In a new book, insightful thoughts on readying for life’s final exam
Author, journalist and economist Arun Shourie’s newest book is a meditation on death. It’s an extension of his evolving interest in religion, spirituality and philosophy, which formed the themes of two earlier books — Does He Know a Mother’s Heart? (2011; a look at explanations various religions offer for the fact of human suffering) and Two Saints (2017; an exploration of how we account for the experiences of mystics).
In Preparing: For Death (2020), Shourie examines the final days and thoughts of sainted men including Gautama Buddha, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Mahatma Gandhi, and Acharya Vinoba Bhave. A thread that unites them all, he says, is that they thought a great deal about death, as they did about how to live a life that was worthwhile.
“The fact that death is certain has become all the more compelling by thinking and reading about it for two years,” Shourie told Wknd. “The lessons that we must prepare for it, that the preparation is difficult, and therefore we should begin early and persevere throughout our lives, have been driven deeper for me.”
This preparation is not easy. “Even if we have attended on many others whom we have loved — like our parents — when they were dying, our own death will be a first-time experience. It will be a shattering experience. For both reasons we should begin learning the necessary skills early,” Shourie said. Here’s how he recommended one go about doing that:
Build an awareness of death: We avert our gaze and our thoughts from death. The usual refrain is “Yes, yes, I know I will die but...” But the Buddha placed great emphasis on reversing this complacence. “In Buddhist monasteries, this is considered so important that quite often skeletons are displayed in the meditation hall,” Shourie writes. It important to face the inevitability of our end, he adds, and plan life accordingly.
Accept that death is difficult: Unless we die in an instant, which is rare, death necessarily involves a tumultuous transition for the body. A process of being less and less in control of it. The only entity we retain control over is the mind. But control over the mind in the days, weeks and months leading up to death, is only possible through years and years of practice.
Seek mindfulness not revulsion of the body: The Buddha preached that one ought not to be repulsed by one’s body but aware of it and its frailties and limitations. “The purpose of learning to be mindful of our breath, of sensations, of emotions... is to weaken our identification with our body,” Shourie writes.
Move towards a realisation of the self beyond the flesh: We are not the body. Almost every faith preaches this, as well as almost every philosophy. The real you is a universal self. Recognise this universal self within you and even death loses much of its threatening aspect.
Live the now: Despite the abstract nature of his subject matter, Shourie’s examination is driven by logic, his interpretations grounded in realism. He talks about making that call you had promised to make. Going through with that planned meeting. Live every day well and aim to leave nothing unresolved.