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Physical Transiency and the Fear of Death
by Swami Krishnananda

(Spoken on May 24, 1997)

When a child is in the mother's womb, it lives in one kind of world. It is said that in the later months of life in the womb it becomes aware that it is existing. The first thing that happens is that one becomes aware that one exists. This is a very important point to remember. Everything else follows afterwards. We must exist first in order that anything may happen. A kind of subliminal, undeveloped, vegetable life awareness is supposed to be the knowledge of this little baby inside. It knows that it is, and it is up to it to know where it is. Suddenly, it comes out and cries. Why does the child cry when it comes out of the womb? It is suddenly finding itself in a different world.

What would any one of us feel if we are abruptly transported to another world altogether? We will be flabbergasted. There is nothing around. The baby cries out of fear of its aloneness. Don't you cry when you have lost everything, when nobody wants you, and you can see nothing around? You may feel lonely and wretched in that condition, but the child is afraid of there being nothing outside. People may be afraid if something is outside because that something that is outside may be terrifying or unwelcome. But here is a case where one is afraid because there is nothing outside. Oh, what a wonder!

Are you afraid if there is nothing outside? This is one kind of fear. That kind of fear which the child had has not gone from us even now. Only, in a more complicated manner, we have the same feeling of a kind of uncomfortable aloneness. When we are driven to the corner of life, we behave like the child only. We will cry, we will weep, we will curse ourselves. “Oh, everything has gone. Father has gone, mother has gone, children have gone, land has gone, property has gone, I lost my job.” At that time we will behave in the same way as the little crying child.

The initial experience of the baby continues even till our old age, though we think that we have become very mature. The baby is in us even now, if only all social relations which artificially create an atmosphere of security for us are cut off. Human relations are untrustworthy. We learn this in later years. Read history. Read the lives of kings and emperors, great historical personages. They left the world like babies. When you came like a little baby, and you are going away from this world like a wretched, unwanted, stupid baby, how in the middle are you a great man? “Oh, so much I have got. I am a great authority. I rule the world.” How did this idea arise in that unfortunate, helpless baby, which continues to be only that even at the end of life? This is why people say life is an illusion. We need not be Sankaracharya and others to understand that. Our own practical experience shows that all life that we consider as valuable in terms of human society is an utter magical show. Your friends, your enemies, your relations, your properties, even the confidence that you will live long, is all a jugglery that is presented before you.

Yet, a kind of unintelligible awareness that you are existing follows. Whatever may happen, you are existing. Isn't it wonderful that after so much study of philosophy you realise that things are not very trustworthy? How do you trust your own feeling that you are existing?

Here we have two great teachers telling us two different things. What is the meaning of your saying, “I am existing”? Who is existing? Buddha, who was as great as Sankara himself, opined that nothing can be said to be existing in the sense of anyone's permanency of location. There is no location. That means to say, we cannot be considered as situated at some point of time for even a moment. There is a flow of events, not things. There are no things here. The things are only events. Even modern science tells us events do not take place in space. We cannot make any sense of this. We are saying so many events are taking place in this world, but our great scientists say events finally do not take place in space. Let us not touch that subject now.

So Buddha's teaching is, neither do you exist nor does anything else exist. Buddha does not want to use the word ‘existing'. A flow is not an existence. Take the instance of a flowing river. The water seems to be existing. You can touch it. But this touching the solidity of the water, according to Buddha, is an illusion. An illusion of the sensation of touch comes in contact with another illusion of the solidity of the water. Illusion coming in contact with illusion, like rogues coming in contact with rogues, dacoits coming in contact with dacoits, leaving nothing in the end, creates an illusion of friendship. Robbers are friends, dacoits are friends, but you know what kind of friends they are. Similarly, the sensory touches are friendly with a non-existent, imaginary something which we call flowing water. What we are touching is only a flow, and not water which is existing. The word ‘existing' must be clarified first. Flow is there. Can we call a flow as an existence?

Some people say that Buddha denied God, and also denied the Self. Buddha did not really deny God, if we understand him properly. Human beings are unfit to think of a thing called God because these so-called human beings, like us, are part and parcel of a flow and a fluxation, and all that we perceive as the world outside is also a part of the universal fluxation. The thing that we call God is out of contact with fluxation. Who is going to think of God? None of us, because we are a part of the moving fluxation. An eternity cannot be conceived by a flexible, flowing centre. In that sense, there is no use of talking about God.

When questions were put to Buddha, he replied that you should not have anything to do with these matters. First of all, see your condition. He gave an example. If an arrow hits your toe by chance, would you ask for a physician to come and take the arrow out, or would you like, first of all, to know what the arrow is made of—is it steel, silver, gold, or what? Would anybody first put a question as to why the arrow came, who shot it, and what is it made of? Your concern at that time is that the pain should go. The world is a pain, a suffering, because of an unending series of fluxations in which every so-called living entity is involved, searching for something which it cannot get. That is the suffering. Remove the cause of suffering.

Buddha has four noble truths. There is a cause of suffering, there is a way of removing suffering, there is something beyond suffering, and there must be some freedom from suffering. Now, this is one view, like Schopenhauer. He also thought like Buddha that the whole world is evil, and nothing good is here. In his two great volumes called The World as Will and Idea, he demolishes any kind of acquiescence in the goodness of things in the world. As Schopenhauer has his opposite in Hegel, we have the opposite of Buddha in Sankaracharya. Sankara does not deny what Buddha said, but he says something more than that. What does he say that is more than what Buddha said? We shall accept that what Buddha said is correct: There is suffering, there is a cause of suffering, there is a way out of suffering, and there must be some freedom from suffering, finally. All right. Nothing is existing.

Here comes Sankara. If nothing is existing, how does anyone, while knowing he is not existing, know that nothing is existing? Listen to me carefully. How does one who does not exist, according to Buddha, know that nothing is existing? This is a logical contradiction. If you yourself do not exist, who are you to say that nothing is existing? The statement is utterly meaningless. In order to know that nothing is existing, there must be something that knows that nothing is existing. That knowing principle itself cannot be a non-existent thing. That is the Atman. This is a great modification which Sankaracharya introduced into Buddha's philosophy. Both were great people. We should not compare one with the other or say one is right and the other is wrong. They are right in two different means of perception and experience, just as we may consider the world as very good in some way or very bad in another way.

Now comes the main point of the consciousness of existence, which persists from our childhood. This inveterate insistence that we are existing is followed by another conviction: that other things also are existing, because the sense organs see other things. Immediately the finitude of this individual existence feels a pinch of its finitude, feels helpless by it, and wants to remove this sense of finitude by adding something from outside which may expand the finitude for the time being, with the impression that an expanded finitude is better than a restricted finitude. A large kingdom ruled by a king makes the king feel that he is large, but he is only a finite person. The illusion that the king is not a finite being arises on account of a presumption that the visible kingdom outside is part of his own existence, while it is not.

All our life is just an adumbration of a kind of escapism from finitude, in a wrong way. We are doing things in a wrong way. Otherwise, why one should become a king? Even a king is a finite individual, like a beggar. When he goes, he goes like a beggar only. He kicks the dust as a beggar does.

So the insistence that we are existing has the corollary of others also existing, limiting our freedom. Freedom is utter suzerainty over the whole atmosphere. This means to say that if I want freedom, you should not exist because you will limit my desire for freedom and say, “How can you have all the freedom? We also want freedom.” The desire for freedom on the part of other people limits the desire of one's own self for utter freedom. Utter freedom does not exist as long as other people are there; as long as the world is there, as long as the sun, moon and stars are there, utter freedom is not possible. Therefore, we start crying like a baby: “I don't want your wretched finitude. I want to be infinite.” The ego will be asserting its existence; not being able tolerate its finitude, it projects some apertures, the sense organs. Through the sense organs we come in contact with other things, other people. What do we do? “I am poor, I am miserable. Let me have that. When I get that which I consider as desirable, the sorrow of my finitude will be diminished. Let me see that which will be good for my health. I am wretchedly finite. I have a kind of ugly existence. Let me have beautiful things from outside,” the ego says.

The beauty that one perceives, rightly or wrongly, in a thing outside is made to transfer its vibration into one's own finitude, and one feels “I am beautiful”. One cannot feel that “I am beautiful”, but that “I have in my possession the beautiful”. The sense of the ugliness, the wretchedness one feels about one's finitude is wrongly and artificially mitigated by an assumption that the so-called thing which looks beautiful diminishes the wretchedness. So people run after beautiful things: “Let us go there, let us see that. Oh, how beautiful, how beautiful!” Everyone says, “How beautiful!” They want it. The ears want beautiful sounds. They do not want the crack of thunder; they want beautiful sound, very mellifluous intonation, like music. Let me touch soft things through the sense of touch. Nothing is soft in this world, really speaking. There is no velvet spread out everywhere like a carpet. But the perception of there being things which are softer than oneself makes one want to touch them, though they are illusory. So is the case with smelling fragrance and tasting delicacies. All this arises on account of the initial assertion that we are existing as finite individuals.

We continue to be wretched, finite individuals in spite of all the things we have that give satisfaction, as it were, to the sense organs. We are living in a sensory world. The senses are most untrustworthy because as the evolutionary process goes on, the things that we need also differ from time to time. What I want today, I will not want tomorrow. What I reject today, I will invite tomorrow. This is due to the unity that seems to be existing between universal movement and the individual which is simultaneously dragged into this movement. The evolution is not only outside; it is a universal event taking place. When a railway train moves, those who are inside also start moving. The passenger is not stationary inside the train, but moves at the same speed as the carriage.

Similarly we, ourselves, move, change, in the same speed as the speed of the evolutionary process of the cosmos. This is why we cannot say what we want and what we do not want. It is a question of time and the manner of perception. The manner of perception changes from moment to moment on account of the change in the process of evolution from moment to moment. It is called raga-dvesha, arising out of ahamkara that we are existing.

Lastly, there is the fear of one's own destruction. The confidence that we are existing is also followed by another apprehension: we will not be existing always. Why do we feel like that? The confidence that we shall be existing always arises on account of eternity seated within us. The feeling that we are not going to live long, that we are perishable entities, arises on account of our physical personality getting involved in the transitory process of evolution. So we are living in two worlds. The first is the world of eternity, which gives us an affirmation that we shall live always. Nobody believes that death will come tomorrow. There is no person who will say that tomorrow is the end. The eternity inside will not permit that feeling. We feel that we will always be there. Who does not think like that? People build marble houses, purchase lands, increase their ownership of property. Will anybody do that if it is sure that tomorrow they are going? The eternity inside us says, “You will never go.” But the other sense, which is physical, involved in the changes in the evolution, says we will not even live until tomorrow. Then we start running here and there, doing pujas and worships, chanting mantras and so forth so that in case we die we shall have a sorrowless existence.

We are perpetually harassed by the nature of things. What is the harassment? One person inside says that we are going to live permanently, and another person inside says that we will not live even until tomorrow. This is the harassment we are passing through. Whom to believe? Is it true that we will never die, that we are eternal, as our instinct says, and that we can go on acquiring property? Or it is true that it is not so, that we may go tomorrow, or even now itself? This conflict between these two feelings keeps us perpetually awake to the world of dread everywhere. We live in utter fear, and we, like the ostrich, bury our heads in the sand, thinking that if nobody sees us, this situation does not exist. We forget the mischievous situation in which we are involved so that we may not be crying every moment. Forgetfulness of a fact due to some pleasure is the most dangerous. There is a Damocles sword, tied with a thin silken thread, hanging over our heads.

There is a story about the wife of Kalidasa, the great poet. Kalidasa was a shepherd, not a learned Sanskrit scholar as we think him to be. Somehow it so happened, due to prarabdha, a very intelligent lady married him. After marriage, she realised her husband is a fool, but she was a good person. She did not want to abandon him, but to reform him. “Look at this idol of Devi Durga in front of you. Go on thinking of it, go on thinking, go on thinking. There is a sword above it. Think of that also.” She gave him a rod of sandalwood and asked him to rub it on a stone until the sandalwood became paste; but because of his concentration on the sword above, he did not know that he was actually rubbing his hand also, and it started bleeding. He was thinking only of the sword over his head that could fall at any time, so he went on rubbing without knowing that blood was flowing from his hand. It flowed to the feet of the Devi idol. At that time, the story goes, Devi burst out from that idol, caught hold of the tongue of this man, pulled it, and wrote the Sri Vidya mantra: shreem. From that moment he started speaking in Sanskrit—not merely in Sanskrit, but in Sanskrit poetry.

There is a Damocles sword over our heads, but we have no friend like Kalidas' wife to tell us the right way. The feeling of our permanency for all times in the future cannot be trusted because physical transiency causes our fear of death.