Two stories we have all heard at some point or another in our lives provide useful pointers to the human relationship with death. Both are ancient and Indian, yet the attitudes they describe are universally and recognisably human.
One is from the Mahabharata, in which a wise prince goes to quench his thirst and is questioned by the keeper of the lake, ‘What is the strangest thing in the world?’ The prince answers, ‘That we know we are going to die but pretend we will live forever.’
The other is from the Buddha’s life. A grieving mother brings her dead child to the Buddha and asks him to return it to life. The Buddha asks her to bring a mustard seed from a home that death has never visited. She tries but is unsuccessful, embracing in the process the inevitability of death.
When we are alive and well, the thought of our own death rarely enters our mind. Even if we are faced with it, it never feels immediate. When a loved one dies, we grieve and mourn, and try to grasp at their memory. Life does go on after a while, but if we haven’t used the opportunity to make our peace with the constant dance of change that is life, we continue to be thrown off balance every time we are faced with change, with death.
If we only look around us, at nature of which we are also a part, we can witness a perpetual dance of change. Not only our bodies change, so do our ideas, our behaviour, and the ways in which we deal with people and respond to situations. Though everything is real in the moment it happens, it quickly passes away, dies if you please, and in the next moment, something rises anew.
Because of constant change, nothing remains, everything passes. Just as there is never the same drop of water at one spot in two different moments in a flowing river, so it is in our lives. Death is not just a one-time event, it is happening right here, right now, in the space between two moments, in the gap between each in-breath and out-breath. Kaal, which in Sanskrit means both time and death, constantly churns, devouring everything in its path.
At the same time, navinam navinam, kshane kshane (‘newness, newness, in every moment’). The Sufi, Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, says, ‘I died a mineral and became a plant. / I died a plant and rose an animal. / I died an animal and I was man. / Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?’ This indicates a profound understanding of death, arrived at by a mind unclouded by fears, insecurities and desires. The understanding of impermanence and unceasing change is a crucial aspect of understanding the mystery of death. Our worlds are consumed all the time and created anew, and in every moment, we die in some way and are renewed in another.