The Meaning of Life
Death and Reality
When you study the Indian Holy Scriptures, you discover in astonishment that the turning point which induces somebody to approach a guru, to subsequently become his disciple and be assigned a path to salvation, is often a catastrophe. The starting-point is often the worst state conceivable: a complete breakdown of one’s whole life, externally as well as internally. Sometimes even death is a prerequisite for proceeding towards the ultimate goals of human life, indeed, occasionally Death himself may appear as a guru.
According to the Bhagavatam, one of the central revealed scriptures of Hinduism, human life resembles the last steps of a man sentenced to death on his way to the execution ground. At different stations along the route he is offered amusements of various kinds: delicious food and beverages, music and dance, sexual pleasures. However, nothing of all this affords him happiness, because all the time his heart quivers with dread and anguish. Why – he knows that death is inescapable.
At another place in the same work a similar picture is used to illustrate the course of life, the journey from birth to death, namely the picture of a herd of cattle that is ruthlessly driven towards the slaughter-house by a butcher. The butcher is Time, urging on all living creatures. (The Sanskrit word for time, kala, is deduced by the ancient Indian grammarians from the root kal: to push (on).)
The frame story in the Bhagavatam, which comprises twelve books of altogether eighteen thousand stanzas, is also shrouded by the shadows of death: A king named Parikshit – the name means “the one who was proven worthy” – who has been cursed, sits in meditational posture by the shore of the river Ganges, awaiting his end. He knows that after seven days he will be struck down by a poisonous snake, and then he will inevitably die. In a wide circle around him, filled with reverence, the great rishi-s of ancient India are seated. Then it just so happens that the youth Shuka comes along. “He came for no reason”, the text says. Whatever those who are eternally free, who wander about here on earth, do, they do it “without any purpose”. They roam around like innocent children and hand out what they carry within themselves: Pure Knowledge and Love of God. The king falls at the feet of Shuka and asks him: “What should man do in the face of his imminent death?” Shuka smiles and says: “You have asked a good question.” And then he starts to recount the content of the great Bhagavatam.
What Parikshit now hears, makes him later on exclaim: “Although I have been fasting for seven days and seven nights and have not consumed a drop of water, I feel neither hunger, nor thirst. Why, I drink the nectar from your mouth. ... In the shape of a mortal spell God, Krishna, has come to me.”
In the Katha-Upanishat the lord of the law of cause and effect, the one who subdues all, Yama, Death himself, appears as a guru. The boy Naciketas, due to his courage and self-sacrificing devotion, has reached the threshold of Death. There he sits huddled up for three days, waiting before the closed gate: Death is busy. Having thus neglected the obligations of hospitality, Yama then grants Naciketas the fulfilment of three wishes.
Naciketas’ last and most important request reads: “When a man dies, two opinions prevail. Some say he exists, others say he doesn’t. Who is right? To this I desire an answer!” (Katha-Upanishat 1. 20) Death replies evasively: “Even the gods once were in doubt about this, and it is not surprising: these matters are hidden. Choose another favour, oh Naciketas, and don’t beset me!” (Katha-Upanishat 1. 21)
Yama offers the boy all kinds of mundane joys and pleasures instead. All such things, usually coveted by men, now are within reach for him: health, longevity, beautiful women, well-behaved children and grandchildren, unimaginable riches and power to rule the world.
Naciketas declines: “Keep your dancing and singing! Who knows whether these pleasures even last till the break of dawn... Why, life is short.” Once more he demands to get instructions about what is beyond the realm of nature, beyond human ethics and the bounds of time: “Enlighten me about the knowledge that supersedes right and wrong, that is untouched by cause and effect and beyond past and future!” (Katha-Upanishat 2. 14)
Also in the Bhagavadgita death in the form of an imminent huge massacre provides the stage for spiritual instruction. Two enormous belligerent armies stand in battle array on the battlefield. On both sides most of the warriors feel that they are not going to survive this fight. Before the opening of the eighteen days’ war of annihilation Arjuna, one of the greatest war heroes of that time, has let his chariot be placed in the space between the two armies. Previously, he had been convinced that he fought on the side of the good ones. Heavy-hearted he now perceives that close relatives of his are also in the opposing camp, – yes, he can see even his own beloved tutors there. He no longer knows what is right and wrong. Whatever action he takes, whether he fights or does not fight, he violates sacred law. In great despair he asks his friend and charioteer Krishna for advice and enlightenment. – Only when the disciple has asked the appropriate questions, the guru can begin to instruct him. Else he remains mute. – While all around them ill omens of the approaching apocalypse are noted, Krishna enlightens His disciple Arjuna about what is imperishable:
Know about This, by which all is permeated:
it is not wounded by the sword,
it is not moistened by water,
it is not burned by fire,
it is not parched by the wind ...
It is unfathomable, imperishable, eternal.
Bhagavadgita 2. 17; 22–23; 24
These elements enumerated here contain – according to ancient Indian philosophy – all that is subjected to the laws of time and space. A guru of today could quite easily add: no hydrogen bomb is capable of blasting to pieces this Eternal, in which every living creature takes part in its innermost being and which pervades everything.
There never was a time, when Me and you
and all these noblemen were not existing,
and there will never be a time,
when we shall cease to be ...
Just as childhood, youth and old age
befall the embodied one
so also the getting of another body (befalls him).
The wise man is not confused thereby.
Bhagavadgita 2. 12–13
Just as a man discards his worn out clothes,
and puts on other, new ones,
so the embodied one
discards his withered bodies
and enters into fresh and new ones.
Bhagavadgita 2. 22
Here, the knowledge of transmigration opens entirely new horizons. The belief, quite established in the West, that man is confined to live one life only, is seriously disputed. However, this broadening of the view is in no way the ultimate truth. According to Hinduism the great issues concerning right and wrong, guilt and penance can not be settled by introducing the concept of repeated existences.
The idea of reincarnation only broadens the scene in space and time. It makes it easier for us to accept the idea of living beings on remote planets and in times long gone by. Yet this broadening of the mind, introducing cosmic dimensions and a completely new concept of time perspective, does not make any change in principle. Another screen has to be removed to reveal a new stage. In the light of the Indian divine revelation the universe of measurable and calculable things, to which the Hindus also count all mental reality, appears solely as a perverted shadow image of the omnipresent and eternal fullness of the highest Reality. This implies, among other things, that in Hinduism the boundary between here and there, between this life and the hereafter, between holy and profane, good and evil, life and death, real and unreal, is drawn in a completely different way than we are used to according to our precepts and experience.
In the Katha-Upanishat (II. 1. 10) Yama – Death as a guru – instructs the boy Naciketas:
What is here, is there,
and what is there, is here.
From death to death passes he,
who sees a difference between those two.
Similarly, in the Chandogya-Upanishat (VII. 25. 1) it is said:
Fullness is in the East,
Fullness is in the West,
Fullness is in the North,
Fullness is in the South …
The Brihad-Aranyaka-Upanishat explains:
“He, who in this world is unaware of the imperishable Eternal and offers oblations into the sacrificial fire to propitiate one of the gods – even if he sweats and strains for thousands of years, all his labour is in vain as the results of his sacrifice are perishable. He, who without knowledge of this imperishable Eternal passes away, is like a miserable slave, who was bought (by the gods), a truly poor man. He, however, who has realized this imperishable Eternal and departs from this world, he is a knowing one (he knows Reality), a (true) brahmin.” (III. 8. 10)
True knowledge concerning this sole, omnipresent, indestructible and eternal foundation of the world and of every living entity (and consequently not only of man), this true Reality – without which all that we on earth perceive as real, would not last even for a moment – constitutes the essence of all Indian divine revelation.
All that has a beginning and an end is not (the ultimate) Reality, Bhagavadgita states. Only that which has neither beginning nor end is eternal and truly existing:
It is unborn, eternal, unchangeable.
It is not destroyed,
when the body perishes.
Bhagavadgita 2. 20
This all-embracing Reality, which is not subordinate to the laws of Nature nor to the laws of birth, growth, decline and death, constitutes – viewed in the light of the Vedic knowledge – the normality; whereas what we call reality, i.e. all that we, aided by our senses and comprehension, daily perceive in this corruptible world, is an abnormal, only relative reality. This view – which is so unfamiliar to the Western approach that it demands a real revolution in the very way of thinking and an adoption of another set of values than the ingrained ones – must be kept in mind, if one wishes to understand the view on man in the Indian world of thought.
Even to Buddha, the perfectly enlightened one, who grew up within the Hindu tradition, and who, not unjustifiably, is considered to have founded an atheistic religion, even to him the existence of this unborn, eternal Reality appears as something self-evident.
Once he addressed the following words to his disciples:
There is something that is unborn, uncreated, not-made, not composite.
And if this that is unborn, uncreated, not-made, not composite did not exist,
then how could one escape from that
which is born, created, made and composite?
(Udana VIII. 1)
This imperishable something, which Buddha speaks about, is the same imperishable Eternal, which in Hinduism is termed the formless Brahma. And the state of nirvana in Buddhism equals the state of brahma-nirvana in Hinduism (see Bhagavadgita 2. 75 and 5. 24–25).
Now the question arises: What is this veil or deceiving power that, according to the Hindu divine revelation, provides us the means to experience this cosmos and makes us believe it to be real – from the most remote stars and solar systems down to the tiniest elements of the ancient Indian atomic theory, including also the most crude and most refined mental processes within all living beings – but which conceals our true nature and the underlying fundamental and primary Reality to us?