Life can be found only in the present moment. The past is gone, the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life, says Thich Nhat Hahn, the Zen master from Vietnam currently in India. There’s a big clue in there, surely, for how all of us might deal with the present fear, hurt, anxiety and mutual distrust between communities? There is no shame for Hindus, Muslims and Christians, in putting aside our respective doctrines and their theological constructs and hearing a voice that says what was first said by another Indian, Siddhartha. An Indian moreover, who had no truck with ‘God’ or ‘gods’ but spoke steadily and sincerely about ‘non-self’, for no heavens nor hells in the unverified hereafter can possibly compare with the very real and painful present, can it?
They say that when someone is drowning, their whole life flashes by them. People who have had near-death experiences always speak of a blinding white light that appeared to them at what seemed their last moment. And so we speak of ‘God’ as ‘Light’. But what really happens, say scientists who map the brain is that, in a near-death experience the memory rapidly reviews all its experiences for a possible life-saving experience. At the very door of death, the brain opens its last stored file, which is actually our first impression of the world: of emerging from the safe, nourishing dark of the womb, out through the birth canal…into light.
This is by no means a new idea and I keep wondering about it. The hard-headed Hindu realist in me knows that all the elaborate games we play with ourselves, the incantatory visions, the dazzling soar of the ancestral imagination into the Unknown and Unseen, the dhoop-deep-mala-tilak, are nothing but distracting showground patter. They serve to keep us from brooding over the awful Truth: that we don’t really know. The romantic in me is happy though to be seduced by the music and the poetry while the occasional stab of pure fear reminds me that not knowing simply means that the Mystery is doing its job properly, which is being a Mystery.
At some point, you don’t even want to know. We can’t avoid death, but “Please, God, don’t let me die in pain, let it be quick and painless,” you find yourself praying. At various points, when life seems too horrible and frightening to negotiate without help, it seems perfectly legit to pray: you’ve got to talk to somebody and isn’t it comforting to think it’s a Somebody? But the present is the only time, the here is worth keeping well, better than an unknown hereafter. It seems a wiser choice to balance one’s karma as much as possible in this very life, doesn’t it?
The only thing left to pray for then is an easy passing, except we don’t realise it. Our real prayer to whatever gods there be, should ask not for an easy life but an easy death. That anyway, is the true purpose of the grand Mrityunjaya Japam: ‘Om triambakam yajamahe...’ It says in essence, ‘Let me go like a ripe gourd that detaches from the plant when its time comes and falls gently to the ground.’ It is not, as many of us naturally assume from its name, a prayer for ‘longevity’ but rather a prayer for an easy passage out of this world when it’s time.
To all those who fear sudden death because of the terrible things happening in our country, there is no easy consolation or courage-making mantra except to think, “Mahashatru vinaashanam’. But who is this enemy, unseen and venomous? He is in each one of us when we think malignant thoughts about those who pray differently. So let us not, for now, admit a word from Sanatana Dharma, Islam or Christianity. They may be individually dear to us as something we were born into or choose to believe in, but there is no honour done to God by proponents of any of these faiths if they hurt others in the name of ‘their’ god by deed or word. Frankly, the most calming and comforting book I read this week was my battered copy of Old Path White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hanh. The idea of non-self is like a spa for the soul and it’s an easy yet absorbing read. Do try it.