Death and Existence

Last month, a friend of mine died. We were not very close. At least not in the manner in which friends are usually close.  But it was the first time in my life that a friend died. And that got me thinking about the mystery of death, and thereby, the mystery of existence.

I often wonder : in the year 2109, somebody would be living on the very same spot that I am on right now. Perhaps he would be my descendant. But the thought of me would not cross him even once a fortnight. The thought of my great-grandfather certainly has crossed me only a few times in my life. He would go about his life, seeking the things that make him happy – perhaps appreciation at the workplace, perhaps someone to love him and hold his hand when he’s scared. And he would wish for the unhappiness to be less: little failures in his job, dissatisfaction with his marital relationship, and so on. I would not be there, but the things that bring my moods up and take them down would still be. Only that they would exist in another human being, in somewhat different proportions.

But the world would continue. And perhaps he too would be sitting one day, sharing with someone how the world would continue 100 years later without a thought of him.

To take this further, in a few million years from now the sun is going to become so large that it will swallow the earth. There would be no human beings left. Then even those happinesses and pleasures of other human beings would not exist.

Put simply – there will be a time when there is nothing. There also was a time when there was nothing. 2500 years ago, one of the authors of the Rig Veda, sitting by the fire under the open night sky,  had just the same speculations (an excerpt from the translation of the Nasadiya Sukta by Wendy Doniger) –

“There was neither non-existence, nor existence then. There was neither space, nor the skies beyond. What stirred? Where? In whose protection? Was there water, bottomlessly deep?

Who really knows? Whence is this creation? Even the gods came afterwards. Whence has it all arisen?

Perhaps it formed itself, perhaps not. The one who looks down on it from the highest heavens, only he knows – or perhaps he also does not.”

and in much better translation in Hindi (from the TV series Bharat Ek Khoj) –

“shrishti se pehle sat nahi tha, asat bhi nahi

antariksh bhi nahi, aakaash bhi nahi tha

chhupa tha kya, kahaan, kisne dhaka tha

us waqt to, agam – atal jal bhi kahaan tha..

shrishti ka kaun hai karta?

oonche aakaash mein rehta, sada adhyaksh bana rehta

kya wo hi hai jaanta, ya nahi bhi jaanta

hai kisi ko nahi pata, nahi hai pata…”

When I think of all this, my bothers with why someone is not acting the way I would like him to, or when I will get to the place I want to be at in my career diminish into insignificance. There is peace.

Why is this so? A philosopher has called it ‘ontological wonder’. Existentialists often talk of this fact – and fact it is – before harping on the anguish of being. Perhaps there are two perspectives one can have on all that there is – the perspective of eternity and that of temporality. All the concerns of my descendent living in 2019 are temporal. Those of the Rig Vedic seer hinge on the eternal. The more one is rooted in the perspective of the eternal, the more what I wrote above touches one at the core of his heart.

For one who is concerned with the eternal, the question of meaning becomes important. A certain experience has significance not so much because it makes one happy, but because it gives meaning – it makes one feel that the universe makes sense. That one’s own life makes sense, even if 100 years later nobody would know that one existed. One can imagine a scale with meaning on one end and happiness / suffering on the other, and various people would be on various points on this scale. Of course, there are some who would deny that the meaning end exists. And they are perhaps representative of the majority of humankind, the only difference being that the rest of humankind only lives in that manner while these people also form a philosophy out of it.

So coming back to the friend who died last month – I wonder what to make of his death. His body is no more. His individual personality, made of his past memories which were stored in the brain, is perhaps also no more – since the brain is dead. So is he another human being slipping down the drain of meaningless existence, like the billions before him, ever since 15,00,000 years ago when the first human beings appeared? I feel that he was more than the sum of his experiences in the past and that was something that helped us connect despite the vast differences between us.

That is the only way there seems to be some meaning in this endless process of people being born and dying, and the world going on as if they had never existed. The world – our Earth – itself was born and will die. So will our solar system, and so will our galaxy. But even then, it will be only one galaxy that died, among a billion galaxies, with a new one being born every moment, full of possibilities of lives that shall build great civilisations and then perish, just like ours. An entire lifetime is less than a blink in the lifetime of the universe.

In the grand psychological and physical commotion that our universe is, a silence underlies all the activity. When everything is over, that silence remains. What relationship do we as human beings have with it? I don’t know. As our Vedic ancestor said – kisi ko nahi hai pata…

~ by tdcatss on July 15, 2009.

13 Responses to “Death and Existence”

  1. I just happened to be your page but I don’t believe in coincidence.
    I’m sorry about your friend and this is just merely my view of death.
    “death” is next unknown place we go to. Some Asian culture celebrate death as a new entrance to people. You and me are still here on this planet because we have things we are supposed to do on this planet. When it is finished, we are also going into the next place.
    Best wishes

  2. vrmagokoro, thanks for the comment :)

    what kind of next place do you think one may go to, and how does knowing that affect your life here and now?

    for me the thought that death is not the final end gives some meaning to my life here and now.

    • Thank you, kaifmahmood.
      I believe when people leave from this world, they will go to where they do not have to suffer from their physical challenges, such as pain, addiction, etc.
      Knowing that, or I should say accepting that, gives me much more peace in myself and courage to live. Till then, I was always afraid to live. That’s why I could not see potentiality this life can offer to you!
      Belief is each people’s choice. The beauty is that you can choose your belief.
      So, I wish you the best!

  3. Some random thoughts:

    There is only one human story. Only characters and voices change.

    I believe there is reincarnation; there is no other way one can justify what’s happening within and outside world. This idea helps heal our wounds. I never think about a future life. Human life full of suffering! (Nihilism? Maybe. I don’t care.) But I do believe that whatever I’m going through now has its root in many past lives. If my memory serves me right, I was eight when, for the first time, I wandered away to a road not far from my home–from which i could easily return–to sit on a small mud stage-like structure. I sat there in lotus pose and pretended to be a sadhu. It was not to show to others how pious i was. I didn’t even understand the difference between good and bad at conscious level. But the drama was to make myself believe that i was one. Why the hell I thought being a sadhu at the age of 8? Desires and thoughts like these stem from some prior experiences, don’t they? Or, maybe, we pick up memories from the common pool called “Collective Unconsciousness”, but why do we pick only such memories? So there must be something in me to attract only such memories that sprouted the seed of such an uncommon desire for that age. Endless possibilities.

    While I like to experience different facets of material world, somewhere deep down I believe I’m a mistake in this world. On one hand I want a salary hike and safe investments, on the other, I yearn to leave this body to shun painful experiences.

    “This is not my sky”
    the bird howled.
    She winged away
    to far away horizons
    in search of a place
    to call her own–
    a place of devotion.

    Many years passed
    in the foreign skies
    and one day
    the wandering bird
    fell to the ground.
    wounded and lonely
    she thought:
    “The sky is no one,
    the sky is no more;
    the sky is unknown.
    I will flutter away my body;
    I will become the air;
    I will be the sky, which
    is no where.”

    And then the bird
    left her body to
    become one
    with the unknown;
    to become the air;
    to live everywhere…
    beyond pain and happiness;
    beyond past and future;
    beyond limits
    that bound every creature.

  4. nice poetry, prommila.

    reincarnation.. i think that’s a tough one. i don’t have faith in speculation and reasoning to sort this out. something survives, but i think reality is more complex than the idea that the soul gets into another body.

    you might find this interesting:

    also, i feel that what you think about death determines how you live before your time in this world ends. i don’t mean what you think in your head, but what you really feel about death, deep down..

  5. Yes, it’s more complex than just being born in a different body. In “Old Path, White Clouds” Buddha frequently talks about reincarnation to children. But he discouraged adults from indulging in this phenomenon because they blamed everything on a past life. That said, if you study Ian Stevenson’s quantitative research, you will tend to agree that there is something like reincarnation.

    My past life regressions have been mostly disappointing except for one particular session in which I experienced acute physical pain from shoulders to hands which migrated to my healer’s shoulders-hands during the session. Now, there could have been many reason for this experience.

    Thanks for sharing this video. Keep such things coming :)

  6. Past life regressions…. I haven’t tried those. Some years ago I picked up ‘Many Lives Many Masters’ and did not really like it. Haven’t delved into the issue since then.

  7. So what’s your path? What made you study religions?

  8. For the last seven years, I’ve practised a form of meditation called Acem Meditation. It is from Norway. It is non-religious and is meant to promote deeper self-understanding among its practitioners through daily meditation for about an hour everyday, meditation retreats, and regular discussions about one’s process. It helps one be closer to one’s feelings beneath the surface, and to one’s spiritual side, if one is interested. We consider it a kind of existential reflection. Many of the leaders of the organization are psychologists. I’ve linked to it in the ‘Blogroll’ section on the right side of this page.

    That is, I guess, my path. But I try to extract as much as possible also from psychology and religion, especially the Hindu, Islamic, and Christian traditions…. books, art, personal experiences, whenever possible.

    I studied religion because it was interesting and more fascinating than most other things!

  9. thanks for explaining! Will check the blogroll when I log into my comp. did something or someone act as a catalyst in your case? Wonder why you found this stuff more interesting than other things that keep people of your age engrossed.


    Do you have their number? I would like to go this Saturday. Seems like a simple and nice thing. Want to try it out.

  11. I love the way, you write Kaif. Keep it up.

  12. thanks abhilash!

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