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Death : The Ultimate Unknown

Death : The Ultimate Unknown

When Dr. Kamlesh Debisingh (Associate Professor, Department of Hindi), my first friend at Jesus and Mary College in Delhi, left for her heavenly abode a couple of years back, waiting on the inside of the entrance of Nigambodh Ghat Crematorium, Delhi, for her and her family to arrive, I sat with my colleagues on the benches watching human beings wrapped in white shroud brought in every few minutes, each family group moving in silence to a designated space for the last rites, and then proceeding for placing the person on the pyre to be lit with fire. The constant flow of 'death', right before my eyes, gave me a clearer picture of 'life', that my life holds its meaning only between – birth and death.

A cremation ground is not a place one would visit unless death calls on someone really close to you. I cannot pinpoint what must have gripped me then, that I requested a friend to accompany me to revisit the Nigambodh Ghat with no specific purpose – probably the depth of my ‘being’ wanting to let the reality of the 'end of journey' to seep into my psyche.

We walked past the pyres burning on both sides, some almost reaching the state of extinguishing, some freshly lit. We climbed up the steps between pyres. We did not know where we were heading toward. We arrived at a raised platform. There we noticed a flight of descending steps. We went down, still oblivious of the sight awaiting. The river Yamuna lay before us. The ground we stepped on was nearly black - wet mud mixed with ashes. Multiple pyres lit on the narrow bank of the river. A small boat carrying someone holding the urn of ashes to be immersed floated past. We stood there mesmerized, maybe I must say stupefied,...by the unexpected sight. Each of us in our own inner world absorbing the "end".

But is it the "END"? "From dust you have come and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19) is an instant reality at a Crematorium. Your physical presence disappears within hours if on a pyre and within minutes if cremated electrically. A stark reality of your nothingness. You fit into an urn as ash. In case of burial, with passage of time you cannot be differentiated from the grains of mud into which your body has got integrated deep below ground. Belief system takes up its churning on our individual and collective minds and our hearts to understand the 'life-after'.

Birth is a point in time and death is a point in time...the timings of both recorded as significant - moment of beginning and moment of end. Birth announces itself nine months in advance, but "death will come like a thief" is what we have been made to believe. But today, with the pandemic, we are, with paramount consciousness, evading and dodging death every moment of our living. A microscopic organism has stamped its ‘invisible' presence onto the psyche of every human and turned all the so-far-considered significant aspects of life into utter insignificance.

Pursuit of life goals, from the moment of birth to death, moved along a zig-zag route of accumulating accomplishments and dodging  disappointments. Training even our young to engage in chasing vanity in ostentation and arrogance, in big and small ways, was moving on a fast track. Today all has been brought to a standstill with death prowling around! Even our little children have not been spared the reality of ‘the end' even before they have ‘begun', too early in life - of their teacher, of their schoolmate, of their aunt, of their grandparent, of their neighbour, with it as visuals all over their television screens.

We saw it gripping China, we saw it in Italy, France, Spain, we saw it in America...a number and numbers, a neighbour and neighbours, our beloved and loved ones. We saw it moving towards India...and now its arrived. Death is no longer a thief, it's a virus, though invisible its everywhere. Where not is not known!!

Reconciling to death's imminent presence is a tough task. It is encompassed in three interconnected dis/comforting “reconciliation compartments” of our thoughts.

1.     Am I reconciled with the ‘idea of death’ itself?

2.     Am I reconciled with 'me in relation to others' ?

3.     Am I reconciled within me of ‘my-self’?

The three reconciliations are, often, too deep rooted within our preconscious, often driven deeper into the unconscious, covered by layers of hindrances to let it sprout-out from within the self to be watched in the real space of 'the mind' and in 'the actual living'. With death so near, yet elusive, yet real, reconciliation has to be the ‘word of the day’. Its best to deal with the above given compartments in the reverse order - (3), (2), (1), as point (1) overrides the other two.

 (3) Am I Reconciled within me of ‘myself’ :  Are we looking backward into the yester-days and walking  into the future carrying with us the regrets of our failures and arrogance of our achievements? Wisdom springs from deep within the self more through experiences of pain and meaninglessness than from the vanity of chasing allurements’ glee. Many a life situations may have caused us to make erroneous judgments and impacted our thoughts, words, and actions. The Self has the power  to pass-over the past, over both the ego-levitators and the ego-diminishers, after drawing out learnings from them and networking them up in the storehouse of the mind and the heart producing the resultant – wisdom. This is the basic of living in ‘mindfulness'. The gait adopted each new morn determines how we go to sleep that night. Then our souls are ready to pass-on into eternal sleep with no holding back.

 (2) Am I reconciled with ‘me in relation to others' ? Maintaining ego equality between two individuals' ego is the key to peaceful coexistence. The toughest of all commandments, opposing human natural tendency is: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Jesus Christ, Mathew 5:44). This comes with instructions for cognizance of the world and a paradoxical principle of interacting with it:  “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Mathew 10:16). Given is the tool for self-control: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Mathew 5:38-39). For seekers of emotional tranquillity task is simple: “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37). Adding flavour to your words enhances communication, so “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29).

Finally, the pinnacle test for bonding a relationship “Love thy neighbour as thyself” (Mathew 22:39) is simply manifested in your actions “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mathew 7:12). The ultimate state of healthy ego, one could even term it as ‘egoless-ness’, actualized by many over centuries, contributes in nourishing the potential for humane-ness and  purity of intentions by keeping no record of malice towards anyone.

(1)Am I reconciled with the ‘idea of death’ itself? : The pandemic has brought the ‘End' or at least the perception of the ‘near End' to our doorstep. Has there ever been an immortal human being? What do I fear -  is it the precise moment of 'letting go of life' or the 'unknown of after death'? Is it possible for one to be prepared to leave everything as it is at a given moment and say yes to the call of death? I say, it is possible!  Yes it is. Your belief in the connect between how you have 'responsibly' lived (here refer to life lived as in point 3 and 2 above) and the possibilities of life-after-death as per the school of thought you follow, prescribes for you your degree of comfort with death. Every school of thought, you may call it religion, tells of a follow-up of life. Some call it Karma leading to Moksha relationship, some call it judgement of deeds leading to life everlasting. For an atheist, there is nothing beyond, death is a finality. Period.

Your belief in Karma-Moksha or the judgment concept of 'after-life' implies you believe in a power that would lead to the state of your 'being' after-death. This also implies that there is a path prescribed by that Power you address as - Allah, Parmeshwara, God. The path is in the Scriptures. If you truly believe in the Power, you will want to love that Power. If you love that Power, you will only do what pleases that Power. If you do what is right in the sight of the Power, you are hopeful of being united with the Power - a joining of the Atman with the Paramatman, Soul with God. Then why should one fear death, when the call comes from the Power for passing on from one state to the next? Ideally, there should be a looking forward to the Unity, to the Homecoming.

The pandemic has brought many a stark realities of life to the fore. To this world you came alone; from this world you leave alone, with the possibility of no loved one being allowed to accompany you or offering for you your last rites. Secondly, you will continue only as a trace-memory for a while, only for a while, as others have to go ahead with the struggles of living and making a living. The goal, thus, of ‘the living’ will need to be directed toward overcoming the fear of “death – the ultimate unknown" and embrace it as the “eternal known" of becoming one with the ultimate Power.

“From dust you have come and to dust your shall return” (Genesis 3:19) for “it is the spirit that gives life, for flesh is to no avail” (John 6:63). Acceptance of the ultimate unknown is held as sacred in the vestibule of reconciliation with life itself – of myself and my relationship with others.

(Published on 13th July 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 29)