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Death, Fear, and the Law of Karma

By: for ISKCON News on Aug. 13, 2010
Death consistently ranks among the top ten things people fear most. Among the primary reasons for this fear of death are: death is unknown territory, few know what to expect; and doubt about being held accountable for how you lived your life.

When considering the various types of human responses to this natural fear, it seems quite reasonable to assume that religious belief would provide some sort of comforting response to the fear of death. Indeed, over the last 35 years there have been numerous academic studies on the correlation between the fear of death or death anxiety and religious beliefs.

In 2006, author P. Wink published the results of his study entitled “Who is afraid of death? Religiousness, spirituality, and death anxiety in late adulthood,” in the Journal of Religion, Spirituality, & Aging. Data from a sample of white, Christian men and women were used to test the hypothesis that traditional, church-centered religiousness and de-institutionalized spiritual seeking are distinct ways of approaching fear of death in old age. Both religiousness and spirituality were related to positive psychosocial functioning, but only church-centered religiousness protected subjects against the fear of death (Source: Wikipedia article on Fear).

Interestingly, an earlier study conducted by R. D. Kahoe and R. F. Dunn in 1976, “The fear of death and religious attitudes and behavior,” published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, points to why church-centered religiousness may have more efficacy in allaying the fear of death as compared to other types of responses, religious and otherwise. According to Kahoe and Dunn, people who are most firm in their faith and attend religious services weekly are the least afraid of dying. People who hold a loose religious faith are the most anxious, and people who are not religious are intermediate in their fear of death. A survey of people in various Christian denominations showed a positive correlation between fear of death and dogmatic adherence to religious doctrine. In other words,
Christian fundamentalism and other strict interpretations of the Bible are associated with greater fear of death (Source: Wikipedia article on Fear).

If it’s true that religious belief best combats the fear of death when it is characterized by a dogmatic approach, it seems to me that one fear is just being replaced by another. Dogmatism can be defined as an insistence that all religious beliefs come from a preferred set of rules or doctrines, and that inside that set nothing can be questioned, and outside that set there is nothing of religious value. In other words, dogmatism, whether it be Christian, Hindu, Muslim, or Jewish, is just another type of fear.

Perhaps knowledge is a better approach to the fear of death. Knowledge can be both objective and observable, characteristics which go right to the heart of the prominent reason why people fear death, the unknown. Knowledge conquers the unknown so; let’s look at both the physical and metaphysical laws of the universe. Newton’s Third Law of Motion, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and the First Law of Thermodynamics, or the Law of Conservation of Energy, which states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but can change its form, can be understood as the physical equivalent of the metaphysical Law of Karma, which refers to the totality of our actions and their concomitant reactions in this and previous lives, all of which determines our future. Taken together the import of the physical laws, action/reaction/conservation/mutation, when combined with the metaphysical law of karma, can help dispel the unknown territory of death.

Based upon such a combined application of these laws it is reasonable to understand that according to karma, performing positive actions results in a good condition in one's experience, whereas a negative action results in a bad effect. The effects may be seen immediately or delayed. Delay can be until later in the present life or in the next. The concept of karma is part of the world view of many millions of people throughout the world. Many in western cultures or with a Christian upbringing have incorporated a notion of karma. The Christian concept of reaping what you sow from Galatians 6:7 can be considered equivalent to Karma (Source: Wikipedia article on Karma). Thus, in a very practical sense, understanding the physical and metaphysical laws of the universe informs us that it is up to us what death holds for us.

The founder and guru of the Hare Krishna Movement, Srila Prabhupada, tells the following story to illustrate how knowledge of the Law of Karma also informs us how and why we are held accountable for how we live our lives.

“There is story in which one saintly person came in an assembly. A saintly person gives everyone some blessings. So there was a king's son and the saintly person blessed him, "My dear king's son, you live forever." And there was another's son, he was the son of a sage, and so the visiting saintly person blessed this boy, "You son of a sage, you don't live. You die." To the king's son, he said, “You live forever," and to the sage’s son he said, "You don't live."

There was also a hunter present in the assembly, and another young saintly person. To the saintly person he blessed, "Either you die or live, it is all the same." To the hunter the saintly person blessed, "Don't die, don't live." This is very instructive. "You don't die, you don't live." One was blessed that "You don't die," the king’s son, "Don't die." And the sage’s son, he was blessed, "You die." And the young saintly person was blessed, "Either you die or you live." And the hunter was blessed, "You don't live, don't die." So this was a puzzle.

So the king, he invited his minister and asked, "What is the meaning of this?" The minister was very intelligent, so he explained, "Your son has been blessed "live forever" because he is so licentious that as soon as he dies he is going to hell. So therefore the saintly person has blessed, “You better live forever; otherwise you are going to hell. Your life is so sinful that next life is hellish. So better you live forever."

Next, the son of the sage, this boy has to undergo austerities: no meat-eating, no illicit sex, no intoxication, so many no's and there is no comfortable life. The son of the sage lives in a cottage. There is no good bedstead, and eating simple fruits and flowers. So from materialistic point of view, this is a miserable condition of life. So he was blessed that "You have sufficiently undergone austerities. Now your next life is in the spiritual world. So better you die and go to the spiritual world. Why you should suffer any more?" So therefore he was blessed that, “You don’t live.”

And the saintly person, he was blessed by the words, "Either you die or live, the same thing." Because, a saintly person is engaged in the service of the Lord so his life is so blissful. So either he lives or when he dies, he goes back to home, back to Godhead. He'll do the same business. So there is no difference. Krishna says in Bhagavad-gita, “Anyone who can understand Krishna as He is, then after leaving this body he comes to home, back to home, back to Godhead. So saintly persons, their life is so pure that in this living condition, they are in Vaikuntha, and after leaving this body, they are going to Vaikuntha. So, both ways they are benefited.

Finally, the hunter was blessed, "You don't live, don't die." What is that? "Now you are hunter, butcher. So nasty life you are living, therefore death would be better for you, better you die. But if you die, then you go to hell. Therefore, the saintly person said, “Don't die, don't live."

What happens to us after death is not a matter of judgment, rather human life is an opportunity for planning our future lives. Just as we plan during our lives for the future by going to school, saving money, planning for our family. So our present human life gives us the opportunity to plan for our life after death. Make a plan, don’t succumb to fear.

The life and death of American Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau provides us with a good example. Thoreau’s health slowly declined over a period of three years before his death. As he approached his death his friends were alarmed at his diminished appearance and were fascinated by his tranquil acceptance of death. When his aunt Louisa asked him in his last weeks if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau responded: "I did not know we had ever quarreled." (Source: Wikipedia article of Thoreau)

So how did he achieve this freedom from fear of death, how did he plan his life? He himself describes this, “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad-gita, in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.”
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