Monday Morning Greetings 2021 #1 – My Favorite Quotes on Death

January 4th, 2021

I was walking in the twenty-acre cemetery park across the street from where I stay in New York, when I spontaneously began to think of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s quotes on death, as well some other quotes on the subject. I became inspired to share them with a brief commentary on each one.

 

“What is death but a change of body!”

 

Śrīla Prabhupāda came back from Hrsikesh to Vrindavan to announce that he was preparing to leave the world. He gathered his disciples in his room and said the above. What struck me was not just what he said, but the conviction with which he said it. Śrīla Prabhupāda then quoted the Bhagavad-gītā:

 

“As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.” (2.13)

 

We were there months later in the same room witnessing his passing. It was obvious to those who were there: he was not bewildered by such a change!

 

“Don’t think this won’t happen to you!”

 

Śrīla Prabhupāda’s disciples, almost all of whom were younger than thirty years of age, surrounded his bed during his last days. He turned to them and relayed this important instruction. If any of us had any psychological avoidance of death at that time, as Śrīla Prabhupāda’s statement seemed to indicate, how could we possibly continue that illusion in the face of the fact that so many who stood by his bed then are now gone?

 

“The pain of death is not the physical pain, for either the body goes into a coma, or one is given drugs to dull the pain. The real pain of death is losing one’s attachments.”

 

About thirty years ago, I was having a philosophical discussion with Satyanarayan Baba, who, at that time, served under me as the Sanskrit teacher in the gurukula. I don’t remember specifically what our discussion was about, but this point stuck with me. Even now, if I lost the smallest thing, say my cell phone, I would be in anxiety. Imagine what it is like to suddenly face the prospect of losing everything at once, including your material identity and everyone you know and love. For one who has not cultivated an eternal spiritual identity, the psychological trauma of losing all of one’s attachments at death is indeed even more painful than the physical pain itself.

 

“The more you transform your life from the material to the spiritual domain, the less you become afraid of death. A person who lives a truly spiritual life has no fear of death.”

 

While writing the previous quote, I thought it wouldn’t be proper to not follow it up with something that offers some hope. I thus picked this quote from Leo Tolstoy. When we perform activities of devotion such as chanting the holy names of God, because it is an activity of the eternal soul, it gives us the realization that our activities and existence do not end with the body, and we become fearless. In contrast, the activities of material enjoyment, because they are expressions of the false ego, put us in the illusion that our activities and existence end at death, leaving us always in duality and fear.

 

“Death is the illusion of material existence.”

 

Years ago, I began to study and teach the Yoga Sutras in yoga studios around New York City. One important point I gleaned from the study was that all of our problems are perceptual – how we see things – and not actual, how they are. I thought the best example of this was our apparently biggest problem, death. I searched for a good way to express my realization and composed the above statement.

 

“Time I am, destroyer of the worlds, and I have come to engage all people.” (Bg. 11.32)

 

After the Atom Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the Manhattan Project, which developed the bomb, was riddled with guilt. Shortly after, he was interviewed. Contemplating the destruction he helped cause, he, with tears in his eyes, paraphrased this Bhagavad-gītā verse in his own words: “I am become death, the destroyer of the worlds.” This became perhaps the most famous quote from the Bhagavad-gītā in the western world.[1]

 

“What is death but another birthday?”

 

I seem to recall Śrīla Prabhupāda saying this, but I am not certain of its origins. We look at death with the greatest trepidation and look at a birthday as the most joyous occasion. To equate the two in this manner is a brilliant and ironic way of highlighting the positivity of death.

 

I didn’t mean to begin the new year with such an apparently macabre subject. But is it? Seneca, the great Stoic philosopher disagreed: “The day which we fear as our last is but the birthday of eternity.”

 

 


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lb13ynu3Iac

 

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