I remember reading a copy of the Bardo Thodol (The Tibetan Book Of  The Living And The Dead) when I was at University of Cape Town.  I thought it would be an exciting read but actually found this Buddhist scripture quite boring – especially the detailed philosophical passages and Sanskrit terminology.  The thing that struck me, however – and still does – about The Tibetan Book Of The Living And The Dead, is the idea that the state of your mind at the moment of death determines the soul’s next birth.  This doctrine was supported by the concept of a subtle body which remains with the soul after the demise of the gross physical body.

Why would a nice Catholic boy be so convinced by eastern philosophy? Firstly, I vaguely accepted the concept of reincarnation ie. the soul accepts new bodies so long as it has not attained spiritual perfection and harbours material desires. Secondly, I also held the view, which all religions do, that our consciousness and the way we conduct ourselves in this life has an impact on our state of existence in the afterlife.  I could not, however, integrate the concept of an either/or Judeo-Christian theological understanding into my own existentially underdeveloped world-view.

Reincarnation made sense to me because it gave me power over my own destiny, by dint of proper use of free will.  Why would a loving God consign his beloved children to hell eternally for sinning on earth during a fractionally limited period of time? According to the Vedic understanding of reincarnation, we have been “sinning” eternally. In the same breath, devotional service to Krishna is an eternal opportunity – available at any moment. As the saying goes, “God helps those who help themselves.” Why should salvation, therefore, be limited to one lifetime?  And why should salvation be limited to one saviour or one religion?  If you accept Jesus in your life, you go to heaven; if  you don’t, you go to hell.  I just couldn’t accept such dogma.

The Vedas teach us to take responsibility for our livesf (ie. God helps those who help themselves).  This is an integral part of sanatana-dharma (eternal religion) or Hindu dharma. In order to overcome the Wheel of Samsara (repeated birth and death), we should develop spiritual consciousness – the same pure consciousness of the Spiritual World.  It makes sense that we can only live in the Spiritual World when we have the same quality of the Spiritual World.  Therefore the Vedas teach – ante narayana smriti, or ‘remember Narayana at the time of death.’  This philosophy is corroborated in the Bhagavad-gita: yam yam vapi smaran bhavam/ tyajaty ante kalevaram/ tam tam evaiti kaunteya/ sada tad-bhava-bhavitah – ‘Whatever  state of being one remembers when he quits his body, O son of Kunti, that state he will attain without fail‘.

If you are thinking of Krishna (Narayana or God) at the time of death, you will attain His abode: janma karma ca me divyam/ evam yo vetti tattvatah/ tyaktva deham punar janma/ naiti mam eti so ‘rjuna – ‘One who knows the transcendental nature of My appearance and activities does not, upon leaving the body, take his birth again in this material world, but attains My eternal abode, O Arjuna.’  The impersonal and voidist Buddhist teachings of the Bardo Thodol consider it perfection, or nirvana, to become nothing – to be freed of gross and subtle and spiritual forms.  The Gita, however, teaches us that it is possible to attain to an eternally blissful spiritual form in the Kingdom of God simply by remembering Krishna at the time of death. The Bhagavata Purana documents the success of the great devotee-king Maharaja Parikisit at the time of death.  Maharaja Parikisit was the world-ruler.  Cursed to die in seven days, he gave up his kingdom in order to fix his mind on the Lord at the time of death – which he managed to do.

A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada writes in Srimad Bhagavatam Canto 1.18.4 purport: ‘Thus a submissive disciple is able to live transcendentally and continue to the end of life.  By scientific adaptation, one is able to remember the Lord even at the end of life, when the power of remembrance is slackened due to derangement of bodily membranes.  For a common man, it is very difficult to remember things as they are at the time of death, but by the grace of the Lord and His bona fide devotees, the spiritual masters, one can get this opportunity without difficulty.  And it was done in the case of Maharaja Parikisit.’