By Upendra Mishra
Only after we cross our teenage and enter our twenties, we start to think about death—but may be not necessarily about our own death—not yet. Death happens to others. Death is probably the last thing on our agenda during this phase of our life, and rightly so. But no matter how good or bad we are, how rich or poor, famous or infamous, healthy or unhealthy, king or beggar, the almighty death will knock on our door one day and we will not even know it when it happens.
I remember and often think about the famous dialogue between Yudhisthir and Yaksha in the great Indian epic of Mahabharata:
Yaksha: What is the greatest surprise in the world?
Yudhisthir: Every man (woman) knows that death is the ultimate truth of life. However, he (she) wishes otherwise (or he/she thinks that death will not come to him/her.)
Yaksha: Who is friend of the person close to his death?
Only after we enter our forties and fifties and start noticing that our elders, grandparents and their friends are slowly starting to depart from this earth, we become conscious about the death–seriously. When our own parents, uncles and aunts start to leave this earth, the death becomes more real. When our colleagues, classmates and friends from school and college start dying, death becomes a true reality, and we start realizing how little time we have left on this planet. How short our life is? Closer we get to our final destination, more we realize the importance of time, which is passing away constantly—non-stop, without any check.
The death has always been a mystery since the dawn of the human race because no one has survived the death to tell us what happens after death. No one really knows. Those who know don’t come back. We can only imagine hell and heaven and birth and rebirth after death. Who knows what really happens after we die. The only thing we know for sure is that one day we all will face the death. No exception.
The question then arises: what should we do and how to prepare for that? Most importantly, how should we live without fear of death and enjoy our life or the time we are left with? We all know that death will come, but we don’t realize that it will happen to us, and that it can happen to us any time—today, tomorrow, day-after tomorrow and may be 50 years from today. Once we realize this fundamental truth, we should also acknowledge and embrace death. We should make death our friend or “bride” as Rabindra Nath Tagore would say. This is the only way to deal with death—head on. It really frees us. Denial of death, on the other hand, creates fear, doubt and confusion, and takes away all the joy of life.
In modern times, Indian poet Tagore described facing death beautifully in his poem Death:
“O thou the last fulfilment of life,
Death, my death, come and whisper to me!
Day after day I have kept watch for thee;
for thee have I borne the joys and pangs of life.
All that I am, that I have, that I hope and all my love
have ever flowed towards thee in depth of secrecy.
One final glance from thine eyes
and my life will be ever thine own.
The flowers have been woven
and the garland is ready for the bridegroom.
After the wedding the bride shall leave her home
and meet her lord alone in the solitude of night.”
In the ancient Indian scripture of Katha Upanishad (also known as Kathopanishad), a young teenager Nichiketa is condemned by his angry father to Yama, the God of Death.
When Nachiketa reaches the gates of palace of the God of Death, he does not find the God but decides to wait for him anyway. The God of Death returns after three days during which period all Nachiketa does is patiently wait for Yama without any food and water. The God of Death feels bad for Nachiketa, and grants him three boons. Yama tells Nachiketa: “You have waited in my house for three days without hospitality, therefore ask three boons from me.”
Nachiketa first asks that his father’s anger against him may pass away and that he will be kind to him and recognize him when he returns home. For the second boon, Nachiketa wants to know about a sacrifice that takes people to heaven.
For his third boon, Nachiketa wants to learn about death. He asks Yama: When a person dies, there arises this doubt: “He still exists,” say some; “he does not,” say others. I want you to teach me the truth.”
Yama does not want to answer this question. He says death had been a mystery even to the gods, and asks Nachiketa to ask for some other boon.
“Nachiketa, be the ruler of great kingdom, and I will give you the utmost capacity to enjoy the pleasures of life. Ask for beautiful women of loveliness rarely seen on earth, riding in chariots, skilled in music, to attend to you. But Nachiketa, don’t ask me about the secret of death,” Yama tells Nachiketa.
Nachiketa knows what he wants. He is determined and does not get distracted. Nachiketa replies: “These pleasures last but until tomorrow, and they wear out the vital powers of life. How fleeting is all life on earth! Therefore, keep your horses and chariots, dancing and music, for yourself.” He asks: “How can mortals be made happy by wealth. How can we be desirous of wealth when we see your face (death) and know we cannot live while you are here? This is the boon I choose and ask you for.”
Yama is pleased with Nachiketa’s answer, his determination and fearless and doubtless mind, and teaches him the mystery of death and immortality, and most importantly about the Self.
“Those who realize the Self are forever free from the jaws of death,” Yama says. “We live not by the breath that flows in and out, but by him who causes the breath to flow in and out…Eternal joy is their who see the Self in their own hearts. To none else does it come.”
Nachiketa asks: “How can I know that blissful Self?”
Answers Yama: “There are two selves: the separate ego and the indivisible Atman. When once rises above I and me and mine, the Atman is revealed as one’s real Self.”
(Mr. Mishra is managing partner of the Waltham, MA-based integrated inbound marketing and PR firm The Mishra Group. He writes about his three passions: marketing, scriptures and gardening.)