Death – a reality that we know nothing about. We all would get there, someday, that is all we know. None of us have the first or even second-hand experience of what happens when a human being dies. Every religion has its own take on death and one’s journey towards death. Religions are divided on re-birth but they all agree that not everything dies with the body. There is something that remains beyond the body. What is that – is a matter of another disagreement. The book Death and Dying by Sudhir Kakar tries to understand it.
In this anthology various scholars – psychoanalysts talk about death. The process of dying, mourning and its relevance. The transfer of physical signs from one person to another. The near-death experiences and the communication between the dead and the alive. Each essay deals with one or more aspects of death. I liked the first two chapters that mention various cases of near death experiences and of weird experiences people had about people who were about to die or were already dead.
Now, most of this is beyond the boundaries of modern science. But a firm belief in the supernatural phenomenon has remained in the human psyche since pre-modern days. Thus, when we hear or read about them, we do wonder about the how, but we still believe in the existence of such a phenomenon. More often than not, we have some personal experience, however big or small, that tends to make us believe in these stories.
We have all felt the presence of a dead loved one around us. May have dismissed it as a wishful thinking or our imagination, but we have the experience that we cannot deny. We have had a premonition of some events in our lives. Some dreams that indicate or some omens that we culturally believe in. When the authors of this book document these cases scientifically after eliminating any probability of fake cases, it makes a strong case for further investigation as well as for a ‘belief in our belief’.
Near death experiences of writers like Keats and Tagore and the impact of this on their writings have been well established in some essays. To me the most astonishing experience shared in this book was of Carl Jung’s near-death experience where he saw himself hovering somewhere over Sri Lanka and entered a stone temples somewhere on the shore and met a yogi. Reading this episode gave me Goosebumps – it felt surreal, almost like watching a supernatural movie.
A quote in the essay by Michael Grosso reminded me of Kabir and his poetry on Death – ‘The denial of death contracts the human personality, and has profound effects on politics; the psychology of death – deniers tends to create a civilization based on fear of death. It builds up an unconscious wall-like stance against death by creating the illusions of power through militarism, wealth, and prestige.… denial and repression of death distort the human being and poisons and robs her of the full capacity to live’. I wish the editor had included Kabir’s work on death too in this compilation.
On the chapter on ‘Santhara’ – the ritual voluntary death in Jain tradition – I think only those who grow up in that tradition can understand the ritual and its value. Also, the circumstances when it is valid and not. An outsider trying to make an objective assessment of it without sharing the faith and belief sounded distant to me. Having said that this could due to the fact that I have seen Santhara in my childhood without asking any questions and author’s assessment may be relevant to the rest of the world.
I had a strange personal experience while reading this book. All the dead people who I wish were alive came in my dreams. I felt their presence around me and there were times when I almost lost the sense of time. My sleep was disturbed and it was only after I finished the book that I could sleep properly. Was it just a coincidence or were some circuits in my system triggered during the reading – I would never know.
If psychology and psychoanalysis interests you, read Death and Dying. I look forward to reading the earlier published ‘Dreams’ in the same series.