Today is Śrīla Prabhupāda’s disappearance day. No one is happy when ācāryas leave this world but generally we accept it as a transcendental pastime and consider their reunion with Kṛṣṇa in the spiritual world as a perfect conclusion of their lives. Sad for us, good for them. We also talk about how ācāryas’ lives go on through their books and instructions, and, of course memories, which is good for us.
All of that is true but it also masks the grim reality of death. We choose to focus on “transcendental” aspects of our faith instead. We accept Kṛṣṇa’s hand where we often see nothing but human suffering. Some deaths are easier than others, some vaiṣṇavas leave this world in a cheerful mood, Śrīla Prabhupāda didn’t, he suffered like you won’t wish anyone else. And now we say it was transcendental.
Okay, it was transcendental, but I would argue that we corrupted the meaning of transcendence here to suit our own needs, primarily to fool ourselves into believing that death is nothing but unspeakable ugliness. We call it “transcendental” not because we see it as such but because we refuse to accept the reality of someone dying. We want it to be all about rainbows and unicorns instead.
I mean it’s easy – transcendental existence is eternal, full of knowledge and bliss. What is eternal about someone dying? Our memories? Okay, but those are *our* memories, the person who is dying surely does not want to “relish” them again and again.
We can say that death is an eternal solution but, again, it’s only from our perspective. The same soul who dies today will get to live a new life tomorrow. And when talking about vaiṣṇavas we also talk about eternity of their pastimes and teachings, not eternity of the death itself.
It’s more likely that waiting for someone to die feels like an eternal torture. We don’t know what is best – quick departure or drawn out struggle for half conscious existence filled with unimaginable pain. We can’t commit ourselves to either outcome, we can’t admit that sometimes we wish death would come faster, and we can’t really say “I wish you’d live like that for another year”.
This was very obvious during Prabhupāda’s last couple of months. He himself and devotees who were with him were torn between wishing for staying here or moving on. Sometimes they seemed to be resigned that Prabhupāda was about to leave this world, sometimes they prayed that he’d stay a bit longer. When his body didn’t cooperate they also realized that keeping Prabhupāda here artificially wasn’t in HIS best interests. One day they were all full of hope and plans, the next day reality of hopelessly deteriorating health overwhelmed them. New doctors meant new hopes, new failures meant new desperation.
So, where was I? There is no eternity in death. There’s certainly no bliss. No one would describe Prabhupāda’s last days as blissful. As a spirit soul he might have been, as a body it would be a gross misrepresentation of reality.
Problem is that we don’t know what is real and what is not. We assume that Śrīla Prabhupāda experienced some other level of reality and we say that on that level he was happy, but that is just our assumption. I would say that every time he directed his consciousness through his body he felt enormous pain. We (or rather our seniors) did not relate to him on any other level of reality but through his body. All we could see is body dying in excruciating pain. No bliss.
The bliss could have been there on occasions, I would not argue against that, but there’s no permanent, uninterrupted bliss in the dying body.
Maybe there was full knowledge. I hope there was full knowledge and Śrīla Prabhupāda wasn’t forced by an illusion to think he was his body. It doesn’t have to be material illusion, btw, spiritual illusion works just the same, like it did for the residents of earthly Vṛndāvana or Māyāpura. I hope that this illusion is not as painful to experience as the material one, but from the looks of it it feels just the same.
Then the question would be “what is full knowledge?” From a paramahṃsa POV it might be very different from what we, conditioned beings, consider as knowledge. When we talk about full knowledge we tend to ask questions about actual geometry of the universe or subtle bodies of ghosts and spirits or lots of other questions that seems important to us. I seriously doubt that ācāryas struggling through the experience of their death possess that kind of knowledge at the time.
So, what exactly does “transcendence” mean in such cases?
I’m afraid the very best scenario is complete detachment and indifference to the goings on of one’s body. Is it in pain? Is it dying? Do its systems shut off one by one? Does it have any dignity left? None of that would concern a “transcendental” person. That last question is important.
When Śrīla Prabhupāda’s body was about to die his disciples were trying to maintain his usual appearance and persona. He was supposed to be an all-knowing, all-powerful man, the leader of a spectacular world-wide movement, naturally drawing respect and admiration. That’s not how he looked on his death bed, though. That look is not how our leaders wanted the world to remember him – the video of his last days and his last rites were not shown publicly and I think it was ISKCON official policy to restrict its viewing.
I think it was a sensible decision but sooner or later devotees need to come to grips with the reality of death – it’s undignified. We don’t want our ācāryas to look like that. They, however, are transcendental to what we or anybody else thinks of their bodies and their legacy.
This last point is important, too – we need to preserve ācāryas’ legacy for ourselves and for the future generations but I would argue that paramahaṃsas leave these matters to Kṛṣṇa, they are not attached to universal glory, nor do they take any credits for their achievements in this world. They don’t care about their legacy, we do.
The knowledge of a departing vaiṣṇava is full but obviously not in our sense. Knowing that Kṛṣṇa is God is already full knowledge, for example. We sort of know it, too, but we also add a lot of conditions that reflect our attachments to this world. For a departing vaiṣṇava there should be no such conditions left, the less he “knows” about our material subjects the better. The moment of perfection is probably when material mind and intelligence give up completely and there’s only faith and dependence on the Lord. We can’t see it, we still search for sings of external consciousness but there’s nothing transcendental about it.
Then there’s realization that complete detachment from body’s interests is impossible. Even Lord Caitanya maintained connection with external world. Living here forces us to be self-interested and egotistical, they don’t talk about instinct of self-preservation for nothing. This seems incompatible with our understanding of transcendence, too. When we see it in our ācāryas we assume that it’s spiritual but that might not be the case – it could be just the body being itself, that’s all.
In our vision of transcendence we usually erase the line between the body and the soul when we talk about our ārāryas but the distinction is always there. Body of a vaiṣṇava is spiritual, true, but not in the sense that it’s made of purely spiritual energy, it’s the same inferior material energy like for the rest of us but it has been perfectly engaged in Kṛṣṇa’s service.
It’s an all-important difference but it does not completely eradicate the usual faults of material bodies, and these faults are not “transcendental”. They might be endearing to Kṛṣṇa and to the devotees but the truth is that we should see ALL material energy as transcendental, as connected with Kṛṣṇa, faults and all. In paramahaṃsa vision there are no faults per se. Everything looks perfect and everything is worshipable.
So, I might have drawn a disturbing picture of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s disappearance but I would insist that all aspects of it are perfect, we just have to learn to see it that way, or at least accept that these “imperfections” are result of our poor vision, that they don’t really exist.
I guess what I meant to say that death in all its gore is as perfect as the best moments of anyone’s life, we need to learn to see that perfection rather than mask our lack of realization with empty talks about “transcendence”.