This article discusses an assorted range of post-mortem topics : the difference between sleep and death, the state just before death, the difference between cremation and burial, the need for funeral ceremonies, and resurrection.
A quick synopsis of the cycle of rebirth is in order. Human beings (aliens ignored for now) are constituted of five sheaths of varying gradation of the substance of consciousness. At the time of birth, the psychic being fashions together the subtler sheaths from the material of Universal nature and fuses with the physical sheath of an embryo. Gradually, in this newborn child, the soul begins to put forth a rudimentary mental and vital personality which is further shaped under the combined influence of heredity and cultural environment. With aging, psychological as well as physical, the body wears out and eventually death occurs. At the time of death, the life currently lived flashes before the psychic being, at which point it decides the conditions for the next birth. After this, the psychic being dissolves the link with the physical body and exits leaving an elemental consciousness which persists in the body for a few days. The exit points through which the life-force escapes the body are conventionally called the Nine gates (Nava Dwara). One who has attained Self-realization exits through the tenth gate at the top of the head (anterior fontanelle or Brahmarandhra). This is denoted as Kapala Moksha (i.e. liberation through the head). For those who are not enlightened, the psychic being requires a few years (in earth-time) to liberate itself from the shambolic formation of earthly desires which have accrued in the vital and the mental sheath. Once the psychic being is thus unencumbered, it finally retires to the psychic world to rest until the next incarnation. There are innumerable variations possible within this general process.
State just before death
These are insights from Ramana Maharshi on the state just before death.
Disciple: What is the state just before death?
Ramana Maharshi: When a person gasps for breath it indicates that the person is unconscious of this body; another body has been held and the person swings to and fro. While gasping there is a more violent gasp at intervals and that indicates the oscillation between the two bodies due to the present attachment not having been completely snapped. I noticed it in the case of my mother and of Palaniswami.
Disciple: Does the new body involved in that state represent the next reincarnation of the person?
Ramana Maharshi: Yes. While gasping the person is in something like a dream, not aware of the present environment.
Evidently the soul passes through a series of subtle experiences, and Sri Bhagavan’s touch generates a current which turns the soul back from its wandering into the Heart. The samskaras, however, persist and a struggle is kept up between the spiritual force set up by His touch and the innate samskaras(desires and dispositions), until the latter are entirely destroyed and the soul is led into the Heart to rest in eternal Peace, which is the same as Liberation. Its entry into the Heart is signified by a peculiar sensation perceptible to the Mahatma – similar to the tinkling of a bell. When Maharshi attended on Palaniswami on his death-bed, He took away His hand after the above signal. But Palaniswami’s eyes opened immediately, signifying that the spirit had escaped through them, thereby indicating a higher rebirth, but not Liberation .
Difference between sleep and death
According to the Mother, there are two differences between sleep and death. After death, the link to the physical body is cut and consequently, one can no longer return to the body in case one has nighmarish encounters in the occult worlds. Secondly, the domain of consciousness that one ventures into after death is distinct from the domain that one enters during sleep.
Disciple: Is there a difference between sleep and death, or are they the same? … When you are asleep, you aren’t in your body: everything else goes out just as it does at the time of death, doesn’t it?
Mother Mirra: The cataleptic state of trance is like death, yes, except for the link (i.e. the silver cord) that remains – only a link remains, but otherwise one has entirely gone out. Actually, the body becomes cataleptic only when one has entirely gone out; otherwise everything that is most material in the vital remains.
Disciple: I mean, aren’t the places you go to in sleep the same as the ones you go to in death?
Mother Mirra: No, no, no. Most of the time in sleep, with very few exceptions, one is in contact with all that rises up from the subconscient: a cerebral subconscient, an emotive subconscient, a material subconscient; this is what produces ninety-nine percent of the dreams people have. Sometimes – usually – the mind goes wandering, but ninety-nine and a half percent of the time, one remembers nothing when it returns, because the link is not properly established.
The purpose of sleep is to re-establish contact with the consciousness of Sachchidananda(i.e. the higher triple worlds out of the seven worlds). But I don’t think one person in a hundred does so! They enter into unconsciousness far more than into Sachchidananda.
Yet no two sleeps are the same, mon petit! And it’s the same with deaths, no two are the same. But sleep and death are different because … they are different states. As long as you have a body, you are not in the same state as when you are ‘dead.’ There is a period of seven days after the doctors declare you ‘dead’ when you are still in an intermediary state; but the actual state of death itself is completely different because there is no longer this physical base.
After death, one enters the “domain of death”, which is a region of the vital world. (see Cosmology for an overview of various occult worlds)
Mother Mirra: Generally, “domain of death” is the name given to a certain region of the most material vital into which one is projected at the moment one leaves one’s body. The part – how to put it? – of one’s life that’s usually the most conscious is projected there at the moment of death. Well, that region, that material vital world is very dark, it is full of adverse formations having desires at their centre or even adverse wills, and these are very, very elemental entities which have a very fragmentary life and are like vampires, in the see that they feed on all that is thrown out from human beings. And so, at that moment, from the shock of death – for very few die without a shock, go out consciously, in full knowledge of the thing, there are not many such – usually it is an accident: a last accident; well, at that shock of death, those entities rush in upon this, upon this vitality that goes out, and feed upon it. So long as a person is alive, they cannot touch him. For, you have all had the experience of a nightmare in which, when the situation becomes really very dangerous, suddenly you wake up – you come back into your body, for the body is your protection. In the physical they can do nothing to you but when you are completely outside the physical (and even this link I spoke about serves as a protection to a certain extent when you go out), but if the links are broken and you are entirely without a body, well, unless you take advantage of special circumstances… as for instance when a person is much loved by others who are yet alive; if at that moment these people who love him concentrate their thought and love on the departed one, he finds a refuge therein, and this protects him completely against those entities; but one who passes away without anyone’s having a special attachment for him, either because he is surrounded by people he has harmed and who do not love him or by people who are in a terribly unconscious state – he is like a prey delivered to these forces. And that indeed is an experience that’s difficult to bear.
Cremation vs burial
The human consciousness is an amalgam of concentric sheaths, and amongst these, the one closest to the physical body is called the elemental consciousness. This elemental consciousness continues to persist in the body for a few days even after the heart-beats have stopped and the soul has departed. The Mother Mirra Alfassa estimated a period of seven days for its existence, while the Bardo Thodol (Tibetan Book of the Dead) puts the duration at three and a half days. If the body is prematurely cremated before this elemental consciousness has departed, the disembodied soul receives a shock wave. It is for this reason that the Mother recommended waiting for a few days before cremation.
For ordinary humanity, it doesn’t matter whether the body is buried or cremated, but for those who have attained Enlightenment, burial is recommended because the body continues to be charged with higher vibrations long after physical death.
Purpose of funeral ceremonies
Disciple : If at the time of death the vital being is attacked in the vital world by hostile forces or entities, does it not look for a shelter somewhere ?
Mother Mirra: Yes, it is for this reason that in all countries and in all religions, it is recommended that for a period of at least seven days after someone’s death, people should gather and think of him. Because when you think of him with affection (without any inner disorder, without weeping, without any of those distraught passions), if you can be calm, your atmosphere becomes a kind of beacon for him, and when he is attacked by hostile forces (I am speaking of the vital being of course, not the psychic being which goes to take rest), he may feel altogether lost, not know what to do and find himself in great distress; then he sees through affinity the light of those who are thinking of him with affection and he rushes there. It happens almost constantly that a vital formation, a part of the vital being of the dead person (or at times the whole vital if it is well organised) takes shelter in the aura, the atmosphere of the people or the person who loved him. There are people who always carry with them a part of the vital of the person who is gone. That is the real utility of these so called ceremonies, which otherwise have no sense.
It is preferable to do this without ceremonies. Ceremonies are, if anything, rather harmful, for a very simple reason: When you are busy with a ceremony, you think more about that than about the person. When you are busy with gestures, movements, with the following of a ritual, you think much more of all that than of the person who is dead. Moreover, people perform these ceremonies most of the time for that very reason, for they are almost always in the habit of trying to forget. The fact is that one of the two principal occupations of man is to try to forget what is painful to him, and the other is to try to seek amusement in order to escape boredom. These are the two principal occupations of humanity, that is, humanity spends half of its time in doing nothing true.
And when people get bored (some do not absolutely need to keep busy, or they have the misfortune of being rich) they do silly things ! The origin of all excesses, all human stupidity is “ennui”, what is called dullness, the state in which you are like a damp rag: you do not react to anything and are compelled to whip yourself (figuratively) just to make yourself move and get along.
What exactly happens when a person who is declared clinically dead suddenly wakes up and scares the hell out of everyone ? These are some insights from Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.
Disciple : Is it possible to revitalize the dead?
Sri Aurobindo : That is possible. Just as you can revive a drowned man by pulling his physical organs into function again, that is, by resorting to physical devices life can be restored. If you know how to reintroduce the power that sets the organs to action, after the body is wounded or dead, you can revive the man.
The real question is whether it is the being of the man that comes back to life, or it is some other spirit that wants to live and gets hold of the body. Both are possible, because revival is done in two ways : One, is to bring back the spirit of the man which is still not far away, the other is to get some other spirit that consents to come.
In another Q&A, the Mother elucidates on the partial exteriorizations which provide the illusion of resurrection.
Disciple: I was seriously ill, unconscious for two hours, and I had the impression that I had gone over to the other side, that I was in a different world. When I came back to myself, I had the impression of having made a long journey in a world quite different from the one where I normally lived.
Mother: It was a partial exteriorisation; it was not a total exteriorisation which indeed causes death. If one goes out entirely, that is, if there is a complete separation from the body and one is really dead, and then one comes back, that causes such an intense suffering that one cannot forget it. It is said that babies cry when they come into the world because the first contact with air makes them cry, but I think it is something else. The re-entry into the body causes a kind of friction, for what goes out has to be something very material if it is to bring about death, something even more material than the subtle physical, and this friction is extremely painful. Otherwise one may be externally unconscious, but one is not dead for all that. It is only when something extremely material goes out of the body and all ties are broken that there is truly “death”. And that is why (I believe we are beginning to discover it) people do not die till six or seven days after their death. That is, they are not “dead” as long as the body remains intact, but only when a part of the body begins to decompose. Hence during this period, someone who has the necessary knowledge, power and capacity may “raise” a person in such a state. I believe this explains most of the cases of “miraculous” resurrection.
- The Mother. Collected Works of the Mother. vol 5, pp 215-16, 261-65.
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_eye; and Bhagavad Gita http://www.bhagavad-gita.org/Gita/verse-05-12.html.
- Sri Aurobindo. Letters on Yoga, SABCL vol. 22, p 458.
- Talks with Ramana Maharshi, Tiruvannamalai: Sri Ramanasramam, 2003, p 210.
- Mother’s Agenda. August 5, 1961.
- The Mother. Collected Works of the Mother. vol. 6, p 55.
- Tibetan Book of the Dead, Book 1, Part 1.
- Mother’s Agenda. May 28, 1960, September 7, 1968, July 4 1962, August 10, 1963.
- The Mother. Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 4, pp. 204-205.
- A.B.Purani. Evening Talks, Third Series, 16th January, 1939.
- The Mother. Collected Works of the Mother, vol. 4, p 142.
- How one can face the Death and Loss of a dear one? : from the NextFuture magazine of the Sri Aurobindo Society.
- On suicide, euthanasia, and capital punishment
- Physical marks appearing after injuries sustained in dreams
- When does the soul enter the body?
- The Aurobindonian model of Karma
- Explaining out-of-body and near-death experiences
- Does population growth invalidate reincarnation?
- Cases of reincarnation across religions
- Sri Aurobindo and the Mother on Astrology
- The existence of vital signs during sleep or coma
- Ghosts explained
- Birthmarks due to reincarnation