Today marks seven years of my father’s death. He died peacefully, on one of the holiest days of the year, as the Sun started it’s northward journey for the year, and right as the moon crossed its path into an epic eclipse. The Sun, Moon and Earth aligned and, as if a door opened and he stepped into it, he was gone. I did the last rites, cremating his body on the banks of the Yamuna river in Delhi.
We didn’t get to have deep discussions- my father and I- about philosophy or the meaning of life. Our talk was about the daily superficialities of life. But long years after his death, I am coming to realize what I inherited a lot just from his presence and actions. And from him, I’m still getting answers to questions I never even set out into words.
What dies when we die? Our culture and religion gave us some ready answers, but these are all placeholders. Heaven, next life, some other place…these are easy answers, like the sort we give kids to shoo them away after a prolonged interrogation. My journey has been to find the answers from direct experience. It’s an important question, not only for philosophical reasons, but for the most personal ones. The answer to this question is a clue to the question that hangs right behind it.
What lives when we live? What is this “I”?
Some answers are easy to eliminate. The body, obviously, I let fire consume it. Our name, fame, wealth and relationships. These stay back after death, continuing long after we have left. These aren’t the self, this stuff, just coincidentally moving together with us for some part of the journey. Associated temporarily, but ultimately independent and separate.
This quest got tricky after the easy answers. What remains after all the eliminations is only an indirect perception; an inferred center of the processes of perception and action. The process that gives us the sense of being a single whole, and not just one right eye, one left eye, ten fingers, ten toes, skin, tongue and ears. And the process that animates the body, breath and mind. The fact that we experience all of these different inputs together implies a central organization. We don’t see our “self”, but we experience ourselves and infer our own existence.
In meditation, I found a more direct perception of self, that’s beyond just name, form and time. There’s a “me”, but somehow it isn’t “mine”. Neither does this self possess “my body, my breath or my mind”, and nor do my name, fame, wealth and relationships possess “me”. There’s just a temporary association. The Gita calls this association like a relationship with clothes- we wear them, and then throw them away when they are old and tattered. It’s an interesting intellectual point when you read it from a book. The fun is to really apply that knowledge to your own self, your own being, and your own being’s association with the body, breath and mind. I did this searching for a long, long time. While driving on the freeway, when working at office, and when writing. Constantly asking who. Who is the one that knocks? Who is the one that answers? What is the source of this “me”-ness?
The great Indian mystic Shankar (Adi Shankaracharya) wrote about the tremulous tentativeness of life. He called life as a trembling drop of water on the leaf of a lotus on a lake. So uncertain, and so short-lived. How to live while still alive?
नलिनी दलगत जलमतितरलं तद्वज्जीवितमतिशय चपलम्।
विद्धि व्याध्यभिमानग्रस्तं लोकं शोकहतं च समस्तम्॥ ४॥
The life of a person is as uncertain as rain drops trembling on a lotus leaf.
Know that the whole world remains a prey to disease, ego and grief.
What dies when we die? None of the stuff we seemingly live for. So why is it that we work for stuff that has no significance? Why is death the first reminder of the urgency of living? We should learn to live before we die. From my father, I learnt to question death in seeking the answers to life.