Is there an Indian approach to ageing? - Hindustan Times

Is there an Indian approach to ageing?

Apr 13, 2024 09:38 PM IST

Sure, we are trying our best to stave off the ills of ageing, but there is no guarantee that we will succeed. There is no single blueprint for ageing well.

When I read the recently released Lancet study that says we are all going to live longer, my first thought was, “Now what?” Sure, we are trying our best to stave off the ills of ageing, but the point is that there is no guarantee that we will succeed. There is no single blueprint for ageing well. There are whacko schemes like tech entrepreneur Brian Johnson touting his “longevity mix” (also called Blueprint) as being second only to mother’s milk. Nice line, but do you really have the discipline, not to mention the money to take the 100 or so supplements he consumes every day? Maybe I should go back to drinking that Kerala red rice congee my Dad loved.

How then to live well and die quickly?(Unsplash) PREMIUM
How then to live well and die quickly?(Unsplash)

The quest for longevity is most extravagantly displayed in America among rich, white men. Some like Peter Attia and David Sinclair are medical experts who write books on how to “outlive” death and improve your “lifespan”. Some like Tim Ferriss and Andrew Huberman host hugely successful podcasts. Huberman’s shine has waned since a New York magazine profile accused him of being in a relationship with five women simultaneously and lying to all of them. Here then is the paradox. All of these “wellness bros” as they are called, blather on about journaling, meditation, and the importance of relationships. Yet, most of them are single, divorced, and have dysfunctional relationships. They may swallow supplements but don’t want to do the hard work of maintaining connections with and taking care of parents, children and spouses. Instead, they obsess about their health on a scale that would make Narcissus jealous. Consider Ari Emanuel, Hollywood super-agent and brother of politician Rahm Emanuel. As he recounted on the Freakonomics podcast, his fitness regimen includes wearing a mask that simulates being at 22,000 feet while sprinting and doing HYPOXI training that demands specialised expensive equipment. How many folks can afford this?

The Lancet study says that Indians are living eight years longer than they did three decades ago. The next frontier is to put off the precipitous decline that comes with ageing. Ten years ago, Ezekiel Emanuel — Ari’s brother — wrote an essay in The Atlantic called, “Why I hope to die at 75”. It talked about the burdens that ageing folks place on their family and on society at large. This article has stayed with me as I watch the elders around my age.

Today, by virtue of luck or location, I am in the position of watching not just my mother (age 86) and mother-in-law (age 90) age, but also watch uncles and aunts in their eighties and nineties at close quarters mostly because their children live elsewhere. Each of them has aged differently with variations of dementia, deafness, pain, imbalance and frailty striking in varying proportions. How then to live well and die quickly?

India may have an answer. Our approach to ageing is through samadhi or merging with the divine. All the faiths that populate this land are suffused by devotion or bhakti that subjugates the ego and sublimates the self in favour of union with something bigger. We don’t seek to conquer death; we seek to dissolve into it. It is a very different mindset.

My mother chants the sankalpa mantra every day — the same one that priests chant before a havan or homam as we call it in South India. Basically, you situate yourself in space and time and ask for blessings including ayur (longevity), arogya (health), aishwarya (prosperity) and more. You also ask that dangers and evil be warded off. But here is the interesting thing. The line used to banish obstacles, dangers and evil is peculiar. It says, “Let all dangers be pacified (become peaceful)”. “Let them become shanti-fied,” is the translation. This is not an active, aggressive approach. We don’t seek to conquer, outlast, outlive, vanquish. We accept and pacify the dangers. We offer them peace so they don’t mess with us.

My father had Lewy body dementia for the last three years of his life. He developed hallucinations, speech slurred, and his body grew rigid. He wanted to die. When he was in his sixties, he often said that euthanasia ought to be an option for the old. “If we can force birth by C-section, why can’t we force death through euthanasia?” he would say. I think about this too, particularly since it is legal in some European countries. It seems like something I would want, depending on the illness I develop. It seems like something I would put in my living will — which if you haven’t written, you should.

Euthanasia may be a pipe dream but at least I can cultivate our Indian idea of accepting and pacifying all the bad energies that come my way. That’s my blueprint for ageing.

Shoba Narayan is a writer and journalist. The views expressed are personal

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