Death, like most other profound phenomena in life, cannot be fully understood unless experienced at close quarters.
My own first intimate encounter with death occurred on the day my grandmother died. I was barely sixteen at the time and was preparing, with a lot of trepidation, for my tenth-standard secondary education board mathematics examination which was scheduled for the very next day. I still vividly remember the sequence of things as they unfolded within the purview of my consciousness on that day: first my mother waking me up early in the morning and then breaking the fateful news to me; my father crying like a child – that was the first time I ever saw my father cry – and running around the house in a confused manner; now dialling up the household physician and various other people, mostly family, and then asking the people next door to come over; neighbours pouring into the house one by one and trying to calm my father down by highlighting the fact that grandmother had reached a reasonably ripe age and was going through immense physical suffering, and how – this part stuck with me and is very crucial to the subject at hand – death had, in fact, released her from the clutches of such excruciating pain and suffering. The reasonableness of that assertion, made amply clear by the good people flocking our place, was however lost on my father. Although everyone else appeared as if they could clearly see the good in grandmother’s demise – while at the same time acknowledging the irreparable loss it caused to our family – and nodded their agreement to each other, my father kept repeating a single phrase to anyone who tried making that suggestion to him. He was saying: “but she was my mother, after all!”
My immediate reaction to this series of emotionally charged events was one of fear. I was mortally afraid to face my grandmother’s corpse; and also afraid of the fact that someone who I have been living with under the same roof for the better part of two decades, someone who I had interacted closely with, spent great amounts of time with, and even more significantly, someone who had dictated the terms of our lives with absolute authority for a considerable length of time, was no more. This feeling of evanescence, the realisation of that strange and abrupt fact of her absence dawned on me a few days afterwards (actually it was only after all the associated rites of passage and the aśauca period was over); while the awareness of her absence kept hovering about my senses vaguely until that time.
It was not long after the occurrence of this epiphany-like incident in my life that I was introduced to the Kaṭha Upanishad. Also around the same time, while studying Swami Vivekananda, I stumbled upon the fact that the genealogy of the people of the jāti in which I belong (i.e. Kāyastha) is traceable to two divine entities: one of them being Yama, the god of death himself, and the other his associate Citragupta. In a fiery speech delivered at the Victoria Hall in Madras (present-day Chennai), Swami Vivekananda spoke thus:
“One word more: I read in the organ of the social reformers that I am called a Shudra and am challenged as to what right a Shudra has to become a Sannyasin. To which I reply: I trace my descent to one at whose feet every Brahmin lays flowers when he utters the words — यमाय धर्मराजाय चित्रगुप्ताय वै नमः — and whose descendants are the purest of Kshatriyas. If you believe in your mythology or your Paurânika scriptures, let these so-called reformers know that my caste, apart from other services in the past, ruled half of India for centuries. If my caste is left out of consideration, what will there be left of the present-day civilisation of India? In Bengal alone, my blood has furnished them with their greatest philosopher, the greatest poet, the greatest historian, the greatest archaeologist, the greatest religious preacher; my blood has furnished India with the greatest of her modern scientists. ”
(My Plan of Campaign, Lectures from Colombo to Almora, Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol. 3)
At that age, it was highly intriguing for me to be aware of that genealogical connection, amid the flurry of all those strong thoughts and feelings that were generated by the fresh and up-close encounter with death. Now when I look back, I can identify the seeds of the query which led me to contemplate on the present subject in precisely those two revelations – one far too empirical, close at hand, vividly visible; and the other mere informational, almost unfathomable, with nobody around me to light up and dispel the darkness which obscures it. One morning I, just a teenager at the time, dared to ask the purohita of our family, a grand old man, about this remarkable genealogical link, citing the mantra which Swami Vivekananda had referred to in his Madras speech and which is usually recited during tarpaṇa and śrāddha rites. He simply brushed the subject off, saying it was far better to take the name of Rāma than that of Yama early in the morning!
Be that as it may, my spirit was not daunted by his discouraging reply. Instead, the desire to find out more about this genealogical link between my jāti and the lord of death took hold of me. That, in turn, has led to a full-fledged inquiry on Yama, the Hindu god of death. It also urged me to read up as many Yama-related stories and accounts that are available with us today in Sanskrit and various other Indic languages as well as in translations.
Stories are going to play an important part in this series. Hence it is important that we first try and understand well what stories are and what they do.
One of the principal distinctions between us humans and animals is that we need stories for our survival, as much as we need food and shelter like our subhuman counterparts. Be it the fable, the parable, the traditional lore, the kathā, the ākhyāna, or the overwhelmingly large epic saga, it is the stories – of various kinds, told to us in a multitude of forms – that help us familiarise ourselves with this strange world into which we have been thrown at birth. This way, the stories help us make sense of this world which envelops us from all directions ever since the moment of our birth. Who would deny the fact that their first attempts at grappling with the many creeping night-time fears were carried out through bedtime stories and lullabies (after all, what are lullabies but for tiny stories sung to the tunes of deeply soothing slumber?)? Our mothers and grandmothers have handed down all those instruments to us so that we may learn to use our imagination and conjure the dangers, the threats, which are too subtle for us, at that tender age, to perceive. Thus, it was through those immature cerebral exercises that our child-selves unwittingly picked up the skill of establishing causality between different things, many of which made little sense to us, many of which remained unknown and unexplained. Therefore, there is not a bit of exaggeration in the statement that stories have been instrumental in securing our survival. For, without them, we wouldn’t have been able to endure the most fragile part of our lives, viz. our childhood. But let us not for a moment think that the utility of stories is limited only to childhood and the survival of childhood. All of us have a more or less fair idea of where we may end up being without all those stories of morality and ethical behaviour, which have been showered upon us by our elders during our formative years, stories that have been instrumental in civilising the species of humans itself. Stories are humanity’s cushion to lean on, to find comfort on this jagged, rough surface that is the world. Bereft of stories to tell and listen to, we would suddenly find ourselves, upon growing up, in a place which is not much different from the domain of beasts, a place which is perhaps best characterised by the expression “dog-eat-dog”; and even worse than that is: we wouldn’t know how to cope with the beasts and their forces in such a world. The world is, after all, a place where chaos is thinly separated from order. Whether we like it or not, the fact remains that order is a fragile thing. Even more fragile are our body and mind. And when we don’t have stories for our perusal, that fragile order is barely upheld, that too only by means of fierce competitiveness, which gives rise to a place where it is very rare to come across such humane notions as mercifulness.
To make sense of death and the feelings of loss, pain and suffering associated with it, we have told stories. Sometimes such stories have survived through millennia, not least because they contain profound insights within them, hearing which the audience may come to an understanding of death. This understanding, this ability to make sense of the phenomenon of death, equips the hearer with the ability to grapple with it and ultimately attain liberation from the incumbent loss and pain.
The Story of Yama-Naciketā and Beyond
Now let us come back to our subject, which is death in Indic thought. While treating the subject in the previous part of this series of articles, we have dwelt upon the conversation between Yama, the god of death and Naciketa, a young Brahmin boy who was forsaken by his father by an unwitting utterance on the spur of a rather heated moment. This conversation, comparable in theme, style and tone to another famous conversation from the Indic literature, the Śrīmad Bhagavad Gītā, is found in the Kaṭhopaniṣad. The Kaṭhopaniṣad is traditionally counted among the principal Upaniṣad-s on which great ācārya-s like Adi Shankara and Sri Ramanuja had written their commentaries.
This is where I will offer my explanation justifying the rather lengthy discourse concerning stories and their utility, with which I started this second part. Why would an author begin an essay, which is supposed to be written on the topic of death, vindicating stories?
The answer lies in the primary observation that the conversation of Yama and Naciketa, like many other conversations found in the other principal Upaniṣad-s, is presented to us in the form of a story. And one of the main accusations levelled by foreign religionists, ideologues and academicians against India’s sacred literature and traditions is that the latter is obsessed with storytelling – with the narrative mode – and that each of the Indian epics, purāṇa-s and sacred texts is nothing but a dense forest of thousands of diverse stories on apparently disparate subjects. However, a member of the Indic civilisation need not be perturbed by this accusation at all. Instead, she may take this accusation as a compliment disguised in the accusatory tone. For, the infallibility of the claims made in the stories to be found in India’s traditions and sacred literature does not depend on the historicity of the people, places and events described in the story. This is totally unlike the case with the Abrahamic scriptures. The holy scriptures of all three major Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – are obsessed with historicity, i.e. historical fact-checking of the people, places and events described in them. This is not to say that those religions do not at all depend on stories to propound their respective religious ideas. But with the Abrahamic religions, the stories are narrated by people or through events which are claimed to be historically ‘true’, ‘factual’, ‘authentic’ and ‘verifiable’ based on certain evidence. Should such evidence and methodologies of proving historicity someday fall apart as a result of new scientific findings, the whole narrative will stand deconstructed. The dogmas and wisdom contained in those stories, which were held by the millions to be historically authentic for generations, will then be looked upon with suspicion. Consequently, the very same obsession with historicity, which once provided an apparently solid ground of legitimacy and validity to those dogmas and wisdom, will prove to be the nemesis of the traditions which generated these stories that contained all their dogmas and wisdom.
Throughout human history, humans have been compelled equally by the Known and the Unknown (if not even more so by the Unknown) to take recourse to all sorts of stories – of heaven and hell, of light and the dark, of angels and demons, of brave men and the wicked, of victory and defeat; of life, loss and death. Stories have worked marvellously to organise the wisdom gathered by thousands of generations of humans in an orderly manner and in superb form, helping us make sense of the world that we have been given to make our way through. Indeed the best lessons of humanity have been packaged in the form of stories, e.g. there are an ample number of stories to be found in the Ṛgveda and Yajurveda, many of them being in the Upaniṣad-s.
The most profound conclusion reached by the seekers, philosophers and thought-leaders of the Indian Civilisation is that there is an end to death. Boldly this fact has been proclaimed in the spiritual, psychological and philosophical treatises of our tradition, with sufficient conviction and great clarity of expression. Cutting across varied schools of thought – be it yoga, Buddhism, Jainism, or Vedanta – all concur that death is not the end of the road, that there is life beyond death, and indeed, that the real existence truly begins only after one conquers death (as well as birth). Please note the difference between the Indic and Abrahamic ways of understanding death at this juncture. The Abrahamic view of death paints a grim picture of a so-called eternal slumber for the individual soul who is thrown into that prolonged dreamless pit of darkness and absence of consciousness, only to be awakened on the Day of Judgement and proceeded either towards heaven or hell according to his good deeds/sins. On the other hand, according to the Indic understanding, death is not the end of the road for the individual. Instead, death is to be conquered, as much as birth, for together these two constitute a cycle which the individual ātman goes through only due to its ignorance of the reality of its true nature. In this understanding, death and birth are not quite the binary opposites as is generally regarded thanks to Abrahamic Western universalism, but death and birth are just two sides of the same coin of ignorance, illusion, what Advaita Vedāntin-s would call māyā. It is not the Abrahamic promise of a paradisiacal, other-worldly life which only begins after death that is taught by the Indic traditions, but the challenge of attaining the goal of liberation from apparent bondages that leads to the proper understanding of the Ultimate Reality, sat.
After all, India’s wisdom teaches us that all things, names (nāma) and forms (rūpa) which are ‘born’, i.e. are created by a cause, must ‘die’ or get dissolved, including even such names and forms in which the Supreme Being or the Supreme Cause – call it ‘God’ or by any other name – Itself descends on this earthly plane: viz. the avatāra-s.
(To be continued)
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Sreejit Datta teaches English and Cultural Studies at the Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham in Mysore. Variously trained in comparative literature, Hindustani music and statistics; Sreejit is an acclaimed vocalist who has been regularly performing across multiple Indian and non-Indian genres in India and abroad. He can be reached at [email protected]