Personal Growth - Life and Death
by P.G. Rao
I have just returned from a house death has visited. A wife distraught, a son abroad, a daughter who has decided that her father should lie in wait for her brother to arrive, before he makes his last journey from ice to fire. In the age of the global Indian, this scene will be played and replayed many times over, with variations here and there. Technology has helped with iceboxes and morgues, and modern thinking has helped to modify rigid, orthodox practices. Technology, though, has no shield against karma. When we see daughters light the pyre of their parents (a reversion to Vedic practices from a time long before the appearance of misogynistic Manu) or only sons, no matter their age, or even male relatives whose own parents are no more, this is the karma of both the departed and the fire bearer, irrespective of technology or tradition. It is a relationship beyond time and countless births. Whether the departed is borne by four paltry pall-bearers or12 or more vying for the privilege, is a dice drawn by karma.
I watch like the eternal witness, the “sakshi”, neither ruing the unfinished tasks left behind by the man nor pitying the family’s inability to cope. I am not numb. Yet I am blank. The son reaches to perform the rites, and friends and relatives murmur how in other instances sons have not been able to do so even when the body is made to wait for days. Karma has the upper edge on technology. I am one of two daughters with family all over the world, and issues of finance, health and relationships lie unresolved. We are not ready if death catches us unawares.
Yet I cannot imagine the great Being, hovering over the firmament, nor Brahma, the inveterate, compulsive creator, engendering these momentous events, these unimaginable losses, to teach us nothing but housekeeping or bookkeeping. In the ocean of debts and obligations of all kinds, monetary and human, will we have the opportunities as well as the good fortune to clear them?
And thus, my mind contemplates the journey – the one of the family from hereon and that of the soul. I am reminded of Babruhans, son of Gatothkacha and grandson of Bhima. He dies on the very first day of the great war of the Mahabharata. Krishna, the compassionate teacher, grants him a short delay in the inevitable journey to the beyond. He gives life to the head of Babruhans, which is placed on a tall stake above the battlefield so that he does not miss the grand thrill of the conflict and in return, he is to act as record keeper and statistician for both sides, since death has rendered him suitably impartial.
My mind returns to the desperate pleas of the wife for two more minutes worth of talk with her husband, and the answering silence for we have no divine bargainer. And Babruhans, what is his answer, when, the war over and pyres burning, the victors argue as to who has killed the maximum number of the enemy? He answers “What war? Which war? All I saw were thousands of battlefields, a cloud of dust and the Vishnu chakra spinning above.” Which wife? Which children? Which life?
Bookstores and footpaths are replete with accounts of the beyond. Witnesses and returnees, regressions and recalls tell us about other lives, of having been associated repeatedly in some way to our near and dear. As Indians we are not strangers to Chitragupta nor to rebirth. Cause and effect are a way of life.
I believe there’s a purpose in life and in death. Nothing is accidental, neither relationship nor circumstance. While we cannot tell the family that everything is maya, and their father and husband never existed, we can say that there was a purpose both in life and in death. Nagarjuna says that there is nothing absolutely good or bad about an event but only what we make it out to be; no matter how catastrophic the occurrence, we can still make value out of it through how we react to it and what we decide to do about it.
The thirteenth century Japanese saint of Buddhism, Nichiren Daishonin, writes that men “feel pity for their wives and children and grieve at the thought of parting from them in this life. In countless births throughout many long kalpas, they have had wives and children but parted from them in every existence…unwillingly.”
Thus, when we know that parting is inevitable and is never going to be painless, Nagarjuna makes sense. All that we must focus on is how we are going to deal with it and what we are going to do about it. This is not meant to be an intellectual exercise nor an emotional one. It is meant to be a momentous decision, an undertaking from the depths of the heart that will be remembered through all of eternity and countless passings. When we are lucky enough to witness a death, we need to ask ourselves if we are ready to take that leap of faith. Anything less, in my opinion, would be insulting to the event. And so when we tell the family of the bereaved to wipe the tears and be strong so that the departed soul is free to move onward without worry, we symbolically reaffirm the eternal journey of all souls – the one departed and the ones left behind – and the futility of distress in this never-ending journey.
Another technology I have discovered, also useful in the matter of death: the ubiquitous internet. I was searching the internet for accounts of ordinary people whose lives took remarkable turns for fame and achievement upon the death of a loved one. I was not searching for remarkable deaths but, nevertheless, the very first reference was of Jesus on the Cross, the epitome of one who suffered and died so that all mankind be sinless and happy.
Buddhism and Hinduism tell us that every death is a spectacularly fresh departure, which can be undertaken spectacularly when the family cheers the departed soul on. And so, dear departed, three cheers for a life well lived! Bon voyage! May we meet again and again. The fires have burnt out. The immersions are done. The soul-stirring verses have been sung and the guests have been fed and sent. The fourth day, the tenth, the thirteenth, fortieth and the forty-ninth have been observed and the soul is on its way. Life settles down to something less. Marriages will be one less. Celebrations will be accompanied with what might have been. But the journey is on. Different adventures. Different paths. Let’s go!
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