DEATH, the primordial mystery and one of the cardinal conditions of existence. Scientifically, death is defined as "the permanent cessation of the vital function in the bodies of animals and plants" or, simply, as the end of life caused by senescence or by stoppage of the means of sustenance to body cells. In Sikhism the universal fact of mortality is juxtaposed to immortality (amarāpad) as the ultimate objective (paramārtha) of life. As a biological reality death is the inevitable destiny of everyone. Even the divines and prophets have no immunity from it. Mortality reigns over the realms of the gods as well.
Death will inevitably strike(GG, 237)
Even in the land of Lord Indra*
Nor is Brahmā's* domain free from it.
Likewise is Lord Śiva's* world decreed to come to naught.
*three gods of the Hindu pantheon
We all entered this world "with death as our written fate" (GG, 876), says Gurū Nānak.
Death cannot be apprehended apart from life. Contemplating both together, one truly comprehends the phenomenon of life and death (maraṇ jīvaṇ kī sojhī pāe).
A significant term used for death is kāl which has a dual meaning. It connotes death as well as time. Both connotations interwine theologically. Kāl is often denoted as jam kāl (jama = yama, the Vedic God of Death). Day in and day out it gnaws at the fabric of life. But man remains ignorant and perceives it not.
That kāl is constantly nibbling at life brings home to one the ephemerality of existence and therefore the necessity of making the most of it. If life has been lived in accord with acceptable laws it will win approval.
Death is the privilege of men
Who live life positively.
Death is legitimated by the ends it serves surmounting the throes of transmigration or sacrifice for an ideal or laying down of one's life in a righteous cause. Such a death carries one beyond the realm of Time into the realm of Eternity (akāl). Eternity does not signify extended Time, but the state beyond Time, and therefore beyond mortality. Participation in Eternity does not lie hereafter. It is the state of immortality (amarāpad) here in life which is liberation (muktī) from the throes of Time. That signifies the death of Death itself (kāl kāle).
To attain this state of immortality one need not necessarily pass through the portals of biological death. This state can be attained while one is still alive. To achieve this, however, one has to die to oneself.
This state is attainable by contemplating the Self by the grace of the Divine:
As by the Lord's favour one contemplates the self,
So one learns to die while still living.
Dying to oneself has several kindred nuances in Sikh theology. Spoken, not only in terms of decimation of man and even of egoity (haumai), this is also the connotation of dying in śabda (the Holy Word):
He who ceases in śabda
His death is blessed.
Another type of "blessed" dying is through sacrifice. When he initiated the order of the Khālsā in 1699, Gurū Gobind Siṅgh invited Sikhs to offer him their own heads. Five volunteered in response to the call. The baptismal initiation ceremony fashioned after that event even now encapsulates its symbolic sacrifice. The initiate is required to die to his past saṁskāras and be born into the Gurū's family.
The kindred spirits who
Served their Lord while they lived
Kept Him in mind while departing,
yearn for their departure to their 'real home' (nij ghar) where they have a tryst with their Divine Spouse. At that time they invoke the blessings of one and all:
Predestined is the hour of my nuptials*
Come ye, my friends, and anoint the doorsteps.
*mystical term for death
Men are thus advised to meditate on Him who sends the call:
May the day of union for each arrive
Death, then, marks the day of union with the Divine. It is not an occasion for grief. Lamentation over death is forbidden the Sikhs. In his Rāmkalī Sadd, The Call, the poet in the Gurū Granth Sāhib records:
By his wish the holy Gurū (Gurū Amar Dās) his entire family to himself called, and said:
No one after me should cry,
Such that cry shall no way please me.
The Sikh bereavement ceremony consists of having the Holy Book, the Gurū Granth Sāhib, recited from end to end, praying for the departed soul and distributing the sacramental (kaṛāhprasād).
Jaswant Siṅgh Nekī