by Swami Krishnananda
When a person is very sick and is about to depart from this world, people sit around him. His relatives gather around him and ask him, "Do you recognise us?" "Do you know who I am sitting here?" If the senses are active, naturally, he would recognise them; but if the senses have been withdrawn into the mind, then he can only think but cannot speak. He can only have memory of his relations, but he cannot see them gathered or seated in front of him. What happens at the time of death is that there is a gradual withdrawal of the functions of the various organs in the system. The physical senses are activated by certain forces which impel us towards perception. When the purpose of bodily existence in this world is finished, then there is no work for the senses. When one is alive, the senses act in a particular manner on account of prarabdha-karma that they are expected to execute in this span of life. When that is over, this body is of no use for the purpose of experience here. Then the senses understand that they cannot do anything through this body. They want to drop this instrument. So they withdraw themselves. Then the physical body cannot any more become a location of these functions of the senses. What are these senses? They are the energies propelled by the mind. It is the mind itself projecting its tentacles through the orifices of the body called the sense organs and the motor organs. So, when the functions of an individual in a particular body is over by the exhaustion of prarabdha-karma, the senses are withdrawn into the mind. Then the dying person can think but cannot see. He cannot speak. No organ will function. He is practically dead. He will be lying on his bed without life, as it were, yet life is there.
As long as the mind is not withdrawn into a higher reality in him, he can think. Otherwise, even thinking is not possible. At the last moment, when a person is just about to pass away, thinking stops. Not only speech and senses stop their activities, even the mind stops its functions and he cannot think. If you speak to that person, he will not reply. He will not react. He will not give any indication of having heard your sound. That is the condition where not only the senses are withdrawn into the mind, but the mind also is withdrawn into the pranas. There is only breathing, neither thinking nor sensing. Then people say the person is still alive. He breathes. Some bring cotton and keep it near the nostrils to see if he is alive. If the cotton moves it means he is alive, otherwise he is gone.
So the first stage of withdrawal is the absorption of the senses into the mind. The second stage of withdrawal is the absorption of the mind into the prana wherein the breathing process continues, life exists, but there is no thinking and there is no sensation. Then what happens? The breath also gets withdrawn into the fire principle which is what we call the heat in the system. As long as there is heat in the system, you say there is the element of life. If the heat also has gone, the whole body becomes cold and limbs are chill. Then we lose all hope; it is finished. Prana is also withdrawn into the fire principle. Vang-manasi sampadyate, manah prane, pranah tejasi-so, when senses are gone, mind is there; when the mind has gone, the prana is there; when the prana has gone, mere heat or fire is there. Fire or heat is the last thing which is in a person on the verge of leaving this world and entering the other world. When the heat also is withdrawn into the Supreme Being-tejah parasyam devatayam-then there is no consciousness and there is no bodily life.
Individual life gets extinguished by a gradual process of absorption of the external functions into the internal ones until they are withdrawn finally into the General Reality, Samanya Satta, in all things. The person enters into a state like that of deep sleep. He does not know what has happened to him. He cannot know that he is dying. That is unconsciousness. There is a sudden shift of emphasis from one level of being to another. One cannot know that one has fallen asleep. However much one may be trying one's best to keep a watch on the process of going to sleep, one will not know it. One is suddenly in it. That is all. Either you are not sleeping or you are sleeping. You cannot be just midway between the two. Likewise with a person when he enters into this Generality of Being where he becomes totally unconscious of particularities and has lost contact with this world of externality. This happens at the time of the withdrawal of the individual soul into the Supreme Soul in the process of Liberation, and also at the time of death. So, from the point of view of the external occurrences of the various phenomena of withdrawal, death and Liberation are identical. What happens to a person when dying, happens also to a person in Liberation. But there is a great difference. The difference is obvious. It needs no explanation. The person is not cast into the wilderness or thrown into an oblivion when he enters the higher stages of conscious expansion. On the other hand, there is unconscious and compulsive pushing back of the functions into their sources at the time of death. In death there is no transcendence. There is only automatic withdrawal. But, in the process of Self-realisation there is transcendence, so that there is no coming back. When you have outgrown a particular level of experience, you do not come back to it. But, if you have been forced to wrench yourself from a particular experience, the desire for that experience still lingers and you will have to come back to complete your experience.
When a person dies he knows nothing because he enters the Being of all beings, though unconsciously. This Being consciously realised in the supreme 'experience' we call God-realisation or Self-realisation, and into which one is cast unconsciously at the time of death and sleep, is the ultimate Reality. This is the essence and this is the Self of all. "Thou art That, O Svetaketu," thus instructs Uddalaka once more. "My dear father, explain further," says Svetaketu.
Now the teaching is about to conclude with one more example. In ancient times, there was a system of finding out who was the thief. The method was to gather all the suspected ones and bring them to the court of the king, and under the order of the king, a heated axe would be brought and they would be asked to touch it. The principle is that a culprit will be burnt by touching the heated axe, whereas one who is innocent will not be burnt. There is a similarity of touching in either case, but there is the dissimilarity of being burnt or not burnt. This is an example that Svetaketu is told by his father Uddalaka, to make a distinction between the realised soul and the ignorant soul.
The servants of the king catch hold of a man and say, "Here is the culprit, here is the thief, here is the robber, heat the axe for him." If a person who has told a lie is asked to touch the heated axe, naturally, the fault will be made visible outside by the burning of the hands, and then he is punished by the consequences of his actions. But, if a person who has not committed any fault, who is only suspected, is brought to the court, then when he touches the axe he is not burnt, and he is released. So is the case with the soul that is really bound or not bound. Being in the body or not being in the body is not the criterion. Just as touching the axe is common to both the suspected one and the guilty one, but the consequences are different, so is the case with people who have knowledge and no knowledge. In spite of the fact that both are in the body and both pass through the same stages of ascent from the grosser to the subtle, the man without knowledge is bound, while the one with knowledge is liberated. The realised soul may be in the body as long as the prarabdha continues, just as a bound soul is in the body. But the difference is that the bodily presence or existence affects the bound soul, while it does not affect the mind of the liberated soul. That condition in which the soul resides in the body with knowledge is called jivanmukti, liberation while living. The body is there, but it does not affect the consciousness. The mind has the power to bear the pains brought about by the existence of the body. The exhilarations coming through the contact of the body with the objects of sense desired for and liked, and the pains coming due to contact of the senses with objects disliked and hated - neither of them affect the soul that is liberated.
There are some teachers who give another example, the example of a coconut inside a shell. They say, the coconut that is raw sticks to the shell. That is the condition of the bound soul. Consciousness sticks to the shell of this body. But in the case of the liberated soul, it is inside the body, no doubt, but is not sticking to the body, even as the dry coconut is not touching the shell. It makes a sound inside if we shake it. It is detached from the shell, though it is there tentatively. Even so, consciousness is not confined to the body, even though it is inside.
In spite of the fact that the senses are withdrawn into the mind, the mind is withdrawn into the prana, the prana into the fire or heat in the system, and heat into the Supreme Being, in both cases, in the case of the liberated, it is a gradual transcendence and a conscious process of ascent. When one consciously moves in a particular direction towards one's destination, one knows what is happening, what one is moving through, what are the stages one has crossed, what is the distance still ahead, etc. When one knows the distance that has yet to be covered, one is not fatigued on the way, because one is aware of how much one has already covered. One is fully conscious of every stage of the travel or journey. But, suppose one does not know what the distance is, how much one has covered, how much is left and whether the direction towards which one marches is correct or not. One then feels much fatigued. In addition to all this, suppose one is blindfolded; then we know what the suffering of that man is. This is the difference between a liberated one while living in the body and the one that is unliberated and caught in the body. This is the difference between self-transcendence in liberation and compulsive withdrawal of the senses in death. This is the difference between death and Self-realisation. This is also the difference between sleep and Self-realisation. The desires of the mind are not destroyed in sleep, and therefore there is return to the waking or dreaming state after sleep. The desires of the mind are not destroyed even in death, and therefore, there is reincarnation after death. But the desires of the mind are destroyed in Self-realisation, and therefore, there is no return.
The cause of the birth of a body in the process of reincarnation is the presence of a desire for a particular experience. The karmas referred to as sanchita constitute the reservoir of the potencies of actions which emerge out one day or the other, as a plant emerges from a seed. The seed may be lying in dry soil waiting for the rain and suitable conditions or circumstances to sprout up. Even so are the sanchita-karmas, which are the seeds for future rebirths. The conditions suitable for the sprouting have not yet come, because the prarabdha-karma prevents their manifestation. The pressure of the prarabdha, which is under the process of experience, does not allow the sprouting up of other karmas in the sanchita group, because of the weight of the former, and so they, the latter, lie in ambush waiting for an opportunity to rise up. When the prarabdha is over, which means to say the experiences which one has to undergo through this body are exhausted, then there is death. Then the next set of karmas comes up. That is the conditioning factor of the new birth. What one will become in the next life, in the next incarnation, will depend upon the nature of the next set of strong or important karmas lying in ambush in the reservoir of the sanchita. These are difficult things to understand, because one cannot know which karma comes up for maturation. Whether one action gives rise to one birth or two births, or whether two or three actions join together to give a birth, or many actions join together to give one birth, whether the karmas of this birth give rise to the next birth, or whether the karmas of some other previous birth come into action and give birth to the next body, all this cannot be understood by one who is not omniscient. But, the principle is this, that actions which are performed leave behind them a residue called apurva which becomes the content of the sanchita or the anandamaya-kosa within us. We carry them wherever we go, and these are not destroyed even if death takes place, because death is nothing but the exhaustion of a particular allotted portion of karma and not the entirety of it. But the sanchita is destroyed by the fire of knowledge in the case of a person who has attained Self-realisation. So there is no rebirth for him.
Thus the distinction is drawn between a person who ascends to the Reality consciously by self-transcendence and the other one who merely dies for taking another birth. This is, in essence, the teaching of Uddalaka to Svetaketu, in this section.
First, the sage starts by giving an explanation of the process of creation, how the objective universe is created from the Supreme Being, the Sat, and by means of the triplicated elements of fire, water and earth - how everything in the world in all creation is constituted of these three elements only in spite of the variety of particulars. He then explains that inside the body also these very same principles work and that what the world outside is made of, of that this body also is made. Then he describes how the mind and the pranas are also influenced tremendously by the activity of these three elements - fire, water and earth - so that the external universe as well as the individual within are both constituted of the same elements, and that essentially they are indistinguishable. He has explained how this one Being is present both outwardly in the universe and also inwardly in the individual. Then he has told us that this Being is the goal of realisation of all individuals and that this Being is present subtly in every particular manifestation. He has also said that It is invisible to the eyes, because It is the Subject of all knowledge, that It is the all-pervasive principle, It is the subtlest essence and that It is the background of all existence, and therefore, the senses and the mind cannot perceive It. Ordinary knowledge, he has said, is inadequate here and It can be known only through the grace and guidance of one's own Guru or master; and when a knower lives in the world with this body as other people live in this body, we draw a distinction between the former's way of living and conducting himself and the ordinary people's way of living. For all practical, outward purposes, the liberated man and the bound man look alike. One cannot know who is a Jivanmukta and who is a bound one, for both speak in the same way, eat in the same way, live in the same way. The distinction is within. It is that the liberated one knows what he is, whereas in the other case he does not know what he really is. So, here is the distinction between knowledge and ignorance, and here is also the explanation of the path to liberation as propounded by Sage Uddalaka.