This article, the ninth 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 9: (Begin at part 1 by clicking here.)
"Look, do you see that?" said Ramana. He pointed ahead, and Savitri could make out a wisp of smoke above the trees.
"A home fire?" she guessed.
"Follow it and find out. I'll stay here until you return." Ramana sat on a stump, waiting.
So Savitri headed toward the smoke. Soon she noticed that trees had been burned down, and there were wrecked ox-carts and other signs of destruction. Eventually she found herself in a deserted village. Soldiers had invaded from another kingdom, and wherever they went they laid waste. In this village all the houses had been reduced to smoldering ashes except for one, which was untouched.
Savitri walked up to the door where an old woman sat. "Everything is destroyed," Savitri said, bowing to her. "How did your house come to be spared?"
The old woman replied, "All the men of our village were away fighting. So I had to keep the soldiers off myself. When they came with their torches to loot and rob me and then set fire to my house, I told them, ‘Come, come, for no one else is brave enough to enter. Everyone inside has scarlet fever. Look for yourself.' At that the soldiers were so frightened they refused to come a step closer and ran away."
Savitri reached into her sari and found a small coin, which she gave to the old woman. She retraced her steps until she found the place where she'd left Ramana.
"Why did you send me there?" she asked.
"The old woman turned away an army with two words: scarlet fever," he said. "The wise know that Death can also be turned away with two words: I am."
"I don't understand." She was even more confused when she looked at the sky and saw that the wisp of smoke had disappeared.
"That village was just a symbol," said Ramana.
"For trouble and sorrow?"
"No, for impermanence. Heed this, Savitri. There is no permanence in this life. Possessions come and go, as do other people. We somehow cope with so much loss. How? By clinging to the notion that we are permanent, that our world is forever.
"But that is the wrong way. Death is greedy and wants to destroy everything as wantonly as an invading army. Just hold out your arms to him and say, I am. Death will retreat because there is nothing for him to destroy. I am has no possessions, no expectations, nothing to cling to. Yet it is everything you are and everything you will ever need, in this world or the one to come." Ramana spoke with the calm authority of one who knows, and this helped Savitri.
"The old woman lied when she said scarlet fever. You must tell the truth when you say I am. I think that you are nearly ready," Ramana said gently.
"How can I make it the truth?" asked Savitri.
"It's not difficult. When you are happy, go inside and feel the one who is the experiencer of happiness. When you ae sad, go inside and feel the experiencer of sadness. They are the same. There is a still, small point that watches all, witnesses all. Be with your stillness whenever you can. Notice it instead of sliding past it. Familiarity is your greatest ally. I am is your being. There is nothing foreign about simply being.
"At first the still, small point will not be much of an experience, yet it can grow without limit. When you die and finally have nothing to hold on to, I am will fill the whole universe. The wise have repeated this truth over and over, in every age. But you mustn't buy a truth second-hand. Find the I am inside yourself, and it will expand to fill you. When that happens, you are safe. Your being will be the same as your soul."