“Suta Gosvami said: Thus Bhishmadeva merged himself in the Supersoul, Lord Shri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, with his mind, speech, sight and actions, and thus he became silent, and his breathing stopped.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.9.43)
कृष्ण एवं भगवति
आत्मन्य् आत्मानम् आवेश्य
सो ऽन्तःश्वास उपारमत्
kṛṣṇa evaṁ bhagavati
ātmany ātmānam āveśya
so ‘ntaḥśvāsa upāramat
“You will often hear His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada denounce the achievement of merging into the Absolute Truth. This is a kind of liberation, or mukti. Vedic teachings go beyond blind faith and hoping for an afterlife that is heavenly or good. That is to say there is much more detail into the nature of living moving forward, after this life completes.
“If you are actually realized in the self, in knowing the difference between matter and spirit, you are eligible for mukti. In the simplest terms, this is release from the cycle of birth and death. No more spinning on the wheel of suffering. Like clothes placed into a drying machine, at the mercy of the constant spinning, so the conditioned living entity falling to the material world travels from one body to another, enjoying and suffering commensurately.
“Mukti is therefore important. It is the rarest of achievements. The spiritual science is so nuanced and detailed that there isn’t only one kind of mukti. You can enjoy the escape from reincarnation in a variety of ways. One of those is merging into the Absolute, or Brahman.
“Prabhupada compares this to a hellish existence. It is like losing your identity. He says that devotees never prefer this kind of liberation. The question I have relates to Bhishma, one of the heroes of the Mahabharata story. We read in Shrimad Bhagavatam that he merged into Narayana at the end of life.
“He was lying on a bed of arrows, a fallen soldier in the great Bharata War, waged on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Though he was fighting on the side opposite of the Pandavas, those five brothers approached the dying Bhishma and received counsel on matters ranging from statecraft to life and death itself.
“If merging is so bad, why did Bhishma do it? Is he not considered a devotee of the Lord? He was looking at Krishna at the time of death, so how could he travel into a stateless existence?”
Though the word merging is used, the mukti received is different from that of entering the Brahman effulgence, which the impersonalists seek. Devotees consider that to be a hellish existence because of the lost opportunity to serve the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Real liberation is engaging in this service, which goes by names like bhakti-yoga, bhagavata-dharma, and even sanatana-dharma. As Maharishi Valmiki explains in Ramacharitamanasa, devotees of the Supreme Lord don’t mind going to hell, even. This is because they always see the Almighty standing close by as their preferred deity, ishta-deva.
Bhishma’s departure from this world embodies that truth. He saw Shri Krishna as the four-handed Narayana, who is the source of men. God is one, but He may appear differently based on the time and circumstance and also the role to play within His creation.
Bhishma knew that Krishna is the same as Narayana, yet he still preferred to worship Narayana. This was the merging that took place at the end of life, and it did not signal a loss of identity. The impersonalists worship something like a void, the shadow of the spiritual energy, which is thus lacking any distinguishable features.
Every recommendation from Prabhupada and the acharyas is for giving the highest benefit an existence has to offer. It would be like receiving a kitchen appliance in the mail. One person recommends using it as a sort of coffee table in the living room. The appliance is large enough to hold items off the ground while a person is seated on a sofa.
The wise teacher, however, reveals how the appliance can be used to assist in the kitchen, in preparing palatable food. This is a superior utilization, and in the same way the spiritual master within the Vedanta school advises to use the vibrancy of spirit combined with the superior human form for serving God in a mood of love. This is better than removing an existence altogether through merging with Brahman.
A liberated person is certainly entitled to their preferred way of living in the afterlife. The mukti of merging into the Absolute is real and available to those reaching the rare achievement. At the same time, there is a vulnerability to falling back down, as identity and individuality cannot remained suppressed forever.
Whereas devotional service at the highest levels continues uninterrupted and without motivation. Someone like Bhishma will continue to worship Narayana, wherever he may find himself. He may even be on the losing side of a military conflict, aligning with the worst people in society, but the connection to God remains.
Bhishma leaving on the verge,
Described that then into merge.
With eyes on Krishna attention,
Consciousness key retention.
Not that identity losing,
Service to preferred choosing.
Devotees following this way,
Always with Supreme to stay.