“Suta Gosvami said: Maharaja Yudhishthira, after hearing Bhishmadeva speak in that appealing tone, asked him, in the presence of all the great rishis, about the essential principles of various religious duties.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.9.25)
There’s nothing like a tragedy to get you thinking about your own mortality. Not that you thought that you were going to live forever, but who actually wakes up in the morning thinking that this might be the last day that they live? Experience fools us into thinking that each day will be like the previous one, where we got by unscathed, escaping our inevitable foe known as death. Upon considering our own mortality, we wonder why we have life to begin with. What can we do differently if we had to do it all over again? If I could have my wasted days back, would I use them differently? One king a long time ago saw the greatest death toll to ever occur at one time. He was partially responsible for it, though his hand was forced. What he thought about next would surprise you.
What do we think of when we see a tragedy? If someone leaves us all too soon, we are sure to lament.
“It’s not fair. How come they didn’t get to live out their life? Why do I get to live and they don’t? What could they have done differently? Maybe if they were more careful, maybe if they paid more attention to the warning signs – things could have ended differently.”
After the lamentation is over, if the incident still lingers in our mind, it is only natural to reflect inwards, to consider what effect there is personally.
“I’m going to live life to the fullest. That’s what I’ve decided. Live every day like it’s my last. Why not? We see that anyone can go at any moment. You only live once, so why not take hold of the chance?”
But when stepping back from the situation to make a more sober analysis, we see that everyone is destined for the same fate. This means that if “living life to the fullest” is the way to go, everyone should adopt this method. Why pay attention to diet and exercise? Why worry about truth and adhering to the laws of the state? Why pay off credit card bills when we can spend now and enjoy?
There is a reason that not everyone chooses this path. There is the tomorrow to worry about. If we continue to live on, we suffer the consequences to irresponsibility. In the higher understanding, one sees the continuum of life. New souls enter this world at the same time that others exit it. Those which enter were here previously, and those which have departed will appear again. This is confirmed in the Bhagavad-gita, an ancient Sanskrit text of immeasurable value, especially to those trying to understand the meaning to their existence.
“For one who has taken his birth, death is certain; and for one who is dead, birth is certain. Therefore, in the unavoidable discharge of your duty, you should not lament.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.27)
The sudden loss of a single life can trigger this thinking in us, but a king a long time ago saw millions die very quickly. It was the result of a war, one in which this king’s side was victorious. There was a price to pay for that victory. Hardly anyone lived amongst the millions of soldiers who assembled on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. The famous Bhagavad-gita was actually spoken on that battlefield to this king’s younger brother, Arjuna, by Shri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Thus there was the exchange of the highest wisdom before combat began, prior to the mass casualties.
This king, whose name was Yudhishthira, did not want to go to war. He did not want to fight. Sure, he knew that the kingdom in question rightfully belonged to his family, but he wasn’t very interested in ruling. He was not so attached to material opulence or possessions. Yet he knew that war was the right thing to do. If he, as a military leader, did not stand up for righteousness, no one would. The bad guys would constantly stomp over the rights of the innocent. They would turn wrong into right, and no one would put up a fight.
Though he had the backing of Krishna, Yudhishthira still felt bad afterwards, when he emerged victorious. He saw millions die right in front of his eyes. And yet his next response was not to enjoy life to the fullest. He was not concerned with cramming as much sense gratification as possible into the remaining time he had on earth. His reaction was to inquire more into dharma, or duty.
We all have a dharma, or specific duty, to adhere to. For Yudhishthira it was administering a kingdom. This sometimes required violence. To another the dharma might be priestly life, and to another it might be running a business. Then there is the dharma during student life, and then the dharma during married life. There are so many duties to go with the various occupations and spiritual stages of life, but Shri Krishna says that in the end one should abandon all dharmas and simply surrender unto Him.
“Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 18.66)
Surrender is in consciousness; it is not merely a profession of allegiance. It is not simply membership in a religious institution. Surrender here means to give up the fight to be a greater enjoyer than God. It means to abandon the hope of surpassing the Supreme Lord in any category of opulence, be it beauty, wealth, strength, fame, wisdom or renunciation. Surrender means serving Krishna in love, adopting this path voluntarily and with full faith and confidence in its effectiveness.
There will be a next birth, and so the wise person prepares to make it in the most fortunate circumstances. There is no better destination than the place where devotion to Shri Krishna flourishes. And that destination gets created in both the immediate term and the subsequent life through following bhakti-yoga today, which Yudhishthira did. Having seen untold deaths in front of his eyes, from experience alone he is a higher authority in knowing the ways of this world, especially in how the journey through it ends. His ultimate choice from having witnessed that tragedy teaches us so much as well, for he chose surrender to Krishna.
Tragedy giving vision stark,
Image on mind to make its mark.
Myself destined for the same too,
So what now with my life to do?
Sense gratification into it fill?
Or in laziness on couch to sit still?
Telling is Yudhishthira’s reaction to tragedy,
On massive deaths no higher an authority.
Path of dharma to be his guide,
On devotion to Krishna he relied.
Existence of next life he knew,
So stayed on path of righteousness true.