The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 39: How to Die (Part 1)


Waiting for the afterlife, by Pedro, from Wikimedia Commons


Those who remember me at the time of death will come to me. Do not doubt this. Whatever occupies the mind at the time of death determines the destination of the dying; always they will tend toward that state of being. Therefore, remember me at all times and fight on. (BG, 8:5-7) 


Excuse me—I generally try be circumspect about critiquing the theological or metaphysical claims of other traditions, and I will get around to how I interpret these verses tomorrow. But in this case, I need to start with an objection. I’ve heard this same line of reasoning among Christians, and I’ve seen the harm it does. Some Christians live in perpetual fear that between the time of confessing their most recent sin, being forgiven, and then being killed in a car accident, their last words or last fleeting thought might be, “Oh, shit.” Then they would wind up in hell, because they died with unforgiven sin (which was simply their amygdala trying to keep them alive). In this system, what occupied their mind at the time of their death would disqualify them from salvation.

It’s the same principle in both Christian and Hindu circles: your afterlife depends on your achieving equanimity or an ideal state before you die. 

Don’t get me wrong: I think meditating on our mortality and thinking about the way we want to die is helpful. I think our faith and practice should help us approach death with a sense of peace instead of dread. But I don’t for a minute believe that the last state of consciousness of a person determines their destination in the next life. I reject this line of thinking for two reasons. First, I don’t think time exists for the dead in the same way it exists for the living. Second, I believe in grace—that God is love and it is that love that holds the universe together and draws all things towards God.

I’ve already shared a bit about how God is not limited by time. In both Hinduism and Christianity there is the hint that all times are available to God. Here on this planet, in this plane of existence and this timeline, we consciously experience the movement of time as one moment after another. But many meditators and pray-ers say that in moments of transcendent awareness, time ceases to exist. In mystical experience, we can live a lifetime in thirty minutes, or download experiential wisdom in an instant. To God, all moments are now. Even now, Moses is being placed in a basket. Even now, Buddha is sitting down to meditate under a tree. Even now, our great grandchildren are wondering what our lives were like.

The notion in the scripture above is that one should launch one’s soul with a good trajectory into the life to come. I do not question that this is a noble ambition. I question the idea that where you land depends on the skill of your throw. In the timeless realm of pure consciousness, we are already with God, just as God is with us now, in the “past.”

What Krishna describes in this section has its roots in the Upanishads, and I will explore it in the next post. I think there is more going on here than the surface meaning. I just feel it’s important to start with my objection in this case because, as I said, I’ve seen this line of reasoning do such emotional damage. People worry about victims of suicide being bound for hell, for example, or about minor infractions of scruples in the moments before death. How we die is, hopefully, a reflection of how we live. It might be related to our character. But we don’t get to choose how we die. Just for comparison’s sake, remember that for the Vikings, death in battle was the ideal way to die—and a guarantee of a good afterlife!

We may die “better” or “worse” than we lived, but either way we still die. I take hope from Luke’s gospel, in which Jesus turns to a thief on the cross and tells him they will be together in paradise that very day (Luke 23:43). I also consider that people in the first century thought crucifixion or hanging were signs of God’s judgment, but Paul reframed that notion: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us—because it is written, Everyone who is hung on a tree is cursed” (Galatians 3:13). I know that I certainly hope to die in the mindful way Krishna describes in the passage above; but I also have faith that however I die, I will live in God.  

I felt it important to share how I disagree with the surface meaning of this passage first. I will share how I understand its deeper meaning and purpose next.

Help me live as if I will die tomorrow, and help me live as if I will never die. Help me die as one who has fully lived, and help me die as one who will live in You.