Death Dying and Beyond
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by Pandey, Alok
In the opening chapter of The Life Divine entitled "The Human Aspiration" Sri Aurobindo states that God, Light, Freedom, Immortality are the "earliest preoccupation of man". Of the four, man has always been fascinated by the prospect of immortality, including permanence in his bodily existence. Cross-cultural experience, as manifest in systems of knowledge, culture, folklore, and life values, confirms this abiding desire in man. From the Upanishadic story of Nachiketa's famous encounter with Death to the various accounts on the subject in the Mahabharata, from The Egyptian Book of the Dead to the mystical seances and Near Death Experiences (NDEs) recorded in modern medical science and parapsychology—all testify to the mystery and enigma called death. Not surprisingly, death is a recurrent motif in some of the greatest literatures of the world.
At the heart of Sri Aurobindo's thought and vision, and central to his philosophical enquiry, is the question of death. His celebrated poem Love and Death, modeled after earlier literary traditions, matches his later magnum opus Savitri, which is a more accomplished and esoteric interpretation of the Mahabharata legend. Similarly, in the Mother's case, we see an abiding interest in the nature of death, from her earlier mystical experiences in Paris, Algeria and Japan to her fascinating conversations recorded later in the Agenda. It is therefore wholly fitting that a comprehensive volume called Death, Dying and Beyond has now been published by the Sri Aurobindo Society, Pondicherry.
Although the topic of death could be approached from many disciplinary perspectives, arguably a psychologist or a psychiatrist, rooted in a vibrant and futuristic spiritual tradition, can do special justice to this difficult question. Dr. Pandey, a follower of the Mother and Sri Aurobindo, has been able to observe and study several encounters with death in the course of his medical practice. There is thus a degree of appropriateness in his handling of the theme. There is also a poet in Alok Pandey, as seen throughout the volume. How else can the treatment of death be saved from slipping into a mood of despair and pessimism, the fate other such accounts are bound to suffer without the help of a poetic spirit?
Significantly enough, the study does not boil down to a chronicle of medical cases or terminally ill patients who have reported Near Death Experiences. Alok Pandey has been refreshingly original and eclectic in his approach. The book was initially conceived as the outcome of a seminar. But as Pandey explains in the Preface, this idea was soon given up and the attempt was to make instead "an all-comprehensive book that would cover all aspects of the mystery of Death". Pandey acknowledges the wonderful efforts of all the team members who helped bring this book to print.
It is not easy to categorize this work. Divided into nine sections, the volume is part commentary and part compilation of quotations, experiences, case histories, and anecdotes. Some of the latter are given in the form of appendices. The decision to adopt this editorial approach may not have been an easy one. The uneasiness of the decision is occasionally reflected in the text. At such times, one feels that it might have been better to avoid longer quotations or extracts in favor of a largely authorial treatment.
It is difficult to summarize a book of nearly 330 pages. What I shall therefore attempt here is to highlight some salient features, drawing attention to the overall thematic design and framework of the study.
I liked the opening quotation from the Mother which reflects essentially the spirit of Pandey's work:
From birth to death, life is a dangerous thing.
The brave pass through it without care for the risks.
The prudent take precautions.
The cowardly are afraid of everything.
But ultimately, what happens to each one is only
what the Supreme Will has decided.
In the opening chapter Alok Pandey explains death as "first the process of decay and disintegration that is almost a part of all material forms we know upon earth". Similarly, he shows us that thoughts and ideas die too. At the physical level of the cells death is a necessity. It is also "a necessity so long as we live in the separate ego sense". The author introduces concepts like apoptosis (programmed cell death) or necrosis (abrupt cell death), trance, catalepsy, and ecstasy. There is the story of the Pilot Baba and allusions to the hibernation of animals and reptiles, like snakes, that defy the traditional signs of death. Paul Brunton's account of the Yogi called Brama is an extremely engaging one. The Yogi here is able to stop his breathing progressively and stop completely the beating of his heart.
What are the stages that an individual being passes through at the time of death? According to Pandey, they are three: the decentralization of the universal will that unites the organism, the withdrawal of the mind and the life-force, and the point of no return, when decomposition sets in and the being that inhabited the body moves on.
Physical immortality with all the limitations of the human body is not necessarily a boon. Ashwatthama's fate, "to live for 300 years wandering alone upon the earth carrying the stench of blood, the horrors of the war weighing heavily on his soul", could hardly be an enviable one.
Expression of grief seems inevitable in a given community at the time of death. Even animals such as dogs and cats are known to go through a process of grief. Alok Pandey points out the right attitude to be maintained at the time of death of a person close to us. He gives us practical suggestions and explains the meaning of rituals. He brings in the moving story of Ruru and Pramadvara. In the Appendix to "The Shroud of Death" we find interesting excerpts regarding the death of young ones, the fear of death and four methods of conquering it, music for the departed soul, and wisdom from The Tibetan Book of the Dead. In fact, the entire book is sprinkled with many fine quotations from the writings of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother and other spiritual literature.
The chapter "Beyond Death" should interest us the most. Here, as inSavitri, death is aptly described as a passage through the inner worlds. Pandey deals successively with subjects such as self-experience after death, ghosts, the reality of heaven and hell, recollections of past life, the soul's choice, and the cessation of the cycle of birth and death. Appendix IV, "Beyond Death" brings in interesting experiences and stories.
The chapter entitled "The Ancient Debate" foregrounds the question whether the soul exists or not. Extracts from the book Life After Life, by Raymond Moody, lend authenticity to our understanding of reported phenomena such as out of body experiences, beings of light met on the other side, and the sensation of being pulled back from death into the body. And in the following chapter the author presents some of the ethical and moral issues associated with death and dying, many of which have no easy answers and therefore pose difficult problems for both the dying and their caretakers.
And finally the chapter "Towards a Vision of the Future" outlines a new understanding of death, as the evolution of the human race reaches beyond the mental being. Here Pandey brings in various perspectives such as that of the scientist and the occultist. He speaks of the traditional understanding of immortality as well as the new promise of a glorious body.
Death, Dying and Beyond is a handy volume that contains all that you wanted to know about death. It is well written, well researched, readable, and admirably documented. The length may appear to be somewhat forbidding to the lay reader though, and in the next edition some of the longer extracts could be shortened. That would make the book neater and more appealing.
For Alok Pandey, of course, the book is clearly a labor of love. Death, Dying and Beyond is a collector's item and should appeal to a wide audience of interested readers.
S. Mohanty is Professor of English Literature at the University of Hyderabad.
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