If we know that death is inevitable, why do we act as if we will live forever?

“That is the wonderful thing. Kim ashcharyam atah param. Yudhishthira Maharaja said. He was asked, ‘What is the most wonderful thing in this world?’ So he replied, ‘This is the most wonderful thing – that everyone sees that everyone is dying, [yet] he’s thinking, “I shall not die.” This is the most wonderful thing.'” (Srila Prabhupada, Morning Walk, July 11, 1976, New York City)

The ancient Mahabharata, one of India’s two great epics, tells an intriguing story about death (Vana-parva 313). During a complex series of events leading up to the Battle of Kurukshetra, the five righteous Pandava brothers (Yudhishthira, Bhima, Arjuna, Nakula, and Sahadeva) find themselves exiled to the forest. Toward the end of their allotted banishment, Yudhishthira, the eldest brother, discovers that his brothers have died after drinking water from a lake. This was instigated by Yamaraja, who wants to test Yudhishthira with a series of questions.*

Yamaraja is known as Dharmaraja because he judges and punishes those who transgress dharma, or rules of human behavior. When Yudhishthira arrives at the lake, Yamaraja challenges him to answer a hundred questions about dharma. If he answers incorrectly, he will face the same fate as his brothers. The questions and answers are presented as a samvada (conversation), and each one is short, like a Vedic sutra.

It is the last of these questions that concerns us here: “What is the most wonderful thing in the world?”

Yudhishthira responds in a surprising way:

ahany ahani bhutani
gachchantiha yamalayam
sheshah sthavaram ichchanti
kim ashcharyam atah param

“Hundreds and thousands of living entities meet death at every moment, but foolish living beings nonetheless think themselves deathless and do not prepare for it. This is the most wonderful thing in this world.”

Why “Wonderful”?

Before commenting on the profundity of this teaching, I would like to briefly address the troubling word wonderful (translation of ashcharya), found in both the question and the answer. It is used not only in Prabhupada’s summation of the story, but also among devotees when they talk about this verse.

Why is the word troubling? Today, when we call something wonderful we usually mean “exciting” or “unusually good,” and the dictionary gives these definitions. But this is clearly not how Prabhupada and the Mahabharata use the word here. Wondrous, on the other hand, is defined as “amazing” or “that which is to be marveled at” – this would be more to the point. Of course, the word wonderful can mean “full of wonder,” and no doubt Prabhupada was using it in that way. But in modern parlance it has taken on other connotations.

Discussing this Mahabharata story elsewhere, as, for example, in his Teachings of Lord Kapila (Text 41, Purport), Srila Prabhupada indicates that the word ashcarya can be rendered as “amazing”: “Yudhishthira Maharaja said that this was the most amazing thing in the world. No one thinks that he is going to die, although everyone else is dying.”

Ashcharya is generally translated as “astonishing,” “surprising,” “amazing,” and so on. Srila Prabhupada translates the word in that way in Bhagavad-gita As It Is (2.29), where he translates ashcharya-vat pashyati kashchid as “Some look on the soul as amazing.” He doesn’t translate the word as “wonderful” in this context, though he could have, and that would also have been an accurate translation in this verse.

“Remember Your Mortality”

But back to the profundity of Yudhishthira’s words. His proclamation about death is like an Eastern version of memento mori, a Latin phrase that means “Remember your mortality.” The idea became a staple in Christian philosophy, where it was understood that people tended to live sinfully when they forgot or neglected their mortality. Early Church fathers said that the contemplation of death – not in a morbid way, but with depth and insight –would lead to proper focus in life, directing one’s course of action in a positive way. Ernest Hemingway said that every true story ends in death. Clearly, dying is life’s one certainty.

And yet we avoid it with every fiber of our being. Why? If we know that death is coming, without doubt, why do we act as if we will live forever? This is Yudhishthira’s point, and its implications are multifaceted.

First of all we are in denial. Death indicates the end of everything we know and love. It is the ultimate disruption. And it marks the unknown, something we generally fear. We want to abide in what is comfortable. Why take chances? Further, death is associated with pain – old age, disease, and death. Undesirable, to say the least.

There is another reason we dislike death: it is entirely unnatural to us. Because we’re spiritual beings, death feels unfamiliar. Not being self-realized, we are unaware of our eternality and our spiritual identity. Yet we intuit that something is wrong with dying. We know, at least on a subliminal level, that it is not for us. It goes against our grain.

Yudhishthira’s teaching here in the Mahabharata carries some irony, which correlates well with the Sanskrit ashcharya. We have discussed how people are foolish, not admitting to themselves that they will die, even though they know that everyone who lived before them is now dead. But one should also consider the following: On a deeper level, death cannot really touch us. Thus, Yudhishthira’s answer may indeed be referred to as wonderful or astonishing: We think we will never die, and in a spiritual sense we are correct.

From Acceptance to Action

But what to do while alive? This is the real question. Yudhishthira’s answer about death is only part of the equation. He tells us that death is inevitable and that we should simply admit that fact. Further, he intimates that since we aren’t inclined to admit the truth of death – to ourselves or others – we avoid preparing for death. We don’t act as if death is a reality.

So if we are ready to admit the truth of death, what do we do? How should we behave? What would appropriate action look like? Would we simply mope around, bemoaning our unseemly fate? Not at all.

There is a cousin verse that takes us to the next step. While Yudhishthira tells us about our avoidance of death, King Kulashekhara, a great devotee in the Sri Vaishnava tradition, suggests what to do when we’re ready to acknowledge that death is a fact of life. In his Mukunda-mala-stotra (38), he writes,

ashcharyam etad dhi manushya-loke
shudham parityajya visham pibanti
namani narayana-gocharani
tyaktvanya-vachah kuhakah pathanti

“The greatest wonder in human society is this: People are so incorrigible that they reject the life-giving nectar of Lord Narayana’s names and instead drink poison by speaking everything else.” From the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust commentary: “Both King Kulashekhara and Maharaja Yudhishthira use the word ashcharyam, ‘amazing,’ in the sense of amazingly stupid.” In other words, both kings highlight the foolishness of ignoring death and the proper action to prepare for it. Yudhishthira says we are simply avoiding this action, and Kulashekhara tells us what that action is: embracing the holy name of Narayana (Krishna).

The Supreme Lord has hundreds of millions of names, including the names Narayana and Krishna. Scriptures and sages recommend that we chant the names of God, thus developing our spiritual body in earnest. In this way we can overcome death, not by adopting the misguided notion that we will somehow live forever in a material body. By chanting the Lord’s names, we nourish the soul. In this world there is no greater wonder.

*After Yudhishthira answers his questions, Yamaraja brings the Pandavas back to life.