The hindu beliefs about death are fatalistic and derive from the principle of Samsara (repetitive cycle of life and death). Hinduism teaches us that the body is made of the 5 elements of nature and is perishable. The soul inhabits the body due to its past karma and then continues its journey in different bodies across many births to fulfill the unresolved desires which keep on arising due to the illusory identification of the soul with the body. This is called Samsara and forms the basis for the Hindu beliefs about death.
The hindu beliefs about death are reinforced in almost all the ancient scriptures whether it is the dialogue of Yama and Nachiketa or the dialogue of Bhisma and Yudhistira in the Mahabharat. There is a beautiful story in the Anushashana Parva of Mahabharata where a dying Bhisma, the valiant warrior, lies on a bed of arrows and and instructs Yudhistira as well the other sages on coping with the death of their loved and near ones.
Hindu Beliefs about death: From the Mahabharat
Yudhistira is overcome with remorse and holds himself responsible for the death of so many great warriors including his grandfather. To console him, Bhisma narrates the insightful story about Gautami, the mother who lost her son. This story of a stoic mother and an angry hunter encapsulates the Hindu beliefs about death.
Bhisma says to Yudhisthira who is languishing with grief, “Yudhisthira, why do you consider your soul to be the cause of these actions. The cause is dependent on destiny and time and the effects that arise cannot be understood by these 5 senses. To ease your understanding, let me tell you the ancient story of Gautami and her conversation with Mrityu (death) and Kala (time). O sun of Kunti, the story will correct your beliefs about death.”
There was an old lady by the name of Gautami, who was calm & patient by nature and had achieved tranquility of mind. One day she was informed that her son died after being bitten by a snake. While she grieved about her lost son, a hunter named Arjunaka caught the snake that had bitten her son.
An angry Arjunaka brought the snake before Gautami and said, “This is the snake that is the cause of your son’s death. Tell me how should I punish it? Should I throw it in fire or should I cut it in pieces in front of you?”
Gautami saw the trapped snaked and replied, ‘O Arjunaka, release the snake. Do not kill it. Why do you want to take the bad karma of killing the snake for what has already happened? A person’s duty is to perform virtuous deeds for such deeds will help him or her cross this samsara with the ease of a ship crossing the ocean. Those who perform sinful deeds will sink at the bottom of this ocean. By killing this snake, my son will not be restored to life. And by releasing the snake in the wild, there will be no harm caused to you. Release this living creature.”
The hunter said, “O Lady, you speak wisely but these are mere words and meant for normal times. How can you ask me to release the serpent in this time of sorrow? I must kill the snake. It is but normal for people to release their grief by taking revenge on the perpetrator. Thus let me kill the snake to lessen your grief.”
Gautami replied, “Good people have their intent only on being compassionate to others. The death of my son was a move of destiny. I will not approve the destruction of this snake. Therefore O Kind hunter, forgive the snake and release it out of compassion.”
The hunter was not convinced and replied, “We will get merit by killing this snake. After all, even creatures are sacrificed on the altar to earn merit. Merit is acquired by killing an enemy. By killing this despicable creature, you shalt acquire great merit.”
Gautami replied, “O Arjunaka of little understanding, what merit is there in killing an enemy and what good can be obtained by not releasing an enemy in our power? Be kind and forgive the snake. We will only earn merit by releasing the snake. Not by tormenting it.”
The hunter countered, “If we kill this snake, we will be protecting a lot of other creatures from its bite. We are killing the wicked snake to save the innocent creatures. That is virtuous. Thus let us kill this snake.”
Gautami replied, “By killing this snake, O hunter, my son will not be restored to life. Exercise compassion and release this living creature.”
The hunter took solace in his understandings of the scriptures and said, ‘By killing Vritra, Indra secured the best portion (of sacrificial offerings), and by destroying a sacrifice Mahadeva secured his share of sacrificial offerings: hence we are justified to destroy the snake.”
The noble Gautami was repeatedly incited by the hunter to kill the snake. But Gautami held on to her beliefs about death and argued with Arjunaka to exercise compassion and release the living snake.
The snake who was withering in the net of the hunter and was in great paid, then slowly spoke in a human voice, “O foolish hunter, why do you say it is my fault? I have no will of my own, and am driven by my nature. Mrityu (Death) sent me on this errand. It is by Mrityu’s dictate that I have bitten the child. I did not bite him out of anger nor did I have a choice. Mrityu led me to bite her son. If you want to hold someone responsible, then it is Mrityu. Go and address him.”
The hunter said, “You have done this evil. You were the chief instrument in this act of death. In the making of an earthen pot, the potter’s wheel, the rod and other things are the causes. Similarly you are one of the cause of this act. You deserve death. Confess to your sin.”
The serpent replied, “Like you said, to make an earthen pot there are many causes like the potter’s wheel, the rod and other things. Similarly the sin of death of this lady’s son is the aggregate of causes and not on me. I was directed by my nature to come and bite the boy. The cause of my bite is not independent but working in unison with other causes that brought about this destiny for the boy. If you want to know the true cause, then go to the one (Mrityu) who has driven me to bite the boy.”
The hunter replied angrily, “O foolish snake, you think I will spare your life if you speak clever words. You will die at my hands for you have killed an infant.”
The snake said, “O hunter, just like the priests who perform a yagna for the devotee do not acquire the merit by offering the oblations of ghee in the yagna fire, similarly I tell you again, it is Mrityu that has to be regarded as the cause and not me.”
Mrityu was hearing this conversation between Gautami, Arjunaka and the snake. He himself appeared before them. He addressed the snake.
Hindu beliefs about death: Conversation of Mrityu, Kala and Gautami
Mrityu said, “O Snake, Guided by Kala (Time), I did send you on this errand but neither you nor I am the cause of this child’s death. Like clouds are scattered and directed by the wind, similarly I, like the clouds, am directed by Kala. The natures of Satva, Rajas or Tamas are caused by Kala in all creatures. All mobile and immobile creatures, whether in heaven or earth, are influenced by Kala. All existent and non-existent objects are destroyed by Kala or time.
Knowing this, O snake, realize that I am not guilty for the child’s death. If any fault is attached to me for this event, then the fault is also attached to you.”
The serpent said, “O Mrityu, I do not blame you but I do not totally release you from being guilty for the boy’s death. I only state that I am influenced in my actions by you.”
Then the serpent, addressing Arjunaka, said, “O hunter, you have listened to what Mrityu has said. Hence stop tormenting me as I am not guilty.”
The hunter said, “I have listened to both of you. I hold both you as the causes and hence responsible for the child’s death. Both of you have committed this sin.”
Mrityu said, “We do not operate out of our free will but as per the dictates of Kala. We are destined to do our appointed work by Kala. If you introspect on this truth deeply, you will realize that the fault is not ours.”
The hunter said, “If both of you, O snake and Mrityu, are dependent on Kala, then how is pleasure (arising from doing good) and anger (arising from doing evil) caused?”
Mrityu replied, “Know that all actions are done under the influence of Kala. Kala is the cause of all and both of us were acting under the dictate of Kala to do our appointed work.”
Kala who was watching this argument, them came on the scene and spoke to everyone assembled together.
Kala said, “O hunter, neither Mrityu, nor this snake are guilty for the death of the boy. Neither am I guilty of the death of any creature. We are responsible for merely bringing about the immediate causes for the event of this death. O hunter, the death of the boy was due to his own karma. There was no other reason for his death except his own Sanchita and Prarabhdha Karma. The boy has met with death as the result of his Karma in the past. All of us have to face the effects of the lives we live in the present and the past. We are all subject to the influence of our respective Karma. It is the karma which can lead one to salvation or keep one enmeshed in the repetitive cycle of life and death. It is the karma which indicates whether a man is considered good or evil. The effects that you see in the present life are cumulative results of your past actions. Just like men can make any shape from a lump of clay that they are provided with, similarly the results that they achieve in their present life are shaped from their own actions in the past. As light and shadow follow each other, similarly men and karma follow each other. Thus, it is neither you, nor Mrityu nor this chaste lady nor me who is the cause of the child’s death. He himself is the cause here.”
Bhishma continued, “The snake was released into freedom. Kala and Mrityu went back to their respective destinations. Gautami took solace from the words of Kala and the hunter too became consoled. Having heard this story O Yudhisthira, forget your grief and attain peace of mind. These men have achieved death as part of their own karma. This evil brought about by war is not your creation nor Duryodhana’s. Know that these people have been slain as a result of the acts of Kala.”