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How to die

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Jain monk just before dying his peaceful death

The best way to die is to die quietly and with a calm mind. It is like falling asleep when one has prepared for the night while leaving behind all daily worries. It is a natural thing, a transition to another phase of one’s consciousness. The Jains of India in particular pay a lot of attention to dying with equanimity, because the way one dies influences the afterlife as well as the new beginning at a future birth. It is their ultimate ascetism to let go of the physical and mundane sphere and prepare for the here-after. Certainly one should leave behind all fear and worry before one dies. This is better, because worries, fears and other useless emotions may continue to bother one’s consciousness after death for a considerable time. It is useless because one is going to die anyway, and there is nothing to fear for except oneself, one’s own mind. It is worse than useless because all dark thoughts take dark forms after death. All such emotions should be overcome before one dies.

The last period of life is the culmination of that life, the spiritual absorption of all one has done. Jains and other wise people often prepare their moment of dying for months in advance, even years. They turn away from worldly matters – there is nothing worldly to gain anymore – no money, no status, no worry about health, and the children if one has them, now have to stand on their own legs or given to the care of another.

The Jains then take a vow before their guru, once the latter has given permission to prepare for death. The psychological and spiritual preparations may take many years. Ultimately they stop eating and drinking, leave behind all attachments of the mind and meditate on high ethics, listen to spiritual preceptors and finally fast until the soul naturally and quietly leaves the body. This is called ‘yama sallekhana’: peaceful death by fasting, and ‘samādhimarana’: dying in equanimity.1. This practice is usually adopted by monks, but also often by lay people.

Nobody in the world (apart from suicides, ‘war-heroes’ and religious fanatics), I think, whatever their religious or philosophical background, would deny that dying in peace is the best way of dying. Even for a strict materialist it is the most pleasant way. Animals too, usually withdraw and stop taking food and drink before they die if nature leaves them the opportunity. Their natural instincts tell them. But for a spiritual person, death does not really exist.

One monk in recent years said on the verge of dying after fasting for more than 70 days: “Now only I know for sure that I have taken the right decision.”

Death is a natural process. It is not a ‘failure of life’, but a process of life. In fact the process of natural dying may have started long before the person involved or the people around. Buddhist scriptures and other, describe the external signs of approaching death in detail2. The vital energies (prāṇas) which flow through the body and have taken care of all physiological processes, take the initiative to go through a complex series of processes, which at the end leads to total withdrawal from all parts of the body, its organs and tissues, and finally the most subtle of the vitalities withdraw to the region near the heart. This can take days3 after a person is declared clinically dead – because clinics only pay attention to outward signs like the stopping of breathing and the heart beat. Never disturb anyone who is dying, even when he or she is already declared dead !!! Least of all invoke someone when he is really dead. It is cruel beyond measure. Be a truly spiritually inclined person and trust that ensouled Nature is wiser than the human mind and its personal wishes! Be non-violent even towards the dead, don’t disturb them, don’t talk or even think evil about them.

In Theosophical literature it is advised to leave a person alone during his dying process, and certainly not to talk or perform activities. One should leave him or her until death has truly taken place. One should leave the window open, so that the more subtle body which remains connected during the physical processes can leave freely when the time comes. Candles can be burned at the head and feet of the dying person, and incense (or even tobacco), not to please the dying person, because his consciousness would experience it as re-attraction to the past life – which should at always be avoided because such a wish can no longer be rewarded. Nor should one play their beloved music or create other sense impressions for the same reason. The best thing to do is to create a pure atmosphere (to which evil influences (elementals) feel naturally repelled). If possible one should remain quiet and not move around with the body for some three days, depending of course on climatological circumstances. In hot climates this would be too long. When the body begins to decompose, the person has really left it. In the exceptional case if trained yogi’s this moment can take place days of even weeks later, as just said. As soon as the dying person has left his body unmistakenly and completely, the best is to burn the body, so that the departing man or women can no longer hang around that body and is liberated from his mundane connection earlier.

Of course death may appear suddenly, due to some karma: either by an accident or on a battle field, by cardiac arrest, or semi-immediate as in the case of death penalty, consciously taken mortal risks (such as with car racers), etc. It may also come at an unnatural time due to slow disease which is another karma than the karma which determines the normal life-span. In case of sudden death there was no time to prepare mentally, spiritually or emotionally for death. Maybe one dies in a mood of fear, anger, excitement or hatred. This then can have a karmic consequence in the future birth: it is the opposite of peaceful dying. It is said that one resumes the next life how one left this one. The sudden event itself however may lead to a shock condition, a comatose unconsciousness, at least for some time, maximum until the person’s lifespan karma has worked out, that is the time when he would have died naturally. The prāṇas are heavily disturbed in such an unforeseen event and the soul may be urged to leave the body almost immediately. There will be no pain in case of sudden death and after an experience of seeing one’s whole life pass by in a very short time and a tunnel experience towards a light or a brightly radiating beloved person. One then probably loses consciousness until the next awakening after when the predetermined life-span is over – like in a non-physical coma which lasts till the end of one’s life. Only then the more subtle experiences of dying will take place as in a natural death. Nature knows what to do, and will lead the soul through the necessary processes and there will be no more suffering than what karma brings.

Even if we ourselves are not aware of an approaching sudden death, the soul knows it, and is inwardly prepared. Nature is compassionate. There is not so much cruelty involved in the death of the thousands of insects eaten by birds than one might suppose. According to the Jains, the bird adds bad karma for itself and will reap the result for it by being born in one of the hells for the time being, but this can only apply as far as its consciousness can be held responsible, and only in that sense the bird is more to be mourned than the insect eaten.

The only exception is suicide: it is physically and prāṇically the same as sudden death, but otherwise than in death by accident, the mind knows what decision it is taking and is therefore fully responsible as well as often in a particular state of agitation. Emotions may also be strong. The result is that after the destruction of the body and when the soul has left it, consciousness remains vivid until the time of the end of the lifespan karma, and one keeps suffering the same agonies one tried to escape from: the fear, hatred, anger, gloom or whatever it may be. Moreover, especiaaly when violent, a strong impression of the deed is being imprinted on the subtle body that presents itself time and again to consciousness, and one may again and again re-experience the decision, the actual deed of killing oneself and the possible regret during that deed when it is too late — even though in reality one is already dead. Suicide is the crime of violence against a human being who was bound to fulfil his karmic task or duty, in this case against oneself, but also the product of the cowardice of trying to run away from karma. That is not possible. On the contrary, considerable bad karma is being added. Karma can not be escaped other than by spiritual purgation, by non-violent ethical spiritual effort in harmony with the wisdom of the natural soul.

Much of the quality of the experience of suicide no doubt depends on the motivation. There may be altruistic suicides by people who sacrifice their life for the sake of someone else or for a true ethical principle, and do so in complete inner quietude and conviction without any taint of selfishness.

One may ask why people are so particular about dying and violence. Usually death is a pleasant or very quick process for the victim. In many cases the dead are better off than the survivors. Certainly the victim is more fortunate than the perpetrator. Each have their own karma. And why is suicide so much worse than any other way of dying? The answer lies in the wisdom of the soul. It is the act of violence which is the sin, whether one kills some-one else’s body of one’s own. It is the choosing mind and consciousness which is the cause of the anti-natural deed, and that mind-consciousness alone will reap the karmic fruits, after death and in a next physical body. The jīva chooses its path according to the spiritual laws of nature, whereas a decision to violence is an illusion and crime created by the mind. The mind tries to know better than the soul. If the mind tries to go against the laws of nature, karma will punish it as a severe but most compassionate teacher. Compassionate because karma presents the best possible opportunity to put the soul back on track. All the rules of behavior, inner and outer, prescribed in religious scriptures, are meant to help people to walk in harmony with Nature – physical nature, as well as more importantly even the spiritual ecosystem of the universe, which includes physical nature. If they do not listen, karma will correct them until they have bettered their life. A spiritual person may regret, but does not mourn the dead, nor the event of death itself, even if it is violent. He or she only mourns the damage done to the soul of the actor and those who sympathize with him.

The ideal preparation for peaceful death according to Jainism

Part II : The processes and experiences of dying.

  1. A detailed study of all aspects of peaceful dying has been published by Dalpat Singh Baya Death with Equanimity; a critical study of the concept of voluntary peaceful death. Prakrit Bharati Academy, Jaipur, 2007, 351+xlvi pages (Also available free online at http://www.prakritbharati.net/books-online/death-with-equanimity/). The picture shown here is taken from this book. []
  2. See: The Tibetan Book of the Dead (First Complete Translation, by Gyurme Dorje), Penguin Books, 2005. []
  3. In case of particular trained yogis this state can stay on for weeks: they are clinically dead, but their bodies do not decompose and inwardly they maintain a state of meditation. []