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19-Lesson of the Lilac

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Kathopanishad-Page 19
p 225-242

Lesson From the Lilac

[210] This is a similar story as Nachiketaa's. When Buddha (his real name was Siddhaarth) was born, it is said that a sage predicted to his father Shuddhodan that the child would see the suffering and transience of the world and forsake the kingdom to seek the Eternal. So for more than sixteen years, the king managed to keep him away from all this. He kept him in special palaces where every kind of comfort was provided for. Gradually Buddha grew up in a fine young handsome man and was married to a beautiful wife, Yashodharaa. Life and youth seemed everlasting to him.

Then one day, the young prince expressed the desire to see a little of his kingdom. His father first got worried, but thinking the way he ordered that all the sick, aged, and dying be kept away from the streets on that day. Now the prince started his journey, but despite all precautions, the Buddhaa-to-be, Siddhaarth suddenly saw an old man, bent and his body consumed with age. He asked his charioteer - "Channaa, What happened to this man?" Channaa said - "To all, as body grows older, it cannot escape decay." And the next day he met a funeral. For the first time he saw a dead body kept on a pyre. He again asked Channaa about it. Channaa replied - "Yes Sir, This also happens to all. When the body ages, death has to come." This was like a bomb blast in prince's mind. He was so much affected by these sights that he saw every face changing into an old aged face and all old people into dead. 

On the other day, he saw his father's court full of games, music, gossip etc. He asked with the simplicity of a child - "How strong you are, that even knowing that old and death are waiting for you, you can keep your minds on pleasures that come and go almost in a moment?"

On the fourth day, the prince saw a different sight - a man absorbed in meditation. On asking, Channaa replied - "This man is seeking the Eternal, that which they say is beyond all changes and sorrows." Prince came back to his palace and on the same night he quietly set out on a seven-year's search for the answer to one burning question - "Is there no way to go beyond death?"

If we had a life of thousand years, we could spend a couple of hundred years playing around, pursuing pleasures or until we got tired of the hollowness of our lives, but the problem is that there is very little time for experimentation. As lilac flowers shrivel in a couple of weeks, everything passes, in the same way you haven't got much time. Again a monsoon moth, especially in southern India, has got only 2-3 hours to live, but when they are there, they are a nuisance, one cannot eat or sleep in peace. Huge bon fires are lit and they pour themselves in thousands into those flames. Even a couple of hours may be too long for them because they must plunge into the first fire they see. These moths do not have the need of calendar. Maybe every second will be like a day in their lives. If we tell them that we live hundreds of thousands times longer, they might not be able to grasp the scope of it. Yet from a cosmic point of view our bodies are no more eternal than these moths.

Buddha says life itself is a terminal condition and whether we have two more years or twenty more years to live, it is only the matter of degree. The essential question is still the same - "Is there any purpose to life? What is the meaning of death?"

In the Midst of Life

[228] In the Mahaabhaarat, five Paandav brothers go to a lake for water one by one. As each bends to drink, he hears a voice - "Wait my child, First answer my questions, then you may drink water." But the younger four brothers ignore the voice and drink water. As they take water to their mouths and sip it, they fall lifeless on the shore. Only the eldest one, Yudhishthir, stops to grieve over his brothers and answers the questions. In the end others are also returned to life.

Most of these questions are familiar to any folklorist, but one question really haunts till now - "What is the greatest wonder of the world?" Yudhishthir answers that all people know that everybody dies, but they never think that they themselves also have to die. You may increase your age by a few years through modern developments, as Shuddhodan tried to shield his son, but otherwise you cannot stop death. Even today, it is not uncommon to hear that the man with whom you talked last night is no more now.

In this regard the author gives his own example, that his grandmother used to expose him to the burning of the dead body on pyre. In fact she wanted him not to identify himself with his body and overcome death in this life only. She used to bless him daily with the blessings, "May you be like Maarkandeya". Maarkandeya was also a teenage boy of 16 years of age, like Nachiketaa, who got immortality from Shiv on the day of his death.

With this kind of environment, he grew up with the idea "life is a magic show which should be over soon". Simply by coming into this life, we mail a letter to ourselves to remind us that we have to go back. Yam's messengers search for everyone who has sent this letter (means who has taken birth). We never know when it will arrive. For some it takes a long time to reach its destination; for some it comes by special delivery at midnight; but the letter is certainly on its way and it will be delivered. Death is not an event, it is a process. This process begins at cellular level since the moment we are conceived when life and death begin their journey together.

A time comes, when one should understand that pleasure of the senses cannot satisfy him for a long time. Time itself sees that they deliver less and less and less - as if to prepare us for the day when Yam will come and take it all away from us. At a certain age cravings are there but the fulfillment of those cravings does not give as much pleasure as it used to give sometime back, rather sometimes it brings even pain. Yet the cravings will not leave, they are there but the capacity to satisfy them is gone.

Why does this happen? In response to this question, one can say - "This is the nature of desire." The bigger it gets, the less easily it is satisfied. We are left with a haunting suspicion that life has slipped through our hands, and there are still many desires which are yet to be fulfilled. While we are young, we pursue personal goals (to develop ourselves or our personality), but as we grow older, we learn quickly that the satisfaction of the senses and the Ego are no more lasting than writing on water. Upanishad say - "There is no joy in the finite, if one can get infinite then it is an achievement. One day the person will know that there is no pleasure in fulfilling the daily desires day by day or life after life against the Time which does not favor anybody."

Westerners believe that the purpose of the body is to enjoy pleasures; on the contrary, Hindu and Buddhists believe that because of fulfilling our desires we take this body over and over, life after life through millions of years of evolution. Against the vast backdrop of reincarnation, there is no hit and miss in this; it is all precisely governed by Karm. As long as the person's desires will continue, this body will continue; and as long as the body continues, the death will also continue.

When we stop thinking about ourselves as separate creatures with separate personal needs, we break through identification with the body and conquer death here and now. Yam tells Nachiketaa

When all the desires that surge in the heart,
Are renounced, the mortal becomes immortal,
When all the knots that strangle the heart,
Are loosened, the mortal becomes immortal.

This sums up the teachings of the scriptures.

This is the purpose of life - the culmination of the long journey of evolution. On the physical level, the human being at one end of this journey and a bacterium at the other end, differ only on degrees. If you put a little sugar, the bacterium will move toward it, but if you put any other thing, it will repel. How human? This is the nature of life and there is not much freedom in it. But only the human being has the capacity to defy the conditioning of pleasure and choose not to identify with the body, but with the changeless Eternal Self. In this sense only a few can be counted as human beings, otherwise, though dressed as human beings, we all are not spreading our glory as a human being.

As long as we continue to identify ourselves with the body, we are occupying a limited portion of space, perhaps eighty years in time. Our problem is that we see our lives as the means of satisfying our desires, but if we could only see how narrow this life is and how quickly it ends, we should concentrate all our effort on escaping from it once for all. 

It is only during the last few years of our life, we learn of defying our selfish desires through the practice of meditation. This is not negation of desires or suppressing the desires, but unifying them, transforming them from selfish to selfless, from individual to universal. Instead of living for me, we learn to live for the welfare of all. We live in all creatures. Everything - our sympathy, our sensitivity, our strength, our love is magnified. This is not the extinction of our personality, but it is its perfection. The individual personality merges in the Divine as the light of the star is absorbed in the Sun's light in the morning, or a river meets in the ocean. It also does not mean that our body is lost, the body remains, but we no longer identify ourselves with it; so we are free from our body - and as a result from Death.

The usual idea is that we should understand that this body is dull and exists without our desires - just the opposite what we think at present. If you eat excellent nutritious food, go to concerts or plays or to watch a film, go for a walk with friends and enjoy - this is the part of your Saadhanaa, for they enable your body and mind to function smoothly for many years of hard sustained selfless work.

When all desires are "right desires", says Theologica Germainica, all things are lawful, except one tree and its fruits - that is self-will. St Augustine puts it more simply, "Love, then do as you will." The modern meaning of love, because of our physical orientation, is taken one-to-one relationships over candlelight and wine. We are not made to love only one or two individuals - as Buddha says, "as a mother loves her only child"; but to love all equally. Because in this situation every child becomes your child, every creature becomes your family member. Who is that who can eat all food of the house, burn the back porch for firewood, dump garbage in bathtub, spray the room with poisonous gases and then tell his children - whatever is left is yours?

Such people, who love the creation, lead a simple life and give much more to life than taking from it. They cease to be an individual. They become a lasting beneficial force, whose power - "to improve the lives of others", is in no way diminished when their physical existence ceases to exist. Saint Francis, to take just one example, cannot be described as "five foot four, one hundred and twenty ponds, living for forty-three years". That is, in fact, the container; Francis is the force affecting our lives today exactly as it did when it was embodied in Assisi. He is separated from us in time, instead of space, but that is all.

Many people, if they are granted a desire, they would say, "I would retire to the Riviera, or I want to live with the film star of my like, or see my face on the cover of Time magazine; but Yam would shake his head and say "You are meant for a million times more." Tattirya Upanishad says - "Take the happiness of a man whose worldly desires are satisfied. Let that be one measure of joy. Millions of times greater is the joy that comes when all selfish desires are gone."

Nachiketaa says - "There is no greater gift than this, and I can have no better teacher than you." In the Hindu tradition, it is said that Bhagavaan is extending the gift of immortality to each of us, but we are holding a few pennies in our hands. This situation comes at a particular stage of development, when one has learned to grasp something but not quite mastered letting go. The infants have a rattle in one hand, you want to give a toothbrush to them, for a while they just look at both back and forth - you can also make out clearly that their gray matter is working, but neither they can let go the rattle, nor they can take the toothbrush.

Similar situation is with us too. We are suspicious about the gift. He is ready to give us gift, but we have to open our hands and there comes a time when we want something more than pennies so passionately that we no longer care what it costs. Then only we open our hands, let go the pennies and receive an incomparable treasure. Letting go is never easy. It is always difficult. The whole question is how much dearly we want something more than we already have, something that Time cannot take away.

We are talking in Kath Upanishad about overcoming death. It is like casino where one has to place his bet in Time, otherwise the wheel spins, hopes rise and fall, and the round is over. Yam reaches out and rakes the counters in. Life is too short to play for nickels and dimes. We are meant to break the bank. Hindu's one of the oldest prayer says --

Asatoo maa sadgamaya, Tamaso maa jyotirgamaya, Mrityormaa amritamgamaya




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Created by Sushma Gupta on 3/15/05
Updated on 06/09/11