What is Death – Part 2

In the case of the human being, is death – whatever meaning we give to it – an ending, a transformation (in psychological terms), a recombination of parts (physics and biology), or a transfiguration, such as what is called reincarnation, transmigration  or metempsychosis (religious tradition)? Is it terminal, or a new beginning, a renewal – in someone of the senses enumerated above?

Or is death simply illusory? In the restricted sense we are now having in view (related to a human being), what is the meaning of ‘death’ – a question which, whether it has a precise answer or not, must have been asked countless times, at least ever since one or more individuals started to ask these kinds of questions, that is, to philosophize? It is frequently said that according to Plato philosophy begins in wonder. With such a broad view or approach of the problem we can appreciate how many possible answers, or rather areas of research and inquire are open to ourselves. We saw that, whether a (“short-lived”) event or a (gradual) process,  death can be defined in simple terms in what concerns the body, in fact the body of any organism, as was stated in Part 1. Going beyond this, and entering directly into the realm of philosophy – the philosophy of Vedanta in particular – the problem is also simplified by just saying that the only ‘things’ that ‘die’, or are annihilated, are forms, phenomena, which are impermanent. Essence or substance, being changeless, does not die.

Inevitably, we have mentioned ‘life’ as in apparent contrast with, or in opposition to, ‘death’, and we are not just staying with a conceptual analysis of these terms. ‘Death’, however, is not a complementary opposite of ‘life’, such as male–female, positive-negative, and many pairs of opposites such as these. It is in the same relationship to it as in the case of a quality that is lacking (e.g. coloured and colourless, good and bad, beauty and ugliness). Other than in living organisms or bodies, in which the word ‘death’ can be applied properly as being within the  empirical realm of phenomena, the term cannot be taken as a (metaphysical) principle in the way ‘life’ can be. Philosophically, death – and we start with a concept – is not the opposite pole of life, because only life is, just as we can say that only being is, and the same goes for ‘good’ and ‘beauty’ – these are substantial realities (or aspects of reality), permanent, stainless in themselves and unchanging (some times called ‘archetypes’, or Platonic Ideas). As the Greek philosopher, Parmenides, said, “being is; non-being is not”; in this same sense, badness ‘is not’, ugliness ‘is not’ – they are not positive qualities or principles.

Before we deal with traditional teachings surrounding the idea of death (eschatology), in particular transmigration, to be followed by the world of mythology and, finally, metaphysics or spiritual science, we will very briefly look into  forms of alternative medicine, such as Ayurveda and Homeopathy in relation to  death (preventive of, naturally), even if this is somewhat of a digression.

A physician (whether Eastern or Western, for empirical science is universal), such as the present writer, will take a cautious look at what have been called for some time ‘alternative methods of medicine’, or ‘alternative therapies’. For instance, Ayurvedic medicine is considered by those who espouse it in all seriousness not just as mere medicine, but as a system whereby one adheres to its principles and practices from birth to death – it is a way of life. And this is already a problem, for then the question of other interventions – by modern medicine and surgery – as either colliding with it or affording another choice arises. This, making abstention of the location where one lives – exceptional circumstances apart. Cases of metallic poisoning (lead) from Ayurvedic medicines have been reported – one of the reports listing 7 cases resulting in death. Another problem is postponing effective modes of treatment, such as surgery, with the consequent risks. The same can be said in respect of Homeopathy, which, to begin with, is not a traditional system of medicine and, further, has not proved its validity as compared with modern medicine after 150 years of its inception.

As to ‘out of body experiences’, ‘near death experiences’ (NDE), or other strange phenomena, some of them well documented, this is an entirely different subject and will not be covered here, though, interestingly, there are some descriptive accounts similar to them in ancient Upanishadic texts. One such is: “The radiant infinite being who is immortal and moves alone, preserves the unclean nest (the body) with the help of the vital force, and roams out of the nest. Himself immortal, he goes wherever he likes”. (Brihad. Up., lV.iii.12). Also: “They say, ‘Do not wake him up suddenly’. If he does not find the right organ, the body becomes difficult to doctor” (lV.iii.14). In his Bashia to this last passage, Shankara comments: “Physicians and others say; ’Do not wake up a sleeping man suddenly or violently’. They say so only because they see that (in dream) the self goes out of the body of the waking state through he gates of the organs and remains isolated outside. They also see the possibility of harm in this, viz. that if the self is violently aroused, it may not find those gates of the organs.”

That is, on coming back into the body. But this is only a popular belief, as Shankara notes (“Physicians and others say… “). The purusha or Self does not come in or go out of bodies, for It is everywhere at all times, dimensionless, unmoving. The expressions, ‘roam out of the nest’… ‘goes wherever he likes’ can only be metaphorical (‘as if’).