This article, the third in a 12-part series, is reprinted with permission of IntentBlog.
Note: While writing a new book on the afterlife, (Life After Death: The Burden of Proof) I kept being drawn back to stories that I'd heard in India as a child. In these stories the abstract issues of death, immortality, and eternity acquire a human face as ordinary people confronted the mystery of death. I hoped that reader will be intrigued by a world where heroes battle darkness in order to emerge into the light.
In this case the hero is a woman named Savitri, and the enemy she must defeat is Yama, the lord of death. Yama shows up in her front yard one day, waiting to take away her husband the moment he returns from his work as a woodcutter. Will she succeed? What strategy can possibly turn Death away from his inexorable mission?
Part 3 (Begin at part 1 by clicking here)
After two hours of walking through the woods, Savitri and Ramana came to a fork in the path.
"If we went that way we would arrive at Yama's castle. Did you know that Death lives so close by?"
Savitri shuddered. "I'm happy not to know."
"Really?" Ramana seemed genuinely surprised. "I ran across the castle by chance when I was out wandering one day. I was very curious to meet Death face to face."
Savitri felt frightened simply to be reminded of something she so dreaded. Ramana reached out and took her hand. "Come, I can tell you as we walk." He had a strong grip, and Savitri felt calmer, as if his inner strength was seeping into her.
"I immediately knew that I had stumbled on to Yama's home," Ramana continued, "because skulls were stuck on pikes surrounding the gate. So I sat down and waited for my host to appear. I waited all that day and the next. Only on the third day did Yama return home. When he saw me he became distressed. 'I've made you wait outside my gate for three whole days,' he said. 'Not even Death can break the sacred vow of hospitality. Therefore I grant you three wishes, one for each day.'
"'That pleases me well,' I replied, 'for I have long wanted to gain knowledge of you, the wisest of all beings in creation.' Yama bowed regally. 'My first wish,' I said, 'is to know the way back home. I'm not a fool, and I have no desire to remain with you forever.'
"Yama smiled and pointed to the east. 'You will find your way back to the living if you go that way, where the sun rises.'
"'My second wish,' I said, 'is to know, despite your cruelty, if you have ever felt love.'
"Yama didn't look so pleased now, but reluctantly he answered. 'The role of love is to create; my role is to destroy. Therefore I have no need of love.' Hearing that I pitied Yama, but he glared proudly, scorning any attempt at compassion. He said, 'Now be quick and name your third wish.'
"I said, 'The great sages declare that the soul survives beyond death. Is this true?' A black cloud came over Yama's countenance. He sputtered with rage, but there was nothing for it. 'Since I am sworn to answer,' he growled, 'I will tell you the truth. There are two paths in life, the path of wisdom and the path of ignorance. The path of wisdom is to pursue the Self. The path of ignorance is to pursue pleasure. Pleasure, being born of the senses, is temporary, and whatever is temporary falls under the sway of death. Thus the ignorant fall into my clutches. But the Self is the light of immortality. It shines forever. Few are wise enough to see this light, even though it is inside them and nowhere else. The self is but the light of your soul. Now go. It will please Yama never to behold your face again.' And off he stalked to nurse his rage."
Savitri found this tale fascinating, but she was puzzled. "How do we miss finding the soul if its light shines inside us?"
Ramana stopped and looked around. He spied a rain puddle along the path and drew Savitri toward it. "Do you see the sun reflected in that puddle?"
Savitri nodded. "I do."
Ramana stepped into the water and began to stomp around until it was stirred up with mud and its smooth surface broken to pieces. "Can you still see the sun's reflection?' Savitri admitted that she couldn't. "This is why people cannot find the soul," said Ramana. "It is broken into fragments by the mind's constant activity and muddied by confusion. When I destroyed the sun's reflection I didn't kill the sun. It is eternal, and nothing I do can extinguish it. Now you know the secret of the soul, which even Death cannot extinguish by the slightest bit."
Savitri grew grave and thoughtful. "This is something I want to believe," she said.
"You are still very afraid," Ramana said gently, "but learn this one thing: Do not trust reflections, not if you want to see reality."
Savitri looked thoughtful as they continued to walk, her hand still in the monk's. "I think you're right," she murmured.