By choosing service to Krishna over service to material illusion, we can progress toward fearlessness.
I PULL OUT THE stack of mail from our mailbox and bring it into the house, where I plop it down onto the kitchen table. I begin the ritual of sorting out the few important items from the plethora of junk mail and catalogs. The cover of Newsweek captures my attention with the headline: “How Scared Should You Be?” Below the headline is a picture of a man wearing a gas mask.
I sit down holding the magazine, debating whether I should subject myself to the contents. Hadn’t I already had one sleepless night after listening to a radio program that was about the very real danger of biological and chemical warfare? To increase public paranoia, it related how a suspected terrorist had asked farmers in Florida how to operate crop dusters.
I think about the advice I’ve been giving to parents of children suffering increased anxiety since the September 11 attacks. Foremost I recommend, “Keep them away from the media.” Shrila Prabhupada once said of a news magazine that it made maya (illusion) seem real. I contemplate those words now as I hold a copy of Newsweek. The crumbling of he 110-story World Trade Center towers, the mass carnage, and the suffering of thousands people seemed real enough. Yet while I listened to others describe the events, what I heard most often were the words “surreal” and “dreamlike.”
Maya means “that which is not,” an illusion. I always liked the sound of the word illusion—the richness of the syllables as they rush into one another like ocean waves. And I have a fond association with the word. My great-uncle was a magician, a master of illusion. Once, when I was a young girl of perhaps seven, he asked me to be his assistant in his magic show. I excitedly accepted the offer. While on stage I would hand him things when he asked. When I handed him several small balls, he put them into his hand and passed a handkerchief over them, and they disappeared. He took his hat off, and there they were. Then he asked me to hand him a saw, and he cut through a wooden box with a woman inside. I held my breath and closed my eyes, fearing the worst. But she came out whole.
After the show I begged my uncle to tell me how he did it.
“A magician never reveals his secrets,” he replied, giving me a big hug.
Despite my begging and pleading, he kept silent, and I finally relented.
I never figured out that illusion, but I did come to learn from the Vedic scriptures and Shrila Prabhupada that our lives in this word are also a kind of illusion—nothing more than a long dream of some number of years. So death is an illusion too, because death is only for the body; the real self, the soul, never dies. He can’t be burned, crushed by debris, stabbed by a terrorist, or blown up by a bomb. He can’t be poisoned by chemicals or infected by anthrax. Our illusion is to think we are indeed this temporary, destructible body. This original illusion perpetuates all other illusions and misconceptions in this world.
Because we are all so entrenched in thinking we are the body, and that our relatives and friends are their bodies as well, we derive happiness in the company of those we love and feel deep sorrow in their absence. And while we may even intellectually accept the premise that we are souls separate from my body, that acceptance doesn’t lessen the pain and sadness we feel when the bodies of others are destroyed.
So would I be compassionate if I told the families of terrorist victims that it’s all an illusion, just a bad dream? The crushed and burned bodies of the victims in the twin towers didn’t reappear unscathed like the woman from the magician’s box. They’re still buried under tons of debris. And their loved ones, bearing the burden of loss, suffer with anguish and despair.
Lessons On Death From The Lord Of Death
To help myself find the right mix of compassion and philosophy, I turn to a historical narrative in the Shrimad-Bhagavatam. Once Yamaraja, the Lord of death, appeared as a small boy to instruct relatives crying inconsolably over the dead body of their king. Yamaraja appeared as a child because children can be candid without having to observe social etiquette. They can speak the truth without offending others. I have many recollections of my son, when he was a preschooler, telling my relatives, “You shouldn’t eat dead animals.” Had I told them that, they would have felt offended. But the innocent and unpretentious nature of my child allowed them to hear the instruction from him. Similarly, appearing as a child, Yamaraja could deliver transcendental knowledge to the widowed queens.
Knowing what to say to someone who recently lost a loved one is difficult. Part of the problem is that most people have little real knowledge about what death is and what happens at death and beyond. All we can usually say is how sorry we feel that the person has died. Beyond that, most of us feel awkward and become silent. We depend on greeting cards to say something comforting. Because we feel so inept at knowing what to say, we may even avoid seeing a grieving person until they have “gotten over it.” Yamaraja, however, has perfect knowledge, and his words could pierce through the misconceptions of the grieving party.
First Yamaraja establishes that Krishna, the Supreme Lord of the creation, is in control of everything that happens. Nothing happens accidentally or haphazardly. He is completely competent to destroy and protect. In making sense of the recent terrorist attacks, we can remember that not a blade of grass moves without the sanction of the Lord. If the Lord wants to protect you, no one can kill you, and if the Lord wants to kill you, no one can protect you.
It is easy to see the Lord’s hand when you or a loved one are saved from death. A woman who worked on the top floor of the World Trade Center was fired from her job the day before the attacks. Another was spared because her babysitter was late. But what about those who perished? It’s not that the Lord wanted to kill them like some vindictive God; rather, for various reasons (which God knows), the time was up for those who died. This is a difficult point to understand. But Yamaraja instructs the queens about karma, and from his instructions we can understand that people perished at the World Trade Center because they were destined to.
Next Yamaraja tells the queens about the nature of the soul. The soul, not the body, is who we are. The queens have never seen the real person who resided within the body of the king. They only knew the body, the covering for the soul. And since the body is still lying in visible form before them, why should they lament?
Krishna uses similar logic in the Bhagavad-gita when speaking to grief-stricken Arjuna. Arjuna is about to fight in a war to retaliate against injustices perpetrated against himself and his family. Although cousins, the Kurus have tried to kill Arjuna’s family, the Pandavas, out of envy and greed through many heinous acts similar to those of the modern-day terrorist. Arjuna, however, becomes overwhelmed by bodily attachment to friends and relatives on the opposing side, and in his weak moment tells Krishna he can’t fight the battle.
Krishna then asks Arjuna a rhetorical question: If Arjuna thinks his relatives are their bodies, made of material elements, why feel bad if they are killed? They’re nothing more than chemicals that come together for some time to produce life symptoms and are then destroyed. And if Arjuna thinks his relatives are the soul within the body, he still has no reason to grieve, since the soul is eternal and never dies. Such logic helps Arjuna give up his depression and perform his duty as a warrior.
Yamaraja then tells the grieving queens about the Supersoul, an expansion of the Lord who accompanies us to the material world. He is the Lord within the heart. He directs us in many ways to assist us in our journey in, through, and out of the material world. It is this merciful expansion of the Lord whom some identify as the small, still voice within. The more we can live in harmony with godly principles, the more we will be in touch with the Lord’s beneficial instructions from within the heart.
Yamaraja then tells the queens, “As long as the spirit soul is covered by the subtle body, consisting of the mind, intelligence, and false ego, he is bound to the results of his fruitive activities. Because of this covering, the spirit soul is connected with the material energy and must accordingly suffer material conditions and reversals continually, life after life.” This instruction implies that the only way to become free of suffering in this world is to become permanently free of the material body.
Death frees us from the gross material body, but not the subtle body. The subtle body carries us to another material body at death. Only when the subtle body becomes completely free of material desires and inclinations to enjoy separate from the Lord can the soul regain his original spiritual form.
This instruction prompts the question of how to become free of material desires. That is the subject of much of the Vedic literature, including the Bhagavad-gita and Shrimad-Bhagavatam. In the present age, known as the age of quarrel and hypocrisy, the recommended process for becoming free of unwanted desires and habits is to chant the Lord’s holy names. Krishna has invested His full power into His names, and we can derive the greatest benefit from chanting them. Chanting the Lord’s holy names is our ticket out of the material world.
Finally, to punctuate his points to the queens, Yamaraja tells the story of two kulinga birds. Once a hunter captured a female kulinga bird in a net. The bird’s mate helplessly looked on, feeling hopeless and defeated. While he lamented for his mate in that condition, the hunter took the opportunity to take aim at the kulinga bird and strike him with an arrow.
After narrating this story, Yamaraja told the queens that nothing could bring back their dead king. In the mean time, their own lives were being swallowed by all-devouring time.
The queens could then understand that everything material is temporary and prolonged grief was a poor use of their precious life. After hearing the boy’s transcendental discourse, the relatives became freed of their illusions and obtained transcendental peace and happiness. Yamaraja showed real compassion for the queens of the dead king. He didn’t offer them flowery words to console them, but rather spoke truth that freed them from the illusion of being their bodies.
While the instructions of Yamaraja are very potent, before repeating them we may have to consider time, place, and circumstance. His talks took place in a time when people were more advanced in spiritual understanding and more philosophical by nature. Most people in this age would find it difficult to respond to direct philosophy.
In helping others, it is important to acknowledge their humanness. Part of grief counseling is to allow people to grieve and express their feelings. The goal, however, is to bring them to accept the reality of whatever has happened. Counseling therefore requires sensitivity and compassion. In my work as a therapist, the combination of empathy and philosophical teachings proves most successful for helping people through their grief. I recommend this strategy to everyone who wants to help others in their loss. It affords people the opportunity to become free of illusion and fear.
The only way to become truly fearless is to take shelter of the Lord. So when pure devotees of the Lord are asked, “How scared should you be?” they can without reservation answer, “Not at all.” On the other hand, someone still convinced that he is the material body and that the goal of life is to enjoy in this temporary world will answer, “I am very scared.”
We can decide to be fearless or fearful by the choices we make at every moment. Krishna consciousness is the gradual process to free us from the fear of death. If we choose to serve the Lord and be under His protection, we will become fearless by His grace. If we chose to serve our material body and senses and ignore the Lord, we will be fearful, because we will have no sense of our eternal identity or real shelter. The choice is ours.
Reprinted from Back to Godhead Magazine Volume 36 Number 01, 2002 © BBT International; all rights reserved.