WHENEVER I WENT to my best friend’s house, her great-grandmother, Mrs. Werble, would be perched in the same spot, staring at the television. Delighted to have a visitor, Mrs. Werble would insist I sit with her, and she’d ramble on about her past. I was her captive audience, and I would feel sad on seeing the toll relentless time had taken upon her. The loose skin of her shriveled body hung off her bones; she looked out, vacant and lonely, from filmy eyes. Being a compliant, unassertive child, I would politely sit and listen to Mrs. Werble until my friend came in to rescue me, pulling me up by the arm and leading me out of the room. I was twelve years old, and old age frightened me.
I had a youthful, developing body and felt attractive and energetic. Filled with adolescent desires to enjoy, I loved exerting myself in sports like tennis, skating, and swimming. But looking into the hollow eyes of Mrs. Werble sent chills down my spine. Someday in the distant future, my body would be in a similar condition. Was there any way to prevent such a fate? I thought of the tabloids in the supermarket and the aging faces of my favorite movie stars. With make-up and face-lifts they desperately tried to defeat the effects of time. But it was clearly a losing battle. Even with their millions of dollars, they still withered away.
Having had little religious training, I didn’t consider that perhaps God had a plan in such a design for our bodies. I could see only that aging didn’t fit into my plan for enjoying in this world, and I couldn’t see any redeeming quality in it. I concluded it was better to die young, before having to face the breakdown of the body. But thoughts of Mrs. Werble haunted me. My attempts to enjoy were often frustrated by remembering her body. Since enjoyment is temporary, what is the ultimate purpose of my short life? Why do we get old and die?
Search Through Books
In college these questions led me to research systems of truth in philosophy, literature, and religion. I read such books as Thoreau’s Walden, Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and The Bead Game, Camus’s existential short stories, Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude, the Bible, the Koran, and Bhagavad-gita As It Is, by His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
Of all my readings, I found the teachings of the ancient Vedic literature the most appealing and persuasive. In particular I was drawn to verses in the Bhagavad-gita that describe how we are not the material body but rather a spiritual spark with a spiritual body that never grows old, never gets sick, and is always filled with joy. The Bhagavad-gita teaches that the process to realize our self is bhakti-yoga. I understood that I would still have to suffer disease and old age in this life, but perhaps—if I could take the process seriously—this would be the last time.
Ten years after my visits to Mrs. Werble’s house, I enthusiastically took up the practices of bhakti-yoga, rising early every day to chant the Lord’s holy names and study the Vedic scriptures. I have continued to add those practices into my busy life for the past twenty-five years. I’m forty-seven now, and aging is still an undesirable part of my life. I have felt the allure of trying to salvage youthfulness with hair dyes and skin creams. But I understand how aging can help us become more fixed and serious about ending our material journey. Old age is the signal that our time in this body is running out.
When old age sets in, we should have had enough experiences to verify that material enjoyment doesn’t give substantial pleasure. If we’ve had spiritual training, we can avoid retiring in comfort and wasting our final years playing games and watching TV. The Vedic literature teaches that death will come and snatch the unsuspecting soul from the body, and the mentality we’ve cultivated in life will propel us into the next body.
Aging Of The Unprepared
A few years ago, my parents retired after forty-five years of working nine-to-five, five days a week, to maintain their family. During their working years, their weekends were filled with sleeping late, cooking meals, cleaning the house, and shopping. Spiritual and religious practices consisted of two yearly trips to a synagogue to observe the high holidays. They exercised and were careful about their diets. Today, though in their seventies, they’re in “good health.” Yet there’s no escaping the affects of time.
Images of the youthful bodies captured in their marriage portraits and preserved under glass barely resemble the aging couple I see today. Thinning gray hair and slackening skin obscure their once attractive features. Their friends are becoming mentally incompetent and physically handicapped and are dying one by one. All the money my parents saved over the years is now available for Mediterranean cruises and excursions to fancy resorts. Their days are filled with tennis, dancing, and dining in expensive restaurants.
I have a lot of affection for my parents, and although they were at first unhappy about my decision to pursue a spiritual life, they now approve of my practices and show respect for the choices I have made. Yet I feel saddened by their oblivion of the passing of time. They seem so content in their stucco Florida home, like the little alligators bobbing up and down on wooden decoy ducks in the lake across the street. I pray they may have some epiphany, vision, or near-death experience to pierce through the illusion of their material life.
A few years ago my ninety-four-year-old grandfather died. Until his late eighties he was still working as a podiatrist, taking brisk walks in the evening, and living independently. After a stroke, he no longer recognized me. Once, when I visited him in the nursing home, I brought him a piece of cake. He sat and ate the cake. Within seconds of finishing, he looked at me and asked, “What happened to my cake?”
A Reasonable Choice
Sometimes people who challenge my choice to be a devotee ask me, “What if you’re wrong and there is no Krsna?” While my experiences over the years have convinced me that Krsna exists, it’s hard to prove His existence to a doubting Thomas. But I logically reply, “If I’m wrong, I’ve still had a peaceful, satisfying, and fulfilling life, so what’s the loss? And what if I’m right and Krsna exists? I’ll gain eternal life in a spiritual body.” I then turn the question over to them: “What will you have lost by denying Krsna?” When I ask this question, I think of my grandfather. He had been a very successful man, but what was the final result?
Consider my grandfather’s life in comparison to that of my spiritual father, Srila Prabhupada. At the age of sixty-nine, Prabhupada left the comfort of a holy place to journey to one of the world’s most hellish cities, New York. Out of deep compassion for suffering humanity, he traveled across the Atlantic, surviving two heart attacks. Undeterred by sickness, poverty, and lack of support, he repeated the message of his spiritual predecessors, giving hope and guidance to people like me grappling for understanding and truth in these confusing times. In Prabhupada’s last twelve years, he built a spiritual movement that brought the teachings and practices of bhakti-yoga to the West and revived it in the East. Till his last breath, Prabhupada taught that the purpose of human life is to reawaken our loving relationship with the Supreme Lord, Sri Krsna. Prabhupada’s old age was given to the fulfillment of his spiritual master’s vision.
The Opportunity Of Old Age
Human life is a rare gift from God. It affords us the opportunity to progress on our spiritual journey. Krsna has designed our bodies to assist us in this process. If we are on a spiritual path, aging helps us to let go of our attachment to our bodies. Our aging body tells us that death is fast approaching. For the spiritual practitioner, aging subdues the senses and allows us to become more peaceful and increase our internal life.
For a devotee, retirement years are an opportunity to take full advantage of devotional service. Free of responsibilities and obligations, we can use our full time and attention to develop our love for Krsna. We can use our time studying the voluminous Vedic literature, which describes the Lord’s activities and teachings. We can increase our meditation on chanting holy mantras and purifying our hearts with the spiritual sound. We can make beautiful clothes and jewelry to decorate the deity form of the Lord. Whatever talents we may have—in art, music, writing, cooking, teaching—can be used to glorify the Lord.
We can travel, too. But rather than going to the Riviera to sunbathe, we can go to holy places where the Lord performed His pastimes on earth. Such pilgrimages purify us and help us feel closer to God by increasing our devotion. We can also travel to share with others our spiritual experiences and realizations. I look forward to retiring and having more time for the things that enliven me, such as reading Prabhupada’s books, chanting the Lord’s holy names, making jewelry for the deities, and writing and teaching my realizations for the benefit of others.
In the mean time, by regularly reading the Vedic scriptures I become more aware of the shortcomings of life without spiritual practice. For a Krsna devotee, every situation, even old age, can be instructive. Had Mrs. Werble known about bhakti-yoga, she could have been sitting in that same room chanting the Hare Krsna mantra absorbed in thoughts of her eternal life. Her eyes would have been filled with love and serenity. She would have been joyful in her last days, feeling the presence of her Lord at every moment.
And when I came to the house, she would have shared her spiritual thoughts and visions with me and uplifted me from my own ignorance. Even though she didn’t take up her spiritual life, I thank her for the role she did play in my spiritual awakening and pray she may find Krsna during her own on-going journey.
Reprinted from Back to Godhead Magazine Volume 35 Number 05, 2001 © BBT International; all rights reserved.