The inevitability of deathDeath is inescapable. The only thing one can do is come to terms with it.
Since January this year, I have encountered two sets of experiences that have made me think about death more seriously than ever. Death and illness among my friends and family members coincided with a panel organised by the Kriya Vedanta Gurukulam (Temple of Harmony) at its Ashram in Joliet, Illinois, USA. The interfaith conference, held by the Temple every year, was focused on ‘Understanding Death’ this year. The panel this year was interdisciplinary: Among the panellists were a historian, a Unitarian pagan minister, an oncologist representing Jainism and myself. I focused on literature, Hindu culture and recent books on the topic by medical professionals like Atul Gawande (Being Mortal) and Sherwin B Nuland (How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter). The second experience was reading a book on Nepali history by Baburam Acharya called Aba yasto kahilai nahos (translated in English as The Blood Stained Throne), in which the historian narrates the murderous history of Nepal’s regime changes from its inception in 1775.
Death as a philosophical, theological and spiritual phenomenon is amply covered by both the organised, scripture-based religions and the oral faith systems. But in our scientific world, death has also become purely biological and anatomical—the ceasing of brain functions, stopping of the heart etc. The historian colleague on the panel discussed death from a Christian perspective—the day of judgment, resurrection, heaven—but also as a necessity whereby the old is cleared out and replaced by the new. In this way, life and the world renew perpetually—season after season, generation after generation. The Jain representative talked about two kinds of death, among many, Bal Marana (akama maran) and Pandita Marana (sakama maran). Bal Marana is dying with a child’s mindset or as an immature individual. It refers to someone who has an attachment to life so much that he or she doesn’t want to let go when life comes to an end. On the other hand, Pandita Marana means embracing death as a wise, mature person. Such a death occurs when the person dying is not afraid of death and accepts it as a part of life and an inevitable process of life on earth. The Unitarian minister said that she had come to embrace the pagan and ecological perspectives on death. She spoke of natural death as the recycling of life and renewal of the earth’s organism. She said she had come to embrace green or natural burial, which basically means that the body of a deceased person is neither embalmed nor is it put in a vault or casket or coffin that would prevent the natural process of body’s decomposition. Instead, the body is buried in a shallow grave in its natural state so that it decomposes, turning into compost, thus enriching the soil and nature.
I spoke about representation of death in literature, giving examples from Shakespeare’s two tragedies, Hamlet and King Lear. In Hamlet, Prince Hamlet says upon hearing that his usurper, fratricidal uncle Claudius has invited him for a duel with Laertes, ‘If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.’ In the same dialogue, he says, ‘We defy augury.’ Thus, readiness here means an individual’s acceptance of death and defiance of it. This defiance could be physical bravery in the face of death that a soldier shows in battle. Then, a few years later, Shakespeare uses a similar expression in King Lear. Edgar, son of the Earl of Gloucester, tries to dissuade his father from suicide by saying that ‘ripeness is all.’ By the time Shakespeare wrote King Lear ‘readiness’ became ‘ripeness.’ If mere readiness results from physical courage, ripeness stems from maturity, reflection, understanding and wisdom about life processes that make death as a natural phenomenon in the cycle of birth and death. I suppose the Buddha, too, propounded the four noble truths and the eight-fold path so that the enlightened could achieve ripeness—maturity both ethical and intellectual—and achieve what the Jains call Pandita Marana, death of the wise.
In the Hindu faith, while the Ashram system paves the straightforward path for life’s journey from childhood/boyhood through householder life to retirement and renunciation, the varna system complicates this picture. When speaking of death, Hindus don’t necessarily go to the Garuda Purana but rush to the Gita for conceptual solace about the soul being immortal and death being a mere change of garb. The Gita also teaches equanimity, sthitaprajna, whereby one should focus on the process of living rather than the product of action; on means rather than ends.
I encountered death in three stages. When I was seven, I saw my Rajbanshi villagers dying and taken to the river for burial or cremation, never to return. Confused and depressed, I stumbled on the narrative of King Parikshit and Sukdev the boy-wonder in the Puranas. Narrative or storytelling, and listening about kings, demons and gods and human creation, seemed like a solution to death. The second stage was when my parents died within ten years of each other. And the third occurred this year when the people we were laughing, cycling and lunching with disappeared, struck by illness out of nowhere.
But the deaths I encountered in Baburam Acharya’s book about the ruling class in Nepal’s first two hundred years were pure mayhem, based on the quest for state power. The killers were mostly young men in their twenties. Brother killed brother, cousins and nephews killed cousins and uncles, one clan wiped out another clan—including all women and children. Acharya published his chapters of Aba yasto kahilai nahos in the 1950s, so it obviously didn’t include the Maoist Insurgency (1996-2006) and Royal Palace Massacre of June 1, 2001. There was no trace of ripeness here—only readiness to die or kill. If people in their twenties affected regime changes through bloodshed, the last two occurred as a result of a moribund mindset in the palace and the palace’s repressive, stubborn rule outside. Dialogue and discourse failed or were not allowed.
Death is inevitable for renewal and change. But ripeness when approaching death can come only after educating oneself about it from various perspectives and living one’s own life, and allowing others to live theirs, to its fullest. In other words, discursive freedom, circulation of stories and openness to change can help achieve ripeness, or Pandita Marana.
What do you think?
Dear reader, we’d like to hear from you. We regularly publish letters to the editor on contemporary issues or direct responses to something the Post has recently published. Please send your letters to email@example.com with "Letter to the Editor" in the subject line. Please include your name, location, and a contact address so one of our editors can reach out to you.