The Wisdom of Death

by Charu Ramesh

Mulla Nasrudin is with his friends drinking coffee. They are discussing death: “When you are in your casket and friends and family are mourning you, what you would like to hear them say about you?” One man says, “I would like to hear them say that I was a great doctor of my time, and a great family man.” The second says, “I would like to hear that I was a wonderful husband and school teacher who made a huge difference in our children’s lives.” Nasrudin says, “I would like to hear them say… LOOK!! HE’S MOVING!!!”

One of the greatest ironies of life is that the only thing we can be certain of is that we will die, and yet the thing we find hardest to accept and most avoid thinking about is our death. Mulla Nasrudin doesn’t even want to consider the fact that he will die! One of the reasons for this is that death poses an immense threat – it is the ultimate unknown and unknowable. We have no information about it, no understanding that anyone can give us from their experience, nothing that our minds can take as a known fact. Everything is uncertain and there is nothing to hold on to. In the face of something so far beyond our intellectual capacity, our hearts tremble. And yet the greatest danger lies in ignoring it.

In trying to avoid death, we are like children hiding under the sheets thinking that the monster cannot see us and will therefore go away. But there is no respite from our fear until we look under the bed and discover that there is no monster there. Death is our (imaginary) monster and we try all sorts of strategies to keep it at bay – from extending life, to trying to look younger than our age or trying to convince ourselves that we have many years left, when the truth is that no one knows when they will die.

The only way out of this danger is through it – to face the “monster” and discover that it is actually our truest friend; always by our side, waiting to be acknowledged so that it can teach us how to live our lives. When we accept death as our constant companion and as the one in control, our viewpoint on life changes. If there is no guarantee that I could live to see another day, another year, another decade, then what would I prioritise? What would I let go of? This is the great gift of death, that accepting the danger provides immense clarity. It shows us the preciousness of what we have been given – our life, our relationships, our bodies; it simplifies things and sharpens focus; it makes us practical and down-to-earth.

Ignoring the presence of death in our lives is living half-heartedly, never fully enjoying and appreciating what we have, always hankering for a tomorrow which may or may not come. Death makes life worth living. And once I am comfortable with death, there is nothing else that can take my composure away – it makes me uniquely prepared to deal with my other fears.  Unsurprisingly, in Hindu mythology, the God of Death, Yamaraj, is also the God of Wisdom.

So where do we go from here? How do we make death part of our lives? Given the immensity of the task, it is generally a good idea to look for some help on this path rather than going it alone – looking to the scriptures and ancient texts for guidance, talking about it with like-minded people, meditating or reflecting on it in a group setting – the more personal the work, the better. Meditation practice in particular can help bring stability and groundedness into our lives, equipping us to look at this destabilising force in the face. And so we build our capacity, one step at a time, working towards reaching a place where we can say:

Don’t stand by my grave and weep,
for I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond’s glint on the snow,
I am sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn’s rain.
Don’t stand by my grave and cry,
I am not there, I did not die.
– Unknown Native American