Love and Death
Love and Death
While true immortality could be experienced by realizing one’s soul which survives the physical death and which can neither be “cut down by any weapon nor burnt down by fire, which is neither suffocated by water nor withered by the wind,” as the Gita asserts, efforts at a conquest of death at the physical plane too constitute a significant part of the mystic lore of India.
Several hymns in the Vedas and the Upanishads carry in them the aspiration for immortality, but the first unmistakable parable expressive of man’s urge to unravel the mystery of death is to be found in the Kathopanishad, one of the major works of this genre.
Sage Vajasravas was performing a rite, which required his giving away his possessions to his guests – the other sages.
“Father, whom do you propose to offer me?” innocently asked his young son.
The sage, it appears, was in a bad mood and he blurted out, “To Yama!”
Nachiketa at once proceeded to the abode of Yama, the god of death. Since the god was away, he waited there for three days in a state of ardent devotion. Deeply impressed by the boy’s desire to carry out his father’s resolution uttered at an auspicious moment so that the elaborate rite the sage was performing did not go waste, Yama generously offered to grant any three boons the boy would like to have granted.
“Give my father peace and poise,” was the first prayer of Nachiketa. “Light my passage to the heavens!” was his second prayer and both were instantly granted. But when the young seeker wanted to know the mystery of death – the condition of one’s consciousness upon crossing the frontiers of life – Yama proved at first evasive and then clearly unwilling to satisfy his quest on this score. He offered the boy long life, pleasure, power and prosperity instead, but the boy stuck to his original query gently but determinedly, at last obliging Yama to come out with the knowledge of the soul – their dialogue forming the content of the Kathopanishad.
Nachiketa thus became the symbol of human aspiration. Needless to say, an angry father’s temporary outburst would not merit mention in the Upanishads. The sage was giving away his possessions in order to achieve liberation from attachments; Nachiketa knew his father’s attachment for him and he gave the father a chance to get rid of it. When the sage said that he had given the boy away to Yama, he in fact commissioned him to investigate into the mystery that was death. The boy waiting for the god of Death for three days meant his deep concentration on the mystery for three days.
We can also read in the legend a subtle hint at the attractions that can sway a seeker from his pursuit of true knowledge – lure of things external and transitory (longevity, pleasures, power and prosperity) juxtaposed with a craving for true knowledge. The Upanishadic vision of life, however, does not glorify spiritual knowledge at the cost of a prosperous mundane life. What is important in the Nachiketa episode is the young seeker’s uncompromising thirst for knowledge that mattered.
A long life could also be a meaningful life, dedicated to the realization of the true goal of human existence. This proposition leads us to the next significant legend:
As Sage Mrikanda was childless, he meditated on Shiva and sought the boon of a son. When faced with a choice – whether to have an ordinary son with a long life or a spiritual prodigy of only sixteen years of longevity, the sage, in accordance with his idealistic nature, chose the latter.
He was blessed with a son and he named the boy, after him, Markandeya. The child’s genius began to show before long. He became the beloved of the Rishis. But as he approached the sixteenth year of his life, his parents began shedding tears, their human attachment now coming to the forefront. The boy sought out the cause of their anguish and then retired to solitude where he sat engrossed in a trance, his consciousness admitting nothing but Shiva.
The moment of death came, but the officials of Yama failed to carry his soul away. Notwithstanding the variations of the legend (in the Bhagavatam, Markandeya Purana, Padma Purana), the theme that emerges is, the individual Markandeya ceased to be, having become totally immersed in Shiva-consciousness at a time when Yama’s summoners looked for him. Once the destined moment of death passed, he was entitled to a new destiny. It so happened that seven sages were passing by and, as he bowed to them, each one of them bestowed on him the benediction of a long life. Thus Markandeya conquered death even at the physical plane – though temporarily – by the dint of his will concentrated on Eternity (Shiva).
But the Devi Bhagavatam offers the third legend along this line with a new element. It ushers into the arena the power that is most offended by death –love!
The young Ruru fell in love with Pramodvara, the daughter of Visvavasu and the nymph, Menaka. As the young lovers were counting days for their wedding, one morning, while joyfully frolicking in the forest, Pramodvara was bitten by a snake. She fell dead.
The unexpected and brutal jolt stunned Ruru, but his ardent love and the power of his askesis won him the privilege to sacrifice half of his own life with which Pramodvara was resurrected.
This too was not a complete victory over death, but a bargain, though a lofty one, a compromise between two mighty adversaries –Death and Love.
But the most popular myth on the issue is to be found in the “Vana Parva” of the Mahabharata:
Savitri, the princess of Madra – Kanyatejaswini (the luminous maiden) – chose to marry price Satyavan of Shalwa, who lived in a forest with his exiled parents, despite the great sage Narada revealing to her the fact that the prince was to die after a year.
Sharing her husband’s humble life in his sylvan world, the princess awaited the fateful moment, unknown to others, but silently preparing herself to face it.
The day arrived. As usual Satyavan set out for the interior of the forest to collect some wood. That day Savitri accompanied him. Suddenly the prince felt giddy and lay down with his head resting on Savitri’s lap – and his spirit quietly slipped out of his body as the princess looked on.
Savitri was no ordinary mortal. Her occult vision revealed to her the god of Death present on the spot. As the god began to walk carrying with him the soul of Satyavan, Savitri follwed him. The compassionate god asked her to return home, accepting her husband’s death as an unalterable reality. When Savitri continued to follow him, the god offered her boon after boon so that she would feel happy and do his bidding. Savitri obtained boons for the restoration of her blind father-in-law’s vision as well as his kingdom – and when Yama had grown quite impatient – also the boon of mothering worthy children while remaining faithful to her husband.
It was a bit too late by the time Yama realized his faux pas. He had been outwitted.
He had to restore Satyavan to life in order to render his last boon practical.
The great truth that lay dormant beneath this myth of antiquity was traced by Sri Aurobindo and chosen as the theme of his epic, Savitri, reasserting, once again, the inexhaustible potentiality of Indian literature. Savitri outwitting the god of Death was only the contour of the story. It was, in fact, the victory of the power Love – made immensely puissant by her silent askesis – over the laws of fate. Sri Aurobindo’s epic implies that if an individual’s pure love could happily alter the destiny of another individual, an advent of Divine Love could surely forestall the arbitrary sway of death over the destiny of mankind.
For in the march of all-fulfilling Time
The hour must come to the Transcendent will
All turns and winds towards his predestined ends
In Nature’s fixed inevitable course
Decreed since the beginning of the worlds
In the deep essence of created things:
Even there shall come as a high crown of all
The end of Death, the death of Ignorance.