A Prayer For Those Who Remain
Let death be like the chocolàte
That fálling bitter on the tongue
Swèetens into jaggery.
Let death be like the spreading light
That fáding in the windy storm
Flòwers up into the sky.
Let death be like the lotused lake
That wílting in the dusty drought
Retúrns in a flood of rain.
Let death be like the paddy field
That drówning in a tidal high
Ríses as the hárvest’s grain.
In the “Yaksha Prashna” episode of the Mahabharata – one of its more famous episodes – Yama in the guise of a Yaksha (spirit) subjects Yudhisthira to a series of intricate questions. At stake are the lives of Yudhisthira’s four brothers who lie lifeless nearby, having disobeyed the Yaksha’s orders to not drink the water of his lake. The situation, in itself, is a piquant one (even if Yudhisthira’s ultimate success is unsurprising); more piquant, however, are the Yaksha’s questions, one of which is a timeless classic.
“Yaksha: Tell me, Yudhisthira, what is the most wonderful thing in the universe?
Yudhisthira: The most wonderful thing, O Yaksha, is how men, in spite of seeing their fellows around them dying every day, believe themselves exempt, immortal.”
Yudhisthira’s answer strikes at the heart of the “experience” of death – and the awesome mystery that surrounds it. Both unknown and essentially unknowable to the ordinary human being (the rishis of the Upanishads searched both deeply and penetratingly for an answer), death is the Rubicon of the human experience, a “point of no return.” As a consequence, it is (at any time) an experience that divides the human race into two – the living and the dead.
Practically (and perhaps paradoxically), the situation of a death has the greatest effect on those who live, on those who are left behind. Not wonder, not philosophizing, not the idea of “a better place”, not even the recognition of their own mortality is what possesses them then – rather it is a great, personal, sometimes overwhelming grief. “Why?” is their silent scream – whose reverberations shake the earth for an instant.
I saw a grief of this sort when a close relative of mine died (in 2015; which year I wrote the poem). Here is something I created as I wondered how to provide succour.