Defining Death


Defining death is akin to defining life. One does not mean anything withoutthe other. There are various perspectives from which to look upon death. Death could be defined as the disconnection from the body,vital breath, mind, and so on. You suddenly disconnect and die. This is an interesting perspective on death. You don’t die in reality; you just disconnect yourself from the body. This means that birth is connecting oneself to a body. Birth does not mean that you come into existence. You already exist. You always exist. Birth is just an assertion of your ignorance. When an intelligent person becomes ignorant, she or he takes birth.That is what the scriptures say. When you are full of knowledge and suddenly you become a fool, you take birth! You come to this world. Even with your pristine purity and innate knowledge, suddenly you think yourself attached to thebody, you get yourself connected to this bodybecause of delusion, because of maya and then you take birth.


So, what is death? Disconnecting from the body. And death is of course destruction, destruction in the dualistic sense of the term; destruction of duality. You have destruction only when you have a sense of construction, when you have a sense of creation. The very idea of creation is an abhorring idea in Advaita Vedanta.What can you create? This is an illusion. There is no creation at all. All that you see is because of your ignorance. The entire universe that we see is of a variegated nature and is nothing but a reflection of our ignorance or reflection thatis born out of our ignorance. So, death is destruction.


Death could also figuratively meanthe loss of wealth and honour. People who do not have wealth have no problems. Those who have wealth, have enough problems! As the body and vital energy are material, so is wealth. So if a person can identify oneself with the body, it is as dumb as identifying oneself with one’s bank balance. Apparently, it may seem that it is alright if a person is alive and is identifying oneself with the body, but if somebody identifies oneself with the bank balance, it is wrong. But seen from a higher perspective, both are the same.Your identification with your bank balance or with your body is essentially of the same nature. That is also death. 


Death could also be defined as dissolution. Now, this is from a larger, macro, perspective. From an individual perspective, micro, perspective, my body is the body. Advaita Vedanta holds that both the macro and the micro are one’s own creation; this world does not exist as one sees it. It is because of one’s ignorance that one projects it so. When the world will die, there will be dissolution. 


The very concepts of birth and death come out of ignorance. If you do not have ignorance, you will not have the concept of death. Death is a creation that is born out of ignorance. Death is natural action and natural knowledge. It is mundane that I will die, that I am yawning, that I am about to fall asleep, because of some boring talk that is capable of inducing sleep when tranquillisers cannot! Death is also born out of desire. This appears to be ironical. We all desire to live long. How is it that death is born out of desire? The very desire which makes you yearn for a long life is ignorance, and that very desire will propel you towards death. This is of course a more practical definition of death. Desire will propel you to indulge in sense pleasures and thereby you will wear out your body and mind and end up dying quickly! The more desires you have the more taxed you will be. You will be taxing your body and mind and senses and you will die sooner.


Death could also be defined as hunger. There could be many interpretations of this definition.The simplest one would be something like this. If you are hungry and you are not provided food, you will die; death out of starvation. Death is considered by many to be something that is evil.This is predominantly a Judeo-Christian concept. Eastern traditions do not consider death to be evil. From the perspective of Advaita Vedanta, it is evil because it is ignorance. It is because of ignorance that one thinks of death. To exhaust all the accumulated effects of one’s actions, one needs to identify with a body. So, death is evil because it takes away the opportunity of using the body. 


Death can also be defined as darkness. Death brings fatigue, that is, when one nears death, all energy is lost. No one can actually claim to have the first-hand experience of death. Near-death experiences are not the same as death itself. Much like the experience of the knowledge of Brahman, the experience of death also cannot be expressed, albeit for a quite different reason! Zombies still are just a figment of imagination!


Death can also be seen as the superimposition of ignorance. It is a superimposition, which is brought out of ignorance. Death essentially occurs because of the idea of duality. It occurs because one perceives difference, because one differentiates oneself from the universe and identifies with a particular body. Death is therefore the identification with the body, as was said earlier.


As seen earlier, death is desire. The more one desires, the more would one die, some deaths occurring in the same lifetime! Hence, everyone should desire less and less. That could set all of us on the path to immortality.


Though death remains to be the only certain thing in any life, what exactly brings about death has been the field of inquiry for scientists and philosophers alike. Presently, all explanations of the death of a life-form are at best, post mortem ratiocinations of an unknown phenomenon. In spite of there being no dearth of cultural, religious, and mythical studies on death, attempts to ensure a peaceful exit from life are relatively new; particularly for the terminally-ill patients.


Death is a huge irony, huge dichotomy that goes unnoticed. The biggest wonder of death is that it is not at all noticed, at least not one’sown death. Every one of us here is certain of our life, which is the least certain thing in our lives.The most certain thing, death, is totally uncared for, unplanned for, and goes unnoticed. Everyone clings on to the body and has a strong desire to live. It becomes difficult to give it up. Death is a big delusion as is birth. The delusion that somebody loves you, that you love somebody—all these delusions, all these illusions within the bigger illusion of this world—appear because of this desire to live, the desire to survive. The only way to go beyond death is to go beyond duality, go beyond ignorance, and to do away with ignorance.



Author: is Editor, Prabuddha Bharata, monthly magazine of the Ramakrishna Order.


Also read

1. The Art of Dying 


This article was first published in the October 2017 issue of the Prabuddha Bharata, monthly journal of The Ramakrishna Order started by Swami Vivekananda in 1896. This article is courtesy and copyright Prabuddha Bharata I have been reading the Prabuddha Bharata for years and found it enlightening. Cost is Rs 180/ for one year, Rs 475/ for three years, Rs 2100/ for twenty years. To subscribe online

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