Reflections on Vālmīki Rāmāyaṇa – IV, Death and After-Death
September 17, 2014
In our present day understanding of science and genetics, it is not possible for anyone to find a closure to a life cycle in order that we find a beginning or an end. Though we are born and we die, it is safe to deduce that our life does not originate with our birth. But then does it end with our death? What does exactly happen? The analyses of such questions have helped invent religions to create various closure hypotheses. Different suggestions are pressured on people as functions of the local cultures and their cultivated faith. Most conflicts in the world arise due to these ad-hoc assumptions, each claiming ritualistic maneuvers based on speculation.
However we can say that the death is a “real” state of extinction of life in the human body. At a point in time, the body functions quiet down to a state of inaction and the body loses its “life force.” At such point the body becomes as inert as a log of wood, but its disposal can get debated through the local beliefs. In many cultures, the bodies are kept intact and are buried in the ground. In some other cultures, the dead bodies are cremated. These two paths summarize the two principal ways people believe about the future of life after death. Though quick disposal is achieved because of health reasons, some cultures offer the dead bodies to rot through the elements and devoured by the flesh-eating birds.
One speculation can theorize that each of us is a distinct “soul” and our “soul” can visit the body back on its will. We can welcome such visit with flowers and greetings. The other speculation can be that the “life” contained in the dying body migrates to lend “life” to another object. The new object is related to the old in its psychic content, aptitude and achievements. So, people would believe that life “reincarnates” in a long hypothetical connected chain. Some of the mountain people hypothesize that special lives of “merit” transmit themselves to new babies such that the achievements of merit may continue for the benefit of the mankind.
The so-called “merit” in life or the accountability of our actions in life is an old Indian concept and it was formalized in the Vedas. In order to keep harmony and peace in society, a concept called dharma was developed, which is loosely translated as “righteousness.” We can debate on what makes us righteous or who determines if we are righteous. One way could be that one follows the empirically defined rules of conduct prescribed in the scriptural manuals. But these empiricisms do become functions of the local customs which develop through social and economic factors. Various religions in the world carry a different definition of righteousness when they consider the individual duties.
One concept that the Vedas championed and Vālmīki wants to highlight is a test of righteousness in keeping one’s word. The origin of our word is not fully understood and there is a belief that our word is a statement of our inner personality. Sometimes we may speak in vain to manipulate people or hide our true emotions. In the vedic thinking the alignment of heart and mind as exhibited in speech is a measure of one’s righteousness. We must not speak what we do not mean or what we cannot do. If we utter something, we must do our level best to “keep our word.”
In his younger times, Daśaratha fought wars and in a big war, he was badly wounded. Kaikeyī had been his companion in his war expeditions and she was around to provide him support during his struggle. She cleaned and dressed his wounds, and took care of him in order to stabilize him. Daśaratha recovered. In expressing his thankfulness and gratitude, Daśaratha was pleased to offer Kaikeyī two “boons.” As Rāma’s coronation was getting finalized, Kaikeyī under influence from her maid Mantharā, went after Daśaratha to plead for those two boons. In his ripe old days, Daśaratha was a hostage to his past words. He had no choice but to give his silent approval. This made way for Bharata to assume the throne and sent Rāma to the forest for fourteen years.
The scare that that Daśaratha had with any nonfulfillment of his words becomes the internal story line of Vālmīki’s Rāmāyaṇa. The scare consists of the popular belief that the unrighteous people would suffer in their state of life after death. The vedic injunctions remain that nonfulfillment of one’s words is a grave unrighteous flaw and the punishments are severe. If not in this life, they can come in after-life. This scare of punishment in after-life becomes real when Rāma admits to Lakṣmaṇa saying that he had no choice than to leave for the forest such that his righteousness would be maintained in performing the “instructions” of his father.
State of After-life
Vālmīki hints about three possible states in after-life. People practicing ascetic life and living in austerities, have a place in the heavens. If you are supremely dutiful and have been fully positive in your work and spirits, Indra, the King of the heavens, descends to escort you up to the heavens. In the Vedic speculation, the beings in the heavens operate with all privileges and pleasures of the earth except they do not carry a body. If they do not live up to the demands and restrictions of the heavenly life, they can be sent back to earth to assume bodily existence again in order to repeat living with grief and anxiety of human life.
People operating material life but dedicated in public service like “good kings” also get the privilege to go to the heavens. Apparently their stay in the heavens is determined by the amount of “merit” they gained through their good work and conduct. They can be sent back to earth when their stock of merit is exhausted. One of Daśaratha’s early predecessors, King Yayāti, apparently had this episode. This could be a window for people for getting a taste of the heavens and then work hard in austerities to return back to the heavens in order to stay in a more permanent manner.
Then we have normal human beings who operate with their daily lives with their labor and whims. These people recycle themselves right on earth pretty quickly in order to continue on the path of “purification.” However, if one gets impure by performing acts unbecoming of social conduct, then the person is condemned to hell for painful suffering in after-life. Once condemned to hell, the recovery is impossible. One must avoid hell by all means by following the vedic code of conduct through the letter. This part of the speculation has been adopted in other religions with equal or comparable intensity and different atonement procedures are prescribed. The threshold of atrocities factor in order to be condemned to hell differs among religions. In some other religions, we continue to recycle till we get “liberated” by getting the “true knowledge!”
Blessings and Curses
The connection of speech and truthfulness has to do with the philosophic observation that speech is a unique attribute that distinguishes the humans from other animals. The hypothesis is that the speech must have some special privilege associated with it. The particular observation is that the speech defines a person’s personality. Each person is distinguished by his/her voice and speech. If we take it to the next level, we observe that speech once produced has no going back and has no extinction. So anything spoken has a likelihood of physical truth in it. It may appear imaginary because the event could take its own time to manifest. This goes to the root of vedic science that no thought is unreal and that manifesting a thought to a physical process is within the human domain is accomplished through determination and dedication, possibly laced with pure eventuality.
Vālmīki concurs with the vedic speculation on the power of human speech. How much influence that speech has on the physical realization as regards the timescale of eventuality is a function of the speaker’s integrity and his life’s “merits.” An ascetic like Viśvāmitra can destroy any vulnerable person and his establishment through his “curse.” It is interesting that the curse can only affect humans and would not affect the demons who assume arbitrary shapes and sizes through some other “merits.” The curse of a person of “merit” in utter distress does become effective in this life time itself. Daśaratha claims to have been cursed in order to lose Rāma at his old age. He happened to kill the son of a blind ascetic and the ascetic did curse him in frustration.
On the other hand, human speech can be a blessing and can bring good will. Blessings are transcendental and we invoke our wish to enhance the person’s wish in order to help in overcome obstacles and do well. Blessings offered without business or selfish interests seem to work pretty well. Sometimes blessings are sought through prayers where we seek “divine intervention” to our local problems. This possibly helps us in articulating the problems better and clarify our own mental state thus energizing ourselves in confronting situations. Blessings from parents and elders to children or from teachers to pupils seem to be particularly effective in their results.
The theory and speculation on life and death remain as enigmatic as they were thousands of years ago. Vālmīki succeeded in creating a cultural foundation based on which the living ideals in India have been molded over the years. Daśaratha kept quiet for the fear of breaking his word and Rāma went to forest in order to protect his father’s word. The ethical values have been contained in these two acts which might occasionally appear unreal to many. We will examine the noble character of Kauśalyā in this context in our next article.
Let Sai bless all.