Excerpt | Death: An Inside Story by Sadhguru
In this edited extract from the first chapter of the bestseller, the author states that people seek spirituality because they know they will die.
What Is Death?
Death is the most fundamental question. Yet, people can ignore it, avoid it and just live on in their ignorance simply because all kinds of idiotic stories have been spread in the world in the name of religion.
Death: The Most Fundamental Question.
Do you know you will die one day? Oh, I bless you with a long life, but anyway, you will die one day. We cannot be sure about other things in your life. We don’t know if you will get married or not, or if you will get a job or not, if you will be successful or not, but this one thing is guaranteed in your life: you will go straight to your grave! One of the biggest human follies is to engage with death in the third person, as though it is an abstract event that happens to other people, not us. Do you know that about 160,000 people in the world, who were alive yesterday, are not there today? Each second, two people die in the world. And one day, it is going to happen to you and me too. It does not take enormous research, or intelligence, or even education, to know this. This knowledge is inbuilt in every human being. Yet, we think we have an unlimited lease of life. This situation is best expressed in the Indian epic Mahabharata.
The five Pandava princes, who are the protagonists, are lost in the forests. Severely starved and parched, they scour the nearby hills for water and food. They spot a lake and, as they try to drink from it, they are confronted by a yaksha (a celestial being) in the form of a white crane who insists they answer his questions first. Refusing to be stopped by a mere bird, one by one, they try to drink from the lake and drop dead. Only Yudhishthira, the eldest of them, is left. Always the humble and righteous one, Yudhishthira ignores his thirst and engages with the yaksha, who fires a volley of questions about life at him. One of those questions being, ‘What is the biggest wonder of life?’ Without hesitation, Yudhishthira famously answers, ‘Hundreds and thousands of living beings meet death at every moment, yet the foolish man thinks himself deathless and does not prepare for death. This is the biggest wonder of life.’ The yaksha is pleased with this answer, so he allows him to drink from the lake and also restores the lives of his dead brothers. This happened 5000 years ago, but the human psyche regarding death has changed very little since then.
Death is a very fundamental question. Actually, death is closer to us than the statistics we read about it. Each moment, death is happening in us at the organ and cellular levels. This is how, with just one look at your insides, your doctor knows how old you are. In fact, death began in us even before we were born. Only if you are ignorant and unaware does it seem like death will come to you someday later. If you are aware, you will see both life and death are happening every moment. If you as much as breathe a little more consciously, you will notice that with every inhalation there is life, with every exhalation there is death. Upon birth, the first thing that a child does is to inhale, to take in a gasp of air. And the last thing that you will do in your life is an exhalation. You exhale now, and if you do not take the next inhalation, you will be dead. If you do not get this, just do an exhalation, hold your nose and do not do the next inhalation. Within a few moments, every cell in your body will start screaming for life. Life and death are happening all the time. They exist together, inseparably, in the same breath. This relationship goes even beyond the breath. Breath is only a supporting actor; the real process is of the life energy, or prana, that controls physical existence. With certain mastery over prana, one can exist beyond breath for substantial amounts of time. Breath is a bit more immediate in its requirement, but in the same category as food and water.
Death is such a fundamental aspect, because if one small thing happens, you can be gone tomorrow morning. Why tomorrow morning — one small thing now and you could be off the next moment. If you were like any other creature, maybe you would be unable to think about all this, but once one is endowed with human intelligence, how can you just ignore such a significant aspect of your life? How can you avoid it and live on as if you are going to be here forever? How is it that after living here for millions of years of life, human beings still don’t know a damn thing about death? Well, they know nothing about life either. We know all the trappings about life, but what do you know about life as such?
Fundamentally, this situation has come about because you have lost perspective as to who you are in this Universe. If this solar system, in which we are, evaporates tomorrow morning, no one will even notice it in this Cosmos. It is that small, just a speck. In this speck of a solar system, Planet Earth is a micro speck. In that micro speck, the city you live in is a super-micro speck. In that, you are a big man. This is a serious problem. When you have completely lost perspective as to who you are, how do you think you will grasp anything about the nature of life or death?
One reason people can ignore death and continue to live on in their ignorance is simply that the religions of the world have spread all kinds of idiotic stories about life and death. They created some silly, childish explanations for everything. ‘How was I born?’ ‘The stork brought you.’ ‘Where are you going to go?’ ‘To heaven.’ This explanation is very simple but absurd. At least, they could have chosen a more efficient mode of transport than a stork. Storks migrate only in a particular season, so all the children should have been born in that season alone, not during other times! Moreover, if people are so sure that they are going to heaven after they die, I ask them, ‘Why are you delaying your departure, then? Why not go right now?’ All these silly stories have snuffed out the basic human curiosity about life and death. Otherwise, sheer curiosity — if not the pain and suffering of life —would have strongly propelled many people to seek answers to this fundamental question.
People always think that reminding themselves of God will make them spiritual. Not at all. If you keep thinking or believing in God, you will not do your job properly, but you think you will produce good results. You will not study for your exam and you think you will be first in class because of your prayer. Such people become more brazen than others about life because now they have God’s support. Always, people who believed that God is with them have done the most violent things on the planet. ‘God is with me’ gives you a new confidence, which is very dangerous. If you think of God this way, you will not become spiritual — you could actually become very brazen and stupid…
Thinking about God, you will think that you can do idiotic things in your life, and with a prayer, everything will be fixed. This is not becoming spiritual. It is only when you become conscious that you will also die, you will turn spiritual. Only when this awareness of mortality seeps into you, you will turn inwards. The moment you address the mortal nature of who you are, you will also want to know what the source of this life is. You will develop the longing to know what this is all about, and what is beyond this thing. It will become a natural quest. That is the spiritual process.
No one would seek spirituality if they did not know that they would die. When you are young, you think you are immortal. Slowly, as you get older, at least your body definitely reminds you that you are mortal. And when you are faced with death or the death of someone dear to you, you will surely begin to wonder what all this is about. If you are aware of the mortal nature of your life, where is the time to get angry with someone or to quarrel with someone or to do anything stupid in life? Once you come to terms with death, and you are conscious that you will die, you will want to make every moment of your life as beautiful as possible. Those who are constantly aware of the mortal and fragile nature of Existence do not want to miss even a single moment; they will naturally be aware. They cannot take anything for granted; they will live very purposefully. Only people who believe they are immortal can fight and fight to death.
In the Indian tradition, cremation grounds are always held to be very sacred. When someone dies, even if it is someone that you do not know, it hits you somewhere. In any genuine spiritual practice, there is always the smell of death. If you go deep enough into it, it will remind you that you are mortal. Whatever sadhana we have been teaching you, whether it is Shoonya, or Shakti Chalana, or Shambhavi Mahamudra — even more so with Samyama — essentially, there is a tinge of death in it. If there is no tinge of death in it, there is no spirituality; it is just entertainment. If someone taught you a superficial la-la practice, it may make you feel good, but there is nothing more to it.
Traditionally, every yogi started his spiritual pursuit in the cremation grounds. In fact, many Masters have used this as a spiritual process. Gautama the Buddha made it compulsory for his monks. Before he initiated anyone who came to him, he asked them to go and sit in the busiest cremation ground for three months, just watching the corpses burning. Even today, if you go to Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi, a minimum of half-dozen bodies will be burning there at any given time. And it is handled like a normal business, very casually. These days, there is not enough time for them to fully burn the body, because even before one body is fully burned, the next body has already come. So they throw this half-burned body into the river. It is actually very good for you to see that this is how people are going to treat you also one day.
When I was young, I had no knowledge of all this. But from the age of eight to seventeen, I happened to spend an enormous amount of time in the cremation ground. It simply intrigued me. Everyone talked about so many eerie things happening there; I had heard stories that spirits hang upside down from trees. I wanted to see these things for myself. So I spent many days and nights in the cremation grounds. There was one very close to our home and another at the foothills of Chamundi Hills. The one at Chamundi Hills was very busy. Anytime you went there, there would be at least four or five bodies burning. Whenever I went trekking, I spent the nights there because the hill would be cold, but here there was a fire burning all the time. So I would sit by the fire and simply watch the burning.
There was also a lot of drama that used to happen around the pyre. Usually, when people come with a body to the cremation ground, they are all crying like they have lost everything in life and all that. Then they set fire to the body. They stay there for half an hour or forty-five minutes and then they leave. The fire is still burning, but they leave. Probably they have other business to attend to, but I would sit there, watching. If you have carefully observed a body being burned on a pyre, the first thing that burns up is the neck because it is narrow. When this happens, unless they have made a large and proper arrangement of firewood, the half-burned head invariably rolls off the pyre like a football. It looks a little eerie — a head rolling off the pyre! Probably because firewood is expensive, or because they do not have sufficient experience in arranging a proper pyre, this used to happen often. It would happen after three-and-a-half to four hours of burning. By that time, no relatives would be present, so I would be the one to pick up the heads and put them back on the pyre.
I spent many days and nights in the cremation grounds just sitting and looking and helping these bodies burn fully. It set forth a completely different kind of process in me. I know you would want to avoid this, but it is good to sit down and watch the bodies burning continuously. Living in the comfort of your house, it is very easy to think you are immortal. But when a body is burning in front of you, it is not very difficult to see that this could be you tomorrow. Mentally and emotionally, there may also be reactions, but the most important thing is that your body perceives life in its own way. The sight of another body burning deeply unsettles it. It brings a different kind of awareness and sense within you. Many things that you have imagined about yourself will all get burned in the cremation ground if you sit there and keep watching what happens.
When you are watching the bodies burn, you should not think about it. Simply look at it; just look at it and look at it and look at it. After some time, you will see, it is just you. It is not any different. It is your own body. Once you can replace that body with yours and still sit there, there is a deep acceptance of death. This is not a psychological process. When your very body perceives the fragility of its existence, there is a very profound relief and acceptance. Once there is a deep acceptance of death, then life will happen to you in enormous proportions. It is only because you tried to keep death away, life has also stayed away from you. This is why almost every yogi spent a significant amount of time in the cremation grounds at some point or the other in his life.