Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Interfaith Seminar; Subject: Death

I was reflecting this morning on the little "interfaith seminar" I attended yesterday in Guelph.

There were nine people altogether of various backgrounds--the two mature Indian men from the temple with whom I came, myself, a Lutheran couple, a Roman Catholic woman, a Unitarian Universalist woman, and a Buddhist couple of Jewish background. All the Christians, though, were to a greater or lesser extent influenced by New Age ideas. All looking for "spirituality." So there were no representatives of a "hard" tradition--no Baptist evangelicals or Sunni imams.

I was very calm and detached throughout the whole meeting, which was centered on the subject of death. I was the second last person to speak, so I had the opportunity to hear everyone before saying anything. Most of it was heartfelt personal stories about experiences with other people dying, their own near-death experiences, etc. Everyone seemed to agree, more or less, that they were not afraid of death, but somehow saw it as an organic part of life and therefore nothing to be feared. Norman, a Buddhist, said that every moment we are dying and being reborn, so what is different about the final death?

I recently read an article (which I now cannot find) about a study that found that people are less fearful at the time of death than is generally imagined. Most people do seem to go "gently into the good night," embracing death rather than "burning and raving at the close of day; raging, raging against the dying of the light."

Whether Dylan Thomas would approve of their silent acquiescence to the inevitable end of life is another matter. There is something sheep-like about the way that so many of us are simply filling in the space between birth and death. Shuffling from one triviality to another.

I talked about my 95-year-old father-in-law and how he has come to a point where he would welcome death--heavily sedated, surrounded by care-givers whose only real care is that he should not require too much care. His sell-by date has come and gone and he knows it. But he must face the journey in a lonely way, because there is no one there with whom he can even talk about it. And so, the last days are filled with television and medication. And death remains an empty unknown, a gaping hole that is treated with indifferent disinterest. If you haven't spent your life thinking about death, why should you give it any added thought when it comes? Life sooner or later becomes a burden and you simply "slough off the mortal coil."

I also remember one day a few years ago when my father-in-law was taken to the hospital, I saw an aged lady in the emergency ward, white and wan in her pale, drab green smock, going diligently through one of those "find the word" puzzle books. Life is drawing to a close and people are just marking time. As if there was nothing significant about it. Sedation, medication, dulling of the will, suffocating the human desire for purpose and meaning until, like animals to the slaughterhouse, they quietly sit on the conveyor belt to the graveyard.

The Bhagavata is about a person who knew death was inevitable. Maharaj Parikshit was cursed to die in seven days. And so he called for "a conference on death and dying," gathered keynote speakers from various religious disciplines, the greatest sages of the world, and asked them "What is the purpose of life? And what is the duty of a person who is about to die?"

And the answer was, "Hear about God, chant about God, remember God." But that was not really an instruction just for the time of death, because, as the Gita says, you need to train your consciousness throughout life. If your life had no meaning, your death will be equally meaningless.

When I think of those passive, peaceful deaths, I cannot help but contrast them with Srila Prabhupada's glorious passing in Vrindavan. How he wanted to go on Govardhan parikrama on a bullock cart, and how his disciples could not fulfill his desire for fear he would die, when so clearly he wanted to die circumambulating the holy ground of Govardhan, perhaps in Radha Kund.

And so he died on the following day in his room. But this did not make it any less (or only slightly less) glorious, for he was still surrounded by loving disciples who loudly did the one thing he had exhausted his aged life airs in teaching them--to chant the Holy Names. And they enveloped him in a thick wall of emotion, of tearful love, while he opened his mouth and expired on the wave of Krishna's names.

We like to think of a perfect death as one where a person is surrounded by family and loved ones. But how much more than a physical family was there on that day! But a glorious death does not come about by accident. Just like the Buddhist Jataka tales describe 500 births of the Buddha before he reached final enlightenment, a death in the bosom of God's love, surrounded by those who have been given that love and are returning it, spiced with gratitude, are reaping the fruit of lifetimes of discarding life's trivialities.

They do not go gently into the night, in the way that Dylan Thomas meant it, but neither do they rage, rage against the dying of the light.


visnudas said...

So nice! It maybe does or doesn't connect, but reading the "Nectar of the Holy Name", esp Sri Sri Manindranath Guha's Dedication of the Second Edition (quote of Cca, 139)resonated when I read this post. We are our own battle, each one of us are our own enemy and ally. To follow faithfully or not the path marked out by Sri Sri Panca-Tattva and the Goswamis.
I think of my own useless, common death. Another foolish westerner half-heartedly picking up Gaudiya Vaishnavism like a trinket from a curio shop: well-loved but for how long? When my time comes will I fight for each breath to chant loudly with great relish or ask for more medication or for the nurse to change the channel? Or, perhaps more dire, will I chant without relish hoping against hope that it provides something, anything, a childish totem to concentrate on besides my own dwindling life airs?
Thank you for the gravity.
Radhe Radhe!

Anonymous said...

Wise words, as always. Only I felt a tiny ripple there at the mention of Prabhupada; I thought, "but, as a matter of glory, as a matter of meaning, and as a model of how and where to triumph, isn't there at least a few other such glorious deaths in the world for us to know of?" I mean to say, must everything be measured in terms of Prabhubapa?

Don't get me wrong, I deeply respect Srila Prabhupada, being indebted to him as I am forever, but it seems to me this constant resorting to Prabhupada as the ultimate personality/event, well its beginning to produce the opposite effect. It has created an unrealistic perspective of saintlyness, at the least.

Granted, Prabhupada's death was glorious, as was his life, however, in my humble opinion, there is more to be gained presently by bringing up the humaness in Prabhupada than from again zooming in his super-humaness. At this point in the history of Prabhupada's legacy, treating the matter of how, why and where he erred will make him more glorious than referring to his glory by itself. My humble two cents.

Jagat said...

Well, one measures by the standards that one sets, by the examples one has received. Shivdattaji, at the same session, spoke about his guru's disappearance. Apparently he was sitting in meditation on the train, after having shown no signs of flagging energy or diminution of his enthusiasm to spread his teachings and mentor his disciples. At some time during his meditation he left his body, and those around him never even perceived that he was doing anything but experiencing a deep samadhi.

But, look, it is not a question of measuring everything in terms of Prabhupada, but that does not change the role that Prabhupada played in my life and the way that continues to inspire and motivate me.

I am not, like some people, going to throw the baby out with the bathwater; but neither am I going to drink the bathwater, as some others do.

The Self said...


This has nothing to do with your most recent post, so I apologize. But I just wanted to say hello. I've been reading your writings for some years and always appreciated them, as well as your GGM work. I have been out of the loop for some time, but found this blog recently.

I've started a blog as well to process my thoughts and experiences in and out of Gaudiya Vaishnavism. If you should ever read something there, I encourage you to comment, as everything is open to discussion.

Wishing you the best back in Canada!


Anonymous said...

I don't think its a matter of drinking the bath water. Prabhupada also left a legacy of great errors that need addressing. If you want to really glorify Prabhupada perhaps you should mention also that the absurd statements on blacks, women, etc. that he made were in fact crass mistakes that he should never had made. And which it should absolutely be thrown out quickly lest it kills a much too precious baby.

Jagat said...

I feel in a somewhat strange position vis-a-vis Iskcon and the Gaudiya Math. In many ways I admire and appreciate their accomplishments and respect their good qualities. And even now, I find more in common with IGM devotees than I do with 90% of the world.

Furthermore, I have respect for IGM because of my own historical relationship with it. I would not be who I am were it not for IGM.

Moreover, I have a sense of nostalgia for some of the good qualities that IGM fostered in me and have diminished since I left it.

Nevertheless, there are too many things that I do not agree with to ever be a participant or a wholehearted supporter of either Iskcon or any Gaudiya Math.

I like to be honest and give credit where credit is due. You are quite right in what you say, but I am not the type to go on and on harping on the blemishes of either organization. It seems self-evident to me that the KCM has reached a kind of impasse in the West, and that impasse is based in several causes, one of them being things Prabhupada said, as you yourself mention, and the inability of Iskcon to consolidate such statements with their commitment to the guru doctrine.

Overall, the principal problem is a crisis of faith based on an overly literal approach to Krishna consciousness, a lack of sophistication in theological understanding. I don't think this can be solved easily, as there will always be devotees on different levels of understanding. The problem mainly lies in the lack of a milieu or institutions for those who have with a more mature or sophisticated approach.

I might say, moreover, that there are many critics, but few who have either the character or the spiritual acumen to provide a suitable alternative. By which I mean something that provides the possibility for sadhu-sanga that is both intellectually and spiritually satisfying. That is the real need.

Anonymous said...

It all depends on one's own true interpretation (both literal and practical) of the term "Sadhu-sanga" ([sā+dhū]-[san + ga]) in all its many literal layers and practical knowledge (as well as like-for-like etymological concordance in its English translation).

sadhu (√ Sádh):







+ also √sad:

nga (a play on words - ङ[nga]) - naga:


So many layers (literal and practical) that one must place the finger of intellect through to touch upon the truth.