This question came from a little girl of ten years old. Being a daughter of a family friend, she has known me all her life. During a chit chat with her, she asked me the most pressing question she has had for some time. She told me that this question had really bothered her, and she had made an attempt to find an answer by discussing it with her parents. I felt honored, for she trusted me enough to discuss a question that really bothered her.
When I was a child of her age, I used to ask such questions to others. Some adults were angry to hear my questions, and I stopped asking any more questions to them. But some others sympathetically answered my questions to the best of their knowledge although most of their answers could not satisfy my curiosity.
I enjoyed answering this question to her. I was also happy for her. She has known death mainly by the passing of those she has known. One day someone is before us well and alive, and the next day he/she is no more alive. So what happens to that person? Where is he/she? She might have also been thinking of the possibility of her own death. What happens to me when I die? Do I cease to exist or does a part of me survive somewhere? These are questions any child of her age might worry about.
If she were younger, an answer like “the dead people go to heaven” would satisfy her. But having enough knowledge of the world, such an answer would not satisfy her. She would immediately ask where heaven is and how I know it. So I had to give an answer that wouldn’t contradict her knowledge of science. What follows is a summary of how I answered her question.
It is generally believed that each human being is a self-contained being. Well, this is how a human being appears to us. The question of where we go after we die arises from this belief. But really a human being is not a self-contained and independent being. A human being may be seen as a world of beings, and he/she in turn is a part of a bigger being. A human being is originally formed from a single cell, which is formed by a combination of two half cells from the parents. This cell multiplies by binary division into billions of cells, which take diverse jobs to become a human being. If each cell is a living being, a human being is actually a world of living beings. If planet earth can be seen as a living being, human beings can be seen as its cells. No living being on the earth is a self-dependent being. We all have an interdependent existence. Animals depend on plants for food and Oxygen, and plants depend on animals for Carbon dioxide. All living beings depend on earth, water, light, and favorable weather.
The cells in our body have a life of their own. They have birth, they live for some time, and they die. Dead ones are replaced by new cells. A human being lives for close to a hundred years because the cells that constitute his/her body keep dying and new ones are born. Birth and death keep on happening. Similarly the earth continues to exist because the living beings that constitute the earth have birth and death.
We can understand this idea better if we look at a tree. Look at the millions of leaves of a tree. Hundreds and thousands of leaves fall each day, and they are replaced by new ones. Each leaf is a living being with a life of its own.
Each leaf has life. The tree has life. It is the same life energy that gives life to both. The life energy that runs through each leaf is the same as the life energy that runs through the tree. Each leaf is nothing but an expression of this life energy. Similarly the life energy that gives me life is the same life energy that keeps all the cells in my body alive. Following this line of thought, we may say that the whole earth is kept alive by the same life energy that keeps me alive. Continuing this line of thought, we may also imagine that the whole world is one living being permeated by the same life energy.
We read in the Bible that Adam (human being) was created by God by breathing the breath of life into mud. Here it is affirmed that Adam was living the life of God. It was not his own life. God was the source of life which kept him alive. John wrote in his gospel, “Just as father has life in himself, …”. (John 5:26) Here Jesus states that God has life in himself. God is self existent. However, all other beings receive their life from God. They are all dependent on God for their existence. The Nicene Creed calls the Holy Spirit the Lord that makes everything alive. If the whole world can be seen as one living being, its life is given by God.
Although we know nothing about God, we know that the world depends on God. When we affirm that God is immortal, we also affirm that we are all mortals. We have never been really alive with our own life. We have been living with God’s life. This relationship is similar to that of the Sun and the moon. The sun has its own light, but the moon only reflects sun’s light. Similarly, God has God’s own life, but all other beings simply reflect God’s life.
Do we die? Yes. All beings with birth also have death. But do we have to be afraid of death? Not at all! Nothing really happens to our real essence at death. Adam was made of earth and God’s breath of life. At death, the earth returns to earth, and God’s breath returns to God. We appear to die, but not in reality. The sun appears to rise and set, but in reality the sun never rises or sets. Similarly, though we appear to have birth and death, we really don’t.
As I was explaining this, she actively listened to me. At the end, she said, “So if someone tells me that I will die, I can tell them that I am already dead. Or I can tell them that I have never been really alive.”
I was excited to hear this. She had fully grasped what I was telling her. I further explained that once we have such awareness, we won’t be afraid of death anymore. Fear of death is the root of all fear. If we are not afraid of death, we won’t be afraid of anything.
I also explained to her the difference between conscious knowledge and unconscious knowledge. A new piece of information stays at the surface of our mind as conscious knowledge. Only when it sinks down and becomes unconscious knowledge, it becomes a part of our life. A lot of information fails to sink down to become unconscious knowledge. It enters through one ear and leaves through the other, as it is often said. “What can we do to make a conscious knowledge sink down to become unconscious knowledge?” I asked her. “Well, if we talk about it to someone, or think more about it,” she responded. I am sure she will make an effort to let her conscious knowledge about death sink down to become unconscious knowledge, so that she won’t be afraid of death any more.