Tales for the Dying explores the centrality of death and dying in the narrative of the Bhagavata-Purana, India’s great text of devotional theism, canonized as an integral part of the Vaisnava bhakti tradition. The text grapples with death through an imaginative meditation, one that works through the presence and power of narrative. The story of the Bhagavata-Purana is spoken to a king who is about to die, and it enables him to come to terms with his own passing. The work does not isolate dying as an issue; it treats it on many levels.
This book discusses how images of dying in the Bhagavata-Purana relate to issues of language and love in the religious imagination of India. Drawing on insights from studies in myth, literary semiotics, and depth psychology, as well as from Indian commentarial and aesthertic traditions, the author examines the power of myth and narrative (storytelling or hari katha) and shows how a detailed awareness of the Puranic imagination may lead to a revisioning of some long-held presuppositions around India religious attitudes toward dying. By casting Vaisnava bhakti traditions and Puranic narrative in a fresh light, the mythic imagination of the Puranas takes its place on the stage of contemporary discourse on comparative mythology and literature.
“Beautifully written Profound. Jarow does a wonderful job of showing just how relevant the Bhagavata-Purana can be, both for the study of religion and for reflecting on the human condition itself”.
E. H. Rick Jarow is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Vassar College and the author of In Search of the Sacred: A Pilgrimage to Holy Places.
In a citation from the Satyricon of Petronius at the opening of T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land, the Sibyl—who has received a “gift” of immortality from Apollo and has thus been cursed to age forever, despairingly declares, “I want to die.” One might read this as a variant of the futility of the ego’s project of self-preservation, but there is a particular gruesomeness in the unchallengeable cruelty of the gods here. Dying would be a relief, and the world as it is seems to possess no ethical sensibility at all.
Indeed, this is often how we feel in the face to suffering and death despite the most inventive protestations of discourses on divine justice. And, as we see in the above instance, there may even be fates worse than dying. In the Hindu-Buddhist imagination, death often comes as part of a package of inevitable “fourfold miseries” which include birth, disease, and old age; which in turn are part of another package of “threefold miseries;” those caused by nature, by gods, and by other beings. And while the spectre of death haunts us as a species, when the righteous king, Yudhisthira, is asked by the Lord of Death in the Mahabharata: “What is the most wonderful thing?” He responds, “Day after day countless beings are sent to the realm of Death, yet those who remain behind believe themselves to be deathless.”
Freud declared that the unconscious refuses of recognize death, and perhaps this is one reason that I want to write on dying, to work at making the unconscious conscious, to try and meet death in its multidimensionality, not just as a feared or denied end to a short, puzzling human life. I also want to meet death multiculturally, to look at imaginative discourse around death and dying (and there may only be imaginative discourse here) through a tradition which is neither my own by birth or by language.
What is the draw here beyond an affinity for Indian languages and literatures, a penchant for the “exotic-other,” a training in Asian Studies, and extended residence in India? At the center of this project, I imagine, is the tormenting truth of impermanence. And what I find so intriguing about Indian Epic and Puranic discourse is their particular way of grappling with this universal: not by directly staring it down, or meditating on it in a cremation ground, but rather through performing another kind of meditation, an imaginative one that works through the presence and power of narrative, of stories. The Bhagavata-Purana, the focus of this work, does more than just relate stories. It is, after all, a “Purana” and hence an immense compilation of narratives, genealogies, encyclopedic accounts to epic-lore, didactic teachings, philosophical polemics, legendary chronologies, platitudes of all kinds, and a host of other subjects. Moreover, as the great Vaisnava text of devotional theism, the Bhagavata (as it is usually called) is filled with prayers, hymns of praise, and narratives aimed at inculcating a devotional sensibility in its audience. All of this has been much discussed in both scholarly and religious-devotional circles and is clearly “above board.”
What is not often discussed is the fact that the Bhagavata also contains a collection of narratives told to someone who is about to die, and for some reason or other (could Freud be helpful here)? This fact has rarely been made the center of any discussion on the Purana. It is this fact and its possible implications that I address in the following volume, not only in terms of “Puranic Studies,” but also within the discourse of mythic and narrative responses to death, dying, and loss.
Can a meditation on this text speak through space and time? Without being hopelessly essentialistic, I would like to believe so. If religious texts (and experiences) were entirely culturally determined, they would not cross cultures and languages as easily as they do. What comes down to us as Purana is, after all, already an amazingly variegated amalgam of previous discourse that has been (and continues to be) fluidly transmitted through time. Moreover, if religious texts and experiences were unequivocally unique to their place and time, they would not invite the ongoing interpretive traditions which continue to surround them. This is particularly pertinent with regard to the Sanskritic tradition, since commentaries on texts (and this holds true in the Bhagavata) often postdate a respective work by a number of centuries. The commentaries, as essential and help-ful as they are, more often than not represent particular interpretive communities with their own ideological predilections and agendas. The fact that commentators like Sridhara, Vallabha, and Visvanatha, representatives of specific sampradayas (disciplic lineages), have come up with such dramatically different visions of the same Purana, exemplifies a characteristic nature of Bhagavata discourse: it continues to speak, in different forms to ongoing interpretive communities, whether they be theological, local performance-oriented, scholarly text-oriented, or otherwise!
Jiva Gosvami, the medieval bhakti theoretician and commentator on the Bhagavata-Purana, coined a phrase: acintya-bhedabhedatattva (inconceivable oneness and difference). This sensibility, I would argue, is not akin to the nihilism of a misinformed Buddhist or hyper-deconstructive practice, but resembles the compassion of the Great-Vehicle that honors the very inconceivability upon which we live and die. Death, in this regard, is not an undiscovered country to be feared or to be heroically charted with a map and compass. There are no great voyages and returns in the Bhagavata as with Gilgamesh, nor are there heroic rescue attempts from the underworld, as with Orpheus. Rather, dying is met through the weaving of the paradox of essence and existence, not in an explanatory mode, but through the mythic amplification of the human longing for immortality and its encounter with temporality, necessity, and limitation. Thus, while the principle text for this meditation is one from seventh-to-tenth century India, one which continues to exert influence to this day, questions asked are the “elemental ones,” as Albert Schweitzer put it.
This work shall focus on how the Bhagavata-Purana responds to one such “elemental question” through a narrative that revolves around the fundamental theme of death and dying. I want to closely read and examine the Puranic narrative, paying attention to its language and imagery, as well as to the commentarial traditions that have grown up around it. At the same time, I want to remain mindful of the wider connotations of the Bhagavana, for my deep sense of the matter is that it can speak to an emerging intercultural conversation around death and loss in a variety of contexts.
James Hillman, in his earlier writings on psychology, argued for a “return to Greece” as the imaginative basis of Western discourse. In this volume, I want to take to task the idea of there being any geographically limited area of the imagination in this time of “post-history” (a term which I prefer to “postmodern”). A study of the East can inform the West as much as a study of the West can inform the East. Therefore I am seeking to avoid “a camera tour of the other,” no matter how powerful and sophisticated the lens might be. For I not only recognize, but freely admit, that the lens always points toward, or is filtered through one’s own experience, language, and history in some respect or capacity.
In a similar vein, this volume also seeks to avoid the discourse of the “comparative,” be it of religion or literature, because the intent is not to compare, but rather to flesh out the very human issues that we all face: desire, love, and loss. This need not indicate a naively universalist view of culture. Different civilizations have genuinely particular imaginative realms and they are to be recognized and respected. When we look at the “other” in any form, however, we are forced to evolve different perspectives on ourselves, and this should also be acknowledged and articulated. A serious encounter with “the other” involves a certain risk, the risk of confronting ideas and practices that challenge our culturally based assumptions, and meeting a text or tradition, neither as a partisan nor as a disinterested observer, but in an existentially engaged way, will likely be disturbing and inconclusive. But if “real living is meeting” (as Martin Buber put it), such an encounter will inevitably be fruitful and need not compromise scholarly integrity. Moreover, increasing cultural pluralism and infrastructures are reducing constructs like East and West to near absurdity. Hopefully, then, this will be more than a camera tour. For the Puranic narrative acts on one’s own inner world as well as on an Indian one.
Is there a different between the two (or more) worlds? Is the depth psyche universal or not? This work will not lay claim to the position of one side or the other, but assumes that cross-cultural investigations are in order. And while, race, class, gender, and historical conditions certainly effect the production and reception of texts (and this is clearly so in the case of the Bhagavata), they themselves need not be envisioned as the only important factors within the work. For every work contains something else intrinsic to it, dare I say “its spirit,” which speaks to different interpretive communities at different moments. If this were not so, the words attributed to Jesus would only be effective in Aramaic. This is not to discount the important insights that have come to us, and will continue to come to us, through readings of the Purana along historical or other extrinsic lines; I am simply pointing out my working methodology of intrinsic reading and mytho-poetic focus. If it were possible, I would eschew any and all explanation, pursuing a methodology of “amplification, density, and connection,” my own version of a “think description.” But this is not possible, so some explanation is in order.
The vast itihasa-purana tradition draws complex, multileveled, and many-sided images of death and dying. On the one hand, it does not always welcome death with open arms: one of its major narrative themes is the effort, successful or unsuccessful, to overcome death. In well-known Epic and Puranic narratives, King Yayati, seeking to curb the passage of time, demands and ultimately receives his lost youth from his sons. The epic heroine, Savitri, refusing to accept the finality of her husband’s death, rescues him from the realm to Yama. Demon kings like Ravana and Hiranyakasipu are constantly petitioning the great gods for immortality, and Rahu’s attempt to devout the Moon during an eclipse recalls the efforts of the demon asuras to surpass the gods by drinking amrta, the elixir of immortality that rose from the churning of the ocean of milk in the hoary past.
There is another type of Epic and Puranic discourse, however, that seems to welcome the end of earthly life, or to see it as a unique opportunity. In the Bhisma Parva and particularly in its Bhagavadgita section of the Mahabharata, the potential moment of death becomes a cornerstone for the charged-rhetoric of bhakti polemics. I am speaking of a type of upadesa (instruction) or remembrance (hari-smarana) at the time of death that is seen as a primary and indispensable act which can require a lifetime of preparation and which—it is said—can lead one on to liberation with one’s last breath. Such a practice was exemplified by Mohandas Gandhi, whose utterance of the name “Ram” at the moment of his death qualified him, in the eyes of many, to pass immediately on to the immortal realm.
While Puranic literatures tend to fall on both sides of “avoidance” or “approach” attitudes towards dying, the Bhagavata-Purana is unique in that its entire narrative is framed around a discourse on how one should die. As mentioned, this central fact has been more or less overlooked in studies on the Purana, and therefore I think it is worth investigating. Moreover, I want to explore this particular discourse through a number of perspectives ; not as much in a comparative as in a dialogical sense: by looking at Puranic lore through the lenses of literary criticism and depth psychology as well as indology, one also explores these disciplines through the lore and insights of Puranic literature. This can be particularly interesting since both literary criticism and depth psychology rely so heavily on Greek imagery and mythology in their understanding and mapping of literary and psychological processes. Do the same notions of structure hold up when the focus of the less is shifted eastward?
In this work, therefore, I look closely at the text, at the issue of death and dying in the text, and at how the two are related. While acknowledging the importance of the strong extrinsic studies (there are superb studies on the linguistics, the historical development, and philosophy of the Purana, and on the Bhagavata in relation to the Puranic genre) and of the major commentaries on the Purana, and drawing on them when necessary, I want to look at the complex of death, loss and love, as configured within work. In any case, I cannot, at the moment, think of a better way to pass the time. I have been reading it for over twenty-five years, (the Purana in some eighteen thousand verse long), and I still find myself drawn to its unique confluence of poetic imagery, eclectic philosophy, religious mystery, and hyperbolic absurdity.
Your email address will not be published *
Send as free online greeting card
Email a Friend