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The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

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CHAPTER IV

Third Brahmana: The Self at Death

  1. tad yathā ’naḥ su-samāhitam utsarjad yāyāt, evam evāyaṁ śarīra ātmā prājñenātmanānvārῡḍha utsarjam yāti, yatraitad ῡrdhva ucchvāsī bhavati.

Sometimes it can happen that one has to pass through this condition for days together. It is not that everyone passes through the same condition. Every person's manner of death is different from that of others. But here the Upaniṣhad gives an idea of the normal way in which people pass away from this world. Rarely do people like to leave their body. It is very dear to them. If someone were to say you have to die just now, one would not be easily prepared for it. Whatever be one's experience that is going to be in the future, even if it is to be better, one cannot imagine it. There is a natural clinging to the body and a feeling for this present life, due to which there is a reluctance to depart from this body. But, because of the pull from the other world, there is a tension one feels at that time. You do not want to go, but you are forced to go, and naturally you can imagine what you would feel at that time.

The Upaniṣhad gives a comparison. Just as a bullock cart which is heavily loaded with material, almost beyond its capacity, dragged by two powerful bulls, creaks and groans because it is heavily loaded and moves slowly and reluctantly because of the weight, somewhat in a similar manner this individual about to expire moves out of the body reluctantly like a heavily ladened cart, pulled by forces which belong to the other world, with creaks and groans caused by the weight of attachment that he still has to this world. That weight does not allow him to go freely. So he makes a kind of 'creaking' sound, as it were. There is difficulty in breathing, or hard breathing. The Prāṇas depart; they are about to leave the body. In sleep, the Prāṇas do not leave the body. Though the mind is withdrawn from the body, the Prāṇas are not withdrawn. So there is no death in sleep. Life is still present, though the mind is absent. But in the death condition, Prāṇas also are withdrawn. So, there is no connection between the subtle body and the physical body at the time of death. In sleep the connection is maintained, and so you return to waking life once again through this body only. But when the Prāṇas are withdrawn, the last connection that obtains between the subtle body and the physical body is snapped, and the two are separated. At that time of the separation of the Prāṇas from the physical body there is inordinate breathing. What kind of breathing it is will differ from person to person. When a person is about to depart, indications will be seen in the physical body as well as in the mind. The person becomes emaciated and weakened in every respect. When the soul, with the subtle body, is about to leave the physical body, several phenomena take place. The physical body shows a tendency to disintegrate, and the mind shows a reluctance to the maintenance of it. The senses become feeble and they refuse to energise the body, as they had been doing before. Simultaneously, another activity goes on in another atmosphere, in a very subtle and unconscious manner. There is a desire in the soul that departs, to materialise itself in another form. The subtle body accordingly, even before leaving the present body fully, begins to draw to itself the necessary material forces available to it at that particular spot or atmosphere where it can continue its activities and fulfil its desires which are yet unfulfilled.

  1. sa yatrāyam aṇimānaṁ nyeti, jarayā vopatapatā vāṇimānam nigacchati, tad yathāmraṁ vā udumbaraṁ vā pippalaṁ vā bandhanāt pramucyate, evam evāyam puruṣa ebhyo'ṅgebhyaḥ sampramucya punaḥ pratinyāyam pratiyony ādravati prāṇāyaiva.

The subtle body will be wrenched from every limb of the physical body. At present the subtle body has become one with the physical body, like fire getting one with a hot iron ball. If you throw an iron ball into the fire and make it red-hot, the two become one. You cannot know which is fire and which is iron. Likewise, the subtle body permeates the physical body and has got identified with the physical body. That is why we have sensation. If you touch a finger, you can feel the sensation; there is the feeling of touching. The feeling is not of the physical body; it is of the subtle body only, just as when you touch an iron ball which is hot, what burns you is not the iron ball but the fire. You can say that the iron ball has burnt my finger. But an iron ball does not burn. It is the fire that has become one with the ball that burns your finger. Likewise, the sensation that you feel in the body is not the sensation felt by the physical body. It is the sensation conveyed through the instrumentality of the physical body to the subtle body. So the feeler, the experiencer is the subtle body whose presiding deity is the mind. But, at the time of death, the subtle body is withdrawn. During life, it has become one with the physical body in every detail; it has become one with every cell of the body. It has become identified with every limb of the body – with the eyes, with the ears, with every sense-organ. When, at death, it is withdrawn from the physical body, it becomes a kind of painful experience, because it is not a natural separation. It is a separation caused on account of unfulfilled desires which the present physical body cannot fulfil. It is not a separation caused by exhaustion of desires. There is a difference between a dry leaf falling from a tree and a green leaf being plucked. The physical body is dropped, not because the desires have all been fulfilled, and there is no further need for a body, but because this body is unsuitable for the fulfilment of the remaining desires. And so, there is a handing over charge by one officer, as it were, to another one. The function is not finished, only the personality changes. After death also, there is a continuity of the same activity of the mind, but there is a little awkward feeling in the middle, when the physical body is dropped.

'The body becomes thin.' There is an experience of various ups and downs in the physical body at the time of death. As a fruit may be plucked from a tree, the subtle body is wrenched out of the physical body from every limb, from every cell, every sense, every organ, and it departs. It, the subtle body, then gravitates automatically by the law of the universe, to the spot where it can find its new habitation. The elements which are the building bricks of the new body, the future body, get collected by the force of the pull of this magnet, which is the subtle body. The subtle body is like a magnet which pulls the iron filings which are around. The iron filings are the elements – earth, water, fire, air, ether. The necessary part or aspect of the elements is pulled, dragged, withdrawn from Nature's storehouse and absorbed into its being by the subtle body. It does not absorb everything and anything, only that which is necessary. Individuals vary in their physical form and shape, etc. because their subtle bodies differ in their nature. According to the need felt, the quantity of material that is drawn varies in shape and proportion. So individuals differ, one from the other.

The entry into a new body is also a great mystery. It is a gradual condensation of material forces into solidified matter in the way in which it is necessary for the fulfilment of the desires present in the subtle body. And at that time, the Prāṇas that were withdrawn from the previous body are once again released into action. As in an airplane, when it takes off, the wheels are pulled up, and when it lands, the wheels are thrust back once again so that it may land on the ground, likewise the Prāṇas are withdrawn when there is a take-off from the physical body by the subtle body which runs like a plane to the new habitation which it has to go and occupy, and when it comes to the spot it projects the Prāṇas once again, and catching hold of the elements makes them its own in the form of a new physical body. These elements become the new body. That is called rebirth. The manifestation of a new physical form by the gravitational force of the subtle body, which is determined by the intensity of unfulfilled desires, is the process of rebirth.

The Upaniṣhad says, just as when a king leaves his palace and goes out on a journey, the news about his departure is conveyed to various parts of the country and the officials everywhere get ready to receive him with all the necessities such as boarding, lodging, security and various other needs of the king in that particular place towards which he is moving, likewise, the particular realm of beings, the particular atmosphere towards which the soul is gravitating, gets stirred up into activity because of its impending departure from here. "The king is coming. We have to make ready several amenities for his stay, etc." The officials confer among themselves and prepare the things that are required for his reception. Likewise, the forces of Nature begin to act in respect of this soul, which has to materialise itself in a new form, in the particular realm where it is going to take birth.

  1. tad yathā rājānam āyāntam ugrāḥ, pratyenasaḥ, sῡtagrāmanyo’nnaiḥ pānair āvasathaiḥ pratikalpante: ayam āyāti, ayam āgacchatīti, evaṁ haivaṁ-vidaṁ sarvāṇi bhῡtāni pratikalpante, idam brahmāyāti, idam āgacchatīti.

Now, the word used here is Bhūtāni, which has a double meaning. It can mean beings, or it can mean the elements. All beings get ready, as it were, to provide to this particular being that which is its requital, or the due that has to come to it from various quarters of creation. It is not merely a particular locality that becomes active. It is said that everything becomes active. Even the smallest event that takes place in the world cannot be said to be out of the vision of the world as a whole, because everything is subtly connected with purposes, intentions, etc. in respect of every other thing also. A philosopher has put it in his own way: "At the birth of every event the whole universe is in travail undergoing the birth pang." The whole universe begins to feel that some event is taking place, and so the necessary contributions are made from every quarter of the universe. Whatever attitude we developed in respect of things, that is paid back to us. That is the requital that is given to us.

The forces that work for the purpose of the materialisation of a new body for the individual that departs from the present body are stimulated by cosmic purposes. It is the whole universe that acts. You know very well, even if a thorn pricks the sole of the foot, it is not merely the foot or the particular locality of the body that becomes active for the purpose of removing that foreign matter from the body; the entire organism becomes active, even to remove one little thorn that has pricked the foot. It is something incredible, but the entire physiological system gets stirred up into activity for the purpose of expelling that foreigner which has entered into the foot. This sort of activity takes place for good or for bad, for positive or negative purposes, to receive something or to expel something. Whatever be the purpose or the nature of the work that is to be taken on hand, it is the entire organism that acts. So the Upaniṣhad states that there is a universal collaboration of forces which work in unison for the purpose of preparing the necessary atmosphere for this particular dying individual, which receives what it deserves.

What is it that happens after the new body is taken? What sort of body is acquired? What is the kind of experience through which one passes? All these, though they are difficult to understand, can be guessed, to some extent, from the nature of the life that we live in the present world. It is not a totally new atmosphere into which we are taken. It is merely a continuation of the present potentiality. If you know what the nature of the seed is, you can know what the nature of the tree will be that is to sprout from that particular seed. You cannot expect a mango tree to sprout up from a seed of thistles. Any person with a little common sense can understand the cumulative effect that is produced by one's total attitude to life throughout the period he spends in this world. If you exercise a little bit of intelligence, you can have an idea as to what sort of life you are leading. But the life that we are leading is not merely the activities in which we are engaging ourselves. It is also the general perspective of life which we are entertaining in our minds. This is what is going to affect us in the future birth. What you speak with your words and what you do with your hands, that is perhaps not so important. What is important is the general attitude towards things, the basic outlook which you entertain throughout your life. We have some opinion about things, about ourselves, about the world, about many other things. The natural deep-seated instincts and opinions that we have in our own selves, which propel our various types of demeanour and attitude in respect of things, materialise themselves into a form. This is the body that we take, so that we may say that the bodies into which we will be reborn are nothing but our own thoughts which concretise themselves into particular shapes. They are not bodies manufactured by somebody else. It is our own needs, our own feelings, our own desires which are deep-seated, that go to form the new body.

Even as the officials receive the king when he comes, they also gather around him when he departs. "Tomorrow the king is leaving." On hearing this, people get up early in the morning and are ready to give him a send-off, a farewell. Likewise, when the soul is about to depart from the body, all the energies in the system get gathered up. The distractions of the senses and the Prāṇas cease, and there is a sort of centralisation of all energy. The faculties of the ears, the nose and the various other senses together with the Prāṇas, centre themselves in a particular place. As people gather themselves in a hall, as it were, to give a send-off to a departing personage, as people from all places come together at one spot to give a send-off to a dignitary, likewise, there is a send-off, as it were, given to the departing soul. The Prāṇas do not work in the usual manner. They withdraw themselves from the limbs of the body, and the senses also withdraw themselves from the various organic parts. There is thus a centralisation of activity, and everything comes together like birds gathering in the evening for the purpose of resting in their own nests.

  1. tad yathā rājānam prayiyāsantam, ugrāḥ pratyenasaḥ, sῡta-grāmanyo'bhisamāyanti, evam evaimam ātmānam, antakāle sarve prāṇa prāṇā abhisamāyanti, yatraitad ῡrdhvocchvāsī bhavati.

There is then an urge to get expelled from this body. The subtle body wishes to get out of the physical body. That aperture through which it is to go out, gets opened up by the force it exerts, and the way in which the subtle body seeks exit from the physical body varies. They call this exit the departure of the Prāṇa, for the Prāṇa is the vehicle of the subtle body. The Prāṇa leaves the physical body. Through any one of the various orifices of the body, it may find its exit according to the nature of the destination that it has to reach. The energy of the eyes, etc. gets withdrawn, so that one cannot see properly at that time, one cannot hear properly, one cannot smell, one cannot taste, one cannot speak, one cannot think, one cannot understand, because these senses which were placed in various locations of the body for the purpose of discharging certain duties through the organs, have fulfilled their duties. The officials are withdrawn to the centre, as it were, because their work in the outlying areas is finished. This is what happens at the time when the soul departs from the body.