Dressed in a flowing, pale orange robe, his long gray tresses flowing in a strong wind and the swirling waters of the holy river Ganga flowing over his feet, the sadhu made a striking picture. He became aware of my approach without turning his head and motioned me to go away. I retreated a few steps and sat down on one of the several pieces of drift wood strewn on the river bank and soon heard someone approaching. Unlike the ascetic, I had to turn my head to see who it was, and saw a young man carrying a rope and a matka or earthen pot. The young man and the sadhu obviously knew each other as they immediately entered into an earnest conversation. What followed next happened very quickly but it will always remain deeply imprinted in my mind, my psyche.
The young man tied one end of the rope round the neck of the matka and looped the other end round the sadhu’s neck. He then knelt reverently on the sand and put his hands in the river, presumably to touch the sadhu’s feet. The sadhu blessed him several times and then, holding the matka in his hands, waded into the river. Soon, he was waist deep in the water. He stumbled a couple of times but regaining his balance continued advancing towards the centre of the Ganga. The water was now chest high, and he had to hold the matka above the water level. When the water reached his shoulders he suddenly let go of the matka, folded his hands above his head and the next instant, disappeared from sight, swamped by the powerful mid-river currents.
In my ignorance, I waited for him to resurface, perhaps further downstream but when he didn’t, I turned in alarm towards the young man and was startled and baffled, to say the least. He was sitting on the river bank, his face buried between his knees and seemed to be sobbing. To cut a long story short, I was too young at that time to realise the full import of what I had witnessed: a sadhu opting to die by taking voluntary jal Samadhi or water burial. Once it filled with water, the matka tied round his neck would ensure that he didn’t resurface even if he had last minute second thoughts.
Should the sadhu have opted to leave the world in this way? Should the young man, who I now meet fairly regularly and from whom I’ve learnt a lot, have assisted him to die? I now know that many sadhus, once they feel this life time’s mission is over, opt to die in this fashion. If no one agrees to assist them, they go ahead on their own. This raises several important questions which have long remained a subject of intense debate for most of us lay or ordinary people. For instance, does death come on the dot, is it pre-ordained or can one choose one’s time of death? Which is better, to let death come and snuff out your life, carry you away or should one choose one’s time of death?
Modern day research has shown that each one of us is born with a pre-wound, pre-programmed biological clock and death occurs when the biological clock reaches the end of its winding. There is a strong belief, often a conviction that the time and form of your death are both based on your karmas, on a theory of cause and effect and several other factors from your current and past lives. In the Brighu Samhita, that remarkable ancient text written by the sage Bhrigu which throws light on the past, current and future lives of each individual, the time and place of death are clearly mentioned, and in great detail, right down to whether it’ll be a bright or dark fortnight. Moreover, the person or persons who will be besides you when you die are also indicated. The equally remarkable palm leaf manuscripts and the Nadi system from Southern India also reveal the time and place of death. Time and again, astrologers too and those with siddhis have been able to predict the time and manner of death. I’ve written earlier how my father predicted his own and my mother’s time and manner of death correctly. I have heard several astrologers aver that those who have their Jupiter in the twelfth house get to know the time of their death in advance.
Many people are aware of the omens which will herald their death. Many others know their time has come just a short while before the final departure. In Haridwar, at the well known Sapt Rishi Ashram, its revered founder Shri Goswami Ganesh Dutt was according to accounts, praying in the Shivalaya when the call came for him. “The time has come for me to leave”, he told the others present, and after giving certain instructions, walked out into the sylvan surroundings, lay down under a tree, and passed away peacefully. Those who are ill but still conscious often get to know death is at hand when they glimpse friends and relatives who are dead waiting for them.
There are many people who are able to see other people’s deaths in advance. I have done so on several occasions—the vision would just come unbidden even when the person concerned was not even remotely in my thoughts. Incidentally, those who have ‘died by mistake’ and have returned from the world beyond to complete their earthly existence invariably recount fascinating experiences which leave little room for doubt about the precise time of death. Amongst Buddhists the cycle of death and rebirth is clearly defined and among Tibetan Bhuddists, not just the time of death but the time of rebirth is known.
Obviously, death and the manner of leaving earth has many dimensions—dimensions, incidentally, which have been expressed in different ways by writers, celebrities, yogis, spiritual teachers, ordinary people. Death, a necessary end, will come when it will come, said William Shakespeare. Osho Rajneesh said: There seems to be nothing more mysterious than death. Love has some mystery because of death, and life also has some mystery because of death. According to Steve Jobs, “Death is the destination we all share, no one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be because death is very likely the single best invention of life.” Oscar Wilde said: “Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no to-morrow. To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace.” For some strange reason, whenever I go to the lonely stretch of the Ganga where I witnessed the sadhu wade into the river with the matka tied round his neck, I pray that he is at peace. But I myself am still not at peace with what I witnessed that day. Maybe that’s because departures and final goodbyes are usually painful, initially anyway. But then perhaps that is the wonder and abiding mystery of life and death—they are both surrounded by so many “perhaps’”and “maybe’s”.