Arun Shourie on his book Preparing For Death, and the possibility of meeting our end with equanimity
If we think about death all the time, we won't do any living at all, said Arun Shourie, discussing his new book 'Preparing For Death' at Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai Litfest.
In his new book Preparing For Death, writer, journalist, and former politician Arun Shourie reflects on the lives and last days of Buddha, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Ramana Maharshi, Gandhiji, Vinoba to ease the reader into confronting the great but abrupt finality that is death.
In conversation with Professor Madhavi Menon at this year's virtual Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai Litfest, he walked the readers through both his book as well as the defining moments in his life where he negotiated the intimidating path between life and death — whether it was in a hospital or while looking for answers in the teachings of Buddha, and the very act of 'preparing' for death itself.
At the beginning of the session, Menon made a note about the eeriness of the timing of Shourie's book. She's right. We have never been closer to death than at this very moment, not in over a 100 years, some say. For some people, the waking thought is the anticipation of death. But that is not to say that we are consciously 'preparing' for our last breath. There's more to it than mere thoughts, said Shourie. "If we are thinking about death all the time, we won't be doing any living at all. But we should be reminding ourselves about death, and certainty of the element of preparation. For instance, every time Vinoba went to sleep, he thought, 'I've done my days' work. If I die, I go into the lord's lap [he was a theist]. If I wake up in the morning, I'll serve more."
In Gandhiji's case, death was lurking at all times, especially during the last two years of his life. "He often spoke about it — he had his own indices. For instance, he could control his sleep to the second. Similarly, in Buddha's teachings, death and suffering are foundational. He asks us to contemplate the two so that we learn to detach ourselves from the body, emotions, and current pre-occupations. So thinking about death is preparing for it, but not so obsessively that we don't live," added Shourie.
Should it be easier then to actually get accustomed to the idea of leaving everything behind at a time when the world is in the throes of a pandemic? Interestingly, preparing for death during a pandemic would not be different than doing so under normal circumstances, explained Shourie. Perhaps it could seem more realistic a task because of our present. "If I'm a Covid patient, or have been stricken by an incurable ailment, or just ageing, I will progressively lose control over my body — a matter of great distress. I will become more aware that I'll be losing my loved ones. The teachings [explored in the book] also say that it is inevitable." If the epiphanies that come with death are non-negotiable, how does a 'good death' extend beyond the mythical realm? "A peaceful death is a peaceful dissolution of the mind. Many techniques were developed to achieve this state by the Buddha and the meditation masters who followed him in different parts of the world. That's why it's distinct from just thinking about death. I could think about death and dread it. But like Buddha said, 'You have to welcome it as a friend.'"
Many consider modern medicine to be the greatest breakthrough in science. But there's also a parallel obsession with living longer that is often fed by medical science. "Why the attachment to life?" Menon asked. "It's not only people whose lives are going well. It's also people who have difficult life — no one wants to think about death." To answer the question, Shourie cited Viktor Frankl's chilling memoir, Man's Search for Meaning, where he chronicled the days and nights spent imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. "In the book, he says his death was certain. The prisoners were going to be taken into the gas chambers; you could see the corpses being brought out. But still, only a small number of people died by suicide. So life is all we have and we develop attachments to our positions, loved ones and those who loves us. Those attachments may just be a result of the survival instinct." However, Shourie also added that Buddha maintained that attachments are not just for survival — we tend to think that those are the things which determine a person's happiness.
In his book, Arun also crafts a significant portion of the narrative from his own experiences, whether it be the death of his own mother, or the influence of his father — an early supporter of euthanasia — on his musings on the 'end'. As the session veered towards the subject of intentionally ending a life, Shourie threw some light on how most of the primary figures in his book endorsed and practiced euthanasia in different forms. "[In the book]The only person who hesitated at the time of death is Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. He was childlike and had a certain kind of innocence to him. That is quite the description of a true mystic — they behave like children on occasion. But they would certainly think that when the time comes, you should lose. And in a sense, Vinoba did that — fasted to death. Gandhiji took that decision in Kasturba's case. In that sense they were all practitioners of euthanasia by going through with the act of 'dissolving' oneself."
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