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Death, be not proud: Finding a philosophy for life in the finality of its ultimate, universal end

"How’s Mrs V?"

Running into a senior professor at Gurunath — the all-purpose shop on the IIT Madras campus — I asked after his wife.

She is fine”, came the response, as becomes a polite conversation. Then, after a pause: "Actually she is not. Not fine, I mean. She lost her mother. We were visiting her parents when her mother died." And then, astonishingly — “This is our first encounter with death.”

I could not help but feel a pang of envy: a life untinged by death for a good five decades.

Pappu died when she was 14 months old — our first baby; I held her as she was gasping for breath. 'Just another trip to the hospital.' I thought, as we drove for the umpteenth time to the Child’s Trust Hospital.

My sister’s husband, all of 42; cancer and the “treatment” tore life out of him. The rags-to-riches story, that dizzying climb to success — all for nothing.

For the children, a son and four nieces — all under 10, he was now a magician (so my sister told them) who might bestow magical powers on them. “I will ask for the power of invisibility”...“I will ask for (the ability to) fly...” the children said.


Some of us are destined to know death more than others.

Does that make a difference to our lives? To how we live? Do we have a better grip on what is "important" and "rising above petty concerns", we who have known death intimately?

 Death, be not proud: Finding a philosophy for life in the finality of its ultimate, universal end

Had Arjuna thought of the possibility of Abhimanyu’s death, would Krishna’s message have appealed to him? Death is not the same.

Donne asks death to not be proud, scoffs at it — for:

“One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.” 

“I asked my grandfather about the afterlife,” said Mrs J, who had initiated many welfare and service activities on our campus. “We were very close, and he said he would surely let me know after he was dead. He died and I had no message from him, so, I don’t believe there is an afterlife. I am sure Thatha would have found a way to tell me if there was.” Her friend recounted this at Mrs J’s memorial function. Throat cancer and six months!

Life goes on, it truly does; but when it stops for some, what does it do to the rest? To the mother, father, wife, friend?  A few days, a few months, years maybe, of mourning.

Yudhisthira said this is the most astonishing thing on earth: men die every day and yet the living go on living as if there was no death.

How about for us, the death knowers? Does a dent remain? Can we breeze down the road or do we expect that speed bump — no, that deep gorge — on the road at all times?

Yeats says man created death; animals die without “dread or hope”.  Those of us whom death has visited intimately die many times out of fear for our child, husband, wife, friend. The glass is already cracked; birth assures death. Kintsugi teaches you to love the cracks, to fill them with gold, rendering the cracks more visible and lovely, proclaiming the bowl’s fragility. Would a mother embrace her child’s death? Would she love the bowl, would she paint the crack lovingly?

The Buddha sent the woman who, crazed with grief, beseeched him to bring her dead child back, to get a fistful of mustard from any house which has not seen death. But death is not the same. A child dying or an old man dying or a young mother dying — death’s weight is different. The Buddha was not quite ingenuous.

The Bhagavad Gita too is a clever sleight of hand. Arjuna dropped his Gandiva when the horrible reality of the war danced in front of him: how could he kills his uncles, cousins, nephews and teachers! Krishna preaches eternity of the soul and the cold, aloof sanity of nishkaama karma — act because you have to act. Do your prescribed duty, dispassionately. And Arjuna goes on to kill many of his uncles and teachers and cousins, on Krishna’s assurance that nothing could kill the immortal soul, which alone is real. But had Arjuna thought of the possibility of Abhimanyu’s death, would Krishna’s message have appealed to him? Death is not the same.

And yet, in a sense it is. Yajnavalkya tells his wife Maitreyi, “It is not for the sake of the husband that he is dear, it is for the sake of the self that the husband is dear. It is not for the sake of the son that the son is dear, it is for the sake of the self that the son is dear."

We mourn a child, a husband, a friend, for the loss it means to us. It is always for the sake of the self. Sometimes the tragedy of a young death is so stark, that one need have nothing vested in the person to mourn that death. But here too, it is the idea of fairness, of meaning, of a kind universe that we lose. What sort of a universe takes away a young child or a young man? It is our loss that we mourn — always.

On Firstpost: In one of Kolkata's largest crematoriums, photographing the dead was once a popular, generation-spanning business

Do we then learn not to invest hopes and aspirations in another, or in ideas of purpose and the meaning of life itself? Can we bring up a child with no aspirations for her and for oneself? Do we suspend belief in the meaning and worth of our life on earth? Should we, the death knowers, learn that? Can one live like that?

Many traditions affirm that we can. Did not Siddhartha leave his palace, wife and baby so that he could be like that? He could not take the imperfections of life. Life, so glorious, so beautiful — we want it to be like a child’s laughter, not the grieving mother’s wails. His solution was that everything passes — not as an intellectual acknowledgement but as a moment-to-moment experienced reality. Can that centre us? Can that be the rock that can protect us from the sorrow of ephemerality? And even help us see the beauty of the ephemerality?

To repurpose Gulzar’s song:

"Woh zindagi bhi lekin zindagi to nahi."

That life is, however, no life.  Not as we know it.

Dr Lakshmi Sreeram is a Carnatic and Hindustani musician and researcher. She writes about art and culture using myth, story, philosophy, and everything in between. Write to her at larasriram14@gmail.com

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Updated Date: Apr 04, 2019 09:47:24 IST

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