When I was a young kid, I sometimes used to ask philosophical questions. I could ask this to the only person whom I had access to : my father, my first teacher. One day, when I was perhaps five years old, I asked him, “What is truth of life?” And I remember his answer as vividly as my question. He answered, “Death”. Since he was a rationalist, he did not consider keeping a child away from facts, no matter how unpleasant they are. I forgot that answer through my years of schooling. All modern schooling is very efficient in making us engines of an industrial society. In these education factories, you never learn life, you only learn technology. However, I psychologically escaped the brutal regime of schooling and in college, from the depths of my consciousness, recovered the question that had occupied my child mind: the question of death.
There is a very interesting story in one of the Hindu religious scriptures called Kathopanishad: the story concerns a teenage boy who went to Yama, lord of death, to ask the answer for a question he did not have an answer to. Anyone interested in this story, written in a concise and well worded way, can access this link – https://www.speakingtree.in/blog/nachiketas-dialogue-with-lord-of-death
The gist of the story is that Nachiketa’s father, a Brahmin in ancient India was performing a sacrifice in which he was giving away all his wealth. Nachiketa was watching this ritual with the unblemished, innocent eyes, of a teenager of old days. He observed that his father was only giving away all his old, disabled cows, as wealth. Seeing the hypocrisy, and wanting to prevent his father from acting this way, he asks him a trick question, “Father whom have you decided to give me away to.” He was actually trying to point to his father that just like he is his real possession, he should give away real wealth, as an act of sacrifice, rather than indulging in his subterfuge of giving disabled cows.
Obviously, his father did not pay heed to him; like we all grown-ups do; considering such innocent questions asked by children, as an absence of worldly wisdom. And, as all children who are not brought up in an atmosphere of strict authority do, Nachiketa pestered his father by repeating the same question three times. Out of sheer irritation, his father, who was involved in the most serious sacrifice of giving away his wealth, scoffed at him, “Nachiketa, I give you to the God of Death.”
So Nachiketa, not the one to disobey his father, treks to the abode of God of Death, Yama. There he asks Yama about the question to which he had never got a straight answer from anyone, “What lies beyond death for man, some say that he exists and some say that he does not?” Yama, does not answer him straight. First he dissuades him, saying that the answer is so difficult that even the gods are confused about it; that he can ask for anything else, any boon from him. But Nachiketa remains firm, he says, “I understand that the question is so difficult that even gods are confused, thus I have come to thee. You are the only one who can give me this answer. I have searched elsewhere and I could find no one who could give me an answer that satisfies my curiosity.”
Yama, however, was not an easy teacher. He first tests Nachiketa’s resolve by successively offering him greater and greater worldly pleasures. Equally, Nachiketa keeps rejecting each of these offers by saying, “What shall I do with these worldly treasures, as each one of them, no matter how wide and how great, ultimately, are going to end in death. I want to find that, which is “undecaying” and immortal, so I have approached you, God of Death, who puts an end to every form.”
And the story proceeds. Yama, overcome by Nachiketa’s unflinching desire to find the answer to his question, instructs him on the nature of Self – Atman-Brahman, the immortal essence of man: which is never born and never dies. Nachiketa, having received the answer, meditates on Brahman and reaches liberation – immortality, freedom from the cycle of life and death. All existentialist philosophers of west probably kept themselves ignorant of this philosophy, otherwise they would not have gone through the existential pangs of emptiness and meaningless of life posed by the question of death.
I loved this story, the first time I came across it. I had not read it in the Kathopanishad when I first heard it. I did not even know what Upanishads were, by that time. I heard the story orally, some time around my early 20’s, narrated by some person in a group discussion. I don’t know whether the person did not narrate the whole story or whether I missed the end, but for many years, till I actually came to reading the Upanishads, I knew the story only, except the last part where Yama gives Nachiketa the knowledge of immortal Self and Nachiketa realizes it. So what remained with me was the part till where he refuses to be budged by all of Yama’s tantalization of every form of material wealth and persists with his question.
By that time I had already been about five years into my own journey of self inquiry, sufficient for me to get attracted by its perfume. The story resonated deeply with me: it had so many parallels. While in my second year in college, I was struck by a question, “What is the purpose of life, because everything we achieve is annihilated by death?” This question was almost a paraphrase of Nachiketa’s question, “What lies for man after death?” In college, I had determined that finding out the answer to this question would be my life. Like Nachiketa, I resolved that nothing, whatsoever, would come in the way of my quest to get an answer to this question. And, thankfully, since I had not heard of Yama’s answer as part of the story, I was insulated from the answer. I say, insulated, because getting the answer would have killed my self-inquiry: And it did so, for some time.
For the next twenty five years, every move of my life was just about seeking an answer to this question. The question itself kept changing form, breaking down into simpler, though wider forms of inquiry. I was no ascetic, having retreated from the world to contemplate on that question. How could I? Let alone contemplate, I did not even know how to approach the question. There was just this question raging and burning in my mind. Like a fire it seemed to do nothing but paralyse me, take away meaning from every single thing form of activity I had done, and wanted to do in the future. At that time, I had just come in relationship with my would be wife, Shikha. Even that relationship was something that I stopped feeling for. I would sit beside her for hours with this hopeless fire burning. Sometimes I would fear that I would become insane. I longed to get back to my normal life with its simple, warm, fuzzy pleasures. But the question refused to go. One could deny a falsity, a fiction, a sentiment or an imagination. But this was none of these. It was an absolute undeniable fact.
Co-incidentally, since we are on the subject of stories. There is another story of Buddha – the enlightened one, which recounts how he got into self inquiry. At the time of his birth – you know the myths, such people cannot have a normal birth – sages prophesied that he would leave the palace, kingship, kingdom in his quest to find the end of suffering for man. On hearing this prophecy, Buddha’s father decided to kind of imprison Buddha in the palace, so that he never sees any human suffering. But suffering has its incalculable ways to find itself in the Garden of Eden. One day, Buddha sneaked out with his charioteer friend, Channa, in disguise, to see life outside the palace, from his own eyes. The story, as it goes, talks about Buddha seeing an old man, sick man, dead man and an ascetic in succession. Buddha was shocked, never having seen any such things in the charade created by his father in the palace. He queried Channa incredulously, whether he would meet the same fate as these people, to which Channa silently responded, “Yes!” Buddha asked Channa what the ascetic was up to. Channa answered that he was a person who had renounced the world in order to understand and end suffering. Well, that was it for our Buddha. The carefully constructed world of his palace broke. If life is going to end in death, he did not see any point to carry on with all that facade.
So, here again we have the same ingredients cooking in the pot. Suffering, death and a resolve to go beyond death. The word “Katho”, in the word Kathopanishad comes from sanskrit language, and it means distress. So Nachiketa too was asking Yama a question that was distressing him. I have sandwiched my own story between the stories of these two mythological stories, not to cement my place in the history of man but because I wanted to say that I am not writing this as a piece of history. In the history, Buddha and Nachiketa realized something beyond death; like Buddha, like Nachiketa I too decided that my life is to be spent finding an answer to death.
So, having heard the three stories, let’s look into all that is involved. The topic of my article is self inquiry: Questioning Death. In each of the three stories, the inquirers start with the same motivation, same question and with a similar devotion. Though, each goes about it in a different way.
Now how does all this relate to you as the reader. Why did I decide to write this?
Death is not only for Nachiketa, a Hindu or Buddha, a Buddhist. Death is for every human being. It is a fact, undeniably. And yet, somehow, strangely there seems to be a spell cast on all humans by some force, that they live in absolute ignorance of this finality. Like the Buddha or Nachiketa, we all see death all around us. But somehow there seems to be such immunity in our lives regarding this fact, that unlike Buddha and Nachiketa, we are never disturbed enough to question death. Are we all escaping this question? Is our whole life and living, the vast and complex society with all it’s organizations, systems, technologies and entertainment, just a toy to keep you engaged? Is it a toy to absorb you so that you do not ask the most fundamental question about your life: death? Does society help you escape asking the question of death?
A few weeks back, a sixteen year old girl – lovely, caring, silent, observant – in our neighborhood, committed suicide by hanging herself. She used to maintain a written diary. One of her last entries read, “If one has to die anyway, why should one live?” She did not find an answer like Nachiketa or Buddha. She may have used this question as a means to justify her escape from the suffering she was facing. But see the same pattern repeating – distress and death, or, suffering and death, or, disturbance and death.
So, if we are not disturbed, we have made ourselves immune to it. And when we make ourselves immune to a fact, our entire structure of life is based on a falsity. For what would happen if we allowed the fact of death in our lives. Would we not question every single act that we do in our lives today? Would not every action that we do to acquire beg the question, “What is the point of all this, all our striving and straining, our pride and hurt, all our attachments, if all is going to end in death?”
Yes, I know your answer! Why bother about it? You know Julius Caesar in William Shakespeare’s play gave the answer, “Cowards die many times before their death, the brave but die only once.” Okay, so we all are supposed to live bravely. Like Caesar, loot and conquer, make and break empires, make a place in history of man; a history of conquest, might, power and untold human suffering. And we praise these heroes, these brave heroes who spilled blood, made innumerable humans suffer for their acts of bravery.
Okay ! Was Ceaser brave? Or was he in fear? Who is brave, a man who faces the fact of death while living or the one who escapes it, pushing it as some event in future; turning a blind eye to it? Is it this fear which leads to the human behavior of conquest and brutality? And here I am not only talking of some dusty, ancient Roman times. Is our modern world any different? Has it faced and questioned death? Has loot, conquest, domination and spilling human blood stopped? Nowadays you don’t even see the face of your killer; it is some world bank, some economic sanction, grinding poverty, poisoned air and water, global warming………..
Is not bravery then, living with the fact of death? What would such a life mean? Are you interested in this question? Or are you interested in the escapes, the brave life of Caesar? For when you see the fact, face death while living, then your life would have a totally different significance. If every human being faced this fact rather than escaping it, we would have a different society; not the one built by the brave Caesar. Death comes to everyone, regardless of whatever nation, race, caste, class you belong to. It comes to the believer and the non-believer. It comes to the materialist and the spiritualist. It comes to the capitalist, socialist and the communist. The question of death is common to all forms, and this question is not a figment of thought, some theory which one can dispute. Oh yes re-incarnation! Yes sir, you may keep on re-incarnating and keep getting killed by the Caesars of the world or like the Caesars keep killing the rest of the people in the world. No matter how many times you re-incarnate, the question of death will stare at you, which you shall keep escaping; and we shall have the same hell on earth.
Yama, the God of Death instructs Nachiketa about his true Self which is immortal – unborn and undying. Buddha found Emptiness. Both found an answer to go beyond the puzzle of death. This is what self inquiry leads to ultimately – freedom from birth and death ! How I found it can be read in the article “Self inquiry and insight into one’s true nature/Self in Advaita”