Updated: Jan 11, 2022
There is nothing similar to one’s own experience. Losing my father recently brought in me several observations and questions.
These are some of them – 1. Why do we shy away from talking about death? 2. Does talking about the topic of death help us cope better with the loss of our loved one? 3. The importance of teaching and sensitizing the cultural nuances surrounding death to enable us to express our grief in a more effective way.
As a doctor and a practitioner of Sanatana Dharma I find myself comfortable talking about death and process of dying with people in my life. However, others may find it to be an awkward subject or feel ill-prepared to talk about death within one’s own family. Often, it is never discussed at all and only faced when a loved one passes away. However, one may ask a question “what is there to talk about death? It is a sad part of life, a gloomy or depressive event in family’s life. The answer is there is a lot to discuss and know at various levels so we process this very important subject at an emotional level and cognitive level. Let me give a glimpse of what can be discussed, let us say, in my cultural context. Garuda Puranam says “Atma, when it takes birth, knows well that it has no choice but to be born even though it doesn’t wish to be born. And, death is only a passing phase in its cosmic journey.” One who understands the concept of atma, karma and punarjanma (soul, karma and reincarnation) develops powerful coping mechanism to overcome fear of death, embrace death with dignity when the time comes and lets go of anxieties due to unfulfilled goals of life as “there is always an opportunity in another life.” On top of it, if it is spiritually understood that atma is making an onward journey to its real home cosmos, where we all belong, bodily death is nothing but a spiritual “birth”. While family grieves for the loss of the physical body of their loved one atma, depending on its spiritual evolution, may attain moksha or liberation or in the most likely scenario look forward to reach the ancestral plane called Pitr loka. In Sanatana Dharmic tradition sraddha karma, rituals enabling the departed atma to move towards ancestral plane, are of primary importance.
If we look at how common the ancestral worship is among various native cultures across the world prior to dominance of concept of monotheistic faiths, we notice that this is a common thread which binds us in understanding our relation with ancestors and how through native rituals we remember and respect them throughout our lives. All unanimously believed that ancestors in turn take care of us. A glimpse of movies such as Gladiator or Coco or the mention of Japanese respecting ancestors in the book “Ikigai” demonstrates our common understanding. Hence, talking about death is to be encouraged to help us cope better as the departed atma is making a journey towards the ancestral plane. I believe that in this fast globalizing world where we all dress the same, talk the same and think the same we still have to pay attention to the cultural nuances very specific to the local regions and people. While I am discussing these in the context of Sanatana Dharma which I am familiar with, others across the world may dig deep into their own cultural and spiritual understanding by perhaps speaking to the very old and encouraging them to refresh their memories or go through available scriptures and apply them in current times of native wisdom vacuum. Dr. Malladi Srinivasa Sastry