Aesthetics of dying, coming together of family and the last vital breath in Kashi, India’s sacred city.
A video reflexive ethnography by Rajat Nayyar.
The impetus for this research comes from various threads that include an interest in our culturally woven patterns of dying and death. This film explores the manner in which Hindu families co-create the dying process of their relatives (physiologically in the last stages of life) within the social aesthetics of Kashi Labh Muktibhawan, a salvation home in Kashi, India’s holy city. In doing so, I argue for a a relationally-located conceptualization of dying and contribute to the emerging debates on family as the ‘unit of care’ within the hospice culture. The purpose of this research film is to outline a descriptive framework that attempts to capture not the spiritual essence of self but the pattern of its desire and direction toward Moksha.
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A day without thinking about death is a wasted day. – Zopa Rinpoche
In the book ‘Introduction to Thanatology : death and dying in American Society’, Colbert Rhodes and Clyde B. Vedder define ‘dying’ as a biological process—a function of the body (1983). Although biological aging is a human universal, how people think about old age, the manner in which they cope with physical decline and social losses in later life vary a great deal from one society to another. Dying, like most other human acts, can be done well or badly. But unlike many other things we do, we only die once, so it is important to get it right first time. According to the Stoic philosopher Seneca, ‘learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die’. Seneca was voicing the conviction, common among ancient philosophers that, while death is inevitable, how we die is highly dependent on the virtues, skills, planning and attention we bring to it, and that the best deaths are well-prepared ones (Scarre 2011, 1). To know how to die means knowing how to complete one’s life narrative in a fitting way, with suitable closure of the main plot lines. On Schenck and Roscoe’s view, ‘creating a “last chapter” to one’s life narrative may allow us to die with our human dignity intact, regardless of the circumstances’. This way death is ‘an action and decision rather than something that happens to us’ (2009, 73), and if we cannot fully control the circumstances of our death, we can at least substantially influence its meaning. Jonathan Parry, in his book Death and the Regeneration of Life, shows that “the bad death is one for which the deceased cannot be said to have prepared himself. It is said that ‘he did not die his own death” (Parry 1982, 83).
The impetus for this research comes from various threads that include an interest in culturally woven patterns of dying and death within Hinduism. The aim of this research is to study the manner in which Hindu families co-create the dying process of their relatives. I started to build a lens to look at dying in India’s holy city, Kashi and also the city that I have come to call my own. Kashi is one of the oldest living cities in the world. To a large degree the ancient history of the city is merged with mythology and as anthropologist Bhadyanath Saraswati (1975, 5) wrote: “Mythology dates this ancient city to the early period of creation”. Death should come at home or at one of the sacred Hindu pilgrimage cities. Kashi is especially favored, for it is said that souls of all who die in that holy city immediately attain Moksha (Parry 1994, 27). Moksha, according to anthropologist T.N. Madan, is a “Death… made bearable by its being treated as an opportunity for the individual soul to realize union with ‘that’ [universal soul] from which it has… separated” (Madan 1988, 137). The ending that he has in view when we speak of death, does not signify a being-at-an-end of being, but rather a being-toward-wholeness. What belongs together is not yet together. In trying to grasp the idea of Moksha, I have also come to understand it as a being-in-its-wholeness, in a way that it is never born again as a being concerned about its very own being.
In Madan’s words, ‘The ultimate and critical sign of the good life may be available in the manner a person attains his death’ (1988, 122). With this understanding, I became interested in the ‘manner’, dying pilgrims (and the the families who brings them) stages their death at Kashi Labh Muktibhawan, a salvation home in the city. All the dying pilgrims brought by families to Kashi Labh Muktibhawan are physiologically in their last stages of life. They have stopped eating and drinking. They cannot do anything by themselves. Most families arrive here as a dying tradition because the name of the city is mentioned in religious scriptures. The dying pilgrims made a request to their families to bring them to Kashi or their religious guru had suggested them to do so. Kashi Labh Mukti Bhawan was started, and continues to be operated, by a charitable organization called the Dalmia Charitable Trust. The trust is one part of a large industrial organization run by the well known Dalmia family.
My thesis explores the manner in which families stage the dying process of their relative within the social aesthetics of Kashi Labh Muktibhawan. Since, I was never able to make a conversation with the dying pilgrim, this research is entirely based on intimate relationships made with family members which involved assisting them during their stay (waiting period) at the salvation home, temple visits in Kashi, and even to the extent of being one of the four shoulders (kandha) to carry the bier (wooden frame) on which the body is carried to Manikarnika, the cremation site on the banks of Ganga ji. By participating in the everyday life of family members during their stay at Kashi Labh Muktibhawan, this thesis reflects the cultural production and experiences of a family more broadly. And, finally, the role of narrative that is taken up in this process of spiritual closure in regard to death. While the general theme of this study is the aesthetics of dying and dying spaces, with specific reference to Kashi, I refer to existential concepts of dying and even to the emerging debates on family as the unit of care within the hospice culture. During my fieldwork at Kashi Labh Muktibhawan (Sept 2014 – February 2015, December 2017 – February 2018), I met around 30 families during their stay and for many of them Kashi Labh Muktibhawan is the main reason to come to Kashi. Many of them, had at least, heard about Kashi Labh Muktibhawan before coming. As one one of the family members once remarked, “Here, there is bhojan (food) and bhajan (spiritual songs)”. The family has stopped everything to bring the dying person to Kashi. The dying person has only one goal now, i.e, to completely focus on being one with God and shatter the material world to which one is clinging to. On the other hand, the family still has concerns in the material world and shortly after their arrival at Kashi Labh Muktibhawan begins the period of liminality. The art and aesthetics of dying, as practiced in Kashi Labh Muktibhawan, ensure a devotional atmosphere co-constructed by families and priest staff. It was evident that being in this liminal space, where Moksha is certain but the timing (of physical death) is unknown, transforms into an ontologically rewarding experience for family members, as I will show in this thesis.
While being reflexive to the experiences of all the families that I met at Kashi Labh Muktibhawan, this research informs and adds to the relationship that I share with Shiv Dhawan, a fabric shop owner from Delhi, with whom I spent ten days at the salvation home. On the recommendation of their family guru and to fulfill his mother’s last wish, Shiv brought his dying mother to release the last vital breath in Kashi, India’s holiest city. Kanhaiyya (Shiv’s son) drove for eighteen hours from Delhi with his father and his grandmother. Kanhaiyya is an undergraduate student studying Law at Delhi University and it was not easy for him to support the decision to leave for Kashi. He accompanied his father after having taken his grandmother to every hospital in the city and finally understanding that he could no longer keep prolonging this process. Like most seekers, Shiv never spoke of Moksha as something to be achieved in another world, but it is to be lived throughout life. Shiv says that it is certain that ‘death’ comes. He suggests that we say it and overlook the fact that in order to be certain of death, we must always be certain of our own potentiality. Since my conversations with Shiv almost always revolved around the nature of such a death, we often spoke about it as an eminent potential of a being. A few years after Shiv’s birth, men chanted mantras and women sang for his initiation. The initiation ritual was Shiv’s first step toward Moksha, a potential of being in wholeness with God. In this manner, a Hindu life is laid out around sixteen passages that leads a being toward Moksha. This does not mean that this being is always focussed on the ‘event’ of death (at the last stage) but in performing everydayness through the rites of passage. The fact that everyday being is always already toward its wholeness with God, shows that this death, which concludes and defines being-whole, is not something which Shiv’s (dying) mother ultimately arrives at only in her demise.
Dying pilgrims, at times, go to sleep for days without speaking a word or even drinking any water. At this stage family members may find themselves in a spiritual crisis. It was a general understanding that the waiting period is directly associated with past karmas of the dying pilgrim and their closed family members: often they would say that there is something still lacking on their part and it makes them more prone to advices from the priest staff, manager, local people of Kashi. This would mean resolving all family conflicts, prostrate in temples to seek blessings, bring water from sacred wells, apply powdered ash (from the great cremation site) on their dying relative’s forehead, participate with even more rigor in the daily rituals of chanting, donate food to animals and in some cases, donate a cow to a Brahmin. Shiv’s mother did not speak a word and went in deep sleep after their arrival. At this time, past family conflicts and extended family emerge during the ‘waiting period’ at Kashi Labh Muktibhawan. I witnessed the family coming together despite their conflicts and was told explicitly by Shiv and his family that they feel a sense of completion, as they are now together and ready for their mother to leave peacefully. In Shiv’s words, ‘It is my mother, who brought me here… to face my fears and embrace the family’.
Another layer was added to my friendship with Shiv, as I would accompany him in long walks within the sacred complex of Kashi, that resembles a labyrinth like network of narrow by-lanes, co-habited by humans (from all around the world), cows, bulls, chicken, goats, monkeys, birds, rats, cockroaches, mosquitoes, dogs, cats and a few trees (most have been cut down). Kashi has its own way of life and death. Justice’s strongest impression is of people taking bhang and lazily standing around chewing betel pan and chatting. It is enjoyment of life, rather than the pursuit of a spiritual reward at death, that is the dominant theme of banarasipan (self identifiable mass culture of Kashi) (Justice, 1997, 64). These are set of qualities of god Shiva himself, just like him, the people of Kashi are mast (carefree), phakkar (eccentric), nidar (fearless). Occasionally, I would take a break in our long walks through the hustling narrow streets and ask Shiv to try the many delicacies that the streets have on offer. Shiv embraced all such opportunities. He would walk through the narrow streets of the city, visit temples, tell priests and local people about his mother’s condition and their waiting period. He quickly picked up visible habits of local people and each morning when I would meet him, he would either have sandalwood paste with a red mark on his forehead or he would have returned from an early morning dip in the Ganga ji. This process reached the peak when he was asked by cremation specialists, after his mother’s death, if he wanted to perform the antim samskara (last rite) like a local of Kashi, and to which he proudly agreed. At this point, he had his shaved and kept a long tuft, no facial hair and wore only a piece of white cotton cloth around the body. Once the ritual was over, he chanted like a Kashi vasi (resident), “Har Har Mahadev”, which translates to ‘Each one, god Shiva’.
Based on the ontological and cosmological nature of conversations with Shiv and having stayed with the family throughout their waiting period in Kashi, I have focussed on the liminality as experienced by the family, their journey through the process and the events that occur (which are ritualized by the family) during the end of life care at Kashi Labh Muktibhawan. This research involved sense-making at three levels or three techniques of enquiry: visual ethnography, conversations with Shiv on the nature of ‘being’, and walking with Shiv in Kashi. These levels of enquiry correspond to three general anthropological questions: What do people appear to be doing? What do they say they are doing? And what do they say they should be doing? Through these I began to understand how people were feeling and the challenges that they were going through as well as specific details of how they came, how long they thought they might have to stay and to explore the liminality that creates meaning in the space between meanings for families. I do not take Hindu philosophy for Hindu life. At times, scholars ignore the variability and confuse lived reality for textual prescription. Hindus are in a complicated relationship with a huge and complex body of sacred texts. Many people in India, probably do not, themselves read these texts, but they hear this one being read and see that one being performed. A typical day of my informant may include complex cycles of emotion, hope, doubt, uncertainty, joy, and reflection, together with periods of mundane activity, and repeated visits to temples in the city. Therefore, Moksha (the justification for coming to Kashi) may have different meanings to different family members. Their journey towards it, upon their arrival in Kashi, is the matter of our concern.
Reflexive video ethnography seems to me to be one of the best ways of approaching a subject (like Moksha) that is both difficult to isolate and yet seems all-pervasive in the behavior of the habitants and the material world surrounding them. I used a video camera to study the bhakti vatavaran (devotional atmosphere) of Kashi Labh Muktibhawan and its direct relationship with the ‘liminal space’ – where death is certain but the timing is unknown. Their engagement with the sacred complex of Kashi and participation within the sensorium of the hospice adds to their faith and in making death meaningful. On the other side, there has been an idea prevailing in contemporary filmic anthropology that the camera is actually “porous” in both directions, or in other words, that by each visual ethnographic description and its scientific interpretation, an anthropologist, while directly presenting another matter, indirectly tells something about himself (Pavlovsky 2003, 171). The object has consequently become the subject itself, moreover the the anthropologist has become the object of research. Each time I placed my eye at the eye-piece of the camera, filming the dying and the family members, my consciousness started a process identical to the one accompanying the ‘watching of films’, the only difference being that I could take active part in the film, I could create it and not only be a passive watcher of a film show. Moreover, the camera and the audiovisual material has helped me in contemplating my own being anticipating dying and death. I find inspiration from the keynote given by David MacDougall at the Conference “The Challenge of Atmospheres”, at “Internationales Begegnungszentrum der Wissenschaft” in Munich on October 4, 2014, in which he talks about embodied cinema and “cinema of proximity”:
In 1906, Charles Sherrington identified a new sense which he called “proprioception” — that is, the physical awareness we have of our own bodies. Proprioception can be a useful concept in discussing the relation between the filmmaker’s body and the bodies of the people filmed. In a film the sensory environment is evoked not only directly but also through the experiences of the film subjects. The camera evokes this subjectivity by remaining physically close to certain individuals who are being filmed. And this also requires a certain physical closeness and sympathy on the part of filmmaker.
He goes on to suggest that films act upon us through our vision and hearing, but our responses are by no means limited to just these two of Aristotle’s five original senses. And what a film does not evoke directly we tend to create for ourselves, out of our own past experiences of touch, taste, and smell. This has two components, the first being the filmmaker’s closeness to the sources of sensation, as an extension, or as a kind of surrogate for the viewer, and secondly the filmmaker being close to the people in the film, as a means of evoking their subjective experience. Ultimately he believes the two kinds of closeness become merged in an intersubjective relationship linking the bodies of the filmmaker and the film subjects (MacDougall 2014, 5).
My love for film’s sensory evocation goes way back to my childhood, when viewing another person on film would generate a sensation of the character’s bodily existence that, for me, is beyond the film and its message. I use the camera as an extension of my body for this research in order to be fully aware of my own physical presence and of the people and spaces that I am filming. The particular use of the camera then is not only an indexical imprint of the moment of filming, but also a method to generate a sensation of that person’s bodily existence (and dying) in the body of the filmmaker and, subsequently, the viewer of the film. Being with someone who is dying is like looking into a very clear and detailed mirror of our own individual process. As Sharp has vividly suggested, “ If we have the understanding, courage, and patience with ourselves, we can see our own fears, defense, guilt, anger, attachments, desire -all of it- surface to the foreground of this living mirror (Sharp cited in Coberly, 1997).
The ethnographic film, along with this thesis, is a conceptive whole expressed with moving pictures and sound which tries to show both a phenomenal level and a socio-spiritual context of what is presented. The primary intention or purpose of creating this film is to express my questions, attitudes and emotions towards the inseparability of living/dying in a liminal space of interplay. While its secondary purpose is to describe and document. I used the camera to record the phenomenon of liminality as experienced by families and describe it for the purpose of this research and then later, having examined and analyzed the filmed material at peace, I state my opinion on the phenomenon and made an audio-visual record. The particular methodological contribution was to combine this use of video as a tool for feedback (Rouch, 1995), as a “mnemonic device” (Asch & Asch, 1995) with Jay Ruby’s admonition that ethnographic films be considered not objective data but reflexive mirrors (1982). The families and priest staff co-create a ritual for dying and within this process many events may take place that challenge the structure of the ritual process. As we will see these events are also ritualized to produce greater emotional excitement and sense of communion between the family members. The ethnographic film is primarily a sound led film. I allow the constantly cracking sounds from the speakers installed in Kashi Labh Muktibhawan to create the effect of repetition and, on the other hand, the activities (events) are used to emphasize on the liminal status and the challenges that emerge during the ritual process. During the edit of the film, I learnt a great deal about creating the reflexive structure of this thesis and therefore the two components of this thesis: text and film, supplement each other in a way that the film both informs and adds to the anthropological translation of this experience. In a way, this ethnographic film is informed by the explicit theory of culture, i.e, being-toward-Moksha, which causes the statements within the film to be organized in a particular way. Furthermore, the statements made by Shiv and other family members in the film also reveal the methodology adopted for this research.