Who dies and what is death?
In order to answer this question, we have to analyse the composition of human life. According to the analysis, there are three elements which make up our existence. There is the gross body, the astral body and the causal body. These are the three types of bodies which are constantly interacting with each other, and the indweller of these three bodies is the self or the atman.
The atman is known by different names. Some people call it the jivatma – individual soul, while others call it the spirit or consciousness. In the ancient scriptures, the atman is symbolized in different forms, the most common being light or the image of a bird. Now, this atman or self is immortal; it does not die. Death is not associated with the atman; it belongs to the physical body.
As I have just explained, this physical body is a composition of three bodies and of these, only the gross body dies. The astral body and the causal body do not die. Therefore, what is death? Death is destruction of the elements which comprise the gross body. As you know, the gross body is composed of the five elements of nature – ether, air, fire, water and earth. Permutation and combination of these five elements create the gross body, which is comprised of the brain, heart and lungs, the digestive system, the muscles, nerves, bones, marrow and blood.
This gross body is enlivened by prana, the energy which permeates the physical body. Just as a motor pump is operated by electrical energy, in the same way this gross body lives and functions as long as the pranas are flowing through it. These pranas are five-fold as they are concerned with different functions in the gross body. Some are responsible for digestion, others are responsible for thinking and so on. As long as these pranas are functioning smoothly, the gross body lives and acts. But when the pranas are dissociated from the body, the body is unable to move at all.
Now, each and every human being is born with certain karmas to fulfil. That is to say, we have come under deputation, and once our period of deputation is completed, our body ceases to function. Therefore, death is an exit. It is not the end. Just as you leave one room and enter another, in the same way, the individual self moves from one body to another.
There is another important point to note: karmas are endless. A seed germinates and eventually it becomes a tree, the tree produces more seeds and they also become trees. These trees will produce more seeds and they also become trees. This is called the chain of karma, and as you can imagine, this is a very long chain.
Therefore, death is only an exit. When the physical body dies, the astral body and the causal body leave the physical body together, along with the individual soul, or what you might call your individuality. Then, in order to fulfil your desires and karma, they inherit another body.
—France, 1 September 1980, first published in Teachings of Swami Satyananda Saraswati Vol. 2