Eastern Religions on Death and the Afterlife

[Editor’s note: George Yancy, Professor of Philosophy, presents below his interviews with 3 religions that are not well understood in the West. I thought to share it with Tikkun readers even though it is questionable whether any of them really fit into the category of “emancipatory spirituality.” Judge that for yourself. But for those of us who recognize the need to overcome every form of chauvinist nationalism and develop what we at Tikkun call a recognition of our interdependence with all people and animals and life forms on the planet if we are ever to build the kind of global solidarity capable of defending the earth from the environmental crisis that is a result of capitalist selfishness (me-firstism and “we are number one” consciousness) it is useful to have some understanding of other cultures besides those of the West, and their views on death and the afterlife may provide one entrance into that understanding.
— Rabbi Michael Lerner   rabbilerner.tikkun@gmail.com

Sikhism and Death 

This conversation explores religion and death with Arvind-Pal S. Mandair, who teaches at the University of Michigan in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures. Though grounded in the study of Sikhism, his research interests include: Intercultural Philosophy, Decolonial Theory, the Study of Religion, Violence and the Secular, and Translation theory and practice. His books include Religion and the Specter of the West; Sikhism: A Guide For the Perplexed, and other works. He is editor of the journal Sikh Formations: Religion, Culture and Theory. 

George Yancy: It is my understanding that Guru Nanak is the founder of Sikhism. Please share a little about his life. Typically, the founders of major religions/spiritual orders have demonstrated some extraordinary insights or experiences. Did Guru Nanak also have such insights or experiences? 

Arvind-Pal Mandair: Born in 1469 in Punjab, Guru Nanak was the founding figure of a lineage of 10 spiritual masters or Gurus and the founder of what eventually evolved into the movement we know today as “Sikhism.” The young Nanak was a gifted and deeply compassionate child beloved by the Muslim and Hindu communities alike for his ability to spiritually reconcile their very different religious perspectives and worldviews. By his early teens Nanak was already demonstrating signs of extraordinariness, often going into deep mystical trances for days at a time. By his late twenties, Nanak had not only married and raised two children, but perfected his own form of spiritual praxis known as nām simaran, which combines music, poetry and chanting. Sometime in 1499, Nanak underwent a climactic mystical experience after which he is said to have received a divine calling to spread his teachings. For the next twenty years he travelled widely, eventually settling and founding the early Sikh community. The most authoritative insight into Nanak’s personality can be found in his poetic compositions (bānī) which number 974 in total, most of them of surpassing beauty. Set to the measures of North indian music they comprise the most authoritative section of Sikh scripture. The primary focus of Nanak’s bānī is to teach individuals how to transform the nature of the ego from a self-centred individualism (manmukh) into a self-sacrificing enlightened personality (gurmukh). For Nanak, this transformation is to be achieved amidst the noise, distractions, joys and sufferings of everyday life of a householder, which is also why Sikhism has generally rejected monasticism. The challenge for Nanak was not to withdraw from the challenges of worldly life but to live purely amidst the impurities of everyday life. 

Yancy: Many may not know that Sikhism is a monotheistic religion, and to my knowledge, the fifth largest religion in the world. How does Sikhism understand the nature or metaphysics of God? 

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Mandair: The term monotheism is actually a problematic lens for looking at Sikh concepts. The term says more about a rationalized Christian European worldview that was internalized by Sikh colonial elites in the late 19th century than about Sikhi

A better way to comprehend Nanak’s teaching is to start with the syllable <> (ik oankar) with which Sikh scripture opens, and for which a working translation might be: One (ik), whose Expression (oan) Unfolds in all beings in the same way (kar). Differently stated: the underlying essence of all Reality is Oneness. Neither thing nor predicate, this Oneness signifies a tangible state of consciousness that’s sovereign, absolute, encompasses all things material and immaterial, and can only be realized experientially and expressed paradoxically. Thus we can speak of this One as personal, as our Beloved, who invokes feelings of infinitely close presence, the Beloved One to whom we give multiple names in multiple languages: God, Madho, Hari, Waheguru, Ram, Allah, Yahweh, etc. The suggestion here is that the experience is of a personal God who takes manifold forms (sargun). But Nanak equally speaks of this One as impersonal, formless (nirgun), beyond comprehension, a Beloved experienced as continually slipping away. 

Our experience of this One is filtered through the ego which generates a dualistic perception of Reality which fundamentally distorts the way we encounter the world, other individuals and societies. In effect, all relations to the outside world are re-routed via the psychic apparatus of the ego. 

So the whole purpose of Nanak’s univocal metaphysics is not to escape the world or this life, but to deepen our connection to it, to make this life worth living, to live it more creatively. To achieve this sense of Oneness, the ego’s relation to itself and to the outside world has to be fundamentally reorientated. To make this less abstract, especially for the ordinary person, Nanak suggests a workable formula. He asks us to keep in mind that the Name of my Beloved (that to which we devote ourselves) and ego (haumai—the tendency to say “I am myself”) can never be in the same place at the same time:

When I act in ego, my Beloved’s not present.
When my Beloved’s present, no ego can be present
By saying You, You, I’ve become You.
‘I am’ is in me no longer. 

The formula is therefore very simple: the divine Name is death of Ego; these two things cannot be in the same place at the same time. 

Yancy: Thanks for clarifying the claim about Sikhism’s “monotheism.” Each major religion has a liberation narrative or soteriology/salvation component. Under Sikhism, how do human beings achieve liberation or salvation? 

Mandair: Again, its difficult to apply concepts such as liberation or salvation as directly to the Sikh context even though the word mukti/mukt (release or one who finds release) occurs frequently in Sikh scripture. And that’s because the emphasis in Guru Nanak’s philosophy is rather different. The idea is not to be liberated from the joys, sufferings, comings and goings of this world, or from this life, no matter how good or bad it is. Instead the aim is to be released from the impediment that prevents us experiencing life creatively. Hence the trerm deployed by Nanak is jīvan muktī—the process of releasement while living life itself and one who can realize such release is a jīvan mukt. As I mentioned earlier, the impediment is the ego’s tendency to cocoon itself inside the delusion of its own autonomy (haumai—I am myself), thereby severing its connection to the One-All (ēk-anēk). The more one’s speech, thought, actions are motivated by a certain kind of self-attachment, the more our consciousness (chētana) is inscribed by karmic traces that develop into rigid habits, and over time bind us in chains of our own making. It’s these chains from which we need to be liberated. 

Of course most of us don’t think of these chains as chains, but as barriers that protect us from a potentially hostile external world that might otherwise overwhelm us. But from Guru Nanak’s perspective these chains or barriers also distort our experience into constructing oppositions between inside /outside, us/them. Thus the jīvan -mukt (released in life) is one who doesn’t annihilate the barrier but makes it porous, making it possible to mediate between the self and its outside. 

So liberation in the Sikh context is not a once-and-for-all event but a process that one imbibes into the way one lives one’s life. It’s a process of initiating an internal struggle within the way we construct our ego-cocoon, a struggle through which one learns to enact a self-death on a constant basis, each moment, each day, what mystics often refer to as dying-to-the-self. In Sikhism this practice of learning how to die-to-the-self is given a name: nam simaran—the constant repetition in mind, speech and action of the divine Name. 

Yancy: For Sikhs, what is the meaning of death? 

Mandair: The meaning of death in the teachings of Guru Nanak is intertwined with the meaning of life. Nanak confronts the topic of death head on with directness and clarity, but in way that does not induce pessimism, fear or morbidity. How is this possible? 

In a nutshell the answer lies in the way Nanak diagnoses and reverses everyday psychological orientations towards life and death, at one point asking why we continually ask for more life, even though it may be a life of acute misery, yet no one asks for more death? Ordinarily we desire life, but fear death. Which of course begs the question, why do we fear death? Nanak responds by confronting us with the obvious fact that we can’t escape death. The moment we’re born we’re journeying towards death. There is no “us,” no “I” after death, in the sense that our projects, our relationships with friends, kith and kin, even with enemies, our each and every involvement in the world, comes to an end. These involvements create attachments to life and at the same time cause us to be forgetful of death. This doesn’t mean that we don’t know about death or that we’re completely shielded from it (we do, and we aren’t), nor indeed that we can’t experience the pain of others (we certainly do). But we do so in a way that constantly objectifies death, distances us from it, not allowing our lives to be touched by it. Death comes, we say to ourselves,… but not yet …. I have time! 

What Nanak signals in his compositions is how our ordinary mind, in its state of everyday attachment to itself, constructs an understanding of the time of life as a buffer against an objectified time of my death; the mind does everything to prolong and strengthen this buffer by actively forgetting that we’re dying at each moment. For Nanak this forgetting boils down to a particular mode of time-consciousness. The intertwined nature of the time of life and the time of death is highlighted by the fact that the word for time (kāl) is also used for death (kāl). 

Yancy: Does Sikhism offer a lens through which we might not fear death? 

Mandair: It certainly does. In fact, Guru Nanak states clearly in his writings that if we can somehow train our mind to welcome the idea of death into our lives, this not only eliminates fear of death but allows us to live more authentically. Indeed the fifth Nanak (Guru Arjan) gets right to the point when he says:

Accept death first, relinquish your craving for life;
Approach me only when you’ve humbled your mind
Whoever learns to die to the self, consider her alive
Likewise, consider those who live in ego to be dead.

SGGS p. 1102

But how do the Gurus counteract the fearful image of death? They do this by transforming our understanding of time, shifting our attachment from ordinary time (kāl) to a more profound sense of time (akāl). Within our ordinary time-consciousness (kāl) driven by self-attachment (haumai) people lament the passing of time, grieving for things lost, suffering when attachments are severed and fearing the onset of death. But Nanak says that fear of death is caused by the ego’s tendency to obstruct a more authentic and natural time-consciousness (akāl). Akāl is neither a negation of, nor an overcoming of, ordinary time (kāl). Rather akāl is always co-present with kāl, but only accessible by expanding consciousness beyond its limited, contracted form of ego-consciousness (haumai). Akāl represents a paradoxical eternity (an infinite finitude) that’s not reducible to the 3 individualized modes of time (past/present/future). Instead what akāl enables Nanak to do is to shift the emphasis from fear of death to a more productive perspective: why fear death? From akāl, fear of death can be seen as due to anxiety generated by limiting our vision to an end-time (kāl). The attitude of fearlessness towards death comes form experiencing akāl subjectively as a way of living each moment creatively, in a way that moments don’t just succeed each other in conventional impermanence, but are born anew from the moment that passes away. 

Thus to answer your question more directly, the lens through which we can glimpse this state of fearlessness (nirbhau) of death (nidar), provides a two-fold vision of the death: on the one hand empirical death by which we remain subject to ordinary time (kāl) generated by the apparatus of the ego; on the other hand, ego-death by which our consciousness expands into akāl—literally deathlessness (amrit) accompanied by a fearless state of mind.

Yancy: Is there a specific way according to Sikhism that we can prepare for death? 

Mandair: There is, of course, no way to predict when or how death comes for each of us, which makes preparing for it difficult in a practical sense. But certain Sikh practices do provide a strong mental preparation through practices such as nām simaran which is basically imbibing constant remembrance of nām (the Name of the Beloved as infinite consciousness) into our lives. We can think of nam simaran as a technique for learning how to “die to the self” by “dying to the Word.” The spiritual master Kabir provides an insight into the kind of mental preparation required to prepare for death. He says:

There’s a kind of death which creates fear in men’s hearst,
But the true nature of death is revealed through the Word.
How can I die, when I’ve already died to myself?
Only they die, again and again, who know not the nature of the One.
Everyone says: “He dies”, She died”.. but not me! (for I have time)
But one becomes deathless when one dies to the self.


A couple of pages earlier Kabir gives another hint about how to have the right atttitute toward death. We all grieve when others die, he says, but he (Kabir) would only grieve if he had to live forever (325). The very thought of endless life seems more unpalatable to him than death. So it’s not death he fears—endless life is to be feared even more—but the possibility of dying while trapped in such illusions.

So in line with what I said earlier, Sikhism counsels us to prepare for dying by learning how to live in an ego-less mode. This is something we can prepare for through constant engaged practice, the aim of which is to let go of ego in the moment its created, all the while remembering that its also reborn in the moment that it dies. Egoloss as a practice of dying to the self is not a technique to be mastered, but a ethic of living each moment as if it’s the last and the first. Ultimately this practice brings about the death of conventional death or the death of everyday time (kāl kālé = amrit, akāl) which manifests as calmnesss, restraint when faced with physical death. 

Hinduism and Death

This conversation explores religion and death with Professor Purushottama Bilimoria, PhD, who was a Fulbright Scholar at Ashoka University and India International Centre (Delhi, India), Fall 2019, a Principal Fellow at the University of Melbourne, Australia, where he also serves as Editor-in-Chief of ​Sophia,​ a​ w​ell-known journal in philosophy & traditions, and a leader in diversification of philosophy. A long-time visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley, he teaches in Jain Studies at Cal State University Long Beach, and is Lead Scientist and Principal Investigator of Indian Philosophy “Lab” with Peoples’ Friendship University (RUND), Moscow. His recent publications are History of Indian Philosophy​ (edited with Amy Rayner); ‘Hegel’s Reading of the Logic of Indian Philosophy’ in Australasian Philosophical Review. He works and writes on the interstices of Western (analytical, Continental) and Indian philosophy, including critical thinking and critiques of non-empirical reasoning. 

George Yancy: Christianity has Jesus, Buddhism has the Buddha, and Islam has the Prophet Muhammad. Does Hinduism have a “founder”? Please explain.  

Purushottama Bilimoria: Hinduism is said not to have a single founder or founders as such, even though there have been several ‘prophet-like’ (avatāric, heroic, superior) personalities to whom the origins of various sects or sectarian groups (sampradāyas) or sub-traditions have been attributed – people are familiar with names such as Kauṭilya, Vyāsa, Vālmīki, Krishna, Rāma, Caitanya, Swaminarayan, Ramakrishna, Sai Babas. Hinduism might be said to be basically a religious and moral philosophy of the “Book” (from the Vedas to the celebrated Bhagavad Gītā) – though that too is not quite understood in the Abrahamic sense of “Religion of the Book”. There are certainly scriptures or seminal texts on which the teachings and practices are based, but these are primarily considered to have been  “heard” (śruti), or one might even say are “authorless” (‘Revelation without Revealer’), and these are generally more ritualistic and speculative in content. Then there are derivative or secondary texts (“recollected”) which deal with normative moral dilemmas, edicts, laws and mores, addressing challenges to the traditional ritualistic predilections against criticisms from Buddhists, Jainas and sceptical-materialists.

Yancy: What for Hinduism is the ultimately real? Does it have a metaphysics? 

Bilimoria: If Hinduism were one solo tradition it would be easy to say what is ultimately real. But as the late Ninian Smart had pointed out there are ‘Hinduisms’, or variations on a non-central theme. The official minimalist position is that there is something that is ultimately real or Absolute that is at once conceived in metaphysical terms as also in rather prosaic contemplative or meditational imaginary with attendant supplications or devotional praxis as well. The lofty philosophical strands promulgated by great texts such as the Upaniṣads (800 BC – 400BCE) and renowned teachers (Gurus) such as  Ādi Śaṅkara (8th BC), hold that there is an Ultimate that has the characteristics of Being [qua Existence], Consciousness and Bliss (sat-cit-ānanda), which the texts have named as ‘Brahman’ (from bṛh– “to grow, expand”). Even so this obtusely abstract notion  (‘Universal Concept’ in Hegel’s rendering) could be known by various more concrete and grounding manifestations, including Īśvara or the Supreme God*-like Being,  as well as ātman, conceived of as the subjective unity of the self-consciousness of ‘I’, which is at the same time one or in non-dual (or quasi-dual, depending on the school) relation with the Absolute. In some real sense the individual is at one with the Ultimate; the dualism is a charade or chimera and the world is quite likely the playground of the Ultimate conceived in panentheistic terms (explained in the next paragraph). 

Yancy: Is Hinduism monotheistic or polytheistic or neither?     

Bilimoria: There are indeed strands of both polytheism and monotheism (in this reverse order). But these are not the only polarities present (that being an 18th-19th century Euro-orientalist projection on the Hindu worldview). Indologists have unearthed theological underpinnings in the broad canvas of Hinduism that speak to – what Max Müller in the late 19th century had dubbed – henotheism, meaning while at one level there is acknowledgement of a single primary or supreme Diety, at another level there is acceptance of the existence or possible existence of myriad of other deities; Müller characterised henotheism as “monotheism in principle and polytheism in fact”. Although more recent scholarship has tended to emphasise monism (the idea of ‘The One’) in certain key traditions of the Hindu – particularly philosophical – fold alongside panentheism (variation of pantheism which has it that the world is suffused with a higher order divinity, and the limits of world is the limit of the divine), meaning that the Ultimate both encompasses or embraces the world while also exceeds it by some measure, thereby retaining an independence from the world. Elsewhere and not incongruent with the henotheistic and panentheistic paradigms, the texts speak of the Hindu pantheon comprising anywhere from 3 to 33 to 330 million deities. Hindu theology is quite a bit more complex than could be straight-laced in binary terms. 

Yancy: For Hinduism, how should we think about the soul-body distinction? 

Bilimoria: It will depend on whether we find anything like the trope of ‘soul’ (psychē) in Hinduism; this term comes to us basically from the Hellenic-Christian belief-systems and it might not map or trace so easily onto the Hindu view of the essential constituent(s) of the person. The analogue certainly holds and perhaps we could build on this analogue as a way of explaining the rather complex and abstruse ontology inherent here. We mentioned earlier ‘ātman’ as the subjective unity of the self-consciousness of ‘I’, which sometimes certainly is referred to as the ‘soul’, especially when describing the vital and mental or consciousness functions of the individual. In very simple terms, the combination of the vital and mental (or higher cognitive) functions is better known as the indwelling jīva, which in turn is often combined with ‘ātman’ to read as ‘jīva-ātmā’ (“spirit”, or psychical self, for want of a better translation), since the ātman always remains the essence of the individual, regardless. The latter is a useful short-hand ontological signifier for that which dwells within the individual, that provides the life-breath (prāṇa), mental prowess, and volition, and which ultimately departs at death (more of which below). One might say, the transcendental self that is denoted by ātman has the secondary connotation of being a living agency much as one would speak of the ‘soul’, literally and perhaps also metaphorically (in the secular ethos). At face value, there might seem to be a dualistic relation between the  jīva and the body; however, this is not to be understood in Cartesian terms – i.e. complete separation of  ‘spirit-mind’ and ‘body’, the corporeal matter – but rather as a more intertwined and interdependent relation or the triunity of ‘spirit-mind-body’; so it is a distinction without difference, and certainly not a separation, perhaps not until at the point of death (even here the trace-elements and psychical memory of the prior embodied state are said to be carried over).  

Yancy: What happens to the soul after death?

Bilimoria: Death remains an inevitable condition of sentient existence qua jīva. Whatever has birth, grows through nutrients, heat, time, air, ether (neutrino-filled space), and breath; but it also has to face decay of the elements (or even without growth as with infants, jelly-fish, amoebas and divided cells) which leads to death in its time-bound existence. The causes of death are numerous and varies both across individuals and time; there are natural deaths, there are homicides, and there are suicides (both of which could be at the level of the individual or the mass, such as satī, (“suttee”) jauhar (mass-immolation), or a holocaust).

At the point of death, the jīva is believed to leave the physical body, escorted by Yama (also known as ‘The Lord of Ancestors’) who, much like Thanatos, controls the destiny of the individual jīva beyond the earthly realm. It is believed that while departing, the jīva takes with it as its propulsion force prāṇa, or ‘vital breath’ conceived non-corporeally – akin to Bergson’s elan vital – as the underlying principle of sentience. This occurs as soon as the ‘trace-data’ curled from the memory bank and subliminal psychical dispositions have been uploaded; and since the mind of the individual is believed to be ‘extended’, the process may continue outside of the deceased body for a short period of time. Death is indeed of the body (the terminal cessation of heart, brain, nervous system, language faculty, organs and the physiological processes), though not of the spirit-mind, we might say. This indicates that one part of the mind while the individual was alive had been fully integrated and embedded in the biological body-frame (concentrated but not confined to the cognitive-neural-nervous system complex).

Once the upload is complete and the mind is freed from the shackles of the mortal remains, the shepherding jīva is said to move through various dimensions in rapid succession akin to a warp drive: the jīva might sift through luminal-scented tunnels, or spiral through energy-fields suffuse with welcoming god-like beings (devas). Some NDE-reports suggest sighting of ancestors and teachers as well, with garlands, fanfare and celestial music, or frighteningly disturbing clamour in other cases, as the jīva is whisked away to some celestial location or ancestral realm. However, the connection with the body back on earth and the surrounds or family is not completely severed for another three or so days. In India it is normative for Hindus to cremate the deceased’s body within twenty-four hours. The underlying belief here is that the jīva of the departed is relieved from the ‘higher planes’ to be present at the last rites, both out of attachment to the prior body but also to bear witness to the completion of their mission on earth and cherishing in spirit-state the last moments with family and well-wishers. 

Yancy: If the soul is eternal, is there a fixed, peaceful, glorious resting place such as heaven as we find in Christianity and other religions? Explain.

Bilimoria: Indeed, as the seminal Bhagavad Gītā states, jīva’s existential core, i.e. the ātman, never dies, neither is it born, nor can it be cut, burnt by fire, moistened by water, weltered by wind, or overrun by time, because it is eternally immortal and pure: death cannot come anywhere near the ātman. Notwithstanding this metaphysical claim, the scriptural accounts differ on exactly where the surviving jīva ends up after it leaves the body: in Shiva’s or Krishna’s universal body or their heavenly abodes; or return in another body; or does it find liberation from the cycle of birth and birth; or sequentially each of the above. One thing however is clear that the after-life is not conceived in linear temporal terms, but rather in cyclical or curving timespace-dimensions that far exceed the four dimensions of the empirical world that we inhabit. The Newtonian worldview and categories of Immanuel Kant will not help us understand this elusive eschatology.

The philosophical Upaniṣads speak of two alternative destinies depending on the person’s stock of karma (action-traces) mitigated by the effective performance of one’s dharma (right duties and normative practices) in the life just concluded (perhaps compounded with as-yet unresolved karma carried over from previous existences). If a person has performed three requisite rites in the fire-altar and departs during the sun’s northern journey and in moonlight, they reach Brahmā- or devaloka (the realm of the supreme deity), from which there is no return; if one departs during the ‘night of the smoke’ or long winter solstice and dark-moon, then pitṛaloka (hierarchical dwellings of the foreparents), from which one returns to another life-mode. There are also retributive hellish realms – echoing Dante’s borrowed ‘inferno’ – for those who may have committed excessive felony, violated dharma’s rites, or certain rights of others, during one’s precious life-time. 

Each of the worlds yonder has its own path not of the parting jīva’s voluntary choosing, although there can be transitional movement from one world to the other, which is distinct from the cyclical movement of a jīva from one incarnation to the next in this world. After a period spent in reparation, the jīva undergoes metempsychosis and is reborn in another body with the past trace-memories intact, albeit buried in the unconscious, which limits one’s free-will; hence there is an element of determinism. 

Yancy: For those of us who fear death, what solace does Hinduism offer? 

Bilimoria: Death is indeed acknowledged to be a great mystery, an unknown; and yet one could arm oneself to avert that fear and angst. Fearing death is not considered to be unnatural; the fear of death in one life might be exacerbated by cumulative fears of death from the countless past lives that each jīva has lived through. The classical philosophical texts of Yoga (Yoga-sūtras) opine that death is one of the five unwholesome states, which has to be curbed. Fear of death and clinging to life is an affliction that bedevils everyone, both the wise and the motley ignorant. Krishna consoles the despondent warrior, Arjuna, with a surprise epiphany proclaiming, ‘I am now become Death [Time grown old], the destroyer of the world;.. you should have no fears’.

The broader tradition itself suggests various means through which one could come to accept impending death, even advancing its adjudged inevitability, rather than prolonging life. The solace is more in way of being reminded that death is not the end of life, but rather that, as Mahatma Gandhi put it, ‘life and death are phases of the same phenomenon, the reverse and observe of the same coin’; and further :‘Life becomes liveable, only to the extent that death is not treated as an enemy but as a friend….. death is not a fiend, it is the truest of friends. It delivers us from agony.’  Again, very often the sagely sermon of Krishna is recited to provide some succour to persons – especially in terminal state or who have been overcome with excessive angst about death as a possibility or as a reality facing them: ‘As a person casts off worn-out garments and puts on new ones, so the embodied jīva casts off the worn-out body and enters other new ones.’ Our thrownness onto death is not something to be avoided but to be countenanced and faced with courage and boldness, as does a martyr upon a calling to duty of justice. The Yoga-sūtras (4.11) prescribe various yogic (or spiritual) practices that help the adept to overcome ‘fear, agony, despair, helplessness and other feelings [that are] embedded in one’s being’ and which pertain as much toward death. “There must be a way out’a here” – this takes us to the next question.

Yancy: What advice or wisdom does Hinduism provide that might help us as human beings to face death with courage? 

Bilimoria: That what we ought to do in life is to work toward attaining a state of selfless awareness or a preparatory spiritual disposition that would unburden one of that ubiquitous fear of dying when the fatal moment arrives. And then there would be no need for mourning, or grief either in the aftermath, on the part of those left behind, who we call the surviving kin and associates. 

Yancy: How might we better prepare for death according to Hinduism? 

Bilimoria: A Hindu person will spend a good part of their life preparing for a new life which may or may not entail re-embodiment in a physical body in the after-life; they may intentionally wish for an eternal life in the devaloka, should they be so eligible – which of course depends on a number of contingencies as discussed earlier. But there may be a number of normative practices that might well prepare one for death. These could range from virtuous excellences – such as the courage and temerity to face any untoward consequence, however fearful and threatening to life these may be – to more concrete praxis such as regular purposeful fasting that would both cleanse the body of toxins and help ground one in the suffering that the body might recurrently experience when deprived of food – as may be the predicament at the point of death and in the aftermath, for that is an unknown. The cultivation of this disposition is reinforced with constant practice of meditation, devotion or supplication to the gods and ancestors, backed further by mantra-recitations with the intent to seek release from mortality and fear of death as much – often personified, again, in the image of Yama, or indeed of  Kālī, the ferocious feminine deity who adorns herself with a garland of skulls – a stark reminder of death – trembling a bloodied sword in one hand and a severed head in the other. One is also expected to have fulfilled all of one’s duties and obligations while in the embodied community, and settled all debts in the transactional world of commence and good-willed interrelations as a sine qua non of the preparatory process. There really is no short-path to what might be called ‘The Yoga Death’, for its preparation constitute a yoga of sorts: yoga of dying.  Likewise, again, the Bhagavad Gītā ordains obligations, sacrifice, askesis and other ascetic disciplines that are intended to free one from inclinations and impulses that chain people to the relentless wheel of birth and death, and have their intent set on mokṣa, or salvific liberation. These disciplines are variously called ‘yoga’ by Krishna. To aid the departing jīva in its onward journey to the appropriate or karmically-assigned destiny in the beyond, there is emphasis placed on proper demeanour and certain mandatory rites, observances and ritual preparations in the period before the last breath is taken, and after the life-breath has left, i.e. the work of death (yama) is completed. In the Tantric (esoteric) tradition, contemplative visualization of one’s death is praticed, often in cremation grounds; even a concluding yoga-posture emulates the corpse-state (shavasana). We may also note the particular practices and ceremonies associated with cremation – or burial, depending on the status of the person – and after, and their continuing importance in the Hindu life-world. The mystic power of mantras (syllabic sound-forms) recited during the service, with other Vedic (prescribed scriptural) offerings (ghee and rice grains, sandalwood) to the god of fire (Agni) upon lighting the funeral pyre, are powerful moments meant both for a smooth apparitional transit of deceased (i.e. the jīva) to the beyond, as much as for the mourning community left behind on the ground: the two seemingly estranged parties might even stand together momentarily in an uncanny transcendental unity (or communitas). 

Yancy: Within the context of Hinduism is there room for what we might call a “good death”? Please explain.   

Bilimoria: Certainly, the practices and rituals at the time of dying are of particular importance towards cultivating an equanimous state that would have one prepared for an unperturbed arrival of death. A resolutely peaceful death where one has the sense of having fulfilled life’s mission and completed all that was expected by the society and presumably the gods too or the larger tradition, accounts for what we might be call  a ‘good and dignified death’. Without an antecedent good life one cannot expect a consequent good death; it is not simply a matter of grace or forgiveness from some divine supremo. There might be room for remorse too for the wrongs one might have done, the injuries caused to others, and obstacles one might have put in the path of the societal or greater dharma running its course, that may mitigate the severity of the post-mortem suffering; but there will be no grief or mourning for one’s own death (here or in the hereafter). This motif is brought out rather colourfully and movingly in the retelling of the concluding hours of the battle between two warring fraternal clans in the classic epic, The Mahābhārata, by the poet Bhāsa (3rd CE?) where Duryodhana, the scion of the supposedly or so-depicted ‘bad guys’, is struck down in the bitter battle by an opposing warrior. Even though the manner of the defeat in this instance was in violation of the rules of war, he was overcome with remorse precisely for reasons of the excesses of his own insatiable ambition (to be the deserving heir of their father’s kingdom), as well as for the deceits, war-mongering trajectory, and the horrendous evils he had perpertrated as the elder leader along with his brothers and generals on the half-brothers and kin who were favoured by the father-king, now challenged by age and infirmity, as the rightful heirs.  

Lying there profusedly bleeding from the insufferable blow of Bhima’s mace around his thighs, Duryodhana declares that he is dying but that this is to be a ‘glorious death’; in many words, he tells his bereft father, his mother and his son who breaks down in grief, how they should not be concerned as the warrior-hero is going-on to join his hundred brothers (among those he and his armies have killed as well), indeed that he is “reborn today”, freed of the malice he had long harboured for his rival brothers, and instead is overcome with magnanimity and compassion for his brethren counterpart, Yudhisthira, the leader of that competing clan. His conscience now reminds him in fast-moving images as in a cinemascopic exposure the wicked acts and malevolent and decadent intentions he had indulged himself in, decidedly directed at the opposing filial community; but he also feels fulfilled in his heart as he witnesses his own son being coronated by Aśvathama, the son of the Droṇa, the Guru of Duryodhana’s side of the clan (who himself met with death under a certain deceitful alibi from the other side). He continues: “My life is now slipping away. I see my ancestors, my hundred brothers, and Karṇa [his protégé brother] ahead of them; I see Abhimanyu [Arjuna’s son killed in a labyrithian ambush plotted by Duryodhana’s bother, Karṇa, and brother-in-law, Jayadaratha], seated on [god] Indra’s elephant rebuking me. Urvaśi and other heavenly nymphs have come to welcome me; here are the oceans to greet me. Lo, the rivers like the Gańgā too are greeting me with love. Yāma with chariot drawn by thousands of swans has come for me. Here I go to meet them all”. With these words, Duryodhana breathed his last. This in the tradition –if we take seriously the playwright’s  representative message – is what would be considered a “good death”. 

The apotheosis of “good death” might be two other forms of death: i. voluntary homicide (mors voluntaria), or what we call in ordinary language ‘suicide’, and ii. ‘satī (‘suttee’), often described as a widow’s self-immolation on the deceased husband’s burning pyre – especially where a degree of coercion may be involved which would render each in legal terms as ‘voluntary culpable homicide’. There is a long debate in the legal literature and contemporary commentaries in India (or in Indian intellectual thinking outside India), on the moral status of suicide and the related incidents of satī (‘suttee’) that seemed to have escalated in the 19th century and continued, albeit in smaller numbers but in still celebratory forms, into the 20th century in India. There are occasions and extenuating or egregious circumstances under which suicide may not be considered to be immoral or even constitutionally illegal, particularly where a citizen’s right to livelihood has been thwarted or not honored in accordance with duty of care by the state, or when confronted with irreversible or terminally advanced illness (sometimes also as a form of political resistance against an excessively oppressive predicament, as Gandhi threatened often with the ‘Fast to Death’ undertakings). The Apex Court in India indeed ruled on an appeal case before its bench precisely in these terms, invoking the futility of the erstwhile Penal Code (S 309) from the time of British India (still in force in India alongside the more liberal rule of law) that makes both suicide and attempted suicide punishable in law. (S309 has since been struck down by an Act of the Parliament of the Republic of India.)  But satī is a more complicated and challenging case: the imagery of the widow self-immolating herself on her deceased husband’s pyre evokes a uniquely troublesome emotion of a particularly gratuitous fact of suffering of women, anywhere. While the British colonists with their Protestant puritan instincts abhorred this practice and made many attempts to outlaw it (with the help of Hindu reformists equally opposed to this practice on more sanguine grounds), some critics, especially feminists, have tended to draw a strong link of the practice with an overwhelming patriarchal sado-ritual imperative. 

However, there have been dissenting views too, especially from apologists within the Hindu community who argue that this is a purely voluntary undertaking on the part of the widow who is moved to extirpate her sins, purify herself in the process, gain spiritual prowess through the sacrifice, and join her husband on the other end or in the beyond.  However,  others, less apologetically, have urged that there isn’t an easy faultline here, and that there may be a complex set of social, moral, cultural and economic factors at play, all which  need to be taken into consideration before jumping to a hasty unself-critical judgment about this practice. They argue that in the trope “female sacrifice” each term is accented differently in varying circumstances and conditions of production, so that in one given moment “sacrifice” might be the calling of women to subtly deflect male dominionship (recalling Joan of Arc, Draupadī and Sītā in the epics), while in another moment it might register the call to sacrifice on the part of the male – as exemplified by Krishna, Akbar, Gandhi; both together would yield greater liberative potency and spiritual or transcendental possibilities. The female is in a powerful position and not serving here just as a prey or pawn to a patriarchal plot; and this disposition enables her to control the amoral ontology of “sacrifice”, even contribute to its sacred-making potency, and not just be consumed naked by its raging fire.

As we speak with each other, news is broadcast o social media on the glaring statistics of people infected by COVID-19 and others dying from complications all across India, the second-most populace country in the world : and now the country with the largest numbers of COVID-19 cases and the second-largest numbers of death (after the United States in 2020). In other parts of Asia, and in Africa and the Americas the numbers are rising from the second wave or mutant variant of the coronavirus. It seems difficult and perhaps somewhat odd to be pontificating on ‘good death’ and the inevitability of death in this time of the pandemic. However, I have reflected on these very questions in the context of the pandemic and shared some ruminations (with some overlap here) in a scholarly paper I would like to reference that in acknowledgement also.

Confucianism and Death

This conversation is with Shumo Wang who is undergoing doctoral studies in religion at Duke University. He was born and raised in China and moved to Cambridge in 2017, where he received a M.Div. degree at Harvard Divinity School. He is a practitioner of Confucianism and a young scholar of East Asian religions. He is currently serving as a minister in the Kongyang Confucian group in China, which was founded by his teacher Dr. Zhu Xiangfei in 2002. Shumo aspires to serve the Chinese community and broader groups in the US with resources from the Confucian spirituality. In this interview, we discuss the meaning of Confucian spirituality and death. 

George Yancy: Tell me a little bit about your personal relationship with Confucianism.

Shumo Wang: At the age of 16, I met my master in Confucian spirituality, Dr. Zhu Xiangfei, who identifies himself as a practitioner and minister of the Confucian tradition. Dr. Zhu chose not to pursue a career in academia after his post-doc work and started his Confucian educational experiment in 2006. I entered his classroom out of curiosity and was grasped by his teaching immediately. 

Dr. Zhu contends that Confucians should live a life of diligently practicing spiritual exercises that lead to the apprehension of the heavenly Path, the transcendent. He also insists that today’s Confucians should seeks a spirit of independence from political authority, which was clear and sound in Confucius’s lifetime and a few generations after him. In other words, Confucians now should bring back the ritual, faith community, and the internal spiritual practice of the tradition. 

My master thus summoned us to become the practitioners and ministers of Confucianism, not just scholars who study Confucianism. Deeply touched by the spirituality he introduced, I decided, at the age of 18, to respond to his summons. Thereafter, I and some like-minded friends have been following our master to study the classics, history and spirituality of the tradition.

In 2017, I went to Harvard Divinity School to seek knowledge and skills that are necessary for my mission, as well as broaden my understanding of the world religions. In June 2020, I received the Master of Divinity degree and returned to Beijing to serve our Confucian group. I hope to contribute to the start of a new era of Confucianism that is different from the 2000 years of imperial society in China’s past. 

Yancy: Before I specifically ask about death through the lens of Confucianism, I would like for you to speak briefly to the issue regarding the religious status of Confucianism. My sense is that unlike the Judeo-Christian religion, with its religious rituals, Confucianism isn’t defined through such rituals. Would you share a sense of your understanding of this distinction? 

Wang: Your impression is, to a certain degree, correct. The core of Confucianism is the pursuit and embodiment of the heavenly Way, and the judgment and defense of justice. Ritual is rather secondary compared to these two aspects. However, this does not mean that ritual is not essential to the Confucian tradition. On the contrary, ritual is one of the most definitive characteristics of Confucianism. The major subject in Confucius’s academy is ritual practice, and many of Confucius’s disciples were indeed ritual professionals. They even moved to Qufu, Confucius’s hometown, to continue to practice rituals taught by the Sage after his death. Great historian Sima Qian visited this community and found out that they were still practicing and passing down the rituals even 400 years later. 

Nevertheless, we should still be vigilant not to take ritual as the only factor that defines Confucianism, for many rituals are associated with cultural conventions and political power, such as ancestral worship and imperial worship of Heaven. These rituals had been broadly practiced before Confucius’s time and remain somewhat active in current Asian societies, where Confucianism is no longer practiced and respected as a spiritual tradition. For Confucianism, these so-called rituals are just conventions instead of true rituals, especially as Confucianism understands rituals as manifestations of internal spiritual states connected to Heaven, to the transcendent. If one practices these rituals without sincerely pursuing to embody the Way, to be one with the transcendent, one should not be considered as a true Confucian. Even worshiping Confucius could not be a mark of one’s identity as a Confucian. In the imperial era, all who participated in the civil service examination and sought political positions were allowed to worship in the Confucius Temples, but they did not necessarily continue to pursue the lineage of the Way. 

Yancy: Does Confucianism have a “sacred” text or a text that is considered central in terms of providing a set of principles about how we ought to live? 

Wang: If only one text could be listed, then there is no doubt that it has to be the Analects. The Analects consist of collected sayings and the life story of Confucius and his disciples. It is the foundation of the Confucian tradition. Besides the Analects, Mencius, the Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean are also considered essential in Confucian history. The mentioned texts are called “the Four Books,” which present the basic teachings of Confucianism. If one aspires to explore the Confucian tradition in-depth, the ancient classics that form the cultural background of Confucius’s time are the Book of Poetry, and the Book of Change. Other texts that contain the teachings of early Confucians are also worth reading, such as the Classic of Filial Piety, the Book of Rites, and the Spring and Autumn Annals with their commentaries, Xunzi, and Family Sayings of Confucius, etc. However, English readers may find a major problem with the translations of these Confucian texts: they are either translated by Christian missionaries or by western scholars, instead of practitioners of this tradition itself. They might be linguistically faithful to the original texts, but they do not serve the aim of conveying the spiritual massage of Confucianism very well. There is a long way to go for Confucian spirituality to truly cross the border of culture and language. 

Yancy: Given that life and death are inseparable, how, according to Confucianism, should we approach the reality of death? 

Wang: Indeed, life and death are inseparable. For Confucians, life and death are both forms of being. Above the phenomena of life and death, the origin of the universe is the Way of Generation. The Heaven is constantly generating myriad beings, and this virtue is the ultimate truth of both life and death. Knowing, or should we say, embodying this truth, this Way, is the spiritual goal of Confucianism. The spiritual state of embodying the virtue of Generation is called ren in Confucianism, which has been translated as benevolence, mercy, or love. All of these terms are correct but not accurate enough. Ren is the manifestation of the transcendent in the minds of humans. Love is one of its faces, and among others, dignity, wisdom, and courage. If one immerses in such a spiritual state, then life and death are fundamentally of no difference and both acceptable. As Confucius said: “One who aspires to ren will not seek to live at the expense of injuring their ren. They will even sacrifice their lives to preserve their ren complete.” (The Analects, 15:9) Such a spiritual state might be beyond the understanding of those who have never experienced the immersion of ren, and it cannot be grasped through rational thinking either. It has to be witnessed in the deep contemplative practice of Confucian spirituality. It is a sense of eternal warmth, a pure and peaceful joy. Confucius once praised his favorite student, Yan Yuan, for being able to immerse himself unceasingly in the state of ren, as this is indeed the most important practice in Confucianism. As Mencius said: “early or late is the arrival of death, I find no difference. Waiting for death in my internal cultivation, this is the way in which I establish my life.” (Mencius, 7A:1)

Yancy: So many of us fear death, the haunting sense of its finality. Are there words of wisdom within Confucianism that speak to how we might address such fear? 

Wang: Wang: Confucius said that all humans are bound to die, and after death, the material parts are bound to return to the earth. This is what we called “ghosts” (gui 鬼); but the spiritual essence may return to Heaven, which is what we called “spirit” (shen 神). We mourn the deceased, feel sad for them, and even bear the fear of death, as it is painful to accept that the material being of humans are destined to extinguish eventually. However, for Confucians, it is imperative to cultivate our spiritual nature connected to Heaven, to embody the Way. With such spiritual cultivation, one may be free from the fear of death, as life and death are both manifestations of the Way of Generation. Zigong, one of Confucius’ disciples said: “How significant is death! In death, the lesser people (xiaoren 小人) cease to be, the superior people (junzi 君子) enter eternal rest” (Xunzi, Ch. 27). The lesser people are those who have yet to realize the transcendent nature in themselves, while the superior people are enlightened by the transcendent nature of human beings. Without a full realization of the transcendent, one would be constantly haunted by the fear of death.

The fear of death leads to a tendency to understand the afterlife through one’s imagination and through speculation. For Confucians, the state of being one with the transcendent is beyond description. If one has yet to embody the Way and witness the reality of being connected with Heaven, one might be distracted by all the imaginary descriptions of the afterlife and seek various speculations, theories, and beliefs about death, which essentially deviate from the spiritual state of transcending life and death. 

Yancy: It is my understanding that Confucianism takes seriously filial care, the importance of learning, not to live a life that is selfish, and that stresses the importance of duty. Is there a relationship between living by such principles and the afterlife? If not, what is the incentive to live a life of duty delineated by Confucianism? 

Wang: Confucianism does emphasize the importance of duty and the virtuous life. However, we do not quite need a “motivation” that is this-worldly, or based in the afterlife, to pursue a virtuous life. For Confucians, these so-called duties are nothing more than our heavenly granted nature, our natural desire. Our love and respect for families, our curiosity about knowledge, and the pursuit of dignity all serve the development of the complete realization of human nature. There is no external goal. Therefore, the term “duty” is not entirely accurate for us Confucians, as these virtuous behaviors are the innate need of one’s existence, the heavenly mandate for each of us. Follow the need of human nature, do all the good we can, and the heavenly Way will prevail through us and lead our us to eternity as a result. 

Yancy: Say more about Confucianism’s concept of Heaven. How does that concept relate to how we live our lives within the here and now? 

Wang: For Confucians, Heaven is obviously not a certain spatial place, but rather the transcendent itself. Our lives are generated from Heaven, and thus share the nature of Heaven. We find Heaven in our instinctive desire for love, dignity, and justice, which are the manifestations of Heaven. When we sit in the middle of a forest and enjoy the fresh air and tranquility, we are experiencing Heaven in our body and mind. When parents stare at the face of their newborn, the overwhelming pure joy is also Heaven. The courage of confronting violence and defending dignity, the wisdom of comforting sadness and nourishing wanting in our lives are all Heaven. Heaven is what we are originated from, and what we ought to embody in a lifetime, and return to after death. Heaven is indeed beyond the description of language. Confucius once said: “I want to cease to talk.” His disciple asked him: “If you, my master, cease to talk, how should we learn from you?” Confucius said: “Does Heaven ever speak? The four seasons pursue their course, and hundreds of beings are being generated. But does Heaven ever speak?” (The Analects, 17:19) When we enter the internal process of spiritual cultivation, we may understand the speechlessness of Heaven and the relationship between Heaven and our lives at this moment. 

Yancy: Regarding the belief in an afterlife and the existence of souls, is there any doctrinal support that says that Confucius, after his death, went on to live within a spiritual realm? 

Wang: “Going on to live within a spiritual realm” is an expression that is based on our general experience. In the state of the transcendent, neither the temporal term “going on” nor the phenomenal term “live” are accurate. Confucius, without a doubt, has returned to Heaven, entering a state called “unity of Heaven and men” in the Confucian tradition. Such unity is beyond the distinction of life and death. The unity of Heaven and men is not a static state either: Heaven is in an unceasing elevation, as is the Sage. 

Yancy: How might Confucianism help those of us who cannot seem to face death with a sense of courage? 

Wang: Have faith in the heavenly nature in us. When we cultivate our spirituality and fully develop our nature, we return to unity with Heaven. Unity with Heaven is eternal. The warmth is eternal. The dignity is eternal. The joy is eternal. The compassion is eternal. Confucius said: “A superior person is free from anxiety and fear.” (The Analects, 12:14) We find the courage to face death directly neither in an imaginative afterlife nor in the belief in miracles, but in our own nature. If one achieves the embodiment of the Way at this moment, one may face death without fear or regret. 

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