Death

08/21/2016

For the Abrahamic religions in general, death signifies the end of life or the entrance into the afterlife; in this doctrine, it is implied that life is associated with, specific to, the body.  In contrast, in Hindu doctrine, the source of life, the imperishable atman, is considered discrete from the body and mind, which only serve as a vehicle, as mortal instruments, for action and thought. This atman is not only an attribute of humans, but of all life forms, putting all life on an equal spiritual plane–the ultimate egalitarianism.  (Because of this value placed on all life forms, many Hindus choose vegetarianism.)

Then what are the implications of death in Hinduism?  You probably knew that Hindus believe in reincarnation, or the assumption of a new life form at the time of death.  In terms of the atman, reincarnation is the passage of the atman from one body to the next–in Sri Krshna’s words, just as a person casts off old clothes and puts on new ones–in a process also called transmigration.  We are the immortal soul, not mortal bodies, so at the time of bodily death, we live.  This would warrant a much less grim view of death.

Then why is bodily death still taken so seriously?  The Gita advises us not to develop emotional dependence on the body anyways, so why does its death remain so distressing?  Besides, says Sri Krshna, even if we did assume the atman to die, we still shouldn’t be bothered by death because it would come whether or not we liked it.  Why should we allow ourselves to take so much stress over the inevitable?

The doctrine of the atman and reincarnation seems to tell us that we should accept, even be fearless of death.  This fearlessness, however, only comes into play in the performance of our duties.  For example, a soldier might have already taken into account the possibility of death while on duty, but someone else shouldn’t walking straight into dangerous situations only with the justification that death doesn’t matter.  Even if we were to dismiss all worries surrounding death, that is no reason to have any less care for life.  To be fearless is not an excuse to abuse our lives, which would be outright disrespect for the form we’ve been given and negligence to fulfill our obligations of service to the world.  That’s right: since we have been given our human form, we have the obligation to use the resources we have in benefit of others.  In fact, the world runs on such sacrifice–water and oxygen don’t ask metabolic life for anything in return, nor does a mother nursing her baby.

So the takeaway is that we have the obligation to live and that involuntary corporeal death should not be so distressing, since we are, after all, not the body.  Then why do we mourn death?  It depends on whether ‘mourning’ means the ritual or the emotional intensity that follows death.  As for the former, funeral rites and customs are a matter of respect for a person, not acknowledgement of the grim and distressful nature of death.  And seeing that we make deep emotion connections to some people in our lives, the grief we feel on their passing is very real.  In that sense, the sorrow of mourning is more about loss than about death.

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