( By Dr Manu L Kothari and Dr Lopa A Mehta )

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Life and Death: Here and Now

Nowness is with us, of us but yet always elusively evading our grasp. Bringing ourselves into the here and now sounds deceptively simple but is essentially very difficult. We divide life into a series of events and happenings which are seen as big and small. We mainly live our lives by concentrating on these events and people seen as large and important. Living becomes a series of time holes punctuated by occasional big happenings.

David Brandon

The recent human past, largely dominated by the West, has been a veritable, scientific experiment: the whole project started off with the idea - which still persists - that once nature is subdued, hunger abolished and human beings provided with comforts, gadgets, and conveniences the ennui of existence would disappear, and happiness, a sense of meaning will be the lot of mankind. Alas, the experiment continues, but its results are far from encouraging: leading Western humanists - Schweitzer, Carrell, Jung, Frankl, Fromm, Koestler - have concluded that mankind, by all its misdeeds, has more than vindicated Shakespeare’s lamentation:

Man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such a fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep.

And if the angels are weeping, mankind has no hopes for any redemption, any meaning, any sense of worthwhileness, of the trajectory of its life, signalled by an unwilled birth and ended by an inevitable death.

Materially prosperous, man is still poor and miserable, reminding us of the man portrayed by John Bunyan in the very first paragraph of The Pilgrim’s Progress - a man clothed in rags (of nylon and rayon), (an ad-man’s) book in his hand, a great burden (of things) upon his back, and as he reads, he weeps and trembles, and not being able to contain himself, he breaks out with the cry, ‘What shall I do?’

What indeed ? Were material things the highway to human happiness most of the haves would be happy and blissful by now. Paradoxically, the more things a man has, the more miserable he becomes. The universality of this predicament of man is symptomatic both of man’s unexpressed and unheard plea to get himself out of this mess, and of man’s happiness being rooted not in the joys of material goods but in those of the mind. Man is mind. It is no wonder that the human mind has been described as an instrument that can make heaven of hell, hell of heaven, can bind man forever or liberate him in but the twinkling of an eye.

Liberation? Yes. Why? That is man’s essential lot. How? Through the mind. When? Here and now. How long? Forever, well beyond death. At what cost? None; in fact, the more liberated a man is, the richer he feels.

Modern man’s Search for Meaning

Man is made by his mind.
As he thinks, so he is.

The Bhagvad Gita
(The Song of the Blessed)

Man, mind, and meaning comprise a trinity in tandem. The term man is etymologically traceable both in Sanskrit and in English, to the Sanskrit root manas meaning mind. Therefore, man is that which has mind. Further, it is significant that both the terms mind and meaning are Indo-European gifts to mankind, derived from the root men / menen signifying thought, contemplation, consideration, man is blessed (or cursed) with the desire to find meaning in everything, and above all, his own self.

A Helping hand from the West

The incredible sophistication with which modern science has revealed to us the complexity of biological organization from man to microbes has left us all gaping in amazement: each man, animal, cell, segment of DNA, on its own is like a marvel coded by a miracle enveloped in wonder, in an endless series fixed together like a Russian doll. And yet - to give but one example of how far we all are from biological reality - it has been stated that to study a cell with the currently available gadgets including the electron microscopes, is like attempting to repair a delicate writ watch with a sledge hammer. It should not therefore come as a surprise that two contemporary biophilosophers, Lewis Thomas, and Lyal Watson, have argued that the greatest discovery of the twentieth century is that of human ignorance: ‘We seem in recent years,’ Watson says, ‘ to have grown through the confident adolescence of science into a philosophic maturity, prepared not only to admit our ignorance, but to come to terms with the fact that there are some things we can never know.’ Epistemologically, the human faculty of wonder is born out of some knowledge of the what, but an utter ignorance of the how and why of a phenomenon, be it the Pyramid of Cheops made of 2.3 million blocks of stone, or the DNA helix with its repertoire of possible structural arrangements - each capable of begetting a unique individual - bordering on 256 followed by 2.4 billion zeros. A person, writing 24 hours a day, would take 45 years just to write 256 followed by 2.4 billion zeros.

What the sense of wonder brings in its wake is the double gift of humility and reverence, an affective state that finds its expression in philosophy. Alfred North Whitehead, after a full academic career of 40 years as a mathematician in England, moved to Harvard to occupy the chair of philosophy. And he explained his personal evolution thus: ‘Philosophy is the product of wonder . . . Philosophy begins in wonder. And at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.’ Philosophy, the dictionaries assert, is scientia scientiarum, the science of all sciences. Today, modern physics bristles more with philosophy than with physics. A similar philosophic bent can be accorded to the physician’s art of having to deal with human birth, life, ageing, diseasing , and death. A noumenal approach, going well beyond the phenomenal, is overdue in modern medicine.

Nosce te ipsum: Gnothi seauton: Know thyself

The process of knowing oneself resides in expanding one’s mind well beyond the limits of space and time, birth, life and death. A constant awareness of one’s inherent universality, eternality resolves all possible identity crises by making one’s self as large and as orderly as the cormos. Such a realization forms a panexistential panacea that carries one’s self through the thick and thin of life. A glimpse of the Eastern insight into the art of knowing oneself is now in order.

Grand Eastern Generalizations

The Eastern sages, with the seeing eye of their inner minds have given mankind some universal, reassuring pronouncements:

  1. Om Isavasyam - Idam Sarvam
    yat-kimcha Jagatyam Jagat.

    All this, whatsoever moves in this universe, including the universe - itself moving - is indwelt, pervaded, enveloped, clothed by the Lord.

  2. Om Purnamadah purnamidam
    purnat purnamudacyate
    purnasya purnamadaya

    Completeness is that, completeness is this from completeness, completeness comes forth.
    Completeness from completeness taken away
    Completeness to completeness added,
    Completeness alone remains.

  3. Om, Aham Brahmosmi meaning ‘I am Brahman.’

  4. Om, Tat Twam Asi meaning ‘Thou art that.’

    And, when asked to expand on what really is Brahman, the sages gave three words.

Sat - Chit - Ananda meaning ‘ Existence - Awareness - Bliss.’

Viewed from a philosophical angle, each of the above statements is a synthetic judgement a priori, being an inductible aphorism that stands verified through ages, reinforced in fact by the insight that modern science and technology has provided. Much as this entire book is an appeal to the logical, left-side of the human brain, this chapter too is an effort to place before the reader ratiocinative concepts and data adequate enough to drive home to each one of us, the grandeur of being alive. Isavasyam - Idam Sarvam: God is in everything The vedic concept of God is no anthropomorphic, anthropocentric image or idol but an all pervading eternal reality. Shankara, Spinoza and Einstein have talked of this impersonal God who is not concerned with the deeds and fate of man but who reveals himself in the harmony of all beings. Spinoza in his time was called an atheist. The present discussion does not deny any atheist the right to participate in the logical exchange of ideas.

The concept of God-in-everything is the basis of Schweitzer’s reverence for life and Gandhi’s reverence for a pencil stub. Reverence for life is proof against the all too common human cruelty against a fellow human being. It is a readiness to see that the human heart throb is no different from, or superior to, the heart throb of an animal awaiting death in an abattoir or in an experimental laboratory. It is the wisdom of thinking a thousand times before felling a tree, for, its chloroplasts and our mitochondria are similar and God-given. Gandhi’s regard for the inanimate is pregnant with a sense of frugality that prevents needless exploitation of the Earth’s scarce resources.

Beyond the altruistic regard for life and things, beyond oneself, the concept of God-in-everything is essential for curing a benumbing, desperate sense of alienation to which the modern human being is prone. A fellowship of being enriches oneself and cuts across all barriers of race, religion, caste, creed, ignorance or learnedness, riches or poverty, to bring home the perennial worth of love as the mode of being and becoming, be it a day, a sunset, a leaf, a person, a dog, or a stone. A Sufi poet, when denied by a Kazi the right to drink wine in a mosque for that is the abode of Allah, posed a peremptory puzzle: ‘Oh Kazi, let me drink wine right here in the mosque or show me some place where Allah is not.’

Purnamadah Purnamidam: Completeness prevails

In today’s world, each one of us is born an emperor and grows into and dies a beggar because of our misplaced sense of importance. Modern education puts emphasis on information and qualifications in terms of the size and the location of a sprawling villa and curios therein. The intensively consumeristic living makes man crave more and more, assuming the shape of an obsessive disease that only ends with death.

An Indian folk song declares: ‘Beyond the basic needs of a loin cloth, and some bread, all else is crap.’ Its essence is that a human being, like the birds and the bees, attains fulfillment the moment the physiological needs of the body are met with; all else is ornamental. Hence the meaning, the sense of completeness of every human life is, during waking hours, in sleep, in infancy, in old age, in the remote places, in the metropolis, as a president or as a peon, in health and in sickness. At birth, the cosmic completeness takes shape as a carnal being, which at death once again merges into the cosmic completeness. Completeness is.

Man, in ignorance or disregard of this inherent completeness and perfection that attends every life, every breath, commits a double fault: he spots imperfections that are not, and then he presumes that he has the wisdom, and moreover, the power to rectify them. Advanced physics today asserts the unswaying role of superdeterminism - things, events and people have been, are, and will be the way they have been predetermined to be, from the time of the Bag Bang. Man has now and again the illusion of success, the pride of victory, but his cardinal role is that of a witness; he is a person gifted with - as Jiddu Krishnamurthi put it - the choiceless awareness in a pathless land.

How powerful is man? To cite but one example: A single breath, the prerogative of any human being, is not his doing. He expands his chest, but it is the air that rushes in through forces that are beyond his knowing. When the Nobel - laureate physicist Kapitza under Stalinist duress was unable to return to his mentor Rutherford in England, he wrote in a letter: ‘After all, we are only small particles of floating matter in a stream we call fate. All that we can manage is to deflect our tracks slightly and keep afloat - the stream governs us.’ If Peter Kapitza, could share such love of fate with the father of atomic fission, it would be no shame for an average or an extraordinary man to do so. The existential role of such an approach has been best summarised by Durant: ‘Such a philosophy teaches us tosay Yea to life, and even to death. It calms our fretted egos with its large perspective; it reconciles us to the limitations within which our purpose must be circumscribed. It may lead to resignation and an Orientally supine passivity; but it is also the indispensable basis of all wisdom and all strength.’

Om, Aham Brahmosmi: I am Brahman

The shaper of Einsteinian space-time into objects and beings is information, the attributes of which are no different from those of the Vedic Brahman. Thus, it is neither matter ( occupying no space), nor energy (having no need to travel) but is all pervading, all encompassing, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. It is there irrespective of the material universe. It is there, before even the Big Bang was. Awareness or chit, the highest attribute of human mind, is a representative of this information or Brahman. Believe it or not, each man, cell, organism is Brahman. When the human mind realizes this truth, it declares: I am Brahman. The mind is man’s means to measurelessness, infinitude, eternity.

Such self-realization is the highway to a state of bliss,contentment, awareness, that passes all understanding. One’s cancer becomes, not a curse by a curious twist of fate, but a self- begotten programme, one’s own flesh and blood, a part of the Brahmanic blueprint, a story integral to the continuum that birth, life, disease and death must and do exhibit.

The supreme role that a sense of self-respect can play, for each one of us is at the time of death, and thereafter. The Tibetan Book of the Dead and Indian thought which is in agreement with it, have it that each human being, around the time of death, is bathed in a light - ‘brighter than a thousand suns’ as the Gita puts it - which gives a glimpse of one’s true universal, eternal nature. Having been thus taken to the edge of the infinite, the human being is now given a choice: ‘Ask and it shall be given.’ Most human beings, because of the state of bondage, end up wishing this and that, and the cosmos obliges; the cycle of birth and death continues. But, on the other hand, if the realization I am Brahman has truly penetrated one’s being, then one asks for nothing, for how can Brahman itself ask anything from Brahman? And that, the scriptures say, is the basis of nirvana, moksha, or eternal liberation.

If all this sounds too esoteric, there are also simpler consolations. While in the carnal frame, the realization or a glimpse of one’s innate Brahmanic nature, allows one to brave the disease and welcome death, for death is but a carnal way to become Brahman disincarnate. Let friendly disease and death be. Man innately has no quarrel with either.

Om, Tat Twam Asi: That art thou

A logical corollary of I am Brahman is he, she or it is Brahman and therefore I am he, she , it or everything. In the kingdom of the Lord, everything, everybody is of equal importance, an integral part and reflection of the greater whole.

Chandogya Upanishad relates a dialogue between Svetaketu and his father. Svetaketu asks of the father: ‘What is that tree?’ And the father declares affirmatively: ‘That art thou. Thou art that.’ Then, in a series of questions, Svetaketu inquires about the nature of a thought, a metal pot, a bird, a goat, a clod of earth, a pool of water, a waft of breeze, and the father himself. And to every question from the son, the father returns with only one refrain: ‘Tat twam asi: That art thou.’ Advaitism (monism) means that all is one, one is all, one and all are but just the same manifest Brahman.

With the dawning of the truth that whatever and whatsoever there is, is me, any feeling of envy, jealousy, estrangement, superiority or inferiority is replaced by a sense of oneness, a joy of participation, a celebration of an awareness. Such a person, in the words of Plotinus, is one of those who ‘see all things, not in process of becoming, but in Being, and see themselves in the other. Each being contains in itself the whole intelligible world. Therefore All is everywhere. Each is there All, and All is each. Man as he now is has ceased to be the All. But when he ceases to be an Individual, he raises himself again and penetrates the whole world.’

In an age dominated by the media, where celebrities are oversung, money-spinners turned into heroes, the seemingly lucky ones portrayed as the examples to be followed ; discontent, selfishness, the pursuit of gain, become the guiding forces of day- to-day existence. The result is stress, ulcers, alcoholism, drug addiction, homicides and suicides - a satanic gallery of ‘achievements’ plaguing the affluent countries and threatening to overtake the others. The fundamental change that must come - as the leading philosophers have been wishing - is an unsaying sense of self-respect and contentment, extended with equal felicity to all fellow beings, thereby achieving the double distinction of loving oneself and one’s neighbour as well. This done, a fellow being’s achievement does not seem as one more stressful incentive towards keeping up with the Joneses, but seeing in a Mozart, a Maugham or a Carl Lewis an extension of one’s own self, not to be envied, but a delight to be shared.

The Seven Deadly Sins are psychodynamically rooted in the wilful denial of Tat twam asi: pride, covetousness, anger and envy are a mere corollary of asserting or chasing one’s imagined superiority in a human fraternity where, in fact,all are inherently equal. Lust, for power or pleasure, springs from an infringement of the reverence for life. Gluttony reflects the denial of a self- evident truth: food is life that has the humility and altruism to sustain another life; it is mankind’s saviour and should be revered as such - not an object of exploitation but Brahman incarnate, to be deified, and for which thanks should always be given. The shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe had bags of gold coins and no food, till the discarded corn conversed with the soil of the island to fill it up with life giving, lush green food. The Indian scriptures have ordained that grace be said prior to eating for at that time Brahman is merging with Brahman.

The sin of sloth may be appreciated with some difficulty. Modern man, in order to support his life style, needs to remove every year, twenty tons of raw material per capital from the bowels of Mother Earth. This rapaciousness is rooted in our slothful tendency to take from Mother Earth without bothering to return at least equally if not more. The slothful Homo sapiens (!) in reality is overdemanding, a sin that seems the most deadly of all. The generosity with which Earth treats man has been poignantly expressed in the idea that the Earth tickled with a hoe, laughs with a harvest.

Man is a child of the Earth; in Sanskrit, he is called Partha, the son of Prithvi that is The Good Earth. The endowment of the mind also means however that he can attain the enlightenment of SAt-Chit-Ananda.

Sat-Chit-Ananda: Existence-awareness-bliss

The Katha Upanishad meditates on the problems of daily living, and comes to an exacting pronouncements: much as the sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over, the path to salvation from the ennui and degradation of human existence is hard. But, it adds, the price is, at all times, worth its while. Mind your mind, and your sapientia will ensure your Existence with a constant Awareness of Bliss, for that is the essence of the formless Brahman, as well as the formed human being. Know thyself: You are Sat-Chit-Anand, absolutely, meaningfully; in birth, life, disease, death, herebefore, hereafter, in the eternal here and now.

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