Last week there were two deaths, close together; one, a class mate of mine from my school and college days; the other, a senior colleague, recently retired. Both untimely and both sudden.
When in the thick of work, with the hours rushing by, as I get engrossed in files and meetings, the thought of the fragility of life never enters my mind. And why should it, I wonder: there are certain duties assigned to each of us and performing these duties is at the core of the meaning of life, as I see it. And so I, living life from minute to minute, caught in the moment, ignore tomorrow, ignore the uncertain and the unknowable.
In the great epic Mahabharata, Yudhistra reveals his deep understanding of life and its myriad dilemmas. When a mysterious Yaksha challenges him to answer all his questions or else face death, an enthralling debate on profound questions is initiated. One of the questions and Yudhistra’s answer is reproduced below:
Yaksha:What is the most amazing thing in the world?
Yudhisthira: The most amazing thing is that even though every day one sees countless living entities dying, he still acts and thinks as if he will live forever.
Perhaps we are genetically wired that way, to ignore death or the possibility of death, to shy away from the unblinking contemplation of it. Surely, it is possible that an endless fascination with death may turn us away from the responsibilities of life itself. The Maker may have deliberately fashioned death as a mysterious and unknowable event for He knew that if it were made transparent and knowable, if the inevitability of the final extinguishing of the breath within our lungs remained ever fresh in our minds, it would have made us unnecessarily pessimistic or too philosophical, and thus useless to carry out our worldly duties.
But when we know nothing about death, why do we fear it? As the great Socrates himself put it:
“No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils.”
Surely, we may be completely mistaken in our horror of the ending of life. Perhaps we need to consider it objectively, to think about the mystery of it and to learn about what it could mean in our understanding of ourselves. As Umberto Eco said it:
“It is necessary to meditate early, and often, on the art of dying,[so as to] succeed later in doing it properly just once.”
There is too another thought we must keep in mind. Matter is never destroyed, it may change shape or nature, but never ever is it completely obliterated. So even if we pass away into that good night, we re-form ourselves into the dust in the air, the grains of sand under our feet, and the molecules swirling in the light. And, in the slow and wonderful way of the universe, we are ingested in, by air and food and water, into the bodies of those who come after us, and then we are born again in a never ending cycle of life and death. “Death is the dropping of the flower, that the fruit may swell” said Henry Ward Beecher. It is this philosophy too that prompted Walt Whitman to sing in his Leaves of Grass, “If you want me again, look for me under your boot soles.” How wonderful to think that despite our moving on, we are still there, sustaining the beauty and wonder of life, ever present, forever floating like motes in the sunlight. Surely, this is what the Scriptures meant, when it spoke of the fusion of the atma and the paramatma.
We know that the world is divided into three kinds of people: theists, agnostics and atheists. The first are confident of a heaven where they shall find eternal bliss; the second are not sure of anything, the third know with certainty that the last breath is the end of it all. But the question to ask is whether, in the daily hustle and bustle of our lives, it is more important to consider the life after life or the life we are living now. We have a unique opportunity, which may never come our way again, of doing the best we can in the days allotted to us. The Scriptures have assigned the length of our lives at three score and ten years, that is about seventy years. Perhaps it is a bit more these days. But it can be used only once. And as they say, we will not come this way again. And whatever life has been assigned to us, from industrial labourer to doctor to engineer to bureaucrat or politician, surely we can, each of us, put in every sinew of our strength and sincerity to do the job the best we can.
And really, it is not as difficult as it may sound: caring for wife and children, providing for them as much as we can, being a good neighbour, being a good citizen, obeying laws, paying taxes, doing one’s assigned duties, a concern for the unfortunate, respect for others, being of good cheer and contributing to the goodwill and happiness of the ones around you: are these complex and impossible duties? Surely we can do all this without much ado, by walking the straight line, by being good and decent human beings. So what does it matter whether or not there is a life after all this is over? It is possible that that question may remain an enigma for all time.
And surely, as we toil from day to day, there will be moments when people we have known, respected and admired, are no longer there to cheer us, when good friends we work with suddenly move on, when loved ones falter and fall away. And sure enough, these moments would make us think and ponder on the brevity and uncertainty of the lives we lead. We will mourn for those who have gone ahead, we will cry softly and wonder when the same fate will take us away.
But then, remember; our very nature makes us take things in our stride, we have the unique and essential capacity to forget the sting of tragedy. And so, we must find solace in the ones who are with us and take comfort from each other. We must savour the moment, we must search for and find the inner oasis of peace, we must seek contentment in the simple every day things we do, we must cherish family and friends, and we must do our duty as best as we can. Surely, there is a heaven on earth too, and we can find that heaven, in the here and the now. And take my word for it, if we do all this with trueness of mind and sincerity of purpose, we shall find heaven in the hereafter too. Of that I am certain; none can take that truth away from me.