How grief can heal and humanise us
By Sudheendra Kulkarni
The Mahabharata is a goldmine of lessons on all aspects of life, including death. One such spiritual teaching in the epic is the pedagogical episode of questions posed by Yaksha and answers given by Yudhishtira, the wisest Pandava. “What is the greatest wonder in this world?” asks Yaksha, the guardian spirit of the forest, where the five Pandava brothers have arrived to spend their 12-year exile, enforced by the Kauravas. Yudhishtira replies, “Countless people die, day after day. Yet, the living behave as if they are going to live forever. What can be a greater wonder?”
But there is another wonder that counteracts the wonder mentioned by Yudhishtira. It is grief. There is no other moment when we become more aware of our own mortality than when we mourn the passing of a near and dear one. There is no other time when our prayers to God are more authentic. And there is no other human emotion that makes us think more honestly about how we live, and how we ought to live, our very finite lives. Reflecting upon the mystery of death, we make efforts to reform our life.
True, grief also brings, in many of us, an element of fear, because someone else’s death is a reminder of our own impermanence. But genuine grief is the opposite of fear. If fear is a negative emotion, grief has a positive and liberating effect on life. By transforming the loss caused by death into its grateful acceptance, it alleviates our pain while simultaneously affirming and enriching our love for the one who has left us.
Just as negative emotions reinforce each other, positive ones also have a mutually strengthening synergy. Thus, the outpouring of grief slowly and quietly enhances the life-nourishing qualities of remembrance, gratitude, love, humility, serenity, sincerity and truthfulness. Making us look within, it encourages us to correct our mistakes, live our lives conscientiously, and try and make life better for others with our good thoughts and good deeds.
Grief is spiritual medicine that not only heals and humanises us; it also has the potential to ‘immortalise’ us – philosophically, though not physically. We grieve over the end of life in flesh, blood and bones, which is an inescapable conclusion of the journey that begins with our birth. But the very act of grieving and contemplating – there is never a deeply felt grief without contemplation – leads us to the realisation that there is a higher power, Paramatma, Supreme Soul, beyond birth and death, and that we all are creations of that power. There is another realisation, too: If we are creations of that immortal power, then something that animates the jivatma – the individual soul, our finite life – must also be unborn and undying. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad conveys this through its invocation, ‘Mrutyorma amritam gamaya’ – Lead me from death to immortality. As Jalaluddin Rumi says, “Our death is our wedding with eternity.”
If our grief-induced self-reflection is strong enough, and if it is also accompanied by a focused study of life and death, it begins to challenge the “greatest wonder” that Yudhishtira talked about in his reply to Yaksha. We realise the futility of wishing to ‘live forever’ in our physical form. But we realise, too, that we indeed live forever, in our soul form. Isn’t this also a wonder in itself?
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.