Death: ‘The End’ Or

Just Coming Home?

By Someswar Bhagwat

Death is inevitable.  And a mystery. An inevitable mystery. Pages can be filled with quotes on death and still nothing much is known about it. Some think it is the end mark of the book of life. Some think it is the end of a journey and some a homecoming. Most, especially the survivors, mourn it while thinkers like Osho want it celebrated as a happy occasion. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that when he dies:                                          

                                              Under the green and starry sky

                                Dig the Grave and let me lieom

                                              And this be the verse you (en)’grave for me

               ‘Home is the sailor home from sea,

                                             Home the hunter from the hill.’

Hindus believe in rebirth. They think it occurs thousands of times and entering a new body – being born again – is like changing of clothes. Ancient Rishis and seers had, according to our mythology, the ability to enter a dead body to get an experience which they lacked.

The greatest among them Aadi Shankara had a philosophical debate with another great thinker, Mandana Mishra as per tarka shastra, which needed a judge to determine the winner. And they agreed to Mandan Mishra’s wife as the judge as she was a woman of great wisdom. After the meemansa charcha (as the debate was called), she decided Shankara won it. Then she told him he had won only half the debate as she, being Mandan Mishra’s wife, was his other half. (This showed that women were in those days as learned as men and were accepted as their – perhaps better – halves, a totally modern concepts of gender equality.)

She knew that Shankara became an ascetic at the age of six and, therefore had no experience of married life. So she asked him about it. The great defender of Hinduism asked her to wait for some time, entered the body of a just-dead king, lived conjugal life with his queens, returned to the debate and won it. It also showed that even though she was Mishra’s wife, her impartiality was not suspected and she did not have to recuse herself as modern judges do, if they have some involvement with the litigant.

So mysterious is death that curiosity about it led the way to many ‘experiments’ – though the results were irrevocable. After all curiosity is the mother of science and science, based on fact rather than the abstract belief or faith as it is. Its irrevocability and the knowledge that “dead men tell no tales” has not deterred some from experimenting, especially about the taste of potassium cyanide which causes death in one second. The experiment, it turned out, was more on the time available to tell the taste rather than the taste itself. I remember writing, in the 1980s, about a suicide report in a Bangalore daily that clubbed together several suicides including that of a grandson of Right Honorable V. Srinivasa Sastry. My comment was neither on the irrevocable suicide prank, an student of Indian Institute of Science that requires high intelligence and expense to join,  or the taste of cyanide. It was on the fact that the boy being a grandson of a great freedom fighter famous for mastery over English language, Rt. Hon. (always Rt.Hon, never a simple ‘Mr.’) Srinivasa Sastry, did not make the newspaper think he merited a separate sentence instead of being clubbed with others.

The immediate death did not let the boy report the taste of cyanide. It is not known if it was one of his pranks or if there was some other reason for killing himself. The mystery remains. It is not known if souls of those who die with unfulfilled desires hover around without peace, as is believed in Hindu culture. The mystery remains. So does that over the Islamic promise of a seat in heaven and enjoyment with the ‘noors’ (beautiful celestial women like Apsaras believed by Hindus to be present in heaven) which being shahid (dying for a noble cause) would ensure. However few know that suicide squads were not the invention of Islam but of the Japanese who, during the Second World War committed ‘harakiri’ by tying bombs to their bodies and jumping into the chimneys of ‘enemy’ ships to drown them. There are many who believe death is the ‘solitary reaper, or great leveler who treats all as equal.

All that could be said, as is the Western practice, is ‘RIP’ (Requisite in Pace, which many believe, is just ‘Rest in Peace’)


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