It is well known in India that while the Ramayana teaches us how to live, the Shrimad Bhagavatam instructs us on how to die. The text itself is a blend of numerous inspiring stories intertwined together, the outer core being formed by the story of king Parikshit. This king had just been informed that he was destined to die within the next seven days. This in a symbolic way explains our own existential position since we too have to leave this world on any one of the seven days. However, what was the king’s reaction on hearing the news? Did he set out to protect his physical body in any way? No. On the contrary, this is what he did:
‘King Parikshit regarded this as a blessing, since it gave him a reason to detach himself from this world which had nothing more to offer him now.’ (Shrimad Bhagavatam 1.19.4)
Then having decided that this world is worth rejecting, he renounced it and realized that Bhakti towards Lord Krishna was the highest objective of life. He thus sat down on the banks of the River Ganga with a vow to abstain from food till death. Indeed, since this sacred river carries the waters divine with the fragrance of dust from the feet of Krishna, mixed as it is with the pollen of the sacred plant Tulsi, which person about to die will not resort to its holy banks? (1.19.5-6)
Thus King Parikshit was now sitting in a place of pilgrimage, with a vow to fast till the inevitable came about. In the Garuda Purana, Lord Krishna lauds such a gesture as follows:
"The man, who realizing his inevitable demise, dies by fasting, leaves the human form and secures an effulgence equal to me. The person who on realizing that he is suffering from an incurable disease observes fast until death he never has to suffer again from disease, and he reigns in heavens like a god. If a mortally sick man takes Sannayasa he is relieved from the cycle of rebirth from this world full of sorrows and afflictions. The one who during his last days forsakes his sons, wealth etc, and takes recourse in a holy place, gains both contentment and nourishment. In fact, if such a person, after undertaking his vow, even dies before he has reached the holy place, even then he gains a meritorious place amongst the great saints. If he dies under the vow at his house, even then he goes straight to the heavens. The person who during his last days, casts off food and water, and drinks only the waters from my feet, he is not reborn on this earth. The one who, on hearing of his imminent death, starts off on pilgrimage, and does not indulge in any violence of any sort, with each step gains a merit equal to the gift of a cow. What more is there to say? The one who embraces his inevitable death by voluntarily fasting, he gains an everlasting merit." (II.36.37)What Happened Next?
Having decided to sit on the banks of Ganga and abstain from food (till death), king Parikshit gave up all attachments, took the vows of a Sannayasi and began to concentrate on the lotus feet of Lord Krishna. At that very moment there arrived near king Parikshit a large number of saints, along with their disciples. Actually the saints, under the guise of going on a pilgrimage, purify the holy places themselves. All of them approved and lauded the king’s action, who with folded hands addressed them thus:
"Oh indeed I am the most blessed amongst all kings because I have gained the favor of great saints like you. Alas, the race of kings is an unworthy one since we have to neccessarily indulge in terrible actions like inflicting punishment etc. It is Lord Krishna himself who has come to me in the form of my imminent death, because the entire episode has given rise to a complete detachment in a sinner like me, who otherwise was extremely attached to his wife, house etc. This is indeed a blessing because when confronted with such a situation, a person becomes terrified leading to renunciation."
"May all the great Brahmins assembled here and also the river Ganga know me as one who has taken refuge at the feet of the Lord. Let death bite me to its satisfaction, you all please only go ahead and sing to me the glories of Lord Krishna."
To this the saints replied:
"Oh the best amongst kings, since you belong to the race of Pandavas, it is no surprise that in your desire to attain vicinity with Lord Krishna, you have without a second thought vacated the mighty imperial throne. We shall stay here now till you, the foremost devotee of Lord Krishna, leave your mortal body and go the highest world which is free from all suffering and afflictions."The Appearance of the Guru
Even as this conversation was going on, there arrived at the spot, the greatest amongst the great, the saint Shukadeva, son of Veda Vyasa. The king venerated Shri Shukadeva, offered him a seat and himself remained standing before him with bowed head, and said:
"Today we unworthy race of kings have been blessed by being sanctified by your graceful presence. Please tell me what a person should do when confronted with death?"
Shri Shukadeva replied:
"At the last stage of life, one should be bold enough not to be afraid of death. But one must cut away all attachment to one’s body and everything related to it (e.g. wife and children). With patience the person should leave his house, bathe in the waters at a scared site, and then sit on an asana as prescribed in the scriptures. He should then start chanting mentally the sacred syllable OM, made up of the three letters A, U, and M. He should regulate his breath and subdue his mind. No even for a single moment should he forget OM. With the help of his intelligence (buddhi), he should restrain his outgoing senses and focus his distracting mind on the auspicious image of Lord Krishna."
The entire sequence of Shri Shukadeva arriving to assist Parikshit in his last days illustrates an important point: Everyone needs a Guru for guidance. There is no hope of deliverance without a Guru. Therefore, one necessarily needs to have a Guru. However, the search for the Guru is not a physical one. It is more of a preparation, and the day you are prepared, the Guru suitable for you will appear. This is what happened with king Parikshit. No sooner had he made the supreme resolve, there arrived Shri Shukadeva to show him the way.
The Message behind King Parikshit’s Story
There is a remarkable consistency in the Shrimad Bhagavatam in as much it reveals that our whole life should be an effort directed towards improving our last moments. The first step in this is indeed voluntarily giving up the home when the time is ripe and the children have become responsible enough to take over the household. The scriptures are clear that not for a moment should one then stay in the house. Still, if the wife wants to stay with her children she can continue to live with them, or if she wants she can accompany her husband. However this may be, one thing is certain according to the Shrimad Bhagavatam:
‘One should leave home, freed from all obligations of family etc, and die at a time and place unknown to one’s relatives. Whether it be through one’s own inner voice or through wisdom granted by others, the wise person is one who becomes indifferent to material things and leaves his home with Lord Krishna in his heart.’ (1.13.25)
This ideal is ideally exemplified in the conduct of Yudhishtra, the eldest of the five Pandava brothers:
‘Having installed his grandson on the throne, Yudhishtra decided to go away from material life. He gave up his silken garments and gold ornaments, and became free of all possessions. He then internalized his outward disposition, and clad himself in old, torn clothes. He voluntarily became dumb, and with disheveled hair presented himself as if he was a madman or a dullard. Then without waiting for anybody, acting as if he was deaf, the once mighty king Yudhishtra set out from his home towards the northern direction, traversing a path marked by great men since time immemorial.’
‘His four younger brothers followed in the footsteps of Yudhishtra. They too had resolved in their mind that it is the lotus-feet of Lord Krishna which are the ultimate refuge for all, and therefore they concentrated their hearts on the same. The resulting surge of devotion totally cleansed their minds and they became established in the Supreme State which can be gained only by those who have totally washed away all their sins, and not by those still in the throes of material attachments. Their beloved wife Draupadi too, having realized that her husbands had lost interest in her, concentrated her mind on Lord Krishna and attained to him.’ (1.15.37-50)
The Varnashrama Dharma
In the eternal Vedic social system, a man’s life is divided into four stages:
1). Brahmacharya: This stage extends from the birth of a child to his marriage after the completion of his studies. Brahmacharya means complete celibacy, meaning that till one’s education is complete one has to remain celibate.
2). Grihastha: Entering into the life of a householder. After completing one’s education one has to get married and enjoy the material things in life begetting children, so that the system of life as handed down to us by our forefathers continues unbroken.
3). Vanaprastha: As soon as some young fellow from the family is ready to take on the household affairs, one should at once retire from family life to prepare oneself for spiritual upliftment. One is not supposed to stumble in the dark alleys of household life till one is forcefully dragged out by the will of death.
4). Sannayasa: Indeed, everyone’s life must be so arranged that in the last stage of life, at least fifteen to twenty years prior to death, one can be absolutely devoted to the contemplation of the lotus feet of Lord Krishna. The first part of these last years is formed by the Vanaprastha ashrama. The last part is known as Sannayasa, where one has to give up absolutely everything, except a small cloth to cover one’s private parts. The final stage of Sannayasa is for exclusive and concentrated meditation on the Supreme Essence illuminating everything in this world.
Even today in India we can see the first two ashramas, Brahmacharya and Grihastha, being followed almost to the letter. However, we seem to have forgotten the latter two stages of life, having got stuck in extreme attachment to what we have acquired in these first two stages. We must realize that while the first two are stages where we acquire material things, the next two represent stages where we are taught how to leave things. This is the crux of Vedic education. While the modern system only teaches us how to ‘acquire’, our ancient system instructs on also how to leave things in the right manner at the correct time.
References & Further Reading:
- Dogre, Shri Ramachandra Keshav. Shrimad Bhagavat Rahasya (Collection of Discourses): Delhi.
- G. P. Bhatt & J. L. Shastri (tr).The Bhagavata Purana (5 Volumes) Delhi, 2002
- Saraswati, Swami Akhandananda (tr). Shrimad Bhagavata Purana (2 Volumes): Gorakhpur, 2004.
- Shastri, J.L. (ed.).The Garuda Purana (3 Volumes) Delhi, 2007
- Swami Prabhupada, A.C. Bhaktivedanta. Srimad Bhagavatam: Mumbai.