Philosophy of Death and the Health Care Debate

By Navin Doshi   –  October 2nd, 2009

The concept of death varies drastically between cultures and even between individuals within the cultures. Most are encompassed by fear at the thought of it, and some deny its inevitability whatsoever. However, all that we ought to do in life is working up to attaining the selfless awareness that is so desired for that point, that moment of death. When we die, we leave our wealth and our possessions wherever they are. The family and the friends go with the dead body to the cemetery where the body is cremated or buried, and then they go home. The only thing left in this world are the good selfless deeds that people will always remember.

Transcendence towards a higher state of being is what steers us away from fear. Death is the moment of testing what we have learned, to see if we are ready to leave family, friends, and this earth behind and finally remain at peace, completely aware of our wholeness with God. When you are born, you cry but the world rejoices. But when you die, hopefully you rejoice but the world cries. The famous medieval Indian saint-poet, Tulsidas says this in one of his couplets. This is also affirmed in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Tibetan Buddhists also believe that during the process of death, a bright light appears. If you succeed in grasping the light, the outcome you have so desired is achieved. As a result, you are not reborn.

In the Upanishads, the sun is described as Sutratma that, like a needle, pierces all the jivatmas (life souls). The life soul, also known as the individual self, has to realize its oneness with the cosmic wind and the sun. Unless it does so, it cannot cross the frontiers of death; furthermore, it cannot know Immortality, so say the Indian scriptures. One who enters the door of the sun enters into Immortality, for beyond the sun is the realm of Immortality. The implication is that death is mukti, release from bondage. Death is part and parcel of transcendence and an opportunity. One should not fear death but welcome it. I have a great admiration for President Kennedy’s wife, Jackie Kennedy, who endured calamities during her life, and submitted to the death due to cancer at young age so gracefully.

Many traditions consider the sacrifice into death as an honor, leading to bliss. Some outstanding examples of this exist from different cultures of mankind. Adi Shankaracharya attained vedeha mukti (freedom from embodiment) at the young age of 32 because he believed that he had completed his dharma, his life goal of spreading the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta.. The Japanese samurai accepted death as an honor, as a moral and ethical duty, as we say in our tradition, dharma. There are stories of native Indians facing a shower of bullets from General Custer’s army while defending their families and territory, without showing pain because they thought the sacrifice was noble. A Buddhist monk in Saigon immolates himself as a sacrifice to protest against the Vietnam War in 1963, showing no sign of pain. The pain to the viewers, when it was shown on American television, was the start of soul-searching in America and a change in the direction of the American policy.

The value of life in the west, meaning the resources spent to maintain and prolong the life, has recently been the highest ever reached in human history but did not coincide with the economic peak that occurred in the 1970s. One can deduce that the delayed peak could probably have occurred in the 1990’s. One measure of the value of life could be people’s tolerance to war casualties. Americans’ casualties during the Second World War were over half a million with virtually no opposition from the people. However, the casualties of allied troops during Iraq war, has been less than ten thousand with the majority opposing the war. Another measure could be, in the 1990s, how complicated things become in the cases of Terri Schiavo, who was removed from life support, and Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the strong advocate of voluntary euthanasia. The value of life, I believe, goes up with increasing level of education and stays low where ignorance is rampant. Currently the country is polarized on matters of health care: one side is concerned about the rising cost, and the other is concerned about the morality. Medicare has become a big burden that could bankrupt the country. However, reformers need to face two truths: 1) we are all going to die, and 2) the demand for cures that might postpone death outstrips the supply. That puts the limit on finite resources of any country. Should doctors seek to save the largest number of lives or the largest number of years for individual lives? A thousand dollars spent to save a life of a child is well spent. But what about a million spent to prolong the life of a terminally ill patient by a month? Many Americans do not trust the government to do anything much, let alone make decisions about life and death. Members of AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) are so concerned of loosing their Medicare benefits, the majority of them do not want to have AARP to support any health plan proposed by the Congress.

First and foremost, any health care solution should include the employment of non-intrusive systems such as yoga, and ayurveda to help people stay healthy. I believe faith and idealism in general, and eastern traditions in particular, can help to resolve this problem. The supreme task before our philosophical self is to transform physical death into philosophical death. Philosophic death occurs when we move from one layer of existence to the next. Recall that Nature is fractal, that is, systems have multiple layers, organisms and organizations included. When a dependent child grows up and becomes an independent, responsible adult who marries and has children of his own, the child in him dies philosophically. When a woman becomes a mother, she sacrifices her own needs for those of the newborn child. Ancient sages of India have described a woman who has achieved motherhood as the goddess of love, since her love for her child is infinite. She is the goddess of patience, since she shows the utmost patience when the child is slow to learn during the growing-up period. She is the goddess of forgiveness, since she forgives the child’s undesirable behavior and keeps encouraging for better behavior.

An inspiring story is told about a mountaineer Aron Ralston in may 2003, who got stuck between a rock and hard place, literally, for a whole week with little water and a pocket knife. With his right arm pinned in a three-foot-wide opening, he used his engineering skill and the pocketknife to amputate his arm to free himself from a boulder weighing 1,000 pounds. In one way, he cheated certain death. However, he considered that he had died and been reborn without one arm and with a stronger body—this illustrates a philosophic death and rebirth.

The somatic self dies philosophically when the psychic self is born; and, though the body is alive, its only function is to support the psychic self. Death in the Vedic/Buddhist tradition is a mere change of clothes, the body being analogous to a garment. A change of garments, from soiled to clean, is indeed a matter for joy, not lamentation. As we age, we need to learn to live “Now”, not in the past and not in the future. That would help us keep out of the time domain minimizing the fear of death. Recall “Now” is the common apex of both, past and future cones, in space-time continuum bounded within the confines of the speed of light. “Now” literally is at the threshold to escape the domain of Nature. Perhaps a release from fear of death would allow for a better and more aware life. If death were accepted as inevitability, and a pleasing one at that, perhaps we would be able to fully live with a more focused determination to live the right way, with little or no burden to the family and society.

Here is a very appropriate poem by noble laureate Rabindranath Tagore:

On the Fear of Death

Let me not pray to be sheltered from

dangers but to be fearless in facing


Let me not beg for stilling of

my pain but for the heart to conquer it.

Let me not look for allies in life’s

battlefield but to my own strength.

Let me not crave in anxious fear to

be saved but hope for the patience to

win my freedom.

Grant me that I may not be a

coward, feeling your mercy in my

success alone; but let me find the grasp

of your hand in my failure.

(Mr. Doshi is a writer, trader, and philanthropist.)

[1] Tulsi tim jab jag me ayo jag hase tum rowe/ Aur eise karam kar chalo ki tum haso jag rowe. (Tulsi when you came to the world, the world rejoiced but you cried/But do you  such works in life that when it’s time to go, you rejoice while the world cries.) (Thank you, Dr. Debashish Banerji, for adding Tulsidas couplet)

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