See you next life

by Tulasi-Priya on Thursday 8 December 2011

Over at Betsy’s blog, there has been some discussion of spirituality and how it enters into one’s writing. I have mega-tons to say on this subject, but nobody likes getting this sort of thing dumped on them unless they ask for it, so I decided to keep mum. One particular comment stayed with me, however, from a woman who saw another woman at the beauty parlor reading a book called The Fun of Dying (which I think is a great title, btw). She was outraged by the notion, and her outrage got me to thinking.

Funeral of His Grace Padmalocana Dasa, Mayapur, India

Dying is the last thing I want to do (heh-heh), but I’m grateful that I’m part of a culture that knows how to send people off. Whether there is ultimately a spiritual realm, or the yawning void, I do not want to depart in terror, and I believe dying’s too hard a task to take on by oneself. For the curious then, here is a brief summary of what the dying process is like for a Hare Krishna.

Dying is never easy, but Hare Krishnas consider it a mere transition, a change of body. The body is always changing anyway, from birth, through youth and middle age until (if we’re lucky) old age, so the process of death is a pivotal, but not final, step in the process. We prepare our whole lives for that one moment, since everything hinges on it. We can either take birth again in this world, enter higher (but still material) realms, or end the cycle once and for all by going back to our place of origin. There are also the lower realms and animals species, which are regarded with dread, but pretty much anybody who lives like a human being, i.e., makes some inquiry into the purpose of life, is guaranteed at least a human birth, the quality of which is variable. It’s like life in the material realm is a virtually eternal odyssey, and we’re all struggling to return home. Only by firmly reestablishing our relationship with Krishna (God)  can we do so.

In my the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition (the proper name for Hare Krishnas, at least since the last five hundreds years), we flock to terminally-ill people. We call the death “leaving the planet.,” as in, “Didja hear? So-and-so left the planet.” Thus, the last days, weeks, and sometimes months are like an extended bon voyage party, complete with flowers, music, singing and dancing, but no champagne (I know, why bother, then?). Holy men drop by to give you a proper send-off, and friends are tending to your physical comforts (since even in dying, one can be distracted by an itch) and reminding you of the destination if you just keep your eyes on the prize. The prize is the chance to live with the person most dear to us, the repository of all affectionate relationships, Krishna (God). In our fear and pain, it’s easy to forget that, to cling to a diseased and miserable existence. Of course it is: we’ve identified with it our whole lives, we think it’s us. So our friends and well-wishers are there to remind us that we’re not the body, that consciousness goes on, that this is just a bump in the road, and they’re going to help us over it. Those of us who are still living pray for this kind of send-off when it’s our time to go.

I once watched a cremation when I was in India. I will write about it in detail another time. But I will confess that what struck me, as I watched the body being consumed by flames, is how much I see the body as the self, in spite of all my spiritual practice and training. I kept thinking the person whose body was laid on the cremation arena, a woman just a bit younger than me, was only asleep, and that she should jump out of that human barbecue pit before she had some serious damage done to her person. But she didn’t. All the ingredients of human life were there, but the thing her teenaged son wept over, as he lit the pyre himself, was long gone.

Then there are those who have prepared so well for this moment, it’s as if, with their final sigh, they’ve dropped a glove, a worn thing bearing the shape and scent of the one who wore it, beautiful but empty. The other glove, the mind, which is considered the subtle body (distinct from pure consciousness), goes off with its owner to the next life, and a new body manifests itself from the desires and deeds that the mind cultivated in its previous existence. In short, a human is a person who truly wants to live as a human, a dog is someone who wants to live as a dog, and so on, in an endless cycle. Until we stop swapping seats on the carousel and decide to get off.

But I digress. Back to the party. The guest of honor may have left early, but it’s not over yet. If the deceased had the forethought to depart from India, the party turns into a procession, more chanting and dancing through the streets as people emerge from their houses to pay respects and throw flowers at your corpse, then down to the holy river (either Ganga or Yamuna), where a pyre is built, and the cremation begins. Why cremation? For one thing, it’s a lot more sanitary and ecological than having dead bodies taking up valuable real estate. But more important, if for any reason the departed soul decides to look back one last time, she’ll find that there’s no place to return to; she must move on. So, as the flames roar, the prayers and chants ring out, and the smoke billows, more singing and dancing, until nought but a pile of ash remains. Then a sacred feast is prepared and served out, and it’s all over but the memories. See you next life.

Leave a Comment

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

amyg December 8, 2011 at 10:16 pm

thank you so much for sharing this. i’ve never knew about the necessity of cremation to force the spirit along in its path. i like it.

i wrote not too long ago about how george harrison’s widow said he liked to meditate because he wanted to be prepared for when it was time to leave his body.

when my grandmother died this year, my 7-year old was stricken with grief over it. one day she came home from school to tell me that she went to the school counselor b/c she had gotten sad during class and started crying. the counselor tried to console her by saying, “at least she can be happy now since her husband, your great-grandpa, is in heaven with her.”

my daughter’s response: “nah, he’s probably in his next body by now.”

i’m sure the counselor was left wondering where this girl came from in the middle of our small, conservative, mostly christian, midwest town.


Tulasi-Priya December 11, 2011 at 6:16 pm

Thanks for stopping by! I’m sorry, amyg, for leaving your comment hanging for so long. I’m still learning my way around the blog. First time comments are moderated, and somehow I missed yours.

Wow, I love imagining the look on the counselor’s face when your daughter lobbed that metaphysical grenade! She sounds like the sort of child I’d love to babysit. 😉

Of course, I’m inclined to speculate that a lot of Hindu Indians die wishing they were Americans (believe me, it’s not that farfetched a thought), and their religious beliefs tag along in some form or another. I’m pretty sure I was Indian in a past life, though devotees are discouraged by our teachers from dwelling on it. It’s not where you’ve been, it’s where you’re going that counts. And frankly, just talking about past lives makes one come across a bit kooky. There’s no way to know for certain who or what one was.

I remember about twelve years ago, I was on line in a Wal-mart in Nashville, of all places. There were two ‘tweens (girls) standing in front of me. One said to the other, “I’m so bad, I’m probably going to be a dog in my next life.” My jaw dropped.


December 9, 2011 at 4:55 am

This is a very sensitive subject for me. I’ve learned the hard way how I want to look at death and behave if I see it approaching sooner rather than later. I hope I can leave without doing damage to anyone that needs to be undone.


Tulasi-Priya December 9, 2011 at 1:57 pm

Ré, I’m intrigued by this comment, and I’m curious to know more. Have you written (blogged) about it?


December 10, 2011 at 12:42 am

In October, I wrote “Untitled” about my experience with my mother. The post preceeding it was me gaining courage to ‘say it out loud’, so to speak. Here’s the link:


MacDougalStreetBaby December 9, 2011 at 6:21 am

I’ve always been very matter of fact about dying, accepting the idea that you are born, you live and then you die. A few months ago I had a little panic attack of sorts, suddenly contemplating my own demise. I want, above all else, to go out gracefully. I want to accept my end fearlessly and I want my children to witness me doing it. I want to leave them with the lesson that it’s okay. All of it is okay.

This is all so interesting and while I certainly respect other people’s paths, I don’t think cremation would do for me. I’ve become incredibly nostalgic in my old age. I would want to return home, to what I once knew and loved and cherished.


MacDougalStreetBaby December 9, 2011 at 7:05 am

I’m speaking as far as the Gaudiya Vaisnava tradition of what cremation signifies. From an ecological standpoint, I could certainly be swayed. I must tell you, though, having a plot of land to go to, to pay my respects, or just to sit and talk has been so important. My mother told me she wanted to be buried just so her children would have a place to return, in case we needed her. Knowing that it’s there, that she’s there, is so comforting to me.


Tulasi-Priya December 9, 2011 at 1:47 pm

MSB, I understand the desire to have a place to return to, to maintain that connection and that remembrance. In most traditional Hindu families, a family altar is maintained, and the ancestors (usually only father or mother) are remembered and honored (but not worshiped) there. But since it’s understood that that soul has moved on to his or her next life, the familial connection is broken, unless that ancestor takes birth again in the same family. Most of the families I know don’t dwell on this possibility; their hope is that the relative has completely left the material world, as opposed to recycling through it.


Averil Dean December 9, 2011 at 2:00 pm

My father was cremated, MSB, but is interred at a local cemetery. I do like having a place to go and think about him.

A photographer I studied with had done a shoot for National Geographic, in which he documented the burial rites in India. The photographs where eery and beautiful–I’ve never forgotten them.


Tulasi-Priya December 9, 2011 at 2:46 pm

I refrained from using a photo that I took of an actual cremation (at night, no less), thinking it would be too freaky. But it is beautiful, I think: the repository of someone’s (spirit) being consumed in a literal blaze of glory. I’ll be writing about one cremation plaza in a future post. You have been warned.


Tulasi-Priya December 9, 2011 at 2:41 pm

It was only after the fact that I realize how sensitive this issue might be for some, which makes me doubly grateful anybody at all commented here. I wrote this very quickly, mainly so that I could just get something up here (trying to follow MSB’s sterling example), and this is what came out. I spent the morning without internet access, thinking it was too casual in tone and shallow in detail and that I’d like to reconsider (and rewrite) the whole thing, going a little deeper.


December 10, 2011 at 1:23 am

I totally understand you wanting to write another post on this subject from a different angle or mood, I’ve felt that way often about things I’ve written, but I wasn’t upset by this post. (I was a little upset about the facts of my life, not feeling excluded by what you said about this subject from your own point of view.)

I believe there are so many ways of looking at ‘serious’ subjects like this, that any thoughtful conversation, tinged with humor or not, helps people get used to death being talked about openly instead of locked away, as though it isn’t as ubiquitous as birth. I think so-called civilized society needs to talk about it/examine it more. Obviously, I do too or I would have said something more like this instead of the skimpy comment I left above.

I hope you’ll leave this post here and simply write more on the subject later.

Also, I think there are new thoughts on the ecological merits of the average American sort of cremation. I felt good that my mother had suggested it for whatever reasons she had, so there wouldn’t be any family resistence to it if I brought it up. But a couple of years after her death, I heard it wasn’t the eco-friendly answer. Now I’m ticked off about how unfair it is that few people could afford an eco-friendly burial, but that’s another tangent.


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