There was a time, long ages ago, when humans had a maximum lifespan of 30 years. Dogs too had a lifespan of 30 years and cats had a 20 year lifespan. Similarly, other animals, birds and plant life all had their own fixed lifespans. However, while animals, birds and plants were content with the lifespans allotted to them, humans complained perpetually that their lifespans were too short.
Tired of the continual cribbing by humans, the animals, birds and plants held a conference, with humans as special invitees. Those were the times when every life form was blessed with the power of speech. When humans explained the reasons for their dissatisfaction, the animals and birds got into a huddle and decided that the only solution was an extension of the lifespan of humans. But how?
Dogs were the first to generously offer 15 years of their own lifespans to humans. Cows too volunteered 15 years. Bullocks offered 10 years, and so did crows, cats and snakes. Collectively, they petitioned the Almighty, who approved on condition that in return, humans would provide lifelong food and care for all those who sacrificed a part of their own lifespans to extend the human lifespan to a 100 years. In almost every Indian village to which I’ve travelled, this story is related, with variations, in discussions centering on the question of prolonging life and averting death. Always, the general consensus was the same in towns and cities as well that under normal circumstances one should not try and avert death.
But theoretical discussions are one thing, practical experience quite another. Every time a loved one falls sick or meets with an accident, the attempt is usually to somehow prolong life—through medical science, through prayers, through other remedies. Of course there are cases when relatives have made a conscious choice to have life support systems switched off —usually in hopeless or brain dead cases—but that’s another issue. In many parts of India, one of the most widely practised measures to “save a person” or make a person better— ssentially to delay or avert death—Is to recite the Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra in the prescribed manner. Yet increasingly, I find that more and more people are willing to “let the person go” after trying their best to do their utmost for the affected person.
My own parents were very particular—in fact they made me promise —that I would not cart them to a hospital or nursing home in their last moments and have them put on a life support system in an effort to “extend’”their life, as they said. “We are no longer young, have lived a full life, and are prepared to leave when the call comes. To try and stop us would make it more difficult for us to make the transition from this world to the next. So let us go peacefully, gently, and don’t try to minimise our suffering to the extent that it holds us back, such as putting us on artificial respiration, dialysis, or a heart machine. Be gentle with us, try to heal us, be with us, through love and caring gestures, through prayers—but let us finish as much of what we have to give and take in this birth rather than carry it over to another birth. We know we’re asking you to do something very difficult, but if you reflect on it, you’ll be strengthening us for the journey to the other world....”.
Obviously, there is a distinction here between a “timely” death and an “untimely’ death”. Of course, all partings are painful regardless of age or the kind of suffering the person may be undergoing, but the fact remains that mortal existence and its natural last stage of old age has an inevitable ending—death, release from the body followed by re-birth, an existence in Heaven or in spirit form, or a merger with the Divine. It is in cases of trying to prolong life and “akaal mrityus” or “untimely” deaths that the question of delaying or averting death becomes a particularly relevant question.
I have come across several interesting instances in which life has been prolonged, but someone else has had to give up the requisite number of years, just as the animals and birds are supposed to have done once upon a time. For example, Brajesh—not his real name— was told that he had a short lifespan. Worried, his wife decided to have various recommended rituals for averting early death performed. Some time later, their young son died in a freak accident and to this day Brajesh is haunted by an agonising question: was his own life prolonged at the cost of tragically shortening his son’s life?
From all accounts, it would appear that while it is possible to avert death, the consequences must be carefully evaluated as the cosmic arithmetic behind lifespans has its own difficult to comprehend rules. But one rule seems to be clearly understood and it seems to cut across religious divides: if you tinker with the natural laws of life and death, you must pay a price, usually heavy, for it. The humans in the allegorical story, remember, had to pay with lifelong food and care to the animals and birds who gave them extra years. The only exception to the “heavy price” are instances when blessings from a highly evolved person give one a few extra months or years of life. But here too, a squaring up seems to take place sometime in the future. There seems to be no way to escape from that “squaring up”.
Conversely, averting death instances open up the whole question of suicidal deaths, of euthanasia. In the case of euthanasia, should life be cut short to minimise suffering or should measures be taken to minimise that suffering till death comes naturally? The answers to that are intriguing—will tell you about them in a future column.