THE RIDDLE OF THE SPHINX: It’s Relevance in our Time in Regard to Life and Death

One of India’s finest writers of fiction, eminent thinker, philosopher, essayist nonpareil, and Ravenshavian extraordinary, Manoj Das delivered the Fourth Ravenshaw Memorial Lecture-2010 on 20 and 22 March 2010 at the historic Heritage Hall of Ravenshaw University. He delivered the lecture in two parts, in English and Oriya.

The subject of his English lecture on 20 March was The Riddle of Sphinx (Its Relevance in our Time in Regard to Life and Death) and that of his Oriya lecture on 22 March was AjiraJibanareBiswas O Bandhuta (Reflections on the Changing Concepts of Values in our Time). A large number of students, faculty and intellectuals attended the lecture and interacted with the renowned writer.

It’s Relevance in our Time in Regard to Life and Death

This is undoubtedly a great honour for a backbencher student of erstwhile Ravenshaw College to be invited to deliver the prestigious Ravenshaw Memorial Lecture. Thank you so much.

You all know there is a proverb, ‘A good picture does not need a frame.’ Probably, a good picture needs a frame. But sometimes the frame may be more beautiful than the picture and that is a very critical situation for the picture itself. The very affectionate introduction that DevdasBabu gave is a beautiful frame. But I do not know how much you can expect from the picture. There was a time when I would like to speak on academic subjects. I was not an academician myself but as one grows old–and I am pretty old now–I do not have any enthusiasm for speaking on any subject which does not have a very direct relation to our life. And, despite all the glamour and dazzle of modern life, I come to realise more and more the fact that people are still primeval in their original desires and missions, feelings and emotions. I remember an incident many years ago. I was flying from Delhi to Chennai. A very great intellectual was seated next to me. He was a rationalist par excellence and an eminent professor. In the course of our conversation, he suddenly asked me what I thought about his age. I said, “Well you must be about 65.” He laughed and said, “You say 65. People say I am 55. But I am really 75.” I was astonished and asked him, “But what is the secret of your looking 65 or 55, when you’re 75?” He said, “One secret is that I have no fear. I do not fear anybody. I don’t fear even God.” I said, “That’s really wonderful.” I believe God does not like anybody to be afraid of Him. And if at all there is God, my concept of God is that it does not expect fear from anybody. But not to be afraid of God is also a grace of God and you are that much courageous. Yes, all my life I have fought against the authorities. I don’t fear anybody. As we were talking, a terrible storm–one of the rarest of rare storms I have ever experienced in flights–came and the flight started moving like a bullock cart. I looked at this courageous man. His face was pale and after some time he asked me, “Mr. Young Man, is it going to be catastrophic?” I said, “I’m afraid it is so or it could be. But why are you afraid of it? When you are not afraid of anything, not even God, why you should be afraid of storm at all?” He said, “No, No. I am not afraid of anything. The only thing is that I have still lot of commitments in my life and if the flight does not land in Chennai in 45 minutes as per schedule, I would be in great trouble.” The flight however got diverted to Bangalore and as it landed in Bangalore, I found him very much relieved. That day I realised that when he said that he did not fear anybody he was not bluffing. He believed that he did not fear anybody in his real life and he must have fought against many obstacles. But deep down his subconscious, the fear of death immediate end is definitely there. This is just an instance.

I’m a very humble seeker and nothing more than that. I do not have any authority to speak on a subject but the fact is that I live in an ashram–in the ashram of a great genius like Sri Aurobindo. I receive numerous queries, letters and observations from people, and by and by I realise that despite all that glamour and dazzle of modern life how helpless people are as far as the inner feelings and desires are concerned. Whenever I begin to speak, I always remember a statement of Will Durant, the famous philosopher and historian, said 60 years ago: “I believed I knew everything. Today I know nothing.” Education is the progress of discovery of one’s ignorance. How ignorant we are of life, and naturally, of death also. As a seeker, I have seen there are certain types of human quests which have never grown old. DevdasBabu reminded us that the earliest known Sphinx is 8,000 B.C. old, i.e., 10,000 years old. Ten thousand years ago, the human quest had taken a certain form and the finding of the quest and the result of the quest had also taken a certain form which remains embedded in this myth. You know sometimes myth can be treasures and great custodies of wisdom, and one such myth is the myth of the Sphinx. He has already given you the physical description of the Sphinx: the face of a woman, the body of a lion, the serpent for a tail and the posture of a dog. Some Sphinxes have also wings, but the Sphinx which is found near Giza does not have wings now. What is this myth of the Sphinx along a deserted road on a hillock? We do not know for how many centuries this strange creature planted itself on the hillock and asked passersby to stop and answer to a riddle before proceeding further. The bizarre creature would command them, “You have to answer my question in order to proceed further and I give you time till sunset. If you fail to answer my question, you will forfeit your life.” What is the question? Who is the creature who walks on four legs in the morning, walks on two legs as the day grows, and walks on three legs in the evening? Well, even if the whole Encyclopedia Britannica is inside your memory, can you find out who is this strange creature? No. You will scratch your head. When the hapless traveler fails to solve the riddle by sunset, the creature would ruthlessly pounce upon him and tear him asunder. It went on like that, as DevdasBabu reminded you, until Oedipus, the hero, happened to pass by the creature. When the same question was put to him, his answer was immediate: “I am the answer.” Remember, he said that he was the answer. The Sphinx was surprised and asked, “What do you mean to say?” He said, “Man is the answer to your question. Man walks on all fours–two hands and two legs–in the morning (infancy) of his life. As the day (adulthood) grows, he walks on two legs, and in the evening (old age) of his life, he takes recourse to a third leg, a supporting stick.” The moment the answer was given, the Sphinx jumped down to his own death. The symbolism is obvious. That the day man known himself, death seizes to be a reality. Ten thousand years have passed but death has not seized to be a reality for us. Now we must know ourselves. Well, don’t we know ourselves? Indeed we know. But it is a million dollar question. We do not have the time today to reflect on the question: Do I know myself? It is of course necessary, but not for any philosophical wisdom. It is necessary for our daily pattern of life. We are already needing and hankering for at least some satisfaction of existence. This satisfaction cannot come to us. This is my firm belief and I assure you that this satisfaction cannot come to us unless we reflect on this question. Do we really know ourselves? Bracketed between a date of birth and a date of death, how can I claim that I know myself? I do not know why I was born and where I was born. I do not even know when and how my end will come, in a sudden or prolonged way. I do not know even what will happen in the next day. Yet, can I say that I know myself? The whole life is a progress towards knowledge. The moment I am born as a child, I am trying to know the world through my cry, through my toddling, through movements of my hands and eyes. I want to know the world. I want to feel my mother who has given me birth. I want to know the people around me. I want to know about the nature. Yes, the day begins with a wonderful innocence. Let me present to you in a very brief outline the latest discovery of child psychology. Professor Karen Wynn of the University of Yale, one of the eminent child psychologists of our time, and his team engaged themselves for a long time to find out at which point of time a child develops the sense of discrimination between bad and good. We know that a child never learns to love a flower by training. A child can never be taught to love a beautiful flower. Either it is there in his consciousness or it is not there at all. The sense of good and bad is certainly there in a child. They carried out an experiment before a six-month-old child. In the experiment, the child was shown the vision of a mountain which looked more beautiful towards the top. He was shown a man trying to climb the mountain and as he is trying to climb atop, one object tries to stop the man’s progress while another object tries to help him to climb further and reach the top. The child was shown both the objects. The child’s hand automatically went to the object which was helping the man to climb. The conclusion of the experiment is that, the sense of support for that which is desirable, for that which is progressive, is already inherent in the child. What happens thereafter? I think it was Ogden Nash who wrote, “Where do all these golden children go to? Are they stupid human beings they go to?” Well, we do not know where these golden children go to. But, as the child grows, he becomes more and more shrouded by layers and layers of collective perceptions of the society, collective rules of modernity, morality, etc and all his life becomes a struggle against external circumstances, competition or struggle for survival, and competition for external growth. But eventually, the inner being is forgotten. That is what has happened. But ultimately, a time comes when he suddenly becomes aware of the fact that his life is coming to an end. Survey shows that a kind of remorse, a kind of melancholy takes hold of the character. And today it is more and more, because longevity or the span of life has grown. But along with this span of life, our vital energy, nothing has grown.

I must come back to the right point because it is a very long subject. Which attitudes tend towards this impending doom called death? Well, there are several attitudes. The first attitude is nature, which has given us a kind of indulgent ignorance about our life. But I don’t believe this. The Mahabharata says every moment people are dying but those who are alive behave as if they are never going to die. We know that Julius Caesar once said to his wife that when every day human beings are dying why one should be afraid of death. But we are all afraid of death. Nature has put a device on people, which ceases them to think about death. One classic example is the longest serving dictator of the twentieth century, General Francisco Franco of Spain. It is recorded that when he was dying at a pretty old age and doctors were attending him, they announced in every five hours bulletin that any moment he may die. His Council of Ministers came and waited in the adjacent room to see him. Suddenly he came back from coma state for a moment and asked his physician about the persons talking in the adjoining room. The physician thought it wise to speak the truth. He said, “Well, my Lord, they are the members of your own council of ministers. He asked, “Why are they here?” He said, “They have come here to bid you goodbye.” He asked again, “Goodbye! Where are they going?” That was his last question. He had never thought that he would be going. This is the first strategy that the nature has built an inbuilt psychological system in most of the people’s consciousness.

The second strategy is, as one eminent psychologist has formulated, we have a sense of continuity through our children. Many of you might have read the great classic fiction Rob Roy by Sir Walter Scott. He was a real collector like Robin Hood of Scotland. It is a biographical work. It is really a biography. Rob Roy was a bandit and an adventurer but a helper of the depressed and the oppressed. He looted and plundered big landlord’s wealth tyrannically in those days and distributed their wealth among the poor and the needy. He was always with a gun. But when Rob Roy was waiting for death in his deathbed and it was certain that he would die soon, his priest came and asked him, “Rob Roy, now it’s time to pardon your enemies for that way your salvation will be ensured.” He said, “Oh no! I cannot pardon my enemies.” The priest said, “As a well wisher, I’m advising you to pardon your enemies.” He went on insisting upon that he must pardon his enemies. Then he said grimly, “Alright, I will pardon my enemies.” Then he looked at his son and said, “My son, but you don’t so.” It is the continuity of his own actions. This is the second strategy of nature. I’m giving some very broad outlines of these various strategies as we approach death.

The third strategy is accepting death as reality. The Buddha himself gave an example. When he returned to Kapilavastu for a brief period, a young mother whom he knew as a girl came to him with her dead child and said, “Gautama, I believe that you have become the Buddha, the Enlightened One. You have miraculous powers. Please resurrect my child.” The Buddha said, “Well I’ll do but on one condition. Just bring me a handful of mustard seeds from any house. The woman said, “Oh yes, surely.” He said, “But bring only from that house where death has never occurred.” She rushed to collect mustard seeds but came back disappointed after frantic search and said, “Gautama, you knew the obvious answer. Why did you ask me to undertake the strenuous exercise?” Gautama said, “My dear little sister, even if you know something theoretically it is a big distance between theoretical knowledge and realisation of a particular knowledge.” He said, “For your realisation of the fact that death has never spared any family and one should not expect death to spare somebody, I had to ask you to undergo the futile exercise.” This is the third attitude towards death.

The fourth attitude is the attitude of revolt against death. And very broadly speaking, there are three lines along which this revolt against death has continued. Doctors have tried their best to contribute to the continuation of our life by defeating disease. Occultists have tried to find out secret laws of nature. Two thousand years ago, Qin Shi Huangdi, the first great Emperor of China, practically spent a half of the income of his entire empire in finding out the elixir of immortality. But he could not succeed. If you have read Paul Brunton’s authentic book “A Search in Secret India”, you must have seen how all prudence is sought in the book. Brunton was an Englishmen but he was a great seeker. He was the man who introduced RamanaMaharshi to the Western world. He never wanted to claim for any discovery. He was a very humble seeker. In his book, he has narrated his encounter with a person called Brama who demonstrated before him the technique of completely suspending breathing in and breathing out for a couple of hours. Can any doctor accept the impossible fact that one could still be alive after completely suspending breathing for two hours? But it so happened. This experiment has also been shown even in our time. I also know a person who could do it. But Brama says, as Brunton writes, once you accept that this is possible in principle even when clinical death has been announced, and once you believe that this has been possible for a short time, in principle you have to accept also that it can be possible for a longer time.

The last is the spiritual way. The spiritual way is not to be confused with any religious tradition or religious way. The spiritual way is based on this theory, both in Yoga and in Tantra, that nothing can exist which in principle is not a power of the divine, or which is anti-divine or un-divine. Gross matter may not have consciousness consciously, but consciousness would not have evolved out of gross matter unless matter was also at some level, conscious. Not conscious according to the dictionary definition, but conscious according to the highest possible spiritual vision. Nothing can come to consciousness which is not conscious. So, if consciousness and the divine are the same and divine is immortal, there is no reason why we must accept death as an absolute certainty, and something which is an invincible effecter of our life. Based on this, the spiritual quest has gone for a long time. Let us have a very brief outline. You see, in the whole history of Indian mythology–there are also many brilliant instances in other mythologies–we see that the first quest for immortality began with the SamudraManthan (churning of the ocean). But at that time the danavas (demons) were tricked out by the devas (gods) of the privilege of getting nectar because their consciousness was something which was dark, lustful and full of arrogance. So, in principle, it was decided that immortality would belong to those who were enlightened and who aspired to grow. This is a primeval myth. There is also a very old myth belonging to the pre-epic days. There was a rishi (sage) called Mrikanda in the Kathopanishad. We all know the story of Nachiketa. But the story is very clumsily told. It does not mean anything according to the story as popularly read. Rishi Vajasabhas was performing a yajna in course of which he was gifting away all his property, even his own son. His son came to him and asked him whom he was giving him away. As the son believed that he was also the property of his father, the rishi didn’t not say anything. When he asked his father again, he said furiously, “I give you to Yama”. This little boy immediately set off to the abode of Yama. But Yama was not there. For three days and three nights, he kept standing waiting for his return. And when Yama returned, he was so much impressed to see the boy in his abode that he offered him three boons. In his third boon, Nachiketa demanded to know the mystery of death and what happens to the human spirit after the body has fallen. Yama was very reluctant to answer his questions and instructed him to ask for anything else. But Nachiketa was adamant. For the first time, the mystery of the soul was revealed that essentially man is immortal and because man does not know that there is a soul beneath his vital crust, life crust and mental crust, he dies. This is the second instance.

The third instance is Rishi Mrikanda. He wanted the boon of a son as he had no son. He was given an alternative by Lord Shiva: a son who will leave for a hundred years but will be an idiot, or a son who will live for only 12 years but will be a prodigy and a genius. He chose for the second alternative. The son was called Markanda. He became a great scholar of the Vedas at the tender age of eight. But as he entered the twelfth year, his parents began to shed tears as at the end of the year they would be losing their son. Ignorant of his pre-destination, one day Markanda asked them, “What is the matter? Why are you crying?” They declared the truth to him. He said, “Well, leave the matter to me.” He retired to a lonely place a month before his scheduled date of death. Well, the story and the allegory are quite different. You find in calendars pictures of Yamadutas (messengers of death) coming to Markanda and trying to throw a noose around his neck, and Shiva coming with his trident to scare away the Yamadutas. But it is not like that. In Nachiketa’s time, the story was very simple but it was quite absurd. Nachiketa went to his father and asked him whom he was giving him away. He knew that his father’s attachment to him was very deep. Well, the particular yajna which he was performing was designed to free him from all kinds of worldly attachments. The wise son knew that as long as his father is attached to him he would never succeed in getting the perfect siddhi from the yajna. When his father said that he was giving him to Yama, what he was doing was that he was commissioning him or giving a commission to do a research on the mystery of death. Nachiketa waited for three days and three nights in front of Yama’s citadel. Well, Yama has no address, no house number or street number. In fact, all these days he remained absorbed in his own consciousness to find out the right answer to this very question of soul. And he got it at last.

Now coming to Markanda, it was not that the Yamadutas came and tried to take him away. When he sat down concentrating on Shiva–Shiva means eternity–the individual Markanda ceased to exist. He was one with the eternity when the moment of his death came. And when the Yamadutas came, they didn’t find any individual Markanda. The fateful moment passed. And once the fateful moment passed, a new destiny must belong to him. At that time, seven rishis passed by him and he prostrated before each one them and all of them said ‘Live long’ and blessed him with long life.

The next instance in Indian mythology is that of a young man named Ruru and his lover. They were stuck in love with each other and had decided to marry. One day Ruru had gone to the forest to get some flowers to make a garland for her. As his lover was watching him from a distance, the next moment she succumbed to a serpent bite. Ruru came running and embraced her in his arms. He could judge from her eyes that she didn’t want to die leaving him alone. But she died. This is for the first time that the God of love came to him and gave him an entry card for entering into the nether world of the dead. He went there and finds out his lover’s soul. He bargains with the God of death to take away half of his life and restore his lover to the other half of his life. It’s a bargain, but bargain with the help of love. For the first time it’s not life and death, but love and death opposed to each other. You suffer for someone’s death who you love.

Then the next and final instance in Indian mythology is the popular legend of Savitri. Savitri decided to marry Satyavan even though she knew that Satyavan would live for only one more year. She prepared herself to face the fatal, ominous day. The fateful day came. Satyavan died with his head on her lap in the forest. But the determination which she had organized within herself during the year through tapasya (penance) forced the Lord of Death to spare her husband from the clutches of death. The pre-Mahabharata legend of Princess Savitri of the Kingdom of Madra (now in present Afghanistan), which was narrated by Markanda to Yudhistira long ago and was lying dormant in the pages of Indian Mythology, suddenly sprang to life in Sri Aurobindo’s revelatory mantric epic poem, ‘Savitri’. He named it ‘Savitri: A Legend and a Symbol’. A symbol because a day may come when one individual’s love, which should be purified divine love, would defeat death in the destiny of another person. A day may come when the advent of divine love would conquer death for the entire humanity. But, of course, it has to be deserving humanity, not the humanity as it is today.

Side by side, the physical science is struggling. You know better the great developments achieved in the realm of medicine and surgery. The most interesting work was published in the year 1980. Alvin Silverstein, one of the front ranking physicians of the United States, has written in his book ‘Conquest of Death’ about the major killers namely cancer, diabetes, heart problems and accidents. It is a book written by a medical expert, not by a layman, poet nor by someone who is emotionally overwhelmed. He says in his book that by the turn of the century sure cure must have been found for all these diseases and accident will be the only factor of death. He says that if one survives the coming two decades, he or she may be a member of the first generation of immortals. Then, on the horizon of human destiny, another disease appeared. AIDS. A disease about which nobody had any guess or idea, and that reminds me of a small footnote Sri Aurobindo has given to one of the chapters of his magnum opus ‘Life Divine’: ‘The day will come when experts will proclaim that panacea for death has been invented but unless the soul has found a right medium for progressive expression of itself under some pretext, it will leave the body.’ Has the time come? Probably yes. Somewhere in the distant horizon, the hour is striking. In 1984, the World Health Organisation (WHO) sent a very unusual and long circular to the Director General of Health Services, Government of India. I had the privilege to read it in brief. It was like this: ‘As you know, today many of the physical diseases are being eradicated but the rate of mental abnormalities is increasing.’ In one of the hospitals in the Scandinavian countries, one of my friends was the Director General of Health Services at that time. When he went to a hospital, he found that out of 200 beds, only 30 beds were occupied and all other were lying vacant. He felt guilty thinking of the hospitals in India which are overcrowded all the time. Next year he went to a mental hospital and found that all the 200 beds were full and 100 patients were on the waiting list. So this is the situation. The circular gave an interesting instance. Two persons were suffering from the same mental abnormality and symptoms, both came from the same age group and same cultural milieu, same treatment was given to both the patients, and their physical, mental and emotional response was recorded meticulously. Suddenly it was seen that while one patient remained unchanged, the other patient became alright suddenly and entirely even though he had also the same recordings of the recovery process. Well, we know how the body was reacting, how the mind was reacting, how the vital and the emotional part was reacting. Then who else was there in that person who reacted in a way that resulted in complete cure of the person. So, is there a fourth faculty to human health? In India, there has been a research on this subject since a long time. The Director General of Health Services, Government of India was asked if he can hold a very exclusive workshop of doctors, surgeons, psychiatrists, psychologists and students of mysticism. I was one of them in the last category. It was a beautiful workshop. The book was published by WHO namely ‘The Fourth Dimension of Health’. It was concluded that it is high time to take cognizance of the fact that there is a factor called ‘X’–soul is a hackneyed term–which is deep within the human being and which contributes to the process of recovery of a person suffering from any kind of mental abnormality. I do not know what happened thereafter. It was for the first time that a body of scientists took cognizance of the fact that there is a possibility of another thing beyond or beneath mind, life and body which can dictate the well-being of a human being.

Dear friends, suppose tomorrow we go immortal, what will happen? I’ll conclude with a warning given by none other than Oscar Wilde. It is in the form of a one page story. As you know Jesus Christ performed many miracles in His life. Among them, three specific miracles are noteworthy. He cured a leper. He gave eyes to a blind man. And, he resurrected a dead man. In the story, one day Jesus Christ had come down to earth and went to a city in a dark night. As he entered the city, he heard a very lusty music being played loudly from a hall. He entered the hall and saw a man enjoying a very vulgar dance. He met him, patted on his back and said, “What are you doing?” The man looked at Him and said, “O my Lord, I know who you are. When I was blind, you had given me vision. Well, how should I use my vision if not in this way?” Jesus sighed and left the place. Then He saw on the street a young man trying to take hold of a young woman who is coyly playing with him. She’s only pretending to escape from his clutches as she doesn’t really want to leave him. Jesus went to the young man and stood in front of him. The man said, “O my Lord, I know who you are. When I was a leper, you cured me and gave this beautiful body. Well, how should I use this if not in this way?” Jesus sighed and left the town. On the outskirts of the town, he saw a dejected man shedding tears near a lake. He went to him, patted on his back and asked, “Why are you crying?” The man looked at Him and said, “O my Lord, I know who you are. When I was dead, you gave me life. Well, how should I use it if not weep away my life in this way?” Jesus sighed and went back to his abode.

This is a wonderful comment on the present human consciousness. What are we going to do with the prolonged life? Now time has come to ask ourselves this critical question. The more we come closer to the answer to this question, our attitudes to values will change. Nothing will change externally. Everything will remain same. We’ll be as modern as we are but still our inner attitude and inner dependence on something which is greater than what we know of our mind, body and life, and the faith on that will develop and grow.

The Riddle of the Sphinx will be solved that day when we know our Inner Self or the Second Self.

Ladies and gentlemen, I must thank you very much for a patient hearing.

(Transcribed and edited by VirajShukla)


About Manoj Das

For thousands of men, women and children of the past two or three generations, Manoj Das has been the very synonym of light and delight, whose writings in Odia and English inspire in his countless readers faith in the purpose of life and also open up concealed horizons of confidence and compassion in humanity a dire need today.