, the only thing that can get hurt, the only thing that can feel trampled, the only thing that can be abused in you is your ego or your persona. You are only constantly afraid of losing this image that you have built of who you are. That is the biggest barrier, a bubble that you are unwilling to get out of. Actually, if in some way we devise ways to disgrace you and abuse you, not physically but in every other way, you would actually wish death over that. Now, death would be a gift, death would be a benevolence rather than going through all that.

Sometimes, this same fear gets translated into many different aspects. One person will make their fear of death into: ‘I am not worried about dying, but my children, how they will suffer?’ So they will suffer with that fear. Someone else suffers from the fear of ‘I don’t want to die’ kind of thing, simply because they do not know anything beyond that. This is a fear of losing everything that I know as myself and the world and life. Have you noticed, people who have been convinced that they are going to gain by death step into it without any fear at all? If you understand there is nothing to lose, because anyway you came with nothing and there is nothing to lose, the fear of death will not be relevant.

How to Deal with the Fear of Death

Right now, your whole experience of life is limited to this body. No matter what kind of teachings other people give you, it does not matter. Someone may tell you that you are not the body or that you are the atma (soul), or the paramatma (super soul)  or whatever, but in your experience, this body is you. Whatever Gitas  they may read to you, whatever Upanishads they may read to you, your experience is still limited to the physical body. So you fear losing it. But if you explore and establish yourself in other dimensions of experience, the body will become an easy thing to handle. Life or death will not make such a big difference. Fundamentally, death means you are shedding what you have gathered in this life in terms of physical content and psychological content. You may think many things about yourself as a person, but as far as the planet is concerned, it is just recycling itself. It pops you up and pulls you back. In that pop-up, you have an opportunity to transcend this whole cycle. But whether you transcend or not is entirely up to you.

Moreover, when your experience of life is limited to the physical body, then you not only fear death but also fear life and seek security. And this fear of life in turn makes you court death, because seeking security is courting death. Have you noticed, if people feel insecure they will just curl up and sleep? They just go back into that foetal position. The need is to go back into the womb. The womb is not really in the mother; the womb is really in death. The physical mother is just a small manifestation of that, but the real womb is in death. When people feel insecure, they want to drink and sleep because sleep is just a small manifestation of death. People want to sleep absolutely like a log because it gives freedom from life. This whole ‘courting death’ thing has come because of the need for security.

From where did the insecurity spring, first of all? Insecurity comes to you because of limited identification. You identify yourself as a body, and only because of that, there is all this insecurity. Your body is a fragile bubble that you have blown. The fear of death is simply because you are existing here in this vast Existence as a tiny person. If you have tasted the unboundedness in you, if you truly experienced yourself beyond the limitations of the physical and the mental, there would be no fear. This is why there is so much emphasis on using your time and life to know that which is beyond the physical. That is why you must do sadhana. But a lot of people who have a fear of death try to become immortal. They try to beat it. This is a wrong approach. If you fear death, now, you must see what the basis of this is. Instead of seeing how to transcend your limited identification, if you try to become immortal, it is just distraction; it will not get you anywhere.

If your experience of life is established beyond the physical body, shedding it is a very simple affair. When you want to change your clothes, you just change them, isn’t it? If you don’t like it, you are through with it and you walk naked. It is up to you. You need to understand, once this body has run its course, it will go anyway, whether you like it or not, whether you approve of it or not. As long as it exists, taking good care of it is definitely our business. But if you are paranoid about ill health or death, you will not take good care of it. In your anxiety, you will destroy the body. The very anxiety of what may happen to this body will destroy the body.

Confronting your fear of death can bring tremendous clarity and transformation in one’s life. This happened some decades ago. Once I was in Bangalore city and I went to the vegetable market. I was not there to buy anything; I just like to walk through the vegetable markets. So I was walking and suddenly I saw this vegetable vendor who was all bright and lit up. I could not believe that a man like this was selling vegetables. I looked at him and instantly our eyes locked and I laughed. He also started laughing. Then I went to him and we started talking about things in general. Then I asked him, ‘How come a man like you is selling vegetables here?’ He was evasive. He said, ‘I am just doing my work here.’ We bantered a little more and I finally found out what had happened.

It seems he was an ordinary vegetable-seller. One day, he became ill, so ill that he thought he was going to die. But each day it got postponed by one more day and one more day. For four months, this went on—every day he would think, ‘This is it!’ But at the end of the day, he would still be alive. In these four months, because of constantly being with death, something tremendous happened within him. His energies exploded into a different state altogether. He became so blissful, he cared not a hoot about whether he retained the body or not. Once he did not care, his body recovered completely.

Mortality is freedom from the mortal coil. The foundation of ignorance is mistaking the accumulated body to be oneself. Breaking that is Enlightenment. Now, he came back to his vegetable shop and began selling vegetables. He saw that his ill health brought such a miracle into his life, so anyone who comes to buy vegetables from him, he blesses them: ‘May you also become ill like me.’ When he says ill, he is not wishing you ill. He is wishing that somehow, if through health it has not happened to you, at least through ill health may you wake up, because that is what happened to him.

So whatever it is—illness, death or any calamity that happens around—you can either use it to liberate yourself or you can use it to entangle yourself. Calamities, especially like death and illness, are a tremendous opportunity to look beyond the limitations of what you normally understand as life. It need not happen to you; if you are intelligent, you can learn from other people’s experiences. You have heard about Gautama. He saw just one sick man, one old man and one dead body, and he realized, ‘Any day, this can happen to me, so there is no point in running away from it.’

If someone is ill, or someone is dying, I want you to sit with them and see that this could have been you and that this could be you any day. The most horrible illness that someone has got—we don’t want it, we are not wishing for it—but you should know, any day, it could be you. It does not matter whether you are eighteen or eighty, it could be you today or tomorrow.

Now, if you are already in fear and at the end of your life, what to do? Fundamentally, the problem is that we think there is a solution for anger, there is another solution for fear, there is another solution for depression. No. There is no treatment as such for these things. This may look simplistic, but the fundamental reality is that your mind is not taking instructions from you. There are two significant faculties that human beings have—a vivid sense of memory and a vivid sense of imagination. Fear means your imagination is out of control. So it is a question of taking your faculties into your control rather than fighting fear. In reality, there is no such thing as fear. Actually, you are making it up.

Generally, people think that if the process of survival gets better, if food and shelter are taken care of, the fear will go away. But affluent societies are clearly proving that is not the case. They are making a big statement: give us as much food as you want, as much shelter as you want, it does not matter, we will experience fear for something else. The terror that someone goes through among the civilian population in a war-torn country is much more acute, but you will see, when they get a break from the bombing, they will all play, sing, dance and be happy, because suddenly they realize the value of life. But the fear that affluent societies suffer is endemic; it is simply on, day in and day out.

Fear is not because of a situation; it is simply because your own psychological system is not in your hands. It is essentially the nature of how you keep your mind. Unfortunately, people try to handle a consequence without understanding the cause. Fear is a consequence of a certain situation within you. When you try to handle fear, you are trying to handle the consequence. What is needed is taking charge of your physiological and psychological process, paying attention to the process of how we generate thoughts, how we generate emotions, how we conduct our body and how we manage our chemistry.

People think talking about death more openly, gaining more exposure to death, will help them overcome the fear of death. It is only partially true because it is in the way you do it. It need not work for everyone. Someone may watch people dying and get terrified, or someone else may watch a lot of people die and become callous. They just don’t care. There are a whole lot of people like that. If you go to burial or cremation grounds or even the morgues, in most places, the person just does not care. He thinks he is immortal. It is all a question of your awareness and how you look at it. If you are ready for it, in some way you are sensitive to it, then it could do something for you. But many people may become completely insensitive. It is always dependent on the individual person.

So are there certain practices that you can still do, certain kinds of ambiences that you can create around you so that you can gradually take control of your faculties even at the moment of death? One thing you can do is remind yourself about death—your death. Every day, just spend five minutes reminding yourself that you are mortal and today you may die. Just remind yourself this much and wonderful things will happen to you. Gurdjieff was a nineteenth-century mystic and spiritual teacher who lived in Europe. During his time, he was called a rascal saint. A rascal, because his methods were so drastic—he did crazy things with people. He gave a solution to the world: he said if you want to have the whole world Enlightened, we must plant a new organ in everyone’s body. The purpose of this organ would be that several times every day this organ should remind you that you will also die. Just reminding yourself constantly that you are mortal and you may die today will take away your fear of death.

The Shoonya meditation that we initiate people into is not an implant, but it also reminds you of death. Every day, when you sit down for Shoonya meditation, you see your personality has dissolved and there is just a certain presence. During the meditation, everything that you consider as ‘myself’ will become nothing. It is as if you die. When you open your eyes, it is all there again. So twice a day, every day, you consciously die. If you just as much as practise this consciously, when the time to actually die comes, it will no more be a big issue. This will release you from the fear of death.

There are other practices and processes that can distinctly establish the two dimensions of energy, Idaand Pingala . Once these dualities are distinct in your experience, the flame of Sushumna —that energy that is beyond dualities—is experienced. In experiencing the non-dual, the duality of life and death will become one. It is the illusion of duality and the attachment to one of them that makes death a fearful expectation—of being wrenched away from that which you know. Gaining mastery over the Pancha Pranas, the five manifestations of life energy, or gaining mastery over the five elements also takes away the distinction between life and death. Once the borders of life and death—the two dimensions of the same—are breached and you can consciously transact with both, there will be no room for fear.

So do people who fear death always die a terrible death? It could work out both ways, actually. Some people who were always afraid of death may just go through it just like that, without any issue when the actual moment comes. On the other hand, people who think they are very brave may not know how to deal with it at that time. There are many factors to it. The karmic content of one’s life always plays a big role and what kind of life you have led until then definitely factors in. But it is also about what form the death came to you in, what kind of context. In certain types of context, they may be terrorized even if they are otherwise not disposed towards it. In certain types of contexts, they may come to terms with death just because the context was such. This is why, in the Indian culture, they always say that a dying person must be treated with the utmost care and respect, and there has been a great amount of emphasis about setting the right context. We will be looking at this later in the book.

How to Live One’s Old Age

Every creature in the world, except man, seems to know how to die gracefully. If you walk in a forest—even in one that is rich with wildlife—unless it is an animal that has been killed by a predator, you will not find a carcass just lying around like that. Why the forest, even in the cities, where the birds are mostly crows these days, you will not find a dead crow just like that. They all know when it is time to die, so they withdraw to a quiet place and gracefully die. It is only the human being who is oblivious of this and dies in a manner that is becoming increasingly graceless. When death comes, people who did not know how to live will definitely have problems with how to die.

In many ways, old age can be a great blessing because the whole experience of life is behind you. When you are approaching death, it is an opportunity, because when energies have become feeble and they are progressing towards dropping the body, it is much easier to become aware of the nature of your existence. When you were a child, everything was beautiful, but you were eager to grow up because you wanted to experience life. When you became youthful, your intelligence got hijacked by your hormones. Whatever you did, knowingly or unknowingly, it just pushed you in that direction. Very few people are capable of raising their intelligence beyond the hormonal hijack and looking at life with clarity. All others are trapped in it. During youth, when the body is vibrant, it is very difficult to make yourself aware because you are so identified with your body that you don’t see anything beyond that.

However, as you age, this recedes. As the body loses its vibrancy, you become more and more aware because you cannot identify with that body which is receding. When you come to old age, all the longings are over and the experience of a whole life is behind you. So once again, you are childlike, but you have the wisdom and experience of life. It can be a very fruitful and wonderful part of your life. If you take care of your rejuvenation process well, old age can be a miraculous part of your life. Unfortunately, most human beings suffer their old age simply because they don’t take care of their rejuvenation process properly. In their old age, very few people can even smile. This is because the only thing that they knew in their life was the physical body. Once the body begins to recede, they become despondent. It might not have become diseased, no terrible cancer needs to have come, but in every step that you take, age is telling you, ‘This is not forever.’ If you establish yourself in other dimensions of experience, the body becomes an easy thing to handle. Old age and even death can be a joyful experience. For this, you need to know when to leave and exit gracefully.

When death is definitely going to happen in the next week or two, it is so much easier to become aware. There are certain things that can be done to become more aware at that time. One should just lie down. Now, if you do not know anything else, if there is no help from outside, the best thing is to just simply see what you are not because even if you are unable to see what you are, you can easily see what you are not. Now, the vibrancy of the body has dropped so much but the life is still on. So you can see within yourself the disparity between what is you and what is the body. It is better that you spend time just seeing the distinction between what is you and what is your body. You will pass quite effortlessly.

Even on a daily basis, one can make this awareness a part of one’s life. When you are hungry and want to eat, just postpone it by ten minutes. Be conscious of your hunger, do not get busy with some other activity. Consciously postpone your meal and wait. Even when you normally sit for a meal, just be conscious of your hunger while looking at the food. Do this for just two minutes. Such simple methods can slowly establish the distinction between the experience of oneself from the physical body. There are, of course, more sophisticated ways of conducting this. Being hungry is a time when it is much more obvious that your body is an accumulation. Hence, there has been such significance attached to fasting in all traditions.

In India, they always said you should not die among your family. People used to go to the forest to die, a practice called Vanaprastha Ashrama. It meant that after a certain stage in life, people withdrew from the family and society and retired into forests or ashrams that were set up for this purpose, and lived there joyfully. But today, unfortunately, old age means ‘hospital ashrama’. When the time comes, the best place to die is always under the open sky, not the hospital. If you want to go into the mountains and sit there by yourself and die, that is fine. That was the widely prevalent practice at one time. Even Dhritarashtra, who was the emperor during Mahabharata, took up Vanaprastha. He along with his queen, Gandhari, and his brother’s wife, Kunti, went into the forest after the Kurukshetra war, with just Sanjaya as an assistant. They had all become old, so they chose to go to the forest to die rather than die in the palace.

Though Dhritarashtra was blind, heavily biased and stupid in many ways, that much awareness was there in him that he should handle his death sensibly. This is the significance of cultural intelligence or what is called samskara . This is missing in the world today. Kunti had suffered all kinds of hardship all her life; now, her children had won the war and become emperors, so at least now she could have enjoyed the palace and died in comfort. But she too decided to go and die in the forest. This is the great wisdom that was prevalent in those times, thanks to the culture of truth-seeking. It so happened that one day the four of them climbed up a very steep hill and there was a forest fire. Since the three of them were old, they could not run or fight the forest fire, so they just decided to offer themselves to the fire. Dhritarashtra told Sanjaya, ‘You have served me very well till now, but you are still a young man—go away.
The three of us will give ourselves to the fire.’ Sanjaya refused to leave them, and all four got willingly burned in the forest fire.

What Dhritarashtra and the others did was something rather extreme, but the general population walked the well-charted path of Vanaprastha Ashrama, which was more calibrated and worked very well for everyone. Vanaprastha can be done in a more organized way.

The Wisdom of Vanaprastha Ashrama

In ancient India, when couples took up Vanaprastha Ashrama, they often withdrew together and lived a very simple ‘back-to-basics’ kind of life, until their death. This was to ensure that they died well or had a good death. Now, to the modern mind, this may sound very harsh and illogical. After all, it appears that when you are young and healthy, when you can rough it out, you are allowed to live in well-built homes with all the comforts and in the midst of society, but when you are approaching old age, when you are ailing and infirm, you are required to give up everything and live in the forest, fending for yourself? But if you look at it deeply, there is a lot of wisdom in this practice. It was one simple way to ensure that even people who did not have the mastery to drop their body at will could attain a good death.

This practice has its origins in the Varnashrama system, where they looked deeply at human nature. They took into consideration all the aspects of human life—one’s needs, capabilities and possibilities and evolved a set of guidelines that ensured the well-being of the individual and the society. Accordingly, they designated the nature of the activity to be performed and the ideals to be pursued during each of these stages of life.

This division of stages was not hard and fast, but more in terms of broad guidelines as to what to emphasize upon at each phase of one’s life. Nor were all the stages compulsory. One could skip one or two stages and go on to the next, depending upon one’s inclination.

Vanaprastha Ashrama does not mean challenging yourself with many harsh hardships in your old age. There is no point doing that because anyone will break under sufficiently tough conditions. Essentially, the idea of Vanaprastha Ashrama was to withdraw from a place that has four walls. You don’t want to live in four walls, because it creates a certain illusion, a sense of immortality. Maybe because you are already in a box, you are already in a coffin, it feels like you are forever! The four walls of your home create a false sense of immortality. But you will see, if you just sleep outdoors, you will feel so vulnerable. Even if you don’t understand this, your very body will understand this very clearly when you sleep outdoors. Maybe most of you don’t experience anything because you are sitting in your room with your music turned on or glued to your phones, but if you are out in the jungle, just one storm—with all the lightning, thunder, rain and the wind—and you will see how vulnerable the human body is. Even in just one night, if you stay out, suddenly, a certain wisdom will arise within you.

So Vanaprastha Ashrama meant being in communion with the vana , or forest. The fundamental idea is that after living in a home all your life, now, as the end nears, you move closer to Nature and be aware of this vulnerability. People build homes, in the first place, not to make themselves immortal, but because a human child is not designed to grow up outdoors completely. Unlike other animals, it takes some time for a human body and mind to get to a certain level of maturity. We have seen this happen here—a mother elephant delivered a calf near the Yoga Center gate. She just stood there around the baby for three days and, after that, both of them just walked away into the jungle. This is a natural thing for them. This is not the case with a human child. A human child needs a few years of nurture and protection. So we did some things, like building a home, for this protection. And we put in more and more protection. We did overprotection and super-overprotection, that is a different matter. But, essentially, the idea of wanting to build a home came because the children cannot endure the outdoors.

So at that time, along with the children, the adults also enjoyed the comfort of four walls, which is fine. But then, they had enough sense to understand, ‘If I live like this, I live with a lie, thinking I am immortal.’ So to make it very clear, not just intellectually, but in every way, the first thing is to step out of four walls. This is why sadhus and sanyasis never sleep in any built areas. When they sleep, they will only sleep under a tree. If the weather is very harsh, they will sleep in a cave or some naturally protected place. But they will not go into buildings and sleep. Even if they build buildings, they build just the roof. The sides are open. Even if they build walls, they are always mud walls. The idea is that you must be in touch with the earth, you must be in touch with the elements. It constantly reminds the body. The understanding may not be there in your head, but the arrangement will constantly remind your body that you are just a pop-up and you will go back. This is the idea, and there is great benefit in this.

I have seen this with mountaineers—there is a certain quality about them that is hard to come by otherwise. Recently, I met a bunch of European and American mountaineers who have scaled many mountains in South America and the Alps. When I met them, I just felt the way they are. There is a certain stillness and ease about them, which comes after enormous amount of sadhana. It takes a lot of work to get there. But every day risking their life, every day not knowing whether they will live today or not, has brought a certain stillness and ease in them. You understand you are mortal; you know if you want to make one mistake, you are dead.

Just because people go to Vanaprastha Ashrama, it does not mean they are going there to die. It means they have become conscious that they have to die. Vanaprastha Ashrama is to bring a deep sense of mortality home to this body. Once this body is completely conscious it is mortal, it will arrange itself properly. Suddenly, you will view everything—property, money, relationships and all that—from a distance. You understand this is a web that you created for your survival. This is very important, because without that a human being will live a very idiotic life. If it knows it is mortal, it calibrates itself well. It will live much longer. It will not foolishly waste its energy.

We have seen this happening—not so much in India, but in the US—people who moved into the Isha Institute of Inner-sciences, Tennessee, became much healthier. In the Yoga Center in India, when we opened the Vanaprastha Ashrama, most people who moved in were young so it may not be so visible. But there, many of the people who moved in were already over sixty-five, some of them even seventy. You can see that in the last eight to ten years, they have become so much fitter, younger and healthier. They look much better and stronger than ever before, simply because of living outdoors. Of course, there is Yoga that they are practising but they are also in good shape because they are constantly walking up and down, working in the forest and being exposed to the elements.

Another reason Vanaprastha Ashrama came into practice was because it is not good for people to die at home in the midst of their family and relatives. Right now, in the world, people consider an unattended death to be bad. People think that when they die, the entire family should be around them. That is the worst way to die because you are looking at all these familiar faces and still connecting to the same reality you are now departing from.

When you are at home among family members, two things happen: your body gets connected with every other body there. I am not talking about physical or psychological connections—those will be there—beyond that also, your body will develop certain connections. Secondly, a family or a home means a whole lot of over-organization of life for today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. When you live at home or with your family, you will get sucked into it. This connection with the other bodies and the over-organization of life will create an enhanced sense of the self in a person. This will make it very difficult to let go of things. Moreover, if you die among the family, you will die with a huge sense of attachment, which is not good for what happens after. You must understand, family does not mean attachment alone.
If at the last moment of your life you look at your son, daughter, wife or husband, it is not just love but many other things that will come within you because the relationship has not been only about love. Now all those memories and emotions will also come, which again is not a good thing to happen.

This is why, in this culture, people wanted to die in a space of non-attachment. They wanted to die in a way that had nothing to do with their body, their attachments, their struggles and their things. They wanted to die in a space which was more spiritual in nature. Even in the olden times, not everyone took to the forests like Dhritarashtra and his family did. Most people moved into one of the ashrams, of which there were many in various parts of the country. In today’s conditions, for the Vanaprastha Ashrama, you don’t want to go into the forest and take a chance with forest fires or elephants or tigers. Before you die, they may kill you. Or even more likely is that the forest department may arrest you for trespassing! Yes, vana means forest. But vana also can mean garden. So it is best to withdraw into a protected outdoor space.

If dying in Nature is not possible, the next best option is to withdraw from everyone that you know, particularly relatives and close friends. It is best not to have anything around you that reminds you of the life that you have lived. Set aside your relationships and whatever runanubandha s you have. Even gods and goddesses are not necessary because that also is runanubandha—a relationship that you have created. If you have built sufficient awareness, the best way to go is that no one attends to you. If you have not built the necessary awareness, then you may feel terrified when the moment comes. You may want someone to hold your hand. It is all right. If not in awareness, you will leave at least with a little bit of love or comfort. It is okay, but you should keep this to the minimum.

So when is the right time to move into Vanaprastha Ashrama? In the tradition, they said after you are forty-eight years of age or when you have completed four solar cycles, it is time for you to enter Vanaprastha Ashrama. In today’s world, that age may not reflect that stage of life. Moreover, these stages of life can occur differently to different people. So the chronological age is not the criteria. After a point in life, one should make an assessment of one’s situation at every stage in life. It happened once: there were two women entrepreneurs in Bangalore. One day, the two of them met over coffee. In the course of the conversation, one of them said, ‘I insist that all the people who work for me must take a one-week vacation every six months.’ The other one asked, ‘Wow! Why is that so, isn’t it expensive to do that?’ She said, ‘No, no, that is the only way I know who are the people I can do without.’

So every once in a while, after every stage of your life, it is good to re-examine one’s situation. It is good to check how relevant you are to the situation around you, what your priorities in life are, and whether it is time for you to withdraw. And as we saw earlier, moving into Vanaprastha Ashrama is not about going to die; it is to live your life with a certain kind of awareness and preparation, so that death can happen in the best possible manner. This is not an invitation to death but a profound acceptance of the human condition.

The Practice of Sallekhana

In the Indian way of life, we say, you have three choices for living. You can live as a bhogi or a rogi or a yogi, but you can die only as a yogi or a rogi. A bhogi is one who is lost in material or sensual pleasure. A rogi is one whose life is contained by the disease he is suffering from. A yogi is someone who has achieved union or harmony with the Existence. You can live in any of the three states, but for dying, there are only two choices: you can either die as a rogi or as a yogi. There is no choice of dying as a bhogi.

At one time, in this culture, a large number of people chose to die as yogis. But today, they are all choosing to die as rogis. There is a whole industry that has come up for this—maybe they feel that they have to support it. Currently, in the US, a disproportionately large number of healthcare interventions are being done in the last thirty days of human life. Why do you need so much intervention at that stage? This effort is not for well-being, as this results mostly in torturing people to the extreme, knowing fully well that they anyway have to die soon. So before those last thirty days, let us say, six months prior to that, you decide to taper down your life and leave. This is the most sensible way to conduct your mortal nature.

Why some people—even those who are not on the spiritual path—want to leave their body consciously is because they do not want to die with tubes hanging out of their body. They want to slowly run it down and leave gracefully, rather than go through all kinds of torture. What happens in the hospital is worse than hell. That is a fact. If you do not know this, please make a trip and spend a few days in all the general wards in government hospitals in India. You will see that this is one place you do not want to end up in. This is the reason why a lot of healthcare professionals in the US sign the advance Do-Not-Resuscitate directive. They see the endless struggle that people go through with tubes and needles sticking in them, just keeping the body alive and prolonging suffering. They may do this for their patients, but they do not want it to happen to them when their own time comes.

In the past, people handled it differently in this culture. Let us say, you did not know any Yoga, and you were over eighty years of age and were still okay. You would probably last another ten to fifteen years at the most. But knowing that the body is becoming infirm, let us say, you took a call, ‘This is the time for me to run it down consciously.’ Anyway, you were going to run it down; you just decided to run it down consciously. So from two meals a day, you brought it down to one meal for a few years. Then from one meal, you make it half a meal, and so on. This can greatly enhance one’s lifespan, or bring it down, depending upon one’s karmic and energy situations. But it will definitely ensure freedom from prolonged suffering. In the past, when people went to Vanaprastha Ashrama, they usually went from fruit to fresh leaf, fresh leaf to dry leaf, and dry leaf to just water, and then they stopped the water too.
After that, in three to five days, they exited because they did not want to die as a rogi.

Is this suicide? Definitely not. Suicide happens out of frustration, out of anger, out of fear, or out of an inability to bear suffering. This is neither suicide nor euthanasia. This is about being so aware that you know when life has completed its cycle and you walk out of it. This is about developing sufficient awareness to separate yourself from the physicality that you have gathered. In that level of awareness, one can leave. If you do not attain such a level of awareness, then the least you should do is make the last moment very graceful, pleasant, joyful and blissful for yourself. This can be done if you manage certain things beforehand. If none of this is possible, then at least one can take the decision not to choose excessive medical intervention. This will be good for you, and good for the planet.

Modern societies are getting more and more obsessed with extending the human lifespan at any cost. You must understand that not everyone is geared to live for 100–105 years. If you want to do that, you must calibrate your life in so many ways. Unfortunately, for most of these millionaire immortality-seekers, all they have known in their life is the pleasures of body, the joys and pains of psychological drama and the intoxication of power in the world they live in. All of this being physical, they have not looked beyond that dimension at all. Today, with advanced medical interventions—hormones or supplements or stem cells or whatever—they are only managing to somehow keep the body alive.

When people have run out of their software, but their hardware is still on, they will become like empty shells. There are too many such empty shells like that in Western societies now. Some people who work with such people were telling me that there are these eighty-five to ninety-year-old men and women who have lost all their memory, but they remember one thing from their adolescent times, that they must attract the opposite sex. They have forgotten everything else, but this one thing has remained due to the chemical nature of that aspect of life that etches itself in one’s system. They can barely walk, they are in wheelchairs and all that. But whoever comes—visitor, worker, anyone—if they are of the opposite sex, they want to grab them. Every day, in an attempt to appear attractive, they wear all kinds of lipsticks and smudge themselves with all kinds of make-up or cut themselves by trying a clean shave. Whosoever they see, they try to grab them. You see how pathetic it is? But this kind of thing is celebrated in today’s societies. If you are ninety and still romancing someone, that is considered a great thing. It is not considered a stupid, idiotic thing, because that is all they have been habituated to.

This kind of situation would not have arisen if, like all other creatures, human beings knew when and how to die gracefully. So for people who do not have the capacity to shed the body at will, what can they do to exit it gracefully? How and when do you make that call? It is not the same for everyone. One person may be very strong at eighty-five, another may have to leave at seventy—it depends on many factors. Chronological age is not the criteria. To know this with some certainty, one needs a certain amount of sadhana or insight into life. Then you will know when infirmity is coming, you will know when your body is becoming unstable, and you will feel you have completed your karma. Otherwise, you feel lost in this world, which, unfortunately, is the state of most modern people.

In ancient times, there was a lot of community support for people to consciously take this step of running the body down and leaving gracefully when the time came. In the Jain community, for example, they had a practice called Sallekhana, or Santara. The Hindus have something similar called prayopavesa. In this tradition, when someone felt they had approached the stage of leaving, if they were so conscious, they could decide for themselves—it was perfectly acceptable. If someone was not aware, then they consulted all the people around, including the family, the elders of the community and their spiritual head. People then discussed and debated this. Let us say, someone gives an application saying, ‘I think it is time for me to do Sallekhana or prayopavesa.’ So they would debate, discuss and say, ‘No, this is not the time for you. Why do you want to do this?’ They would list out all the things that were yet to happen in the person’s life and all the responsibilities that he or she had to fulfil. But the person says, ‘No, no. I think I have done enough of that. My body is not letting me stay; I need to go.’ Then they would say, ‘We have to consult so and so,’ who is considered to be a spiritual head of the community.

They would consult him together and decide, ‘Okay, I think it is time for this person to go. Maybe not now, but next year.’ So he or she would decide to go the following year, based on the society’s advice. They would then be formally initiated into a process by the spiritual head. The process itself could be long-drawn and in many stages. At each stage, the spiritual head would review the progress and make sure that this was really the right thing for this person. Even if there was the slightest doubt about it, it would be called off, and the person would be taken off it.

Let us say, this was about me. Maybe, I will say, ‘Okay, in another six months, I want to leave.’ So I may consult people at the Yoga Center, ‘I think I have done enough, you are taking care of the Yoga Center wonderfully. I don’t think Devi  needs me, or the Dhyanalinga needs me or anyone needs me. I think it is time for me to go in a year’s time.’ They say, ‘No, no, Sadhguru, you must be here.’ I say, ‘Okay, how long?’ They say, ‘Sadhguru, another twenty years.’ I say, ‘No, no, max three years . . .’ If everyone is mature or conscious enough, we can talk about this and arrive at something. Otherwise, you just utter the word death , all hell will break loose.

When the entire society is conscious that death is an inevitable part of our life, we can sit down, negotiate, guide each other, arrive at something and decide that this is the best way to do it. This is just like fixing an arranged marriage in India. Let us say, your daughter has come of age, so when to get her married? The family sits down and discusses and debates about it. They ask the girl her views. They listen to what she has to say, look at the overall situation and see what is best and finally arrive at a date, isn’t it? Similarly, death is also another part of your life; you should handle it so.

In the past, this was very widely practised, though in many different forms. Even kings chose to take to Vanaprastha Ashrama and Sallekhana or prayopavesa towards the end of their lives. One of the most famous people who took Sallekhana was Chandragupta Maurya. Chandragupta Maurya was the founder of the Mauryan Empire and the first emperor to unify India into one nation. No other emperor since has managed to create a bigger empire in the subcontinent. He ruled from 322–298 BC . Ashoka 11 was his grandson. When he was forty-two years old, Chandragupta abdicated his throne in favour of his son Bindusara. He then became an ascetic under the Jain saint Bhadrabahu and migrated to southern India along with the Jain monks. At the age of fifty-five, he ended his life through Sallekhana at Shravanabelagola in Karnataka. Even today, the small stone enclosure where he lived after taking Sallekhana can be seen at Shravanabelagola.

In modern times, many eminent public figures like Acharya Vinoba Bhave chose this form of death. So just as you make efforts to live, you should also make efforts to prepare to die. You should decide, ‘In case I die, I want to die like this.’ Right now, let us say, I am going to die tomorrow. I am not planning to die tomorrow, but if it comes, am I ready? 100 per cent! Because, all my life, I prepared for it. Does that mean I am seeking to die tomorrow? No. I will do everything to see that I live well. I always say, in life, one should have passion towards the highest, compassion for all and dispassion towards oneself. Similarly, I would say, if you want to die well, you have to cultivate a certain amount of dispassion towards your own death. Otherwise, one will go struggling—kicking and screaming—which will not be good for what is going to come next.

The Significance of Dying in Kashi

No other city in the world is as deeply associated with death as Kashi is. It is also one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities in the world. There is evidence of it being at least 12,000 years old. But surely it is much older than that. Not only was Kashi continuously inhabited for thousands of years, it was also the most powerful spiritual magnet that drew people from far and wide. It would not be an overstatement to say that it would have been impossible to find someone in the subcontinent who did not want to go to Kashi for whatever reason.

Being able to die in Kashi is only one aspect that drew people to it. But Kashi is not just about death. In Kashi, both life and death are celebrated with equal reverence and gusto. People also flocked to the place for its splendour and grandeur. Over thousands of years, people from all over India have settled in Kashi and they live in neighbourhoods, each of which retains some of its original identity and linguistic flavour. Kashi, in many ways, is a microcosm of Indian civilization and a civilizational centre of India.

The word Kashi means light. The city is a tower of light, in the spiritual sense. The idea and the purpose of creating such a tower of light was to assist you to gain access to that dimension within you which you could not access by yourself. A cosmic possibility is manifested as a reality here—that is what Kashi means. Kashi is not the only such place that was created like this—many more have been created like that. But Kashi is significant because of its enormity, the aesthetics and the beauty of it. In those times, they say, there was not another city on the planet which was as beautiful. It had three-storeyed buildings, which was unheard of at that time. People were amazed by them. It was too incredible in their experience that houses were built on the riverbank with three floors. That was an engineering feat in itself.

Kashi was also the highest seat of spiritual learning. It is said that hundreds of sages, seers, gurus, Enlightened beings and scholars lived there, imparting their knowledge to thousands of students who came from all over the country and other parts of the world as well. Every spiritual tradition, every sect and sub-sect of Indian spirituality was represented there. There are close to 3000 temples within the city itself. Kashi was also the original hub of art, culture and music. Aesthetically, spiritually, knowledge-wise, and in every way, it was the most beautiful place of those times. With all these things put together, it created a powerful draw and the necessary atmosphere to get people’s focus. Many prominent saints, philosophers, poets, writers and musicians of all times have lived in Kashi at some point or the other in their lives. Even Shiva went and lived in Kashi. When Agastya Muni had to leave Kashi, even he cried paeans about Kashi’s beauty and greatness. He did not want to leave this city. But his work took him down south.

Traditionally, people did not only go to Kashi when they were on their deathbed. That would have been dumb. People went and spent the last fifteen to twenty years of their life there because they wanted to live in the most beautiful place. Living there and leaving their body there became an important part. So the original idea of creating the city was to live there. Slowly, because their business was elsewhere, people did not live there. Even then, they sought to live there at least for the last part of their life. That is how it got the reputation of being the city for dying.

The city of Kashi is demarcated by a large perimeter that is known as the Pancha Kroshi route, creating a vast schematic circle. It is approximately 84 kilometres long. Traditionally, people believed ‘Kashyam Maranam Muktih ’, which means that anyone who dies within this perimeter is believed to attain mukti. It did not matter what kind of a lousy creature you had been all your life, if you died in Kashi, you would attain mukti, they said. To ensure this, Shiva takes the form of Kalabhairava in Kashi. Kalabhairava means the dark one, one who represents limitless time and space. Kala means both time and space. It is a deadly form of Shiva. As Kalabhairava, he is supposed to be in a destructive mode. He is not destroying this or that but destroying time. All physical realities exist within the ambit of time. If your time is destroyed, everything is over for you. Kalabhairava does just that.

In Kashi, Shiva, in the form of Kalabhairava, is supposed to personally bestow Liberation by imparting the Taraka mantra to all who die there. They say, Yama, the God of death, has no jurisdiction within the perimeter of Kashi. Neither he nor his agents, the yamadoota s, can enter the city. Once a person loses their physical body, Kalabhairava gives them a yatana sharira , a special subtle energy body, for them to work out their karma. They say the suffering in this yatana sharira is forty-two times more intense than normal suffering. Because it is so intense, it is over almost instantaneously. All this is a very beautiful way of saying that the normal processes that take place after death are not applicable and something else that is super intense happens.

Traditionally, this is called Bhairavi Yatana . Yatanameans ultimate suffering. It is something that can happen to you beyond the body, but Kalabhairava will make it happen to you here. So at the moment of death, your many, many lifetimes play out in a few moments with great intensity. Whatever pleasures, sufferings and pains that need to happen to you—spread over many lifetimes—will now happen to you in a microsecond. This happens with the kind of intensity that you cannot hold. If suffering has to end quickly, we must make it super intense, only then it will end quickly. This is about putting your karmic warehouse on fast forward. If it is mild, it will go on and on forever. So Kalabhairava creates such phenomenal pain, which you have not imagined possible, so that after that nothing of the past remains in you. He makes it as brief as possible.

I have been saying this in many ways: essentially, spirituality means putting your life on fast forward. You may suffer much more because everything happens at a fast pace. What you would have stretched for ten years happens, let us say, in one month. So the intensity of the suffering that you go through is extremely acute. There may be moments of ecstasy and joy, but there is so much suffering also happening rapidly within you.

This happens not only in Kashi but in any consecrated space. In a way, once we initiate someone, we have put them on Bhairavi Yatana. We can further tweak it up if they want. Just that they must be ready for it! A consecrated space means just this—it is concentrated life. By saying the suffering is forty-two times more intense means that life there is forty-two times more intense than the way you know it. So that means you burn fuel forty-two times faster. That means everything is faster. After some time, once you get used to it, there is no more yatana, it just burns. You are at a higher rev. That is the purpose of every consecrated space. This whole longing to die in Kashi is to empty out your karma bucket entirely at least towards the end of your life and not make Kashi another item on your bucket list. Emptying one’s karma leads to all experiences happening at a tremendous pace.

Consecrated spaces like Kashi are good at doing this. Kashi is definitely not what it was, but it is still significant today. Substantially significant. However, Kashi is not the only place that is made like this. There are many other places, but maybe not of the same magnitude. The Dhyanalinga is one such place, though we cannot accommodate the same number of people as Kashi. In such places, life will happen better, and death also will happen better. Will it always lead to Moksha? Not necessarily, maybe it gets you a little closer. It is certainly better than what you would have done by yourself.

Another reason why people wanted to live the last part of their life in Kashi is because there were a lot of Enlightened and spiritually evolved people there at any given time. In every street, there was an Enlightened being to meet. And in those days, they did not have indoor bathrooms. So the entire town would come to the ghat for a dip in the mornings and evenings. Given the sheer number of such spiritually accomplished people who visited the riverbanks, invariably, such a person would notice someone whose death was near and he would do what was spiritually necessary for them. Moreover, these people would also know a specific person or ask around for someone who could do what needs to be done for the dying person. Because of this possibility, even if they lived a life of ignorance, even if they had no sadhana in their lives, people who died in Kashi were assured of a very good quality of death.

Kashi is also known as Mahasmashana , or ‘the great cremation ground’. Usually, cremation grounds are situated away from the village or city. They are at a distance from human habitation because, unless you are on the spiritual path and it is a part of your sadhana, it is not conducive both for the living and the dead to be in close proximity to each other. In Kashi, the city itself is built around this great cremation ground.

Even today, around the clock, the ghats are full of burning bodies because they cater not just to the people of the city but even to those from distant places. Whenever there is a death within a radius of a couple of hundred kilometres, the body is taken to Kashi to be cremated. The idea is that the person may have been unable to live in Kashi, or even die in Kashi, for some reason, but they want at least the body to be cremated in Kashi and the remains immersed in the Ganga. They say the cremation fire has been passed on from the beginning of time and has never been extinguished since. There is a family that has been living on the ghats there for many generations, whose responsibility is to keep the fire going and provide it to each and every cremation that happens there.

So, over time, from people wanting to live in Kashi to wanting to die in Kashi, they wanted to be at least cremated in Kashi. But today people just want to visit Kashi at least once in their lifetime, and that too as tourists, not as pilgrims. Of course, the city of Kashi itself has undergone a sea change. It is no longer in its ancient, glorious form. Modernity has taken a serious toll on its structure and form. Even then, the entire atmosphere has some impact on people. More than a karmic influence, it may bring some psychological realization—an intellectual realization from seeing life being conducted in a completely nonchalant way. What is usually done behind the scenes, in seclusion, is conducted openly there. You don’t have to go to a hospice to die. You can just sit on the riverbank and die. You can be cremated on the riverbank too. People see it as normal, very normal. So even just visiting such a place has a certain impact. Though terribly mutilated, Kashi remains a powerful possibility even today. The time to build new towers of light has definitely come.





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