Each of us has to go one day. There are two ways of going. First is being led away by ferocious servants of Yama the god of death. The other is to be carried away in a divine airplane by servants of Shri Narayana, the Supreme God, whose rule holds sway over all, including Lord Yama.
Understandably, the latter destiny awaits only those who are stainless, sinless and pure. However, the question here is whether such an existence is possible, because the Bhagavad Gita clearly says:
'As fire is clouded by smoke, so is all karma clouded by some defect (dosha) or the other'. (18.48)
'No one can ever remain, even for a moment, without performing karma.' (3.5)
Therefore, our position can be summed up as follows:
We cannot exist without doing karma, and since there is no stainless karma, we can never aspire to that supremely pure status where we can hope to meet the divine end mentioned above. Therefore, do what we may, we are fated to be carried away be the gruesome, cruel servants of Yama.
Not at all. Shrimad Bhagavatam, the cream of all Vedic Literature (Shastra), assures us that even though we are all inevitably entangled within the negative (and positive) residue of the karma we perform, nevertheless, not only is salvation accessible to all humanity, the path to liberation is simple and uncomplicated.
The Shrimad Bhagavatam unfolds as a dialogue between the renowned sage Shri Shukadeva and King Parikshit.
At one point the following conversation takes place:
King Parikshit: Please explain to me how a person can save himself from falling down into torturous hells?
Shri Shukadeva: A man should definitely atone (prayashchit) for his sins in this very life, otherwise he will definitely go to hellish regions after death. Hence before one is overtaken by death or disease, one should try to atone for one's sins, taking into consideration their gravity, just as an expert physician promptly adopts a remedial dosage of medicine, depending on the severity of the malady.
Parikshit: Even after having atoned for a sin, and knowing very well that committing a sin is against our interest, we commit those very sins again and again. Therefore, it seems that atonement for sins is meaningless like the bath of an elephant, who, no sooner having taken a bath, besmears itself again with dust.
Shri Shukadeva: You are right. The results of karma cannot be totally rooted out by karma alone. The atonements laid down in our scriptures for the expiation of sins are for the ignorant only, and as long as ignorance (avidya) remains, our desires will not be uprooted completely and the tendency to commit the same acts again and again will not go away. Hence true atonement consists of knowledge, which washes away our ignorance. Just as diseases do not attack a person who eats only pure and healthy food, the one who regularly follows regular regulative principles (niyam), gradually becomes eligible for salvation. These principles are – penance, celibacy, subjugation of the senses, controlling the mind, charity, truthfulness, inner and outer purity, nonviolence etc.
After having given this long list of do's and don'ts, knowing fully well that following all these is quite difficult for humanity in general, the great sage then presents an extremely simple path:
Shri Shukadeva: However, a few rare persons, completely surrendered to Lord Krishna, annihilate their sins thoroughly merely by their unswerving devotion to the Lord. A sinner is not purified to that extent by penance etc., as he is by surrendering his life to the Lord and serving the Lord's devotees. King Parikshit! Bhakti is the most correct, fearless and blissful path, because on this way are found highly-disciplined, fully-surrendered devotees of Lord Krishna. Remember, even as many rivers cannot purify a pot of wine thoroughly, similarly, several acts of penance, even though they may be well performed, cannot purify a person whose face is turned away from God (Bhagavat-vimukh). Those who have even once in their life, set their mind on the lotus feet of Lord Krishna, have already atoned for all their sins. Not even in their dreams do they see Yama or his servants.
In a manner typical of Indian scriptures, Shri Shukadeva then goes on to narrate an ancient story to illustrate this profound principle:
Long long ago there lived a learned Brahmin named Ajamila. He was a good natured, virtuous, gentle, humble and pure Brahmin. Indeed he was the abode of all good qualities. Once, he went to the forest on the instructions of his father to collect flowers and fruits. While returning he saw a shameless man in the company of a prostitute. Both of them were drunk and embracing each other in a semi-clad state. Ajamila tried his best to control himself with patience, using all his knowledge of the scriptures; but, agitated by lust, he was unable to stabilize his mind or calm down his heart.
Possessed by the devil of lust, he started brooding over the prostitute and in the process abandoned all his prescribed religious duties. Not only did he bring her home, but also in trying to please her showered all his ancestral wealth on her. He also left his legally wedded wife who had come from a respectable Brahmin family. With his judgment thus paralyzed under the lustful glance of the prostitute, after squandering all his money on her, he now started to generate money by foul means to sustain her.
Living in this manner, he begot ten sons from the prostitute, the youngest of whom was his favorite, who by a chance of fate, he had named Narayana. Deeply attached to the toddler, he used to experience much delight watching his infantile antics and listening to his childish babble. Thus Ajamila, the fallen Brahmin, continued to lead his debauched life and it was in his eighty-eighth year that time caught up with him. As he lay on his bed, Ajamila saw three ferocious Yamadutas (servants of Yama), carrying a noose, coming to carry him away. Not knowing what to do, the agitated Ajamila called out to his son Narayana playing nearby. No sooner had he uttered that name, which is none other than an epithet of the Supreme God, than the servants of Lord Narayana, hearing their Master's name, rushed to his side. At that time, the servants of Yama were extracting Ajamila's subtle body from his physical body. The messengers of Shri Narayana forcefully stopped them from doing so.
Thus prevented from carrying out their duty, the Yamadutas demanded: "Who are you who thus defy the order of Yama, the lord of dharma? Where have you come from and why are you stopping us from taking him away?"
When the Yamadutas inquired of them in this manner, the servants of Lord Narayana smiled and answered: "If you really are the executors of Yama, the lord of dharma, tell us what is the true nature of dharma? On what principles do you inflict punishment? Who is the deserving candidate for punishment? Are all karmis (those who perform karma) liable for punishment, or only some of them?
The servants of Yama replied: "What is ordained in the Vedas is dharma and what is against the prescription of the Vedas is adharma. Nobody invested with a body can be actionless (akarmi) even for a single moment and any action is inevitably bound to be a contaminated by an admixture of the three gunas (qualities of nature) – Sattva (good), Rajas (mix) and Tamas (bad). Therefore, everybody performs both meritorious deeds (punya) and sin (paap). The amount of good (dharma) or bad (adhama) karma an individual performs here, the same amount of fruit does he enjoy after death."
Hearing this discourse by the Yamadutas, the divine messengers of Shri Narayana replied: "What a pity that you, the so-called custodians of dharma, are behaving in a manner which will send out a wrong message about dharma to the common people."
"This Ajamila has already atoned for all his sins. Indeed, he has atoned not only for sins performed in one life but for those performed across the millions of births he has taken; because he has, even though helplessly, uttered the Name of Shri Narayana. The very act of uttering the four syllables NA-RA-YA-NA has absolved him of all sins. A thief, drunkard, or even one who murders a Brahmin or a woman, for all these sinners, uttering the Name of Narayana is the ultimate atonement because calling out the Lord's Name brings the sinner to God's attention and the chanter's mind is attracted to the Lord's divine qualities and form, thus leading to its (mind's) purification."
"A sinner is not so thoroughly purified to that extent by performing the expiatory acts mentioned in the Vedas, as he is be the mere utterance of the Name of the Supreme Lord Narayana, as His Name acquaints one with His excellences and attributes. This is because even after performing the atonements prescribed in the Vedic Scriptures, our mind again runs to towards sin. Therefore, those who want to perform an atonement which annihilates sin from the very root, should repeatedly extol the excellent attributes of Narayana, as condensed in His Names, which purifies the mind as no other sadhana can, and thus prevents one from committing the same sin again and again. Therefore, do not take Ajamila by the wrong way (a sinner's path leading to Yama), because he has uttered the Name of the Lord just before dying and has washed off all sins."
"The Lord's Divine Name, even if uttered - to denote another person (and not the Lord), or as a joke, for musical entertainment, or even involuntarily while falling, slipping, being bitten by a serpent, when afflicted with fever, or injured by a weapon, one is immediately absolved from all torments of hell. In the Vedas, proportionately heavy and light processes of atonement have been delineated depending upon the magnitude of the sin. Some of these atonements extend upto twelve years. However, there is no such differentiation in the case of the Lord's Name. No doubt, the various acts of repentance like austerity (tapasya), charity (dana) etc., do absolve one of the sins, however, the heart stained by the residue of the sins (samskaras) is not purified, which requires the supreme presence of the Lord, in the form of his Divine Name."
"As fire burns grass to ashes, so does the sacred Name of God, whether chanted knowingly or unknowingly, burns to ashes all sins of man. If a person, even though he may be unaware of its potency, takes the dose of an effective medicine, the latter will act to cure his ailment because its potency doesn't depend upon the patient's understanding of its effectiveness. Similarly, even though one may not know the value of chanting the Holy Name of the Lord, the mere chanting of it will prove effective."
Thus the messengers of Shri Narayana convincingly explained to the Yamadutas the essence of Param-Dharma or 'Bhagavat Dharma', meaning the 'Higher-Dharma', and liberated Ajamila from their clutches.
Meanwhile, from his deathbed, Ajamila had been listening to this conversation, and thus realized the truth about the two dharmas – the first materialistic/ritualistic dharma expounded in the Vedas, and the other Higher, Pure Dharma. The former being within the bonds of the three gunas, and the other beyond these three material bonds of nature. Now that he had heard the glory of the Supreme Lord Narayana, there was kindled in his heart, loving devotion (Bhakti) for God. Remembering his evil past, he felt a deep remorse within himself:
"Alas, being a servant of my senses, how degraded I became. Shame on me. Desecrating my brahminhood, I begot children in the womb of a prostitute. I degraded my family tradition and giving up my legally wedded virtuous wife, took up the company of an unchaste wine-drinking woman."
"The dialogue I just witnessed, was it real or a dream? Where have the noose-bearers who were just now dragging me gone? Where are my four beautiful saviors? Though wretched in the present state, I must have performed some auspicious deeds in my previous births, otherwise, how could the tongue of an impure sinner like myself utter the Divine Name of Shri Narayana at the time of death? Where do I shameless rogue and sinner stand in comparison to the supremely auspicious Name of Shri Hari?"
"Now that I am saved, I will control my mind and senses and try my best to prevent myself from plunging down into dark hells. I identified myself with the body and thus set out on the path of fulfilling its (never-ending) desires and ruined myself in the process. Now I will not again fall victim to the lure of physical pleasure, and live with full self-control."
"The Lord's maya in the form of a woman bewitched me and I became a mere plaything in her hands. She made me dance to her tune like a pet-animal kept for amusement. Now I have recognized the Absolute Truth Shri Narayana, and will give up the illusory notions of 'I' and 'mine', and by chanting the Holy Name of God, purify my mind and fix it on the Lord."
Thus through only a moment's association with the servants of Shri Narayana, there arose in Ajamila's heart intense detachment (Vairagya) from the material world, and giving up all associations and attachments, he immediately went off to Haridwar, where taking shelter in a temple he fixed his mind on the Lord. Having thus withdrawn all his senses from the outside world, he soon saw again in front of him the four divine messengers. Ajamila bowed down to them, gave up his body, and accompanied by them, climbed onto a golden airplane and then proceeded through the skies to the abode of the Lord.
Doubt: Yamadutas carry one away only when one's stipulated life-term is over. Then how come Ajamila was given an extended lease of life?
Resolution: Ajamila had not exhausted his stipulated life. He was being carried away by the servants of Death even before his scheduled time because of the intensity of his sins. An extreme sinner is unable to fulfill the stipulated time allotted to him. Therefore, technically speaking, he still had some time left.
Doubt: If Ajamila was an extreme sinner all his life, how did he become eligible for God's grace?
Resolution: After God's messengers had redeemed Ajamila, he did not revert back to his old ways, like most of us would have done. He promised himself that after getting out of my deathbed, I will devote the rest of my life exclusively to God. We also see that Ajamila, when he was confronted with the sight of the shameless couple in the forest, tried with all his power to restrain himself. He tried his best but failed. Then, in the end, after being saved from the Yamadutas, he gave up his life to God. Therefore, Ajamila relented both before and after committing the sin. The Bhagavad Gita says:
"Desire is the constant enemy of the gyani (wise)." (3.39)
This verse separates the wise from the ignorant. The wise, when desire first tries to take its hold over him, realizes it as an enemy and tries to resist it. He may fail in the effort. Afterwards, there is bound to be some trace of dukha as a result of succumbing to desire. The wise obviously recognizes desire as the root cause of this suffering. Here we may be certain that since he is aware of the negative nature of desire before and after the act, he certainly must have nurtured the same feelings even while he was acting according to the desire. However, in the case of the ignorant fellow, he first welcomes the onslaught of desire as a friend. After he has been carried away by the wave, and the resultant dukha has set in, only then does he realize desire as his foe. Therefore, for the ignorant, desire becomes undesirable only after indulging in it, and is not his constant enemy.
Hence we too should honestly peep into ourselves. When we sin, do we really try to the best of our abilities to restrain ourselves before indulging in it? If yes, we too are definitely eligible for God's grace and eventually salvation.
For any of us who have recovered from a near death experience, it is a strong message that we must realize that the rest of our life now belongs to God. By His grace we are now especially eligible for ultimate salvation. By no means are we to revert back to our earlier life-styles.
The Yamadutas meanwhile, who had been restrained by the messengers of Lord Narayana, had hurried over to their master and informed him of what had transpired. Hearing what they had to say, the great god Yama was extremely pleased; because in describing the course of events, his servants mentioned the name 'Narayana' many times, and Yama, himself being a great devotee of the Supreme Lord, was reminded of the lotus feet of the Lord. Then Yama said to his followers:
"Not me, but someone else is the Supreme Ruler of the world. The universe lies woven into Him, like warp and woof woven into a cloth. The Supreme Religion of God (Bhagavat Dharma) is extremely sacred, pure and secret. It's secret is known to only twelve of us: Brahma, Narad, Lord Shiva, Sanat Kumar, Kapil Muni, Manu, Prahlad, King Janaka, Bhishma, Bali, Shri Shukadeva and myself."
"The essence of this Dharma is as follows: Through the utterance of His Divine Name, man should cultivate Bhakti towards God. Indeed, this is the Highest Dharma or duty of man. Look at the great efficacy of uttering Lord Vishnu's Name that even a great sinner like Ajamila was rescued from the clutches of the noose of death."
"On the verge of death, when one's faculty cannot be concentrated on the Lord, Ajamila simply shrieked out (and not devotionally chanted) for his son, (and not the Lord) as Narayana, and attained liberation. Alas! Even the most knowledgeable and intelligent people are sometimes deluded by God's maya and their intelligence gets attracted and entangled in the flowery language of the Vedas promising attractive fruits of karma. They engage themselves in big and exhaustive karmas, rituals etc, and not knowing the supreme efficacy of uttering God's Name, they do not take recourse of this simple means to salvation. The simplicity of chanting God's Name is in indirect proportion to the supreme result it generates. This very simplicity in fact makes people disbelieve it, making them resort to highly complicated rituals, karma, ceremonies etc."
"An intelligent man, with one-pointed determination, performs only those acts which are conducive to developing Bhakti towards the Supreme Lord. Such persons are not eligible for punishment from me. Even if they inadvertently do commit a sin, it is destroyed by the chanting of God's Name. Such bhaktas are always protected by Lord Vishnu's mace, hence my dear messengers, do not even think of ever approaching such noble souls. Neither we nor Kala (All-destructive Time), has the power or competency to punish them,"
"Paramhamsas (ascetics of the highest order) are exalted people who have no taste for material enjoyment, but constantly drink the sweet fragrant honey of the Lord's lotus feet. You should bring to me only those people who are averse to the taste of this honey, because they are attached to family life, which is but the path to hell. Bring only those fellows to me whose tongue does not sing the glorious Names of God, whose heart does not ever remember His lotus feet, and whose head does not bow before Lord Krishna. Our jurisdiction extends over only those who are followers of dharma (or adharma). Over rest of the people who are followers of Param-Dharma, we have no control."
Finally Yama, like a true Vaishnava bhakta said: "May the Lord Narayana pardon me for the offence committed by my men, who set out to carry away Ajamila for punishment even though he had annihilated all his sins by uttering the Divine Name in his last moment."
Doubt: If we agree that all sins are destroyed by uttering the Lord's Name, what comes next? What if we sin again before we die?
Reply: If we sin again then all the sins which have been destroyed will spring back to life again.
Doubt: Then how will we be redeemed? It is not always possible that we are able to take the Lord's Name at the moment of death, since we often loose control of our thoughts and organs. So, what can one do?
Resolution: The answer to this question is that the name of the Lord should be uttered till the last possible moment. If no sin is committed in between the time the name is spoken and the person dies, it is considered that he took the Name at the time of death. When we utter the Divine Name we wash away all our previous sins, and if we don't sin again, then where is there scope for any doubt regarding our salvation?
Our general impression is that to atone for small sins we have to undergo smaller repentances and for bigger offences we have to undergo bigger ones. If this is the case, what about those sins we have accumulated over millions of our births? By this calculation we can never atone for them. Thus, there has to be a simpler, more elegant solution.
As long as we have not developed Bhakti towards God, we are governed by Yama, and the Yamadutas control us through the repeated cycles of birth and death. However, when we develop Bhakti (loving devotion) towards God, we go beyond the law of karma and experience the law of grace instead. Yama merely dispenses justice, but the Lord bestows grace. In fact, developing an interest in the Divine Name is but a manifestation of God's grace, because only when He showers us with extreme grace do we develop affection for His sacred Name. With it comes the realization that the purpose of life is not just to create more good karmas, but to terminate karmas once and for all by transcending the entire karmic process. The Name of the Lord operates in both ways - it activates a release from karma as well as the result of karma.
The scriptures clearly state that in this Kaliyuga, there is no hope for salvation other than chanting the glorious Names of the Supreme Lord, because this is the only way to rid oneself of sins. It is easy to perform good deeds, but extremely difficult to stop performing sins. The surest, easiest way to stop these sins from clinging to us is by continuously clinging to the Divine Name, since we cannot even for a moment remain without doing karma, and no karma, whatever its nature, can be totally stainless and free of sin.
Sinning (because of its inevitability) is an ordinary offence, but not realizing and accepting it is a much greater offence. By taking the shelter of the Divine Name, we not only acknowledge this not so positive, inevitable and continuous part of our existence, but also, most importantly, become eligible for Divine Grace and are immediately saved from its (karmas) unhappy effects.
The name Ajamila too is significant. It can be interpreted in two ways. The first is Aja + mila. 'Aja' means maya and 'mila' means one joined, thus meaning one enmeshed within maya.
The second way is Aj + amil. 'Aj' means the Supreme Lord Vishnu and 'amila' means disjoint, signifying one who is away from God. Both these interpretations define the modern individual of today.
Actually, we place too much faith in our own name, but none on God's. If we are able to have faith in the Divine Name, then no need for those heavyweight sadhanas. However, engaged in karma over numerous lifetimes, by our very nature we are unable to place faith in any means which doesn't require a heavy dose of karma.
Therefore, when you stumble while walking, do not exclaim Oh! Oh! Rather say Narayana, Krishna, Rama, Shiva or any other name of God you are fond of; and if possible, do name your child on your favorite God.
The story of Ajamila occurs in detail in the Shrimad Bhagavatam (6.1-3).
References and Further Reading:
Chinmayananda, Swami. The Holy Geeta: Mumbai, 2002.
Dogre, Shri Ramachandra Keshav. Shrimad Bhagavat Rahasya (Collection of Discourses): Delhi.
Jyotirmayananda, Swami. Mysticism of the Srimad Bhagavatam Ghaziabad, 2007.
Prabhupad, A.C.Bhaktivedanta Swami. A Second Chance (Discourses on the Story of Ajamila): Mumbai, 2007.
Prabhupad, A.C.Bhaktivedanta Swami. Srimad Bhagavatam (47 Volumes): Mumbai.
Saraswati, Acharya Bhagavatananda. Shrimad Bhagavat Parijat: Varanasi, 2002.
Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda. Bhagawatamrit (The Elixir of the Bhagwat) Mumbai, 2005.
Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda. Bhagavata Darshan (Collection of Discourses in Two Volumes): Mumbai, 2003.
Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda. Bhagavat Vyanjan: Mumbai, 2006.
Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda (tr). Shrimad Bhagavata Purana (2 Volumes): Gorakhpur, 2004.
Shastri, Shri Krishanshanker. Shrimad Bhagavatam Mahapuranam (With Eight Commentaries): Gujarat, 1966.
Tagare, G.V. (tr). The Bhagavata Purana (5 Volumes (Annotated)) Delhi, 2002.
Tejomayananda, Swami. Shrimad Bhagavata Pravachan (Discourses on The Shrimad Bhagavata Purana): Mumbai, 2006.