While I thought I was learning to live, I have been learning how to die,” wrote the genius Leonardo Da Vinci (1452–1519) in his Notebook. We do not know at which stage of his life he woke up to the process of his learning running contrary to the direction intended by him.Also, we do not know how many succeed in learning to die, but when one delegates the responsibility of bringing about one’s end to others, it becomes a colossal burden and a formidable crisis of conscience for the others concerned.
This crisis has been tackled differently by different nations. In the Indian context, the Supreme Court has come to the rescue of those obliged to face the situation. It has declared legal the ‘living will’ executed by terminally-ill patients for passive euthanasia, or letting a patient suffering from an incurable disease die a gentle and easy death under medical care.
The reaction this development has created is one of widespread relief and happiness, practically among all sections of people. Intellectuals and social workers have hailed it as epoch-making. Some reservations have been voiced on the possibility of the misuse of the rules framed for the practical application of this radical new provision. That was expected. However, while no person with a rational approach to life and death could differ from the judgment, this author humbly suggests that we could review the issue from an angle which should not be dismissed as irrational, but should be considered as a rational proposition from a different plane of reality.
It was way back in 1978 that the World Health Organisation first felt the need for enlarging its standing definition of health, a “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” to include in its scope an area of consciousness that seemed to have played an important, if enigmatic, role in deciding the fate of one’s life. A serious workshop convened by WHO at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, Bangalore, bringing together some of India’s acclaimed physicians, psychologists, neuroscientists, jurists, as well as a few scholars in spirituality, unanimously resolved that it was high time the WHO took cognisance of the presence of a fourth dimension of the human personality and its subtle role in our well-being. The workshop (in which the present author happened to participate) of course refrained from using the term Soul in case it sounded too familiar to be taken seriously; hence Factor X.
Much has since been discussed, researched and written on this hypothesis in the West while India takes the concept for granted. For us, it is as simple as this, to cite a mystic elucidation: When I say “I am standing”, I refer to my physical self. When I say “I am thinking”, I refer to my mental self. When I say “I am feeling”, I refer to my emotional or vital or life-self. But when I say “my body” or “my mind” or “my life”, who is this “My”? That is our true self, the soul. But one wonders if any judicial forum would ever focus on this. Its ken would be limited to the external signs of suffering of the patients as well as their kin.But that cannot demolish the soul. Let us reflect on a passage from a letter by Sri Aurobindo to a seeker, clearly relevant to euthanasia:
“A great part of the difficulty of these problems, I mean especially the appearance of inexplicable contradictions, arise from the problem itself being badly put. Take the popular account of reincarnation and Karma—it is based on the mere mental assumption that the workings of Nature ought to be moral and proceed according to an exact morality of equal justice—a scrupulous, even mathematical law of reward and punishment or, at any rate, of results according to a human idea of right correspondences. But Nature is not moral—she uses forces and processes moral, immoral and amoral pell-mell for a working out of her business. Nature in her outward aspect seems to care for nothing except to get things done—or else to make conditions for an ingenious variety of the play of life. Nature in her deeper aspect as a conscious spiritual Power is concerned with the growth, by experience, the spiritual development of the souls she has in her charge—and these souls themselves have a say in the matter.
All these good people lament and wonder that unaccountably they and other good people are visited with such meaningless sufferings and misfortunes. But are they really visited with them by an outside Power or by a mechanical Law of Karma? Is it not possible that the soul itself— not the outward mind, but the spirit within—has accepted and chosen these things as a part of its development in order to get through the necessary experience at a rapid rate, to hew through … even at the risk or the cost of much damage to the outward life and the body? To the growing soul, to the spirit within us, may not difficulties, obstacles, attacks be a means of growth, added strength, enlarged experience, training for spiritual victory? …”
An alternative to euthanasia could be an innovative arrangement by the welfare state for collective care of the terminally ill, attached to select hospitals, so that their kinsmen could be relieved of their travails. But supporting death would be a defeat for one of humanity’s primeval aspirations. Our medical discipline must not abdicate its divine duty to support the continuation of life, for we are yet to know its mystery. Well, “Infinity too can be accepted as a friend. It offers a never-ending feast of mysteries, and all the time in the world to solve them.” (Alan Harrington in The Immortalist.)
Eminent author and recipient of several awards including the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship