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A Sikh Perspective on Death

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There are many expressions about death; growing up in the West we become accustomed to hearing phrases such as 'I am dying for a cigarette!' or 'I am dying to meet her!' What does this mean and where do these intense expressions originate?

Clearly, there are different types of death – death of the ego, the mind and death of the body and, for some, death of the soul. In each instance there is a time factor and an element of control involved.

 

Life and death are inextricably linked

 

If we think of life and death on earth, there is evidently a similar connection to both time and the inability to control the situation. Just as the farmer sows his field and harvests his crops in a similar way death claims all life when the time comes.

 

After day the night comes and after the night the day dawns, time and tide wait for no one.

 

SGGS pg 41

 

Death does not discriminate between age, gender, race and, again, time. Death ends the physical existence on earth, but Sikhs believe that the soul is eternal and not destructible. Therefore it is a simple transition or a change of frequency for the soul after physical death.

 

Death is a reality, whatever is born must die.

 

SGGS pg 227

 

The Sikh scriptures also highlight the purpose of life while talking of death.

 

The hymn of the Lord's love is like a pointed arrow, that has pierced deep in my heart: he who feels love's pain knows it. And he that dies to this life even while living has obtained his deliverance even in this life.

 

SGGS pg 448

 

Contrary to many thoughts and traditions in the West, death is not considered a dark, dangerous or fearful phenomenon, but a beautiful, sweet celebration of life. We have nothing to fear if we have led a truthful, dutiful and fruitful life on earth.

 

The fear of death and rebirth is removed by performing loving devotional service to the Lord of the World.

 

SGGS pg 45

 

Death is simply a natural organic process; it is renewal, the old making room for the new. In fact the death that is mentioned again and again through the teachings is the death of the consciousness. Everyone says, 'I will die, I will die.'

 

But he alone becomes immortal, who dies with intuitive understanding. Those who do not know the Lord, die over and over again, and then depart.

 

SGGS pg 327

 

 

The journey of the soul

 

The quotation above gives a clear view on reincarnation of the soul. Souls are eternal and come on earth to make their journeys. The Sikh idea is that we are blessed with birth and have been given one chance in the human form to make our journeys on earth. It is such a profound experience that we will not need to keep entering the cycle of birth and death and will be able to one day make our way back to our creator. Souls are attracted and choose the parents that they come to, it is rarely the other way around. When we forget the soul's source and live life without the three pillars of the faith (to meditate, to work hard and honestly and to share whatever we gain with others) we are considered dead in spiritual terms.

 

Sacrifice

 

There is also a very strong aspect of shaheedi in the Sikh school of thought; this can be interpreted as martyrdom. It is when a choice is made to meet death rather than withstand injustice. It is often related to sacrifice and there are several references to this aspect of death in Sikh history. The obvious one was when tyrant emperors waged war against the people or denied them their human rights; many a time a Sikh Guru by standing up to injustice would be sacrificed or jailed himself.

The question put to us by the Sikh Gurus is what have we done to deserve the honour of human life on this earth, which is the highest blessing of all and also a long awaited one.

 

O my body, why have you come into this world? What actions have you committed? And what actions have you committed, O my body, since you came into this world? The Lord who formed your form – you have not enshrined that Lord in your mind. By Guru's Grace, the Lord abides within the mind, and one's pre-ordained destiny is fulfilled. Says Nanak, this body is adorned and honored, when one's consciousness is focused on the True Guru.

 

SGGS pg 922

 

 

The cycle of death and life

 

There is very little importance given to the body after death, which is why Sikhs cremate. The physical body ends its journey on earth. The belief is that when the light dries up the oil of suffering, the fire burns the body and returns it to the cycle of life through ashes, or fertilisers for flowers. It reinforces the idea that death is a cycle, an organic process and is acknowledging God's will.

 

Emotional support for the bereaved

 

The mourning or bereavement process is also a reflection of death not being a huge tragic occurrence but a very real and natural one. When a family member passes away, the friends and family inform each other and the doors of the family home are left open, people come and pay their respects to the family and a rota is made for cooking food. Every evening the family is provided with a warm cooked meal prepared by relatives, friends or neighbours. Extracts from the Siri Guru Granth Sahib are sung and everyone around sits down together to share the warm cooked food.

Lamenting and screaming are discouraged, but families are encouraged to take out pictures and tell stories remembering the precious times shared together. The family is surrounded by others for support until the funeral takes place.

 

The funeral

 

The body is brought home for members of the close family to say their final goodbyes. Then the body is taken to the gurdwara where the local community gets a chance to pay their respects. From there the body is taken to the crematorium where prayers are read such as the following:

 

O Kabeer! There is no need to cry or feel sad at the death of a Saint [Gurmukh, one attached to the Guru's teachings]; because he is just going back to his home where no-one can remove him.

 

A final prayer is read as a supplication, asking for the soul to be blessed and pardoned for any mistakes performed on earth and also for all paths to be made clear for the soul to begin its journey back home.

Later the ashes are given to the family members who will choose an appropriate time to join these ashes back to the earth or water as they prefer.

 

Support for the family

 

The family are visited regularly and the community give them support through counselling or financial assistance to enable them to continue with their life in the best way possible.

Recent surveys have highlighted that very few practising Sikhs fall into depression or require help from social services following the death of a loved one because the community takes it upon itself to assume responsibility for those who need assistance. In fact, when a family elder, like a grandparent, departs, families often share sweet food to remember and thank God for the abundant and fulfilling life they led on earth.

 

Joy and sorrow, profit and loss, birth and death, pain and pleasure – they are all the same to my consciousness, since I met the Guru.

 

SGGS

 

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