"The Wheel of Birth and Death" (SB 3.30.15)
Thompson examines the descriptions offered by this verse regarding the inevitable difficulties of old age, and follows with a discussion of near-death experiences, referencing Eastern concepts of karmic reaction and the transmigration of conditional souls. According to Thompson, a central reason Vedic literature stresses such points is to induce human beings to seriously consider their proclivity to experience tangible spiritual reality.
TRANSCRIPT: Srimad-Bhagavatam, Canto 3, Chapter 30, Text 15. “The Wheel of Birth and Death.” San Diego – August 1993 / (524)
Thus he remains at home just like a pet dog and eats whatever is so negligently given to him. Afflicted with many illnesses, such as dyspepsia and loss of appetite, he eats only very small morsels of food, and he becomes an invalid, who cannot work anymore.
Before meeting death one is sure to become a diseased invalid and when he has neglected by his family members, his life becomes less than a dog's, because he is put into so many miserable conditions. Vedic literatures enjoin, therefore, that before the arrival of such miserable conditions, one should leave home and die without the knowledge of his family members. If a man leaves home and dies without his family's knowing, that is considered to be a glorious death. But an attached family man wants his family members to carry him in a great procession even after his death, and although he will not be able to see how the procession goes, he still desires that his body be taken gorgeously in procession. Thus he is happy without even knowing where he has to go when he leaves his body for the next life.
cakṣur unmīlitaṁ yena
tasmai śrī-gurave namaḥ
śrī-caitanya-mano-'bhīṣṭaṁ sthāpitaṁ yena bhū-tale
svayaṁ rūpaḥ kadā mahyaṁ dadāti sva-padāntikam.
So the translation again:
Thus he remains at home just like a pet dog and eats whatever is so negligently given to him. Afflicted with many illnesses, such as dyspepsia and loss of appetite, he eats only very small morsels of food, and he becomes an invalid, who cannot work anymore.
So, alright folks. This is what is in store for you. This is meant as inducement for taking spiritual life seriously. It's pretty good inducement also. These descriptions are reasonably accurate. One can learn about these things by considering grandparents. That's one way to do it. Later on, you can do the same thing using parents as the example. But of course, this is describing a person I suppose in the Vedic situation where they had extended families and an old person could remain within the family and be taken care of and given some degree of honor. That's more or less the traditional system. But of course today in the United States, we have the nursing home.
So, when you get a bit old and dysfunctional, then you'll be placed in a home. And the situation there is very attractive – various old people are sitting around and basically their aim in life is to get older up to the point when they finally die. And meanwhile, they can play bridge and watch soap operas. There's little else that they can do. Sometimes when it's a nice sunny morning the attendants will wheel them in their wheelchairs out into the front yard where they can sit in the sun for a while, and then wheel them back in where they can play bridge some more.
Typically, the process of inevitable decline unto death is aided by the development of extreme mental depression. Depression actually aids and abets the disease process. When a person is depressed they decline more quickly. And very often people in these situations do become quite depressed because there's nothing left in their life. Everything is finished. There's literally nothing to look forward to except dying. So such people in fact typically wind up wanting to die because may as well get it over with. So that's the situation in the nursing homes.
Vedic literature tends to stress this phenomenon of old age and death in order to induce a person to take seriously the requirement of advancing in spiritual life. When one is young and one's senses are working more or less properly, one will feel so many inducements to material enjoyment. And one can undertake so many different programs of material activity developing home and family and all that sort of thing, and it seems very attractive. But the result is one simply becomes entangled with so many different complex situations and time goes on and gradually the body gets older and older and inexorably the senses cease to function so well and one finds oneself in the situation of imminent death. So, this is being described here.
I've observed these various conditions. There was a time period, maybe about two decades ago, when I was attending funerals regularly. The older generation was dying off. They were dying off like flies really, and it seemed every few months I was going to another funeral and there were the inevitable comments: He looks like he's just sleeping. Somehow they always say that. Except in one case when one relative commented, he looks dead. Apparently the undertakers in that case had not been quite as expert in preparing the body.
What Srila Prabhupada says here about wanting to be taken gloriously in a procession does seem to hold true except that of course in this country we have the men in black, the undertakers who... some of them are quite interesting also. One as I recall had palsy. So as he went through his different functions his hands were continuously quivering and they were blotchy and distorted looking and so forth, appropriate, and of course it was in a home where you had all these coffins in which the inside of the coffin has all this fancy crenellated cloth and silk and so forth. Very fancy. One can only imagine what it looks like as the body begins to decay. But anyway... one can go into the description.
There will be successive verses here that describe what happens. I've also seen what happens in the next verse that's coming up, including the ghura-ghura sound. You can also... it's fair to say you can see when the soul leaves the body too. At a certain point, up to a certain point it seems to be a living person. And then the eyes become glassy and you definitely have the impression that this is not a living person anymore. The moment of death has come. It's interesting. One can say this is a subjective response to the physiological development. But it certainly looks that way.
So, of course this section of the Bhagavatam is going to describe what can happen after death if one is a sinful person. So it's bad enough that one's life is ultimately hopeless, that eventually everything is going to be lost, and any material possessions that you have are a fruitless glory. You may be living in a house with so many very nice things but when your body completely deteriorates, what is the use of it? It's more or less a mockery. But for persons who indulged in sinful activities, then the next stage is after they die they are met by the messengers of Yamaraja. So this is described. So according to the Vedic understanding, of course, the living being is actually the spirit soul. So since the spirit soul is eternally existing, when the body dies the spirit soul must continue to exist in some situation. So this means that there is a necessity for a sort of universal administrative system to take care of placing spirit souls in different situations.
You can just imagine how many bodies are dying at any given period in time even in the.... let's see. Let's see, you can do a pretty quick calculation. Let's say there are 4 billion people. Let's say they live 80 years apiece. So that would say... what do you have there? Well, 50 million people a year on the average have to die. Wouldn't that be about right? If you got 80 years apiece and 4 billion people, then you've got a death rate of about 50 million a year at that rate. Assuming they all live to 80. So divide that by 365 and you can figure out how many people are dying per day, then you can convert that into hours and minutes. So it's quite a few. So, this is going on. This is just in the human species, of course, there are other species of life as well.
So, whenever an organism dies the spirit soul has to go to another destination. So, this is all under higher control. It doesn't just happen by chance or by some physical process but administration is required to basically administer the law of karma. So that spirit souls having different appropriate destinations are put in the appropriate situation. So this involves a very elaborate system. So for the sinful personalities, there is Yamaraja and his servants. This is described in some detail in the Bhagavatam. The present Yamaraja – of course, Yamaraja is a post, and different individual living beings can occupy that post. It's just like becoming president in a country for a given period of time. So the present Yamaraja is the son of Vivasvan, the sun-god, and his sister interestingly enough is Yamuna, of the river Yamuna in India, interestingly.
So, Yamaraja has the... he's a very high placed deva, or demigod, and he has the task of judging the sinful persons. So these persons are taken to him by servants called Yamadutas. So it's described a little bit later on in the Bhagavatam that when the sinful person dies, these Yamadutas come and seize his subtle body and they're extremely frightening, horrifying beings. Basically the entire mode of operation is to assure the sinful living being that indeed he has no hope. He is doomed. He's being carried off to judgment. And he won't be carried off to judgment unless the judgment is going to be negative, because in fact those persons who are not sinful are not forced to meet the Yamadutas. It's not that everyone is carried off in this way. Another possibility is that one can be taken to Pitrloka. This is for more pious materialistically inclined people. The Pitris, or forefathers... this is another class of demigods actually, and they're also concerned with guiding persons after the death of the body so as to provide new bodily situations for them.
So, Pitrloka is a destination for more pious persons, and it's sort of a staging point where they're given new bodies. Those who are more pious can be elevated to different heavenly planets. They can go, say, to Svargaloka where they may live for many millions of years in the heavenly planets. It's described by the way that the situation in the heavenly planets is not exactly ideal. Because the problem is even though you may live there for millions of years, you don't live there forever. And the circumstances in which you leave the heavenly planets can be distinctly unpleasant.
Of course, one problem is that in the heavenly planets there tend to be rather strict rules and regulations, and you can be easily cursed, as a result of which you have to come down to the earthly planetary system. One can wind up in various bodily forms as a result of that. People have been known to wind up as serpents. One example would be, what was his name? Nahusa. That's right – classic example. Nahusa took the position of Lord Indra. He was able to temporarily take that position because Indra in fact had lost his post temporarily because of committing sins. Let's see, at this point he killed his guru, which is considered to be a bit of an inappropriate thing to do. Indra however had extremely good karma. Apparently he'd accumulated a lot of pious credits through various austerities and so on. So even though Indra would continuously get into difficult situations he could always handle the problem in some way.
So on this occasion though, he had to go into exile and it said he was living within the subtle fibers of a lotus in the Manasa Lake; and he was escaping from the goddess of tuberculosis apparently, who had chased after him. This is described in the Bhagavatam. This extremely emaciated gaunt-looking woman came chasing after him saying, “Wait for me!” So he decided not to receive what she had to offer. And so he hid within this lotus flower in the Manasa Lake. It's described that this was a difficult situation for Indra because in that situation he had no nourishment. So basically he was fasting.
So anyway in that time period, Nahusa took over as the king of the heavenly planets. But unfortunately this position went to his head. This is one of the problems in the heavenly planets – one is living in a very opulent situation. So one forgets all about spiritual advancement and becomes materially attached. So Nahusa began creating all kinds of offenses and finally he began making propositions to Indra's wife. Indra's wife then went to Indra – she knew where he was – and he recommended that the best way to deal with this situation was by means of policy. Indra was very excellent expert in the matter of policy. So he told his wife that she should encourage Nahusa that he really required a conveyance suitable for his exalted status. And the best conveyance would be a palanquin carried by the great sages.
So in due course Nahusa fell for this proposition and had himself carried by a palanquin, carried by the great sages. It seems though that great sages are not very expert in carrying palanquins generally speaking. They're not trained up for this. So the sages inevitably were stumbling and tilting the palanquin and so Nahusa began criticizing them. And finally he began kicking them, saying that, “You don't know how to carry the palanquin properly!” and so on. Of course this did it – and Nahusa was cursed to become a serpent on the earth. So anyway, that's what happened to him.
So, in general, even if you behave nicely in the heavenly planets, apparently the final situation of leaving the heavenly planets is a bit unpleasant. This was described to me based on Vedic literature by Atma-tattva. He was saying that what happens in the normal situation is that when your pious credits have finally run out, you hear a voice saying, “Get out!” and you find yourself ejected from the heavenly planets. But you're still there in your celestial body. But then these rather gruesome looking characters come and start eating your body. They are Rakshasas. So they devour your body and as a result of this... Pardon me?
Answer: This is the standard method from what I understand. I've seen this also described in the Mahabharata that this happens. You're falling from the heavenly planets and these Rakshasas eat you. And you cry and your soul comes out in the tears and then comes down in the rain. This description is there. And you might say well, why does this horrible thing happen to you? That doesn't seem fair; after all you were in the heavenly planets – you must have been a good person. The point is you were a good person. You had acquired a certain amount of pious credit and that's the condition for living in the heavenly planets. Because, you see, ultimately everyone on this platform is basically operating selfishly. People are out for themselves. And so by acquiring a certain amount of pious credit it's like acquiring a certain amount of money in the bank and then you stop working and you spend your money. Now if you do this, you know that at a certain point you'll get into debt and then the creditors will come and possess everything and you'll be out in the street. Well, it's a similar situation in the heavenly planets; when you actually use up the pious credits then out you go. And you fall down in the rain and ultimately then you take birth on the earth again or in the earthly planetary system. And again, you can acquire more pious credits and work your way up.
But it's not a final solution to the problem of being eternal. You see being eternal in one sense is a problem. For this reason you'll find that the scholars who study these things say that Hinduism is very pessimistic. Because if you believe that you have just one life and at the end of that you're finished, then you can enjoy yourself and then when you're dead, you're dead, and there's no more problem. But if you continue to exist, the question is under what circumstances will you exist.
So, you can die and go into the hellish planets. There you get trained up for a series of animal births. This is described. You're conditioned and then you live in animal bodies where at least you don't have to experience the fear of death. You just experienced generalized fear in the animal bodies. As you can see animals are always afraid. They're looking this way and that because they're afraid something's going to pounce on them, which probably will happen. Or you could be like the San Diego pigeons. I noticed that pigeons here tend to get really beat-up looking after a while, really frayed. Life seems to be difficult for pigeons at least in this particular area. Oh is it?
A: Right. And they get very grimy looking, sort of black and their feathers are sort of loose and so forth. Pigeon life is not very good. So this is the ‘gruesome class’ – what happens to you in the material world!
So, yes. Atma-tattva was describing to me also the situation in Kailasa, which I thought was interesting. It makes a great deal of sense, but he was describing how there of course you're living in a very nice situation, but there are very strict rules and regulations. And there are automatic curses that become effective when you transgress a certain rule or enter into a certain area that you shouldn't enter. For example, if you enter into the area where some very beautiful and aristocratic women will have their bathing place, then automatically you're cursed the moment you enter and you're out. He was describing that it set up in this way. So, he was also describing that the prevailing philosophy there is impersonalism. So basically you have a situation in which there are extremely expert impersonalist philosophers who've been at it for millions of years, so they're better than any earthly Mayavadis.
And so the prevailing philosophy is one of impersonalism, which is ultimately taught by Lord Siva. That's one of his duties in running the mode of ignorance in the material world. So because of the impersonal philosophy there is ultimately no real spiritual attraction or positive spiritual goal to pursue because the ultimate goal of impersonalism is annihilation, one way or another, either merging into Brahman or attaining nirvana or something like that. And everyone is extremely beautiful so there are obvious temptations. So sooner or later you're going to make some mistake and then you're out. So that's not a very attractive situation either. Not completely satisfactory. An example of these automatic curses by the way is given in the Bhagavatam if you enter into... If a male enters into Ilavrta-varsa, it's described that he's turned automatically into a female. And this happened to Sudyumna, who is one of the sons of Maharaja Iksvaku. That story is described in the Bhagavatam.
So anyway, no matter where you go in the material world, the situation is not at all satisfactory. And basically you get recycled. It's the ultimate environmental system – recycling of souls. And you may go up but then you come back down again. And then you go up again and you get just processed through this cycle, appropriately called the wheel of birth and death. There is a one way of punishing people that has been used in some societies, is you attach them to a wheel which is in a lake half submerged and you just rotate the wheel and they get dunked. And the wheel is turning slowly when they're underwater so they're practically strangling, gasping for breath and then they come up to the surface and they take deep breaths and feel relief and then it revolves down again and they go into the water and so forth. So, that's the situation in material life.
So it behooves one to take to the spiritual solution. So, one should strive to become Krsna conscious and go back to Godhead. The situation in Vaikuntha is definitely much better. Krsna says in the Bhagavad-gita that those who come to my abode never come back again. And so of course the situation is based on having positive spiritual attraction. If one is positively attracted to serving Krsna or one of His forms as Visnu, then that's an actually eternal situation because the soul is eternal and Krsna is eternal and the positive relationship of devotional service is the natural situation of the spirit soul. So, in that situation one doesn't have to fall down into some temporary material condition.
The problem in the material world is that all of the different situations in the material world are temporary and the persons occupying them are basically seeking temporary gratification of the senses in those particular situations. So they're just trying to enjoy themselves and that is managed according to basically a monetary system. If you earn a certain amount of enjoyment, then you can have that; but then when you've used up your credits or your money or your karma, then you don't deserve that enjoyment anymore. So then you have to go back and earn some more credit. So, the better thing to do is take to the spiritual situation. So any questions or comments? Yeah?
A: Well, that's the implication of ‘back to Godhead.’ You can't go back somewhere where you haven't been. So, they're quite right in asking that question. Basically what Srila Prabhupada has said about that... This is a controversial issue in some circles, but what Srila Prabhupada said is clear enough and easy to understand. He has said that the spirit soul comes to the material world through the misuse of independence. So, the basic idea is that the spirit soul is endowed with free will. Srila Prabhupada uses the word independence rather than free will, but the Western philosophers say free will. So, the spirit soul by nature, as I was saying, serves Krsna out of love. Loving service means to actually want to give happiness to the other person. That's the essence of love. So it is natural for the soul to love Krsna and to want to give happiness to Krsna. Therefore the soul in this state of consciousness serves Krsna – that's the natural situation. However, this state of devotional service in love is voluntary. The soul has independence. It is possible to turn away from Krsna; if that were not so then it would be an automatic thing or something controlled or robot-like.
For example, Krsna can certainly build a machine that would serve Him perfectly. Certainly He must be the ultimate artificial intelligence expert. So, if we can build machines that do things for us, just imagine what God can do. So, if He wanted a machine that would just do everything for Him perfectly without any question of not doing it, then that is possible. So, for that matter, Krsna actually has conscious beings who serve Him inevitably because He expands into many Visnu forms. His first expansion is Balarama and Balarama is dedicated to serving Krsna. But that's Krsna serving Himself because He is Balarama also, because there's only one God... just that Krsna can expand himself. That's one of the potencies of God.
So, another option is to have a conscious being who actually serves Him just out of love. So Krsna has exercised that option also, He has generated such beings. These are the spirit souls. So, the spirit souls serve Krsna out of love, which means they have the opportunity or the possibility of not serving Krsna. So that means they have independence or free will. So, what is independence if it's never used? So, some of those souls do use their independence because it is actual independence. So this is just a series of logical steps. So, if spirit souls can actually use their independence and turn away from Krsna, there must be some spirit souls who have done so. So, those are the spirit souls in the material world. And that's the explanation. That's an abstract explanation in the sense that no histories are given in which a particular spirit soul was serving Krsna in a particular situation and then fell down to the material world. We don't have any history like that in the Vedic literature.
The story of Jaya and Vijaya is a little bit different than that because it's explained that they were actually serving Lord Visnu by providing an opportunity for him to fight. They were his Vaikuntha servants and they came to the material world so that he could fight with them as Hiranyakasipu and Hiranyaksa and so on. So that's a different situation. So we don't have detailed stories saying: okay, this spirit soul came to the material world in this way. But Srila Prabhupada has explained the basic principle in terms of the independence of the spirit soul. So that's the explanation. Yeah?
A: Yes, this is the way it works. One shuffles slowly into oblivion. I could tell you some, well, it's pretty gruesome if I really got into it. Yeah?
A: Yes, so many stories. So anyway. Yeah?
A: The question is why you can't advance spiritually in Svargaloka? Well you can, there's nothing barring you from it. And there are yogis and so forth there also, but the overwhelming temptation is to enjoy because you have so much opulence. That's the problem. So, you can see how it is in this world if someone is very wealthy, they probably don't come here to the Temple very much. There's so many wealthy people in San Diego that we don't see coming around. It's very easy to be tempted by wealth into material enjoyment. So, imagine if you have a body that lasts for millions of years, actually, and you have mystic powers, you can fly through the sky, you can do all these things. So, the tendency is that they become bewildered by that. So that's the situation.
A: Yeah. I presume so; it should be possible. Well, we know of cases where devotees have become liberated from heavenly planets. The case of Gajendra is an example. Because the Trikuta mountain is in the milk ocean. That's in Bhu-mandala, but it's a heavenly situation compared to Bharata-varsa. And the Trikuta mountain is described as a playground of demigods. The demigods are always engaging in all kinds of activities there, recreational activities. So, Gajendra was a king, Indradyumna by name, who had become cursed by Agastya Muni to take the body of an elephant. So, he took the body of an elephant in this heavenly place. So, he was in a basically heavenly planet. And of course the story is that he was attacked by an alligator who previously was another elevated person, namely a Gandharva named Huhu.
So anyway, Gandharvas sometimes had curious names. This Gandharva, by the way, had the enjoying spirit. What he would do is swim underwater and grab sages by the legs when they were standing, say, in the water performing their ablutions and things in order to scare them. So, some Sage said, “Well, since you're acting like a crocodile, I curse you to become a crocodile.” So he did, and he was attacking Gajendra. So, what happened there was that Gajendra was put into a great condition of distress because of the attack of this crocodile and he actually remembered a prayer that he had been chanting in his previous life as king Indradyumna, a prayer to Lord Visnu. So, within his mind, he recited this prayer to Lord Visnu and so then Lord Visnu came and saved him. Actually, Lord Visnu touched his body and immediately he assumed his Vaikuntha body. This was svarupya-mukti, assuming the same bodily form as the Lord. So then Lord Visnu took him back to Vaikuntha.
So this can happen in a heavenly planet. It's interesting though that Gajendra became very distressed before this happened. Previously, he was living as the elephant Gajendra, the king of the elephants. And he was just swaggering about crushing underbrush beneath his mighty footsteps, with his harem of female elephants and so on. Yeah?
A: Which situation?
A: Pitrloka? Well, you can go to Pitrloka and you can live there for some time. And it's a staging area for, as I say, pious people. This isn't the situation of becoming a ghost. Now, the ghostly situation is something that also happens to sinful people. Instead of being taken by the Yamadutas they wind up as a ghost. They're there in their subtle body in the situation where they used to live in the material world and they just remain there. They can see what's going on, but they can't do anything. Not much that is. They can create some effect that can be registered by the other people living there. So you have the symptoms of ghostly haunting. But they can't enjoy. They would like to eat and they can't eat and they would like to have sex but they can't do it. So, it's a situation of total frustration. So, that's the ghostly situation. But in the Pitrloka… Pitrloka is a very nice place – it's for more pious persons. So they go there for some time. But it's not at the same level of being elevated to Svargaloka. Srila Prabhupada has said you can go to Pitrloka for 10,000 years let's say. Something like that, that can happen. So. yeah?
A: Yes. The question is what about these very pleasant near-death experiences that people report? Interesting question. Partly that's due I think to cultural editing of the experiences, because it is said that some people do have unpleasant experiences, but you don't hear about those so much. And in the books that are written on this subject you don't find accounts of the unpleasant experiences, but people do have them. That's one point. The experience of being taken down a tunnel and meeting some being who tells one about one's past life and meeting relatives and so on, that sounds as though they've been taken briefly to Pitrloka and then taken back. I mean in terms of the symptoms of what they experienced. It's hard to say, but of course it's only speculative because all you have are the accounts that the people give. But of course, these are near-death experiences, they are not death experiences because the people come back to tell about it. Other people do however report frightening experiences.
Now it's interesting that in India there are experiences that people specifically relate to the Yamadutas and I referred to these as near-death experiences with administrative bungling, because the typical story is this... I have one paper that describes 16 different accounts like this. The typical story is that a person is very sick – typhoid fever or something like that – and his body grows cold at a certain point so people figure that he died. He has the experience that some ugly looking men came and grabbed him, really horrible looking persons, and carried him off. And he was taken before this very frightening person in authority. And the frightening person immediately said, "Why did you bring so and so?" There must be some mistake in the name. And “Why did you bring so and so? You were supposed to bring such and such person, take him back!” So, then the person is taken back, and he wakes up and then recounts this experience. Yeah, in India this is reported – it’s somewhat appropriate – so these are near death experiences with administrative bungling. Actually, the story of Ajamila is an example of that, in one sense, because the Yamadutas went to get him, and then the Visnudutas said, “No, this isn’t right. You can’t have him!”