Chapter 1: What is Death Pt 1

Death – The Annihilator of Time’s Works

For all our knowledge of life, death continues to remain a mystery. Just as we know something about the processes of life rather than about the life-principle itself, so also we know a little about the process of death rather than about the death-principle that exists as a universal force in Nature. We (the sense-mind at least) normally associate death with the visible dissolution of the physical form. But the principle of death is much more universal than that. There is first the process of decay and disintegration that is almost a part of all material forms that we know upon earth at least. Perhaps there could be or are forms of a subtler make, of a different substance-energy combination, if one may say so, that are more plastic and therefore less subject to the phenomenon of decay and death. The immortal gods existing on other planes of consciousness where matter is differently organised are supposed to have such a plasticity and a consequent immortality for practical purposes at least. Practical, because they too have their term of existence following which they dissolve back into their parent Source. Thus at a higher plane, death represents a beginning and end of things in Time, the great annihilator of its own works! For all events are worked out by the Time-Spirit and maintained and later even destroyed by it. That takes us immediately to the phenomenon of death beyond the mere visible dissolution of physical forms. We may thus say that there is death not only of physical forms but also of forms of thought, of ideas, of philosophies, sciences, arts, of great civilisations… death not only of mind-made structures but even of quasars and distant stars and galaxies. Whether they die or simply change their forms as both material and spiritual science confirm, is another matter but the existing form does perish, and that is the equivalent of death.

“The life of the society like the physical life of the individual human being passes through a cycle of birth, growth, youth, ripeness and decline, and if this last stage goes far enough without any arrest of its course towards decadence, it may perish, even so all the older peoples and nations except India and China perished, as a man dies of old age. But the collective being has too the capacity of renewing itself, of a recovery and a new cycle. For in each people there is a soul idea or life idea at work, less mortal than its body, and if this idea is itself sufficiently powerful, large and force-giving and the people sufficiently strong, vital and plastic in mind and temperament to combine stability with a constant enlargement or new application of the power of the soul idea or life idea in its being, it may pass through many such cycles before it comes to a final exhaustion.”[1]


Death – A Partner in the Game of Life

Another idea about death is that it is a device of nature used as a process of life, albeit complementary to life itself. In other words, individual forms seen in isolation perish but by their death they only go on to strengthen the survival for a larger collective truth. Individual life forms in this view are seen as part of a great unbroken chain of Life or All-life, if we may say so. While the individual suffers the shock and defeat by death, the larger unity grows by this individual sacrifice. Yet the totality of the physical body continues to not only exist but even grow through this process. Take for instance, the fact that within a single lifetime, individual cells and groups of cells die several times. The human red blood cells for example have a lifespan of about 90-120 days. That means they change themselves through a process of internal destruction combined with a commensurate process of internal manufacture every three-four months on an average. The balance is evidently a delicate one. If the cells were to survive abnormally longer, that would create danger for the organism. It would block the blood vessels due to the excess of cells in the system. It would also lead to excess of old and therefore relatively less capable cells leading to an overall inefficiency in their functioning. Nature seems to respect efficiency more than mere age. In fact excess of red cells or for that matter the white ones or any other cells in the system leads to a threat for the life of the whole organism. What else is cancer but the relative immortality of a group of cells due to excess production (beyond the norm necessary for a smooth balance) combined with a degree of freedom from the whole that signals danger for the rest of the body! Here too we find a lesson from nature. Freedom does not exist in isolation but in relation with the whole. And immortality too will be meaningful if it comes only by discovering that part in us which is conscious of its oneness with the whole. There is nothing like immortality for the separate ego-self of man. That would obviously be a dangerous thing to happen and therefore neither nature’s deep wisdom nor the boon of gods would allow it.

Death is a certainty, nay a necessity so long as we live in the separate ego-sense. As with the cells so also with more complex living systems. The individual organisms die and thereby make way for future growth which would become increasingly difficult if the past continued to linger ad-infinitum as fetters around the feet of time that flees faster than we know. The body we are born with is not the body that eventually dies — if we live the average lifespan. It has changed over several times or shall we say died and reborn many times over. So rapid is the transition, so imperceptible the process, and so well coordinated a mechanism that we do not even notice it. The sense of being the same self and person continues even though everything is changed, as if something central takes care of the rapidity of the complex changes occurring within. So then when do we actually die and do we die at all except to the limited and narrow view of our fragmented self? Is death the spur towards recovering the Wholeness that we secretly are? Is physical death just yet another great transition, maybe too sudden and a bit prolonged so as to make us take notice of it? Is it a temporary decentralisation and dispersal till out of the dust we gather ourselves and rise again like the mythical bird of immortality, the phoenix, and resume the great epic of life?


The Two Faces of Death

Not only philosophy and mystic lore but science also recognises two forms of death. One that is natural and normal as a process complimentary to life, called Apoptosis; the other as something unnatural and superimposed upon the organism, called Necrosis. Death, through apoptosis is woven into the very fabric of life. The fingers of a six-week-old embryo separate following the death of cells located in the web between the fingers. The death of these specific cells allows the appearance of the hand as it is. Even before the full organism begins to breathe and before the heart begins to beat with new life, the game of death and life has already begun. Sometimes they play as partners as in the phenomenon of apoptosis, at other times as opponents, as in necrosis. Apoptosis, meaning ‘falling leaves’ in Greek, refers to the continuous process of death within life, as natural and necessary for the body’s physiological balance just as leaves falling from trees in Autumn are necessary for the fresh blossoms of Spring.

In apoptosis or programmed cell death, the dying cell sends signals to the neighboring cells which then engage in swallowing all the important organelles which can be utilised. The process is fine-tuned and perfectly coordinated. In contrast, death through necrosis seems to be an external superimposition necessitated perhaps by the conditions of life itself. We may call it an accident, something that perhaps could be avoided by human intervention. This itself will make life (and death) so much easier to handle! Necrotic cell-death is an abrupt process liberating toxins in the environment. The result is proneness to damage in the surrounding cells. The disturbance in favour of death leads to aging and death. On the other hand, a disturbance in favor of life leads to malignancies and therefore an even more premature death.

Thus, biologically as well as psychologically, we can distinguish two types of dying. One, where death appears as a liberator from a burdened past. The other comes as a face of terror destroying ruthlessly a beautiful gift, making the very first moment of birth also into a moment of death.


The Scientific View of Death

The material scientist has studied the phenomenon of death purely at the physical level. Physically, the scientists distinguish at least two levels of death. Physiological or clinical death wherein one observes external signs of the absence of life. Prominent among these is the absence of any form of brain activity as recorded electro physiologically, next there comes the cessation of respiration and the heartbeat. Of course, we know today that the breathing may stop much earlier and the heart may still go on beating for some time. The shadow of death then descends lower down and affects the liver, kidneys and other organs. This is the temporal march of death, from above downwards. As a last step there intervenes cellular death which leads to the final dissolution and decomposition of the very cells that constitute the body.

In other words, there is a period of time when the fundamental functions and processes that sustain life in the organism — breathing and circulation have stopped but the cells continue to live sustained by a minimum of life-force or by a past momentum. Once the decomposition sets in it is a sure sign that life has withdrawn completely without any possibility of return. Of course from a clinical point of view, the person is considered dead when the brain-death has occurred irreversibly and the heart and respiration has ceased. At this point, the law permits cremation as well as organ transplant/ donation. It is believed that hereon it is only a matter of time for the degeneration to set in. This though true in most cases may not however be an absolute rule. For there are several instances on record of those declared clinically dead returning to life. To this we will turn later.

In fact there is a state of suspended animation where the respiration and heartbeat can stop for as long as 48 hours and yet life may resume thereafter. Some of those buried under debris for long and resuming their normal life afterwards may well be cases of suspended animation. It is a state where the energy transactions are withheld at a minimum much as an account may be suspended but not closed. This is well comprehensible from the yogic point of view.

Seen from a deeper perspective, the processes of life — respiration, circulation, etc., are simply some of the material means that nature uses to circulate the life-force within the body. The life-energy however also flows simultaneously through a subtler and supraphysical route. The yogis traditionally identify five such channels and movements of the life-energy within us. Under certain conditions as in trance or cataleptic states the life-energy may continue to flow and animate the body even though the physical means are no more at its disposal. This can provide enough energy for the minimum support of the physical body, much as a blind man under the stress of his disability may develop his other senses to compensate for his seeing. These things are obviously not so well recognised by a purely material science and therefore it erroneously regards the cessation of life processes and its material means as the cessation of life itself. Life ceases when the force of life withdraws from the form that it animates and not when the material processes have stopped functioning. Though in most cases the two occur hand in hand, yet, this subtle distinction is necessary and can have a practical bearing upon issues like organ transplant and burial.

There have been cases of premature burial necessitating sometimes laws to prevent cremation until decomposition sets in. According to Swami Abhedananda of the Sri Ramakrishna Order, “There have been cases of many prematurely killed by putting them into the coffin and burying them under the ground. As the premature burial is objectionable, so the premature embalming is objectionable. The embalmers have killed (unknowingly) many before they really died. They might have been revived and might have lived for a long time. Trance, catalepsy and ecstasy are the conditions which resemble death. The outward signs are similar. But what happens to the soul after trance or ecstasy? Science does not know, because it denies the existence of a soul other than the mind. A person might go into a trance and remain in that state for hours. There are persons who can stop the heartbeat by their will. I know a Hindu Yogi who came to America a few years ago and who, in New York, went through all the medical tests to prove that he could stop his heartbeat at his will. The medical practitioners were all dumbfounded, and questioned how he could do it. It is possible, because it obeys the will of the individual, and the individual will commands and directs the organic functions.”

This is not the only incidence of such a feat. There have been others even more rigorously authenticated, the case of Pilot Baba[2] for example who remained buried inside an underground air-proof chamber for twenty-one days and came out alive to the amazement of the scientists and the sceptics. The rarity of such events is only because it is still a possibility for most, a possibility not yet realised or even attempted. But the yogis in India have always known and frequently experienced a cessation of outer breathing and an activation of subtle breathing during deep meditations.[3]

In fact there are parallels in the animal world as well wherein certain animals mimic death including stiffness (rigor mortis) as a defensive strategy. These may be called for want of a better term, ‘counterfeits of death’. The black bear for example can stay without food for around three – six months. During this period its heartbeat and respiration drops progressively to much below its normal. Certain species of foxes and other animals can lie stiff and motionless, practically without breathing to deceive the predators. Snakes resemble the dead when they go into collective hibernation. This is just a pointer that the traditional signs of death such as the stopping of heartbeats and respiration can be deceptive. Even modern science has recognised this and therefore the strict criteria are no more clinical (though still followed in practice) but electrophysiological (the electrical records of the heart and brain taken through the ECG and EEG must show a complete and sustained absence of activity). Naturally, if the animal mind can do things of this order then how much more can the human mind and still more the mind of the yogi striving for conscious mastery achieve is left to anybody’s guess. As we have already seen even scientifically it is not so incomprehensible today. It is just that the heartbeat and the respiration have so far been regarded as autonomic and therefore beyond the person’s voluntary control. But so was gastric secretion and many other human activities regarded as autonomic and beyond the control of the human will. Today we know that human will can indeed master these. Extensive scientific research of yogic practices have revealed the latent possibilities of human will in controlling the brain waves and many other things, for example, the heart rate, gastric juice secretion, blood pressure, etc. Sri Aurobindo reveals in the essays on physical education that it is necessary to bring under voluntary control those activities of the body that are driven largely by a mechanical and subconscious will. It is this mechanical and subconscious will that assumes the autonomic pathways. With education, however, the body can override these pathways and link them to a higher and more conscious voluntary control. In fact we are on the threshold of learning that there are no ineluctable laws as far as the human body is concerned but only fixed habits that mimic law. And who knows we may well discover someday that death and aging themselves are nothing more than habits, bad ones at that!

Of course, both the material scientist probing the physical body and the spiritual scientist probing the soul and other subtle bodies, as well as their mutual relation agree on one point. It is this that cellular death and the consequent signs of decomposition are sure indications of death. The only exception to this would be mummification or desiccation. The commonest explanation of this phenomenon is attributed to dehydration and certain other chemical changes. But there are inner reasons as well of which we are presently ignorant. Nevertheless, we may become aware of these as we grow in inner sight and vision. The inner reason is that in such instances the ‘spirit of the form’ (that part of our material vitality that is in close link with the body) remains around the body. This supplies just enough vital forces to create an interchange with the environment and thereby prevents decay. But it also provides a certain degree of life to the dead. Perhaps this could have been one of the reasons for the tragic and mysterious deaths of those who were exploring the pyramids and mummies. We do not know but the immediate practical implication of all this is, that it is wise to wait for the process of withdrawal to complete itself before one undertakes any step towards the post-death rituals for the body of the deceased. To hurry through the process may mean that the consciousness of the person inhabiting the body may lose some of the experiences embedded in the material cells. While this may be of little consequence to the mass of humanity, it would make a difference to one who is spiritually uplifted and whose body has gathered a wealth of inner experiences through the consciousness of its noble and worthy inhabitant.

There is nothing unscientific about this. Normally the traditional signs of death like the cessation of breathing and heartbeat and the stilling of brain waves is based on the assumption that these are vital functions under the control of an autonomic nervous system. The word autonomic (as opposed to voluntary) is itself an assumptive word indicating that this part of the nervous system works automatically without the control or intervention of our voluntary will. But this, after all, may be an assumption based on our present experience of the body and its functioning. It has now long been known that athletics (a voluntary activity) does tend to alter the way our autonomic nervous system functions. In other words, a voluntary activity can affect and alter the balance of functioning of even our most ‘autonomous parts’. If so then where do we set the limits? Why can’t one train the body to continue living for a longer time than feasible now, even after cessation of the heartbeats and respiration through methodical training? Why limit the scope of the human will when we have not discovered any such limiting pathways for it? In fact if anatomy is any indicator then the parts representing the conscious human will are the highest placed with possible linkages to all other pathways, one way or the other. The central seat of the body’s will is in the brain, the most developed and, ontogenetically, the most recent in evolution, the prefrontal cortex. The parts controlling respiration and heartbeats are placed down below in the third layer of the brain. Keeping in view nature’s logic of telencephalisation or to put it philosophically, ascent and integration, these lower parts have to be under the control of the higher. Recent evidence suggests it as well. It is just that we have not been trained to look at it from that angle but it can be developed methodically in such a way that our conscious mental will controls even the ‘autonomous parts’. From our point of view that is indeed one of the things Sri Aurobindo has suggested for the body — to bring the now subconscious parts under a conscious control. It is perhaps just a question of reactivating these sleeping paths. The only problem remaining then would be of working out alternate means for the flow of the life-current. The yogi is precisely such an explorer discovering hidden possibilities of the body, mind and the soul, other than those normally known to man. Let us not brush away their heroically scientific and even path breaking efforts as mere dreams of some madmen. Dreams perhaps for the common lot who strive not for something higher than what nature has provided but it is thanks to these dreams that we can still dare to hope and strive to conquer life and Nature. Thanks again to this madness that we can try to exceed ourselves and dare the impossible and reach out to the unreachable summits beyond our little humanity!

[1] Sri Aurobindo: The Renaissance in India, p.334

[2] Pilot baba was an air force pilot whose plane crashed over the hills but he was miraculously saved. Since then his life took an inward turn. The feat described above was undertaken by him to demonstrate before the medical fraternity about the hidden possibilities of man that can be explored and developed through yoga.

[3] Refer to Appendix I: What is Death? for the Paul Brunton episode.

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