Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Maharaj Yudhistira's Words

I just returned to Boston from Miami where i officiated at my uncle's funeral and cleared out his apartment in a condo resort inhabited by seniors. It's a beautifully landscaped property with a small lake and tropical flora in South Florida. It has the look and feel of an upscale kibbutz for wealthy Jewish 90 year olds. The vast majority of residents are semi-invalids who use walkers or wheelchairs to move around. Many have one or two caregivers (the new term for 'servant') to assist them. During the day, the residents come downstairs for their meals in a large dining hall cum restaurant. They then sit outside on lounge chairs, discussing their medications and health problems, or go into a large room filled with tables and chairs where they play cards with their peers or listen to guest speakers on subjects of interest to them. A few of the more savvy ones use the two computers in the card room to play solitaire. This is their public life.

My uncle was the most fit amongst them. Although he had just turned 91, he looked 15 years younger and walked around without any aids or servants. He took a lot of health supplements, being one of the early adaptors of vitamins. He ordered and swallowed thousands of dollars of alternative supplements every year. Perhaps it helped him, but in the end, he died from liver failure. I wonder if all those supplements were too much of a burden on his liver.

What struck me the most when i was cleaning out my uncle's apartment and living in this somewhat surreal world of well-off 90-year-olds are the words that Maharaj Yudhistira spoke to his father, Yamaraj, when asked about the most wonderful thing in this world. He famously answered that while death is all around everyone in this world, no one thinks that death will touch him.

While this is universally true for young people and even the middle-aged, by the time someone reaches 90, they know that death is approaching. They make out their wills; they see their relatives and friends dropping one by one; they look in the mirror and are sometimes stunned when they see the irrepressible force of old age. But a lifetime of habits and beliefs cannot be undone at the fag end of life. I observed my uncle during several visits before his final illness, and he basically carried on as best he could, with the habits he had established 50 or 60 years ago, when he was young. He didn't have the energy or passion he once had, but he tried to follow (or was forced to follow) the same basic patterns that took root during his youth and middle age. I'm sure he had thoughts about his own death, but he was helpless to do anything to prepare himself for it. So he continued to take those vitamin supplements, and hope against hope that the inevitable might be delayed.

I think the moral of this story is not to wait until old age to realize that death is indeed very close at hand. It's a neighbor one cannot get rid of, one can never move away from. The smart thing to do is to change one's habits to conform to this reality. Our mortality is alive and well, and this fact renders activities that are averse to the Supreme Spirit-- however attached we may be to them-- null and void of value.

The purport behind Maharaj Yudhistira's prescient observation is a lesson for us to take to heart. It means: don't follow the crowd blindly. And don't be a leader to blindly try to change the world. Stop following your mind and follow a mahajan. Change your habits accordingly and change your heart, while you still have blood pumping thru it.

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