To know the nature of death and immortality you must first answer the question, “Who am I?” “I am the president, I am the chairman, I am male, I am female, I am Hindu, I am Christian, I’m Muslim, I’m Indian, I’m American.” What is common to all these statements? “I” is common. This “I” remains silent. This “I” doesn’t talk; this “I” doesn’t speak; this “I” doesn’t change; this “I” is eternal, immortal and all-pervading, without any change. It is the underlying reality behind the changing phenomena of the universe which remains constant—the unchanging “I”. It is the substratum of all being. Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita explains this “I”: This Self cannot be cut, burnt, wetted nor dried up. It is eternal, all-pervading, stable, ancient and immovable. (BG Ch II, v.24) However, we do not identify with this immortal “I”, the Self, the pure Consciousness; we identify only with the transitory qualities associated with body. When we identify with, “I am a German, I am a Hindu, I am a Swami, I am big, I am small;” we forget the Self, the “I,” the pure Consciousness. This pure Consciousness, the I Am, is not something to be understood in the way that this microphone stand, or glass of water is understood. This knowledge of objects is experienced through the senses, mind and intellect. Pure Consciousness, the I Am, is not this type of knowledge. It can only be known through direct experience.

We think that all we see is permanent, that it is real, but it is not real because everything constantly changes. Something cannot be called real if it changes. The moment we identify with the world we live in, we fear death. This is called mortality.

Look at all the people who have risen to power thinking, “I am the great…”— Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Kennedy. Look at their lives—one moment they were great, the next they were gone. When you identify with this perishable body and mind, thinking the body and mind is me, this is ego, the false I. If you identify with this ego, this body and all its qualities, what happens when you breathe your last? Whether you are Christian, Catholic, Hindu, Indian, American, or millionaire, king, president, what are you? You are food for germs and worms!! The body comes from the food chain and it must go back to the food chain. This is called mortality.

When a movie is projected onto a screen it appears that the screen comes to life even though it remains as a white screen. It doesn’t change. You laugh and scream reacting to the flickering light and shadow. You forget about the substratum on which all this takes place, the screen. That white screen is the atman, the Self, the “I”, pure Consciousness, the immortal Self. It is also called Siva or Krishna or Christ or any name you may wish to give God. There is but one God, one Brahman, the substratum, one Consciousness on which maya, the light and shadow, our world, plays.

Nothing in this universe remains in the same state even for a moment. Subconsciously you know that this body cannot remain the same. If you have beauty, you will lose it; if you have strength, you will lose it. Not too long ago I could twist my body this way and that. Now I can do very little. And this change does not happen suddenly, it is a gradual never-ending process. You can’t see it, but you see young men become old men and then you foolishly think it only happens to others. “Oh Swami Vishnu, you’ll be like that, but not me!”  This identification with the changing world is maya. Maya means that we forget the true Reality, who we really are, and we accept this moment-by-moment changing world as reality.

Here’s a story. I went to see the horror movie The Exorcist with a few of my students, one of whom was from Hollywood, so she knew how films were made. I reminded her before we went in that the movie was not real. Movie makers can’t catch a spirit and then exorcise it!!!  “Yes, I know, it’s all an illusion.” But a few minutes into the film she was screaming! She closed her eyes repeating, “It’s an illusion, illusion, illusion.” but continued to scream. I also watched the film but didn’t scream. Why? She had forgotten who she was and identified with the illusion. She felt as if she was in the film whereas I just observed it—the girl in the film was vomiting something, that must be green pea soup; the bed was rocking, that must be water. I saw through the illusion. I was aware of myself; I never for a moment forgot that it was unreal.

The same thing also takes place in this universal drama we call life. Your mind becomes the projector, the actor, and the enjoyer—in fact the mind projects life just like in a dream. Who acts in a dream? The mind creates the illusion of a tiger coming for you and you start to run. In a dream the mind is the producer, the writer, the director, the actor and the observer and it is the same in this world. We are caught in maya, an illusion. Maya projects—this is beautiful, this is wonderful, this is painful, this is mine, this is yours, constantly changing the scene every moment. Today you sacrifice everything for your wife; the next day you want to sacrifice her!! This is maya.

Cosmic mind and individual mind are simply maya. Just as in the movie, we forget the reality, the I Am, the eternal, immortal, unchanging Self. We identify with the changing phenomena. This is why we suffer. But paradoxically, we don’t even see the change and we think we are immortal. We think if we dye the greying hair we won’t grow old and die. We constantly fool ourselves to follow our imaginary world drama like a movie. Then at the end, you are hooked onto life-sustaining systems—intravenous feed, oxygen mask, heart monitor and the brain waves slowly flatten, the heart muscles weaken and you look at your wife and children. They look at you. You want to talk. She was a good wife. You can’t open your mouth. You have to leave your house, your money, your children, grandchildren. No one is going to come with you. You will go alone. They’re all looking at you. Though tears fall from their eyes, still, you can take no one and nothing with you. Wife, children, home, money, diamonds, position, power, change every day and we will be cut loose from them all at the moment of death. No one, no thing is going to follow you. This is why we fear death. There is death for you because you think that the body is permanent and that all the material things you have are real.

We have forgotten the Self and cannot accept that all things will change and disappear. We are afraid. This is mortality. And what is immortality? I am not this body, I am not the individual ego or the mind. I am Brahman. That supreme Brahman I am. The moment you identify with Brahman, the immortal Self, neither male nor female, neither big nor small, neither saint nor sinner, the one Self that shines equally in all of us, then you know immortality.

Knowing this will give you tremendous strength at the time of hardship. Last year, I was in the Himalayas in our cave, suffering from frostbite. I was taken to hospital and lay there wracked with pain. There was deep suffering. But I knew it was only temporary, a passing phenomenon like a cloud. Today it rains, tomorrow there is sunshine. Clouds and rain are passing phenomenon; they are not the Self. But I am, Shivoham, I am Brahman, Shivoham, Shivoham, Soham, Soham. This is immortality. You will have to realise it. Only after tasting honey can you realise that honey is sweet.

The I Am consciousness cannot be known by the rational mind. To know objects you need intellect, mind and senses. But the Self is not an object, so how can you know it? Even the eye, the senses, need to borrow light. If you want to see into a dark corner you take a mirror and reflect the sun’s light into it. Now the corner is bright. If you look into the mirror at this point the mirror will blind your eyes. You see the sun coming from the mirror. Suppose you are stupid and the mirror is egoistic. The mirror says, “I am luminous. I am bright. I can illumine you. Look at my power.” “Ah yes,” you say, “Look at its power, it blinds my eyes.” You can see dark objects with the reflected light, but suppose you want to see the sun itself? Do you point the mirror at the sun in order to see the sun? No, of course not. You look directly at the sun. It doesn’t need light to see it because it is self-luminous. A mirror is not self-luminous, it only reflects. So also your mind and intellect are not self-luminous. It makes no difference if you have the intellect of Einstein; still the light of the intellect is only borrowed, it is the reflected light of the Self.

The Self is sat-chid-ananda. The sun exists in its own glory without anything to illumine it. The Self exists in its own glory. Sat is this existence. Chit means knowledge. Chit is not something you learn, it is knowledge itself. Take fire for instance. Fire means there must be heat. If you take the heat out of fire, there can be no fire. The heat and the fire are the same. Heat is not something the fire has to borrow or glean from outside. The same principle applies to the Self. The Self is not something you learn; it is knowledge. Its very nature is knowledge. This knowledge is reflected through your mind and intellect, the mirror. Of course, some mirrors reflect better and brighter. Some mirrors are dull, they reflect very little. Some mirrors are concave or convex, crooked or distorted!  According to the nature and the level of evolution of your mind, you reflect the Self within you. When you mistakenly identify with the reflection—”I am intelligent, I am great, I am small”—the knowledge of the Self is lost. This is consciousness—chit. Self is also bliss—ananda. The nature of the Self is ananda. When there is heat there is also light. So when we talk of fire, we know both light and heat are there. In the same way, the Self’s inherent quality is ananda, bliss or happiness.

This is why you search for happiness; no-one wants pain. But you don’t know where to find it. You mistake real happiness for its reflection through the senses and their objects; through the consumption of this and that. You find no lasting satisfaction from objects. No matter where you look for lasting happiness in this material universe, you will not find it. You can ask for anything you want, any amount of money, wife, beauty, strength, health. But you never say, “that’s enough, I am satisfied.” You always feel something is missing; because you are looking in the wrong place for the wrong thing. The object that is missing is your Self. There is no use searching for the Self in the outside world.

Once upon a time, a poor woman lost her sewing needle inside her tiny cottage, but she searched outside the cottage for it. A passing neighbour asked her what she was doing. “I’ve lost my needle,” replied the woman. Where she had last seen it? “In my cottage.”  The neighbour asked why then was she looking for it outside. “My friend, there is no light in my cottage, so I’m searching outside where there is light.” We are like this poor woman. We are searching in the wrong place. Happiness is within. The I Am is that happiness, but you think it is somewhere in Las Vegas, in Delhi, in some restaurant, or with some person. So you go searching. You will never find it until you search within and find out who you are. Then you will find satisfaction.

Once you know that you are satchidananda, that there is no change for the Self, then there is nothing to fear. Fear of death disappears. You are satchidananda. There is no death and birth for you. Really there is no difference between mortality and immortality. It is just a question of identification; one identifies with the movie on the screen while the other is an observer, aware of the changing nature of the observed objects. If you identify with the immortal Self, there’s neither death nor birth, no suffering; the pain of the changing world becomes like a passing cloud. You are unaffected by it. It is so very simple. Yet in daily life, you forget. You identify with this ‘movie’ of day-to-day life and are caught in its unending drama.