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A Cul-De-Sac to Open; A Treasure to Behold?
I.J. Singh

Since I sat down with this editorial in mind, competing alternate titles have flashed their presence and pushed their appeal, even though I am not yet clear about the contents and the direction that I prefer. For instance, The Last Frontier sounds just right as the title. Or think of Life is Full of Rude Awakenings.

Life offers many a closed box to honestly parse some ideas imaginatively and honestly.  Life comes with two closed doors one at the beginning of life, the other at its end.  Birth and Death remain the ultimate temptations of closed doors. Let’s begin by celebrating briefly this Goulash of Life! We will conclude with an open-ended expression in Punjabi from the Guru Granth Eh Sareera Merya…. So here it goes.

We humans have a life with two magical traits that are fundamental to life and death as the last frontier. It is the permanent cessation of all biological functions that sustain a living organism that begins to visibly decompose soon after death. It is an inevitable process eventually occurring in all living organisms. When all else fails, Wikipedia comes to the rescue but I wonder if any statement on death is as meaningful as it appears to be.

I wonder how a complex machine such as the human body rarely, if ever, dies completely and entirely on call when the bell rings.  Different parts of the body weaken and deteriorate at different rates. Some organs even retain the ability to regain enough life to move back to the status of living functional entities. Many a miracle baffles the best scientists. Yes, it is rare but some healthy people grow prematurely old and show all the signs and symptoms of old age while still in their teens. Forget not that many people also die suddenly and completely: here they were and a moment later, gone forever. Rude awakenings strew the path.  Also keep in mind that our simple lives habituate the narrow reaches of a cul-de-sac.

Birth is a pleasure and celebrations come easy. Yet, we always wonder how to talk about death, particularly about or with a dying person. Think again! Isn’t every living person indeed a dying person as he/she is in the path of dying from the moment he or she is born, even earlier.

Around death itself we have to weave fantastic, possibly imaginary, tales because we really do not have any idea of what happens after death. Human societal behavior needs discipline so that human actions are regulated.  Only then can communities grow and flourish. A possible parallel I see is a large school with many students and very few good teachers.

There is no possible way to live forever and never was. Early humans realized that, no matter how magical a life may have been, death is inevitably followed by limitations. Prayers, magical potions, and spells that guarantee life forever remains limited -- aplenty but a lie.

Yet mankind is full of comfort quotes and bottled magic in defiance of all common sense or evidence of unending life every moment. Guru Granth (p. 660) is blunt and absolutely clear. The question is: How long is our sense of the “present tense existence” -- our awareness of human life?

"Hum aadmi haen ik damee(N) says the Guru Granth.”

ਹਮ ਆਦਮੀ ਹਾਂ ਇਕ ਦਮੀ ਮੁਹਲਤਿ ਮੁਹਤੁ ਨ ਜਾਣਾ ॥

We are human beings of the briefest moment; we do not know the appointed time of our departure.

This is the ultimate measure of time.  It clearly tells us that our existence is effectively only one breath long, a brief period that is clearly the present.  The breath that we are now in is the only present time, the breath we were in before the present breath is now the past, the breath that will follow the one we are now in is the future.  The breath we are in is the only present tense and will soon become the past. The past has shaped us and made us what we are. Value it!  The future is yet unborn. We don’t live in the past nor in the future. Our existence is as creatures of one breath.  

Sounds like head games that overly smart clever minds might indulge but this is a game with no satisfactory end.  So, think again; it is the absolute truth as it has always been. Yet we spend life either ruing the past or dreaming the slippery slope of an unpredictable future. Remember also that focus on a life of one breath is the idea here and we will revisit it shortly.

Abraham Lincoln expressed the strong but similar thought very briefly that

“It does not matter who my grandfather was; what matters is what his grandson is up to today … and that becomes a grand measure of a human life

A profound idea!  But did we somehow destroy it when we suggested that by doing materially well in the world, our progeny will enhance our qualities and virtues - their parental ancestral generation? In other words, our children exist to promote us and to glorify our existence when we are already likely dead or on the path of death.

Or that the end of life is followed by a fantastic fictional reality of an afterlife.  Isn’t that really the central fundamental feature of most religions of mankind?

It is an irony that two of the most significant events of any life--birth and death – remain critically unforeseen and unpredictable, even in societies that proudly maintain the most advanced health systems. How then can we absolutely control and manage them precisely during life?  Despite material comforts, the availability of the best science and the foremost experts, more often than not life is beset with rude awakenings. A flawless birth is largely joyful but not always. On the other end death greets us unfailingly – sad but not devoid of all joy and comfort. The remembrance of a departed person is often recast more positively. In memory a life often acquires a kinder respectful appraisal.

Remember the adage common to all societies and communities that No one is perfect.  In America a smile lights up at its completion of this pun “No one is perfect except you and I;” it is followed by a pause, a wicked smile and then the killer advice… “and about you I am not so sure.”  So much for the goulash.

Communities derive their power from the quality of interaction between the members. Humans are imaginative animals and they want to unearth and rediscover the meaning of life.  Something that gives a permanence – a marker -- to a life.  Then a loaded question looms like “What is the purpose of life?”

Now for a little detour to parse this fundamental question.  

If there is a basic purpose to life that’s common to all humanity, then it should be able to stand without necessarily leaning on one or the other religious systems of mankind.

If the purpose is to meet or sit with the Creator at death, then the sooner one dies, the faster will be the union. Doesn’t this mean the sooner the better? And this seems to dismiss any long-term over-arching purpose to life. Keep in mind though that any life that is lived awhile is better seen cast in a kinder framework.

How do religions evolve?  The newborn can’t survive alone for it is absolutely helpless and totally vulnerable. Protective fences are necessary between individuals just as they are necessary between neighboring houses. Protective boundaries are necessary for both survival and growth, and created by commonality of needs -- language, culture, music, cuisine and worldview.  Good fences make good neighbors. They also create boundaries between people – the divisive ideas of “us and them”. This is how we construct barriers against others and create walls of strength to keep the others out. Families are essential for survival and are the smallest units of a community

When death comes, the Last Rites become important.  Here then sentiment is overarching.  It is not important how bright, smart, rich or kind was the deceased.  The only fact is that someone who shared a life with us, is no more. Where did he/she go? We really do not know, nor will we.* [see the relevant shabad from Kabir Ji below: ED]

What happens after death is an everlasting mystery.  No one knows for sure.  That’s why we settle for a mixed remembrance of some joy and some tears. But the person has lived a full life and should not get short shrift. Whether he was an Einstein or the village idiot, the final question is what kind of a life he led. What is, after all, the purpose of a life.

Think a moment!  Human life is many, many centuries old. And we are not going back to the absolute beginnings of life on Earth. Life on earth today offers many opportunities: travel and communication across the world, and technology that didn’t exist less than a century ago, now we can now fly off the Earth and land on a different world. A child born today comes to a society which offers electrifying advantages of the twentieth century.  For travel he may not depend on a boat or horse and his bare strength.  He can fly! Such inventions were not made by you or me. These were not earned or created by any one person. This is the work of others that we have inherited. Their work has improved life on Mother Earth. This is a debt on our heads. How do we plan to pay for this largesse is the question?

Most organized religions, offer a very strict formula for the life hereafter with a complex system of justice, punishment or rewards, even recurring birth in a variety of forms.  But, in the final analysis, these remain fantastic compliments to human imagination. The Sikh way of life considers such matters at length but without signing on any particular model or path. 

Guru Granth (p. 922) posits the question:

ਏ ਸਰੀਰਾ ਮੇਰਿਆ ਇਸੁ ਜਗ ਮਹਿ ਆਇ ਕੈ ਕਿਆ ਤੁਧੁ ਕਰਮ ਕਮਾਇਆ ॥

Eh sareera meyria iss jug meh aaye ke kya tudh karam kamaaya,

O my body, why have you come into this world? What actions have you committed?

Literally rendered this perennial challenge asks:

What footprints would you leave in the sands of time at the end of your earthly journey?  How will you repay this debt to life?

The answer as I imbibe from Gurbani has it: “If you leave the world a little better, even by an iota, than what you inherited at birth. -- then you have paid your debt. The purpose of life is not to adopt a formulaic guide to a magical end but to walk the path honestly with an open mind.

Now at the late evening or near midnight of my life, my thoughts fall on an old ditty” :

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But Oh my foes and ah my friends.
It casts a lovely light

I see this as the ultimate challenge to a productive life.  


ਗਗਨ ਨਗਰਿ ਇਕ ਬੂੰਦ ਨ ਬਰਖੈ ਨਾਦੁ ਕਹਾ ਜੁ ਸਮਾਨਾ 
From the city of the mind-sky not even a drop rains now. Where is the music, which was contained in it?
ਪਾਰਬ੍ਰਹਮ ਪਰਮੇਸੁਰ ਮਾਧੋ ਪਰਮ ਹੰਸੁ ਲੇ ਸਿਧਾਨਾ ॥੧॥
Transcendent Lord, the Supreme God and the master of wealth has taken away the great soul.
ਬਾਬਾ ਬੋਲਤੇ ਤੇ ਕਹਾ ਗਏ ਦੇਹੀ ਕੇ ਸੰਗਿ ਰਹਤੇ 
O Father, the soul, which used to speak and to dwell with the body,
ਸੁਰਤਿ ਮਾਹਿ ਜੋ ਨਿਰਤੇ ਕਰਤੇ ਕਥਾ ਬਾਰਤਾ ਕਹਤੇ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ 
whither has it gone, it used to dance in the mind and explain and preach. Pause.
ਬਜਾਵਨਹਾਰੋ ਕਹਾ ਗਇਓ ਜਿਨਿ ਇਹੁ ਮੰਦਰੁ ਕੀਨ੍ਹ੍ਹਾ 
Whither has gone the player who had made this mansion as his own?
ਸਾਖੀ ਸਬਦੁ ਸੁਰਤਿ ਨਹੀ ਉਪਜੈ ਖਿੰਚਿ ਤੇਜੁ ਸਭੁ ਲੀਨ੍ਹ੍ਹਾ ॥੨॥
No tale, word and understanding are produced as the Lord has drained off the entire power.
ਸ੍ਰਵਨਨ ਬਿਕਲ ਭਏ ਸੰਗਿ ਤੇਰੇ ਇੰਦ੍ਰੀ ਕਾ ਬਲੁ ਥਾਕਾ 
The ears, thy companions have gone deaf and the power of thy organs is exhausted.
ਚਰਨ ਰਹੇ ਕਰ ਢਰਕਿ ਪਰੇ ਹੈ ਮੁਖਹੁ ਨ ਨਿਕਸੈ ਬਾਤਾ ॥੩॥
Thine feet have failed, the hands are relaxed and from thy mouth no word, now issues forth.
ਥਾਕੇ ਪੰਚ ਦੂਤ ਸਭ ਤਸਕਰ ਆਪ ਆਪਣੈ ਭ੍ਰਮਤੇ 
All the five enemies and thieves (passions) which wandered according to their own will, have grown weary.
ਥਾਕਾ ਮਨੁ ਕੁੰਚਰ ਉਰੁ ਥਾਕਾ ਤੇਜੁ ਸੂਤੁ ਧਰਿ ਰਮਤੇ ॥੪॥
The mind elephant is tired the worn out is the tired and worn out is the heart, the wire-puller through whose power the body moved about.
ਮਿਰਤਕ ਭਏ ਦਸੈ ਬੰਦ ਛੂਟੇ ਮਿਤ੍ਰ ਭਾਈ ਸਭ ਛੋਰੇ 
The man is dead, the bounds of the ten gates are loosed and he has left all his friends and brothers.

ਕਹਤ ਕਬੀਰਾ ਜੋ ਹਰਿ ਧਿਆਵੈ ਜੀਵਤ ਬੰਧਨ ਤੋਰੇ ॥੫॥੫॥੧੮॥
Says Kabir, he who meditates on God, bursts his Bonds even while alive.

IJ Singh

IJ Singh

Dr. I.J Singh has a probing mind and a wry sense of humor. His prolific pool of essays poke, provoke and ultimately force the reader to think more deeply. His work has graced SikhNet's pages for some time.

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