But to stand in the sun and melt into the wind?"
- Kahlil Gibran, from "The Prophet"
'Death' is a word that conjures up images of sickness and sorrow, pain and parting. There is finality about the word that is difficult to shake off. It also instills in one the 'fear of the unknown'; a fear that is ubiquitously present in monarchs and mongrels alike. Death is, therefore, eulogized and revered as 'The Great Leveler'.
"You can be a king or a street sweeper,
but everybody dances with the Grim Reaper".
~Robert Alton Harris
'Here today, gone tomorrow' is aptly said of life, as no one knows where life came from and where it goes. Until the mid 20th century, death was a reality that most people accepted, albeit reluctantly. But now there is a greater surge in defying death, fostered by an increased demand for lasting life. With several advancements in life- saving techniques, the last breath on earth can be infinitely postponed; life can 'lie in state' with the help of life-saving machines.
Everlasting youth and eternity has from time immemorial topped the list of 'most wanted'. It is small wonder; therefore, that man has been devising means to defy death, either by partaking carefully prepared concoctions or by appeasing a plethora of Gods. While some of the methods have had a 'placebo' effect, most have failed for want of a sound proof.
In James Hilton's 'Lost Horizon', he describes a mystical lamasery in Tibet called 'Shangri-La', synonymous with 'paradise on earth', where immortal beings led happy lives. Is this a mere figment of man's overworked imagination? Or is it based on reality? It may help to delve further.
The Mystery of Mastering Death
The early Egyptians made feeble attempts to overcome death. They made 'mummies' of human bodies and placed it in tombs along with some of their wordly possessions. This was their desperate attempt at non-stop existence.
The Bible refers to ripe old individuals who lived for hundreds of years. The good Book even tells us of a way to ensure that we defy age --by honoring our parents! Are we then leading shorter lives because we fail to honor our parents? Although the advice invites reflection, it would hardly appeal to the present hedonistic generation.
Interestingly in Robin Sharma's bestseller, 'The Monk who sold his Ferrari', there is reference to mysterious individuals in the Himalayan forests, reported to have been around for several hundred years. It seems as if they hold a patent for vitality, vigor and youthfulness. These men and women, who have synchronized their lives with the rhythms of nature, are reported to be in a spiritual, single-minded pursuit of self -betterment.
The Modern 'Elixir'
The modern man, who is 'choke- a- blocked' with the vagaries of technical empowerment, has neither the time nor the inclination to follow the forest track. He connives to arrest ageing and death in their tracks by popping a pill or by lazing around in steamy saunas.
Exotic spas have sprouted all around where nubile fish are allowed to nibble on weary toes. This helps to sap away stress from fatigued bodies, which would, no doubt, infuse a new lease of life. Leeches are employed, and exclusive diets are whipped up, to detoxify the body. These methods are trusted to hold the key to a long and healthy life.
Cloning to 'Continue'
When spirituality has entered the fray, can science be far behind? Western scientists, in their attempt to defy death, resorted to cloning, a technique that has the potential to duplicate any living thing.
Although 'clones' generated euphoria in those who loved their life on earth, they certainly turned out to be a dampener. The early clones, including the famed 'Dolly' were 'old and brittle' and met with an untimely death. Research continues, while the world waits with bated breath.
Tail End of Youth
Scientists have for long been eyeing the Telomeres, which are cap- like structures located on the ends of the chromosomes, and which are synthesized with the help of the enzyme Telomerase.
It has been revealed that the level of Telomerase depletes with age and this results in telomere shortening and dysfunction, which in turn leads tothe accumulation of DNA damage. Together, they form the prime tenets of ageing.
Does this mean lengthening the telomere will ensure longevity? For now the answer is 'no'! Elevated telomerase activity is seen in 90% of cancer cells. Apparently, the gradual telomerase depletion, with age, is a form of defense mechanism against deadly diseases, like cancer, that are characteristic to old age.
Research is on to probe into the association between telomere shortening, ageing and cancer. The future holds the key to a hopeful answer!
The de Gray way
A self-taught gerontologist, 41 -year old Dr. de Gray firmly believes in finding solutions to overcome human mortality.
As is widely - known, the human body accumulates free radicals due to oxidation. These free radicals wreck havoc on the cells which get destroyed with time. Although anti-oxidants are helpful, they do not stop the ageing process.
Dr. de Gray hopes to kick start a whole- body rubbish removal programme, designed to remove long- accumulated 'junk' from the body cells. He hopes to do this with the help of the soil bacteria, creatures that are adept in metabolizing wastes. Appropriate genes from these bacteria, if implanted in humans, are believed, by Dr. de Gray, to work wonders. Only time and research will confirm this hypothesis.
Life after Life
Another approach to life and death is to ensure that our good deeds 'carry the torch' for us after we cease to exist. Organ Donation, and other acts of philanthropy, play a role in making us 'immortal'.
Until now, death marches on unchallenged!
We are born only to die. But those who have trod the spiritual path assure us that we die only to be born again. The Hindus and the Buddhists believe in rebirth, depending on what the individual was upto while on earth,while the semitic religions believe in eternal life with God .But this too is conditional.
Death, therefore, must be viewed as the great doorway during our transit from life to life. Should we, then, be terrorized by death? No! Instead, we should concentrate on conquering our fear of the inevitable - our fear of death!
'To conquer death, you only have to die....' --Tim Rice
Dr. REEJA THARU/L