Hinduism and the God of Death
Philosophically speaking, according to the tenets of Hinduism, death is an inevitable but transitory aspect of life upon earth. It is a modification to which all the mortal beings are subject. According to our beliefs, the Self (atma) is immortal, but the body is mortal. It is subject to aging, decay and death. At the time of death, the Self departs from the body through the arteries in the heart and an opening at the top of the head into the air. From there, it goes to the mid-region (antariksha).
Usually, the embodied soul does not leave the body alone, but with a residual subtle body or a casual body (karana chitta), made up of latent impressions, past life memories, habitual thoughts and predominant desires. It is further accompanied by all the divinities who reside in body in the sense organs, breath, speech, intelligence, etc. Upon reaching the mid-region, the casual body becomes separated from the divinities, as they return to their respective spheres. Along with the casual body, the soul then travels to the ancestral world which is located in the moon.
In the ancestral world, the departed self has to build a body of its own with the help of the offerings of food it receives from rituals performed in the aftermath of its departure. If it does not receive the offerings, it will not be able to stay there for long and returns to the earth through rain and enters into another body by joining the semen and through that into a womb.
This in brief is the journey of a bound Self to the ancestral world upon death. From spiritual perspective, this is really not a great option because it results in rebirth and continuation of one's existence in the mortal world in another form. The better option suggested in the Vedas is liberation. In case of a liberated being, the Self travels by a different path called the Deva Yana (the path of the gods) to the world of Brahman. Thus, for a bound Self, death is a temporary phase, like deep sleep, at the end which it returns to the earth and assumes a new body as if it were a new cloth.
In the world of Brahman, the liberated souls remain in their purest state, without any corporeality. Since they become freed from the cycle of births and deaths, they eternally remain in the immortal world as freed souls (muktas). In that state, they possess the same consciousness as that of Brahman and do not experience any duality or distinction. Thus, for a liberated soul, death is a permanent release from the mortal world, materiality, duality and delusion.
What we have discussed so far is common knowledge. Many people, who read the Upanishads or the Bhagavadgita should be familiar with these basics. However, what many Hindus do not know is that the Vedas and the Upanishads view the world in which we live as Death itself.
Yes, Death is the God who rules this world. Not the benign kind, or the compassionate one, but the most fearsome deity., who knows no mercy, no love and no exceptions. To escape from His jaws and frightening teeth, you have to run hard, work hard, and practice virtue and austerities to achieve liberation.
The other names that are given to this terrible Deity are Time (Kala) and Viraj. He is also equated variously in the scriptures with Brahma, Vishnu, Prajapati and Siva or Rudra. You might have seen the pleasant forms of these gods. But Death does not have a pleasant form. No, sir. As Kala, He is more like Kali, His female version. An awesome but fearsome Being, the Great Purusha of reddish hue with blood curdling eyes who devours beings with insatiable hunger because it is His duty to keep time and the cycle of births and deaths moving.
Viraj is the third manifestation of Brahman in creation. His first manifestation is Isvara. His second manifestation is Hiranyagarbha, (golden germ or egg) and third manifestation is Viraj. If Isvara is the Cosmic Self who appears in creation as the reflection of Brahman in sattva, Hiranyagarbha is the subtle body that appears as the reflection of Brahman in rajas and Viraj is the gross body that appears as the reflection of Brahman in tamas. These three entities, more or less, are the triple functional aspects of Manifested Brahman.
They are present in us also. Isvara is the inner Self. Hiranyagarbha is the subtle body made up of breath and space. Viraj is the gross body made up of earth, fire and water. It is the concept of Viraj that draws our attention because this Deity is the personification of Death. He is not very pleasant to think of. He is a deity of fierce form because He keeps devouring everything. The whole world is His food, which He devours relentlessly. This knowledge is important because it has great philosophical and spiritual significance.
Think of it. We are usually afraid of death. We want to avoid it or run away from it. But how can we ever escape death, when we live in the very body of Death? How can we turn away from death when it envelops us from all sides and pervades our whole being? Is there a time we are ever separate from it as long as we live on earth and bound to Nature? Absolutely not.
Until we achieve liberation from the cycle of births and deaths, Death remains our presiding deity. Such a realization should instill in us either a sense of despair or complete indifference arising from detachment and resignation. It must be unnerving for anyone who realizes that the God who controls this world is very fierce and unpleasant to look at. He is bound by duty and shows no distinction or favor. He dispenses justice through death, in death and with death.
Many people think that the God who appeared to Arjuna in the middle of the battlefield was the Supreme Self in a pleasant form which they usually see in the images of Lord Krishna. The truth is what Arjuna saw was Viraj in the most terrible form of Death or Kala. This is very explicitly stated in the scripture itself.
We usually see fierce images of Kali but not Kala. Therefore we do not know what these two deities and their forms actually stand for. Arjuna saw Death everywhere, hidden in every aspect of creation. He saw Death devouring the world relentlessly bound by duty (dharma).
He saw that entire Army of the two sides was marching in a single column into the mouth of Death and getting crushed between His blood soaked teeth. Arjuna could not stand that vision of God, even though he knew that it was Lord Krishna who was showing him that form. He became so afraid of the form and actions of Death that he begged Lord Krishna to return to his pleasant form.
Every Hindu, who has a spiritual bent of mind and interested in salvation, should pay attention to this aspect of God. One should contemplate upon the truth that we live in a world, which is the personification of Death, controlled by Death and devoured by Death.
One should also realize that since God manifests in this world as Death, whoever surrenders to God out of duty or devotion also surrenders to Death. Surrendering to Death means, you stop resisting it or avoiding it. You take it in your stride, accept its role in your life and this world as an essential and inseparable part of creation. You will acknowledge that eventually everyone has to pass through the jaws of death. Those who understand its true significance give up attachment to life and renounce their longing for it. Overcoming the longing for life is also considered the highest virtue in the yoga tradition. Desire for living or longing for life is the strongest desire. When we overcome it, all fear goes away.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- Death and Afterlife in Hinduism
- Hinduism And The Law of Karma
- The Bhagavadgita on Karma, the Law of Actions
- Jainism and the Concept of Karma
- The Concept Of Karma Or The Law Of Action In Hinduism
- The Concept Of Karma or Kamma In Buddhism, Part 1
- Principles and practice of karma yoga
- Karma Yoga, the Yoga of Action
- The concepts of Hinduism: karma
- Prisoners of Karma A Story by Suvimalee Karunaratna
- The Concept of Atman or Eternal Soul in Hinduism
- The Problem of Maya Or Illusion and How To Deal With It
- Belief In Atman, The Eternal Soul Or The Inner Self
- Brahman, The Highest God Of Hinduism
- The Bhagavad Gita Original Translations
- The Bhagavadgita, Philosophy and Concepts
- Bhakti yoga or the Yoga of Devotion
- Hinduism And The Evolution of Life And Consciousness
- Why to Study the Bhagavadgita Parts 1 to 4
- Origin, Definition and Introduction to Hinduism
- Symbolic Significance of Numbers in Hinduism
- The Belief of Reincarnation of Soul in Hinduism
- The True Meaning Of Renunciation According To Hinduism
- The Symbolic Significance of Puja Or Worship In Hinduism
- Introduction to the Upanishads of Hinduism
- Origin, Principles, Practice and Types of Yoga