From: Conscious Living
By Swami Rama
Reprinted with permission of the Publisher
Copyright Himalayan Institute Hospital Trust
Death is a solemn experience, a change from which no one can escape.
One who does not prepare for it is a fool.
The discussion about life after death has been going on since the
dawn of history, but no definite conclusion about the immortality of
the soul can be reached by those who are on an intellectual plane and
are not spiritually awakened. It is not possible to understand what
exists after death by intellectual arguments or discussions. The
absolute Truth cannot be scientifically proven because it cannot be
observed, verified, or demonstrated by sense perceptions. The Atman
is beyond sense perceptions. Scientific experimentation, confined by
its own limitations, cannot reveal the highest truth. That is why the
scientists cannot reach any concrete conclusions on the immortality
of the soul and life hereafter, and nothing can convince them either.
The materialist finds it difficult to believe that anything continues
to exist after death. One who lives on sense perceptions only cannot
catch a glimpse of the beyond.
One has certain expectations of life after death according to his or
her religious beliefs. People dream of immortality and wish for
heaven. They comfort one another with the thought that the departed
loved one is now with God forever. The religious hold that in heaven
there are plenty of watersheds, fruits, beautiful women, music,
dancing, and so on. Followers of certain sects believe in a heaven of
heroes where battles are fought against their enemies and against
ferocious animals. All these heavens are nothing but mental realms
where one's highest desires are allegedly fulfilled.
Everyone has certain desires that they consider to be the most
delectable, and at the same time they wish for a realm where such
desires could possibly be fulfilled. Therefore, the longing for a
heaven projects a realm that is a replica of the heaven one has
sought to achieve. This heaven is a projection of one's own ideas and
desires that is no more real than are dreams. When a person dreams,
she may think she is in heaven till she wakes up. On waking, the
reality of the dream vanishes. Dreams and heavens are realities only
under certain conditions.
The idea of heaven was conceived by the ancient seers of India, but
they did not consider it to be an eternal state, as some religions
do. Outside of Hinduism and Buddhism, the concept of heaven implies
an eternal existence. According to Hindu philosophy, the idea of an
eternal heaven is a practical impossibility. Heaven or any other kind
of existence after death is not static but is determined by one's own
thoughts and actions. Those who experience heavenly realms and enjoy
celestial pleasures can do so only as long as their good deeds and
thoughts entitle them to. There is always a limit to good deeds and
thoughts, and likewise, there will be a limit to the results accruing
from them. The word eternal denotes that which is beginningless and
endless. According to Vedanta, heaven cannot by its nature be
eternal, for all things that are subject to the laws of time, space,
and causation are impermanent and perishable. All worldly pleasures
are limited by time; they do not continue forever. Celestial
pleasures are akin to the pleasures of the world. Even though they
may be experienced for a long time, they must eventually come to an
end. Those desires that cannot be fulfilled anywhere except in the
world will bring the soul back to the physical plane of existence.
At the time of death the soul discards the body, its outer garment.
Yama told Nachiketa that after the body is dead and destroyed, the
soul continues to exist. There are spiritual realms where the soul
remains without the help of the physical body or the phenomena of the
material universe. These realms are not cognizable to the sense
organs and can be perceived only through spiritual intuition.
Unrealized souls remain in the realm of the departed ones for an
uncertain period after death. They have gone through the ordinary
process of death because they could not realize the true nature of
the real Self on this plane.
Much of the fear associated with death is the fear that death may be
painful. The process of death itself is not painful; it merely
changes conditions. Lack of preparation and attachment are the cause
of the pain experienced at the time of death. Death is never painful
for one who is prepared and has acquired knowledge of Atman. Such an
individual remains detached from the body and bodily senses, and is
unaffected by bodily changes. Death may be painful and lead to a
sorrowful state when the soul is very attached to the physical plane,
things of the world, or individuals. At the time of death such a soul
suffers and goes through agony because it is unable to completely let
go of those attachments.
Between life and death there is an intermediate state in which prana
ceases functioning. If one is not prepared for this moment, he will
suffer mental tortures and will not be able to explain or express
anything to others. One who has known the Reality is saved from this
In the transition of death, before the external vehicle is completely
dropped, those who are not enlightened experience various temporary
levels or realms, pleasant or painful, respectivelydepending on
previously performed, positive or negative, karmas. For example, in
pitriloka we meet our ancestors or dear ones, and in svargaloka we
enjoy various pleasures. The Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Garuda
Purana of Hinduism explain extensively the stages through which one
passes in the process of discarding the body.
There are different heavenly realms, lower and higher, depending on
the purity and impurity of one's mental constituents that remain even
after the physical body is dropped. For the ignorant, death is a long
and deep sleep, interspersed with dreamlike heavenly or hellish
visions. Those who claim to communicate with departed souls are
either hallucinating or lying. When someone is in deep sleep, it is
not possible to communicate with anyone. Only enlightened souls can
communicate with others after death because they remain fully
conscious all the time.
Those who have performed good deeds, have led righteous and selfless
lives, and have obtained some perfection in this life, can enjoy a
clear vision of the divine Self in the highest realm. However, the
wise say that the highest attainment and realization of the Self can
be had only in this very life. Heavenly realms like pitriloka and
svargaloka cannot reveal the highest truth. Liberation cannot be
attained in these realms and the various pleasures of heaven can
hinder the soul from realizing the Atman. Self-realization is
possible only here in this life and not after death. Those who
believe that they can realize the real Self in the realm of the
departed soul after death will be sadly disillusioned. Those who do
not realize the immortal nature of the Atman before the dissolution
of the body lose the great opportunity which comes through a human
birth. The attainment of Brahman is possible only here in this life
and not in life hereafter.
According to Vedanta the human being consists of five sheaths or
koshas: the gross, physical sheath (annamaya sharira), the sheath of
prana (pranamaya sharira), the mental sheath (manomaya sharira), the
sheath of intellect (vijnanamaya sharira), and the blissful sheath
(anandamaya sharira). They are called sheaths because they cover the
Atman as a sheath covers a sword. They are described as being formed
of successive layers, one upon another. The physical sheath is the
outermost, and the blissful sheath is the innermost. The Atman
remains separate and detached from all these five sheaths.
At the time of death the physical body, along with the conscious
mind, are separated from the immortal part. There are no sense
perceptions after death because the sense organs are left behind with
the body. Senses do not function on the subtle level.
In the process of discarding the outer vehicles or sheaths after
death, one comes briefly in touch with the blissful sheath,
anandamaya sharira. Those persons who have documented near death
experiences are describing this brief contact when they speak of
being drawn to a brilliant light that overwhelms them with love. Such
experiences are possible but they have nothing to do with Self-
realization or enlightenment. These momentary experiences do not have
the capability to transform anyone or bestow extraordinary powers
such as clairvoyance or the energy to heal others. If one remains in
darkness and ignorance through-out life, how is it possible to come
in touch with the Atman even for a brief moment at the time of death?
If a lamp has many coverings, the light can be seen but it is very
dim. When all the coverings are removed, the light is clearly
visible. To see the light is not enlightenment, but to realize the
light within is the real experience. This is not the light of the
sun, moon, or stars; it is the light of wisdom and eternal bliss.
There is no other experience comparable to enlightenment. Death has
no power to enlighten anyone. The seeker should make sincere efforts
to prepare for the next step and should try to attain enlightenment
here and now while on the earthly plane, instead of hoping to be
enlightened after death.
Ignorant souls go to heaven or return to earth for the satisfaction
of their unfulfilled desires. He who desires is born. One who does
not desire is not reborn. According to the theory of rebirth, a soul
is born again and again, depending on the merits or demerits of its
actions, so that in every successive birth it may acquire more and
more knowledge, and in the end attain perfect liberation.
This theory of rebirth cannot be proved by modern scientific methods.
A scientific approach can only treat it as a plausible theory which
is in conformity with the laws of cause and effect, that are the very
basis of the physical universe. The rishis of the Upanishads were not
impressed by the theory of eternal retribution in heaven or hell, for
such a hypothesis is based on a disproportionate relationship between
cause and effect. Life on earth is short and full of temptations. To
inflict upon the soul eternal punishment for the errors of a few
years, or even of a whole lifetime, is to throw to the winds all
sense of proportion. The ancient seers developed the doctrine of
rebirth on a rational basis, showing that it is unfulfilled desires
that bring about a soul's embodiment. The length of time the soul
must spend in the transition of death before taking another body is
solely dependent on the intensity of desires. There is no hard and
fast rule set by nature.
Many western philosophers such as Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato
believed in the theory of rebirth. Nowhere in the Christian Bible and
Zoroastrian scriptures has the doctrine of rebirth been explicitly
mentioned, nor has either prophet repudiated the theory of rebirth.
The reason is that during the period of Christ and Zoroaster it was a
Believing or not believing is not the important consideration for
one's spiritual uplift. The fact is that if almighty God is kind and
merciful and decides human destiny, there should not be any disparity
in His creation. Equality is the law of the Absolute, and disparity
is humanity's making. According to the doctrine of rebirth, we are
all fully responsible for our lives here and hereafter. Each person
is born into a world that has been fashioned through the personal
karmas of his or her past.
The soul, after fulfilling its desires through the manifestation of
the body, discards the body and assumes a fresh form. According to
our desires and tendencies, we are born on a higher or lower plane
consisting of the various gradations in the subtleties, the levels of
purification, of the subtlest sheaths. We must not forget that we are
the creators of our future destiny through our thoughts and deeds. It
is foolish to think that God punishes the wicked and rewards the
We do not consciously choose the factors of our next rebirth. They
are determined, or chosen, by our previous actions, thoughts, and
desires. This accumulation of grooves or samskaras that define a
person superficially as personality, travels from one birth to the
next. The grooves shift like dunes on the desert, responding to the
experiences and will of the person. They change shape and influence
over great expanses of time, creating different personalities and
different incarnations, but all moving toward ultimate liberation.
The grooves determine the characteristics of the incarnationwhether
male or female, what parents, any siblings, which station in life,
the lifespan with how much suffering, how much joy, and so on. There
is nothing arbitrary about it. The birth is perfectly matched to the
spiritual needs of the evolving individual soul.
Those who have realized the transient nature of life on earth or in
heaven seek to avoid the endless repetition of births and deaths.
They aspire for Brahma loka, the highest reality beyond the heavens
from which one never returns. The realized individual remains fully
aware in all conditionswhile living in a human body, and during the
state of death. The knower of Brahman does not go to any realm or
heaven, nor does the knower become anything other than what it has
always beenthe Atman, the Self of all. After dropping the physical
garment, the realized soul remains in a state of perpetual bliss and
happiness, and infinite love and wisdom. The knower of Atman is like
a person who has awakened from sleep and dreams no more; she is like
a blind person whose sight has been restored. A liberated soul who
has direct experience of the Atman does not come back to the physical
plane unless he chooses to return to serve others. Such a jivanmukta
is no longer tossed into the dualities like bondage versus liberation.
The enlightened soul has burned all the strands of karma which bind
other human beings. Such a one wields free will and chooses whether
to be reborn or to merge with the Absolute. If the choice is for
rebirth, the circumstances of that birth are also consciously
selected. Such souls, according to Buddhism, are called arhats.
The secret that has been revealed by the King of Death is the
greatest of all secrets for every human being who wishes to know
where he will live after death. For ordinary mortals this remains a
secret for many births to come. The mysteries of life and death and
life hereafter are known to only a fortunate few.
Humanity has learned so much about the material world and how to
overtake nature. They have worked hard to know the secrets of birth,
and have found ways to make the process of birth easier and less
painful. However they have not learned to prepare properly for dying.
Death is not frightening, but that which is frightening is fear of
death. Death is like a mother that gives solace to those who have
wasted their time and energy in enjoying the worldjust like chewing
on a husk that has very little content and does not at all quench the
Death is but a comma and not a full stop. Death is a solemn
experience, a change from which no one can escape. One who does not
prepare for it is a fool.
The real Self cannot die. It continues to exist even when the
physical sheath is destroyed. The physical self is the gross medium
that remains latent in the Atman. When the physical body is
destroyed, the subtle substance of the body remains the same. Nothing
is ever lost in the universe. Cosmic energy continues from eternity
Modern science has discovered that everything in this world is but
the product of vibrations which impel energy particles to attract
other energy particles. Solid matter has successively been reduced to
these empty particles, and then to electromagnetic waves, that have
ultimately come to be understood to be forms of energy. In the
philosophy of yoga, all that exists and happens in this universe is
the result of motions and vibrations, the cause of which is the
cosmic energy or prana. All animate and inanimate objects of this
universe are made of the vibration of prana. This vibration of prana
is at the root of all universal phenomena and is the prime cause of
all events happening in the universe. Prana is the cosmic life
principle and it has its own laws. Without prana the universe would
not exist. The eminent scientist, Sir Arthur Eddington, said that we
must remember that the concept of substance has disappeared from
fundamental physics and has been replaced by a concept of the
periodicity of waves. Modern science has indicated by experiment that
the world of physics is a mental phenomenon. It is therefore no
wonder that physics has virtually ended in metaphysics, thus
confirming the intuitional revelations of ancient rishis: Sarvam
khalvidam Brahma (Verily all this is Brahman).
The first manifestation of prana was space, akasha, which gradually
evolved into the phenomenal universe. According to Vedanta there is
no such thing as dead matter in the universe. The entire universe is
a living organism. Yama explained to Nachiketa that whatever exists
in this phenomenal world is but the manifestation of the vibration of
prana. According to Rik Veda the cosmic force existed before the
beginning of evolution and will continue to exist after the
dissolution of the manifested universe. From one mighty source all
the forces of nature have burst into manifestation. The universe is
the manifestation of that One who is the substratum of the universe.
There is no such thing as loss or gain of the vibration of prana in
By the power of prana and through the forces of evolution, the
internal and external worlds come into existence. The whole world is
eternal in its essential nature, but non-eternal in its external
form. When all the external forms of the universe are destroyed, the
formless substancethe mother energy of the universewill continue to
exist from eternity to eternity.
Wherever there is life, there is some manifestation of intelligence.
Intelligence and life go together. This intelligence is of the inner
Self, which has as its instrument the life force, prana. It is really
the Self that lives and functions through the help of the pranic
The objective world is only one half of the universe. What we
perceive with our senses is not a complete world. The other half,
which includes the mind, thoughts, and emotions, cannot be explained
by the sense perceptions of external objects.
The five senses are the main doors through which the individual ego
comes into contact with the external world. These five senses are the
gates through which we receive the vibrations from the external
world. These vibrations are first carried into the brain cells.
Molecular changes take place in these cells and the vibrations are in
turn translated by the ego into sensations. Next, the sensations are
formed into percepts, which after a series of mental processes are
transformed into concepts. This goes on and on endlessly. When you
think of any object, you perceive instantaneously the mental image of
that thing. It is called a concept.
If an intelligent mind does not exist, there will be no perception.
Vedanta describes the position thus: "Finer than the sense organs are
the sensations, but the mind is beyond, and beyond the mind is the
intellect, and greater than the intellect is the cosmic ego. Beyond
the cosmic ego is the unmanifested One. This is the highest path that
reaches the ultimate Reality."
The pranic force has been given five names according to its different
functions in the physical bodyprana, apana, vyana, udana, and
samana. In the human body the air which rises upward is prana, and
that which moves downward is apana. Vyana sweeps like a flame through
all the limbs, maintaining circulation of all fluids and energy,
throughout the body. Udana conducts the soul from the body at death,
and by virtue of samana nutrients are assimilated.
When the soul or jiva departs, it is followed by the vital energy,
prana. When the prana departs, all the other life supporting organs
follow. The breathing system is the vehicle of prana. It is the
breath that establishes the relationship between mind and body. When
inhalation and exhalation cease to function, death occurs. Physical
death is a change, but it does not annihilate the subconscious mind
The subtle powers of the five organs of action (the ability to speak,
to grasp, to move in the world, to procreate, and to excrete) and of
the five organs of sense perception, the five pranas, the manas, and
the buddhi constitute the subtle body. At the time of its rebirth,
the soul is accompanied by the subtle body. The gross body dissolves
at death, but the subtle body continues to exist. The subconscious
mind, which is the storehouse of merits and demerits, becomes the
vehicle for the jiva, or the soul. All the samskaras of our many
lives remain in the storehouse of our subconscious mind in a latent
state like seeds. The relation between the subtle body and the gross
body is akin to that of the seed and the plant. As the seed contains
all the qualities of the plant in the seed germ, so the subconscious
mind retains all the samskaras of our previous lives.
The Buddhists and the yogis believe in and discriminate between the
soul, the mind, and the body. The soul has not been created. It is
essentially consciousness and is perfect. After the dissolution of
the gross body, everything remains latent. The soul survives. Our
souls remain after death. If the soul is the real entity and
existence, there should be some way to experience it. Everyone who
undertakes the appropriate spiritual discipline can have this
Life and death are only different names for the same factthe two
sides of one coin. One who goes beyond such differentiations can
conquer death and reach the other shore, that is, eternal life. A
person who understands the fundamental truth that the Atman is
immortal and all else is perishable, can solve the mystery of death.
Life after death can be experienced here in this very life by those
who have attained samadhi. Those who have realized their real Self