“The demoniac conclude that the world is phantasmagoria. There is no cause, no effect, no controller, no purpose: everything is unreal. They say that this cosmic manifestation arises due to chance material actions and reactions. They do not think that the world was created by God for a certain purpose.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 16.8 Purport)
Question: “I know this has been asked by people since the beginning of time, but it really struck me lately. Why do people die? It’s not fair if you think about it. You become attached to them, you gain so much from them, you love them so much, and then they abruptly leave you, never to be seen again. Why must there be death?”
Life and death are tied to each other. You can’t have one without the other. Death puzzles everyone, for who knows exactly where the individual previously living has gone. No one is certain, as they can’t do an experiment to test for the next destination. The same lack of knowledge is there regarding birth. From where did this new baby come? The less intelligent, relying on sight alone, think that sex life is the only cause. Two living bodies get together in the proper way and a new life emerges. The philosophy of the spiritual science says otherwise. From knowing how birth takes place, the unknown of death becomes a little clearer too.
Between birth and death what we actually see is the soul. The individual may be a man, a woman, a dog, an elephant, a cow, or even an ant. We react differently based on what we see. We adjust our behavior to the individual’s behavior, which differs depending on the species. Even within one species, the individual always changes. The human being doesn’t emerge from the womb capable of acting out scenes in a Shakespearean play, but in adulthood it can. The infant doesn’t know how to fix a computer, but as an adult the same person can become an expert in the field.
This means that we see change. The individual does not change; just their particular covering does. From this we see that birth is the assumption of a covering. The individual existed somewhere else previously. Where exactly we don’t know for sure. The individual doesn’t remember their previous existence. If they could, they would be God.
śrī-bhagavān uvācabahūni me vyatītānijanmāni tava cārjunatāny ahaṁ veda sarvāṇina tvaṁ vettha parantapa
“The Blessed Lord said: Many, many births both you and I have passed. I can remember all of them, but you cannot, O subduer of the enemy!” (Bhagavad-gita, 4.5)
We’ve introduced another person into the picture. God. One way to know Him is to look for that one person who has perfect memory. Birth and death is a single instance of a travel where memory gets erased at the end. There is no memory going in, but the individual remains the constant. It’s like a dreaming state almost. Death is like waking back up and awaiting the next dream.
This helps us to understand what birth and death are, but we don’t really know why they take place. Why does someone have to exit the dreamlike existence? As the dream is not real, we should know that the time spent within a particular species is not the ideal existence for the individual. In short, they are not meant to undergo birth and death. They do so at their own risk, and the cycle continues until they are ready for a permanent change.
And actually, death is a nice thing. Imagine if the situation were the other way around. Imagine if someone told you that how you look right now, where you live, and what you do – those things will remain forever. You will never get to leave. Who would actually opt for that? The less intelligent might jump at the chance without thinking first, but upon further thought the apparent boon would be properly seen as a horrible punishment. Death guarantees a change of scenery, an escape from a prison-like existence.
Unfortunately, that cycle continues. Death brings another birth, which brings another death, and so on. The cure for birth and death is spiritual awakening. Know who you are. Understand why you go through this temporary existence. Then take the necessary steps to stop it. The identity of the individual is spirit. Spirit is that which transcends birth and death and all the changes that occur in between.
The temporary existence is the result of desire. The individual who wants a dreamlike state, a place where they can pretend to fend for themselves and rise to prominence amongst other species who are in the same boat – they get their wish granted. Of course they are quite powerless even in the dreamlike existence. If they had real power, they would never be forced to leave. They would never die. They would get what they wanted, all the time. This is not the case, which means that the results to actions actually come from someone else.
upadraṣṭānumantā cabhartā bhoktā maheśvaraḥparamātmeti cāpy uktodehe ‘smin puruṣaḥ paraḥ
“Yet in this body there is another, a transcendental enjoyer who is the Lord, the supreme proprietor, who exists as the overseer and permitter, and who is known as the Supersoul.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 13.23)
That person with perfect memory whom we mentioned before accompanies the individual in the dreamlike existence. He is the one who actually makes everything happen. He doesn’t influence decisions without being asked. If it were otherwise, then the individual would have no independence. They would be like robots forced to act under someone else’s direction. God observes and then sanctions. Desires conflict and so not everyone can get what they want all the time.
The temporary existence stops when there is surrender. Not to another fallible living entity. Not to the desires of someone who is destined to die themselves. Surrender to God is the secret. This means relinquishing the desire to live amongst the temporary. It means no longer competing with God, but instead serving Him. As God is such a vague concept, we see why surrender is so difficult. We see why there is such widespread lamentation at death, with so many puzzled by the event, wondering why it has to occur.
Vedic philosophy gives the most information about God. Fortunately, the information presented covers all aspects of life. Blind faith is not required, and neither is it encouraged. Use all your intellect. Question everything. Immerse yourself in the philosophy and start to look at everything with the eyes of spiritual knowledge. Then soon enough you will see for yourself that more important than birth and death is the happiness of the soul. That soul gets lasting happiness and peace, shanti, in service to God in His personal form.
To understand I try,
That death has to be why.
An answer to this cannot find,
So therefore always troubled my mind.
That death tied to birth always know,
As soon as one comes they must go.
Cycle on and on it goes,
Stops when Krishna one knows.
As Supersoul sanction to action giving,
When desire in bhakti, without fear then living.