The (Real) Greatest Wonder
"I see it now. This world is swiftly passing..." - Karna in the Mahabharat
One day, you and everyone you love, will die – and probably beyond a small group of people, for an extremely brief period time, little of what you say or do will even matter. Everything that you and I think or do is but an elaborate avoidance of this most fundamental truth. This truth hit me hardest when the most important person in my life passed in 2016. It made me realise that in this grand cosmic game, I am really nothing. It is time we learn about exiting the matrix...
The Vana-Parva Book (Book of the Forest) of the ancient Hindu epic – the Mahabharat – shares a very insightful story into the true nature of death. Towards the end of their exile, the five Pandava brothers, along with their mother Kuntaji and wife Draupadi, were heading towards the outskirts of a dense forest. Their mother became thirsty, but there was no water within range. Arjun, one the brothers, immediately climbed a tree and saw a lake a short distance away. Yudhishthir, the eldest of the brothers, instructed one of the twins, Nakul, to go and fetch some water from the lake. Upon approaching the crystal clear water, Nakul went up to scoop some of the water but he immediately heard a voice: "Don't you dare take any water form this like unless you can answer my questions! Otherwise you will meet your death!" Nakul ignored these words and scooped up some water. He fell unconscious there and there. When he didn't return, Yudhishthir sent the other twin, Sahadev, who also met with the same fate when he didn't pay heed to the words coming from the lake. The same thing happened when Arjun and Bhim went to the lake too.
Yudhishthir began to worry and went to investigate what was really going on. He was shocked to find all four of his brothers lying unconscious on the banks of the lake. He thought they had died and began to cry and scream. That is when a yaksha, a celestial being, approached Yudhishthir. He then said: "I am a yaksha living in the form of a crane and I eati fish and water plants. Because of me, all of your brothers are dead. I asked them not to take any water from this lake without answering my questions. If you dare do the same, you too will meet the same fate."
The Mahabharat then goes into great detail of a question-answer dialogue than commenced between Yudhishthir and the yaksha, in which a total of 114 questions were asked by the yaksha, and answered by Yudhishthir. In the end, the yaksha was satisfied with the answers given by the eldest brother, and the other brothers were revived and allowed to take water form the lake. Out of these 114 questions, one of the questions asked was: "What is the greatest wonder of this world?" Now, Yudhishthir could have easily spoken about the kingdom that they used to rule, or Hastinapur itself, but his answer was much more profound and deep. He said:
Although one sees hundreds and thousands of beings dying at every moment before his very eyes, he never for once seems to believe that he too will meet the same fate and prepare accordingly. What can be more astonishing than this?
This seems like nothing but the truth. When people come close to their final days and death is staring them in the face, that is when they really open their eyes, and that is when regret begins to swamp their minds.
Whilst on his deathbed at the age of 88, the Italian sculptor, painter, architect and poet, Michelangelo said: “I regret that I have not done enough for the salvation of my soul.” The same sort of regrets were shared by Alexander the Great, even after conquering half the world. King Solomon and Napoleon too. All successful and great in their own capacity, but they all died in misery. One died with regret, one after trying to commit suicide four times, and one was so close to telling his soldiers to take his life. Napoleon said: "I have not known six happy days in my life." Solomon declared: "I have seen all the things that are to be seen under the sun, all of them are meaningless. I have simply been chasing after wind."
So what is the point? Why does humankind chase thing after thing, seeking pleasure, gratification, fame, and success, if at the end it will all be of no use?
In her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Bronnie Ware reveals that the most common and consistent regret her patients expressed was, “I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Of all the things a dying person regrets about their life, this is it: living a life that is extrinsically motivated – a life dictated by social norms and those around you. This is the very reason death scares us. In fact, it terrifies us. And because of that, we avoid thinking about it, talking about it, sometimes even accepting it – even when it is happening to someone close to us. That is why confronting the reality of our own mortality is so important.
Going back to the characters we just talked about, Napoleon, just like Alexander, died a miserable death. He also said, “Men of great ambition have sought happiness and have found fame.” What he means is that behind every goal is the drive to be happy and fulfilled. But, when egotism and our base nature take hold, we lose track of our goal and end up somewhere we never intended. And then, it hits us at the last moment, when it is probably too late. Even Aurangzeb said, “I came a stranger to this world and a stranger I depart.”
Howard Hughes (despite his current reputation as some kind of ingenious rebel) was not a happy man – no matter how amazing and cool his life might seem from the movies or history books. When he was near death, one of his aides sought to reassure him during his suffering. “What an incredible life you have led!” The aide said to him. Hughes shook his head and replied with the sad, regretful, yet empathic honesty of someone close to their end, “If you had ever swapped places in life with me, I would be willing to bet that you would have demanded to swap back before the passing of the first week.” Leonardo Da Vinci said: “As a well-spent day brings a happy sleep, so a well-employed life brings a happy death.” We want to avoid what the business strategist Jim Collins calls the ‘undisciplined pursuit of more’.
None of us are long for this world. Death hangs over us all – whether we notice it or not – whether we choose to confront it or not. There’s no escaping the tragedy of life, which is that we are all ageing from the day we are born. Our reluctancy to honestly examine the experience of ageing and dying has increased the harm we inflict on others and denied them the basic comforts they most need. There is always a final proximate cause that gets written down on the death certificate – respiratory failure, cardiac arrest, or something. But in truth, no single disease will lead you to your end; the culprit is just the accumulated crumbling of the bodily systems while medicine carries out its maintenance measures and patch jobs. We do not like thinking about this eventuality. As a result, most of us are unprepared for it.
Nevertheless, history has shown us time and time again that as people become aware of the finitude of their life, they do not ask for much. They do not seek more riches. They do not seek more power. They seek stillness. They seek solitude. They seek freedom. Medicine can only keep us going for so long. Death is not enemy – it is a truth – and it’s one with superior forces. Eventually, it will win and we have to accept it. The art of focused living is a skill. In fact, the art of life is a skill in itself. One that necessitates you to accept the fundamental truth of death. That is why, we must always begin with the end in mind – we must always be aware of the real greatest wonder of this world...
This article is an excerpt from my book Keshav: Ancient Wisdom for Focused Living which is available on most online global retailers. You can check out all the links and grab yourself a copy of the book (or audiobook) by clicking here.
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Enjoyed this article and I agree, corporeality has an expiration date that many choose to remain oblivious to because it tramples on specific life expectations and firmly held beliefs.