Aging gracefully-the Indian Way
“Old age is natural unavoidable fact of life,” wrote Dr Sajjan Singh in a booklet titled Old Age: An Ancient Indian View.
Health issues and old age are truly unavoidable. Everyone from Presidents to people from all walks of life have to undergo sickness, stress and other ailments culminating in death.
The story of Buddha tells of his father who wanted to shield his young prince from those realities. When the young prince realized that all human beings get sick, old and die he renounced the kingdom and went in search of his true identity which is the atman.
Given this truism the World Health Organization (WHO) has defined health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well being and not merely an absence of disease.” In 1978 that definition was expanded to include spiritual wellbeing after a proposal from Indian delegates.
Indian culture recognizes that the fundamental nature of man is divinity and that the physical body, mind and intellect are all going to diminish and come to an end. Our true being is eternal and one with the cosmos. This identity has been with us before creation and would continue to be with us.
The Rishis and gurus of India have directly experienced this reality and have developed a science called yoga to help us realize our true identity. They have prescribed four stages or ashramas to guide us. The first stage (0-25 years) is bramacharya or learning; the second is grihasta or householder (25-50) which enjoins us to work and contribute toward the welfare of family and society; vanaprastha or detachment (50-75) enjoins us to gradually detach from family and worldliness and at 75 to totally renounce all attachment and surrender to the divine.
Indian culture does not view man as a sinner and falling short of the glory of god. If man has ‘sinned’ it is only because of false identity, that is, identification with the material world. Because of false identity with the body, mind and intellect we experience suffering. The aged become fearful as the body weakens and get diseased. Death is not viewed as a movement from one stage (flower) to a another (fruit) where the soul would transmigrate but is viewed as one of defeat and destruction. Growing old must be viewed as an opportunity to rejoin with our true consciousness.
We need to wake up and escape this false identity. Most of us have been driven during our youth and middle age to view success and failure as the house we live in, the car we drive and the wealth we have accumulated. Not surprisingly, when old age steps in ‘like a thief in the night’ we find ourselves not ready. In most cases we have failed to cut bonds with families, friends and possessions.
Selfless service, kirtana, meditation and charity are the avenues to help us identify with our true nature. Our money, health and property are not our true identity. Our learning, titles and fame are not us. If we can keep that at the back of our minds that we are divine, that would help us to escape our false identity.
We need to engage in more dharmic activities rather than those that bind us to the world. This is why the rishis gave us the purushartas- dharma (righteousness), arth (wealth), kaam (pleasure) and moksha (liberation). Hinduism does not celebrate poverty and self-denial. It encourages the pursuit of wealth. and pleasure but within the confine of dharma, not forgetting the goal of moksha. To act in this world and be unmindful of liberation is to be living in maya or illusion.
We need to act within the laws of dharma if we have to regain our identity. This is only achieved by kirtana, selfless service for the improvement of humanity and meditation. It is this contact with our true identity that would drive out that fear of death.