Sunday, March 4, 2018

Abhinavagupta on last word


Bollywood is a fantastic flytrap that captures all kind of wonderful cultural specimens. It does so intentionally or unintentionally.

In Masala Bollywood movies, there was a favorite formula involving a dying muslim. The rule was: if the film has a do-gooder muslim character, and if the character is dying, his last dying words are going to be "Laa ilaaha ill-Allaah". In his last moments the guy has to remember God. The formula is repeated in countless movies, repeated often enough for us to know that if the character dies without completing the sentence, the hero will close the eye lids of the dead man and complete the line for him and then continue with decimation of the villain.

The dying words. It's an interesting concept. The Muslim tradition comes from Hadiths. A good muslim is to die remembering God and be assured of a place in heaven. Even Kafirs may be given this option so that they may face less trouble in hell.

Meanwhile, we have the (fanciful) stories of Gandhi dying with "Hey Ram" on his lips. Where does the "holiness" of this idea come from? Why did it matter what his last words were? As a kid, I remember reading those booklets by "Hare-Rama-Hare-Krishna" people. There were chapters dedicated to the subject of death. A good Hindu is to remember God in his dying moments. And just like in case of Muslim, not just remember, but God's name is supposed to be the last word uttered so that one may be assured of a place in Vaikuntha.

The idea comes from Gita which goes even further, the last thought, the last word, it lingers and has consequences. If your last words are of anger, you might get stuck in angry state. It is like dying last wish. According to Gita, in the last dying moments whatever the mind seeks, it gets. A teenage mind wanders, even back then the idea sounded frightful. What if someone dies in sleep, dreaming of dinosaurs? Or, worse still if one dies of diarrhea and shit is all one can think of? What if dying man dreams of Kashmir? Should everyone die dreaming of Kashmir? Is that what is happening?

Again in Bollywood, the concept is put to hilarious use in a little know film called "Bollywood Diaries" (2016) (by K.D. Satyam, writer of Anurag Kashyap's Mukkabaaz). In the film a terminally ill guy who wanted all his life to be an actors comes up with the simplest plan to have his wish fulfilled. In his last days he surrounds himself with posters of films actors. In his last moment he remembers Amitabh Bachchan.

A religious text has propounded this theory. And the theory has obvious flaws which put a believer in awkward position, that too at the last defining moment of his believing life. If someone is dying, he should not be worried about these things. Even among Muslims, the flaw in the idea was obvious, so later commentators do say do remind the dying but don't force the guy into saying "Laa ilaaha ill-Allaah" lest the poor guy gets irritated and ends up saying something worse like "Laa ilaaha Laa ilaaha", and yet just make sure that his last words are "Laa ilaaha ill-Allaah" even if he previously said "Laa ilaaha Laa ilaaha". The exact last words matter.

In most medieval commentaries on Gita, the importance of last word is emphasised. However, the flaw in this thinking was explored by Kashmiri Shaivite philosopher Abhinavagupta (c. 950 – 1016 AD). In his commentary on Gita, Abhinavagupta also asked the same questions: " The moment of death can be devoid of happiness, sorrow or delusion/ What if the the man dies in sudden accident and has not time to think of anything? What if the man remembers cold sweet water of the village river? What if in dying moments the man thinks of his wife? Does the wife also die instantly and he gets to be with her forever? Or does his sole become one with his wife? "

These are doubts he had and these are questions he sought to answer.

Abhinavagupta's answer: "At that very last moment (one who had been remembering God throughout his life) will remember God as a result of the impression created through continuous meditation and will be united with Parmaesvara. This is because he becomes free from the binding influence of time."

Basically, Abhinavagupta believes that for a man who spent his life remembering God, the last critical moment is immaterial because time is a relative term. This answer to these queries may or may not matter sound rational. But, the fact that he sough to answer these questions means that people even back then could be rational about religious texts.It is amazing that people have spent so many centuries pondering over these issues borne of divine speech and texts.
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Reading the English translation of Abhinavagupta's Gitartha Samgraha by Boris Marjanovic

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