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Life, Death and the River of Knowing

While I can’t image praying for God to “take me up” at any point in life, I would love to absorb the absolute readiness to go at any moment, the conscious surrender to whatever is God’s plan.

Image by dlewis33/ Getty Images
Image by dlewis33/ Getty Images

“I will be going back to my village tomorrow. My brother has died, and I need to be there for a few days,” our cook announced matter-of-factly as he brought me breakfast. 

“Oh no!” I exclaimed, my hands instinctively coming up to my heart as I connected with his inevitably deep grief. “I’m so sorry. That’s horrible. Oh no. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Anyway, he was old, and it is all in God’s plan,” he replied stoically, definitely not reeling in the ocean of grief I’d expected. 

Our cook is around my age, maybe a couple of years older. I didn’t ask exactly how old his brother was, but he was certainly younger than sixty, probably mid-fifties. 

Before moving to India twenty-five years ago, and even since then whenever I find myself moored to my Western understandings about life and death, death seems like an unequivocally horrible calamity. Unless of course one is very sick and suffering, any death before a very ripe old age (which to me means at least late 80s or even 90s) is a tragedy. A grave tragedy. 

In India, however, views toward life and death are vastly different. 

Here, life is seen as that which we are compelled to endure in order to fulfill our karmic debts, to eat the metaphoric fruits of our past karma, with the ultimate goal being freedom from the cycle of life and eternal merging into God.

So, this physical existence is seen, on a fundamental cultural level, as a duty, an avenue through which we simply fulfill our dharma, our obligations in the world, and from which we will ultimately be freed – sooner or later – depending on how pious, pure and dharmic we are.

I can’t even count how many people in their 60s and 70s (middle aged by my American sensibilities!) I have heard say to Pujya Swamiji, “Please tell God to just take me up. I am done. My duties are fulfilled. I am ready to go. Please ask God to just take me up and out of this life.” 

Now, these are not people who are suffering in any way I can see.  They do not have terminal illnesses or crippling handicaps or unbearable life situations. These are people who, for the most part, are healthy, well-to-do, successful and surrounded by loving families.  The “Please take me up” beseeching to God is not due to pain they’re experiencing in life but due to the simple fact that they believe their job is done, and any more time here is wasted and unnecessary. Why stay back here, encumbered by a body, when they could merge, freely into God?

I have found myself struck, again and again, by Indians’ ability to walk toward death so freely, even eagerly. Despite 25 years in India, steeped in Hindu tradition, culture and wisdom, I still cannot wrap my mind around this on a personal level. 

I actually find myself slightly disappointed at the end of each day that yet another day has slipped through my fingers, that the hours went so fast. “Oh no. It’s 10 pm already? How did that happen?” I ask myself nearly every night. It doesn’t matter how may times I bathe in Ganga, walk in the woods, hug a tree, hug other people, sway and sing to the sound of Pujya Swamiji’s voice in the aarti, gaze into the eyes of mySelf in the forms of all those who gather for satsang, walk barefoot on a beach – I cannot even imagine a time when I would feel “Okay, I’ve done this enough. I’m ready to go.” 

But I think the cultural differences go even deeper than a savoring of every minute of this precious existence.  In the West we tend to see illness and death as a failure. We even see aging as a failure. Anti-aging creams, potions and pills are plastered all over billboards and all over our social media feeds.  Every day my inbox is filled with emails, frequently in all CAPS, telling me that the elixir for youth has been found and all I need to do is “click here” to get mine before they run out! “DON’T LET YOURSELF GET OLD!” these emails and advertisements exhort in varying semantics and themes. 

The tragedy, of course, is that while we can, and should, take care of our health and our bodies until our last breath, ultimately of course we cannot reverse aging (despite what the messages in my email and social media feed say.)  So, as long as we hold onto the idea that aging is bad, that it’s something we can and should reverse or at least stave off for as long as magically possible, we will always feel like failures. Every gray hair or wrinkle becomes a reminder that we have failed somehow.  Not only do we feel miserable and humiliated but we also then shell out entire paychecks at every “click here” that promises a solution. 

In the West we’ve created a culture in which the most basic fact of life, the only actual guarantee of life (that we will eventually get sick and die) is the one thing we must make sure never happens to us. Yes, of course, everyone else has to die, we reason. But not me. I clicked-thru and bought the magic elixir! So, when, despite every potion, from the ingestible to the applyable, we do age, we do fall sick and we do ultimately walk toward death, we do so with shame, fear and misery. 

I think this collective aversion to the inevitable in the West is also due to the separate boxes we’ve stuffed life and death into. Funerals are either closed casket or the deceased is dressed up and beautified so completely that they look like they’re going off to the prom rather than into a grave. We have clear-cut lines, boundaries and divisions between places of grieving and places of celebration, times of grieving and times of rejoicing, times and places where we whisper or wail about death, while the rest of the time we pretend it’s only one of several options.  

In India, cremations are done along the river banks, typically quite close to the city. Ceremonies take place at the cremation ghat, the fires and smoke are seen by all around. Any passerby on the popular river walk will inevitably walk by bodies being burned while loved ones watch. Other than a border of fifty meters or so to preserve the cleanliness of the water, there is no distinction between areas of bathing, areas of praying, areas of playing and areas of cremation.  Death is woven seamlessly into the fabric of life.  For hours families stand around the pyre as their loved one is turned to ash, while others pass by on morning and evening walks, bathe ecstatically in the river, splash each other with revelry and joyous abandon, and otherwise go on about their daily lives. There’s no sign up that says “This is an area of death. Only mourning allowed.” Or “Please note thou shalt not celebrate life in this place of death and despair.” There are no boxes. There are no boundaries. 

In addition to all those just waiting to be “taken up” by God, I have also been in the presence of innumerable wives, husbands, children, siblings and even parents of the recently deceased. They are, of course, filled with grief. But their mourning has a qualitatively different feel to it than that which I’ve witnessed in the West. Grief, in the West, from my experience, tends to be either that which we push away through alcohol, drugs, food, sex and Facebook. Or it seems to be a bottomless pit of darkness in which we continue to suffer nearly interminably.    

Here, in India, the sadness at the loss of a loved one feels more like a wave on the surface of the ocean, turbulent for a while but mitigated by the mourners’ anchoring in the peace and stillness of the depths of the ocean.  They seem to have an inherent grounding in “This is all God’s plan. We must accept it.”

A lot of this, of course, is due I think to theological differences in the cultures. In the Hindu tradition, while the loss of a loved one is sad for us, ultimately it is seen as good for the deceased, for they have walked one step closer to the ultimate freedom and merging with God.  There is also the deep theological understanding that whatever happens is happening due to our past actions (karma) and is, therefore in alignment with the Divine Plan.  

But, I think the biggest difference is the belief that ultimately we are NOT our bodies. We are the soul, the spirit, the Divine presence which is never born and never dies. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna explains to us through Arjuna that we are not bodies which are born and die but we are the eternal soul, that which cannot be burned by fire, wet by water, dried by the wind or cut with knives.  

So while in the midst of grief it is hard for anyone to be philosophical, nonetheless that awareness, that cultural and spiritual river of Knowing flows beneath and through the grief, enabling an awareness that, in the words of Paramhans Ramakrishna after he died, “I haven’t gone anywhere. I’ve merely moved from one room to another room.”  This river of Knowing — knowing life, knowing death and knowing that we are, on the deepest and truest level, that which is unchanging throughout it all – dissolves the ego’s aversion to mortality, someone else’s and our own. 

While I can’t image praying for God to “take me up” at any point in life, I would love to absorb, via some kind of spiritual and cultural osmosis, the absolute readiness to go at any moment, the conscious surrender to whatever is God’s plan — whenever and however death may come, to embrace it joyfully, like the true Homecoming that it is.