Question of death: Comfort in philosophy or religion?

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I have never been a religious person. I used to grudgingly partake in religious ceremonies in childhood, and as an adult, I have deliberately stopped it altogether. With all the baggage an organized religion comes with, it was a conscious decision on my part.

The question of dying and how to prepare for death is something that has always intrigued me. After all, for all of our discussions on politics, society, economy, and every other thing under the sun (termed imagined reality by Yuval Noah Harari), this is the ultimate thing, the philosophical and literal final nail in the coffin.

I think everyone ought to give this question a thought for the sake of their mental well-being and that of their loved ones. Not everyone has the mental bandwidth to come to terms with it and it might even be triggering for some. However, I feel ready to tackle this now. Or so I believe. I also hope this is not another example of my intellectualization of the issue, something I am prone to.

I have been reading up on this. The latest book is ‘Being Mortal’ by Atul Gawande. The best-selling author, surgeon, and Harvard professor talks about the inevitability of death from a medical practitioner’s point of view and elaborates how a good quality of life should be given priority over a long life. It’s a beautiful book full of real-life examples of patients and doctors coming to terms with the final question. 

One of the examples is about his father. How in the end, as per his last wish, his ashes were spread in the Ganga river at Varanasi, among other places. And this eminent doctor, “not much of a believer in the idea of Gods” finds himself finding solace in the process and in this bond across generations.

I think this is the biggest hold an organized religion has over people- dealing with the problem and question of death. With terms like karma, yoni, punarjanm, among others, this has made it easier for people to deal with this ultimate question- people who unlike some of us, are not equipped with the capacity, capability, and privilege to think about this issue intellectually.

 

This unconditional submission to religion, then proves to be very valuable- not only in navigating different challenges in life and celebrating life but also in ending life contented.

But for someone like me, who has seen all the havoc organized religion is wreaking on our society, nation, and personal life- I cannot in any good faith whatsoever accept religion as a guiding principle. So what should be the pivot around this thought?

Philosophy?

Albert Camus talks about the Absurd in his works. According to him, life has inherently no meaning, and this meaningless, godless universe remains silent upon a man’s quest to find it in life. He cautions against trying because, in the end, we will be left with a deep void and no answers. According to him, there are three options available for us.

One is to surrender to any religious, spiritual, transcendental explanation for this absurdity- which he calls philosophical suicide, since we would be giving up on rationality. Another option available is actual physical suicide, since life anyway has no inherent meaning, so there is no purpose in living it. But this also doesn’t resolve the predicament.

Camus suggests the best way to enjoy life is to accept the absurdity, and go on living life to the fullest without any effort to find any inherent meaning, because there isn’t any.

Jacques Lacan, the controversial psychoanalyst has coined the trio of imaginary-symbolic-real. The imaginary and the symbolic form the reality which we immerse ourselves in and surround ourselves with in everyday life. All of our relationships, work, entertainment fall in this reality. The real is something that cannot be explained except in terms of something which is not reality, i.e. like a black hole, which exists where all other mass does not. Making sense of this real is difficult, but we all face the real after any deeply traumatic experience, which shatters our personal or professional life, i.e. the cocoon of reality. When nothing makes sense, all relations seem futile- that is the time we actually face the real- this emptiness, this huge void. This knowledge also gives one strength to face irreparable losses- at least I hope it does to me when the time comes.

I think it is a good starting point for my search for this elusive answer. As I saunter on towards more such philosophy, basking in the warm sunshine of knowledge of our intellectual forefathers, never for once looking in the direction of religion, I think I have made a good choice.

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Guest Author: Pranjal S.

Pranjal is a doting pet parent and a civil engineer. In his free time he likes to read, especially about polity, psychology, sociology and history. He is waiting for the day he starts living a more prudent life, but until then, he continues dilly-dallying with the likes of Dalrymple, Nietzsche, Ambedkar and Marx.
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