In our ignorance, we believe that the death of an individual means death forever. This is definitely not so … for the simple reason that Atman is eternal and imperishable, NITA AGARWAL explains in the third article in her series on chapter 2 of the Bhagavad Gita
Lord Krishna explains to Arjun how the Self or Atman is unborn, eternal and inexhaustible. Then how can anyone, be it Arjun or the Lord Himself, slay anyone or be slayed?
It is our ignorance of being unaware of the true nature of Atman that makes us believe that death of the gross body means death of a person; or if we kill somebody, then that person is dead forever. Our attachment to this gross form is the cause of fear and grief at the very thought of someone’s death.
Lord Krishna explains that Atman is not limited by the gross body that we see and recognize as our loved ones. Jeevatman (cause of individual identity of name and form) leaves one body to occupy another, just as we discard old clothes to wear new ones. Here we must also understand the difference between Jeevatman and Atman.
Jeevatman is the subtle body that is comprised of desire, thoughts, vasanas (tendencies) and karma (actions done physically and mentally). The Real Self or Atman doesn’t participate in any of this. The gross body ― made of five elements ― earth, water, fire, air and space ― gets merged in the same after the Jeevatman leaves it, which is the death of the individual being.
When Jeevatman leaves the body, Atman experiences no change. The human body is like a set of clothes worn by the Jeevatman. When it leaves the body, no pain is experienced by it just as the body doesn’t feel any pain in changing its clothes. Jeevatman moves on to occupy a new body according to its need to carry forward its eternal journey. Therefore, one should not grieve the death of the gross body.
Lord Krishna further explains to Arjun how Atman cannot be killed by any weapon, burnt by fire, drowned or destroyed by water or dehydrated and destroyed by air. Any element cannot destroy another element that is subtler than itself. For example, weapons may kill a tree or destroy an object, but no weapon can kill fire, air or water as these elements are subtler than the weapon (earth element).
Similarly, fire cannot burn itself or burn space. It can only burn objects in space that are grosser than itself. Water can only drown or decay an object. But none of these elements can destroy space as space is subtler than all these elements.
When space can never be destroyed, then how can Atman that is subtler than space be destroyed by any of the elements? We must understand that objects are those things that we can perceive and experience with our senses.
Lord Krishna explains that weapons, fire, water, or air cannot destroy Atman, because it is eternal ― not limited by time; is all-pervading ― not limited by space; stable ― unchangeable; and ancient or timeless ― there was never a time when it did not exist.
Gross objects that we perceive with our sense organs like eyes, ears and so on, are forever changing. Even the human body changes from birth to youth to old age, before becoming weak and sick. All things that change can be destroyed and killed but That, which has existed forever, is present everywhere and does not change ever can never be killed. It is Atman.
Lord Krishna says that Atman is unmanifested, unthinkable and unchangeable. It is unthinkable because the mind can only think and perceive what the senses feel. Since Atman cannot be seen by our senses, we cannot comprehend with a mind that works on what the senses feed it. It is unborn because it is existence itself.
Existence is that, because of, which all things that we perceive exist. All objects that we see and perceive exist because of something, while Atman is Existence, itself. As Atman is all pervading, it exists everywhere, in all forms, at all times.
Thus, we can conclude that Atman is unborn. It is neither born nor does it die. It exists forever, as it’s beyond time and space. It is all pervading and the cause of Existence, itself.
So, what leaves the body upon death is Jeevatman, that is, our desires, tendencies and thoughts. Jeevatman is the subtle body that leaves and occupies another equipment (body) to carry on with its journey till it experiences Oneness and merges forever with Divinity.
After our discussion, it is now clear that we grieve because of attachment to the individual being. In our ignorance, we believe that the death of any individual means death forever. This is definitely not so … for the simple reason that Atman is eternal and imperishable.
Note from the author: These articles are based on a commentary on the Holy Geeta by Swami Chinmayananda and discussions during study classes run by Swamiji’s followers that I attended.
Nita Agarwal is an ex-Table Tennis State player, qualified teacher, self-taught budding painter and a successful blogger, who writes about her observations of life and people; most importantly, she describes herself as a working housewife.