Recently I was reading a commentary on Chapter 8 of the Bhagavad Gita (Song of God). The chapter is called The Yoga of the Imperishable Absolute. One topic was the nature of death for a Yogi – how imperishable are they? How permanent is the awakening?
The chapter describes several ways a yogi (practitioner of union) may approach death.
The last verse of Chapter 7 sets up the beginning of Chapter 8:
“Those who perceive Me in the Adhibhuta (physical), the Adhidaiva [celestial]***, and the Adhiyagya [divine action, causal origin], with heart united to the soul, continue to perceive me even at the time of death.” 7:30*
This is Krishna speaking but like Jesus, the Me he is referring to isn’t his form. In this context he is being referred to as Purushottama (Supreme Being).
“Lastly, he enters My Being who thinks only of Me at the hour of his passing, when the body is abandoned. This is truth beyond doubt.” 8:5*
In the commentary, Maharishi states: “If the mind is established in the eternal freedom of divine consciousness which is symbolized by Lord Krishna, it will naturally remain in that state of universal consciousness when the time arrives to cast away the body. The principle of liberation from the bondage of the cycle of birth and death is laid down in this verse.”**
But if a yogi has not yet resolved all desires, what is unresolved will arise at the time of death and drive his next incarnation.
“…that thought with which a dying man leaves the body determines – through his long persistence on it – his next state of being.” 8:6*
The verses suggest a way for someone not fully cooked, complete with a procedure in v12-13 to keep the attention on the known divine at the time of leaving the body.
“…even if during one’s lifetime one has not been able to establish himself properly in… divine consciousness then at the time of death, he remembers Him who is the expression of the Transcendent Life in eternal liberation and reaches His state.”**
But this can arise only if the person is fully conscious and clear at the time of death and is able to follow the process. A friend had help with this at death but that’s rare. Without that, even if they have reached a high state of being…
“Yogis not yet free from the world revolve back again (to the world) even from the high sphere of Brahma [loka] (union with God in samadhi). But on entering into Me (transcendental Spirit) there is no rebirth, O son of Kunti (Arjuna).” 8:16*
As I’ve mentioned before, both the development of Atman and of Sattva are cumulative so if we do “revolve back again,” we can pick up where we left off.
But if we achieve perception of the divine as described in the opening verse…
“Having arrived at such a state of perfection, man attains a state of eternal contentment which leaves no room for unfulfilled desires. This puts an end to the cycle of birth and death, which holds the soul in ever-changing conditions of temporal existence where suffering and discontent hold sway.” 8:15**
It can be noted that merging with the divine is not the only outcome at death post-enlightenment. While it’s not discussed in Chapter 8, there are ample examples of sages continuing on in some supporting role on some level of existence. There can be those who continue on in a human form post-karma. And those who drop the body and move to a more refined level where they can support or help manage various aspects of the unfolding. I couldn’t tell you what the ratio is but given the vast spans of time and prior golden ages, I would suspect the majority do merge. This would not remotely be experienced as a loss.
The chapter makes it clear that a permanent liberation is not simply Self Realization but the clearing of the remaining baggage and a developed awareness of the divine (sattva) so we’re not drawn back into another lifetime. Some dismiss the divine as illusory or a mythical throwback to a bygone era. That means the liberation is not yet complete. Where is the option of merging with the divine if it is unknown or rejected?
* Yogananda’s translation (used for clarity of some points)
** Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s draft translation & commentary (used for clarity of other points)
*** Maharishi defines Adhidaiva as Purusha, comprising the innumerable spirits of individual beings in creation, aka awareness aware of itself at every point.