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Article XXV: Death and Suicide in Vedanta

Hinduism is distinct from many other faiths in that it views life as part of a cycle of reincarnation rather than a single entity beginning with birth and ending with death. After death, it is believed that the Atman (or Self) transmigrates to a new physical body, or in the case of moksha, the Atman is freed from bondage and delusion to reach enlightenment. Reincarnation depends on one's samskaras, or impressions, from their life and past lives (samskaras are often simply referred to as karma). Death can be extremely difficult for family and loved ones, but from a Vedantic perspective a single day in life is analogous to a single life in the cycle of reincarnation. Not to trivialize the social and psychological challenges that arise from the death of a loved one, but Vedanta offers important considerations to deal with such an unfortunate situation. Although the physical body is subject to death and the laws of nature, the physical body is merely a vessel that sheaths the immortal Atman. The physical body is part of maya as discussed in previous articles, and this maya must be transcended to reach moksha. Even in death, the Atman lives on, and It's true nature is eternal beyond time and infinite beyond space. Though these concepts may be somewhat nebulous in everyday life, they can offer a way of understanding and reconciling the challenges of dealing with death. Another important Vedantic concept to consider is that of non-attachment. With pure selflessness in interactions with others, death of a loved one may not ultimately affect the ideally unattached person. Although these ideals may not be easily attained, even approaching selflessness and non-attachment can ameliorate the difficulties of dealing with death of a loved one.

It is believed that the Atman can transmigrate to any life form, including animals or angels (devas), but it is also believed that one can only achieve moksha from the human life form. There are various descriptions in the Hindu shastras (scriptures) of different worlds and realms of existence. The number of these worlds is not as important as the sentiment that they represent. The law of karma posits that righteous samskaras tend to lead to higher reincarnations while unrighteous samskaras tend to lead to lower reincarnations. However, in the process of the next reincarnation, the righteous or unrighteous samskaras are removed in order to reach a less tainted state. Hence, it is possible that a great amount of righteous samskaras can lead to a life of a million years in the heaven of Satyaloka, or it is possible that a great amount of unrighteous samskaras can lead to a life of a billion years in the depths of the underworlds. The ultimate goal is to reach a state free of samskaras, which allows for moksha. In every state of existence until moksha, there are limits of time and space even if that time is a billion years. Since it is believed that the human form is a prerequisite to reach moksha, it would be illogical to commit suicide and abruptly end the unique opportunity to approach moksha through a righteous, selfless human life. Furthermore, depending on the intentions and attachments, the act of suicide may have subsequent karmic ramifications. In other faiths, suicide is viewed as a sin because it represents a destruction of God's gift to man and God's creation of man in God's image. However, these arguments are not as relevant to Hindu beliefs.

Death is certainly a very sensitive issue, and these descriptions only represent some of my own thoughts. By no means are these ideas representative of all Hindu beliefs or in any way representative of a single, fixed Vedantic position on life and death.

East-West Counseling & Meditation -- Modern Psychiatry Integration -- Himalayan Philosophy -- Penn & Stanford Medicine
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