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Death - A Greatest Adventure Or Our Deepest Fear?

Is death ‘a great adventure’ or our deepest fear? According to our enlightened masters, however, is it an ultimate or the grandest truth? Let us explore the secular or spiritual perspective. 

“Our life is a mystery, and death holds the key; no words can explain; it takes dying to see.” (R.C. Burns, The Humbled Hillbilly). These profound words are from a book by R.C. Burns, entitled “Death - Our Greatest Adventure!”

If we discuss this from a secular or worldly perspective - as viewed by most human beings, death is an “unwelcome” word beset with fear. Most people do not wish to talk about this subject. Most cultures view death as an integral part of life on a larger continuum. In other societies death is regarded as a specter no one talks about. 

According to J.K. Rowling, “Death is just life’s next big adventure.” Joanne Rowling, best known by her pen name - J.K. Rowling is a British author and philanthropist. She wrote Harry Potter, a seven-volume children’s fantasy series. 

Death and the divide between good and evil are the central themes of this famous series which has sold over 600 million copies, been translated into 8 languages, and spawned a global media franchise including films and video games. 

While most people associate this intriguing subject with extreme fear, it has sparked much interest among authors, poets, and moviemakers. Secular and spiritual literature is replete with mentions of this mysterious and thought-provoking subject. At this stage, it is essential to distinguish between the terms secular or secularism vs. religious or spiritual perspective of death. As a philosophy, secularism seeks to interpret life based on principles derived solely from the material world, without recourse to religion. It shifts the focus from religion toward “temporal” or material concerns. So most people, who are immersed in living a mundane, materialistic life are not prone to developing an interest in death, however, when some individuals experience a “near-death phenomenon,” that stimulates interest in several people. 

Interestingly, near-death experiences (NDEs), have become a topic of considerable research in the last several years. Several researchers describe near-death experiences as having similar characteristics. This is a vast, somewhat deep subject which can stand on its own and we hope to address this in the website in the future. 

Let us shift our attention now to the spiritual perspective of death. Hinduism, as the most ancient religion has presented information that is now widely accepted by several other major religions as well. 

One of the most widely recognized and accepted philosophies in the modern world is “Vedanta,” which was first introduced to the Western world by a Hindu monk called Swami Vivekananda. A story related to Swami Vivekananda in this context is worth citing in narrated text. 

 

“The Grandest of All Truths” (cited from complete works of Swami Vivekananda, 8.14)

Swami Vivekananda talked to a group of college students sometime in the 1890s. In the course of their conversation, Swami said to the students - “You are all studying different schools of European philosophy, and metaphysics and learning new facts about nationalities, cultures, and countries. Can you tell me what is the grandest of all truths in life? Upon not hearing any response, Swami Vivekananda’s response was simple and direct: ‘We shall all die!’. That’s it? Everyone will die one day - as if we did not know that already? The inevitability of death is a truth, no doubt. But it is far from being “the grandest of all truths”, it is on the contrary the most unpleasant of all truths. It’s a truth we would instead not think about. 

Swami’s luminous words followed: “Look here - we shall all die. Remember this always, and then the spirit within will wake up. Then only meannes will vanish from you - practicality in work will come, you will get new vigor in body and mind, and those who come into contact with you will also feel that they have really got something uplifting from you”. 

But all of these will come only if we face the thought of death courageously. Even cowards brood over the thought of death. But they don’t choose to do it - they are forced to do it. Their inner weakness and fear compel them to agonize endlessly about death. Swami could tolerate and forgive everything but cowardice. When a disciple timidly suggested that serving others in this evanescent world was of no use because death is always stalking behind every one of us, Swami flared up. “Fie upon you! If you die, you will die but once. Why will you die every minute of your life by constantly harping on death like a coward?” (complete works of Swami Vivekananda 7-176). 

 

Swami wanted the contemplation on death to be a healthy exercise of the brave, not a death phobia of the weak. 

The importance of keeping the thought of death always before our mind’s eye has been emphasized in many religions. Ansari, a Persian Sufi master and poet said, “O man remember death at all times”. Takeda Shingen (1521-73), a great Japanese general and student of Zen remarked “Zen has no secrets other than seriously thinking about birth and death”. 

The “Imitation of Christ” expresses this thought in another way - “Thou oughtest so to order thyself in all thy thoughts and actions as if today thou were to die.” 

To summarize, anxiety surrounding death is part of our human nature. We are wired to fear the unknown and seeking to avoid the unknown gives our mind a reprieve.    However, because it is well-established that the experience of death is unavoidable for human beings, these do not lead to sustainable peace of mind! Deep inside, we all know that death is a part of life so it serves us no practical purpose to avoid thinking about it. This approach only prolongs agony unnecessarily!  

When we embrace the inevitable of death, it can propel us to make the most out of every second we are blessed to have on Earth.    By studying the words of spiritual leaders like Swami Vivekananda, we can successfully transform our perspectives on death from being the extinction of our physical body to the liberation and rebirth of our spirit and a reunion with our Creator. Working towards this perspective can replace debilitating anxiety with calmness and perhaps even hope for an exciting adventure that ironically will allow us to more fully enjoy our life and die only once!

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