by Gautam Pemmaraju
Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me
The Carriage held but just Ourselves
– Emily Dickenson
The wise emperor of Marguerite Yourcenar’s masterful Memoirs Of Hadrian, says to his successor Marcus Aurelius that his frail, diseased body is fast approaching its demise. It is the evening of his life. Despite the “vague formulas of reassurance” that his loyal physician Hermogenes offers him in an attempt to mask the imminent end, the sage old man knows that he is sure to die of a dropsical heart. The time and place is uncertain, and he “no longer runs the risk of falling on the frontiers, struck down by a Caledonian axe or pierced by an arrow of the Parths…” but he does know that his days are numbered. His body, a faithful companion all these years, may well turn out to be “a sly beast who will end by devouring his master”. But what of the moment itself, Hadrian contemplates:
I shall die at Tibur or in Rome, or in Naples at the farthest, and a moment’s suffocation will settle the matter. Shall I be carried off by the tenth of these crises, or the hundredth? That is the only question. Like a traveler sailing the Archipelago who sees the luminous mists lift towards evening, and little by little makes out the shore, I begin to discern the profile of my death.
Often enough in literary descriptions we find familiar tropes: the inner light dims, an ethereal illumination brings in the uttara kshanam, a phrase used in literary Telugu to describe the dying moment. A most intriguing phrase if ever, it can be translated in numerous ways but the most literal one appears to me the most elegant. The moment exists ‘up there’, in some mystical northward quadrant, and as we approach it, it reveals itself. As we apprehend it, it embraces us. The Northern Moment is then the final one. It is the peak of earthly life. There is a wide fascination for the dying moment – how will it come to pass, in what circumstances, will it be filled with pain and suffering or under the comforting shroud of sleep, will it be in the presence of loved ones, or alone, on some forsaken highway? Will it be a ‘good death’ or a ‘bad death’? How indeed do we imagine our final moments?
The manner in which one exits has for long been considered widely in religious literature and art (as well as popular forms, one might add). In Tibetan Buddhism, the esoteric ‘art of leaving’ is explored through the medieval tantric texts of the siddhas, or monks, Tilopa, and thereafter his student, Naropa, The Six Doctrines or The Six Yogas, or more precisely to some, The Six Dharmas of Naropa. Of the six, but three directly linked to the dying are Radiant Clear Light, Intermediate State and Consciousness Transference. The nomenclature itself, to my mind, has great imaginative heft to it, affirming immediately that death is but a passage, a mystical gateway, as the soul travels onward to otherworldly realms. While there seems to be detailed exegetic inquiry into the nature of the luminous light, and cautions regarding literal readings of it as a purely visual phenomenon, there seems general agreement as to its link to the dying moment. While adepts may be able to induce these states, and teach them to disciples, these texts reveal, ordinary humans perceive it at the moment of death. These ‘subtle radiations’ may also be experienced in more mundane moments of life, in liminal states: from fainting, sneezing to orgasms, and in and out of dream states.
The Bardo Thodol, described as a funerary text and known as Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State, offers esoteric instructions for the final moments. Enlightenment can thereby be attained. In Tilopa’s Mahamudra instructions:
Gazing intently into the empty sky, vision ceases;
Likewise, when mind gazes into mind itself,
The train of discursive and conceptual thought ends
And supreme enlightenment is gained.
Like the morning mist that dissolves into thin air,
Going nowhere but ceasing to be,
Waves of conceptualization, all the mind's creation, dissolve,
When you behold your mind's true nature.
In eastern traditions, breaking away from the cycle of birth and rebirth is the ultimate cherished goal. The Supreme Problem. Kim japam muchyate, jantur janma samsara bandanath? What are the magic words to break free from the shackles of birth & rebirth? There are many who practice anticipatory dying and initiatory death experiences (see here) in order to grasp a spectral sliver of what may come to be, and prepare for the eventuality. Much as life itself is practiced through breathing and the quotidian cadences of worldly existence, similarly, death too can be practiced through the holding of breath and meditative states. For as is clear, we live and die simultaneously. In Sushila Blackman’s introduction to Graceful Exits (1997), pointing to Buddhist practices of preparing for death while still alive, she quotes these lines attributed to the Budhha in Mahaparinirvana Sutra:
Of all footprints
That of the elephant is supreme;
Of all mindfulness meditations
That on death is supreme.
The phantasmal shadows of death walk alongside us, and it is no more apparent than in Kafka’s own peregrinations, Sebald writes in an essay on Hanns Zischler’s Kafka Goes To The Movies. This illusory art, still in its infancy then, would have been tremendously fascinating for early audiences and Zischler, Sebald writes intriguingly, having faced the camera, would have been familiar with the peculiar “identification and alienation” experienced when you see yourself die on screen.
To Kafka, who was always yearning for his own dissolution, to perish almost imperceptibly in fugitive images running inexorably away like life itself must have been like the temptation of St Anthony in the desert.
Images and snapshots, and the distanced view of the observer of an event, character or object beyond reach, Sebald writes on, induce a peculiar longing. And this, he writes, “is due to their proximity to death”. Susan Sontag asserts that photography is an elegiac art, and so too Sebald writes with an evanescent melancholia, that the gazing upon of images is but “an obsession in which real time is suspended while, as we sometimes feel in dreams, the dead, the living and the still unborn come together on the same plane”. Old photographs of one’s past, for Kafka as well “who often felt like a ghost among his fellow men”, seem then ghostly and reveal “the approach of death”.
How do wish our exit to be? A ‘good death’ or ‘a bad death’? In On Our Way (2004), Robert Katsenbaum points to the late Medieval Latin texts Ars Moriendi and Jeremy Taylor, the chaplain to Charles I here. In Taylor’s conception, the approach to a ‘good death’ is a lifelong preparation and there are no quick, cheap ways out for “He that will die well and happily must dress his soul by a diligent and frequent scrutiny”, and entertainingly,
…from all this we shall find, that the computations of a man’s life are as busy as the tables of sines and tangents, and intricate as the accounts of eastern merchants: and therefore it were but reason we should sum up our accounts at the foot of every page; I mean that we call ourselves to scrutiny every night when we compose ourselves the little images of death.
Alluding also to Marist Brothers who came into being after the French Revolution, Katsenbaum points out that the founder Marcellin Champaganat took a somewhat different line in that “they held the radical conviction that death was both a very important and very good thing”. In their view, death was reconfigured as a ‘joyful’ event, not some inconvenience or curtailment of pleasure. It was not, to this ‘cult of death’, a perpetual drudge of grappling with our sins each night so as to escape the hellfire of afterlife. Exploring a variety of exit rituals of different cultures, Katsembaum brings up the ‘exemplary death’ of Socrates, as described in Phaedo by Plato. Unjustly incarcerated and sentenced to death in 399 BC, what we know of this death, Katsembaum writes, almost certainly amplified by its chronicler, is an intriguing “literary take on the death of the great philosopher that has come down through the years to perplex and inspire”, for Socarates had the chance to save himself but chose instead to stick to his principles and “look Death in the eye”. Affirming his belief in immortality, Katsenbaum continues, Socarates concludes that death should not be feared since “It is the gateway to immortality, or, if not, then it is a kind of sleep, and who doesn’t enjoy a nice long nap?” When the time comes, he accepts the cup of hemlock “without fuss or ostentation”, asking instead of the jailer if he could offer the gods a few drops as libation, and what he should do once he has consumed the poison:
Socrates drained the cup. His friends, despite their resolve, broke into weeping. Socrates scolded them gently: we should end our lives in a peaceful state of mind. His listeners made a renewed effort to restrain their tears.
But Plato cleanses the scene of the nasty side effects of the poison, preserving instead the notion of a ‘tranquil death scene’ (see also my piece on death photography). Katsenbaum points to medical historian William. B. Ober’s thoughts here: what was the reason for Plato’s suppressio veri?
The simple answer is that he wanted to preserve the noble image of his friend and teacher, “the wisest, the justest, and the best”, and that he wanted no undignified details to obscure the heroic manner of his death.
In Yourcenar’s hoary prose, Hadrian’s “written meditation of a sick man who holds audience with his memories” appears dream like, ethereal, and gently yet incessantly, knocking at the doors of earthly exit. Sleeplessness, fatigue, enervation, loss of appetite – all these have become now commonplace. Exquisite as the prose is, its revelatory character makes it all the more alluring and intensely melancholic.
I begin to have some acquaintance with death; it has other secrets, more alien still our present condition as men. And nevertheless, so intricate and so profound are these mysteries of absence and partial oblivion that we feel half assured somewhere that the white spring of sleep flow into the dark spring of death.
The dying emperor writes of his experiences with wine and abstention from meat. The former he says “initiates us into the volcanic mysteries of the soil” but in reflection he is weary of the “pedantry of connoisseurs”. As for water, which for his diseased body is strictly regulated, when “drunk more reverently still, from the hands or from the spring itself, diffuses within us the most secret salt of earth and the rain of heaven”. Asceticism has set in and there have been times before, Hadrian reveals, when he has toyed with ritual fasting whereby he has learned of “the advantage for the mind (and also dangers) of different forms of abstinence, or even of voluntary starvation”. Such experiments with liminal states “where the body, partly lightened of ballast, enters into a world for which it is not made, and which affords it a foretaste of the cold and emptiness of death” mirror certain eastern practices of sadhana, ritualistic starvation, diksha-mrtyu and samadhi, whereby the practitioner consciously enters into a pre-death stage in anticipation of the great journey, the mahaprasthana. Yourcenar’s Hadrian too has experienced the anticipation of death in life:
At other moments such experiences have given me the chance to toy with the idea of slow suicide, of decease by inanition which certain philosophers have employed, a kind of debauch in reverse, continued to the point of exhaustion of the human substance.
The antasamadhi, a voluntary letting go of life, of essential breath, of the exiting soul guided upward and outward by the udana vayu, is expected of the renunciate in his final stage (see also Senicide and Thaliakoothal). As Max Mueller points out in his commentary on the Grhyasutras in particular reference to the codification of mathematician and religious scholar, Apastamba,
…it is, however, evident that a voluntary death by starvation was considered the befitting conclusion to a hermit’s life. The antiquity and general prevalence of the practice may be inferred from the fact that the Jaina ascetics, too, considered it particularly meritorious.
The exit point of the soul in Hindu mystical practices is believed to be a tiny aperture in the crown of the head, known as brahmarandra. The life-force bursts through it at the moment of death and as described in the Kathopanishad,
…going up through it, one attains immortality.