Sri Narayana Guru, the Kerala-born saint-reformer, was walking through the streets, when he heard a wailing sound from a house nearby. Apparently, a death had occurred there and relatives were crying bitterly over the demise of their dear one. He moved on, feeling sympathy for them. After some days, when he happened to pass through the same street, he remembered the house where he had heard sobbing sounds earlier. But now no perceptible change was visible there after the death that seemed to have brought profound sorrow. The initial shock of death seemed to have subsided and all normal activities went on as usual. ‘How soon and how smoothly we come to terms with death,’ wondered Sri Narayana Guru.
What is death all about? Does knowledge of death help us lead a better life? There were many studies on the subject of death. It was young Nachiketa, son of Saint Vajasravas, who went right into the abode of Dharmaraja, the God of Death, to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding death. After having met Dharmaraja and receiving advice from him, Nachiketa returned with the knowledge that death happens only to the body and not to the Atman, Self, which lives on. “Atman is neither born nor does it die. It did not spring from anything and nothing sprang from it. The atman, which is unborn and eternal, is not slain even when the body is destroyed,” said Yama Dharmaraja. Na jayate mriyate va vipascit, Kathopanishad, 2:18. Once the atman is realised, there is no death and no birth, either.
Venkataraman, a youth from Madurai, once pondered over the question, ‘What is death all about?’ It came while he was sitting alone in a room on the first floor of his uncle’s house, when suddenly a violent fear of death overwhelmed him. He felt he was going to die for no particular reason. He started thinking what to do about it. The fear made him introspect. ‘What is death? What is it that is dying?’
He then dramatised the scene of death. He pretended to be a corpse to make the experience as real as possible. He held his breath and kept his mouth closed, pressing the lips tightly together so that no sound could come out. He said to himself: ‘This body is dead. It will be carried to the crematorium, burnt and reduced to ashes. But with death of the body am I dead? Is the body ‘I’? This body is silent and inert, but I feel the full force of my personality and even the sound of ‘I’ within myself, as apart from the body. So, ‘I’ am a spirit, a thing transcending the body. The material body dies but the spirit transcending it cannot be touched by death. That means I am the deathless spirit, the indestructible conscious entity.’
The experience brought Self-realisation to him and he came to be known as Ramana Maharshi, the jivanmukta – liberated even while alive. This death experience is engraved at the entrance of Dakshinamurthy Temple near Sri Ramanashramam in Tiruvannamalai.
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