Each month our educational center section provides the Hinduism Today staff with a 'kind of group meditation. Individually we ponder our subject, and together we discuss it in detail. These past 30 days our meditation was on death. You might think we had a morbid March. Not so, since, as U.S. General George Patton rightly noted, "For Hindus death is the most exalted experience of life."
This idea is sometimes hard for non-Hindus to grasp - especially for atheists facing Eternal Oblivion and for those of the semitic faiths which define death as a kind of punishment for man's sin and disobedience. According to this view, death is the ultimate sign of man's spiritual failure, a belief which understandably arouses instincts of denial and injustice. We may feel shamed, penitent, guilty and graced, not to mentioned frightened. And that's a long way from exultation.
No such thoughts attend the dying and death of a Hindu. Of course, there is much sadness surrounding the passing of friends and family, but that is honest acknowledgement of our love and attachment to life and to each other. Inside we know that death is OK, it is natural. Inside we know that the soul, even if it was less than perfect in this life, is continuing its appointed journey toward Liberation and will, in time, reach the other shore. Such knowledge is reassuring, whether the death is another's or our own. Thus, Hindus called death by a lofty name - Maha Samadhi, "the Great Superconscious State." And to be near an awakened soul at the time he or she gives up the body is considered one of the most auspicious and blessed of opportunities.
If we see death as the opposite of life, then life is good and death is bad. But if we see life and death not as hostile but as collaborative parts of a greater whole called samsara (the cosmic evolutionary cycle of birth-death-rebirth), then life is good and death is also good. Both are part of the Cosmic-What-Is.
That being so, the pious Hindu approaches death as a mediation and a sadhana, as a spiritual opportunity. The physical body's impending demise compels him to practice detachment which yogis find easy but which is so difficult to achieve in the tumult of life. Yama's nearness brings an urgency to strive more than ever, to plunge deeper into consciousness in a renewed search for the Divine Self. No longer can he put it off. No more excuses about lacking time for the quest. No more distractions. Death's knock at the door reminds him of what is transient and what is eternal, and he knows instinctively who to embrace.
Impermanent though life is, we are getting more of it these days. It is estimated that the average life span for prehistoric man was only 18 years. In ancient Greece and Rome it was 20-22. Alexander the Great, having conquered the world, died at the ripe old age of 32. Sankara, having conquered the mind, also died at 32. Obviously, the quality of life does not correspond too directly with its quantity. In...