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.