What if instead of fearing the afterlife driven by our horrors of death, we remembered it as a state of heightened joy? What if we follow the thread of our subconscious memories and open ourselves to the possibility of eternal bliss after death?
The other day, my mildly strange friend said something that really touched a nerve: “Has it ever occurred to you that perhaps we do not know what happens before life and after death because had we known, we would have never chosen to be born?”
While I couldn’t pin this idea right away under any stream of existential or non-existential ‘isms’, I definitely spent more time on it later than I probably should have, wondering if there could have actually been a phase so glorious before my human birth that I was made to forget all about it so I could be saddled with this desolate life. And when I say desolate, I don’t mean, for example, the living conditions of a Syrian refugee child, but that of an ordinary life; complete in its mundane privileges and annoyances, heartbreaks and small wins – meaningless, monotonous and exhausting to the last degree. What if not remembering about afterlife is part of our coping mechanism in this life?
Before telling you where I’m going with this, let me hit the pause button to initiate some reflection. Because this is where I feel, the nebulous connection to that something in our after-death-before-life state is the strongest. Reflection – that crucible where memories tangible and intangible, thoughts learnt and unlearnt layered in the conscious, sub-conscious and unconscious fuse into something primal and quintessential, distant yet clear as the cold brilliance of the steadfast Pole star, something that eludes definition and yet is one of our truest sensations. That something you feel with the first sip of your favourite hot beverage. With a view of an aquamarine twilight evening sky as city lights twinkle in the horizon. That something in the touch of a loved one. In the first peek of a bud. In the dazzling opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. In a newborn’s tiny form. It is the reflection of a joy long-forgotten and ethereal, connecting every single element of this vast cosmos; an ovation of eternity before which life’s and our own atrocities pale into dusty insignificance.
Recollection of the afterlife in our subconscious is evident in the nebulous memories of humankind predating history. Almost 100,000 years ago, the Neanderthals buried their dead along with tools and bones preparing them for an afterlife resembling the one they lived on earth. Prehistoric Homo Sapiens, too, conducted their ochre-stained funeral rites for passage of their dead into the afterlife. Glimpses of such burials are visible even today in the Qafzeh cave of Israel. Later in the ancient civilizations of Egypt and India until the Romans, burial rites continued to grow more complex and elaborate. Bodies after death, embalmed or otherwise, were supplied with objects of daily use, currency for afterlife and sometimes, even with people who may have been servants or close to the person in life.
From these beliefs grew concepts of heaven or hell in the afterlife. In Christianity, with Islam, Hindu pantheism and Chinese cosmos, Heaven and Hell took their places as afterlives determined by judgement of the earthly life once it ends. Those with good deeds are rewarded with the bliss of Heaven, the ones performing bad deeds are punished in the torment of Hell. However, this imagination of afterlife is at its most rudimentary, its wings still tied to our immediate earthbound reality, where Heaven and Hell are simply caricatures of life on earth through distorted filters of extreme ecstasy and agony.
Other visions of the afterlife exist; ones in which the horizons of imagination have broadened beyond simple duplication of life on earth. Viewed through the lens of metaphysics, life, death and afterlife all become parts of a universal, eternal consciousness, in which the inner spiritual force becomes the ultimate reality. It is the light burning bright within our very finite temporal human existence just as it burns across the uncharted horizons of space and time. “For every man who has ever lived, in this Universe there shines a star,” said Arthur. C. Clarke is his magnum opus ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’.
An abundant number of cultures and sub-cultures nurture the belief of stars being our loved ones who passed away. Ancient Greeks believed constellations were heroes—man or beast—immortalized in the stars for their superhuman feats. Since the dawn of human existence, stars and skies have lured us with the possibility of an existence in a continuum uninterrupted by spatial and temporal bindings. “The skies are full of stars and suns, the universe is brimming with life, and amidst it all, I have found my place,” said Rabindranath Tagore, India’s Nobel Laureate philosopher-poet in one of his poems.
With death, the body perishes with certainty—but the soul, of which the body is the seat, continues unabated, permeating all cosmic particles with its presence. One that no weapon can tear apart, no fire can burn, no water can touch and no wind can absorb, says the Bhagavad Gita—one of the most profound collections of Hindu theological tenets. Indestructible and primeval even after death, a soul’s journey transcends space and time. Tagore wrote “Who says I’m not here after I’m gone? I will then be a part of everything! I will be born anew, you would call me by a new name, bind me in bonds of new love, and again, every time, I would come and go—the same, eternal me.” Two decades before this, sitting in the heart of the occidental world, Whitman penned his now famous lines from Leaves of Grass after a conversation with a German spiritualist—“Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost, No birth, identity, form—no object of the world. Nor life, nor force, nor any visible thing; Appearance must not foil, nor shifted sphere confuse thy brain. Ample are time and space—ample the fields of Nature.”
From Hindu, Buddhist and Jain scriptures to metempsychosis of the Greek philosophers and beliefs of the indigenous people of the Americas, the journey of the eternal soul through the cycle of numerous forms is a reiterated philosophy. The journey of the soul continues through several births and reincarnations into many forms, till the highest of deeds lead one to final liberation from this cycle of life into Nirvaan, the eternal bliss—says Buddhism. It is Moksh, says Hinduism—the liberation of the souls from the cycle of births—the termination of the soul’s transmigration as it fuses into the Brahman—the supreme cosmic spirit, the source of eternal bliss. “Bliss is Brahman,” says Taittiriya Upanishad. This is bliss beyond our bodily senses, the state of bliss from which all beings come alive, and in the end, dissolve into.
But while we live, few of us tend to find it. Our bodies with our earthly senses are unable to connect to this stream of bliss. Instead, across a vast segment of humanity, fear rules supreme—fear of death, fear of the unknown, or sometimes, fear of the imagined afterlife. “And at every step he feared that he had already died, that his soul had been wrenched forth of the sheath of his body, that he was plunging headlong through space”… “His brain was simmering and bubbling within the cracking tenement of the skull. Flames burst forth from his skull like a corolla, shrieking like voices:—Hell! Hell! Hell! Hell! Hell!” writes Joyce, sketching the horribly palpable fears of Hell imagined by a young Stephen Dedalus in The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Thanatophobia in some sense is also the loss of our bodily senses which help us navigate our existence. Afterlife is then reduced to a void of nothingness. “That this is what we fear — no sight, no sound, No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, Nothing to love or link with, The anesthetic from which none come round,” says Philip Larkin in his poem, ‘Aubade’, unyielding to the duality of body and soul, conveying a total end of existence after death—an unerring, unfaltering constant in everyone’s lives since birth. One life or many, soul-less or with a soul—death of the body after its destruction is a mundane finality.
Our frail, piteous humanity is obsessed with where we go after death, drowning in an infinite amount of probable explanations. But questions about where we come from are almost non-existent in comparison. The time before we are born is the same as the time after our death, but unlike Epicurean philosopher Lucretius, we do not contemplate this paradox to neutralise our horrors of what happens after death with our interest in what happens before life. Being born, especially into humanity, is not considered terrifying in any way, and yet, our first breath of life begins with a cry, not a laugh. Could it be that our barely formed human senses still reverberate in the rhythms of everlasting joy, a state of bliss, the dregs of which fast disappear as we draw breath after breath in this body-bound human existence?
I’m a practicising wordsmith and thinker based out of Delhi NCR and an argumentative Indian by birth. I’m rebellious to a fault, but my rebellion is against ideas and biases. There is nothing I like more than to head butt sheep-style against ideas and dogmas that form the bedrock of the status quo and question their sanctity or confirm their authenticity as I may find them.