BECOMING FEARLESS OF DEATH
DEVOTEE: Rabbi, we both agree that the souls in this world should be using their lives to glorify God. Yet everyone, good or bad, must eventually face death. Since God is all-powerful, it seems that by acting according to His desires we should be able to become free from fear, even the fear of death. Do the Jewish teachings describe different results at the time of death based on our individual life's activities, and can one truly become free from the fear of death?
RABBI: As you have suggested, God takes direct control of the lives of His servants, and thus their death is distinct from and superior to the death of ordinary persons who have not truly dedicated their lives to Him. It is stated, "It is the Destroying Angel who brings death to all people except those who die in the Holy Land, to whom death comes by the Angel of Mercy who holds sway there." But it is not that one really has to die within the holy land to be saved, for it is stated by R. Isaac: "This being the case, wherein lay the superiority of Moses, Aaron and Miriam, concerning whom it is written that they died "by the mouth of the Lord", meaning that their death was not brought about by the Destroying Angel? R Judah replied: "Truly, the greatness of these three and their superiority over all others is demonstrated by this, that although they met their death outside the Holy Land, they, unlike their contemporaries, were not brought to it by the Destroying Angel, but by the Holy One Himself." [The Zohar IV, 151a-151b].
DEVOTEE: There is also a holy place in India known as Vrindavan. This is the place where Lord Krsna appeared approximately 5,000 years ago. One of the characteristics of Vrindavan is that anyone who dies there is liberated and goes back to the eternal spiritual abode of Lord Krsna. But it is not that a person must die in Vrindavan in order to be liberated from the suffering of this world and go back to Godhead. Anyone, in any part of the creation, who always remembers the Lord and engages in His service, becomes eligible to go back to Godhead at the end of this life. In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krsna also states, "He quickly becomes righteous and attains lasting peace. O son of Kunti, declare it boldly that My devotee never perishes." [Bg. 9.31] A devotee, as mentioned in this verse, is one whose only interest is the service of the Lord. Also, in the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krsna states, "Engage your mind always in thinking of Me, become My devotee, offer obeisances to Me and worship Me. Being completely absorbed in Me, surely you will come to Me." [Bg. 9.34]
RABBI: That is fascinating. Do the Vedic scriptures make reference to any personality corresponding to the Jewish "Angel of Death" who punishes the sinful after death? Is there any instance in Vedic history when a person was saved from eternal suffering by becoming a devotee of God as indicated in the Bhagavad-gita verses you quoted?
DEVOTEE: Yes! There is a great devotee of the Lord, a demigod (angel), known as Yamaraja. "Yamaraja" literally means "the Lord of Death." As we discussed earlier, the Vedic understanding of demigods is very similar to the Jewish concept of angels. The service that Yamaraja does for Lord Krsna is to judge the sinful persons and punish them in a way exactly proportionate to the sins they have committed during their life. This punishment is generally very severe, but is never eternal suffering. They are punished so that they will eventually be able to correct themselves of their sinful mentality and develop love of God.
There is a long history in the Sixth Canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam about Ajamila. Very briefly, the history goes like this. Ajamila had been a very good religious person in his youth, but somehow or other he became attracted to a prostitute. Thus he spent many years living with her, procreating many children and committing all kinds of sinful acts to maintain his household. Finally, when he was about to die he saw the Yamadutas, or the assistants of Yamaraja who are deputed to take all sinful souls to Yamaraja for judgment. Out of great fear upon seeing the Yamadutas, Ajamila cried out to his youngest son who he had named Narayana (a name of God). Immediately, the Vishnudutas (representatives of God) came and opposed the Yamadutas and would not allow them to take Ajamila away for punishment. They said that because Ajamila cried out the holy name of Narayana he had become free from the results of his sins and could not be touched by the Yamadutas. Even at the moment of death if one fully takes shelter of God he will be saved, but we should not risk waiting until that final moment to prepare ourselves.
The tendency is to become bewildered at the moment of death and for the mind to become filled with that which was most dear to us during our life. We must try to make God the most cherished to us during this life and that will make us fearless both within this life and at the moment of death. Even in the case of Ajamila, he was not thinking of God when he called out to Narayana. He was thinking of his dear little son who he had named Narayana. Ajamila was very fortunate that the Yamadutas could not take him to Yamaraja for punishment, but he also could not go back to Godhead at that moment. He was given a longer duration of life, and remembering his life's sinful activities and his encounter with the Yamadutas, he most seriously took to the path of devotion and perfected his life. We should not expect such good fortune if we do not seriously take to the path of spiritual life.
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