Ten Stories of the Final Moments of Great Sages & Ten Reasons Hindus Do Not Fear Death
There are two indubitable certainties: we were born, and we will die. This is not meant as a morose statement, but as an encouragement to consider the deeper purpose of our existence as an opportunity for spiritual progress. Hindus believe in samsara, the cyclical journey of life, death and rebirth, until such a time that one is freed from this pattern, thus achieving moksha, or spiritual freedom. Knowing this, adepts spend a lifetime preparing for their transition, the mahaprasthana, and effortlessly flow from life to death. Sushila Blackman’s book Graceful Exits is a compendium detailing the grand departures of Hindu, Tibetan and Chinese Buddhist masters. It is that book upon which this Insight is based.
A Medical Perspective: The lenses through which I approach this book are twofold; first and foremost as a practicing Saivite Hindu and secondly as a medical doctor. I am trained in anaesthesia and intensive care medicine. In my field conversations on death and dying are not uncommon. This has left me contemplating the effects of life-support machines and powerful drugs on the mystical transition that is known as death. Recurrently I have found myself having soul-searching end-of-life discussions at a point when a patient is too sick to converse and a family remains unprepared for the loss of a loved one—it felt too little too late. In these highly emotive moments patients and families frequently cling to the chance of life, any chance, as to a piece of driftwood in a stormy sea.
The artist depicts Mahakala (a form of Siva), the Hindu Deity who oversees time and dwells in cremation grounds. He, with Kali, is responsible for the dissolution of the universe at the end of each kalpa.
In many cases there would have been a timely window of opportunity for such conversations when patients could still express their wishes, such as when they consult with a surgeon or anesthesiologist before what is termed “high risk surgery” or with a cancer doctor during counseling for a course of chemotherapy. Even more ideal would be discussing end-of-life wishes as a routine conversation with the family doctor, just as one might review a routine blood pressure check, further demystifying the cultural taboo in the West surrounding the word death.
There is a palpable change in consciousness happening within the medical profession today, with doctors themselves stating, when surveyed about their own end-of-life wishes, that less is more. For example, colleagues and I surveyed anesthesiologists at University College London Hospital. We found that over half were strongly concerned they might be given overly aggressive care at the end of their own life. They value quality of life over quantity.
This changing consciousness of the medical profession, with doctors eschewing heroic interventions in their own last days, is perhaps an example of science and spirituality coming together as the Sat Yuga dawns.
In 2014, leading Harvard surgeon Professor Atul Gawande courageously published a landmark book entitled Being Mortal. Along with BBC’s Reith Lectures, this book turned the spotlight on the increasing medicalization of death, highlighting the disparity between what patients truly value and how they actually die. Home is often cited as the preferred place of death by patients, yet the majority continue to die in healthcare institutions. How beautifully this desire to be at home echoes the wisdom of the East, where the dying are dutifully surrounded by prayerful vigils and the loving attention of close family. The purpose of such preparations is to encourage the soul to exit through the highest chakra, as well as to notify astral-plane helpers of an imminent arrival. So revered is the time of transition that my Guru says to be near a realized soul at the time of samadhi is a blessing that surpasses 1,008 visits at other times.
As I pondered the medical profession’s move from the science of postponing death to the art of dying, Graceful Exits appeared in my inbox as an intriguing window into the spiritual nature of the transition known as death. At the end of the upcoming stories, I will offer a review of Sushila Blackman’s book, which is short in pages but profound in wisdom.
Ten Tales of Transition & Our Artists
In the pages to follow we share the last moments of ten great souls. Their stories can inform our own understandings of death and our ability to be present at the passage of others. As you will see, death to the spiritually awakened is not a fearsome thing. It can be playful or prayerful, but it is always powerful. The ten sages were painted by Pieter Weltevrede of Amsterdam, and the illustrated numbers were created by Ayala Wise who specializes in sacred geometry (TheMandalaWorkshop.com).