Benjamin Franklin famously said that there are two things we cannot escape: death and taxes (he didn’t know about tax shelters). In this article, we cover observations made by Sri Aurobindo and the Mother Mirra Alfassa on some taxing questions related to death – suicide, euthanasia and capital punishment.
Both Sri Aurobindo and the Mother were adamantly opposed to any talk of suicide emanating from their disciples or others whose lives they touched. The only exception allowed was in the case of an enlightened individual who, after realizing his true identity and being free from Karma, might choose to cast off the physical body
These are some observations made by them on the matter. The first passage is from Sri Aurobindo’s commentary on the Upanishads:
When a man dies in great pain, or in great grief or in great agitation of mind and his last thoughts are full of fear, rage, pain or horror, then the Jivatman (soul) in the Sukshmasharir (subtle body) is unable to shake off these impressions from his mind for years, sometimes for centuries. The reason of this is the law of death; death is a moment of great concentration when the departing spirit gathers up the impressions of its mortal life, as a host gathers provender for its journey, and whatever impressions are predominant at that moment, govern its condition afterwards Hence the importance, even apart from Mukti(liberation), of living a clean and noble life and dying a calm & strong death. For if the ideas & impressions then uppermost are such as associate the self with this gross body and the vital functions, i.e. to say, with the lower upadhi, then the soul remains long in a tamasic condition of darkness & suffering, which we call Patal or in its worst forms Hell. If the ideas & impressions uppermost are such as associate the self with the mind and the higher desires then the soul passes quickly through a short period of blindness to a rajaso-sattwic condition of light & pleasure and wider knowledge, which we call Paradise, Swarga or Behesta(Bengali word for heaven), from which it will return to birth in this world; if the ideas & impressions are such as to associate the self with the higher understanding & the bliss of the Self, the soul passes quickly to a sattwic condition of highest bliss which we call Heaven or Brahmaloka and thence it does not return. But if we have learned to identify for ever the self with the Self, then before death we become God and after death we shall not be other. For there are three states of Maya, Tamasic illusion, Rajasic illusion, and Sattwic illusion; and each in succession we must shake off to reach that which is no illusion, but the one and only truth.
The Sruti (divine revelation) says then that those who slay themselves go down into the nether world of gloom, for they have associated the self with the body and fancied that by getting rid of this body, they will be free, but they have died full of impressions of grief, impatience, disgust and pain. In that state of gloom they are continually repeating the last scene of their life, its impressions and its violent disquiet, and until they have worn off these, there is no possibility of Shanti for their minds. Let no man in his folly or impatience court such a doom .
In this conversation, the Mother elucidates that after suicide, one is thrust into tenebrous worlds where one can be tormented by malevolent beings who feed off one’s vitality like vampires. The suffering after suicide is far worse than the suffering that might induce one to commit suicide.
Disciple: Why does one suffer when one commits suicide?
Mother: Why does one commit suicide? Because one is a coward…When one is cowardly one always suffers.
Disciple: In the next life one suffers again?
Mother: The psychic being comes with a definite purpose to go through a set of experiences and to learn and make progress. Then if you leave before its work is finished it will have to come back to do it again under much more difficult conditions. So all that you have avoided in one life you will find again in another, and more difficult. And even without leaving in this way, if you have difficulties to overcome in life, you have what we usually call a test to pass, you see; well, if you don’t pass it or turn your back upon it, if you go away instead of passing it, you will have to pass it another time and it will be much more difficult than before.
Now people, you know, are extremely ignorant and they think that it is like this: there is life, and then death; life is a bunch of troubles, and then death is an eternal peace. But it is not at all like that. And usually when one goes out of life in an altogether arbitrary way and in an ignorant and obscure passion, one goes straight into a vital world made of all these passions and all this ignorance. So the troubles one wanted to avoid one finds again without even having the protection which the body gives, for – if you have ever had a nightmare, that is, a rash excursion in the vital world, well, your remedy is to wake yourself up, that is to say, to rush back immediately into your body. But when you have destroyed your body you no longer have a body to protect you. So you find yourself in a perpetual nightmare, which is not very pleasant. For, to avoid the nightmare you must be in a psychic consciousness, and when you are in a psychic consciousness you may be quite sure that things won’t trouble you. It is indeed the movement of an ignorant darkness and, as I said, a great cowardice in front of the sustained effort to be made.
Disciple: The Ramayana says that when Rama saw that his work on earth was finished, he entered the river Sarayu along with his companions. This looks like mass suicide and suicide is regarded as the greatest sin. How to understand this?
- For the Supreme there is no sin.
- For the devotee there is no greater sin than to be far from the Lord.
- At the time when the Ramayana was conceived and written, the knowledge revealed by Sri Aurobindo that the earth will be transformed into a divine world and an abode of the Supreme was not known or accepted.
If you consider these three points you will understand the legend. (Although it may be that the actual facts were not as they have been told.) 
Some religious folks reject euthanasia because “life is precious”, by which they mean that it is better to keep an individual breathing rather than dead, but this is a specious argument since it depends on how we define “life”. According to Hinduism, human beings have indestructible self-effulgent souls which reincarnate thousands of times in different bodies during the ascending arc of evolution. In the context of euthanasia, this implies that the doctor must be able to divine on a case-by-case basis whether the suffering patient should continue living or whether the soul has reached the point where it is ready to move on to the next incarnation. In the absence of any insight into the spiritual reality behind the material world, this is a formidable puzzle to solve.
There are two sources where Sri Aurobindo has commented on euthanasia. The first was in the following conversation, where he was open to it under certain circumstances.
Dr. Manilal : Is not the taking of life a sin, Sir?
Sri Aurobindo: You are all the time thinking of sin. It depends on circumstances. English doctors advocate giving injections to cases of incurable suffering in order to cut short their lives.
Purani : Gandhi also advocated it in case of the Ashram cow and there was a row among the Jains.
Dr. Manilal: What about suicide?
Sri Aurobindo: It depends on the spirit in which it is done. If it is done in a vital spirit or with a vital motive it may be sin. Would you say that the Sannyasi who committed suicide in the story about Alexander engaged in an act of sin?
Dr. Manilal: I don’t know the story.
Sri Aurobindo: When Alexander was returning to Greece he wanted to take with him two Sannyasis. One refused, the other accompanied him. But after some time the latter had a severe attack of colic. He said his body was betraying him. So he decided to give up his body by immolating himself. In spite of pleadings he carried out his decision .
The second source is a letter written to a disciple, where Sri Aurobindo calls attention to the inherent limitations of the human intellect in determining whether a suffering soul should be kept alive or allowed to die and proceed to the next incarnation. The original question, which we do not have at present, seems to be related to the taking of animal life, but the response also touches on the subject of euthanasia.
It is the same with the problem of the taking of animal life under the circumstances put forward by your friend in the letter. It is put on the basis of an invariable ethical right and wrong to be applied to all cases – is it right to take animal life at all, under any circumstances, is it right to allow an animal to suffer under your eyes when you can relieve it by an euthanasia? There can be no indubitable answer to a question put like that, because the answer depends on data which the mind has not before it. In fact there are many other factors which make people incline to this short and merciful way out of the difficulty – the nervous inability to bear the sight and hearing of so much suffering, the unavailing trouble, the disgust and inconvenience – all tend to give force to the idea that the animal itself would want to be out of it. But what does the animal really feel about it – may it not be clinging to life in spite of the pain? Or may not the soul have accepted these things for a quicker evolution into a higher state of life? If so, the mercy dealt out may conceivably interfere with the animal’s Karma. In fact the right decision might vary in each case and depend on a knowledge which the human mind has not – and it might very well be said that until it has it, it has not the right to take life. It was some dim perception of this truth that made religion and ethics develop the law of Ahimsa (non-violence) – and yet that too becomes a mental rule which it is found impossible to apply in practice. And perhaps the moral of it all is that we must act for the best according to our lights in each case, as things are, but that the solution of these problems can only come by pressing forward towards a greater light, a greater consciousness in which the problems themselves, as now stated by the human mind, will not arise because we shall have a vision which will see the world in a different way and a guidance which at present is not ours. The mental or moral rule is a stop-gap which men are obliged to use, very uncertainly and stumblingly, until they can see things whole in the light of the spirit.
Paramahansa Yogananda relates the tale of a deer who wanted to move on to the next incarnation but was being held back by Yogananda’s desire to keep him alive. The following story is from his book “Autobiography of a Yogi“:
We had many pets, including a young deer who was fairly idolized by the children. I too loved the fawn so much that I allowed it to sleep in my room. At the light of dawn, the little creature would toddle over to my bed for a morning caress.
One day I fed the pet earlier than usual, as I had to attend to some business in the town of Ranchi. Although I cautioned the boys not to feed the fawn until my return, one of them was disobedient, and gave the baby deer a large quantity of milk. When I came back in the evening, sad news greeted me: “The little fawn is nearly dead, through over feeding.”
In tears, I placed the apparently lifeless pet on my lap. I prayed piteously to God to spare its life. Hours later, the small creature opened its eyes, stood up, and walked feebly. The whole school shouted for joy.
But a deep lesson came to me that night, one I can never forget. I stayed up with the fawn until two o’clock, when I fell asleep. The deer appeared in a dream, and spoke to me:
“You are holding me back. Please let me go; let me go!”
“All right,” I answered in the dream.
I awoke immediately, and cried out, “Boys, the deer is dying!” The children rushed to my side.
I ran to the corner of the room where I had placed the pet. It made a last effort to rise, stumbled toward me, then dropped at my feet, dead.
According to the mass karma which guides and regulates the destinies of animals, the deer’s life was over, and it was ready to progress to a higher form. But by my deep attachment, which I later realized was selfish, and by my fervent prayers, I had been able to hold it in the limitations of the animal form from which the soul was struggling for release. The soul of the deer made its plea in a dream because, without my loving permission, it either would not or could not go. As soon as I agreed, it departed .
Behind the material world, there exist occult worlds populated by beings – benevolent and malevolent – who are capable of and enjoy influencing our lives (see occult spirits which influence us). Certain cases of horrifying murders and other violent inhumane crimes committed by menacing psychotic individuals can in fact be attributed to these malevolent beings who stand above the criminals and motivate them to kill. Seen in this light, the insanity defense which is employed by criminals to absolve them of their inhumane crimes is not without basis. The following conversation between Sri Aurobindo and a disciple must be read in this context.
Disciple : What is the aim of these beings in taking possession of the human being ?
Sri Aurobindo: Firstly, to have influence on the physical plane which they can have by taking possession of a man. Secondly, to play a joke – just to see what happens. Thirdly, to play God and be worshipped. Fourthly, to bring about a manifestation of vital power. To this class belong those beings that effect miraculous cures and have great healing powers. Fifthly, to satisfy some desire or impulse like murder or lust.
From this point of view you will see that capital punishment is absurd. The man who murders was, most probably, under possession of impulse of some being. When the man is executed, the being takes possession of another. Many of those who commit murder have admitted that they had their first impulse when they saw an execution. Some vital beings want to have their play here.
Disciple : Why do they do like that ?
Sri Aurobindo : They get supported. But these are not strong beings. Really strong beings are those that are behind world-movements, like Theosophy ; they have not only vital force but mental power.
Disciple: Does the soul of the man, who is possessed, try to recover the lost ground ?
Sri Aurobindo : After some time, during possession, there is no soul; it is thrust behind, – into the background. Generally, in man the soul is not in front. By yoga the soul is supposed to come to the front. But it can be thrown into the background by these forces taking advantage of some weakness, some vital or physical defect – unless the Central Being comes down and takes hold of the instruments.
Disciple : Can these forces take possession when the man has got a fine mind – a mind which is higher than the vital impulses ?
Sri Aurobindo : What is man’s mental knowledge before those beings ? What does man know ? Practically nothing. They know the complex of forces at work, while man knows nothing of it. Man has a great destiny if he goes along the right lines, but as he is, he is shut up in the physical consciousness which is a very inferior plane. Even his reason requires data for its knowledge, and argument or reasoning can justify anything. Two quite opposite conclusions can be supported by the aid of the same reasoning. And your preferences determine which one you accept. For the data of reasoning, again, you require to depend upon what you see and hear – on your senses. The vital beings are not so foolish as all that, they are not so limited.
- Sri Aurobindo. Isha Upanishad. CWSA vol. 17, p. 122
- The Mother. Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 7, pp. 23-24.
- The Mother. Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 17, p 318.
- Nirodbaran. Talks with Sri Aurobindo, 7 Dec 1940.
- Sri Aurobindo. Letters on Yoga, Section on Rebirth, SABCL vol. 22, p 450
- Paramhansa Yogananda. Autobiography of A Yogi. Chapter 27, Founding a Yoga School in Ranchi.
- A.B. Purani. Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo, Second Series, Psychology, 29th May, 1926
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