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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Meditations on death and dying, part two

My daughter, when she was several years younger, asked her mathematics teacher – a devout Tamil Brahmin then in his mid seventies (his mother lived beyond ninety) – why he made it a point to rub some ‘sacred’ ash on his forehead every morning after the daily religious rituals. He told her it is a very old custom, meant to remind the wearer every single day of his life what he is finally going to end up as: a handful of ashes.

It is interesting to note that many religious traditions make it mandatory for seekers of salvation to go through a period of what is called shmashan sadhana – meditating round the clock at the cremation or burial grounds. It is meant to drive deep the great realization that, in the English poet’s words, ‘sceptre and crown will tumble down/ and in the dust be equal made/ with poor crook’d scythe and spade’. Death is the ultimate equalizer: tyrant or tycoon, great artist or sportsman, Helen of Troy and Hercules, brilliant scientist and heartthrob of millions, as much as the humblest hewer of wood and drawer of water is going to go back to the earth and become a part of it, and that, pretty soon. What is more, they are all going to be forgotten sooner or later (look up the ancient emperor’s pathetic boast in Shelley’s Ozymandias, and recall Kipling’s famous lines reminding us that it is the same with nations as with persons: ‘Lo, all our pomp of yesterday/ Is one with Nineveh and Tyre’! There is also Kabir’s terrible song ‘Sadho ye murdon ka gaon’…everything is dying every moment, from the stars in the sky to the tiniest living thing on earth: keep that firmly in mind as you go through life.

Now focusing for any length of time on this most inevitable fact of life might, one could complain, make one very gloomy, frightened and depressed, totally unwilling to strive for anything worthwhile: if we are all going to die and be forgotten, why bother? Better by far to turn off all thought and live for the moment, to ‘seize the day’ and make merry for a while, indulge our senses to the fullest while we can, ‘take the cash and let the credit go/ nor heed the rumble of a distant drum’! One could argue that the glutton, the sleep-drunk, the shopaholic and the party animal are the wisest philosophers among us, for they have understood best how utterly transitory and purposeless this mundane existence is, and are determinedly making the best of their time the only way they can. Indeed, very clever men have actually preached this as the best outlook on life: the ancient materialistic sage Charvaka’s essential teaching can be summarized in the aphorism ‘javat jivet sukham jivet/ wrinang krityang ghritang pivet’ (live happily as long as you live, keep drinking ghee even if that puts you into debt). And indeed, if we were to make a global survey, we would quite possibly find that a great number of people, if they subscribe to any philosophy at all (many of us never even feel the need for it) actually believe this to be the sanest way of living. Whether we think about it or not, we are going to die anyway, so let’s all try to emulate Paris Hilton for as long as we can …

Well, obviously not all human beings through history have been satisfied with that outlook. Even emperors have been worried enough by the prospect of old age, death and oblivion to try all sorts of things to prolong their lives or at least their memories – from killing millions to raising pyramids to writing books of philosophy (Marcus Aurelius) to spreading religion (Ashoka) to looking for the elixir of life (Kublai Khan). Somewhat lesser men – the most gifted adventurers, scientists and artists among them – have often been motivated to doing great works at least partly by the hope that their deeds will fetch them a permanent place in history. Medical science still keeps searching as desperately as ever for ways to make us live longer, if not achieve immortality: far fewer people are engaged in seriously pondering over whether that is a very wise pursuit at all! As for the vast mass of ordinary human beings, we never can stop wondering and agonizing over what would happen to us and our loved ones after we die – hence much of the essential solace that religions provide (and one reason why neither mindless hedonism nor a purely ‘scientific’ outlook on life will ever be able to replace religion wholesale), hence the way we arrange funerals, write obituaries, build memorials and keep making love offerings to departed souls, hence the endless curiosity about the hereafter that has given birth to some of the most fantastic and beautiful art and literature in every civilized country, hence the unrelenting effort of scientists to figure out whether ‘entropy can be reversed’ (see Asimov’s priceless story The Last Question, or the one by Satyajit Ray where a computer self-destructs because it has become intelligent enough to want badly to find out what happens after death). No man with a mind can be truly happy to live with the thought that I matter as little as the bubble that rises momentarily on the surface of the ocean, and that I shall simply stop existing and vanish completely in a short while from now, leaving not a trace behind. In Hamlet, Shakespeare in the same short passage exults on ‘What a work of art is Man!’ and yet calls him nothing more than ‘the quintessence of dust’. Two of the most haunting lines I ever read come from a pretty cheap potboiler, Harold Robbins’ Memories of another day, where the protagonist begins a speech with ‘A man is born, he works, he dies. Then there is nothing.’

But is it possible to have the thought of the inevitability of death and eventual oblivion firmly fixed in mind and yet live a good, vigorous, interesting, meaningful, worthwhile life? At my age I believe it is, and I base my conviction on two things: a) the way I have lived my own life so far (remember that I brooded upon death at great length when I was only seven, yet in the post I wrote at age 45, I sound, I have been told, much more robustly cheerful about life than most people around my age manage to do), and b) if that were not possible, the finest men of thought and action would not have so strenuously enjoined upon us to adopt such an outlook (whether you think of the Buddha or the references to men like Tagore and Vivekananda noted in the comments on the earlier blogpost – these were not men who were tired, bored, frightened or despairing of life). And in fact I believe that it actually helps to live the good life if one makes a habit of reminding oneself every morning, in a calm, matter of fact way, as my daughter’s teacher did, that one is going to end up as a handful of ashes. About that, more in the next post.

20 comments:

Debarshi_Saha said...

Respected Sir,

Warm regards. A very poignant and thoughtful post indeed- upon reading it, Mark Twain's words came to mind- "The fear of Death follows from the fear of Life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time..". And finally, Sir, as Professor Dumbledore put it so beautifully, "Death is but the next great adventure- for the well organized mind." That point is what the Tibetan monk, Sogyal Rinpoche too stresses upon in his book, "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying". Since all the greatest minds have taken the issue of our mortality in the context of positivity, I believe it is the only correct path- as you too point out in your beautiful post. And we need never be afraid of oblivion- for if we truly have lived a life worth remembering, then, as Marcus Tullius Cicero said, "The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.". Such persons, like you, Sir, shall always live on in the hearts of some- therein lies immortality.

Finally, Sir, I wish to end off by this lovely, lovely quote by Edvard Munch, full of hope, optimism and peace-

"From my rotting body, flowers shall grow, and I am in them and that is eternity.."

With best wishes,
Debarshi.

arnab said...

Respected Sir,

I would like to share some of my thoughts on this topic of mortality of life, based on my own experiences, the books i have read and the time i have been spending in self introspection almost everyday in my short span of life so far. Pardon me if my points veer waywardly at times..

In the Bhagavad Gita, when Arjun asks Krishna 'what is the meaning of this life when someday i will cease to exist? Krishna replies - 'This life is very important, because though the mortal nature of it will bring an end one day,and after death your soul will still continue to exist, but You will not be there anymore. So make a more meaningful life of it by seeking the light of continuous knowledge and doing karma that benefits the society'..

I wonder why some people crib about 'trying everything in life at least once so that they don't regret not doing it later'. And this 'everything' includes eating out at possibly every restaurant at their place, doing night-outs, drinking every well known brand of liquor and this so called bucket list goes on. To be honest even i had fallen for this 'mission' of doing everything that will make me happy when i look back 20 yrs down the line on what all 'adventures' i participated in. But no more. I can firmly say that there is no end to this rat race of aimless pursuits because we will not be carrying any of the false satisfaction generated by these activities with us the moment our brain stops forever. Instead one should feel happy about what worthwhile work they did in their life time as that will make worth remembering by at least a few of our loved ones if not a whole society. Among quite a few things, I already feel happy when i look back on the hard work i put in on my extremely weak physics and not only did the marks showed, it gave me a whole new perspective about the physics of every little action happening every second in our lives.

I had read long back in one of the works of Vivekananda that our soul assimilates every new trait we develop in our reincarnating lives. This embedded traits that we gain are never lost because this is nothing but the pursuit of absolute knowledge called 'aatm-gyan' (knowledge of the real self), the culmination of which is the realization of God..

DevDas said...

Dear Suvro-da,
your recent post and brief mention of Kabir-ji is very much apt. The famous "nirguni bhajan" written by the great saint and sung beautifully by Pt.Kumar Gandharva :
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kY2k0JcfByg

speaks on life and death.
"Ud Jayega hans Akela-Jag darshan ka mela"----
Life is like a swan, a lonely one which shall leave someday. Life is a place for introspection.

There is another line in between and it says ---
"Guru ki karni guru jayega chele ki karni chela" which means :
Guru Will Go According to His Doings
The Disciple According to His.

best regards
Debasish.

ananya mukherjee said...

Dear Sir,

Sir you told us about the mathematics teacher in our class.Nobody can really remain passive in the face of death but it seems that the teacher has at last succeeded in attaining serenity.So much wisdom is rare and it reminds me of the poem"I'm getting old now" where the poet says "Death is not quite the enemy it was". Moreover the person who asks such a question to the teacher is itself a thinker of sorts and is quite different from the herd.
Sir I have always seen you abiding by certain principles in life and is this the reason that you feel so contented with your idyllic existence(as you said in your previous post regarding death)? I would like to relate an incident in this context:
There was a boy in our batch-a mere weak willed bloke who never used to do his homework but you used to ask him almost everyday whether he had done his homework or not.One day when a girl(I don't remember who it was) asked you why you kept on asking questions from that boy even when he was so irregular and hardly did his homework, you said that you had to give a justified answer to your conscience before going to bed.Therefore can we conclude that even if one is unable to attain perfection one can be placidly happy with oneself provided one follows certain ideals in life with a never say die attitude and involves oneself in self awareness?Does that mean that traversing the path of perfection is more important than perfection itself?
with regards
ananya

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I certainly wasn't expecting too many comments here, so I can't say I am surprised or disappointed. This is 'heavy' and 'uncool' stuff indeed. One funny thing is that a lot of people who can't be dragged by wild horses to read and ponder over writing like this run to all kinds of 'godmen' and '-women' in the hope of miracles to make their lives longer, easier, safer, more fun, and 'education' such as it is in India is no antidote to that kind of superstition; nor do such people, who'd never read philosophy, lack time or patience for lapping up magical nonsense.

Debarshi, lovely quote, and most apposite. Arnab, please write your surname next time, I know so many Arnabs! And yes, I am all for trying everything once, but I wholly agree that most people try only silly things most of the time, and can't give up after trying even when they know deep inside that they are silly. Debashis, thanks for the inputs. Glad indeed to know that you too know about Kabir. And Ananya, I don't know about perfection - no man was ever 'perfect' in everyone's eyes - but yes, what is supremely important is not succeeding in every attempt but trying very hard to. As a teacher, I judge myself only by how hard I have tried, because, as you very well understand, my success depends only partly upon me and largely upon how deeply, positively and strongly my students respond to it. But one who knows he has always done his best can leave, when his time is up, a contented soul...

Navin said...

Dear Sir,

it is a wonderful post. Osho had once said that "The question is not whether one lives after death, but the real question is if he is alive before death" . Your post shows, that you are very much alive and kicking. May you keep this sharpness of intellect for many days to come. And let me tell you, with what ever meager knowledge I have, I have been trying very hard to find a mistake, even a punctuation mark misplaced, in all the posts I read from you, and I have not found one. This attention to detail is almost superhuman to me. The ability to garner whatever one has got in any activity one is doing is the best proof of life in a man. I feel blessed to have known the life in you in this life.

Regards,
Navin

DevDas said...

Dear Suvro-da,
suddenly today morning while listening to nirguni Kabir-ji's bhajan "koi nahi apna"(no one is yours):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ETFn04u7um4

made me feel that if nothing is mine, is death mine too? Maybe death is also not mine.


"Moron re tuhu momo shyam-soman" (death thou art my beloved Krishna)...Do you also feel same?

best regards
Debasish.

Sayan Datta said...

Mahabhay - The great fear! What an apt word! I am kind of reminded of the ending scene of the movie - 2001 A Space Odyssey - I don't know whether death has ever since been portrayed so visually stunningly. Fear, I understand, is the greatest of all evils - from it stems all others; and the fear of the unknown is perhaps the greatest of all fears. Those handful few, who make peace with death, knowing it to be the one undeniable, unalterable end of life, while remembering the value of life (I think appreciation for the value of life perhaps increases many fold if one understands how markedly ephemeral life is and how fickle fate is!) - attain the a kind of equanimity possible only for quiet, unperturbed minds that work perhaps like 'clocks in a thunderstorm' - and the circumstances leading to Socrates' death and his unruffled, calm reaction to the same keeps coming to my mind in this context.

One of Kabir's lines keep playing in my mind - "You maul me today. But, mind you, a day shall come when I shall likewise maul you" - so says the mud to the potter that is being knead by him. Do potter's now this instinctively and is that why they hold the mud as sacred?

That haunting and eerie and yet uplifting song of Kabir's - 'Sadho ye murdon ka gaon' - reminds me that everything not just dies ( literally everything - humans live for at most a hundred years, stars and galaxies die after billions, yet die they do ... even, says Kabir, the Gods die too!) but everything is in a perpetual state of flux. Change is the unalterable law of nature. Perhaps, just perhaps, that death is after all only a transition of state? A change, a transmutation of energy that was the body into something different?

Harman said...

Dear Sir,

I have often wondered about this topic, and your post has beautifully distilled many of my own thoughts. In my profession, I have to face the inevitability of death (or the transience of life) on a daily basis. It can range from telling parents that their child is not going to make it, to letting an adolescent girl know that she has metastatic lung cancer to the brain and she has a few months to live. One can try to justify a 70 year old who has abused his body and smoked for years to face these horrible consequences, but it is tough to reconcile when innocent children are afflicted by horrific trauma or disease.
Being mindful of the inevitability of death does make every living day that much more meaningful. It is a reminder that every moment is a gift that is bestowed upon us, and we can choose to use the gift in a grateful, positive way.
I am looking forward to your next post on this topic.

Harman

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Debashis, I keep trying, but the day I succeed I can think of myself as a truly great man!

Sayan, yes, thanks for the mention of 2001. Death - and facing death - has been movingly portrayed in many other movies, too. A strange and disturbing recent one is 'The Life of Pi'. As for your last remark, well, the wise have always said so, from Krishna to Dumbledore!

Harman, after a long time. Thanks for writing. Yes, that is one very big reason why I chose early not to become a doctor. And true, being mindful about the inevitability of death helps one live much more intensely and fulfillingly. That is what I shall try to explain, as far as I have understood, in my next post(s).

Shilpi said...

Your first in the series of "Meditations" and poem-time made me look at Life like a movie again. I was convinced I could do that dispassionately but I'm sad to report I got angry, annoyed, irked, and emotional and apologetic before I was forced to be composed and back to being quietly puzzled and bewildered and let it be. Walking does help.

But what persists? - There's something that doesn't change, remains constant and attentive, bonds, recognizes and it would seem the entire purpose of living - that of Life itself - is to make that 'constant' sharper and clearer. What is that?

And if it's oblivion, then what is the matter of 'immortality'? Mrityormamritangomay keeps making me wonder what such a state is, and I keep going back to Dumbledore's observation on the matter of love which has always made more sense to me (than a couple of his statements which have made me grumble) and that mixed poem of yours of 'meeting one's pilot'. It's there in the Kabir song and in Khwaja mere Khwaja and other ones too. The Kabir song in its lyrics don't feel terrible - and don't the lyrics say the same? - that something persists through change, death and with everything dying; that there is a dance of the 'naam' that remains and that that is what one should remember/seek to attain? The melody reminds me of Natalie. How do you see the Kabir song?

I haven't read much of Vivekananda's writings apart from some sudden bits but I've read a bit of Tagore and read what you've shared through your writings, and it wouldn't seem that it's 'oblivion' always that Tagore or you talks of. Tagore talks of a bond that lives in Life and which endures beyond death and so do you - often enough if in strange ways.

Can Life be seen as an experience which is to let us know what we feel is the Truth?

I feel more and more intensely that the question which kept me occupied as a child, 'Who am I?' is about living and dying.

It doesn't surprise me but I do still wonder that you could brood over death at 7 and so intensely and yet live the good life, and undefeated and with far greater knowing than you speak of. I can't say I've lived a good life. I prayed early enough that I be really good as I saw it but I know that even 'being good isn't always easy no matter how I hard I try...'.

What you start and conclude this post with of your daughter asking her Mathematics teacher of the ash on his forehead: I was reminded of a professor in the university who once said 'we wouldn't be able to live if we always thought about death". I had argued vehemently for the whole class-hour until he asked me whether I thought that one could live with the constant fear of dying.

The other question that keeps knocking is, 'why are we born?' and "why do we die when we do and not before or after?" Death might not be interested at all in making a visit even when one wishes one could slip off into nothingness until death haunts one constantly. I've been terrified in shifts that one or one's loved ones might die. The only way I haven't changed in how I see dying is in feeling that line from that poem post of yours - "light goes out" when love is done and the feeling that one will meet one's pilot face-to-face when one crosses the bar.

The fear of death, for me at least, is tied with pain - of horrible pain and enduring pain and utter grey loneliness. The other unsettling thing about dying is that bit: of the thought of being a meaningless bubble. If all one is a meaningless bubble and matters not then why would one be born.

Shilpi said...

And I realize in a slow wave that you've been getting me to think of and reflect over death and dying in a focused way and in very many different ways without losing my mind completely and this after I'd been arrogantly convinced that I'd contemplated upon death exactly 16 years ago and then faced it and so was sure there was nothing to fear about it or anything in this world or anywhere. Now I look away in embarrassment from my erstwhile arrogant self unless I'm appalled by it. I'm always reminded of what Dumbledore said among others about there being worse things than death and love in the context of what you've been getting me to see clearly.

Those two lines from the Harold Robbins are haunting and also terribly lonely; one loves too when one is alive; I can't see it otherwise and it's not just me. Not to make a dense list but Robby says the same too in Three Comrades in a way that makes visceral sense and there's a young boy who says the same...I'm also reminded of that quote you told me about from Einstein some years ago, which puzzled me then - that one who hasn't lived for another has never lived at all. And if one leaves one's work as a living legacy and memories then surely one carries memories and one's Love even after one dies. That previous comment reply reminds me of Cuckold too. So much for now as I wait for your next part.

Vaishnavi said...

Dear Sir,

I am able to face part two with rather more composure than part one so I daresay that it is some sort of an improvement. Although I cannot envision it now, some day perhaps, it will come, this serenity. This blogpost is a nice foil to the first one Sir; that was rather more turbulent, this has dulled the ache a bit :-)

Regards,
Vaishnavi

sayantika said...

Dear Sir,
I feel scared after reading both your posts which contemplate on dying, especially the first one. When I think of death, I feel either it is the end of it all, or else it must be the way it is described by Bibhutibhushan in Debjaan, as Dumbledore says, 'the next great adventure.' The latter is much more comforting than the former, because there is still a notion that our souls live on waiting to be merged with the Great Soul, the Alpha and the Omega. But we have no definite answers and that is what bothers us the most. I like to believe in what Shilpi di's states: if one leaves one's work as a living legacy and memories then surely one carries memories and one's Love even after one dies.
Thanks and with regards,
Sayantika

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Navin, I am sorry I forgot to say 'thank you' to you sooner; most remiss of me. Yes, I try, and occasionally achieving something close to perfection is a pleasure such as those who have never tried it will never know. I adumbrated on this idea in the post titled 'The crying need for quality'.

Vaishnavi, glad to hear the second post had a more calming effect than the first. I shall try to make it even more so, not only calming but inspiring, when I write the third post in the series.

Sayantika, should not having definite answers be regarded merely as bothersome? Doesn't it make living much more tantalizing? Wouldn't things have gotten unbearably boring otherwise; wouldn't it have killed off much wonderful art and fiction? Reflect. And yes to what Shilpi said. I am grinning as I type this: that is one very big reason why I have been writing on this blog all these years. That is one thing that I will leave behind with satisfaction, something that might outlive me for a long time to come.

Nishant said...

Dear Sir,

I have often wondered about the exact thing you mention in the beginning of the second paragraph: is it a good idea to live the moment since life isn't too long? I am hardly ever able to do that. Sometimes, I feel, I think too much about the 'future' (the test I have in a couple of days or that I should buy and horde fewer things since I am not even sure where I am going to be two years from now) and end up not doing things I might have enjoyed doing. I suppose it's a balance one has to strike like in so many other things in life. What you mention in the last paragraph (and something I had mentioned in Part I) still bothers me. I don't think about the whole point of life or its futility too often. So I keep doing what I do, try to stick by certain rules in life, try to be disciplined in some sense. But when I think of it, I am still not quite sure if in the end any of it matters.

Sincerely
Nishant.

Sayan Datta said...

Duryodhan says after Karna's death that 'O friend! When my turn comes to die, I will remember you and all fear of death will vanish'

I had read somewhere, when I was in school, about a sage who chose to remember only the good deeds he had done and the good thoughts he had thought, or at least as many of them as he could, when he was moments from dying.

When my turn comes to die, may I be able to remember, I pray, that all great men, both of the past and present have passed or will pass through this stage at some point in time. The stage they have crossed, so will I cross one day. That, for me is a comforting thought.

Sunandini Mukherjee said...

Dear Sir,
I started contemplating on death after you taught us 'Because I Could not stop for Death'.The idea of taking a ride with Death towards eternity keeps frightening me when I think of people who live honest lives,being helpful and compassionate towards others but are forced to die very painful deaths(and often with nobody to be by their death-beds).Do they welcome death on friendly terms?
In 'All Queit On The Western Front' the protagonist,on his short leave, can neither rest nor feel that he belonged to the society-he feels at home only after he returns to the front.What possibly can such a man's reaction be to Death?
Also,you often told us that we need to square life's equations and accept that everything is maya;that we are born alone and will die alone-everyoneone who love us(or claim that they love us)will stop missing us someday.What should exactly be our attitude then,to people whom we think are our loved ones?
With regards,
Sunandini

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Dear Sunandini,

Sometimes, if you wait a long time, someone comes up with a beautiful answer to a question, so you don't have to write out the answer yourself. Look up this essay in the recent issue of The American Scholar: http://bit.ly/MZr7J9

When you visit this blog and read up this comment, do let me know what you think.

Sir

Sunandini Mukherjee said...

Dear Sir,
The person who has squared life's equations need not worry about death,he knows that he can now meet death without fright.Also, accepting death as inevitable helps one lead a better life.The couple in the essay have not lead very happy lives.They have lost two children and are prone to the physical sufferings of old age.That does not however keep them from discussing about death and of what should be done with their bodies once they die.Their children too don't find it difficult to accept that their parents do not have much time left,they try to make things(the burial rights,the service)as perfect as the old couple would want.This instance is undoubtedly an ideal one, wisdom of the best sort.Reflections on these things makes one humble and at peace with oneself.
Thankyou Sir for the essay.
Regards,
Sunandini