I was always a bit baffled by this verse in the Bhagavad Gita. I thought that Krishna would have said, “utter my name,” but instead he suggests to “utter OM” while dying. I have often heard many of my friends who are Krishna devotees say, “OM is for yogis or Vedantists,” not for Krishna bhaktas, and I have noticed that many of the Krishna mantras do not start with OM as do many of the other deity mantras. But interestingly enough, in the very next chapter, in verse 17, Krishna says, “I am the sound OM.” The sound of the Divine in its essential manifestation, is found in OM, in other words by saying OM you are saying God’s name. I think this verse is giving instruction for how to consciously pull one’s soul out of their physical body at the time of death with the potency of OM.
Krishna is known as the supreme yogi, and the best way to understand his teachings is to immerse yourself in the practices He suggests, as insight is more likely to dawn through experience. My guru Shri Brahmananda taught me to chant the bija mantras in relationship to the chakras. Because of his guidance I practice shavasana as a practice to prepare me for my own death. While lying on my back, I recite the bija mantras out loud, moving through the first six chakras, from the root (muladhara) to the third eye (ajna): LAM, VAM, RAM, YAM, HAM, OM. When I come to the sahasrara chakra I silently chant OM, and this silent chanting of OM acts as a profound launching of my awareness into an expanded reality. After that final OM there is a profound letting go of the physical body-all of the joints between the bones seem to unhinge, tension releases, and there is a feeling of great spaciousness -perhaps it is close to what I can only imagine and assume to be something like dying-my breath stops and along with it thought and sensation-I feel like I am floating bodiless-a freed spirit. This usually only lasts for a moment or so, but nonetheless it is quite extraordinary that the chanting of the bija mantras culminating in that final silent OM can facilitate an experience of kevalam kumbhaka-a spontaneous suspension of the breath and thought, classified in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika as a preliminary level of samadhi. For a short, almost timeless moment we can experience yoga-freed of all desire-feeling whole and complete, needing nothing. You don’t stop breathing in the normal sense, instead you become integrated with the breath to such an extent that there is no need to breathe, no need to grasp the breath and bring it “into you.” To be able to die with ease and a sense of direction is the definition of a good death.
Previous to that final silent OM, with each successive chanting of the bija mantras and focusing on the associated chakra and area of the body, I always feel like I am putting my life, via my body, in order. It is a “cleaning house” kind of feeling, where things that are no longer necessary are let go of and things that were out of place get put back and the “house” is more organized and spacious for it. It also prepares me for the silence of that final OM. I don’t think you can take the short cut ignoring the other chakras and mantras and just lie down and silently chant one OM and facilitate the same kind of experience. If you don’t believe me, just try it yourself. Lie down and inhale, then exhale with the sound of OM and see if the abbreviated experience is equal to the methodical process of moving up through the chakras, dropping each body part in successive order by means of the breath and mantra.
During the death process, each element leaves the body in an organized progression starting with the element of earth in the root chakra and moving upward into water, fire, air and then followed by more subtle forms of ether. The shavasana practice I describe above-the methodical process of successively moving upward consciously through means of the bija mantras-is a meditation on the dissolution of the elements that occurs naturally at the time of death to everyone, although it may occur more consciously to a yogi. This process is referred to in the previous verse in the Gita, where Krishna gives instruction by saying, “closing all the gates of the body and drawing the mind into the heart, then raise the prana into the head” (BG VIII.12). When the prana is in the higher chakras of the head, if we utter the sound of OM at that precise moment, we might be able to aim our soul’s flight out through the top of the head, the sahasrara or crown chakra, and reach our supreme goal-liberation. Shavasana, or corpse pose, can be a practice for that important moment, as the Mundaka Upanishad describes: “OM is the bow, the arrow is our own soul, Brahman is the target, the aim of the soul.”
For many practitioners of yoga, the time spent in shavasana is taken as a time to rest from the exertion of the asanas. But when the practitioner begins to investigate the significance of shavasana, he/she will realize that it provides a tangible opportunity to consciously practice dying and even to experience samadhi. When we practice dying, we can become liberated from the fear of dying, or abhinivesha, which is an obstacle to yoga, and move towards a good death and the ultimate attainment of the supreme goal, which is cosmic consciousness-maha samadhi, liberation from samsara-no need to take another birth.