The Financial Express

Riddling death: Science & spiritual quests

Riddling death: Science & spiritual quests

Too much obsession with death earns many the sobriquet of death-obsessed. In society, the preoccupation with death is viewed as something morbid. Every normal human being knows that death is unavoidable. Ironically this thought, in course of time, goes down to the bottom of the layers of mind. Since the time of one's birth, death takes position behind a person. It follows the person wherever he or she goes. But death doesn't strike one unless it receives the bidding from the Supreme Being.  Death knows he will act today or tomorrow. This is what the believers say. The believers also say death is no accidental occurrence. It is predestined and is part of a cosmic design. According to great saints, the fact that man is mortal is proven by the fact that he is alive.

That all endeavours to remain in the rat race to reach the zenith of successes prove futile with that great moment of chill: the unpredictable arrival of death. These days, the advanced medical science is said to have earned the capability of forecasting the death of a terminally ill person. Their predictions do not come true always. On the other hand, a lively and vibrant youth's sudden death from cardiac failure eclipses medical science's advancement. So are the deaths of impeccably pious middle-aged people, as well as those of innocent babies. Thoughtful people, thus, view death as the greatest riddle in human life. But science opposes this observation. It says death is a normal biological process like the birth of a baby. It occurs due to many reasons. The foremost cause is the end of one's life-span due to old age, prolonged illness or unforeseen accidents. In short, death is an inevitable, universal process that eventually occurs in all living beings or organisms. Death is the permanent, irreversible cessation of all biological functions in all living beings. As part of a natural process, nothing remains of the living beings after death. What is left of a particular life-form normally begins to decompose after death.

Science is forthright in defining death. According to it, deaths occur due to many reasons --- the end of the life-span of the animal or plant species --- man inclusive. Then come ailments, fatal wounds and accidents. Contrary to religious observations, science doesn't believe in fate-dictated deaths. It says death may knock a living being out any time anywhere. Despite the supposedly definite analysis of death, solving its riddle in a medical setting sometimes appears to be difficult.  

Maverick medical scientists often dream of conquering death. Believers beam a pitiful smile and disagree. They term the atrocious task absurd, as it goes against nature. Scientists nurse the idea of man's attaining the capability of prolonging human longevity. Along with highly enriched diets, gene-doctoring of brain cells and replenishment of body tissues, the longevity of average humans can be extended to more than 100 years in the near future. In attaining this, they foresee a radically changed medical system and new-generation medicines. Even cloning of humans may not sound that absurd in the future as it does today. It's because cloning of human embryos has been carried out for nearly over a decade in some countries. But researchers are doubtful about the creation of cloned humans. Ethical questions stand in the way. Scientists dread worldwide uproar over the cloned humans. It's because a cloned human being may not be the cloned sheep like Dolly (1996-2003). It will involve the supreme creations of nature, who are the "most wonderful creations God."  The attempt to create cloned humans resembles the Nazi biologists' venture to breed a super-race through the controversial and morally unacceptable eugenics. A special class could have been made by them with no fear of death. It's because they would be bred in such a way that they could remain unassailable unless they destroyed themselves. 

Man is a unique creature. To quote the soliloquies of Shakespeare's Hamlet, "To be, or not to be --- that is the question / Whether `tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles …." Death has struck awe and created a fascination of sorts in Shakespeare. The greatest riddle and phenomenon of nature recurs in the dialogues of the Bard's characters, in plays spanning from 'Hamlet' to 'King Lear'. One could sum up his observations of death with the lines, "Thou know`st `tis common; all that lives must die, / Passing through nature to eternity." In conformity with the ancient Indian philosophy, Tagore expresses his love for death, which, according to him, is God. On the other hand, the greatest Bengalee modern poet Jibanananda Das developed a 'romantically weird' love for death. A character in one of his famous poems goes out of home to commit suicide in a half moon-lit night. He leaves his sweet home with his loving wife and baby deep in sleep. None could say what had driven the poet to the bid to take his own life. It remained a mystery.

Scientists have embarked on a different venture: Creating a living being, a human in particular, without the possibility of dying ever. This is a highly delicate job. These experiments are fraught with the chances of disasters.  Science-fictions have long been peopled with destructive humanoids or zombies. The attempts to create ever-living humans are feared to make way for abnormal and human-hostile humans. Few on Earth, except the loony segments of scientists, want to encounter this spectacle. Nothing is more beautiful than the natural process of life. Many are born to live for a short span of time. There are precocious children as well as wise old centenarians.  A lot of others are fortunate to be blessed with long and happy lives.

While discussing death, the topic at one point of time leads to a spiritual discourse. This is not unexpected. It is the mystery shrouding death which leads the general people to turn to spiritual longings. The civilised humans had been bewildered by death since long. Death played a great role in the lives of mankind who lived during the reign of early civilisations.  A common trend featured them --- quest for life after death. It has been displayed in the burial style of both the Egyptian emperors and royals; and even the common people. This had no resemblance with the afterworld concept of the Eastern religions --- especially the Abrahamic ones including Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The latter three had a feature common to them: The Day of Judgement which will decide the people going to heaven or hell.  Zoroastrianism, the pagan ancient Hinduism and few other religions interpret lives after death in their own ways. Large segments of Hindu believers and the Buddhists in general believe in the cycles of rebirth. As their beliefs have it, rebirth comprises a long process. After being born and reborn in varied identities and places, the process of rebirth finally comes to an end. According to their scriptures, the human soul then gets liberated from the apparently endless series of rebirths.

After the burial of the monarchs, the Egyptian royal staff members left behind in the temporal world would remain mindful of ensuring physical comfort of their dead lords in the other world. The dead people were none other than kings and queens, princes and princesses, and people serving the palaces. The mummified royals, especially the highly revered rulers, during their journey to the unknown would be accompanied by even their favourite pets. Ornamented paraphernalia, the queens' jewellery, diamonds and precious stones, foods and drinks were also not left out. For them, there were the shady oases in the Egyptian deserts. It was only the royal people who were buried there. Later, colossal and tall pyramids would be erected on the concrete chambers containing the bodies. Saints and sages thousands of years later compared these majestic burial spots with the humble cemeteries filled with plain earthen graves. They found a similarity --- both are the places from where begins a journey to the eternity. 


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