‘O death, where is thy sting?’—Lessons from the pandemic

As 2022 begins, we should reflect on the year gone by, in the tradition of Nachiketa in the Katha Upanishad. This ancient story may help us better understand the loss of loved ones.

Published: 03rd January 2022 01:42 AM  |   Last Updated: 03rd January 2022 01:42 AM   |  A+A-

2021 was, in many ways, a terrible year. The Covid-19 pandemic, even as I write this, has infected nearly 290 million people across the world, killing close to 5.5 million. That is the official number. The real figure is probably much higher. Given that each human life is precious, this is a devastating toll indeed. But it is important to put things in perspective. The number of dead and wounded in World War I is estimated to exceed 40 million. If we add the deaths by the so-called Spanish Flu, an influenza epidemic that struck the world, the casualties go up by another 50 million or so.

When it comes to World War II, the fatalities are easily double that of World War I. In addition, the horrors of the Holocaust, the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the terrible Bengal famine, which claimed 2–3 million lives and was a direct outcome of imperial Britain’s enforced involvement of India in the war, make the numbers go up significantly. Soon after the end of the war in 1945 was the terrible Partition of the subcontinent.

Then the colossal suffering of Stalin’s and Mao’s totalitarian repression, which resulted in many more millions of deaths. All told, the 20th century was easily the most violent and brutal known to human civilisation. We must also not forget that the world population then was around 2.3 billion. Which means that up to 10% of the humans on the planet perished from war or unnatural causes bang in the middle of twentieth century.

The last century was worse than this one, though we are still only in its second decade. Looking back can give us a better sense of the scale of human suffering and tragedy that we have recently faced. By that token, we are doing much better today. Though our world is quite confused and divided, not only into camps and alliances, there is also sufficient evidence of cooperation, even collaboration, in the midst of conflict or competition. In fact, the pandemic had illustrated the former in ample measure.

That is why as 2022 begins, we should reflect on the year gone by, quite in the tradition of Nachiketa in the Katha Upanishad, the youth who was sent to the house of death by his father. This ancient story may help us better understand the death of loved ones in 2021 by making our peace with our losses. What is more, such a reflection can teach us to hope, prepare and work for a better tomorrow.

The father had rashly told Nachiketa when the latter questioned his actions, “Go! I give thee to death!” Unfortunately, we still say such things today to those we love—jao, maro, jo karna hai karo! I’m sure there are equivalents in all our languages. The youth obeyed his father’s command literally, which must have been so unusual even in those days. The father, too, was full of regret. Nachiketa left his father’s home and knocked on Death’s door.

Death, it is said, was away in the world, busy as usual. Yes, even in those ancient times, Death was very, very active. Then what to say of corona-kaal? Remember all the burning pyres and floating dead bodies during the devastating second wave right here in India? But the young man, Nachiketa, was very wise and brave. He waited patiently for Death to come back.

For three days and three nights he waited, without drink or food. When Death returned from his errands, he felt mortified. After all, he was Yamaraj, the embodiment of Dharma. As the great equaliser, he not only was impartial and fair, but also had impeccable manners. He said to himself, “This noble youth has come to my door before his time. Moreover, I have kept him waiting at my door, without food or water for three days, hoping that he would return to the world of the living. But seeing how persistent he is, I must make amends.”

Turning to Nachiketa, “Ask,” he said, magnanimously, “for any boon and it shall be granted to thee.” Death thought Nachiketa would ask for the most obvious thing. Life. But the young man said, “O Death, I do not desire life. I have come to learn from you the secret of secrets. I want to realise that Truth knowing which all can be free forever from this round of birth and death.”

Death was taken aback. “So young and yet so pure, so wise,” he wondered. “No, dear youth, ask me for something else—anything else. Ask me for riches, power and glory, for gold and girls, for chariots and palaces, kingdoms and empires. Ask me for the overlordship of the Earth.”

“No,” said the youth, whose face shone with the light of truth and austerity, “Tempt me not, O Death. Having seen thy face, what use have I of gold and girls, or chariots and palaces, of the things of this Earth. For I know that all these belong only to you, O Death. Teach me, instead, that which will overcome sorrow and death. Teach me the secret of everlasting life.”

Similarly, having seen the very dire and dread face of death, we cannot be expected to waste our time on trivialities. At once, we must focus our attention on what is of utmost consequence. And it is this. We should be proud to belong to the race of Earthlings. We are creatures of the soil of this planet, terrestrial and Earth-bound.

This Earth is our home. We are born here and die here. This is our only habitat, our holy ground. Let’s tread gently on it. Let us not destroy this beautiful, green planet, this mother of all life. From the creatures of the deep to those airborne, the Earth and her atmosphere sustains us all. So let us cherish and protect this Earth, our mother.

Secondly, let us remember that to have lived as human beings has been a great privilege. Though our life is short and full of hardships, we have the opportunities to choose the right things. As a species, we can participate in and co-create our world. Not just as passive spectators of the cosmic game of dice, but as active participants. We are not merely Nature’s creatures but can be the masters of our destiny.

Unfortunately, we have used our powers mostly to destroy or dominate one another, to establish our supremacy over non-human species and over inanimate nature. This is a mistake. We need to pool our energies so that the damage of centuries can be reversed. We need to work together and not against each other. We need to move towards global government and the management of our shared planetary resources.

Some things are too important to be left to states and governments. We, the people of the world, need to reflect upon them and to act. The time is now. If you ask me how, I will say our collective will can create the requisite energy to bring about transformation. Trust and not suspicion is what is required today. We have spent many decades, even centuries, resisting and fighting.

Finally, we must not yield to despondency or despair. Our destiny is magnificent, grander than what any of us has imagined. We are creatures of light, love and perfection. We must stop at nothing short of what we are really capable of at our best.

The human story, despite its untold tragedies and sufferings, is one great experiment in which all of us are involved. There is a providence that shapes our ends and an intelligence that guides our endeavours.

Nachiketa, the young man in the Katha Upanishad, was taught a sacred rite by Death himself. Today, only the story remains, its secret muffled in the folds of antiquity. But we who have faced Death or his shadow must learn to live as if each action of ours is consecrated, as if everything we do counts—as much as if it were our last day on earth.

We must all strive together to bring about a consciousness revolution that will make this world of ours a better place for us all. This, much more than a credo of personal transformation, can actually be the prelude and precondition of global change.

Makarand R Paranjape

Professor of English at JNU​

(Tweets @MakrandParanspe)

(Views are personal)

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