Pitru Paksha, the two-week observance that takes place in September or October, is a tradition from India in which people honor and pay respect to their ancestors and loved ones who have passed. Pitru Paksha is a time to acknowledge the enduring legacy left behind by these ancestors, and to recognize how their contributions to the world set a precedent—a shining example—for future generations to follow.
In many cultures around the globe, annual festivals are held to celebrate and praise ancestors. For example, in Mexico and throughout Latin America, Dia de Muertos (“Day of the Dead,” which is actually a multi-day celebration), is a time when people build personal altars and offer flowers, food, and beverages to deceased loved ones.
In Japan, during a traditional Buddhist ceremony called Obon, people hang lanterns to guide the visiting spirits of ancestors and perform dances in their honor.
On All Souls Day in Italy, families set empty places at their tables for deceased relatives.
In Germany on both All Saints Day and Totensonntag (Sunday of the Dead), celebrants typically visit the graves of loved ones to commemorate those who have passed on.
In China, people honor their ancestors with offerings twice a year, during the Qingming Festival in the spring and the Chongyang Festival in autumn. Offerings typically include incense, food, and paper money. Spirits who have no family to honor them receive charitable offerings from the community in a separate celebration, the Zhongyuan Festival, known as the Hungry Ghost Festival. All these festivals date back more than two thousand years.
And in Nepal, during the Gai Jatra festival, families who lost a relative during the past year walk through the streets of Kathmandu leading a cow—and if no cow is available, a child dressed as a cow can serve as a substitute. Cows are believed to help guide the soul of the deceased to heaven.
These are just a few examples that I have heard about over the years, though I am sure there are similar traditions in many other cultures.
Wherever and however observances for ancestors are practiced, they naturally evoke contemplation on the inexorable cycle of human birth, life, and death. Yet cyclical movements are not unique to human existence. You find such movement wherever you look in the universe: in the orbiting of the sun and the moon, the systematic rotation of the planets, the changing of the seasons. In locations where the weather grows cold, the leaves on many trees lose the greenness of life; they wither and fall to the ground. Watching this, you may feel a certain sadness at their demise, but you are able to accept the event because you have the foresight and the confidence that, in time, spring will come again, and the green leaves will reappear.
The death of the body is, in the same way, an intrinsic part of life—no matter how or when it comes. Death is included fully in the natural progression of life. This being the case, it benefits us to contemplate what the scriptures of many traditions teach: that though the body may be ephemeral, the soul is eternal. When a person realizes and accepts this truth, they can better come to resolution within themselves about how they wish to live their life and how they wish to approach death. Indian philosophy speaks of karma and the prominent role it plays in life.
The first time I actively contemplated the cycle of birth, life, and death occurred many decades ago when my entire family was involved in a serious automobile accident. Although there were substantial injuries, we all recovered over time. I came away from this experience with a new and transforming insight: If everything you think can make you happy can be taken away from you in a moment, then you better pay attention to every moment you live. This recognition launched me on a spiritual quest. What does it mean to pay attention to every moment that you live? What is the true source of a happy life? What is life, and what is death? My quest led me to the Siddha Yoga path.
After I received shaktipat initiation from Baba Muktananda and began studying and practicing the Siddha Yoga teachings, I learned and experienced that lasting happiness in life arises from within, from the Love that exists in the supreme Heart of all beings. I came to understand that this happiness can be neither rescinded nor destroyed. And to attain it, a seeker puts forth effort to dispel the negative tendencies of the mind, discipline the senses, practice the divine virtues, offer service to humanity, and spend time in the company of the Truth by meditating on the Self within. Proximity to death, occasioned by the accident, had generated for me a new birth, and a new understanding of life—and led me to the Guru.
Early on during my years of Siddha Yoga sadhana I was awakened to an aspect of death I hadn’t previously considered. The teaching came to me in the form of a story from India’s celebrated epic poem, the Mahabharata.
Yudhishthira, the most dharmic of warriors, was challenged with questions by a clever and belligerent yaksha, a supernatural spirit who was the custodian of a sacred lake. Toward the end of the questioning, the yaksha asked: “What is the most wondrous thing in this world?” Yudhishthira answered: “The most wondrous thing is that people everywhere see all around them that everything that lives eventually dies, and yet they never think about it for themselves.”1
When I heard this story narrated one evening in a satsang, a light switched on in my brain. I saw so clearly that death is a natural and inevitable part of the process of living. And what is more, the “everything” that dies includes me… as well as everyone I know, have ever known, and ever will know! Learning more about how to live life had brought me to a deeper understanding about death. Acceptance and assent.
In the early 1990s in Shree Muktananda Ashram, Gurumayi Chidvilasananda requested that an area be created in the SYDA Foundation to support Siddha Yogis who came in darshan and wrote letters to her asking how to cope with the death and dying process of their loved ones. They sought guidance about how to grapple with their fears around death and how to help the people who were dying manage their own trepidation. The questioners inquired about what Siddha Yoga teachings they could practice at that time—for themselves and for the easeful journey of the soul or souls that were departing. The name that Gurumayi gave to this former area of the SYDA Foundation was Nirvana Sangha.
The Sanskrit word nirvana refers to that which is eternal, that which exists beyond death, beyond the transient physical universe. Sangham refers to a spiritual community or society and also to members of a particular spiritual community or path.
Gurumayi chose to use the word nirvana in the name Nirvana Sangha, as it would support people to understand that just as birth is significant and worthy of celebration, so too is death. Nirvana represents the final goal and destination of human life; it is the merging of the individual soul into the Absolute, the release of that soul from the cycle of birth and death. This word, in Sanskrit, and even in its more contemporary usage, has connotations of happiness, of perfect peace and harmony and freedom.
Gurumayi’s intention with this name was to illustrate that death need not be a taboo subject; it can be something to honor, an event imbued with joy, even in the midst of any sorrow that attends it. Both entering this life and leaving it are bookends of the beautiful, varied, and mysterious adventure of a soul on this planet.
Following through with this intention, Nirvana Sangha became the area of the SYDA Foundation that educated the community of Siddha Yogis about the Siddha Yoga practices and observances in regard to death and dying. I was one of the long-term members of the Nirvana Sangha team.
In this capacity, I spoke over the years with many hundreds of Siddha Yogis who were in the process of dying or who were supporting others transitioning from this world. One of the main things I learned from these profound exploratory conversations is that the person who is dying often requires permission and support to pass on. They feel that there are things in their life that remain unfinished and that they have a responsibility to their loved ones to attend to these incomplete matters. Often, they are also aware of unresolved conflicts that require amends. In addition, the person who is caring for them may themselves have issues that prevent them from giving the dying person permission to leave.
How to resolve these obstacles? What is the most essential quality to summon when the soul is on the cusp of a new adventure? From everything I have learned from Gurumayi and heard from people in my conversations with them, I would say that the main quality required at such a time is forgiveness. Forgiveness on all fronts. The person who is dying must forgive themselves for anything they have left undone and also for any misdeeds they may have committed in their lifetime, or any distress they feel they have caused others. And they must, equally, forgive others. Not only a few selected others, but all others with whom they may still have grievances, even of the smallest sort—anything for which they feel even a scintilla of a grudge. In parallel, the people who are supporting the one who is dying must forgive themselves for anything left unresolved with the person who is dying and also forgive, unreservedly forgive, the person who is transitioning from this earth. This is the time for both parties to release everything that might constrict a smooth and peaceful transition. It is the paramount opportunity for the person who is dying to free themselves: to let go of everything that binds their soul to the earth plane. And it is the opportunity for those supporting the process to genuinely and effectively help the person who is departing. Forgiveness and letting go make up the sacred current that transports the soul from one realm to the next.
I want to acknowledge that what I am sharing with you here is the timeless wisdom I received from Gurumayi over the years that I served as a member of the Nirvana Sangha team. While the Nirvana Sangha team in the SYDA Foundation is no longer active, wisdom about how to approach death and dying is widely available in the publications of the Siddha Yoga path.
I have also seen firsthand how much knowledge people inherently have about managing every aspect of life; this is especially true with those who have studied and practiced the Siddha Yoga teachings. Now, if you focus only on how big your problems are and how astronomically difficult they are to overcome, then yes, you are bound to flounder. But what if you changed the manner in which you think about these problems? What if, instead, you put yourself in a position of a mentor giving recommendations to someone else? And that person is experiencing much disquiet and vexation. What would you say to them? I can guarantee: you would be amazed by the stream of insight, of wisdom gained from your own life experience, that flows forth from within you. Before your very eyes, your own knowledge will become manifest. The person you are advising will be, in turn, completely uplifted; they will walk away feeling more collected, clear about what to do next, and deeply grateful for your time and support.
Remember: help comes in many different forms. Grace is always flowing. Be attuned to it. And don’t hesitate to help each other to remember your own goodness and attainment.
Although the Self is ageless, we all know that there is a time limit on the physical body. As my own body grows older, and as many of my friends and loved ones leave the physical plane of existence, I find that from time to time I miss them deeply. What do I do in such instances? I focus inward and recall all that they were. You will be surprised at how, as time passes, the mind only remembers good things—and I have found that to be such a blessing. By focusing on the good times I’ve had with my loved ones who have departed, they are, in an instant, present for me. I come alive immediately, and I feel even stronger in my resolve to live out, to the fullest potential, however many years remain in my destiny.
The Self, the supreme Heart shining brightly within each one of us, is beyond the body and beyond death. The divine Love that we all share never dies; we are united inseparably and eternally in the Heart.
Baba Muktananda, at the conclusion of his book Does Death Really Exist?, gives a definitive teaching about the Self and death. Baba says:
One day the body will drop away. In this world, everything that comes, also goes. But the Self does not die. The inner Self is ageless and unchanging. Death cannot reach it. Therefore, live with this awareness: “The supreme Truth lies within me; the flame of supreme Truth is shimmering and shining inside me.” That light is the Self.2
No matter what age you are, no matter what stage of life you are in, no matter what you are going through or what is disturbing you, regular contemplation on the cycle of birth, life, and death is immensely relevant. It has the power to enlighten you about the valuable gift of being alive on this planet. It enhances your understanding of all that you can achieve in your lifetime. It endows you with fresh perception, with a perspective and insight that is all your own on what this life—what your life—means.
Rejoice in your arrival into this world.
Rejoice in your accomplishments in this world.
Rejoice in letting go of your attachments to this world.
I once heard Gurumayi say:
Just think of the soul’s passing
as moving from a room on earth
to a room in the heavens.