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?
The moment she woke up, Savitri saw that they were back at the banyan tree where they'd started. She sat up, squinting at the sun overhead. How could it be so high in the sky? Then she saw Ramana standing over her. He wore a mysterious look.
"We haven't left yet," he said. "There are hours to go before Satyavan returns home."
Weakly rising to her feet, Savitri gazed at the monk as if he were a magician. "What did you do?"
Ramana shrugged. "You were exhausted. You slept. I'm not responsible if you had a productive dream." Without another word he picked up his flute, exactly as he had before, and set off. This time Savitri followed him without a doubt. They did not take the trail up the mountain but the trail down, and after a while Ramana said, "When I was young there was a traveling fortune-teller who erected a tent by the Ganges. Every devout person wants to die in Benares. Their families come to the funeral, and a fortune-teller can make a good living, particularly this one, since his specialty was predicting the day that a person will die. But I refused to go."
"Why?" asked Savitri.
Ramana laughed. "I was different, even then. I used to say it's easy to see the future. I'll go to the fortune-teller who can see the present. The most difficult thing is seeing what's right here."
"Can you explain?" Savitri asked.
"Have you heard of Maya?"
"Of course. She is the goddess of illusion."
"Just so," said Ramana. "But what is illusion? A kind of magic that hides reality from us? Let me give you an example. Let's say I show you a piece of ice, a cloud of steam, and a snowflake. Have you seen any water? If you say yes, then you have overcome Maya--the forms of ice, steam, and snowflake didn't fool you. You went to the essence, which is that they are all made of water.
"If you say no, then you fell for illusion. The ice, steam, and snowflake grabbed your attention, and you lost the essence. It didn't take a goddess to fool you. You allowed your mind to be distracted. So it is with the soul. We look at people and see everything on the surface. This one is ugly, that one beautiful, this one poor, that one rich, this one I love, that one I hate. Yet each is Atman, the same essence in infinite forms."
"Is that what you see?" Savitri asked.
"Don't look so mystified. You've seen someone's soul, too," Ramana said. He gazed at her deeply. "I know all about you, princess."
Suddenly Savitri's cheeks burned. It was true. Despite her present poverty, she had been born a princess, the most cherished daughter of a rich and powerful king. When the time came for her to marry, she had insisted on finding the right man herself, and so her father, though worried in his heart, sent her with a band of nobles to find the perfect prince. Savitri and her guards traveled through the dense forest, and by chance they came upon a woodcutter's hut. As soon as she set eyes on Satyavan, who was humble and poor, Savitri resolved to marry him, whatever the obstacles.
When she announced her choice, Savitri made her father deeply disappointed. Satyavan was handsome and known for his good heart and generosity. Since he had also fallen in love with Savitri, the king reluctantly accepted his daughter's choice. Then something disturbing happened. On the three nights before her wedding, Savitri dreamed of Lord Yama, and each night he said the same thing: Satyavan would die when they had been wed exactly a year.
"So you already knew," said Ramana. "And yet you decided to marry someone who was doomed. Why?"
"Because I loved him,' Savitri whispered.
"And what is true love but seeing someone else's soul? If you can see past all the illusions laid in your way by Maya, you will always see Satyavan's soul. It can never be lost, no matter what happens to his body."
Savitri mourned, "I see his soul when I can't see my own."
"The difference is that you must notice your soul. Seeing with the eyes keeps us trapped in the world of shapes and colors. Noticing goes deeper."
Ramana touched Savitri's forehead, and instantly she saw bodies burning on the funeral pyres beside the Ganges, their ashes escaping on the wind. "The eye can't help but see this," Ramana whispered, "yet it never saw the soul in the first place, so the act of seeing nothing makes us believe in death." He let these words sink in. "Do you think you can stop believing your eyes now?"
Savitri nodded, and for an instant she glimpsed Satyavan's soul merged with hers, just as she had the day they met. "I will never forget," she murmured.