Exploring ideas of death: A comparative discourse on Hinduism and other world-views- Part 1

Death as the greatest blessing of human life

(Because, death is certain for the one who is born, and birth is certain for the one who dies. Therefore, you should not lament over the inevitable- Bhagavat Gita)

The term“death”and the associated ideas bring no absolute picture in mind. Our mind is empty if we think of how death is. Moreover, understanding and dealing of common people in this subject, keep up with the experts at same level of equality. They have no extra edge on the others. The things are up in the air. However, the concept is in regular use within our daily life. Again, death itself is not at all a useful thing to experience.

(Life or Death?)

Life is beautiful in someone’s eye and ugly for others. For some, it is painful and unbearable. Then, there are others who are highly satisfied with life. This totally depends on what is happening in one’s life and how they bank on that. The value of life is not only found in just living. The value is seen from the events that have already taken place and in our approach of expressing against those feelings.

Their accomplishments and realizations end as they pass away. It happens for everyone and will get by in future also. Nothing is to get worried about this. If we brush up on giving less importance to the necessities of bodily pleasures and appreciate the sentiments of the mind, our fear of death will diminish.

As per Indian philosophy, the journey towards death involves a series of change. Through this, our soul passes. This is demonstrated well in theBrihadaranyaka (meaning great wilderness) Upanishad- credited to the smart cookie calledsageYajnavalkya.

As any soul move out of its body, it is bestowed with specific consciousness- equipped with particular actions, knowledge and prior experiences. It looks for a new body that can relate to or handle that consciousness.

The instance of a leech resorted on a straw can be taken from the book. As it verges on to the edge, it grasps another stake and contracts the body. In the same way, the soul lose its touch from the body and captures another body. In return, the previous body is now unconsciousness like the way caterpillar has compressed itself.

The scripture mentions three worlds

The second level or the Manes’ world is the abode of the soul of ancestors. Here, the soul gets access after death. It takes a better form there, same as the goldsmith fashions another, better and newer shape from a small quantity of gold.  This idea of getting into various stages for the soul can also be found in the words of Socrates.

Now, let’s hit the books with the famous life of Socrates and his perception of death

Socrates: The first moral philosopher who accepted death happily

Death is inevitable and unavoidable. We would die. This is the ultimate truth. Still, we are scared of death. Can we not accept death with a smile in the face? If not, why do we turn down? 

The philosophers say that there is a fear to lose something that is active due to the result of death. Because of death, we would be missing many experiences. Whatever could have we done in life, cannot be completed further by us. We would be deprived of every probable opportunities and achievement in life. We would also be missing the entertainments. Those who fear death- think like this.

(Jacques-Louis David: The Death of Socrates)

The time is 399 B.C. Socrates has come on a trail. Find yourself immersed in the place when Socrates’ execution was declared and imminent. A storm is brewing. He was accused of rejecting the so-called recorded name of Gods. As they said, this polluted the mind of youth. Further, he dared to disobey higher authorities, as per blame put by the government of Athens. Now, as a result of all his Karma, the death is knocking at his door.

However, you will see a matter of wonder here. There is no symptom of disturbance letting his face down. Peace is like going with the flow from his personality. Not a glimpse of fear is there. How can it be possible?

Throughout his life, the man defeated that day of fear in his own style and exchanged death with death. He compared and contrasted the unknown and inevitable death with the death of the body, from where our soul gets free. The philosopher asserted that we must not waste time on spending our thoughts on the physical body.

We must try to liberate the soul, which in communication with the bodily organs, as much as possible. We should emphasize onlooking after our mind. Then only the death of the body would not seem to be frightening to us. He said that it is true that- the true colours of death cannot understand. It is there in the realm of the unknown. It is impracticable to be fearful of something before one is able to understand it.

Nonetheless, what will happen after death can be analysed with a couple of probabilities given by the man. As per him, this is nothing scary.

As one of the founders of Western philosophy, he believed that if any life exists, then it is not in the body- just only in the soul! The rule of thumb in the after-world would be like Hades- that would be totally set off with peace and happiness after death.

Hence, if an impure soul join up there, then it would be easy for him to progress his own self, to a better and higher level of position.

And, in this context, Socrates used to think that death is a blessing for a person. Since the body would not be there, so there would be no tension of hunger, sickness and fight against the evil ruling power.

So we can keep on gaining knowledge-relaxed and unworried! How does that sound?We can end in doing anything we like! What a fun, right? If this is so, is there any other alternative than to call death as the blessing?

(Death and Life,Italian: Morte e Vita, by- Gustav Klimt)

The teaching process of the philosophy’s martyr was notable. He used to iron out conversation with others through dialectical method.

At first, he used to accept the opinion of the person at the other end. Later he used to debunk that with his logic. Thus he used to put the trap for his competitor and then constantly asked questions until the opponent confessed the mistake from his end. Through repeated and bottomless questioning, he eased off the ruffling wrong concepts in mind and revealed the truth from their mouth. 

He firmly believed that education is the greatest wealth that helps human beings to identify the truth. As the truth manifests, a person puts himself away from committing sin. Ignorance is the root of every crime. Through awakening a rational mind, the reality could be understood, and to evaluate the reality, one must assess his own self.

That’s why he strongly asserted, “know thyself”.

Where does the greatness and nobility of the human species lie? How must human beings behave being the best creation of the world?- Seeking the answers to this type of questions were the highest priority of Socrates. To live a holy and ethical life, the definitions of “goodness” and “justice” are to be known. 

He strongly believed that without knowing righteousness and auspiciousness, none could be honest and benevolent. It means knowledge and wisdom are the basis of well-doing.

Here, Socrates has moved a step ahead and argued that not only conduct is indispensable for mind and intellect but also it can be assured that any really knowledgeable person can never commit crimes. Not emotion and exuberance, the reason was the main driving force for thinking and actions. The body is an interruption, if we are for searching anticipation in this subject.

(Journeys to the Underworld)

He have wondered how a person can commit sins despite been present within these parameters of reason and logic. He was the first one to figure out that the soul is an intelligent and moral identity responsible for good and evil behaviour.Hence, as the soul endeavours to analyse something with the body’s’ help, it cheats itself.

(Funerary Vessel with an Underworld Scene)

However, not much is known about his thoughts on mortality of soul. But, he might have believed in the immortality of the soul and this can be identified from his famous quote. In order to revolt against unjust, Socrates, being accused of death and drinking the poison of Hemlock, at the previous moment, he revealed towards his mourning friend and relatives, “The soul is pure when it leaves the body and drags nothing bodily with it, by virtue of having no willing association with the body in life but avoiding it…….Practising philosophy in the right way is training to die easily.”

Thinking over these ideas, we can further add up from Hinduism that, the divine unification or liberation or Moksha, whatever we call, can only be attained as this life, the tip of the iceberg of soul’s journey is over. However, Mukti can be achieved being alive. Jeevan-mukti can happen at any time. But we cannot pinpoint the instance.

Assume a stone-cutter is striking on a rock. It is hit for a hundred time. Still, that is not broken. But in the hundred and first strike, the rock is cracking into two halves. Mukti comes in such away. The aha counts on our quest for truth, our practices, thoughts, actions and disciplines for truth. For this we have to hold on and over comeignorances at the same time.

(Metempsychosis and transmigration of soul)

As per Socrates’ logic, death is good and blameless aspect and must be cordially accepted as the key for liberation unlike most of them, who are referred to as courageous and conceive death to be a kind of greater evil. However, suicide is wrong and impermissible. Further, human beings understand ideas that were never known before. There are many small, basic and common senses that are known to us naturally.

This indicates that we must have acquired the knowledge from previous lives. Thus rejecting the common belief and removing the overall experience, he brings human existence to a diminishing shadow, limiting all what people have gone through previously- very harshly, same as Achilles preferred to live the life as day-labourer rather than be the king among the dead.

“But you, Achilles,
there’s not a man in the world more blest than you—
there never has been, never will be one.
Time was, when you were alive, we Argives
honored you as a god, and now down here, I see,
you lord it over the dead in all your power.
So grieve no more at dying, great Achilles.”

I reassured the ghost, but he broke out, protesting,
“No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!
By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man—
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—
than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”

(-The Odyssey, Homer)

The recurrence by Odysseus to Phaeacians ring a bell of the idea- in the conversation that took place between Odysseus and Achilles, as the former one moves towards the underworld. The guys were pondering and looking down on the world, where they inhabit. The harvest is always richer in another man’s field. Achilles was grudging on Odysseus as he was alive.

On the other side, the envision was because of the other’s glory and strength. The differences can be noted in the different outlooks of Iliad and Odyssey. The former one honours the kleos or glory through winning battles. Hence, Achilles is naturally the emphasis.

Again, in the latter, implicitly criticising the previous mighty heroic outlook, cunning Odysseus is the focus. The hero of the Iliad was unable to achieve great glory. This was won through the cost of death in his early age. Hence, he is desperate to return and live a life devoid of any pride.

He indignantly told off Odysseus, “Please don’t use any cheerful and winning praise about death in front of me”.

Standing on the other end, Odysseus has a bias and expects and wishes glory of himself and get “honoured…as a god”. However, the pursuance of glory was never to be achieved in exchange for his wit.

(Meme on Achilles and Odysseus)

Socrates’ hypothetical after world was referred to as Hades- that has been more like Athens. However, like the city, people will never live with their body. They will be present in the form of mind. The reason is that if death is another life instead of the dream that cannot stay in a physical body. And the body has expired and got destroyed. It is leftover on earth.

Now let’s end the philosophical discourse and keeping the context in mind, let’s spice things up with a story associated with Hades.Some dimensions in the characters of Hades, the ancient Greek God of death can be found out from this popular story of him represented in the Eleusinian Mysteries, a popular secret and private celebrations of the ancient Greek world.

Hades and Persephone: Love story in the court of thorns and roses

The one and only daughter of the great Goddess of earth and nature Demeter, Persephone was the god of vegetation. Besides being a virgin and innocent, she exceeded all the demi Goddess with her qualities and beauty.

Like every day, once she was busy gathering flowers with her mates as she was fond of playing in a plain in Sicily where eternal spring ruled. At a glance, she was enticed due to the blooming narcissus- that was the most beautiful of all the flowers. And to get those flowers,she went far away from her friends.

All of a sudden, a chariot driven by a four-strong black horse broke into the scene and riding on it came out the face of the lord of hell Hades, who have already fallen in love with her. He intended to turn her into a dreaded goddess of the deadly Underworld. He swooped down upon her and scooped the female up with one arm. Figuratively and literally he deflowered her. The plain was left scattered with blossoms of all variation of colours.

At a glance, he blew her away to the home of hell. This made Demeter go mad. She hunted for Persephone everywhere. As all her attempts came in vain, in shock, she decided to take a lengthy leave for an indefinite time from her duties.

Demeter declared with a mourning heart, “I will now give up generating crops on earth”.

At the minute, devastating consequences took place.Her inaction actually started destroying lands and livestock. The earth became lifeless. The famine devoured the entire surrounding.

The cries of the people were not late to reach the divine ears of the king of Gods, Zeus. He sent many Gods to diminish the anger of Demeter. But however, he was unable to decline the anger of a lady who never wanted her daughter to get spirit off to a sunless world.

Looking at his messenger Hermes, he commanded-“Go to my brother Hades. Tell him to return the one he has picked up to the mother immediately”.

Hades, the ruler of one-third of the universe and however, did not have the guts to disobey Zeus.

This middle-aged man was strong and living within shadows of the dead, the ultimate darkness. His heart has softened after seeing the girl. He has put her throne next to him. He also provided her with the equal rights of the ruling. In her suggestion, he also created another realm where he could move the best mortal soles and named that Elysium or the heaven of the underworld. Now, Hades, the not so unfit lover of this story, resorts to requesting his lover that before returning, she must not forget him.

“It’s true, I have continuously pursued you. Your face drives me crazy. You deserve to be loved, and I love you so much”, uttered fascinated Hades.

“Yes, dear. You are too good to be true! You have not treated me as a child like my Mom!”, said Persephone with satisfaction in her voice, “Instead, you took care of me as a woman who is important.”

“Keep your chin up. I never wanted to treat you as a property darling”, mentioned the lover, free from guilt,“I always wished to be your friend, sweetheart!”

“And that’s what you have become eventually and made me feel conflicted”, said Persephone seeing him eye to eye, “I miss my Mom. But I will remember that Hades is the only one to treat me like an adult. I have started falling in love with you”.

He feeds her with the seeds of a pomegranate knowing the terms wholehearted that, if she does that, Persephone would definitely return to him. At last, Demeter got her daughter back. In that happiness, she turned the earth green and flowery again. However, she did not get her for every time, as due to the seed of the fruit she had to return to hell. Anyone tasting the food of Hades was bound to stay in his world.

Hence, Zeus decided that during eight months in a year during summer and spring, she would stay on Olympus with his mother. For the rest four months, i.e. during the winter, she would stay with her husband in the home of death. In some version, the duration is broken into six and six months in a year.

“O, Mom! I am all right. Don’t panic.I always look up to you. I missed you and the world above. But Hades was kind to me”, convincing Demeter, Persephone urged in the assembly of Zeus, “He had showered me with gifts.”

“But, I insist you come home with me. Otherwise, I shall let all mortal on the earth die”, flared Demeter.

All of a sudden, the throne room turned dark. Hades was stepping out of the shades. The guy was holding an orange-sized fruit having strong reddish outer skin, partially eaten. All the Gods turned their heads towards him.

“Now, Persephone should return with me”, Hades calmly declared, who remained patient throughout the whole episode and not ready to give in, “She ate the fruit of my world”.

Zeus turned towards Persephone with caring eyes and enquired, “Dear daughter, please tell us, how many seeds have you ingested?”. The answer was, “Six”.

Let the dust settle”,the lord of the kings stood up and announced. The court became quiet with an anxious face.

“The girl could have been released in the condition if she was totally starving there. However, unfortunately, in the last moment, she took the pomegranate seed. The number has been six, I declare the new instruction for the girl how she would be spending every alternate six months of her life”.

Demeter had to abide by Zeus’ order.

Thus in every summer and spring, Persephone wakes up from the dead in luminous form, whose rays of lights reflected in the brownish mountainous areas- that turns her pure and graceful. Again, every time in the winter, Persephone get together with her lover on the lap of death and Demeter observe the death of his daughter every time.

It might be the fact that this story recalls the event when Greeks used to store grain underground to protect that from the summer heat. This can also refer to the practice when Greeks used to marry early teen girls, a loss to the mothers. However, the relationship between agriculture and the goddess is notably reflected in art, literature and rituals.

The mythology explains the change of seasons which is the death and rebirth of nature- the eternal cycle. It is believed by some scholars that the myth and rituals fostered in the narration denotes more perfect life after the death. This has laid the basis of Christianity in future that endorsed the concept of never-ending life.

(Shiroyone Senmaida: A Thousand of Terraced Rice Fields in Ishikawa Prefecture)

Both the lovers have the spiritual earth and underworld. The sun indicates the softer side of the soul where life, along with kindness and love, exists. On the other hand, spiritually the underworld is the darker side. Here the death resides as the resultant of cruelty and hatred.

Hades has his underworld every time without Persephone. As she moves in there, she is experiencing the spiritual underworld also. As they are together, they keep all the sorrows away and keep each other under the light of the sun.

Life is full of diversity. The cut out indicates the ending of the variety. However, whatever time we get, we need to face the music properly and fulfill life and enjoy it- this is the achievement of life. That’s what love does. It makes us happy. This life is mine- right? How I will end up can only be determined by me. This can be of bliss or of pain. Or, this can be just for the sake of living.

From what viewpoint one values life- the life would seem to be like that. One will gain life in the same way. Here, all the thoughts of life pitches in- and that is the way. We have to find ways to enjoy life without backing away and accept death with a smile. It’s fair to say that we must do such things in life so that we are not lost at sea and run away from death.

Let’s get over the fear of death, and may our life be glorious.

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