Once again we are assured of immortality—and this time as early as 2045, as announced by a pair of genetic engineers, David Wood of Cambridge and the Spaniard Jose Luis Cordeiro, according to a preview of their about to be published work, The Death of Death. The prophecy brings immortality closer to us by several decades than Arthur Clark’s speculation in his Profiles of the Future that the boon will embrace us between 2090 and 2100!
Towards the end of 1968, a veteran Soviet medical scholar, Vasily Kuprevich, announced, “Death is alien to the nature of man. This animal heritage had already become a historical anachronism.” It was quite a topic then. But we did not hear of his thesis any more once the Soviet Union collapsed.
The latest prophecy by Cordeiro and Wood that dying will be optional and the ageing process will be reversible within the next 27 years echoes the assertion made by the noted American medical scholar Alvin Silverstein in his Conquest of Death (New York: Macmillan, 1979), a thorough-researched work dedicated “To our generation—the first Emortals”—that is to say, we the members of the present generation on whom death would cease to be an arbitrary imposition. He wrote, “The 1980s will be the Decade of the Scientific payoffs. The impressive decline in the incidence and mortality of heart disease that has already begun to gather momentum will accelerate. Cancer deaths will dip and then plunge. Dramatic progress in ageing will bring new youth for the millions. The close of the decade will bring a virtual end to disease and a welcome reduction of pain and suffering…The heart disease rate has been falling annually since the early fifties. The cancer death rate may have already turned down and will continue to do so at an accelerated pace in the years ahead. During the next decade, further advance will bring a striking improvement of the odds. If you survive the next 10 years, you may live on indefinitely in youth and vigour—you may become emortal.”
No more than a year had passed when this great optimism was blasted by the appearance on the horizon of human destiny—of that terrible curse—AIDS. Alas, history abounds in examples of well-calculated predictions by best human intellects fizzling out.
More than a century ago, the pragmatic aspect of a deathless mankind had been examined by A W Momerie in his Immortality thus: “Imagine that the human race had been endowed with immortality… doubling every 25 years, earth would have produced, in less than a hundred generations, many trillions of human beings… would have covered the entire surface of the planet.” Cordeiro and Wood of course point out that the population growth-rate has decreased and hence there is no fear on that account.
As it is we are often at daggers drawn with one another under numerous pretexts. How happily then are we going to use our indefinitely prolonged life? An amusing hint is provided by Nathaniel Hawthorne in a short fiction, Dr. Heiddegger’s Experiment: The old and wise doctor had managed to collect a potful of water from the legendary fountain of youth. He administered it on four of his aged friends, three men and a lady, after making them swear that should they really recover youth, they must not repeat the follies for which they were once notorious. Lo and behold, the magic worked. But the very next moment the three ‘young’ men grew riotous, trying to take hold of the lady, now a coy damsel, each claiming that 50 years ago she loved him alone. The revived rivalry would have caused havoc but for the effect of the elixir weakening and, reverting to their venerable state, all four collapsed on their chairs. An embarrassed but enlightened Dr. Heiddegger says that even if the fountain of youth flowed up to his doorsteps, he would not stoop to drink it!
Indeed, a mere prolongation of youth or life, without a radical change of consciousness, is not only futile, but could also prove disastrous.The genetic scientists obviously speculate within their sphere of biological laws and external factors. In a footnote to a chapter in his magnum opus, The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo wrote, “Even if Science—physical Science or occult Science—were to discover the necessary conditions or means for an indefinite survival of the body, still, if the body could not adapt so as to become a fit instrument of expression for the inner growth, the soul will find some way to abandon it and pass on to a new incarnation. The material or physical causes of death are not the sole or its true cause; its true inmost reason is the spiritual necessity for the evolution of a new being.”
The situation in our time, from the point of view of the spiritual sense of evolution, is marked by a stark paradox. There cannot be an indefinite physical survival unless the body has become an instrument fit enough to contain a spirit that aspires to grow and not cling to its animal instincts and unruly passions and impulses. But at present our collective consciousness hardly shows any sign of such a positive aspiration or any urge towards transcending the horrible play of ego and selfishness distorting all our ideals—religious, political, etc. The evolutionary gnosis, ready to manifest a new consciousness, may clash with this rotten state of affairs resulting in turmoil for long, but ultimately, maybe through clashing circumstances, mankind must learn its lesson and will for a transformation of its consciousness. The strides taken by the sciences will only then find their integral fruition. Only then “death, a necessary end” to use a Shakespearean phrase, will necessarily end.
Meanwhile we better accept that “Death is a stair, a door, a stumbling stride/ The soul must take from birth to birth, / A grey defeat pregnant with victory, / A whip to lash us towards our deathless state.” (Sri Aurobindo: Savitri).
Eminent author and recipient of several awards including the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship