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The Mystery of Life

A book review by B. John Zavrel


"There is a belief that after a man departs from the world he is gone forever. There is another viewpoint that he is born again, that even after death man does not die in the real sense but remains on a subtle plane with his subtle body, and only the outer physical garment is discarded; and that is called death. Which is true? What exists after death?"

So we read in 'Kathopanishad' the story of the spiritual seeker Nachiketa, as he addresses Yama, the Lord of Death.

"When all desires and passions are removed, when perfect stillness prevails, the mortal becomes immortal." That is the key, which Yama eventually gives to Nachiketa.

The fear of death is linked with attachment to the passing world of names and forms. People seek objects and relationships in the world in a way to deny death, to comfort the reality that their worldly lives are temporary. Instead of comforting their owners, these charming, decaying, and dying objects remind people of the death they fear--death of their attachments to their bodies, thoughts, habits, objects, and relationships.

The key to freedom from misery and fright lies with undoing the attachments.

The purpose of life is to grow, expand, and completely realize one's own true identity. The real Self is the treasure of human life, and can be found only within.

The inner world is described in the Upanishads, and the goal of life is peace, happiness and bliss.


Indian philosophy describes the mind as a group of four faculties:

1) ahamkara (ego)

2) buddhi (intellect) - which discriminates, knows, decides, judges

3) manas (lower mind) - which produces and processes data through sense perceptions

4) chitta (subconscious mind) - storehouse of impressions, emotions, and memories.

These four faculties are meant to work together in harmony, with each faculty doing its particular job. When poorly coordinated and untrained, they are a formidable obstacle on the spiritual path.

So the first thing is to know the different aspects of one's mere self, to train those aspects, and to know they are not the real Self.


Four basic urges determine personal emotions and their effects on the mind. Shared by all living beings, these urges are for food, sleep, sex and self-preservation. If the faculties of mind are not working in harmony, these four basic urges will express themselves in dysfunctional, unbalanced ways. Eating disorders, addictions, and sexual excesses affect a person's physical and emotional health. The fear of death, which is the central issue of self-preservation, leads to a wide variety of fears, including fear of loss of belongings, possessiveness in relationships, or fear of flying and other phobias.

After establishing an individual philosophy, reorganizing your life, and finding your dharma and spiritual path, there is another step to take on your spiritual journey.

You are to take responsibility for your own life.

So many people are in the habit of blaming someone else for their unfortunate situations. Whatever is wrong in a person's life is blamed on unfair sibling relationships, uncaring spouses, needy children, taxes, imperfect schools, or having been born at the wrong time.

Understand your relationships, but let go of blaming. There is nothing in your life that is not your choice, your doing, your karma. It may sound harsh, but it is liberating.

The word 'karma' has come into mainstream usage in western culture, but regrettably its meaning is often twisted. In modern western society's lexicon, the word karma has come to be used very casually and incorrectly to mean fatalism, something utterly out of one's hands.

Implied in this interpretation of the word karma is the belief that whatever happens is not a person's doing. It's all due to fateful karma.

This is not what karma means. Karma places responsibility for your circumstances and experiences with you. Karma means that you are responsible, you determine your circumstances. You are the architect of your present situation, and past, and future.

To accept responsibility for your life gives you the power to move, change, and grow. It means you are independent. Your life is not dependent on what others do or think. You are not a victim of circumstances, parents, selfish spouses, inconsiderate children, tyrannical bosses, economic depression, or world politics.

Every thought, word and deed carry a specific outcome. Whatever actions we have performed in the past produce their fruits in the present and future, and that is the real cause of our pains and sorrows. Once an arrow is shot it must go to its destination.

As long as the arrow is in our hands, we can choose its course. All wrong deeds that we have committed in ignorance in the past produce their adverse effects. We should be careful not to commit the same mistakes again.

When a person dies, he carries the seeds of the law of karma with him. Death does not change it. The finer substance of the human being--thoughts and feelings, and karma--continue.

All the thoughts and feelings and the karma of a person are stored within the subtle mind. The impressions that find their way from actions and thoughts into the bed of chitta are called samskaras. The actions which these samskaras in turn provoke, the personality characteristics they shape, and the habits and likes with which each person finds himself or herself, are called vasanas.

We are speaking now of the wheel of karma, the ongoing movement of the individual from lifetime to lifetime. We act, we think, or we desire and a groove is etched in the mind as a particular sort of memory. The groove is a samskara. The more we act a certain way, think, or desire, the deeper is the groove etched.

Karma is not God's doing. Karma is performed by each individual. Karma is the product of each person's own actions, thoughts, and desires. No one else is responsible for it.



The foregoing are selected excerpts from "Sacred Journey" by Swami Rama of the Himalayas.

Swami Rama, brought up in the ancient cave monasteries, was not only a rare yogi but also a scientist and a social reformer. He was the author of numerous books, a poet, painter, master architect, musician, and an expert in many sciences and systems of philosophy. He founded the Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy and the Himalayan Institute Hospital Trust and Medical College.



Copyright 2003 West-Art, Prometheus 88/2003


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Copyright 2003 West-Art

PROMETHEUS, Internet Bulletin for Art, Politics and Science.

Nr. 88, Summer 2003