We are all terrified by death. A large portion of this terror arises from ignorance regarding death. The terror is also partly due to the irrational attachment we have for this life in its present state. In normal circumstances, no living being would welcome death. It is in the nature of living beings to resist death. The ancient Hindu psychologists recognized this fundamental characteristic of living beings, especially humans, and gave it a name ‘Abhinivesha’. Yet, we regularly come across people who voluntarily die!
We all know of people who ‘had it all’ in life, had become famous, had been high performers, had made a lot of money, had been ‘successful’ in life; and then, one day, we get the news that they had committed suicide! That is what stumps us. We cannot seem to make sense of this series of events. We would think it makes sense if a person who had ‘failed’ in life to commit suicide. They do too. But that is a separate story. What really confuses us about human beings, and about life itself, is when ‘successful’ persons commit suicide.
Recently, we have had a series of such cases; noted fashion designer Kate Spade, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, noted socialite Sunanda Pushkar, Oscar-winning actor Robin Williams, famous rock singers Chris Cornell & Kurt Cobain. In the recent past too, we have had the cases of noted modernist author Virginia Woolf, Adolf Hitler, Noble winning author Ernest Hemingway, Artist Vincent Van Gogh, etc. who committed suicide.
Even an acclaimed Spiritual Guru Bhaiyyu Maharaj committed suicide some time back. Thousands of people looked upon Bhaiyyu Maharaj as a savior, as a guide in their spiritual lives. And what does such a person do? He commits suicide! Imagine the turmoil that must have ensued in the minds and hearts of those innocent followers!
On June 13th 2018, The Times of India carried a news report about Deep Singh Vishwakarma, an M.Tech graduate from MP, who hanged himself in his house. The same report also mentioned the suicide by anesthesia overdose of Smriti Kumari, a Medical PG student in Bhopal. Deep Singh left a suicide note mentioning that he felt he wasn’t doing well in life and that his parents or friends weren’t to be blamed. He was to get married in Dec 2018. His father had just retired from Ordnance Factory Board and the family had recently shifted to a new house in Indus Town Phase-I in Bhopal. Again, the narrative of the young man doesn’t make sense, does it? What was it that drove him to such an extreme step? Was it too high expectation for himself? He was so highly educated; eventually, he would land a good job. His life was certainly turning out very well. What went wrong?
In some of the cases of celebrity suicides, we know that they have had troubles with serious allegations about their character or finances, leading to their extreme act. But in many cases, there was absolutely no such build up. For all practical purposes, their suicide was an abrupt act.
WHO announces on its website that about 800,000 people commit suicide every year (2017 statistics). That means, every 40 seconds, one person kills himself/herself. And statistics again show that more number of guys kill themselves than the ladies; roughly four times more. Now, the interesting part that is mentioned in the website is that 50% of these suicides were caused by Depression. This brings in another interesting question: Can people who are not depressed also commit suicide? Depression is the primary occupational disease of the 21st century says WHO. Around 49% of people under stress suffer from nausea or stomach upset. 71% people cry regularly because of stress. And over 50% of the world’s children are brought up in stressful conditions says UNESCO. 72% of students in India are unaware of how to deal with stress and its ill effect. In 2015, the number of students’ suicides stood at 8934. In the 5 years leading to 2015, 39775 students killed themselves. India has one of the world’s highest suicide rates for youth aged 15 to 29, according to a 2012 Lancet report.
Is suicide a recent aberration on our modern society, an outcome of globalization and such social changes, or have there been records of suicides in the prehistoric and medieval ages too?
The Bible has many references to suicides. There is a record in the Old Testament that God gave immense strength to Samson, who brought down a Temple and killed himself as well as 3000 Philistines. King Saul was fatally injured by some Philistines. He asked his armor bearer to kill him. But when the servant refused, he took the sword and fell on it. The servant, distraught at his King’s death, killed himself too. King David’s son Absalom had a servant Ahithophel. Absalom didn’t heed to an advice given by the Ahithophel. Deeply insulted by this, the servant committed suicide. Judas’ case is by far the most popular record of suicides in the Bible.
Ancient Greece too had many recorded cases. We find many ancient philosophers debating on the pros and cons of suicide, since it was a morally sensitive act. Records are found in Ancient Chinese civilization as well as in the Arabic Kingdom of suicides. But one thing stands out in most of these ancient records: the suicides were done to protect one’s honor among men, or as a part of one’s military duty.
Émile Durkheim, the famous French Sociologist, published a monograph called ‘Suicides’ in 1897. Durkheim talks about people belonging to different types and categories, from a sociological point of view. Determining what category they are in, interestingly, could help us to predict the reason they would commit suicide! Although this claim seems too simplistic, even today, social scientists believe in this categorization. And the efficacy of this categorization is seen in the fact that psychologists have adopted it too. Durkheim’s categories are: Egoistic; Altruistic; Anomic; and Fatalistic.
Durkheim explains that egoistic people over think and reflect on everything. They tend to have high knowledge, and don’t integrate into society well. The altruistic person devalues oneself and treats the opinion of the group very highly. They generally lead a very strict life-style or follow a religion that is very strict on obedience (such as Catholicism and Judaism). Self-sacrifice is considered part of altruistic suicide. Anomic suicide can result from someone who does not control or limit their desires. They satisfy every desire, and have no regulation. On the other hand, Fatalistic suicide will usually occur in someone who has high regulation and does not satisfy many of their desires.
In medieval India, two forms of altruistic suicide were practiced. One was Jauhar, which was a kind of mass suicide by women of a community when their menfolk suffered defeat in battle. Since the women were afraid of getting raped by winning side soldiers, they would en-masse jump into a fire and self-immolate. The other was Sati. A widow would self-immolate on the funeral pyre of her husband. Social norms prescribed it for some period in certain Kshatriya communities. Although it was given a sort of religious sanction, it had nothing to do with religion. Some historians say that it was actually a conspiracy of the patriarchal society to get the inherited property of the widow.
Do animals commit suicide? Scientists have been unable to establish whether animals can consciously end their lives. Anecdotal records are however there of animals willfully approaching death after the death of their mate or of their owners (in case of domesticated animals). There are also records of some animals killing themselves to avoid being hunted by other animals. But, it is not an established fact that animals commit suicide. Human beings seem to be the only living beings that do so.
Today the reasons for suicide are many, and the ways to achieve it are broad. With the growth of the science of psychology, much clarity has come regarding the problems underlying this tendency in human beings. Depression is the name given to all these causes clubbed together. What is depression? We may classify depression into two categories: One is chronic; the other is sudden. Chronic depression patients suffer from various symptoms for quite a long time in their lives before they decide to end it all. Sudden depression cases are normal people, without any signs or symptoms of chronic depression, but, certain cathartic events in life push them to the brink, and they end their lives.
This is what a renowned psychiatrist says about Depression:
“Depression is not just sadness that requires treatment but sadness that becomes severe and often tearful, usually accompanied with poor appetite or overeating, sleep difficulties, low energy, low self-esteem, poor concentration, difficulty making decisions and feelings of hopelessness. Sometimes, due to the early experiences of life, person starts formulating dysfunctional assumptions (rigid, resistant to change and extreme). Problem arises when these assumptions gets activated by critical incidents which further leads to automatic negative thoughts and triggered symptoms of Depression, which include the following:
- Negative Thoughts:Person has a negative view about self. Person perceives oneself as inadequate and deprived. Person also depicts ongoing experiences in a negative way. Person thinks negatively about one’s future.
- Arbitrary Thoughts:Person draws conclusions without considering alternatives or on the basis of inadequate evidence.
- Selective Abstraction:Person pays attention selectively to the wrong clues. Person pays attention to some particular cues and ignores others.
- Overgeneralization:When a person fails in one particular task, and then generalizes that failure on to other tasks too.
- Magnification:Trivial things become blown totally out of proportion i.e. making a mountain out of molehill.
- Rules or Assumptions:Person thinks of some rules as part of their cognitive structure and considers them to be true in all situations. Some judge themselves inadequately, as compared to their own high standards.
- Helplessness:Person expects that bad events will occur and nothing can be done to intercept them. After meeting failure, when person formulates internal clarification, passivity increases and self-esteem drops whereas when person formulate external clarification for failure, passivity ensues but self-esteem stays high.
- Blaming:When situations are beyond control, person often blames oneself when something goes wrong. Basic reason behind this is expectation.
- Suicidal or Self Injury:Person shows such behavior as an impulsive act to attract some attention from the surroundings. The purpose is to alter their life situation, not to die.”
What all these mean in ordinary language is as follows:
Depression is by far the only true mental disease. The rest of the so-called mental illnesses have all been found to have some root in the body. Most of the psychiatric disorders are due to hormonal imbalances, or nervous problems, or legions in the brain, etc. Depression, however, is a purely mental problem. It occurs because of wrong habits of thinking. It happens because of improper digestion of life’s experiences. It happens because of wrong self-identity.
Everyone develops his or her own narrative for the experiences that life brings them. This narrative is built up by means of a relentless internal conversation that occurs within our mind, right from the age of around 3 years. The importance of this internal conversation on the quality of our lives is one of the least understood things about human beings. And, in that knowledge lies the secret of depression, and consequently of suicide.
For an external observer, everything about a person may seem hunky-dory. We are able to see that the person is doing well in school and college, getting settled well in life, making loads of money, in good health, etc. But, the narrative that person has built within his own head about all his life’s events could be a totally different story. The marks he obtained in school and college were way below his own expectation; he felt cheated by his teachers and the system. He could have settled much better in life; life has always short-changed him. No doubt he has had much success in life, but if only so-&-so could publicly acknowledge his achievements, it would be a different case. Something like this could be the voice inside his or her own head. And that is dangerous! Something similar, with obvious variations is what happened in most of the cases mentioned above.
If the quality of this internal conversation is so important in our lives, why is no attention given to it? This training is involved in Family traditions. A large portion of that internal voice is copied from the conversations we have had with our parents in our childhood. The things that our mother and father say are recorded, as it were, deep within our mind. We are not even aware of it, in most cases. Then, throughout our lives, the other voice against which we argue inside our head is those recordings. Suppose we take up a new assignment. The conversation inside our head could be something like this:
“Oh, oh! A new assignment!”
“Yes. Finally you got a break. Now, don’t screw this up! You have always screwed up the opportunities you’ve got in your life. Don’t screw this up!”
“Yes, I’ve got to be careful this time. Perhaps I can plan it well and achieve success.”
“Oh! Don’t dream so far ahead. When was the last time you planned something and executed it well? You know that you can’t do it!”
The internal conversation could go on something like this. This is why we need to train our children on how to handle this tremendous force within each one of us. While certain families have strong traditional values, where the negative words and tones of parents are restricted to only a few really bad behaviors or issues, in some families, which are rootless, nuclear families, the parents unload their own general frustration on their children in the form of regular tirades, and harsh, critical language, often accompanied with physical abuse. Parents of the present age, generally, have no clue what they say to their kids and what impact that could have on them!
Can one commit suicide without experiencing clinical depression, either chronic or sudden? History does have some instances where suicides, especially mass suicides were institutionalized. We saw that the Sati and the Jauhar system in medieval India are examples of this kind of suicides. So also we have social-protest suicides like self-immolation by Buddhist monks in Ceylon, Burma and Thailand. We had such cases during the Mandal Commission agitation some years ago. Then there have been military suicides, where soldiers do not want to be captured alive by enemy soldiers. ‘Death before dishonor’ is an idea taught to most soldiers all over the world.
What about suicides among spiritual aspirants and realized souls? Surely we couldn’t find something more anomalous and ironic than spiritual people committing suicide! People kill themselves mainly because they lack peace, love and stability in their lives. Spirituality is ‘supposed’ to confer all these and much more on us. So, logically speaking, people who are spiritually inclined should not be committing suicide at all. But, that is not the case. Quite a few spiritual people do commit suicide.
The reason, however, for raising this topic now, and indeed, for writing this entire essay, is this: We sometimes hear some of our devotees claim that Sri Ramakrishna had endorsed suicide for a God-realized soul if he wishes it. Is that true?
Sri Ramakrishna’s following words, regarding suicide in the case of a God-realized soul, are recorded in the Gospel:
A Devotee: I am frightened to hear of the suicide.
Master: Suicide is a heinous sin, undoubtedly. A man who kills himself must return again and again to this world and suffer its agony. But I don’t call it suicide if a person leaves his body after having the vision of God. There is no harm in giving up one’s body that way. After attaining Knowledge some people give up their bodies. After the gold image has been cast in the clay mold, you may either preserve the mold or break it. Many years ago a young man of about twenty used to come to the temple garden from Baranagore; his name was Gopal Sen. In my presence he used to experience such intense ecstasy that Hriday had to support him for fear he might fall to the ground and break his limbs. That young man touched my feet one day and said: ‘Sir, I shall not be able to see you anymore. Let me bid you good-bye.’ A few days later I learnt that he had given up his body.
This is the statement of Sri Ramakrishna that is the cause of lot of confusion in the minds of devotees and novices. Let us therefore study the highlighted words in the above passage.
But I don’t call it suicide if a person leaves his body after having the vision of God. So, after having the vision of God, one may opt to leave this body. Where is the legal provision for this? Can we accept these words of Sri Ramakrishna as the requisite legal provision? If we do so, where is the harm? The Supreme Court of India has ruled in a recent case that ‘Right to life’ does not include ‘Right to die’ as life and death are inconsistent with each other. Any aspect which dignifies the life may be included under Article 21 of the Constitution, and section 309 if IPC, but not that which extinguishes it.
Sri Ramakrishna further says that if one leaves the body after having the vision of God, it is not to be considered as suicide. In this case too, one would have left the body on one’s own will; nevertheless, that death would be different from suicide. Why? Sri Ramakrishna explains it in the passage: After the gold image has been cast in the clay mold, you may either preserve the mold or break it. The purpose of this human body is to obtain the vision of God. Once that is obtained, for all practical purposes, we may consider that this human body has served its purpose. Hence it may indeed be discarded. The one idea on which stands our correct understanding of this issue is: What is meant by ‘Vision of God’? We will take up this question a little later. Let us study the next statement that Sri Ramakrishna makes:
There is no harm in giving up one’s body that way. There is, by implication, a great harm in committing suicide, otherwise. Sri Ramakrishna himself said, “Suicide is a heinous sin, undoubtedly. A man who kills himself must return again and again to this world and suffer its agony.”
There are two issues to be understood in this connection:
One is that of terrible weakness. A weak person alone commits suicide. We have just seen that persons, who have developed a life-affirming thinking pattern from their childhood, become capable of receiving and digesting blows in life. Such people exhibit tremendous mental resilience. When faced with failure, allegations, troubles, losses in life, such people start seeing things in a perspective that allows them to live and fight on. Such people do not commit suicide. This is a kind of strength that is urgently required to be taught in our schools and colleges to our children. While physical exercise develops strength in the muscles, and scientific thinking develops strength in logical analysis, there is another strength that can be developed in all of us. This strength is associated with character. When a strong, positive character is developed in us, by repeated habits of a certain kind, then this kind of extreme resilience in the face of adversities develops in us. This is what Swami Vivekananda meant when he said, “I have preached only the Upanishads, and from the Upanishads, only one idea – Strength.” What strength was he speaking of? Physical strength only? No. We need all kinds of strength to live. But the most important strength we need is that of resilience; the ‘Courage to be’, as coined by Paul Tillich; the capacity to rightly digest life’s various experiences and turn them into building blocks of a rock-solid personality.
The other issue is that of a skewed view of life. We will all face troubles in our lives. What should be our response to those problems? Should we struggle and fight and rise above them? Or should we kill ourselves? Is killing oneself a solution at all? The idea of Karma and Reincarnation might be just conjecture, for all we know. But faith in these ideas gives us a perspective that running away from troubles now doesn’t solve the problem. We will have to repeatedly face the same problems, by taking birth again and again, until we solve them for ourselves. When Anthony Bourdain killed himself, his close friend Rose McGowan, a famous Actress and Author, wrote, “He chose a permanent solution for a temporary problem.”
So, when a God-realized soul kills himself, these two issues do not arise. He doesn’t kill himself because he is afraid of facing the daily challenges of life. Rather, he has arrived at the root of all challenges and extinguished the source of the fire. He therefore has nothing else to do in life. He may live, or he may throw the body away. Either way, it does not make any difference. In either case, he is not driven by weakness, and hence there is no harm in his case. Similarly, since he has achieved the goal of human life, he won’t have to take birth again to accomplish any unfinished business. Hence there is no harm in his case.
Lastly, Sri Ramakrishna makes an amazing statement: After attaining Knowledge some people give up their bodies. All those who attain Knowledge do not give up their body. So, among those who attain Knowledge, who will continue to live and who will give up the body? Can this be predicted?
Yes, it can indeed be predicted. The details of how this can be predicted is however quite complicated. If we patiently follow the line of argument presented below, sufficient clarity does come.
The path that the aspirant takes for achieving the vision of God determines largely whether he will be able to integrate the post-Nirvikalpa Samadhi experiences with his personality. If one follows the path of ‘neti, neti’, the Jnana Marga, with the goal of Nirvikalpa Samadhi, the post-Nirvikalpa state seems like an aberration. There is nothing in his philosophy or his Sadhana that will help him integrate his post-Nirvikalpa experiences into his personality. When the aspirant experiences multiplicity after achieving Nirvikalpa Samadhi, he will have no mental tools to help him make sense of those experiences. He will constantly feel that he has fallen from the state of beatitude and will constantly exert himself to regain that state. This does not necessarily mean that everyone who follows the ‘neti, neti’ path will merge forever in Samadhi and his body will fall off, with the person not regaining the normal consciousness of multiplicity at all. We must acknowledge the fact that achieving Nirvikalpa Samadhi itself is not a common occurrence. Extremely few persons ever achieve that state of consciousness. Among those who do achieve that state of unitive consciousness, most persons do not come back to normal consciousness. But some do. There have been records of that occurrence. Regarding those who do not regain normal consciousness after Nirvikalpa Samadhi, we have no problem. The explanation is quite simple, which we shall presently see. It is regarding those rarest of the rare cases – they have achieved Nirvikalpa Samadhi, but then, they do regain normal consciousness – that we need to offer a reasonable explanation of why and how they do so.
Meanwhile, it is important for us to know that if one follows the path of ‘iti, iti’, the path of Bhakti-Karma Yoga, the post-Nirvikalpa Samadhi state will be seen as a rich experience, full of meaning. This is an incredible discovery of Sri Ramakrishna which is pivotal in his role as Avatara for the present age. We introduce this idea here because we can achieve clarity on our dilemma, and arrive at a satisfactory answer to the question we have raised, only against the background of this discovery of Sri Ramakrishna.
We may recall the case of Tota Puri here. Tota Puri, one of the Gurus of Sri Ramakrishna, was a God-realized soul. He had achieved the goal of Nirvikalpa Samadhi by following the path of Jnana, also known as the ‘neti, neti’ path; the path of negation. In this path, every experience, every perception is negated as unreal. We do not bother to answer how we get those unreal experiences, or from where they arise. We only refuse to allot any value to them. When this practice is sustained for many years doggedly, a marvelous transformation occurs in the aspirant. He perceives only the Self and nothing else. It is the utter sublation of multiplicity, and consequently, a unitive experience. Generally, the aspirant does not regain consciousness of multiplicity after this experience. So, he cannot eat, drink, metabolize, urinate or defecate to sustain his body. Hence, the body withers away and he dies. In some cases, it has been noted in religious history that the aspirant does regain normal consciousness. The followers of the ‘neti, neti’ path have been greatly troubled by this phenomenon of regaining of normal consciousness, for how can they explain it? Everything has been rejected as unreal; nothing exists that can be assigned any value; how can we now explain why the aspirant regains consciousness of multiplicity? They came up with a weak theory of Prarabda Karma; they said that some karmas remain that had already starting fructifying when the aspirant went into Nirvikalpa Samadhi. The Samadhi was powerful enough to blast away the other two types of Karmas – Agami and Sanchita; but somehow, the supreme state of consciousness achievable by man is, in some cases only, incapable of destroying Prarabda Karma! Why do some others just pass away after Nirvikalpa Samadhi? In their cases, there were no Prarabda Karmas! So, you see, this theory is just sophistry.
It is the Divine Will which decides whether the aspirant will regain normal consciousness and his body will continue to live or not. There can be no other tenable position. We see this assertion of ours justified in the life of Sri Ramakrishna. After Tota Puri left Dakshineswar, Sri Ramakrishna plunged into Nirvikalpa Samadhi and lived in that state for six long months! Yet his body did not fall off. Why? It was the Divine Will that his body would be preserved and some work of that Divine Will would be done through him. Hence, circumstances conjured to bring a monk to Dakshineswar at that period. He saw the condition that Sri Ramakrishna was in and understood the situation. He knew that if that body did not eat, drink, etc, it would fall off. He would, therefore, beat that body with a stick repeatedly and bring Sri Ramakrishna to normal consciousness. In the few minutes that normal consciousness would appear in him, he would be fed something. Then again, he would merge in Samadhi. This went on till Sri Ramakrishna developed severe diarrhea, which brought him back to normal consciousness for good. Whatever contribution he made to humanity’s progress came after that period. Hence the assumption that reality is only Pure Being is untenable. Reality is Being-Will, or as Sister Nivedita would put it, Impersonal-Personal.
Anyway, Tota Puri had experienced Nirvikalpa Samadhi. And then, he had regained normal consciousness too. He couldn’t make sense of it, but he learned to live with it. With no specific purpose in life, (since every conceivable purpose of life had been negated away during his Sadhana), he just roamed around, visiting various holy places. During one such tour, he met Sri Ramakrishna and found in him a fit candidate for Vedanta Sadhana. He invested his disciple into formal Sannyasa and trained him in ‘neti, neti’ Sadhana. Wonder of wonders, the supreme state of Nirvikalpa Samadhi, which he himself had struggled for forty years to achieve, his young disciple achieved it in just three days! He was fascinated. He couldn’t explain it, but nonetheless, he marveled at this amazing turn of events. He, who had made a resolve, never to stay in one place for more than three nights, stayed at Dakshineswar for nine months! We must appreciate what a tremendous thing this is! God-realized souls of the Jnana Path, like Tota Puri, have iron will. Once they decide something, no power on earth can make them change it. It was this kind of single-minded will that made them achieve their goal. Yet, he stayed back, enamored, we could say, by the unprecedented sweetness of his young disciple. Bengal is a dangerous place, health wise; malaria and gastro-intestinal problems are rampant here, have always been, perhaps, will always be. The strong physique of Tota Puri broke down due to stomach ailments. He was not the kind that would take medicines to cure ailments. We must try to understand the mind of such persons. He had convinced himself beyond a shadow of doubt that there was no value in anything, not in the things of this world, nor in the relations of this world, nor even in one’s own body. So, where is the point of remedying something? The body is getting sick? Well, the body can be thrown away. How do we throw away the body? Of course, get merged in Nirvikalpa Samadhi again. If ‘Prarabda Karma’ is over, the body will fall off. He tried it. But wonder of wonders, he just couldn’t achieve Nirvikalpa Samadhi! This is something to ponder about. Recall the strength of will of such persons. He himself was shocked. He was disgusted with this ‘unreal’ world and its devious ways. What if he couldn’t merge in Samadhi? He would drown himself in the Ganga. He walked into the mighty river. It is recorded by eye-witnesses that he walked right through the river and reached the other bank! He couldn’t even drown himself. Flabbergasted, he sat down on the other bank and suddenly saw that what his young disciple always said was indeed true. There is indeed a Divine Will that holds complete sway over this world. He was now able to make sense of it all. All that he had rejected did indeed have an intrinsic value in that it is nothing but God. He experienced the wonderful state in which his young disciple had remained ever since he himself had regained normal consciousness.
This state of consciousness is, in fact, a revelation of Sri Ramakrishna. It is meant to be the ideal for the present age. He called it Vijnana. Look at the following passage from the Gospel in this connection:
Master (to M): I learnt Vedanta from Nangta: “Brahman alone is real; the world is illusory.’ The magician performs his magic. He produces a mango-tree which even bears mangoes. But this is all sleight of hand. The magician alone is real.
M: It seems that the whole of life is a long sleep. This much I understand, that we are not seeing things rightly. We perceive the world with a mind by which we cannot comprehend even the nature of the sky. So how can our perceptions be correct?
Master: There is another way of looking at it. We do not see the sky rightly. It looks as if the sky were touching the ground at the horizon. How can a man see correctly? His mind is delirious, like the mind of a typhoid patient.
The Master sang in his sweet voice: What a delirious fever is this that I suffer from! O Mother, Thy grace is my only cure….
Continuing, the Master said: Truly it is a state of delirium. Just see how worldly men quarrel among themselves. No one knows what they quarrel about. Oh, how they quarrel! ‘May such and such a thing befall you!’ How much shouting! How much abuse!
M: I said to Kishori, ‘The box is empty; there is nothing inside. But two men pull at it from either side, thinking the box contains money.’ Well, the body alone is the cause of all this mischief, isn’t it? The Jnanis see all this and say to themselves, ‘What a relief one feels when this pillow-case of the body drops off.’
The Master and M. went toward the Kali temple.
Master: Why should you say such things? This world may be a ‘frame work of illusion’, but it is also said that it is a ‘mansion of mirth’. Let the body remain. One can also turn this world into a mansion of mirth.
M: But where is unbroken bliss in this world?
Master: Yes, where is it?
Sri Ramakrishna stood in front of the shrine of Kali and prostrated himself before the Divine Mother. M. followed him. Then the Master sat on the lower floor in front of the shrine room, facing the blissful image, and leaned against a pillar of the natmandir. He wore a red-bordered cloth, part of which was on his shoulder and back. M. sat by his side.
M: Since there is no unbroken happiness in the world, why should one assume a body at all? I know that the body is meant only to reap the results of past action. But who knows what sort of action it is performing now? The unfortunate part is that we are being crushed.
Master: If a pea falls into filth, it grows into a pea-plant none the less.
M: But still there are the eight bonds.
Master: They are not eight bonds, but eight fetters. But what if they are? These fetters fall off in a moment, by the grace of God. Do you know what it is like? Suppose a room has been kept dark a thousand years. The moment a man brings a light into it, the darkness vanishes. Not little by little. Haven’t you seen the magician’s feat? He takes a string with many knots, and ties one end to something, keeping the other in his hand. Then he shakes the string once or twice, and immediately all the knots come undone. But another man cannot untie the knots however he may try. All the knots of ignorance come undone in the twinkling of an eye, through the guru’s grace.
So, whether a person is an ordinary ignorant soul, a sincerely struggling soul, or a God-realized soul, one will commit suicide only if one believes in one or more of the following things:
- My life has become an unresolvable tangle. I am unable to do anything to become free. Continuing to live is a pain, which is worse than the pain of death. Hence it is better to die voluntarily. This situation is applicable in the case of an ordinary ignorant soul, or a sincerely struggling soul.
- We get this human body after passing through innumerable types of living bodies. Human birth is indeed rare. Having got this human body, we need to achieve something that is imperishable. God is imperishable. If God has become real in this life for us, then, there is nothing further that can be achieved by this body. What is the meaning of continuing to live in this dirty, disease-prone or disease-ridden body, which demands enormous attention just to live from day-to-day? Hence I can give up this body. This situation is applicable in the case of a God-realized soul.
However, if one accepts the Vijnana ideal revealed by Sri Ramakrishna to be the goal of one’s life, such a situation doesn’t arise at all, as we saw in the above passage. As regards an ordinary, ignorant soul or a sincerely struggling soul, this ideal promises that no problem is impossible to surmount. The grace of the Guru is always working on us. That grace can lift us above any problem that comes our way. As regards a God-realized soul, this ideal paves the way for experiencing God in infinite ways. This aspect of this ideal was highlighted by Swami Brahmananda when he said that actual spiritual life begins after Nirvikalpa Samadhi.
A much more startling illustration of this implication of the Vijnana ideal is seen in Sri Ramakrishna’s life. The Gospel has the following record:
Master (To M.): You see, I am very much depressed today. Hriday has written me that he is very ill. Why should I feel dejected about it? Is it because of Maya or Daya?
- could not find suitable words for a reply, and remained silent.
Master: Do you know what Maya is? It is attachment to relatives – parents, brother and sister, wife and children, nephew and niece. Daya means love for all created beings. Now what is this, my feeling about Hriday? Is it Maya or Daya? But Hriday did so much for me; he served me whole-heartedly and nursed me when I was ill. But later he tormented me also. The torment became so unbearable that once I was about to commit suicide by jumping into the Ganges from the top of the embankment. But he did much to serve me. Now my mind will be at rest if he gets some money. But whom shall I ask for it? Who likes to speak about such things to our rich visitors?
This is an amazing record in the life of Sri Ramakrishna. When exactly was this, that he contemplated killing himself? It was after all his spiritual practices had completed and he was established in Bhavamukha, which is the name given to the state of spiritual consciousness when a person has realized the ideal of Vijnana. He was thus a God-realized soul when he contemplated suicide. So, as we saw before, he could very well have gone ahead and ended his earthly life, for what else would he have to achieve by continuing to live? Why indeed would he have to endure suffering the tortures of Hriday? Yet, he did not jump. Why? The exact reason is not mentioned in the Gospel. We can safely infer from his other utterances that the ideal of Vijnana goaded him to live on, as long as this body lasted, to experience God in myriad forms. That is why Sri Ramakrishna said, “Let the body remain. One can also turn this world into a mansion of mirth.” This impulse, which this new ideal for the new age gives, is extremely powerful, extremely life-affirming. It goes in the face of the sanction given by ancient Hindu tradition for spiritually advanced souls to end their lives, if they so wished.
One last point in this connection: Sri Ramakrishna speaks of vision of God in one place and Knowledge in another place. But I don’t call it suicide if a person leaves his body after having the vision of God. There is no harm in giving up one’s body that way. After attaining Knowledge some people give up their bodies. Which is it? Are they the same? Swami Saradananda makes a clear distinction between Divine mood, Vision of God, and Samadhi. An aspirant cultivates a particular attitude towards his Ishta. Based on this attitude, spiritual practice proceeds for a long time. After the attitude gets established in the aspirant, a divine mood awakens within his consciousness. This event coincides with a permanent transformation in his personality. His soul races from now onwards towards the goal of Samadhi. It is only when Nirvikalpa Samadhi occurs that Knowledge dawns, and not before. After the awakening of the divine mood, and before Samadhi, depending on the tendency of the aspirant, some may see some divine visions. Not all will see visions of the forms of God. Some may.
Seen in the light of this clarification, we understand that what Sri Ramakrishna means in the above passage is Knowledge only, and not vision of a form of God. For, the purpose of the human body is not fulfilled with just a vision of God. Of course, we must admit that a vision of God is no small thing. A person who has had such a vision is indeed a very advanced spiritual soul. But, we must also admit that it is not the last word in spiritual progress that a soul makes. When Samadhi occurs, and Knowledge dawns, one gets a perpetual vision of God. So, we need to understand the passage correctly, or it will result in great confusion.
Many aspirants, especially those capable of intense visualization, may confuse their own visualizations, accompanied by some quieting of the mind, with a genuine vision of God, or even with the final goal. When such naiveté is backed with an immature philosophy and inherent weakness of character, there is high chance of an aspirant committing suicide under duress, the entire thing masquerading as spiritual license from Sri Ramakrishna! When Sri Ramakrishna says ‘Vision of God’, these peculiar cases of self-delusion are not even considered!
Are we justified in interpreting Sri Ramakrishna’s words as we have done in the above passage? We believe we are justified. Look at the following record from the Gospel:
It was a week-day. Generally devotees came to the Master in large numbers on Sundays; hence those who wanted to have intimate talks with him visited him on week-days. A boy named Vishnu, living in Ariadaha, had recently committed suicide by cutting his throat with a razor. The talk turned to him.
Master: I felt very badly when I heard of the boy’s passing away. He was a pupil in a school and he used to come here. He would often say to me that he couldn’t enjoy worldly life. He had lived with some relatives in the western provinces and at that time used to meditate in solitude, in the meadows, hills, and forests. He told me he had visions of many divine forms. Perhaps this was his last birth. He must have finished most of his duties in his previous birth. The little that had been left undone was perhaps finished in this one. One must admit the existence of tendencies inherited from previous births. There is a story about a man who practiced the sava-sadhana. He worshipped the Divine Mother in a deep forest. First he saw many terrible visions. Finally a tiger attacked and killed him. Another man, happening to pass and seeing the approach of the tiger, had climbed a tree. Afterwards he got down and found all the arrangements for worship at hand. He performed some purifying ceremonies and seated himself on the corpse. No sooner had he done a little Japa than the Divine Mother appeared before him and said: ‘My child, I am very much pleased with you. Accept a boon from Me.’ He bowed low at the Lotus Feet of the Goddess and said: ‘May I ask You one question, Mother? I am speechless with amazement at Your action. The other man worked so hard to get the ingredients for Your worship and tried to propitiate You for such a long time, but You didn’t condescend to show him Your favour. And I, who don’t know anything of worship, who have done nothing, who have neither devotion nor knowledge nor love, and who haven’t practised any austerities, am receiving so much of Your grace.’ The Divine Mother said with a laugh: ‘My child, you don’t remember your previous births. For many births you tried to propitiate Me through austerities. As a result of those austerities all these things have come to hand, and you have been blessed with My Vision. Now ask Me your boon.’
In the above passage, Sri Ramakrishna says that Vishnu had himself said he had visions of God. Yet, Sri Ramakrishna felt sad that he ended his life. Why was he sad? Vishnu still had a long way to go before becoming fulfilled, before his soul had reached its destiny, which is a perpetual vision of God. Then there are the following words that Sri Ramakrishna says, “Perhaps this was his last birth. He must have finished most of his duties in his previous birth. The little that had been left undone was perhaps finished in this one. One must admit the existence of tendencies inherited from previous births.” How are we to understand these words? Did Sri Ramakrishna by any chance give his approval to this kind of death? Some people believe this to be the case. We believe this was not the case. If this was indeed approval, then why did he feel sad? If Vishnu had indeed cast the gold image, where is the question of Sri Ramakrishna feeling sad? Wouldn’t Sri Ramakrishna have known if Vishnu had cast the gold image?
Anyway, let us now give some thought to the words Sri Ramakrishna uses: ‘Gives up the body’ and ‘leaves the body’. We need to know the Hindu idea of death to understand these words. Swami Ashokananda says:
“In regard to the subjective phase of death, that is, death as it is experienced by the dying rather than as observed by the living, we are told that when a spiritually undeveloped soul separates from the body, it feels all the shock and agony such separation implies, whereas when a spiritually developed soul departs, its passing is easy and smooth, and there is no attendant agony.
Even when the dying man appears outwardly unconscious, he is inwardly conscious and experiences the transition from life to after-life. At the dying moment his whole past life is said to pass before him as a quickly moving panorama, and certain tendencies and characteristics of his life begin to assume prepotency. Colored and influenced by them, he departs, and the nature of the departure is determined by these predominant tendencies and characteristics. If they are good, the passing is pleasant; if not, it is unpleasant.
When a soul struggles hard and suffers great agony because it resists separation from the body and the world, on passing it appears stunned by the blow of death, and it requires some time to recover alertness. Even when full consciousness returns, it is not immediately able to determine its course. It drifts for a while, and only later is it able to find its way to a suitable plane of existence.
What do you think makes the soul resist separation from the body and the world, with the result that death means agony and struggle? Suppose I have lived in a certain place for fifteen or twenty years, that I have developed countless interests there, and that I have become fond of my neighbors. Suppose I am forced to leave that place at a moment’s notice – what a stunning blow it will be to me! Finding myself torn away from all I knew and loved. I shall suffer greatly. Death is that kind of separation, and to those who have been much attached to life, it is certainly painful.”
We need to understand what happens in an aspirant as he progresses through Divine Mood, Visions and achieves Samadhi. Each of these developments is accompanied by tyaga and vairagya in the aspirant. It can be seen as a circle; renunciation & dispassion make the soul qualified for spiritual progress, and each step in the spiritual path strengthens the soul’s renunciation & dispassion. When Samadhi occurs, which is the true state of God-realization, the soul has become completely free from any association with multiplicity. It is a state of unity. This utter dissociation of consciousness from matter has a physiological counterpart, as per our traditions. In this human body, there is a wonderful, seamless association of consciousness, life-force and nerves. When Samadhi occurs, these three get dissociated from one another. Sri Ramakrishna gives the example of a dried coconut. When one shakes a completely dried coconut, one can feel the inner portion completely dissociated from the kernel. As and when a God-realized person wishes he can easily dissociate himself from his body. In fact, the association and dissociation of consciousness with matter depends on the will of the God-realized soul. How? In a God-realized soul, there will always be two wills; one is the will of the ordinary person; the other is the Divine Will, in its entirety. A God-realized soul does not always have his own will merged in the Divine Will. Quite often he will operate his own individual will. In that case, he is subject to the forces of human emotions and Karma. When his individual will is merged with the Divine will, he can still act and use his senses. In all cases except that of a God-realized person, consciousness is very deeply associated with matter. Death is a forcible dissociation of the two; hence the pain associated with death in general cases.
Even before death, even while living, a God-realized person can withdraw his consciousness from any association with matter and merge in Samadhi, at will. Swami Turiyananda had to be operated upon for a carbuncle. The doctor warned him that it would be extremely painful. Swami Turiyananda asked for a few minutes before the doctor began the procedure. He then withdrew his consciousness from that portion of his body and then the doctor operated on him. Swami Turiyananda felt no pain! We have a similar incident in the life of Sri Ramakrishna too. The cancerous sore in his throat had to be cleaned by a doctor. It would pain him immensely when the cleaning was done. So, he would take a couple of minutes, withdraw his mind from that portion of his body; and then the doctor would do the cleaning. It was as if the doctor was touching a plastic model and not a living body. That kind of dissociation of the life-forces from the body becomes possible when the Vijnana ideal is realized in our lives.
Anyway, the main point of contention here is: Giving up the body, or leaving the body seem to be similar to voluntarily dying by suicide. But the important point to note is that in one case, the person, by an act of will, releases the life-forces and the body falls dead, while in the other case, the person has to destroy or mutilate the body and enforce the life-forces to leave the body. This may seem like a trivial difference, but the entire moral argument of this essay lies in this distinction.
Take the case of Swami Vivekananda’s death. The following is recorded in the authoritative Life of Swami Vivekananda. There are many versions of the last moments of Swamiji, but this one was published in Udbodhan Magazine by a brother monk:
After meditating and telling his beads for about an hour, he laid himself down on his bed on the floor, and calling the disciple, who was waiting outside, asked him to fan his head a little. He had the rosary still in his hand. The disciple thought the Swami was perhaps having a light sleep. About an hour later, his hand shook a little. Then came two deep breaths. The disciple thought he fell into Samadhi. He then went downstairs and called a sannyasin, who came and found on examination that there was neither respiration nor pulse. Meanwhile, another sannyasin came and, thinking him to be in Samadhi, began to chant aloud the Master’s name continually, but in no way was the Samadhi broken! That night an eminent physician was called in. He examined the body for a long time and afterwards said that life was extinct. The next morning it was found that the eyes were bloodshot and that there was a little bleeding through the mouth and nostrils. Other doctors remarked that it was due to the rupture of a blood-vessel in the brain. This clearly leads to the conclusion that, in the process of Japa and meditation, his Brahmarandhra [aperture in the. crown of the head] must have been pierced when he left the body! After his Mahasamadhi several doctors came and examined his body minutely and tried to bring him back to consciousness. They exhausted all the means and methods that they knew of rousing him, but to no avail. They could not, in point of fact, make out the real cause of his death. He died, in truth, of his own accord. He was born a yogi, and he died a yogi!
Although this looks like a normal death, in retrospect, all his companions were able to read that he planned his end, by an act of will. He had displayed a marked change in his life-style for about a month before the end. He had even consulted the almanac and had decided on an auspicious moment. The piece-de-resistance was in his organizing an all-night Kali Puja on the day following his end. What better way to look upon his death as a final offering to Mother Kali, who had used him to get Her work done! Some of these things, we see in Sri Ramakrishna’s case too. He had left sufficient hints that he would depart on a particular day, although they were all understood only in retrospect.
Do all God-realized souls pass away like this? No. Most God-realized souls prefer to exit in an undramatic, apparently normal way. We may refer to the final moments of Holy Mother Sri Sharada Devi, or Swami Brahmananda, or a host of other genuine spiritual souls to understand this. Take for instance the case of Swami Trigunatitananda. He got hurt very badly in a bomb attack. He suffered for a few days and thereafter, passed away silently. But, on close observation, all of them exit in a way that does have some extraordinary features. For instance, look at the following record of Swami Saradeshananda’s death, as noted by his full-time attendant:
I called for the other attendant and sent him to fetch the doctor. The doctor came at once and examined him. Initially his blood pressure was alright, but the doctor instructed us to keep an eye on it as his blood pressure and pulse could go up anytime. A few moments later, I noticed that his blood pressure was extremely high and the pulse-rate also was very fast. The doctor administered injections. Half an hour later, his left side, which was quite fine till then, started paralyzing. He lost all outward consciousness. The whole of 10th December went like this. At night, we heard him groan a little. Possibly, it was because of stomach pain due to an accumulation of urine in the bladder. On the eleventh, the doctor asked us to bring a catheter. Before we could bring it, we heard some rattling noise coming out of his throat. Immediately, we tried to clear it up with a suction machine, but the doctor arrived by then. Suddenly, his breathing stopped but he breathed again after some time. When again after a long time he breathed, the doctor was astonished. The doctor closely watched the intervals between two breaths. Suddenly, all the hairs on his head and beard—it was shaved only five-seven days ago—stood on their ends. When he was not seen breathing for almost three-four minutes, the doctor examined him and told: ‘He is gone. What a peaceful death! I have not seen anything like this before!’ His eyes were filled with tears and he left the room. On 11 December 1988 at 9:07 a.m., Saradeshananda finally took shelter in the Mother’s lap.
That is what the ideal of Vijnana actually means. Life’s struggles will be welcomed and faced. There is no place for weakness, or helplessness, in the entire scheme of life, according to this ideal. There is a Great Power driving this world. Birth, life and death are governed by that Great Power. Established in the firm knowledge that one is Pure Consciousness, one can whole-heartedly cooperate with this Divine Power and participate in Her Lila. Life can be lived in such a way that jioi de vivre is experienced right here and now. Life can be lived in such a way, according to this new ideal of Vijnana that death can be welcomed as and when it approaches us, and not obsessed over as a compulsion. If such is the implication, surely suicide is redundant in the scheme of life as proposed by this ideal!
There are a couple of issues we need to raise now.
Tradition holds that Sri Ramachandra had Jala-samadhi (which means he walked into the Sarayu River and he left his body.) Since Sri Ramachandra was an Avatara and he died in that manner, what is wrong in a God-realized soul of the present age dying that way? This is a valid argument. It is however wrong through and through in our view. Tradition has innumerable stories, some perhaps true, most being certainly apocryphal, of exalted souls leaving their bodies in all sorts of ways. One could walk into a River and die. One could jump from the Himalayas and leave his body. One could walk into a grave-like area and have his disciples build a stone-masonry structure over him. This kind of structure was also called ‘Samadhi’. One could walk into the wilderness and offer himself to a wild animal without resistance, or starve himself to death. All these kinds of deaths, voluntary in each case, have been passed down in Indian tradition regarding Avataras, Prophets and God-realized souls.
We need to understand the implications of God-realization before we understand why these stories have done more harm than good to us, and hence, are considered wrong ways of dying, god-realized or not. Concomitant with God-realization is the awakening of a deep kinship, a deep at-one-ment, a deep unification with all life. A God-realized soul can never take a step that would, if imitated by common people, create chaos in the world. He cannot take such a step because he feels one with all people.
Such an exalted soul can indeed leave his body, if he so wishes, just as an ordinary clinically depressed person also can. But the means of leaving the body in the former case will certainly be accompanied by a dignity that will be absent in the latter’s case. It is this aspect of these God-realized souls that lends their lives immeasurable value for this world. They are the standards of human behavior. What aspects of a God-realized soul’s life are worthy of emulation by us? Only his Sadhana? Only his devotion and dedication? Why not his death? If his death is not commensurate with his spiritual dignity and exalted status, why, his very status as God-realized soul may have to be doubted!
Some may raise another objection here: You cannot subject a God-realized soul to such an examination. His actions are beyond any rule or regulation of this world. The moral considerations of right or wrong do not apply to him! Very well; but, consider for a moment the case of a person who is worshipped as a God-realized soul engaging in adultery. Is that allowed, then? Since he is beyond all moral considerations, can he get away with such an act? No. He can’t. More importantly, he won’t do such a thing, if he is a man of genuine realization of the spiritual ideal. Agreed that he may have gone beyond the pale of right and wrong; but he will never do anything that is wrong; wrong in our eyes. Since he has gone beyond the sphere of morality, he can certainly die voluntarily. But, would he die in a way that could be imitated by a regular depressed nut-case? We say depressed nut-case because, he must be a nut-case to decide that he is a God-realized soul, when he clearly isn’t one; and he must be depressed because, unless one is depressed, he won’t end his life. If the God-realized soul did indeed do such a thing, that would be most irresponsible of him; and hence his spiritual status becomes suspect!
From the elaborate discussion we have had till now, what can we conclude about death and suicide?
Death is a certainty for all of us. Life can be lived in such a way that we can be prepared to welcome death as and when it comes. Throughout life, if we have developed a technique of correctly digesting the experiences that come to us, we develop a perspective of facing death as one more experience. Techniques of rejecting the various experiences of life may have their utility in a constricted way, but, in a comprehensive way they fall short.
There is a spiritual ideal revealed to us by Sri Ramakrishna which enables us to merge our will with the Divine Will. Any action that emerges from that conjoint Will (which is actually the Divine Will itself) alone is the right action. Any other source of action, no matter how exalted the person be, is suspect. This holds good with respect to voluntary death too.
 Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Entry on Dec 14th 1882; Pg: 164
 Sri Ramakrishna the Great Master : Chapter – Sadhaka & Sadhana: Pp: 88-92
 Sri Ramakrishna the Great Master : Chapter – Master’s relation with his teachers: Pp: 485-488
 Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Entry on Sept 26th 1883: Pp: 297-298
 Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Entry on Aug 19th 1883: Pp: 274-275
 Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna: Entry on Dec 14th 1882: Pp: 163-164
 Vedanta: Vedanta Society of UK: Issue 393; Jan-Feb 2017; Pp: 5-21
 Life of Swami Vivekananda by Eastern & Western Disciples: Part-II: Pg: 657
 Prabuddha Bharata: Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati: Dec 2017: Issue-122: Vol-12: Pg: 49