Note: While writing a new book on the afterlife, Life After Death: The Burden of Proof I kept being drawn back to stories that I'd heard in India as a child. In these stories the abstract issues of death, immortality, and eternity acquire a human face as ordinary people confronted the mystery of death. I hoped that reader will be intrigued by a world where heroes battle darkness in order to emerge into the light.
In this case the hero is a woman named Savitri, and the enemy she must defeat is Yama, the lord of death. Yama shows up in her front yard one day, waiting to take away her husband the moment he returns from his work as a woodcutter. Will she succeed? What strategy can possibly turn Death away from his inexorable mission?
To tell the truth, what Ramana had been telling Savitri didn't come as a total surprise. She had been raised to believe in the soul. She had heard about how the higher self, the "inward dweller" as Lord Krishna called it, is immortal. But these were faraway lessons.
"How do I know I have a soul?" she asked.
"You cannot know by seeing it or touching it," Ramana said. "Your soul might whisper to you, but even then you could just be hearing echoes of your own voice."
"So the soul may be a fiction, whereas death is totally real," said Savitri, with a sinking feeling.
"The soul isn't a fiction just because it's invisible," Ramana said. "Look."
Suspended in a shaft of light was the outline of an intricate spider web anchored between two bushes. It gleamed and rippled with the slightest breeze.
"A spider made this web," said Ramana. "You see his work but you don't see the spider. He holds a tiny thread that tells him when anything lands in the web. Where has the spider gone? It doesn't matter as long as the connection exists."
Savitri couldn't help being stubborn. "I still may be imagining I have a soul."
"Ah, but that's the wonder."
Ramana's face was suddenly aglow with inspiration. "Nature imagines spiders. Big ones were imagined and small ones, smooth ones and hairy ones, those that live in the air, water, and earth, those colored white and black and every shade in between. Think of baby spiders that fly on gossamer threads in the spring while giant water spiders dive to the bottom of a pond and catch fish. We are foolish to think the spider is a thing. It is a shifting whirl of qualities, ever changing and fascinating. The soul is exactly the same. However you imagine it, it will take on that quality and still have infinite potential left over. When you ask 'Where is my soul?' the answer isn't a place but a potential. The soul is wherever it is, has been, and will be."
Ramana's eyes remained fixed on the web rippling in the sunlight, and through his fascination Savitri began to be fascinated, too. She couldn't know for certain if the spider that made this web was white, yellow, or red, big or small, male or female, yet that didn't stop her from knowing that it was real. She had no idea of what her soul looked like, either, or what lay across the boundary of death. All she had was an invisible thread. Would it be enough?
"Yes," Ramana said. "You have listened well today. You are learning."
Savitri smiled a bit doubtfully. Suddenly she was quite tired. She sank down on a billowy bank of moss and closed her eyes. Her mind slowed down, bit by bit, until she forgot where she was or the dangers she faced. It was enough just to sleep.