Death As Spiritual Motivator

By Rudra Shivananda (in January 2013)

A few days ago, my aged and ailing father contracted pneumonia and has since been hospitalized in the intensive care unit of the local hospital since he was not responding to the normal anti-biotic treatment.  The doctors are holding out little hope for his recovery. I am, of course, always hopeful and pray for the best.  However, it is also necessary to face the distinct possibility of a personal loss. All of us have and will have to face such an occurrence as we all know that we must all face the mortality of our loved ones as well as ourselves.

Besides personal mortality, we sometimes are mesmerized by the possibility of a world-wide catastrophe as the recent scare of 2012 has amply demonstrated. The world gets a rude awakening every now and then – a threat of a colliding asteroid or a nuclear war that would destroy all life. What would you do if you knew the world was going to end tomorrow?

Would you rush to satisfy as many of your desires as possible or would you run to your religious church or temple to find solace? Would you find your best friend or try to seek your own divine nature by continuing your spiritual practice?

When we are young we live our lives as if we will live forever. Immersed in our own trivial personal concerns we usually give no thought to death. But as one grows older and mortality asserts itself, one becomes more and more aware of the fleeting nature of life. We come to realize the inexorable passage of time and the consequences of our karmic actions.

It takes some unusual occurrence, some sudden shock to wake us up from our slumber of mediocrity. Humanity has had the capability to destroy itself for the last fifty years but have managed to put that stress into the background and consciously ignore the threat. Only when there is fear of an imminent disaster do we take stock of ourselves and are forced to re-examine our lives.

In a recent movie, an old man facing his sudden mortality writes up a list of everything he would like to do before his death – he called it his “bucket list.” Such is the reaction of many people, even when faced with imminent termination – the satisfaction of desires is uppermost in their minds. It is because of these unsatisfied desires that the soul is reborn again and again. Intellectually, we know this, but the force of these desires is beyond our control. Can we ever satisfy all our desires – the hydra-headed monster that grows ten new heads every time we cut off one?

We do not know when our life will end but need to live as if every day is our last and make the best use of our time to reach our goal of Self-Realization. Should we wait for some death threat before we look towards our own true nature? When one starts to dig for water only when dying of thirst, the chance of success is slim.

Ramana MaharishiThis reminds me of the inspiring example of a great saint called Ramana Maharshi.  As a boy, he was suddenly assailed by a great fear of death and this forced him to examine his true nature. He spontaneously began to penetrate beyond the identification of body and mind.  He reached a super-consciousness state by meditating on “who am I?” Although he was illiterate and had not learned any meditation techniques, due to his past life yogic practices and the stimulus of a death threat, he realized his innate immortality. This is very unusual and almost impossible for us.

Death serves a very important function – without it, we would continue on our path of sense compulsion. It was the sight of death that finally moved Prince Siddhartha to become the Buddha.

Life is precious and uncertain. All the sages have counseled that we make the best use of our limited stay on earth and follow the path of Self-Realization.  Even is we do not achieve our true nature in one life, we will surely do so in the next.

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