No resting in peace

Devdutt Pattanaik  On the Internet, a standard acronym appears when a statesman dies: RIP. It means rest in peace. RIP reveals that even in modern times we want to believe that after death there is something that needs ‘rest’ and ‘peace’. That death is not a full stop. This is an indicator of absence of scientific thought, and a belief in the idea that something outlives the death of the body.

There is, as yet, no scientific proof that something survives death. All religious and occult views on soul, spirit and ghost remain personal opinions. RIP is essentially an expression of subjective truth, not objective truth, an imagined reality or myth that many subscribe to, whether they are religious or secular.

Illustration / Devdutt Pattanaik

Animals do not say RIP. They do not have the wherewithal to imagine such realities. Some animals mourn their loss, briefly, and move on. No one builds tombs and holds memorial days. Death for animals is a reality. For humans it is a mystery. And we use elaborate stories to structure this mystery.

RIP has its roots in Christian and Islamic mythology, where after death, the spirit waits in purgatory till the end of the time: Judgment day (qayamat) in Islam, and Second Coming of Christ in Christianity. Then the faithful will rise to heaven. Until then, we hope the dead rest in peace. This concept of afterlife can be traced to Greek mythology and before that Egyptian mythology. Chinese believed in the land of ancestors, to which the dead departed. In some cultures, dead kings and sages become gods and guardian spirits of the living. In some cases, the dead refuse to go into afterlife and stay back as ghosts, troubling and tormenting the living. That is when you call ghost-busters.

Indian mythologies — Buddhist, Jain, Hindu — believe in rebirth. There is no concept of resting, but there is constantly hope for peace (shanti). The soul is always travelling, reborn again and again and we hope in a future life finds so much wisdom that there is no need to be reborn. In these mythologies, birth is an outcome of a quest. Life is about coming to terms with how the world functions.

The burning of bodies and throwing bones in water is meant to remind Hindus that the body does not matter. In cultures where there is belief in one life, the body is embalmed and entombed, facing the direction of God, so that it rests in peace. In ancient Egypt, the direction of afterlife was the West; in Christianity it became the east, the direction of the rising sun; in Judaism it was Jerusalem; in Islam it was Mecca. Hindus make the corpse body face south, the direction of Vaitarni, across which is the land of the dead, Pitr-loka or Yama-loka, from where everyone eventually returns. The truly wise do not go there at all. In Buddhism, they just cease to be.

Coming to terms with natural reality is tough. The human imagination wants the world to function in a particular way. We want the word to have equality and human rights and justice and fairness. We genuinely believe wealth and power and true love will solve our problems. We pursue them relentlessly. We fail but we continue to strive, convinced we are martyrs to the cause, heroes of the revolution. Nature continues rolling on, indifferent to our passionate screams and self-indulgent selfies. We seek peace in material terms and overlook the fact that peace is merely a psychological reaction, not an objective fact but an aspiration of the human mind. Peace is not an outcome of cynicism. It is a joyful celebration of human inadequacy.

The author writes and lectures on relevance of mythology in modern times.

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  • Tanmay03-Aug-2015

    "Aatman' in Hinduism is not personal opinion,it is highest form of self experienced through (Adhyatma vidya) first person empiricism, it is reproducible and verifiable, which means even you can witness it if you use your instruments after repairing it. Can you please explain Which matter when acted upon by which force develops the reaction peace ?

  • Bharat04-Aug-2015

    Mythology??? Stop equating sanathana dharma or hinduism with abrahamic fairy tales or mythology. Consciousness or atman or advaita philosophy of vedas has already been validated by Double slit quantum experiment.

  • R.Venkatanarayanan05-Aug-2015

    Even Pattanaik seems to assume that there is some thing called "objective truth" and it is superior to "subjective truth". If the latter is experiential and is available to any one who strives to experience it, why is it in any way inferior or less of a truth? The less we talk about science the better, What was science ten years back is unscientific now--whether in physics, chemistry, universal phenomena and so on. Devdutt should bring more clarity to what he wants to convey.R.Venkatanarayanan

  • Ian Wardell02-Aug-2015

    This statement "there is, as yet, no scientific proof that something survives death" is so muddle-headed on so many levels I scarcely know where to begin.First of all science never deals in proof, merely with evidence. Secondly, I imagine you would claim that something exists before death? i.e the self or a stream of consciousness. What scientific evidence is there that this consciousness exists? (do not presuppose materialism in your response since materialism is demonstrably false).

  • Sandeep Sehgal03-Aug-2015

    The point is valid. But seriously Mr. Patnaik, don't you have any decency to at least acknowledge from where you have got this idea. I clearly remember that I read this idea first in Rajiv Malhotra Discussion Group where it was discussed in December'2014. Earlier you were plagiarising his works

  • Dwarakanath MN04-Aug-2015

    I'm not aware of Abrahamic religions, but at least the case of Hinduism is quite different

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