Longevity bane or boon?

Wish to live as long as possible is natural but achieving the same to enjoy life in Golden Period needs efforts!

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Vilas, my friend, wrote an e mail on our college group about human longevity and role of pharmaceutical companies in the same. This brings us to the good old discussion, longevity, is it bane or boon? In recent past, we all have seen products, treatments and methods to delay aging. Hoping to be around for longer time is a natural instinct! Both men and women, are using different products, trying to look young, dying their hair black and so on. There is plethora of creams, lotions, treatments, massages, health routines, health drinks available to us. The commercial organizations make such things available to us but to buy or not to buy is our choice! Such products were not available even 50 years back.

Vilas had made a comment that these pharmaceuticals companies keep people alive to make money. I replied to his mail saying that I don’t agree; in that e mail exchange, Sudhakar and another friend Pramod prodded me that this is a subject on which I should write a blog! Something kicked in from within and thoughts started flowing in my mind. What is longevity, what is old age? These definitions change as the years pass by, and/or we go to different countries. In Japan one of my colleagues’ father is 92 years old, 2 or 3 times a week he travels by Metro to get stuff for home! Old age? What is that? Last year we had taken Alaska cruise and there was one grand old American lady, all of 99 years of age, traveling alone on the cruise! You may say that these are exceptions but I don’t think they are! In a country like Japan population of 80 plus people is quite large and average age at death is between 85 & 90.

 Just a generation before ours, in India, our parents generation, old age started with crossing the age of fifty and at the time of retirement at 58 or 60 the Vanprasthashrama started. The currently available medicines, diagnostics tools and treatments were simply not available then. So if you had a heart attack, you simply died in most cases. Before the responsibilities of people ended, their health and wealth both were on the wane. Today’s Golden period never really dawned on that generation. There were two reasons, deterioration of health and wealth. Post British Raj, we were a poor country hence there never were savings to write home about. Even if ones health remained good, there was no money around to enjoy. But most important plus, for that generation, was there was always something to look forward to! Children, grandchildren were mostly around. Families always had something going. But for our generation with nuclear families, children migrating, we have to create our own things to look forward to! 

 In our generation, in general health has improved both bodily and financially. Slowly, in front of our eyes, we have seen that in today’s age 50 is like 40 of olden days and so on. Today’s 70 is like 60 of last generation. The overall improvement in situation is changing the definition of old age. Discussion on death was taboo in older generation. Now people at least in my group talk openly about health and death. With this change in thinking people are trying to take things in hand and are discussing about “medical will”! For example people are discussing openly, that in case of defined major health issues, they would not like to be put on ventilator or would not like to undergo major surgery. By taking such parameters under control people really want to enjoy their golden period and say quits when it is not worth it!

 There are ways to keep reasonably healthy. The most important is discipline. Whatever we do, only discipline is going to help. Some might feel that your behavior is regimental but to achieve your goal you need to be very rigid about discipline. I will tell you my story; I was detected with severe diabetes, HB1C value of 11.5, five years back! I love sweets and this change had occurred between two yearly tests. What I did and still follow is discipline, discipline and discipline! I stopped eating sweets from the next day, I exercise regularly anyway. Started medication and switched to low carb stuff. In the third year my HB1C was found to be 6.0! In between I went through cancer treatment for about three months! My doctor was very confident that I will bring things under control because he was aware of my discipline. Why I shared my story with you is because we are probably the first generation in India, that may be able to enjoy the golden period of life! Add to discipline, positive thinking; that is one more thing that will keep you healthy.

 Is longevity bane? No I don’t think so! There are many different ways of keeping healthier and fitter at my age (I am 68). Healthiness is equally important for both body and mind. For body, exercise and yoga are the key but for mind there are many different things. You can learn something new, things that you always wanted to learn but never got time. A friend of mine today told me that post retirement he has joined a music school to learn to play Piano! Great going. Maybe you wanted to try your hand at photography, travel, painting or reading. Do it! Doing things you love to do, is my definition of Golden Period! Golden Period definition changes with person to person. Somebody may want to join bhajan singing group, some may like discussion group on modern technology. Thirty years back my mother was in such a group but it was very rare in those days. That group had retired general managers, high court judges, house wives, teachers and what have you. They would invite people to give 15 to 30 minute talks on subject ranging from puarans, health care, or to get to know about latest aero planes. Their only requirement was that the speaker should explain in such a way that they could understand the subject. Groups formed 30 years back were the beginning of many such groups mushrooming now in the form of Alumni groups, Office colleagues groups and so on.  

 Staying connected with family and friends is another great way of remaining healthy. After taking care to remain healthy, things can go wrong but this should not happen for want of trying. Another secret of remaining healthy is to keep updated with new things like gadgets, technologies and happenings all around! So much information is available easily on the net these days, it is crime to not know things. My grandmother died at the age of 85; was she keen on what is happening in the world! Whenever I went to her house she would ask me information on different things in the world. She died in 1985 but she used to read the newspapers really in details. My brother in law is 81 years old (he was professor of commerce) and is having many health issues. A couple of weeks back when we traveled only to meet him, we found that though the flesh was not willing, his intellect was as sharp as ever. Currently he is mentoring one of his students on a project for making solar drier which can be used by plethora of people! He wanted my advice and thoughts on marketing the product! Last week I had a discussion on WhatsApp technicalities with my Grand-nephew! Another way of keeping young!  

 Vilas mentioned in his mail a figure of 75 years of age, beyond which he felt it may not be very pleasant to be around. Yes possible, on current data available. But I am sure this data will change a lot in next 25 years and maybe 80/85 would be that age! Jury is still out on definitions of Golden Period, threshold age. But I am quite sure that this will be a moving target all the time! And finally, YES! The old age is a boon!

Nirvana!

When I wrote the blog “Self-Development or Nirvana”, a friend Shrikant felt that I have over simplified Nirvana! He also said “My definition of modern Nirvana…..is….be balanced…be at peace….be happy…. be as good a person as you can possibly be….be thankful to Almighty for what you are!!!!!” I told him that when I wrote about leaving all whatsapp groups as Nirvana, I meant it is as a metaphor. In this blog there could a bit of repetition of thoughts as I am elaborating on Nirvana!

This exchange started a chain of thoughts in my mind. Hinduism is a very old religion, it is a way of life, and all the thinking, teachings and preaching prevalent today, are thoughts from a totally different environment which prevailed when these thoughts were expressed. Human society as we visualize today did not exist in olden days. It started developing today’s format as late as in 18th century when industrialization started taking place.

Earliest human societies were groups or tribes of people which consisted of hunters and gatherers. They would move around the areas surrounding but had limitations. Twenty thousand years back there were pastoral and agrarian societies. Pastoral societies depended on domesticated live-stock and agrarian societies grew crops, settled in certain areas as permanent residents. Life obviously was not easy and larger settlements started from 6000 BC. On this scale, large cities are very recent phenomena.

What must have been life when the Ashrams in Hinduism were defined? I am aware that the top creations/achievements in this world are done at a very young age. So it is possible that many of the brilliant treaties must have been written by people at a very young age. These were prodigies! Like Dynaneshwar wrote Dnyaneshwari at 18,  Mozart wrote his first symphony at the age of 5! My point is when these treaties were written, many things that exist in today’s life just did not exist. So a new interpretation of Ashrams, vis a vis modern civilization, is essential.

For this purpose, we must first understand the meaning of Ashrams as interpreted, based on old knowledge. I am taking the definition of Vanaprastha  & Sannyasa which I felt were reasonably comprehensive.

Vanaprastha – The Hermit in Retreat:

  • This stage of a man begins when his duty as a householder comes to an end
  • He has become a grandfather, his children are grown up, and have established lives of their own.
  • At this age, he should renounce all physical, material and sexual pleasures, retire from his social and professional life, leave his home, and go to live in a forest hut, spending his time in prayers.
  • He is allowed to take his wife along, but is supposed to maintain little contact with the family.
  • This kind of life is indeed very harsh and cruel for an aged person.

Sannyasa – The Wandering Recluse:

  • At this stage, a man is supposed to be totally devoted to God.
  • He is a sannyasi, he has no home, no other attachment
  • He has renounced all desires, fears and hopes, duties and responsibilities.
  • He is virtually merged with God, all his worldly ties are broken, and his sole concern becomes attaining moksha, or release from the circle of birth and death.
  • (Suffice it to say, very few Hindu men can go up to this stage of becoming a complete ascetic.)
  • When he dies, the funeral ceremonies (Pretakarma) are performed by his son and heir.

I will not discuss about Sannyasa as I feel that it is irrelevant and I don’t believe in it. Just because it is mentioned in Hindu treaties, I need not discuss it. So we will discuss Vanprastha.

In the definition of Vanprastha, first two lines are just statements of facts. The third line suggests what he should do at this stage. Next it said, he can take his wife along. But the question is does wife want to go?

To start with, something which does not include both male & female species is incorrect. This thought process “of he”, mentioned in definition is very old. It is suggested that he should renounce everything as his duties in life are over. His children are grown up, he has grandchildren and so on. Does reaching an age really mean that his duties are over? Has everything in life to do with duties?  Is life only about duties then what about pleasure? When this status is reached, I feel that he has the right to enjoy his carefree moments of life without any serious responsibilities. He may want to do things which he was not able to do, during his busy life. He may want to paint, he may want to trek, he may want to learn to sing, and he may just want to meet his friends once in a while for a cup of tea. He may want to read books. He may want to travel and see the places he has not been to. He may want go for a pilgrimage- what is pilgrimage? The definitions are changing. My friend Shrikant suggested that the recent Alaska Cruise that we took was a pilgrimage, to be with the nature for a week! Yes, I agree.

The system of ashrams is believed to be prevalent since the 5th century BC in Hindu society. However, historians say that these stages of life were always viewed more as ‘ideals’ than as common practice. According to one scholar, even in its very beginning, after the first ashram, a young adult could choose which of the other ashrams he would wish to pursue for the rest of his life. Today, it is not expected that a Hindu male should go through the four stages, but these thoughts still stand as important “pillars” of Hindu socio-religious tradition.

Many things in life are followed as “Pratha” (a way of life followed as a tradition). Many a times we follow these as God’s directive. We don’t try to discuss traditions in reference to modern society and modern way of thinking. Some of traditions may not withstand analysis of modern way of thinking as these were decided when world itself was totally different. My friend Ramesh said that Pratha becomes tradition, Tradition becomes faith and faith turns into blind faith due to fear of God! Very appropriately said!

Why were thoughts like Ashram suggested, like giving up everything in Vanprastha? First scientific point that needs to be discussed is the life expectancy of those times. I don’t think many saw their grandchildren, maybe many died even before they produced children. That is the reason population was not increasing rapidly in those days. In fact societies were wiped out by diseases like plague and cholera! Now those people who saw their grandchildren must have found life irrelevant as not many people of their age were around. So what else do you do? Give up everything, maybe die quietly one day! There was nothing else to look forward to, for such people, maybe it was very easy to give up everything when there was nothing.

What is the meaning of life? What is reason to live? What is the purpose of life? To be born and to die are two things on which we have no control. It is the life in between that matters. Based on these discussions on life we can try to arrive at definition of Nirvana! Our definition of Nirvana should address these three questions.

I do not think anyone will be able to give you an answer unless we know a person who has attained nirvana. We as humans probably do not understand this completely. This is similar to a color blind person from birth, will never able to explain what red and blue is. The person will be able to talk about the wavelength of the color, how it’s used in the human world, it’s speed, through education but will never really can explain the look or feel of the color.

If you are in the state of nirvana, then you will not be having attachments to anything. No greed, no wants, no lust, no fear, no temptations. Nothing. Zero. That is when you know you have attained nirvana. ( As per older thought process)

Some people think that they have let go of these worldly things, so they have attained nirvana. It’s not easy, but not impossible. Can everybody attain it?

My take on Niravana, similar to thoughts Shrikant’s mentioned at the beginning and bang opposite of old thinking.

  • Always keep your humility and empathy for others
  • Keep your faith intact and believe in divine power, some people may call it God
  • Let the child within you be always alive
  • Be keen to learn something new, it could be technology, art, religion
  • Don’t lose your ability to keep smiling
  • Enjoy your passions, it could be watching movies, reading books, travel
  • Do something which you were never able to do in your life
  • Don’t feel bad to enjoy materialistic things but never go after them
  • Be thankful to Almighty for what you are- (as my friend Shrikant said)
  • Last but not the least be in touch with family and friends, always

I feel that if we achieve 70% of above we have reached Nirvana! This my friends is my definition of Niravana!! What is your take?