Sunday, December 19, 2010

Life after Death

As humans, we have always been fascinated by the concept of an afterlife. The ancient Egyptians erected huge pyramids as a tribute to their departed kings, and made sure that they would have enough material comforts in the afterlife. Neanderthal human cultures from about sixty thousand years ago, had rituals for the dead that support the idea of afterlife. So, it looks like we have been sold to the idea of an afterlife for quite some time.

As our understanding of death has improved over the last few decades, so has the definition of when it occurs. Today, it is pretty much determined by the moment when all brain activity ceases in an individual. After that, according to science, we become a part of the bio-geochemical cycle, the various forces of nature take care of our mortal remains. We become one with the elements. Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust.

But, we humans simply refuse to accept that it can end so abruptly, and so mercilessly. If I built that multi-billion dollar business empire, or discovered the furthest galaxies in the universe, or wrote the book of poems that got me the Nobel prize in literature, surely, I deserve better. All this, cannot simply end like this. And thus, came afterlife.

In the ten or so thousand years of human culture, there has not been a single documented, and scientifically verifiable case of a human being, communicating from the afterlife about their existence beyond the cycle of ashes and dust. Yet, the concept persists, and all major religions in the world have a description of afterlife. There are people, who don't subscribe to any particular religious philosophy, but practice the occult, who will give you elaborate descriptions of the nether-world and what happens beyond the grave. I plan to write more on occult in some of the future posts.

Of the major religions in the world, there are two schools of thought on afterlife. The Abrahamic religions, which include Christianity, Islam and Judaism,  believe that there is a day of judgment and resurrection. Most eastern religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, believe in reincarnation, which is a natural consequence of the immortal nature of the soul. But, everyone seems to agree that once we die, everything is not finished, and something continues on. The Buddha, whom I consider to be the foremost philosopher of our times, is said to have remarked:

Life is a journey.
Death is a return to earth.
The universe is like an inn.
The passing years are like dust.

Regard this phantom world

As a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp - a phantom - and a dream.

I once attended the last rites (Shraddha) of a relative, in a Hindu temple in the United States. The ceremony was elaborate and the priest was very accomplished. At the end of the rites, I was deeply moved. I complimented him personally for conducting the ceremony so well. He told me that he actually had done doctoral work in Sanskrit and his specialization was in the funerary rites of the Hindus, about which, he had written a book. He gave me a detailed description of what happens right after the soul leaves the body, as described by the Puranas. What struck me was the amount of detail that exists in the ancient religious texts, on what happens after death. It is almost as if someone experienced the journey, and lived to talk about it.

Many of the important revelations in my own life have come to me on moving trains. I was once traveling in a train (not the Peanut Express), and amongst my co-passengers, was a neatly dressed Maulavi Sahab (A Muslim clergyman). Through the four hour journey, we talked about many things such as politics, education and sports. Not once did we discuss any religion. Then, towards the end of the journey, rather hesitantly, I inquired if I could ask him a metaphysical question. He agreed.

I asked, "Maulavi Sahab, maut ke bad kya hota hai? (Maulavi Sahab, what happens after death?)". I had expected a long lecture on heaven and hell, the day of judgment and religious values, but, with a rather bemused look on his face, he replied, "Are sahab, maut ke bad janaaza nikalta hai. (Sahab, after death, a funeral procession is taken out)".


  1. Nicely written...esp the last line...

  2. pandits/moulvis etc. are process oriented people. they don't know much philiosophy. not surprised with his reaction. he knows what to do when someone dies ie, conduct last rites etc...

  3. Anon. above: May be you are right. May be, he was just talking about the simple ceremonies that he has to take care of, as a member of the clergy, when someone passes.

    But, I learned a very deep life-lesson from that simple reply: May be, things are not that complicated after all. May be, a funeral is all that follows a person's death. And after that, only memories remain.

  4. Desi Babu, I am looking forward to your entry about occult beliefs... Hope you don't stop writing (funny enough, until your life ceases to exist...)

    The last paragraph was humourous!!!

  5. Thanks Hdaran. You will have to wait a bit for the post on occult. I am going to hang out with some Tantriks smoking contraband stuff for a while. If I don't end up being sacrificed in a ritual, I will come back and tell the story...