What Happens When We Die – Part One

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV.iv.1

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is thought to be one of the oldest of over 100 Upanishads. It is dated somewhere between the 8th and the 5th century BCE and is often said to be the most important. There are many highly intriguing verses, which in the west might be called ‘occult’ or esoteric. But surely we all have the right to know what happens when we die.

In the Bhagavad Gita (II.28), Krishna tells his friend Arjuna that death is certain for all. The beginnings of beings are unmanifest, their middles are manifest, and their ends are again unmanifest. Then he adds – Over this, what complaint?

Death comes to us all. No one escapes this experience. So let us look at what the Brihadaranyaka – the great wisdom of the forest – has to say about what happens when we die and the process of transmigration.

We all know that the physical body begins to fail and normally there are varying degrees of pain, but what is occurring in our consciousness? What is the subtle body experiencing? The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad states that the five senses move into the heart and we can no longer see with our physical eyes.

What are the five senses? In Sanskrit they are known as the indriyas and are said to be gods, deities representing specific principles of energy. Indra is the king of the gods and thus the five senses are termed indriyas. The senses are also described as tejomatrah or particles of light. Tejo represents brilliance, light and fire; and the etymology of matrah is mother.

In Kashmir Saivism the word ‘mother’ can mean the mother of all sound that generates the world. It is the power of sound that produces this entire universe. From intensely concentrated energy waves, heat and sound pour out into Space and Time. This heat and sound are not what we experience with of senses. We cannot hear this sound with our physical ear; it is said to be ‘the unstruck’ sound. These sounds are waveforms that become our senses.

“It is the particles of sound floating as ether in space that carry the light of intelligence within them, which they instill into inert matter to animate it into a living being which then enjoys life for a limited period of time.” (The Rig Veda, Shyam Ghosh)

Our five senses are described as particles of Light (tejomatrah). They are the mechanisms by which electrical impulses send messages to our brain. The world is in our brain. It is the brain that interprets these impulses according to our individual conditioning, based on various factors, including previous lives. We see only what we are capable of seeing; and we all see, hear, etc. quite differently.

Like our computers we are all programmed, and the five senses continue to program us as we move through our life. A man is what he thinks and believes. (Bhagavad Gita XVII.3)

In the heart

We are told that as we die, we lose the ability to see, hear, etc. The five senses (indriyas) move into the heart (hrdaya). We are not talking about the physical heart, but rather the heart chakra, the Anahata-chakra. When our senses move here, we are told that we lose consciousness of external forms. The subtle body wants to leave the physical one.


Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV.iv.2


In the next phase of dying, all the senses move into the Heart. The ability to see, touch, hear, taste, smell move out of the physical body and become centered in the Heart chakra, wherein resides the Soul (jiva) in the subtle body. We are no longer conscious of the external world. Our loved ones may be standing around our deathbed, but we cannot experience them through the physical body.

When the senses have all been centered in the Heart, what occurs is a burst, a flame at the top of the Heart, which creates a portal through which the Soul/Self can depart. It is said that then we can depart through any part of the body. The point of departure reflects the world (loka), as a consciousness, we are drawn to. Those who leave by the top of the head are said to be rising to the higher worlds, the heavenly ones. And naturally the lower exits lead to locations of a lower consciousness.

Whatever we have done, thought, and felt in this body will be the fuel that thrusts us toward the next. Our feelings are the primary fuel that builds the ‘fragrances’ (Bhagavad Gita XV.8) we carry with us from one life to another.

In Sanskrit these accumulated impressions are known as Samskaras or Vasanas.  They are like self-generated magnets that compel us into the next temporal illusory hologram. Thus we move from body to body in the endless quest of fulfilling our own desires – until we Remember that we are the God-within and not these temporal identities that drag us though Time and Space. When we are tired of playing, we begin the adventure of waking up to what is Real!


Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV.iv.3


These impressions, Samskaras or Vasanas, carry what we have experienced, what we have learned, what we know. It is obvious that some are born with great talent, gifted in math, music, or art, while some are born ‘leaders’ and those around them recognize their destiny. These skills were acquired in other lives and it seems that little or no effort is required to utilize them.

“The soul goes from the body accompanied by the mind, the vital force, the senses, knowledge and the subtle elements.” (Sivananda)

Those who ‘speak’ with the dead report them saying that they are exactly the same person as they were when they occupied their body. There is no change. You remain you, made up of whatever you have achieved, whatever cumulative consciousness you have become.

The precise frequency of your consciousness, as a collection of your experiences, feelings, and knowledge will propel you to various planes, other realms, until you are pulled by your own proclivities back into a physical body.

Those who are attached to the ancestors, the manes, meaning their genetic lineages, the clan, race or tribe, will be drawn into those correlate worlds (lokas). According to the verse, there are worlds of music (gandharvam) and many others. There are heavenly and not so heavenly worlds. Those who are intensely attached to their own delusions of anger and greed can fall into “unclean” worlds, hells (Bhagavad Gita XVI.16). Based on our consciousness at the time of death, we go to our own belief systems.



The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Swami Krishnananda; The Divine Life Society, Uttaranchal, Himalayas, India, 2006.

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, commentary of Sankaracarya, translated by Swami Madhavananda; Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata, India, 2004.

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Commentary of Sri Madhvacarya, Translated by Rai Bahdur Srisachandra Vasu Vidyarnava; Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, Varanasi, India, 2001.

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Swami Sivananda; The Divine Life Society, Uttaranchal, Himalayas, India, 2002.

The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad; in The Upanishads, A New Translation by Swami Nikhilananda, Vol. III; Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, New York, 1990.

Siva Sutras, The Yoga of Supreme Identity, translated by Jaideva Singh; Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, Delhi, India, 1991.

The Gods of India, Hindu Polytheism, by Alain Danielou; Inner Traditions International Ltd., 1985.

The Bhagavadgita in the Mahabharata, translated by J.A.B. van Buitenen; The University of Chicago Press, 1981.




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