Last morning, at about 4:00 AM, my attention was drawn towards Death through this essay of philosopher and journalist Stephen Cave. There was one thing that caught my attention quickly as I read the brief bio of Cave stating that his latest book is titled: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilisation(2012). I too have often wondered about the relation of the quest for immortality [which later morphed into quest for long life] with different civilisations and cultures of the past and present. I have written one blog post too about this sometime in 2014. I will, of course, be reading this book. Last morning, I read his essay and this morning, I am disagreeing with some of his conclusions, assertions and assumptions.
Death is a great equaliser. Death is perhaps the greatest equaliser. It is greater than Dark in equalising all the matter on earth. The essay takes a long and unexpected flight from what started as meditation upon death to musings on veganism and vegetarianism with Shakespeare making an appearance in the climax and then ultimately ending up favouring and opposing the two ideas that the author struggles to get through throughout the essay. The two ideas being – death being – insignificant or catastrophic. One of the most remarkable and thought provoking lines from essay is – we cannot stop Death from going about his business; and we oughtn’t pretend that sparing the ants (or the flies or the butter) will keep him from our door; but we need not rush to be his foot soldiers either.
I have always looked forward to my death. In a way, I am prepared for it whenever it comes. In childhood days, when my mother will play a bhajan or gurbaani – they all postulated that to forget Death is to forget God. I have come to not believe in existence of God. However, Death, in those songs, was always postulated as a reminder of our limitations [before God], that life is false, a maya and that Death is the truth, a satya, and that death of all of us alone is a reminder enough for us to be humble and full of respect for the other creatures. Hindu philosophy has greatly written on Death, and Death as the ultimate truth – in my experience – is taught/told to kids from early on. These meditations on Death led to development of Buddhism, Carvaka-ism, Jainism and many isms, which are unknown to world outside India, from Hinduism. They differed in their outlook towards Death and ultimately towards life as well.
Cave terms Jainism as anti-Death movement. To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised at this point of view towards Jainism, though not impressed by this bold conclusion. Jainism has divided Death into 17 types. Jainism has concept of Samadhi as is with Hinduism and Buddhism. Samadhi is practice of voluntary death towards perceived end of life. Death is glorified by Samadhi. Jain gurus keep reminding their audience that Death will come. Cave then turns to “terror of Death” and how Western religions promise eternal life to overcome that terror. On the contrary, the Eastern religions have habit of absorbing death as a routine of a soul or cycle of universe. In Mahabharata, when Arjun gets scared of going to war against his cousins, for he doesn’t want to kill them, Krishna tells him to shed this weakness, which is unfit for a warrior, for everyone dies, and so he shouldn’t be scared of killing them and that he has to become, as Cave put it, “foot-soldier of the Death” to bring justice to the society by killing his Adharmic cousins in a Dharmic war. Cave’s conclusion that Jainism, Buddhism et al live in denial of death is highly erroneous for he erred in equating aversion to violence as an extension of denial of death, when he might very well know that not all violence leads to death, and that Jain scholars did know that Death is always around the corner [No wonder they sat down and classified death types]. This kind of conclusion doesn’t befit a scholar of his calibre.
However, Cave did well to not “solve the paradox” for there is no true solution or every solution is true. In this immediate case, the death of the fly at the hand of Cave was catastrophic as it coerced him to ponder over Death and churn a 3000-word essay, forced him to recall his father’s anti ant-hunting advice etc. To me, death of my grandmother was catastrophic. She was, and still is, one of very few women in my life that I have deeply loved and respected.
To me, my own death is insignificant. I also believe, and perhaps know too, that my own death will be insignificant to almost all people I know for I’ve always found that I am easily forgettable i.e. my impressions, if I happen to leave any at all, on the mind and heart of other people wear down at a lightening speed.
Death, in the end, is bundle of contradictions and paradoxes – and this particular one is not the only one.
a permanent state of non-being
or a temporary event of being?
a beginning of eternal oblivion
or end of lifelong curiosity of afterlife?
as trivial as that of a fly on the wall
or as tragic as that of someone we deeply love and miss?
Therefore, Death is both insignificant and catastrophic. These contradictions and paradoxes add to the beauty and ugliness, glory and shame and enigma of Death.
I really appreciate your thoughtful comments on my essay (to which ever-vigilant Google alerted me) and I’m glad you found it stimulating.
I hope you don’t mind if I make a quick comment on Eastern religions and death denial. I agree of course that Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism have very different approaches to death to those found in the Abrahamic religions. But they still contain more or less explicit forms of death denial. You quote from Arjun’s encounter with Krishna from the Mahabharata – of course from the part known as the Bhagavad Gita. In that section, Krishna goes on to explain that the soul “is unborn, eternal, permanent and ancient. It is not killed when the body is slain,” and that “Just as a man casts off worn out clothing and accepts new ones, even so the embodied soul discards worn out bodies and enters into different ones.” By most standards, this counts as death denial – it does not deny the death of the body, but it does deny that the death of the body is the death of the person. With Buddhism the matter is somewhat more complicated, as many Buddhists deny the existence of a soul (at least in the Western sense) – but most do also nonetheless believe in reincarnation – ie that the death of the body is not real death, or not really the end.
There’s a bit more about this in chapter 7 of my book on immortality (though not enough to do it justice!).
With best wishes,