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Death and Dying

By Bansi Pandit
Author of The Hindu Mind
Just as electricity manifests as light in a glass bulb, pure consciousness (also called atman) manifests as
mind in a human body. For this reason, mind is sometimes called light of consciousness. When the glass
bulb breaks or the filament fuses out, electricity doesnt go anywhere; it remains in the wire but cannot
produce light in the same bulb. Likewise, when human body becomes dysfunctional, atman cannot
manifest as body consciousness and mind and the person is said to have died.
Atman is a non-physical (spiritual) entity. Being eternal (transcends time and space) and infinite, atman is
beyond thought and thus beyond any kind of description. Bhagavad Gita 2.23 says, Weapons cannot
cut this atman, fire cannot burn it, water cannot make it wet, and the wind cannot make it dry.
The closest example of the atman we may have is that of the infinite space around us, which contains all
planets, including all human beings and all other creatures. Without this apace there can be no
existence. This space is infinite, seamless, borderless, untouchable, immovable and unaffected by
whatever happens inside it. Fire cannot burn it, rain cannot wet it and storm cannot damage it. By itself it
is nothing, yet it contains everything. Thus we may say that the atman is space like pure consciousness,
the source of all existence.
We normally say that when a human body becomes dysfunctional (due to age and/or disease) the atman
leaves the body and the person is said to have died. Can atman really leave and, if so, where will it go?
Since it is space-like infinite being Shiva, there is no place to go. It is already everywhere, as it is
omnipresent, eternal and ever present. Atman exists both inside and outside the human body. The
human body is like the walls and the roof of a house, where space is both inside and outside the house
and the walls and the roof also exist inside the universal space. When the house collapses or gets burned
down, does the space inside move out to meet the space outside? Was the space ever divided when the
house was built?
Thus, when a person dies it is actually the physical body that dies. Atman is ever present, but doesnt
illumine the physical body, as it is dysfunctional. Another body gets created naturally and the atman
illumines the new body in the form of a new baby.
What is the significance of the last rites (antim samskara) upon the death of a person?
Adi Shankaracharya says:
Na punyam na papam na saukhyam na dukham; Na mantro na tirtham na veda na yagnaha.
Aham bhojanam naiva bhojyam na bhokta, Chidananda rupah shivoham shivoham.
I (atman) am not attached to any sinlessness (righteousness) or sin; I have neither pleasure
(joy) nor pain (sorrow), I do not need to know any Mantra (sacred formula) I do not need to
make any long journeys to sacred places I do not need to know any sacred writings (Vedas scripture) I do not need to perform any sacred ceremony (Yagna - rituals) I am neither the
experience (subject) nor the experienced (object) nor the experiencer (doer), I am eternal,
joyful, supreme being as the emblem of truth, knowledge and eternal bliss. I am the self spiritual
Joy (pure consciousness) Shiva.
Thus, upon the death of a human body there is nothing human beings (whose loved-one has passed
away) can possibly do for the benefit of the atman. All finite acts (such as last rites and rituals with
physical materials and reciting mantras etc.) fall within the physical realm and have no bearing on
the infinite atman, which is spiritual Joy (pure consciousness) Shiva.

Then what is the purpose of the traditional rites and rituals performed as a part of the antim samskra?
Their only purpose is to help console the loved ones who are left behind to grieve. The ritual gives them a
sense (false sense) of doing something for the atman of the loved one who has passed away. If there is
faith, the rites and rituals transform that faith into the inner power that helps restore normalcy to the
grieving mind.
In conclusion, do what pleases you and enhances your comfort zone. Reciting Bhagavad Gita or any
other scripture has been found useful in calming the restless mind. This sort of therapy has been found to
be helpful and may be pursued at any time.