A recent conversation between two people on twitter, only one of whom I was following put an incident in my radar. It was something that had happened 4 years back, towards the fag end of 2011. A couple had apparently given up their jobs in the US, moved back to India, and then to Goa where they had worked for a few years, given that up, freelanced, kept traveling regularly during this time, eventually spent a month in a 5 star hotel in Goa itself, and then unceremoniously hung themselves to death after disposing off all their possessions. Details here.
Like most things, this was also serendipity. The topic under conversation was Sallekhana, the Jain custom of people fasting to death after a certain age or when they feel they are done with it. In this case it is understandable. Honestly, life really isn’t worth living after you reach a certain age. This ‘certain age’ varies from person to person. Some hit it at 60, some get there pretty late and even seem to be going good at 100. We sure are living longer with each generation, but the quality of life isn’t improving as much as one would need. At least in India it is becoming a ‘No country for old people’ where the goal is towards keeping people alive as against their well being.
But I digress. The thing that interested me was the case of Deepa and Anand Ranthidevan. They weren’t even into middle age. 39 and 36 is still the prime of your life. Yes, you’re now past the hill after 30 and it is going to be downhill in terms of biological processes, but still with enough care and exercise, you don’t really feel old age until 50. Or at least that’s what I reckon (and hope!).
So what could have prompted this? Of course, at the very basic level, there is the thought that there’s no purpose to life, any life, expect to further that species. That’s the whole purpose of DNA – the thing that makes spiders find a mate and procreate even though that’s also guaranteed death. You’d think they’d learn!
I remember reading in Bhyrappa’s Parva, and I even had to go pull it up again, about the death of Shuka, Vyasa’s son. The argument is for being detached, to eschew attachment of any form. Shuka remains a Brahmachari and goes about preaching that as the ideal way of life – to stay away from the entanglement of Samsāra. He eventually takes it to its logical end and sees life itself as a form of attachment and ends it.
“ಸಂಸಾರ ಮಕ್ಕಳು ಮೊಮ್ಮಕ್ಕಳಲ್ಲಿ ಅರ್ಥವಿಲ್ಲದ ಮೇಲೆ ಬ್ರಹ್ಮಚಾರಿಯಾಗಿ ಎಷ್ಟು ದಿನ ಬದುಕಿದರೆ ತಾನೆ ಏನು? ಈಗ ಸತ್ತರೆ ಏನು? ಇನ್ನು ಐವತ್ತು ವರ್ಷದ ನಂತರ ಸತ್ತರೆ ಏನು?”
But that’s not it. I don’t think it is about spirituality. But surely it is about lack of attachment. If there were something to keep them on, they’d have held on. Maybe they were just done. Maybe, they just did not have anything else to go on! After all, after some years, you see things for what they are. I remember doing all these places in the US, the tourist draws and noting that apart from a few of them, there really isn’t much else. Pretty much everything is a variant of another. And you just feel…bored.
Could that be the one? That they were just bored of it all? That there wasn’t anything else to offer? But that has been my argument for a while now. We have built patterns around us, and steps, like achievements to unlock. Study, get a job, get married, have kids, buy or build a house, bring up the kids, put them in school and then college so that they carry on the same life, retire, hopefully having saved up enough, spend the next 2 or if lucky 3 decades, visiting doctors or grandchildren who don’t have time for you. End up in a hospital and depart. We’ve carefully built up the family as the support system that keeps perpetuating itself from one generation to another. In some ways, the family is the DNA that takes you from one end of life to the other.
What happens when you decide not to have children, or in general to go against the grain? You can only travel that much, before the vacuity of it all hits you. And if not that, most places these days suck with either too many tourists, heavy commercialisation, and if it is natural, global warming and general human presence has ruined it badly for you.You could chase things, chase experiences, but there are only that many before you feel like you’ve seen it all and done it all. What next? You can only read that much, maybe, but I won’t argue that point. But will they provide the fuel to last that long? Eventually, that’s what it comes down, needing fuel to last that long?
Or do you? Without sounding too spiritual, maybe detachment is the answer. To not need a fuel at all. Again coming back to Shuka’s question, “if death is the ultimate answer, what difference does it make if I die now or if I die fifty years later?” From the perspective of the world, it doesn’t make any. You don’t count for much remember? And if your carbon footprint is less, you count for even lesser! So if you have no children, what keeps you going? If you don’t have any attachments, like family etc, what keeps you going? Like Shuka, or like the Ranthidevans, do you also “checkout”? Again, it makes no difference to any body, or to any thing in the long run. Yes, your relatives etc will grieve, but a few decades on they’d have moved on too.
Or is it just the fear of death that keeps us going? Biologically speaking even that should not matter. Do those salmon travel those distances to spawn knowing they’ll die or is it not known? Do those male spiders try to find a mate knowing that they’ll die at the end of it? Or is it a secret? Whales live past menopause for decades. What is the purpose? Why doesn’t their DNA drive them to their deaths? The purpose is done! Or is it that the DNA is programmed to stay alive no matter what? To cling on? I remember reading Lapierre’s “City of Joy” and wondering “why doesn’t he just die?”, is that life of so much hardship with no silver lining in offer worth living?
Or is it one of those complicated tangles we humans have gotten into? Were we not programmed to last into “old age” but to die at the age of 30 or max 40?
I don’t have a clue btw, just wondering. I don’t know if I believe in fuels or DNA. Or if we’ve built up our life processes like families, communities and religion in such a away as to ensure the fuel to keep us going.
Getting slightly convinced that the idea of community/family plays a big role here. A set path that guarantees its rewards at various stages taking you to the end. Straying from the path isn’t always dangerous, but it is risky and you can end up going really astray. Remembering this article I read on elephants going rogue. Please do read that, if this post did not appeal much to you. The idea that you have elders passing on ways of life to the younger ones is interesting. I guess that’s what is called culture or even the concept of nurture where things that did not get passed on through DNA is passed on – a way of life.
Individualism is more of a more recent phenomenon. Of course, you could argue about the merits and demerits of each, but that’s not the point of this post.