Causes of Suffering – Klesha #5: Abhinivesah (Fear of death)

In a previous post we learned about the five kleshas, or causes of suffering, according to yogic/Buddhist tradition.  If you missed that post, check it out here!  The kleshas are thinking patterns that cause us unnecessary pain and cloud our perception of life and of ourselves.  They are defined in the Yoga Sutras, written between 200 and 500 B.C. by the Indian sage Patanjali.  The Sutras are the most referenced book on yoga, and they are all about how to transcend suffering through mental liberation. 

In this post, we’ll reference the Sri Swami Satchidananda translation, available here.  The five kleshas, as defined in the Sutras, are:

Sutra 2.3: avidyā-asmitā-rāga-dveṣa-abhiniveśā kleśa

Ignorance (avidya), egoism (asmita), attachment (raga), hatred (dvesha) and clinging to bodily life (abhinivesah) are the five obstacles. (Swami Satchidananda translation).

We’ve come to the end of our exploration of the kleshas.  In this final post we’ll learn about abhinivesah, or fear of death.  Abhinivesah can also be translated to ‘clinging to bodily life’, and it is arguably the most difficult klesha to overcome.  Fear of death greatly influences our behavior, as people will go to great lengths to seek security in this life.  In this post, we’ll learn more about abhinivesah and how clinging to physical life can negatively affect our thoughts, words, and behaviors. 

Fear of death, and clinging to bodily life, is normal to an extent.  As living beings, it is part of our instinct to stay alive.  But when the fear of death starts to direct our thoughts and behavior and keeps us from an authentic experience with life, it becomes abhinivesah. 

What is Abhinivesah?

Even though we know it is inevitable, the thought of our death is scary.  No matter what you believe about the afterlife, the truth is that no one really knows what happens when we die.  The uncertainty, and the thought that this life is all there is, is what drives much of our behavior both individually, and societally. 

Fear of death, and clinging to bodily life, is normal to an extent.  As living beings, it is part of our instinct to stay alive.  But when the fear of death starts to direct our thoughts and behavior and keeps us from an authentic experience with life, it becomes abhinivesah. 

Abhinivesah arises from mistakenly identifying with the body and mind, failing to recognize the timeless Self.  The four previous kleshas have separated us from our true selves to the point where we are out of touch with our spiritual nature, and therefore have difficulty looking beyond the physical world.  We see ourselves superficially, as the body, the mind, our ego.  Abhinivesah causes us to have a short-sighted perception of both the world around us, and ourselves. 

Fear of death can only be overcome by lessening the effects of the previous four kleshas in our lives.  That is what makes abhinivesah so difficult; only when we rid our lives of ignorance, egoism, attachment, and aversion can we arrive at a place where we are not afraid of death.  Overcoming our natural instinct to fear death is something that can only be achieved by a deep understanding of our spiritual selves and our true nature and place in the Universe. 

How Abhinivesah Hinders Us

Fear of death is natural.  Even the most enlightened yogi might experience bouts of abhinivesah.  The Sutras say:

“Fear of death arises all on its own, and exists even for the most learned and wise.” (Yoga Sutras 2.9) 

From the tiniest plant all the way up the food chain to humans, living things want to live, and go to great measures to avoid death or injury.  A plant will lean itself toward the sun in order to get the right nutrients to thrive.  Humans created hospitals, seatbelts, and crosswalks to protect ourselves from life-ending events.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to live, and nothing wrong with enjoying life.  Notice that this klesha says “fear” of death; the key here is that abhinivesah creates fear, and fear causes suffering.   

Our life force energy existed before we were in our bodies, and it will continue even after we leave our bodies.  Getting in touch with this energy and developing an understanding of it is how we overcome abhinivesah.

When we are grappled with the fear of death, we operate in a state of subconscious urgency.  Since our view of ourselves is limited to the body, mind, and worldly things, we may think and act as if our time is running out.  Although that might be true physically, our true self is timeless, infinite.  

We can think of abhinivesah as a form of avidya, or ignorance, the first klesha.  We fear death because we are out of touch with our infinite selves, the Self behind our ignorance, our ego, our attachments, and our aversions. 

The problems that clinging to bodily life cause all stem from the misidentification of ourselves with the physical world.  We are manifestations of life force energy.  Yoga calls this energy prana, and it is what keeps us alive. 

Our life force energy existed before we were in our bodies, and it will continue even after we leave our bodies.  Getting in touch with this energy and developing an understanding of it is how we overcome abhinivesah.

Ways to Decrease Abhinivesah in our Lives

Abhinivesah, just like all the kleshas, can be overcome by awareness and mindful action.  We want to arrive at an understanding that liberates us from grasping, even to this body and this life.  To develop an acceptance of death, we need to be in touch with our true selves, the Self that understands this physical life, and all the worldly things that come with it, is temporary. 

The kleshas are the veils that keep us from an authentic perception of reality.  As we work through them, we remove one veil at a time and come to a place of deep surrender to the flow of life, and an understanding of our place in the Universe.  The kleshas come from the mind, and although our mind is a powerful and valuable tool, it can also cause us a great deal of suffering if not kept in check.  When we work to calm our mind in order to think clearly and genuinely, we can start to decrease the effects of the kleshas in our lives. 

“It is only with an adequate understanding of our untamed mind that we can begin to understand the nature of our suffering, the meaning of the word surrender, and the point of spiritual practice.”  Rolf Gates, Meditations from the Mat

Thank you for learning about the five kleshas with us!  If you missed any of the previous posts, click here to visit our blog page for posts on the previous kleshas, as well as tons of other yoga topics!  At Inspiring Actions, we have the tools you can use to understand your untamed mind and find ways to incorporate healing into your daily life.  Our studios in Hudson and River Falls, Wisconsin offer a variety of classes and special events, check out our schedule here

Throughout this series I’ve used a handful of books for references.  They are great reads, and I encourage you to pick them up if any of this content has resonated with you! 

The Yoga Sutras make up what is considered the textbook of yoga, the principles upon which yoga is based. The Zen Book is a great collection of thought-provoking short passages about mindfulness and non-attachment. And my favorite, Meditations from the Mat, is a 365-day devotional where the author presents the concepts of yogic philosophy in an applicable, insightful manner.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – available here

The Zen Book, Daniel Levin – available here

Meditations From the Mat, Rolf Gates – available here

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