This is the problem confronting man from the moment he takes birth. And from the beginning of time man has been thinking of this problem. Man alone among all created beings can think. Manava is one endowed with ‘manas’ (mind). And mind can only think. Man has thought, explored and solved many riddles. But all this is not of so much importance as this riddle of life and death is. The Upanishads again and again face this question. The whole of Kathopanishad is concerned with this question. Nachiketa confronted the deity of death himself with this question which is a matter of life and death. He wanted to hear from the very horse’s mouth. As if this is not enough Sanatsujaateeya in the Mahabharata dealt with this in great detail. In the Chandogya and the Brihadaranyaka death is discussed elaborately. For that matter, the Bhagavadgita is taught to man (Nara) with the main objective of resolving this riddle.

Whatever the discussions, it continues to vex man. We see men dying and taking birth. But we do not see what happen after man dies. Ninety per cent of the philosophical doctrines have not been able to give a satisfactory explanation of this postmortem phenomenon . Only advaita boldly confronted this question and found the answer to it. Advaitins alone have been successful in giving a satisfactory answer to this question. What is the answer ? While birth, death, worlds beyond and rebirth are all real from one point of view, these are not in fact real from the advaita, non-dualism. If you view things with difference as atma and anatma, these are real. What is anatma ? Whatever is the object of your knowledge is anatma. And atma is what knows, the subject. What you call a creation, the creatures, and the creator are all objects of your knowledge. They are not the subject, not the atma which is knowledge itself.

As long as you perceive the difference between atma (self) and anatma (non-self), you and your problems of life, death and rebirth are real. Your very questions about life and death presuppose that you think they are different from you. And because you think, they seem to be different from you. For, the very nature of mind is to create difference (dvaitam manas sarvam). And when it perceives difference it is restless in trying to resolve the differences. And the mind is not one. There are as many minds as there are men. And each mind finds answers in its own way. Great minds do not think alike. ('mahaa muneenanaam matayascha bhinnah). Also, the same mind, does not think tomorrow what it thinks today. The mind’s reach is also limited and is not perfect. So, some say there is nothing beyond death. Some say there are worlds beyond this to which the creatures go after their death from where they return, are reborn. Some say there are other worlds, but deny rebirth. Some say men are reborn as better beings, while some say that they may, depending on the merits or demerits of their deeds take worse, meaner births. Thus there are differing accounts of death and rebirth. The mythological works (puranas) give very detailed descriptions of heaven and hell, the paths bright and dark, the experiences in those various worlds, and finally what births they will have to take returning to this world of Karma. All these details of experiences and their solutions are only in the dualist perception.If we take them to be real, all the rituals prescribed from birth to death and are indispensable. The body will fall but the soul will not. One leaves the body and begins his journey to whatever world he is destined, determined by his deeds, to go. And before he takes another body all the rituals prescribed for him will have to be performed by us. The result of that performance will reach the departed soul. All this becomes inevitable. However if you can perceive from the non-dualist position, all this that has been said ceases to be real. You realise all this is unreal, because in the non-dualist perception everything is but the self, atma. There is no world that is non-self. All is self. I am all. There is no world, this or beyond. There is no creatures other than myself. And there is no Iswara, who overrules all this. All, Jiva, jagat and Iswara, merge in the self. Where then are birth and death ? They are forms of myself. Even if they are supposed to belong to me there is no harm, for they are but stages of my self. stages will pass, but the self does not undergo any change. You throw a stone in the still waters of a tank. There is movement in the waters. After a little while the water returns to its stillness. There is no harm to the waters. Ripples come and go. The waters neither swell nor shrink.

Similarly death and birth are stages and are not the essence of the self. Jiva’s essence is consciousness. The essence does not come and go. It is always there. It continues to flow from birth to death. There is no change in it. My body moves, my senses move, thoughts come and disappear in my mind. All these movements are ever being watched by the I-consciousness. This I-consciousness is constant. It does not come and pass like the changes it is watching. So, birth and death belong to the body, not to the consciousness. Death should thus be seen as the death of the body, and not of the consciousness. The unseen has to be understood in the light of the seen. The coming and going of the body is what we see. And we also see how the consciousness remains unaffected by what is happening to the body. Birth and death are only changes. How can the witness of change change itself ? How can there be death when there is no change. The truth is we exist before death and continue to exist after death. That is what the Gita is saying “Na asato vidyate bhavo na abhavo vidyate satah” What is not can never appear, what is can never disappear. What may happen is that what has been unmanifest, may manifest, and the manifest may recede into the unmanifest. The sun now shines in the sky. In the evening we do not see it. It is not the sun’s death. It is seen in other parts of the world. We ourselves see the sun again the next morning. It is not reborn. The sunrise is not birth and the sunset is not death. They should be called the manifest and the unmanifest states of the same sun. In the beginning it was unmanifest. And then it manifested itself. And again it recedes into the unmanifest state. But in all the three stages it is. It is invisible in the first and the third stages. It is visible and manifest in the middle. This is what the Gita is saying ‘avyaktadini bhutani vyaktamadhyani bharata, avyakta nidhananyeva...'

So, it is these manifest and the unmanifest that we call birth and death. When a Jiva is born it does not mean that something that never existed before has emerged anew. Also, when a person dies it does not mean that he is totally lost. How can he appear when he never existed before ? He was certainly there but in a subtle form. Similarly when he dies he does not vanish into nothingness. He continues in the subtle form. It is really the body that dies when the jiva leaves it, not the Jiva, says the upanishad.

But even from the point of view of the Jiva, birth and death are not in fact real. Jiva is there while doing the deeds and he is there to experience their fruits. He takes a body to do the deeds. And for doing them he is in that body for a length of time. When his allotted fruits for the life are exhausted he departs for some other worlds and returns in another body. So, the Jiva is there before taking a body and after leaving it. Where then does he cease to be and where reemerge ? So, birth and death are not for the Jiva but for the body it gets in and leaves. However, as the I-consciousness attaches itself to the body, when this gross body falls, the Jiva continues to attach itself to the subtle body, that is mind and prana. As this body is not visible like the gross and with flesh and blood it is called the subtle body. This is where the Jiva can be caught and so it is also called the linga sarira. When the gross body falls the subtle emerges, and with it emerges the Jiva.

It is this that we call departure (utkramana). Mind shows the way and prana walks the talk. It takes the Jiva to the destined worlds (‘karmana pitru loka’) Those that perform mere deeds go through the dark path to the world of manes. Those that worship the deities reach through the bright path, the respective worlds of deities they had worshipped (vidyaya devalokah). Those who had done neither of these two and had performed prohibited deeds will go to various hells like rourava. In the worlds of deities they have bodies of enjoyment, and in the hells bodies of torture. Until they exhaust the fruits in those worlds there is an unseen link between them and us who are living in this world of Karma. We are indebted to them due to the blood we share with those in the same family line. Because of hunger and thirst arising out of the link with our prana, we owe it to them to offer them oblations of food and water. As they are devoid of the gross body and are naked in the form of air. We imagine that they require too the offering of cloth to cover them.

All this comes under dharma, one of the four purusharthas. Dharma is what holds ('dhru', to hold). Karma,the fruits of Karma,and the experiencing of the fruits cling to us. As long as these are there the jivahood is inevitable. As long as there is the Jivahood, it cannot be said that the Jiva has birth and death. If he dies, who is it that goes to the other worlds and experiences pleasure and pain in those worlds ? And if he dies, how can he be born again ? Some are born in the form of some creatures and some in the form of lifeless things. So, as soon as the fruits allotted for the life have been exhausted, the body must fall, but the owner of the body does not die. The gross will go but the subtle survives. The subtle will not go as long as there is the causal body (karana sarira). This too should die.What is this causal body ? It is but the nescience, the absence of awareness. What is awareness?It is to be aware of the non-difference of the self into self and non-self. When this awareness is lost, the difference arises, and with it the Jiva-hood and birth and death.

Therefore, if this perception of difference is given up and the non-differential perspective is practised, that is awareness. In the state of nescience, Jiva, birth and death – all these are real. In awareness none of these exist. They are real in the state of nescience because of the attachment with the upadhis of mind and prana, the cause of birth and death, although these are not true (paramarthika), they are real in the realm of practical life (vyavaharika). And because of this attachment with upadhis, the upadhis too seem to be of the self. And so are birth and death deemed to be of the self. It is therefore said that ‘the bodiless is deathless’ (‘asariram amritam’). When it is bodiless, there is no question of death, and no departure of prana (na tasya prana utkaramanti). They subside in consciousness as waves do in the ocean they arise in. We see people die in different ways. But the journey after death is the same for all, though in four different paths. What are those four paths ? Those that have led very wicked lives go to hell. Those that hve performed prescribed duties go to the world of manes (pitru loka). Those that have worshipped different deities go to the worlds of those deities. The fourth class who have worshipped Brahman with form (saguna brahman) go straight to satyaloka And this last class of people do not take birth again. They join brahma, the cereator, in the practice of the awareness of the formless and are liberated. This is called gradual liberation (krama mukti). The rest are bound to return to this world.

Apart from these four classes, there are another class of people, the awakened (jnanis). They see nothing but their self everywhere, and in everything. For them, Jiva, Jagat and Iswara are but the self. All is self, nothing selfish. He is all, and nothing is his. Where then is the question of death and birth ? It is only in movement these changes are possible. To move is to leave one and catch another. When all is self, what to leave and what to catch ? Every thing subsides in the self, like waves in the ocean. It is for this reason it can be said that in the case of a jnani there is no leaving the body. Self is being, and there can be no becoming in the case of jnani.

But the jnani also is seen to die like any other person. How do you explain this. This has to be understood with caution. It is true that there is death but it is not the jnani who dies. It is his upadhi – his psycho-physical constituent. This is but a disguise of his consciousness. If consciousness is the light, this psycho-physical constituent is its shadow. The shadow has no separate existence. If light is thrown on it, it merges in the light. It is only in the absence of light on it that it looks different from it. The jnani considers his life as only of the form of light, and whatever is seen in that light is seen by him as part of the illumination around it. To him there is no darkness, which means that there is only the self and no non-self. It is only the delusion of the worldly people who see him and his body as different. But to the jnani all is his self. When we watch a noun, we see waves, bubbles, foam and frost. It is our view. But to the sea it is all its self, just water.

Even if the differences are indeed perceived, there is no harm. For these have no separate existence from itself. Our dream is a useful illustration. We see a varied world of things in the dream. Where is this world in fact ? It is nowhere. It is all our own self. It is only in the absence of awareness of one’s essence, knowledge seems to be the known. It also brings with it happiness and unhappiness. The same thing viewed with awareness of the non-difference, the known merges in knowledge and results in self-realisation. So, these ideas of birth and death are an illusion like a dream. They have no real existence. Their life is in self realisgtion. So, these ides of birth and death are an illusion like a dream. They have no real existence. Their life is in us. Therefore it is only in the eyes of the ignorant that all the motions of dharma and adharma, worlds, rebirths, happiness and unhappiness exist. From the jnani’s viewpoint these do not exist. Difference is in our perception, not in creation one should understand this, and taking the aid of the scriptures and the teacher, practising listening and meditating on their instruction, should strive to perceive everything as of the very nature of self and transcened birth and death. He would be unattached, liberated, fulfilled and honoured in the three worlds.