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Saturday, August 19, 2017

What is Death? And Why? - Maha Bharatha Series 41



In Sections 51-54,  Book 7, we see descriptions of Abhimanyu terrorizing the Kaurava army single-handedly. At the advice of Drona, Abhimanyu was killed  by Dussana’s son in the battle. Yudhishtra feels remorse, as he does often, since he feels responsible for the death of so many of his kith and kin. He is despondent. At this time Sage Vyasa shows up. (It is interesting that Vyasa shows up at opportune moments and always on the Pandava’s side!) Yudhishtra asks Vyasa: “What is death? Why death?” Vyasa then recounts a story of a king by name Akampana and his son Hari, who was killed in a battle.

Before I recount the story, the main points I get from this story are: 1. Death is inevitable. Everyone, even Rama died. There is a series of chapters on the story of several ancestors (16 to be exact) all of whom died. 2. There is nothing or no one by name Death (Yama) who takes our lives. 3. People die because of their own actions or because of things that happen to their body in the form of diseases. 4. One aspect of death is Time, with a capital T.

Now, back to the story as told by Narada to Vyasa and, now being told to Yudhishtra ( as told by Sanjaya to Dhrithrashtra). Now, you can see how stories are buried within stories. This is a characteristic of story-telling in India. We can see this in Panchatantra. The pattern was probably set several centuries earlier as seen in Brihatkatha and  Kathasaritsagara, which many believe are the forerunners for story-telling in other countries (example, Aesop’s fables; Arabian Knights).

Yudhishtra asks Vyasa: “What is death? Where does death come from? Why does death take away lives?”. That is when Vyasa tells him the story of Akampana and the “origin” of death. Akampana was mourning the death of his son and asked Narada why his heroic son died. He asked what death is and how it came about. In response, Narada said: “When the Grandsire Brahma created all creatures, they were full of vigor and none showed any sign of decay and death. He got angry and out of that anger rose a fire which consumed all creatures of the universe. Then, Lord Shiva (sthanu, Hara) appeared before Brahma to appease him. Brahma asked Shiva: “Why are you here? What can I do for you?”

Sthanu (Shiva) said: “You created all these creatures and now they are being consumed through thy fire. Seeing this, I am filled with compassion. Be kind to them.”

Brahma said: “I get no pleasure destroying them. But Goddess Earth is overburdened and was asking me  for help to reduce the load. I did not know how to destroy the creatures and got angry. Out of that anger came this fire”.

Rudra said: “That fire is destroying everything - plants, animals and all. Be kind and let Time stay as past, present and future. You made me the protector of these creatures. Let not these creatures be exterminated”. At this request from Mahadeva, Brahma extinguished the fire and out of Him came a female who was dark with red eyes and face. She wore two brilliant ear-rings and other ornaments. Brahma addressed her as Death (Mrtyu, a word which means death and also fate) and ordered her to kill the creatures He had created.

The Lady Death (in some other places, Mrtyu is male)was shocked at this order and started imploring Brahma not to make her do this terrible act. She said that she will not be able to take away the life-breath of living creatures, which is so dear to them and make them cry. Besides the sons, daughters and family and friends of the dead will cry and their tears will curse me. She started crying bitterly and Brahma collected those tears in His hands so as to protect the creatures.”

Brahma told her: “O Death, I created you for the destruction of creatures and gave that as your duty. Therefore, go and do your duty and no sin will attach to you”. Lady Death did not agree, but went to practice severe austerities for several thousand years and did everything to please the Creator, obviously hoping He will relieve of her awful duties.

After several thousand years, Brahma appeared and asked her why she was undergoing so many severe austerities. Lady Death said: “I am a woman in distress and faultless. These creatures are living in good health and are kind to each other. I beg you to spare me from this unjust duty”.

Brahma replied: “ No sin will attach to you. I will appoint Yama and several diseases to be your helpers, so that you are not alone in this task. I all also make diseases that afflict living creatures out of your tears which I have caught in my palms. I will also give you my boon so you gain eternal virtue”. Lady Death said: “Since you do not give me any escape, I will perform my duty. But let covetousness, wrath, malice, jealousy, quarrel, folly and shamelessness, and other passions afflict all embodied creatures”.

Afraid of disobeying Brahma, Lady Death started taking the “lives of living creatures when the Time came”. In other words, Time is responsible for death and not the Lady Death. (There is a story in Book 12 on the same topic in which an old lady, a snake and Mrtyu blame Time for death, not the snake or Mrtyu). Since “diseases spring from living creatures themselves”, and living creatures die of their own wicked actions, diseases and Time, Lady Death can continue with her duties without feeling the burden of ending the lives of creatures.

With that narration, Narada told King Akampana: “Your son is in the heavenly abode for heroes. As I narrated now, the Creator has ordained death for all living creatures when their Time comes. Creatures die on their own and death does not kill them. Knowing that death has been ordained by the Supreme God, cast off your grief for your dead son”.


Vyasa continued: “Having listened to this instructive story, get over your lamentations, O Yudhishthira. Know that Abhimanyu has attained heaven performing his duty as a Kshatriya warrior in the battlefield.  Muster all your energy, gather your brothers and the army, and show all your anger in the battlefield”.

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