In my first week of school, aged four, we began learning verses from the ancient spiritual text, the Bhagavad Gita. We were just learning to read, but that didn’t stop us from being able to listen and repeat back the short sutras in Sanskrit. Then we would learn the English translation, sometimes set to a jaunty melody that belied the profound wisdom of the text.
The Bhagavad Gita covers the essential questions of life, those big issues that tick like time bombs under every kitchen table. Who am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose? Who is God? Is there life after death? At such a young age we rattled off the words, completely oblivious to the fact that we were absorbing a profound philosophical treatise in the process. ‘As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death…’ Each sutra gave us a language and point of reference for confronting things that most secular societies shroud in mystery.
When I moved to a regular secondary school aged 11, I realised that most children didn’t think about death very much. Whilst I was used to looking at the world through ‘Gita glasses’, I realised that my classmates had never given karma much thought, and neither did they conceive of their own lives ending. As a pre-teen, there were much more important things to think about, like the Backstreet Boys and whether your parents let you wear nail polish. There was one girl in our form whose mother had died, but we were too sheepish to ever bring it up. Needless to say, I tended to feel a little strange amongst my peers.
I recently returned from India, where despite the rampant Westernisation of the middle classes, philosophical concepts of karma, reincarnation and faith in God are still very much a part of the national psyche. Along with that comes a certain attitude to life and death. Health and safety precautions are almost non existent – your life is in your hands. People jump on and off trains, live electrical wires hang low across footpaths, drivers obey one rule of the road – ‘Get ahead’, and children interrupt their games of street badminton every few minutes for scooters to zoom through. Accidents are inevitable, though it’s debatable whether they actually happen more than anywhere else. When it comes to death, everything is more visible than in the West. Shrouded bodies are carried through the street and for Hindus, cremated at open air river bank sites.
Upon returning home, my family were watching a news report about a freak accident that happened a few days ago in Glasgow. A police helicopter crashed into a pub, full of people on a Friday night. Nine people were killed, and the newspapers and TV reports covered it for days. Hearing spectator comments, words from politicians, vox pops from the people of Glasgow, heartfelt sorrow of the families who lost loved ones – it went on and on – especially on the 24 hour news channels who seemed to return to it every 15 minutes. Voice overs repeatedly described the city of Glasgow as being in collective ‘shock and disbelief’
At the same time I heard of the death of Hollywood actor, Paul Walker. Some dear friends had recently worked with him on a film, so called my attention to his passing which got considerably less media coverage. He was not as famous as some, but his good looks and good fortune had seen his popularity rise through the ‘Fast and the Furious’ series of action movies. At just 40 years old, he died in a car crash on his way home from attending a charity event.
These deaths were picked out of the hundreds of others that happened that same day as being noteworthy, and even shocking. An untimely end is perhaps our deepest fear, and this is reflected in the way we respond to the abrupt deaths of others.
In the BBC news report that followed the Glasgow crash, children in Korea spoke about how their dreams for their future careers fuelled their ability to study for thirteen hours a day. They get up at 6am, study til 11pm, go to bed at 2am and get up and do it all over again. ‘Sometimes I get exhausted,’ said one, ‘But I know it’s worth it because it will help me to achieve the future I want.’ The report concluded by saying that Korea has the highest youth suicide rate of all developed countries.
There is no guarantee that we will see tomorrow, let alone realise a dream career or find our fortune. The Gita reminds us that life is finite. Whatever is coming to us because of past deeds, is coming. Whatever will come in the future because of present actions, will come. No wealth, no fame, no beauty, no education or career can halt the passage of time. Being aware of this at every moment helps us to keep everything in perspective. Don’t sweat the small stuff, discover who you are, how you can serve the world, and pay attention to the things in life which you can take with you at the final moment.
Death may devastate and bewilder even those who wear Gita glasses, but I have a small hope that learning those little songs all those years ago helps to put it all in perspective. As for Paul, and the people of Glasgow, and the children of Korea, and the thousands that will die today, I wish them a safe journey.