(The following are personal case histories of patients of the author)
Death has many faces. It sometimes comes as a reliever of human miseries, as if to give rest to someone who has walked hard and long on the rugged roads of life. To the adventurer, it comes as a sudden surprise, cutting the thread of life to break the monotony of experience and allow a variation of theme. To others it appears as a destroyer who smashes things that were beautiful and grand even as it brings down things that are mean and ugly. It can act as a great leveller who balances everything — the wicked and the saintly, the good and the vile. Its most terrible mask is when it takes away the children.
Case One – Death of a child
Arun was an 11½ years old child, asthmatic since the age of 1½. He required nebulisers and steroids off and on. The onslaught of asthma had however not daunted his spirits. He came from an extremely modest background but dreamed of big and grand things. Born in an Indian village, he was fascinated by the car used by the American President and even wanted to be in that seat. He also dreamt of flying aircrafts one day and visiting many foreign lands. These dreams were not compatible with his upbringing and his parents tried to stifle them. The family shifted from Jaipur (native place) to Bangalore (on transfer) in May 2000. The child made a strange remark that he would never go back to Jaipur again. This was surprising since the climate suited him well and his asthma had nearly disappeared. On 2 July 2000, the boy’s mother had a dream where she saw a broken toy. This disturbed her very much. A few days later while offering incense to their deity she noticed the smoke rising towards a photograph of the child placed nearby. This disturbed her again and she felt a deep unease. On 8 July, the boy complained of a mild irritation in the throat which was relieved with hot drinks. The irritation returned on the morning of 9 July. There was no fever or breathlessness but the father thought it prudent to give him a check-up in a nearby hospital. The boy was admitted. Oxygen, nebuliser, asthalin and steroids were given. The child became breathless suddenly at 7.30 a.m. and he died at 8.30 a.m. despite all efforts.
The day prior to his death the boy had remarked, “My mother is an American.” His puzzled mother told him that she was not an American. The boy insisted, “You will be.” Was it a serious statement or a child’s babble? Was it his past peeping through some window of his inner being left ajar, or was it a voice from his future calling him from unknown lands and distant climes? Was it a secret inner choice to shift scenes? We may never know. But looking back, one wonders. Questions like, do we choose to die, come up and demand an answer. Here was a child endowed with an expansive vital who thought and dreamt big, yet was born with a weak body. His father often remarked, “You can’t become a pilot with this problem of asthma!” His background and environment wherein he would have to struggle to realise his dreams too was not compatible. Was death an easy way out? Or was it simply that the body broke down under the pressure of a sudden surge of vital force (as happens on entry into adolescence)? In any case there was a disequilibrium. There were only two choices before the soul. One, to struggle and arrive at a higher equilibrium. The other, to succumb and change form to one more suited to the kind of experience it needed. He chose the latter.
This naturally does not console grieving parents and others who are left behind. One is deeply attached to the form. The soul seems far from us and its intimations too rare for our surface being to hear and understand. What helps those left behind is to get in touch with the soul. And then to invoke peace. Such a peace, if properly invoked, has the power to dissolve suffering. Parents caught up in the web of pain cannot do it themselves. The physician or someone else has to do it for them. A touch with the soul shows clearly that death is simply a passage the being chooses for its evolutionary journey. One realises that the one we loved is not lost but has only changed appearances. The final liberation from the pain of death is possible only for those who can enter into the sense of oneness that exists behind all separate forms. One sees then that what one loves in different forms and names is the ‘One’ who is never lost but ever exists under different guises and smiles at us unvaryingly through different eyes.
Case Two – Death, an Evolutionary Necessity
To wait for a near certain and slow death is a predicament worse than death itself. This too falls to the lot of some. Rajeev, a fourteen-year-old boy was brought for counselling by his parents since he felt depressed and contemplated suicide. The reason was a diagnosis of progressive muscular dystrophy, a disease with no known treatment and an invariable slow helpless death. The diagnosis had been made a few years before as he stood on the threshold of adolescence. Normally adolescence means more power, more capacity and a greater joy and thrill of life. But here was a paradox that stared at him. He had started losing his ability to run and walk and then even to stand. He could not stand even with support. Next to go was the power of his hands leading to a near inability to write or feed himself. His speech was also affected and though clear in his mind he could not express himself fully. Bound to his wheelchair, he gazed at other boys with envy, and then with a growing sense of helplessness against his fate. When he came for treatment the thought uppermost in his mind was, “I can’t do what others can do, so what is the point in living?” A sketchy dialogue followed in this way:
Counselor (C): I understand your state, but is it really true that you can’t do what others can do?
Rajeev (R): Yes.
C: For instance?
R: Run or walk or play or eat or anything for that matter.
C: What about reading?
R: Yes (a glimmer in his eyes as he was indeed reading a lot).
C: And listening, to music for instance?
R: Yes, I like it.
C: And thinking?
R: I do a lot of that.
C: And praying?
R: Yes, I do pray.
C: You pray for what?
R: To be cured; (after a pause) to be completely cured, soon, from my disease.
I do not know what his outer nature meant but the impact of these words (vis-à-vis his outer destiny) opened a door of understanding within me. I felt there was a longing for a new body, a covert sanction to death. It seemed as if this life of his was a brief interlude where something was to be learnt from this state of abject outer powerlessness. What was it?
C: Supposing I tell you that there is something you can do which most others of your age do not do and perhaps cannot do.
R: What is it? (He looked up changing his stooped posture).
C: Now see, you can pray and think and read. You can combine these three and make it very powerful.
(The very mention of power, even a faint possibility of it made him see hope).
C: You see, it is called meditation.
He nodded yes.
(To my surprise he knew about it and had read something on it. Indeed of late he was reading a lot of religious books).
C: Now, can you imagine beautiful things?
C: Even things that do not exist but you would like them to exist. Can you imagine them?
R: Yes, I can.
C: Okay, if someone told you that you had just one more moment to live and you can ask one boon, what would you ask?
R: To be cured.
C: Yes, but there is only one more moment to live.
(He contemplated this till he got the full import of the question, then spontaneously answered).
C: Why don’t you do it then? Try finding God. See your helplessness becomes a strength now. You are not distracted like other boys of your age. Your body is weak but your mind very powerful and concentrated. If there is a choice between body and mind then which is higher?
C: And that you have in abundance. So don’t waste it in negative thoughts. You can use your mind in pursuits that others can’t follow.
He was visibly happy and cheerful. His parents were relieved. They had never thought of it in this way. I told them that death will come when it has to come. Why die before that by constantly thinking and fearing it? The session ended by giving a list of books for him to read and a set of mental exercises of imagination, will and thought. And of course the need of never giving up.
In this case too, there seemed to be an imbalance, a disequilibrium between mind and body where the life-force seemed to be turned towards feeding the mind. Whether this was the primary cause or secondary to his genetic defect, I cannot say. But in either case, death was clearly a mechanism used by Nature for renewing the experience of life with a new and perhaps better form more suited to the evolutionary needs of the soul. The ‘cure’ he looked for was perhaps too radical. Today scientists can change a few organs or a few genes. But Nature, the great artificer, has been changing the entire body so that the soul can have totally new possibilities of progress. Death opens a new door to life even though it closes the door on the present one.
Case Three – Facing death with a smile
Can we transcend the horror created by the thought of death? The answer to this came to me from an eight-year-old while undergoing medical training as an undergraduate. I was attracted by this charming girl. In fact this eight year old fascinated all of us by her enthusiasm. She was bubbling with joy. To meet her was to feel refreshed and rejuvenated. Somehow we never tried to probe into her illness. She never looked sick. So we were startled one day when she asked us, “Do you know my disease?” We shook our heads in the negative. She said, “I have blood cancer.” And then a big grin as if it was all a joke. We felt a stab of misery, of the utter helplessness of life, of the unpredictability of bodily existence. But the child’s face reflected only joy. This very unpredictability made the game of life even more thrilling to her; the helplessness of the body awakened an inner strength; the misery of outer existence led as if to a greater happiness and joy!
As physicians, we are conditioned and trained to see and record gross physical facts and so the subtle escapes our notice. For instance, if we are perceptive enough, we notice that following physical death, there is the withdrawal of a glow that gives life to the form. We are so accustomed to this light that we fail to notice it unless it withdraws after death or is exceptionally brilliant in some rare human beings. At a psychological level, one may observe the ‘given-up syndrome’, or more rightly the absence of ‘a will to live’ some time before the downslide begins. As if something in the being chooses to quit and it is this that translates itself physically as a terminal illness. We are so preoccupied with the process that we do not see the cause. But this leaves many questions unanswered. The simplest is — why do some people succumb while others fight it out? Fred Hoyle rightly observed that there is something more than mere germs and immunity, for people still live despite poor hygiene and malnutrition when they should have been dead. There are perhaps many curtains behind the outer ‘mechanism’ of death and the ‘inner will’ that determines it.
As seen in these cases, one of the reasons is a disparity between the life-force and the body’s capacity to sustain it. In the first case there was also a gross inner disequilibrium both within the body and with the environment. That could have impelled the ‘choice’ of taking up a new body. I have seen in at least two other cases of young deaths (both in their early forties, dying of malignancy) where the disequilibrium between the inner aspiration and the outer milieu was quite marked. It was evident to an inner sense that their birth had been mainly to gather a particular form of experience, or more rightly to exhaust certain intrinsic tendencies so that they could start the evolutionary curve on a better and higher note.
The need for a particular intense experience appears to be the case with Rajeev, as the intensity of outer powerlessness indicates. Of course these things cannot be known unless one is acquainted with the person closely. And even then they may escape one’s attention if one does not probe deep enough. Above all, there may still be many other inner causes. It is even doubtful if the conventional methods of science, limited as they are to the physical field of observation, can really throw light beyond the dark door.
The Fear of Death and the Four Methods of Conquering It
“Of all fears the most subtle and the most tenacious is the fear of death. It is deeply rooted in the subconscient and it is not easy to dislodge. It is obviously made up of several interwoven elements: the spirit of conservatism and the concern for self-preservation so as to ensure the continuity of consciousness, the recoil before the unknown, the uneasiness caused by the unexpected and the unforeseeable, and perhaps, behind all that, hidden in the depths of the cells, the instinct that death is not inevitable and that, if certain conditions are fulfilled, it can be conquered; although, as a matter of fact, fear in itself is one of the greatest obstacles to that conquest. For one cannot conquer what one fears, and one who fears death has already been conquered by it.
“How can one overcome this fear? Several methods can be used for this purpose. But first of all, a few fundamental notions are needed to help us in our endeavour. The first and most important point is to know that life is one and immortal. Only the forms are countless, fleeting and brittle. This knowledge must be securely and permanently established in the mind and one must identify one’s consciousness as far as possible with the eternal life that is independent of every form, but which manifests in all forms. This gives the indispensable psychological basis with which to confront the problem, for the problem remains. Even if the inner being is enlightened enough to be above all fear, the fear still remains hidden in the cells of the body, obscure, spontaneous, beyond the reach of reason, usually almost unconscious. It is in these obscure depths that one must find it out, seize hold of it and cast upon it the light of knowledge and certitude…
“The first method appeals to the reason. One can say that in the present state of the world, death is inevitable; a body that has taken birth will necessarily die one day or another, and in almost every case death comes when it must: one can neither hasten nor delay its hour… Reason teaches us that it is absurd to fear something that one cannot avoid. The only thing to do is to accept the idea of death and quietly do the best one can from day-to-day, from hour to hour, without worrying about what is going to happen. This process is very effective when it is used by intellectuals who are accustomed to act according to the laws of reason; but it would be less successful for emotional people who live in their feelings and let themselves be ruled by them. No doubt, these people should have recourse to the second method, the method of inner seeking. Beyond all the emotions, in the silent and tranquil depths of our being, there is a light shining constantly, the light of the psychic consciousness. Go in search of this light, concentrate on it; it is within you. With a persevering will you are sure to find it and as soon as you enter into it, you awake to the sense of immortality. You have always lived, you will always live; you become wholly independent of your body; your conscious existence does not depend on it; and this body is only one of the transient forms through which you have manifested. Death is no longer an extinction, it is only a transition. All fear instantly vanishes and you walk through life with the calm certitude of a free man.
“The third method is for those who have faith in a God, their God, and who have given themselves to him. They belong to him integrally; all the events of their lives are an expression of the divine will and they accept them not merely with calm submission but with gratitude, for they are convinced that whatever happens to them is always for their own good. They have a mystic trust in their God and in their personal relationship with him. They have made an absolute surrender of their will to his and feel his unvarying love and protection, wholly independent of the accidents of life and death. They have the constant experience of lying at the feet of their Beloved in an absolute self-surrender or of being cradled in his arms and enjoying a perfect security. There is no longer any room in their consciousness for fear, anxiety or torment; all that has been replaced by a calm and delightful bliss.
“But not everyone has the good fortune of being a mystic. Finally, there are those who are born warriors. They cannot accept life as it is and they feel pulsating within them their right to immortality, an integral and earthly immortality. They possess a kind of intuitive knowledge that death is nothing but a bad habit; they seem to be born with the resolution to conquer it. But this conquest entails a desperate combat against an army of fierce and subtle assailants, a combat that has to be fought constantly, almost at every minute. Only one who has an indomitable spirit should attempt it. The battle has many fronts; it is waged on several planes that intermingle and complement each other… There is yet another way to conquer the fear of death, but it is within the reach of so few that it is mentioned here only as a matter of information. It is to enter into the domain of death deliberately and consciously while one is still alive, and then to return from this region and re-enter the physical body, resuming the course of material existence with full knowledge. But for that one must be an initiate.”
 The Mother: On Education. CWM, Vol.12, pp.82-87