Fear of Death – The What and Why of It
Everyone dies. Why then do so many have a fear of death? Lyricist and writer Prasoon Joshi seeks Sadhguru’s answers on why we see death as a sinister process.
Prasoon Joshi: Why is death always portrayed as dark and sinister? You called it somewhere “cosmic joke,” but most civilizations refer to it with some sort of heaviness. Why is there a fear of death in most people, Sadhguru?
Sadhguru: If we look at how we have perceived and portrayed death in India, you will see that death is not seen as sinister. The dark thing about death is the loss for the living. If people lose something precious to them – it could be things; it could be people – they will break down. So it is darkness only for the living, but death itself has always been portrayed as a grand event in this culture. It is only now that Indians are imitating the West and walking with heads down when someone dies.
Above all, there are wonderful stories. The legend goes that Shiva has made the Maha Shmashan his earthly abode and is waiting there. Every time somebody dies, he dances in celebration. What kind of a pervert is he that if somebody dear to me dies, he will dance and celebrate?
The soap bubble
Let’s look at the fundamental aspects of life. In the experience of most human beings, life is just their body, their thoughts, and their emotions. If we pay some attention to the nature of our lives, we can clearly see that both the body and the mind are accumulations. Beyond these accumulations, there is life. To use an analogy – when you were a child and you blew a soap bubble, the bubble was real, but what was inside the bubble was just the same atmosphere that is all over. When the bubble burst, a drop of soap water fell on the floor, but where the content of the bubble went, you could never see, because it is part of everything.
This is the nature of life. The whole cosmos is a living mass of life. When the bubble burst and this air or this life that was trapped in the bubble got released, what is happening on the other side is way bigger than what can happen within the trap of physicality. Shiva is laughing, singing, and dancing because one life got released from the mortal coil.
Fear of death – Social conditioning
Prasoon Joshi: Once, there was a death in the family and I went there. There was a kid playing and he happened to go over the dead body, as if it was a thing lying there. People pulled him away, but the child did not register why. Is fear of death a conditioned process. Is it inculcated into us that we should perceive the fact that somebody is gone as such a big event or a calamity?
Sadhguru: Seeing death as a tragedy is physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially a reality - existentially, it is not. A child is an offspring of life - he is not yet a slave of social conditioning. He would even play with the dead; it would not matter. But because adults feel this is inappropriate, they will try to condition the child. When somebody very dear to them dies, most people actually feel as if this is the end of the world. But after some time, they will come around.
Children do not have this time-lag – they come around quickly, because they are less influenced by what is happening in society. How society handles death has a purely mental and emotional basis, which means, it is our making – we could make it whichever way we want. Maybe the so-called educated people have given it up, but otherwise, if somebody dies in this country, they will beat the drum and have a party. I am not trying to belittle the loss that a person goes through. But all mental factors – your thoughts, your emotions, your social opinions and situations – are only relevant to a certain extent. Existentially, what you think, what you feel, what your society thinks, is absolutely irrelevant. That is why we always position Shiva, one who we consider as the highest, on the edge of society. He is always on the cremation ground.
This mortal coil
This is how every yogi starts his life. From the age of eight to seventeen, I spent an enormous amount of time in the cremation ground - it simply intrigued me. I would just sit there. People would come and set fire to the body. You know, firewood is expensive, so some people want to save on the wood. I do not know if any of you witnessed this - when the body gets cremated, the first thing that burns up is the neck, and unless they made the wood arrangement very large, invariably, the halfway burnt skull rolls off. This happens after three-and-a-half to four hours. By that time, no relative is there - they are all gone within one or two hours. So I would pick up the skulls and put them back on the pyre.
Everyone talked about so many things - I wanted to see it myself. I spent days and nights in the cremation ground, not even knowing why. Today, we send those who are seriously on the path to the cremation ground to spend a certain amount of time there, because mortality has to sink into you. You must understand the essential nature of your life. Only when you realize you are mortal, the longing to know that which is beyond will arise.
If you think of God, you will not become spiritual –you could actually become very stupid. You will think that you can do idiotic things in your life, and with a prayer, everything will be fixed. You do not do your job properly, but you think you will produce good results. You do not study for your exam, and you think you will be first in class because of your prayer. The moment you address the mortal nature of who you are, the longing to know what this is all about, and what is beyond this thing that people are here today, gone tomorrow, will become a natural quest. That is the spiritual process.
Editor's Note: Over the last few years, Sadhguru has made the Kalabhairava Karma process available to everyone. This process is a ritual for the deceased, done within a particular time span after death. It brings a certain ease and pleasant transition for both natural and unnatural deaths.