What Happens When We Die – Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV.iv

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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.

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What Happens When We Die – Part Two

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV.iv.4 & 5

The One dwells in the Heart of all beings (Bhagavad Gita XV.8). Your soul is an ‘apparent’ portion of the eternal ubiquitous imperishable immutable One – this life is only the appearance of separateness, a temporary perception, as the One remains one. The soul is called the Self/Atman and when it departs the current body it does so in the vehicle of the subtle body (puryastaka).  The subtle body retains the mind and the five senses that operate through the physical body, and the subtle elements that produce it.

Abhinavagupta, Bhagavad Gita

As gold can be melted and one ornament transformed into another, so our new physical bodies are created from the subtle elements and reflect the impressions (samskaras) of our previous lives, those ‘fragrances’ we carry with us as the wind carries the scents of a garden (Bh.G.XV.8).

We are the One

This Self/Atman that transmigrates from one body to another, via the subtle body, is none other than the all pervading One. That which seems far away is in truth, ever so near in the Heart. Even as portions of the One, our essence is never lost. We are always part of the imperishable totality that is our source.

In this, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad text, the One is termed Brahman. Brahman is not the deity Brahma, who is the Creator god and generally depicted as a wise old man sailing about the cosmos in a perfect lotus.

Brahman is the principle of Fullness that creates Space and Time. The universe cannot exist without space and time. Brahman is the great Immensity, the equilibrium between the centripetal and the centrifugal, between concentration and dispersion, between the forces of creation and those of destruction, between light and the darkness. Brahman is the principle of Space-Time. (Alain Danielou)

The Self-Atman is Brahman. We are that Brahman!

The Subtle Body – Puryashtaka

As the soul leaves the body, it can no longer use the data-collecting mechanisms of the physical body, i.e. the five senses, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touch. The subtle body (puryashtaka) is our vehicle between lives. It functions as a magnet and attracts whatever it resonates with – like attracts like. Whatever we have thought, whatever acts we have done while in the physical body generated the impressions (samskaras), which have formed the subtle body.

The subtle body is made up of desires (kama). The One manifested this universe to play. This ‘play’ or the Divine Lila, as it is called in Sanskrit, exists for the fulfillment of our desires. As long as you want to play in Space-Time, you will return through endless cycles of death and births (samsara) to fulfill your dreams.

Desire (kama) is the powerful driving force fueling your continued existence in this universe. Kama is often depicted as a deity who is not easily overcome by the puny human mind. Our desires constantly delude us. Essentially, we can rationalize anything we want.

It takes a great will to overwhelm the desires that are programmed into our DNA. Sometimes they lie latent for life times, even in the most advanced souls. Sometimes as you reach the end of your journey Home, they are fulfilled in the most surprising manner, and once fulfilled they can be easily renounced.

All acts are born of desire (kama) and every act leaves an imprint on and subtly alters the DNA, thereby passing on through the generations of bodies, corporal forms allowing every kind of experience. The soul (Atma) transmigrates to those bodies it resonates with based on similarity of consciousness and utilizes the DNA to create a fresh holographic reality.

The subtle body carries these desires. Eventually through experience, we come to understand that no desire can fulfill. What we were desperately seeking externally, resides within us from the start.

The Pain of Death

The amount of pain experienced at the time of death is said to reflect the level of attachment to those desires that have been driving us throughout life. Individuals who are holding onto to the anguish of unfulfilled desires are said to endure greater pain.

This is one reason why forgiveness is often urged at the time of death. Those who are stuck in the desire of exacting revenge on others are themselves more vulnerable to suffering. We all know that some pass peacefully, while others suffer in agony. Desires based in greed, anger and hatred produce great pain.

The path to a painless death is said to be renunciation of desire. The more you “let go” of your attachment to things and people based on your attitude towards them, the less painful will the moments of your death be.

The letting go of your desires, and not wanting anything, is not likely to occur at the last moment of your life unless your have cultivated this understanding via your thoughts. This consciousness of non-attachment develops over time in the mental renunciation of all desires, through practice and your actions in daily life.

What you do in every moment every day contributes to the totality of your consciousness. That totality generates the quality of your death and the location you will find yourself in after you leave this plane. 

The Objects of the Senses

The physical body operates through the five senses, which transmit information to the brain via electrical impulse. The five senses are always searching for an object of desire and in the Sanskrit texts, objects themselves are often referred to as “the Objects of the Senses.” This phrase encourages us to recondition our thinking into a higher understanding, which leads to wisdom and liberation.

“The object also promises a tentative satisfaction on account of the misconceived affection which the senses have for the object. But no object can satisfy any sense, because the senses are mere agents of the desires that exist inside. The senses themselves are not responsible for our bondage. They are used as tools …”  (Krishnananda)

We have forgotten who we are. We have forgotten the God-within us. We have become identified with our desires and their objects of the senses. We are deluded, lost. In this state we transmigrate endlessly in the ocean of death and birth (samsara).

We are like children playing in the twilight. The night is coming and our Mother calls us to come inside. We sigh and beg – “Only a few more minutes, Mom.” And wisely our Mother allows us more time, until we see the darkness moving in and weary of playing, come inside. It is up to each one of us to decide when to come Home.

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What Happens When We Die – Part Three

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV.iv.6

From the previous verses we have understood that when we leave the body we take a subtle form of the mind and the five senses with us. After their death, people realize that they are the same person as when they were in their body; only they can no longer use the body to interact with the living. They can see and hear us, even though most of the living cannot see and hear them. They have become invisible, and they cannot touch or taste anything in this material plane.

The subtle body is made up our desires, and the five senses are the mechanisms through which we fulfill those desires. Thus the subtle body requires the mind and the senses to experience the various worlds we are drawn towards after one life has ended – heavens and otherwise. The subtle body, its desires and the technology of the mind & its senses will also draw us into our next incarnation as we transmigrate through Space-Time.

“The mind, which is the ruling principle in the subtle body, carries with it the results of its actions…” (Krishnananda). We cannot shake off anything we have done; and those acts, which are the expressions of desire, must find completion in a new lifetime and a fresh body. For example, we may for a time find ourselves in bodies made up of light. There are myriad worlds in which we can exhaust the results of our actions. However, eventually we return here to this world, the earth plane, because this world is the microcosm of all the others.

Liberated from Desire

Those who are attached to the results of their acts are caught up in endless cycles of transmigration. But what of the few who have come to the end of their desires, who are weary and long to return to their Source? The few who understand that everything in this universe is God, and who have therefore become solely devoted to the Self, the God-within, they have no desire other than the Self/Atman. They experience death in a very different manner.

When you Know as experiential knowing that God pervades and permeates the All, then temporal desires cease to compel you. You simply lose interest. You are no longer ‘owned’ by the objects of the senses. No external and material things can hold our interest in the best of circumstances.

Why would you want to possess incremental fragments of this universe when you are Becoming the Creator of it? Real gold lies within in the Heart. Real happiness and fulfillment are within each and every one of us, waiting for us to turn inward, to Remember who we are.

“Desire cannot be satisfied unless it is directed to the Self … If your desire is for anything other than the Self, it is not going to be fulfilled, because you are asking for that which is not there.” (Krishnananda)

It is not there. Everything you are experiencing with the mind & senses is your own self-generated temporal illusory hologram. The world of desire is not the Real. When you understand and shift your consciousness into this higher, deeper Truth, you lose interest in external desires.

You only desire the God-within you. This frees you from all other desires, which will literally back away from you. Freedom is salvation! Once you have seen the Real, the objects of the senses turn away from you (Bh.G.II.59). You have lost interest and therefore you no longer magnetize them into your consciousness. We only think about what we want.

There is no need to act – and no need not-to-act (Bh.G.III.17). We no longer need other people (Bh.G.III.18). We have Become that which is the Source of every person and thing. All our desires are fulfilled because we have Become “merged in the Universal Self” (Krishnananda). As desire-less beings, we no longer need the vehicle of the subtle body, the mind & the senses. We do not require a new data-collecting vehicle to inhabit in order to work out our previous actions.

We are liberated from the illusions we have created to play in. Our subtle body and its mechanisms get dissolved “like bubbles in an ocean”. (Krishnananda)

Why are we driven by Desire?

All of us to one degree or another are ‘owned’ by what we want. At times it seems that our possessions own us far more than we own them. Who has not experienced wanting some thing or someone for what seems like an eternity and then once we have gotten the thing or the person, we slowly but surely lose interest. Our passion for it fades. What is it that drives us to want what never can fulfill us anyway? Are we just stupid?

There is a terrible longing in all of us. This longing gets masked and confused as the need for power and possessions.  Our consciousness becomes deluded as to the real nature of the longing, and it is transferred and projected out into the external. We want lovers, gold, power, attention and praise.

Most humans idolize the rich and famous, and yet how often do we learn that so many of our idols are never satisfied. The stories of beautiful unhappy women are endless. Great athletes, politicians, and financial wizards are never what they appear to be – and occasionally worse than we could imagine. As long as the media can make money off these people, they will continue to be raised up and then vilified; but it is only about profit.

What are we missing? An earlier verse in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (II.iv.5) answers this question and is interpreted beautifully by the astutely wise Krishnananda. Everything is consciousness. The mind is nothing more than a state of consciousness that has been formed over many lifetimes. Its job is to allow the soul to explore the adventure of Space-Time through the senses. The mind is made up of defined proclivities that draw its attention to specific objects or people. The mind is directed outwards to the external.

As we progress over many lifetimes through the Cycles of Time, the external, the temporal illusory hologram we ourselves have projected, distracts us. We forget that we are the creators of all this. We lose our Joy, that sublime feeling of being immersed in the God-within us. We begin to feel isolated and alone. The emptiness inside of us grows and we flail around seeking anything that will ease that restless ache.

As we transmigrate from one body to another, we long to fill that yearning. When our desires cannot be realized, we become angry. Desire (kama) and anger (kroda) go hand-in-hand. Anger leads to more delusion, to hatred, to war, and the litany of greed and violence that make up our written human history, the last 6000 years.

We have forgotten that we are the Source of all we seek. We have forgotten the God-within. The form our mind’s consciousness has taken is the cause, the reason we are magnetized to one object or person and not another. We all are attracted by a wide variety of different objects of desire. In astrology this is easy to see. We are constructed to have certain likes and dislikes based in our past life experiences, those fragrances, impressions (samskaras) that follow us down the pathways of Time.

The person we fall in love with holds the promise of fulfilling our emptiness. But this can never be. For what we want is ‘completeness of being’ (Krishnananda), not the person or object. They too are seeking this ‘completeness’ and so how would they be able to give it you? There is a temporary satisfaction, which is merely the result of the feeling that we have won the thing. This never lasts.

“… nothing external can give you happiness … You have missed the point in asking for the things of the world. … it is a wild goose chase from birth to death …” (Krishnananda)

Everything in the external world will leave you. This is inevitably a world of sorrow, the proverbial valley of the shadow of death. The people you love will die, you will die, and thus lose the possessions you have sold your soul for. There is something particularly insidious and evil about advertising in this regard, as people cannot be urged to conspicuous and compulsive consumption when they have recognized this truth. Things promise us eternal youth?

We do not understand that finite objects “are only appearances of a single Reality” (Krishnananda) which we in fact are!

V. Susan Ferguson / 2010

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