The presence of death has strongly influenced life upon earth. Much of the struggle for survival that we observe at the animal level has been the direct result of death upon our planet. This struggle for survival far from being a disaster has so far only helped in the enrichment of life. The force of evolution has utilized this struggle for developing greater capacities and powers in nature. It has created a kind of race for the development of more and more perfect forms, forms more plastic and adaptable, forms more harmonious and beautiful and, who knows, one day it will go on to create forms that are perfect and divine. Strength, endurance, plasticity are all a direct result of the dance of death whose ruthless steps break the barriers of weakness and fragility and excite and induce the emergence of all that can hold a stronger life. Not only strength, but beauty and harmony as well have been indirectly the result of death. There is a saying pregnant with this truth that the most beautiful stones have been tossed by the winds, washed by the waves, and shaped to perfection by the strongest storms.
At the human level we know how the presence of death has strongly influenced our thoughts, feelings, impulses, motives and behaviour. Its stamp is cast upon our science, arts, law, polity, philosophy and practically everything else. So powerful has been its influence that even spiritual philosophies have not been able to escape acknowledging its presence in life. Much of our human thought and action is driven by this awareness of death — the believer and the non-believer, the moralist and the hedonist, the Dionysian no less than the Apollonians — all seem to be justifying their diverse stands based on this one point of agreement about the certainty of death. Since death seems to be the one certain thing amidst an otherwise uncertain and precarious life upon earth, one justifies oneself based on one’s outlook of death. The man of goodness says, “Since life is short, let me be remembered tomorrow through my deeds.” The evil doer through an equally powerful logic says, “But why, but why must I strive for good since death brings an end to all things? Let me rather enjoy and profit and sleep as much as I can and in whatever way, till in the final sleep of death I lie.” The happy-go-lucky or the go-getter says, “Ah! Let me make the best of each moment since life is brief.” And the man of sorrows says just the opposite, “Ah! What is the use of my striving since in any case life is brief.” The religious man driven by the haunting spectre of death goes on to seek solace in a life beyond. But the physical scientist acknowledges death in the life of this planet and then goes on to find ways and means to push it a little further.
Things as diverse as the science of life and the science of doom have both been born from the womb of death. In short death has coloured every sphere of life, nay it is woven into each and every fabric of life.
So much for our everyday familiarity with this one certainty, and yet we may ask — do we really know death? The answer is obvious. And though we know next to nothing about it we do take certain positions, albeit unconsciously, about death in our life. These are the various attitudes that man has adopted towards death. Or the different psychological and philosophical positions that death has instilled in our life. Let us see these different positions one by one so that we may know all the masks that this great shadow wears to hide itself.
The Tragedy in the Heart of Time
Most of us associate death with the great uncertain end of things. This uncertainty about life, the suddenness of death, the inevitability of an end to all our dreams, is interpreted by the human mind as a tragic fate. But is it really so? A calm and steady look will reveal to us that death has assumed this form not so much to terrify us as to fortify. It is this suddenness and unexpectedness that makes us vigilant. It is the inevitability of loss at the physical level that turns our hearts attached to appearances towards a deeper love, a love which is independent of the physical frame, independent of the circumstances of our body, independent even of life and death. There is such a possibility of deep love in human nature; to love despite the separation of bodies and it is the presence of death that awakens this possibility in man. Seen thus we discover that our sense of tragedy too serves a great purpose. The pain of separation when physical bodies part, the agonizing wrench that the heart feels when it has to perforce drift away from the object of one’s love, the suffering that hangs as a cloud upon our souls by the loss of our loved one are nothing else but an imperfect hint and an ignorant attempt to discover the oneness that is our secret truth. We should neither seek this tragedy nor try to escape it when it befalls us. Rather we should use it as a lever to go deep down within ourselves and discover the oneness that exceeds all change and which time cannot pursue and snatch.
A love beleaguered with the stress of sorrow and separation is the present reality in our imperfect state, yet an immortal, unfading love mightier than death and stronger than time is our future possibility and secret destiny.
The Dance of Destruction
Death is seen as the great destroyer of all things. Men, countries, empires, civilisations, all become a heap of ashes and dust one day. The creative work of centuries, the mighty invincible races, the great and swift moments of life, all slain by death turn into the pages of an uncertain history. Death seems to cast a spell of doom upon all our efforts. But let us ask ourselves if really it is so? Or is it only the forms of men and races and civilisations that perish and from its ashes newer and stronger forms arise, forms more robust, more durable, more plastic in wideness, more adaptable in their circumstances? Thus goes on the march of civilisations through and in spite of death from a lesser to a greater perfection. And so will it go on defying death till the last line of imperfection is crossed. The ancient Indian thought saw it well that behind the dance of death, there is the loving rhythm of Shiva, destroying our imperfections but also simultaneously shaping them anew towards a greater perfection. Death is a mask of Shiva, one of his great moods seen in isolation and divorced from the creative beats of his steps, whose rhythm the world is compelled to follow.
The Great Leveller
This is another image of death that we secretly admire, perhaps even cherish. Is it not justice itself that death sees the great and the mighty and prosperous fall even as the lowly and weak and poor have fallen? Maybe. But the falling of the strong and prosperous does not spare the agonies of the weak and the maimed even though it may provide some solace of retribution to the rebellious heart. Equally, all that is rich and strong is not necessarily bad. Both prosperity (even outer prosperity) and strength (even physical prowess) are also divine. The divine is not only the bare ascetic sitting ash-smeared on the snow peaks, clad with nothing but the sky, but is also the arm of God battling in the world and governing empires through the ages. It is not only the wounded heart writhing in pain over its hurt and fallen pride but also the proud and the fortunate.
Yet the question is left unanswered, what is this great leveller doing upon earth? Well, to each his own, even though there seems to be an outer similarity of fate. To the weak and the poor, death comes to give a release and fresh chance to strive for a better fate. To the strong and the fortunate, it is a reminder that we own nothing and all our riches and possessions will be taken away one day. Thereby it exhorts each of us to do our best, to regard ourselves as trustees and put all we have for a lasting use, so that when we pass away under the shadows, and our strength and joys of life fail, yet do we leave behind the works of our creative might and energy, which is but God’s.
The Grim Accountant
One of the roles ascribed to death and his dark angels is to keep an unfailing account of our deeds and misdeeds. Precise and unswerving, meticulous to the penny are the grim accountants who refuse all barter and bribe. There are neither temples dedicated to the god of death, nor offerings made by devotees (if indeed there are any) since all these are of no avail. Yet are there legendary instances like that of Nachiketas and Savitri, who have shaken off the noose and the snare, snatched back from death what was truly theirs and returned triumphant from the dark and dangerous kingdom where hope thrives not, nor earthly longing and love. Even if these are rarities and are as yet individual victories, yet they point towards a general possibility — the possibility of one day changing this grim and inflexible law. Yet what is this law essentially made up of? What does the god of death measure in his scales?
He measures all that we have given to the ego (individual and collective ego) and on the other scale he keeps all that we have given to the eternal truth of life, to God within and the world. He mercilessly destroys that which belongs to the ego since such are the orders he carries in his breast from of old. But all that is truly divine, the immortal soul and its qualities and deeds are returned back and recycled, in another form if we like, since that it cannot touch. But it tests them thoroughly, its anvil is the most accurate where our pleadings, sentiments, idealisms and the many covers behind which our selfish selfhood hides are of no avail. Only that which is truly divine and pure can pass unhurt and unwounded through its kingdom and yet survive. Its eyes are merciless and regard with relentless scrutiny.
The Ironic Critic of God’s Work
Its method of doubting all as undivine unless proved otherwise has justifiably earned death the name of an Ironic Critic. Nothing is true in its eyes except itself. There is no other eternity for death except itself since of old he has this singular experience of seeing all things perish except of course the human soul. And the soul it cannot see since its empire does not extend up till there. It is a strange irony of death itself that while it can pierce into the subtlest shades of darkness and rip off the most brilliant camouflage of light, yet are its eyes blinded to the Light that shines in all beings. Concealed in a particle of dust and revealed in man, death cannot see this divinity and therefore only frowns at it. Yet God grows on despite its frown. Life evolves from atoms and gases to plants and trees and animals and man. And with life evolve the powers and knowledge concealed in the secret soul that is a delegate divinity upon earth. Men do not give up hope and pursuit of earthly perfection because there is death, but in fact speed up with time and get to work with redoubled effort and urgency, precisely because it is there.
The Dark-Browed Sophist of the Universe
It is death that is directly responsible for much of the pessimism we encounter in life. Most schools of philosophy paint a grim and depressing picture of this world since there is so much uncertainty, unpredictability, and impermanence in it. Even schools of spirituality, subtly breathing the gospel of death have given up hope for any earthly perfection since nothing stays permanently, neither love nor hope. Our heights break off too low and the hearts that dare and aspire, tire too soon. So where is the hope for earth? Death seems to laugh at every dream of human perfection by razing it to ground sooner or later.
But if we pause and look with the calm and steady eyes of the ancient sages, we shall discover that this impermanence and unpredictability, this uncertainty is a boon of sorts. It means that things can and do change and therefore there is hope for everyone.
Because there is impermanence, therefore is our ignorance too impermanent, only a passing phase in evolution.
Because there is uncertainty therefore one can never condemn anyone and can instead be ever hopeful for a change. Because there is unpredictability therefore one can come out of even the worst situation and hope can shine through the darkest clouds.
Because things are not fixed forever therefore is there hope of a change for the better, for all of us.
In fact ignorance and impermanence go hand in hand but neither ignorance, nor impermanence is permanent. This is what we need to remind ourselves when death paints before us a dismal picture of the world and the universe.
In the end it is God’s world and not death’s, who is in effect only a delegate teacher. We may hear what he has to say but believe him not. We may lend our ears to him but not our hearts and souls. For he says only one half of the truth — ‘the truth that slays.’
We must answer him with the other half of the truth — ‘the Truth that saves.’
The Shroud of Mystery
Death is the last veil where the limits of our knowledge cease to be. It is the last earthly barrier we must cross to be a candidate fortruth and immortality. In the famous legend of the Sphinx, we see this truth driven home. Sphinx, the strange devouring beast and the symbol of death, has an even stranger puzzle to ask of all who would cross the Theban desert to the other side. “Who is the creature that walks on four in the morning, on two at noon and on three in the evening.” None can answer correctly and are therefore devoured. But one man, the legendary hero Oedipus says with remarkable wisdom, “I am the answer.” And now it is the turn of the Sphinx to die.
This legend like many others carries within itself the seed of a great truth. The Sphinx, a creature unreally real, is a symbol of Death, something so real in everyday life to which all of us lend our own unique form and meaning. Oedipus the traveller, is the adventuring soul of man journeying through the desert of Time towards its authentic kingdom from which it has been expelled even as a child. The soul in man is journeying to regain its kingdom after having grown to full stature, strong and wise having gone through the whole adventure. But the final test of its wisdom and power lies in whether it has discovered itself or not. Death asks this question to all of us at the end of the road of life. If we have discovered who we are then it lets us pass and death is no more for us since we have regained our eternal kingdom. If not, then we return into the womb of death to return again and again to the cycle of birth and into the forest of life till we learn the lesson. The answer of Oedipus is also symbolic. On the face it appears to be a statement of man’s physical life but holds a deeper truth concealed in it. The man on four is the animal-man supported almost helplessly by the world around. He is as ignorant and helpless as a child is. The man on two is the humanised-man, assured of his powers and prowess yet lacking in wisdom and maturity. The man on three has learned to lean upon the staff of faith and has discovered the third element in him, the support of his secret soul. It is not just an ordinary staff but the sceptre carrying the sign of his regality, the royal power as well as the true knowledge. Death dies and the last puzzle of man’s life is solved when man knows himself. Such is the fate not only of individual men but also of all groups and forms of life that know and rule the world but know not themselves. It is also the fate of religion and science, both of which do not answer the one most important question about who we are. Behind the shroud of death, behind this hooded mask, lies the face of a secret deity that is our own. Death can cover it as a drape covers the body but it can slay it not. Yet the question remains what need had God to hide Himself in this mask of an ominous and terrible shape? What secret necessity compelled our soul to wrestle with this ancient powerful Adversary who seems to be stronger than life itself? Here fails our knowledge, here pauses our philosophy, here stops our vision and wisdom. And he who can answer it is he who shall live forever. He who shall know this dark secret is he who shall enjoy an endless term in time and timelessness both. But as the Upanishads rightly point out — “they who know only our dark and divided state dwell in darkness; yet, they who know only the bright body of God in a greater darkness dwell.” We need to know both and know them not just as two opposites but also as a single reality. He who thus knows both as one is he who truly knows. For at the end of all our material and spiritual pursuits, this is the last step of reconciliation — God and Life and Bliss and Love and Light and Truth with their apparent opposites.
 Sri Aurobindo: The Upanishads, Isha Upanishad, Verse 9
‘Into a blind darkness they enter who follow after the Ignorance, they as if into a greater darkness who devote themselves to the Knowledge alone.’