Home Essays by IJ Singh Casting a lovely light

Casting a lovely light

by nishaan@magazine

Since I sat down with this editorial in mind, competing alternate titles have flashed their presence and pushed their appeal, even though I am not yet clear about the contents and the direction that I prefer. For instance, The Last Frontier sounded just right as the title. Or perhaps of  Life is Full of Rude Awakenings.

Life offers many a closed box to honestly parse some ideas imaginatively and honestly.  Life comes with two closed doors one at the beginning of life, the other at its end.  Birth and Death remain the ultimate temptations of closed doors. Let’s begin by celebrating briefly this Goulash of Life.  We will conclude with an open-ended expression in Punjabi from the Guru Granth: Eh Sareera Merya…. So here it goes.

We humans have two magical traits that are fundamental to life with death as the last frontier. It is the permanent cessation of all biological functions that sustain a living organism that begins to visibly decompose soon after death. It is an inevitable process eventually occurring in all living organisms. When all else fails, Wikipedia comes to mind but I wonder if any statement on death is as meaningful as it appears to be?

I wonder how a complex ‘machine’ such as the human body rarely, if ever, dies completely and entirely on call when the bell rings. Different parts of the body weaken and deteriorate at different rates. Some organs even retain the ability to regain enough life to move back to the status of living functional entities (organ donations are an example). Many a miracle baffles the best of scientists. Yes, it is rare but some healthy people age prematurely and show all the signs and symptoms of old age while still in their teens. Do not also forget not that many people die suddenly and completely: here they were and a moment later, gone forever!  Rude awakenings strew the path.  Also keep in mind that our simple lives habituate the narrow reaches of a cul-de-sac.

Birth is a pleasure and celebrations come easy. Yet, we always wonder how to talk about death, particularly about, or with, a dying person. Think again! Isn’t every living person indeed a dying person as he/she is in the path of dying from the moment he or she is born, or even earlier.

Around death itself, we have to weave fantastic, possibly imaginary, tales because we just do not have any idea of what happens after death. Human societal behaviour needs discipline so that human actions are regulated.  Only then can communities grow and flourish. A possible parallel I see is a large school with many students but very few good teachers.

There is no possible way to live forever and there never has been.  Early humans realised that, no matter how magical a life may have been, death is inevitably followed by limitations. Prayers, magical potions, and spells that guarantee life forever remain aplenty – but a myth.

Yet mankind is full of comfort quotes and bottled magic in defiance of all common sense or evidence of unending life every moment. On this Guru Granth  Sahib is blunt and absolutely clear (p.660). The question is: for how long is our sense of the “present tense existence”, our awareness of human life?

Hum aadmi haen ik damee(n): Guru Granth Sahib. This is the ultimate measure of time.  It clearly tells us that our existence is effectively just one breath long, a brief period that is clearly the present.  The breath that we are now in is the only present time, the breath we were in before the present breath is already the past, the breath that will follow the one we are in now is the future.  The breath we are in is the only present tense and will soon become the past. The past has shaped us and made us what we are. Value it!  The future is yet unborn. We don’t live in the past nor in the future. Our existence is as creatures of one breath.  

All this sounds like head games that overly smart clever minds might indulge in but this is a game with no satisfactory end.  So, think again, death is the absolute truth as it has always been. Yet we spend life either ruing the past or dreaming slippery slopes of an unpredictable future. Remember also that focus on a life of one breath is the idea which we will revisit shortly.

Abraham Lincoln expressed the strong but similar thought that “It does not matter who my grandfather was; what matters is what his grandson is up to today … and that becomes a grand measure of a human life”

A profound idea!  But did we somehow destroy it when we suggested that by doing materially well in the world, our progeny will enhance our qualities and virtues:  their parental ancestral generation? In other words, our children exist to promote us and to glorify our existence when we are already likely dead or on the path of death.

Or that the end of life is followed by a fantastic fictional reality of an afterlife.  Is that not the central fundamental feature of most religions of mankind?

It is an irony that two of the most significant events of any life–birth and death – remain critically unforeseen and unpredictable, even in societies that proudly maintain the most advanced of health systems. How then can we absolutely control and manage them precisely during life?  Despite material comforts, the availability of the best science and the foremost experts, more often than not life is beset with rude awakenings. A flawless birth is largely joyful, but not always. On the other end death greets us unfailingly: sad but not completely devoid of all joy and comfort. The fond remembrance of a departed person is often recast more positively. In memory, a life often acquires a kinder respectful appraisal.

Remember the adage common to all societies and communities thatno one is perfect.  In America a smile lights up at its completion of this pun “No one is perfect except you and I” it is followed by a pause, a wicked smile and then the killer advice… “and about you I am not so sure.”  So much for the goulash!

Communities derive their power from the quality of interaction between the members. Humans are imaginative animals and they want to unearth and rediscover the meaning of life.  Something that gives a permanence – a marker — to a life.  Then a loaded question looms like ‘What is the purpose of life?’

Now for a little detour to parse this fundamental question.  

If there is a basic purpose to life that’s common to all humanity, then it should be able to stand without necessarily leaning on one or the other religious systems of mankind.

If the purpose is to meet or sit with the Creator at Death, then the sooner one dies, the faster will be that union! Does this not mean the sooner the better? And this seems to dismiss any long-term over-arching purpose to life. Keep in mind though that any life that is lived awhile is better seen cast in a kinder framework.

How do religions evolve?  The newly  born cannot survive alone for it is absolutely helpless and totally vulnerable. Protective fences are necessary between individuals just as they are necessary between neighbouring homes. Protective boundaries are necessary for both survival and growth and are created by commonality of needs: language, culture, music, cuisine and worldview.  Good fences make good neighbours, but they also create boundaries between people – the divisive ideas of us and them”. This is how we construct barriers against others and create walls of strength to keep the others out. Families are essential for survival and are the smallest units of a community.

But when death comes, Last Rites become important.  Here then sentiment is overarching.  It is not important how bright, smart, rich or kind was the deceased.  The only fact is that someone who shared a life with us, is no more. Where did they go? We really do not know, nor will we.

What happens after death is a continuing mystery.  No one knows for sure, which is why we settle for a mixed remembrance of some joy and some tears. But the person has lived a full life and should not get short shrift. Whether he was an Einstein or the village idiot, the final question is what kind of a life had led? What is, after all, the purpose of a life?

Now, pause a moment.  Human life began many, many thousands of years back. And we are not going back to the absolute beginnings of life on Earth. Life on Earth today offers many opportunities: travel and communication across the world and technology that did not exist less than a century ago and in the times to come, we can now even leave earth this and land on a different planet. A child born today comes to a society which offers electrifying advantages of the Twentieth Century.  For travel he may not depend on a boat or horse and his bare strength.  He can now fly to the ends of the earth! Such inventions were not made by you or me, not earned or created by any one person. This is the work of countless others that we have inherited. Their work has improved life on Mother Earth. This is a debt on our heads. How do we plan to pay for this largesse is the question?

Most organised religions offer a very strict formula for the life hereafter with a complex system of justice, punishment or rewards, even recurring birth in a variety of forms.  But, in the final analysis, these remain fantastic compliments to human imagination. The Sikh way of life considers such matters at length but without signing on any particular model or path at the end. 

Guru Granth (p. 922) posits the question: Eh sareera meyria iss jug meh aaye ke kya tudh karam kamaaya,literally rendered, theperennial challenge as: “What footprints would you leave in the sands of time at the end of your earthly journey?  How will you repay this debt to life?”

The answer as I imbibe from Gurbani has: “If you leave the world a little better, even by an iota, than what you inherited at birth,  then you have paid your debt. The purpose of life is not to adopt a formulaic guide to a magical end but to walk the path honestly, with an open mind.

Now at the late evening or near midnight of my life, my thoughts fall on an old poem: 

           My candle burns at both ends;

            It will not last the night;

            But oh my foes and ah my friends.

            It casts a lovely light !

I see this as the ultimate challenge to a productive life.  

IJ Singh

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