It was there; it wasn’t

Suman K Sharma
Apparently, there was nothing out of the ordinary about it. He had died after a lingering illness in Pune.Hisbody was laid on the funeral pyre. Under the pundit’s direction the bereaved son lit the pyre. A shriek rent the deathly calm shrouding the mourners: “Papa, I love you!” It was the bereaved daughter. She recalls that a gust of wind, ever so effervescent, touched her as if the departing spirit of her father had responded consolingly to her anguished cry.
A day later the ashes were ritually collected and put in an earthen pitcher. The pitcher was covered with a red cotton cloth. The family decided to immerse the ashes in the Narmada at Nasik that day itself. The sun had set by the time they reached there. So, they did not consider it proper to perform the rite then. Instead, they moved on to Trimbakeshwar, one of the most sacred spots in Maharashtra dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is a half-an-hour’s drive from Nasik. They planned to pay obeisance at the temple, stay overnight at a hotel and return to the immersion spot the following morning. Two rooms were booked. In one room stayed the deceased’s son-in-law and an elderly male relative, while the other was occupied by the rest of the family. The asthi-kalash was kept in the room taken by the two men. It was placed there on a low table beside a dressing table.
It must have been around 8 at night. As the family’s son-in-law went about seeing the arrangements, it suddenly struck the other man to take a snapshot of the asthi-kalash with his phone. Then he took another photo from a different angle, this time facing the mirror of the dressing table. The day’s exertions had taken a heavy toll of everyone’s mental and physical reserves and the grieving family dozed off rather early. In the morning they got up, drove back to Nasik, immersed the ashes in the Narmada and reached Pune in the late afternoon. It too had been a busy day for them.
After anfonrush of activity, a death in the family leaves behind vacuum. It was during one of those empty moments that the old man remembered the snapshots he had taken of the asthi-kalash. Apart from the detail of the dressing table mirror showing his own image taking the photograph, there was this peculiar difference in the two photos of the cremation urn. The first one showed just the urn placed on the low table, while the other showed a spot of light by its side. Surprisingly, the image of the urn in the mirror did not have that spot.
What had caused that spot of light to appear in the second photo? If it was due to the change in the angle, then why the urn’s image in the mirror did not carry it? Recalling the daughter’s dramatic experience in the cremation ground, everyone in the family agreed that the speck in the second photo was a manifestation of the sookshma shareer – subtle body – of the deceased. The man was present with his family at Trimbakeshwar, but in another dimension.
The explanation did not appear altogether facile. The Garuda Purana, read in most of the mourning Sanatan Dharma families, does assert that the soul of anyonewho passes away remains with his/her dear ones for thirteen days after the death. In ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’, Parmahansa Yogananda has described more than once the materialisation of his deceased guru, Shri Yukteswar. Quoting his Master, Yogananda-ji says: “…God encased the human soul successively in three bodies – the idea, or casual, body, the subtle body, seat of man’s mental and emotional nature; and the gross physical body….The recently physically disembodied being arrives in an astral family through invitation, drawn by similar mental and spiritual tendencies….The astral body is not subject to cold or heat or other natural conditions….Astral beings are able to effect changes in their forms by lifetronic force and by holy mantric vibrations.” (407-410). [The term ‘lifetron/lifetronic’ is Yogananda-ji’s translation of the Sanskrit term ‘pran/pranic’].
U.R. Ananthamurthy, the author of the much acclaimed Kannada novel ‘Samskara’, borrowing from the Manu Dharma Shastra, takes a more earthly view of what happens after death. “First, there is a mantra which says that the body which came from the panchabhoothas (the five elements, viz., the earth, fire, fire, water, air and ether) goes back to the panchabhoothas. It is a kriya (ritual) which does not call for love or emotion….But since we are human beings, we cannot give up the body objectively, so there is vyamoha (affection; attachment). And so there is a whole set of beliefs to cater to it: the dead person has become a pretha (spirit of a dead person)…. (‘Samskara – A Rite for a Dead Man’, translated by A.K. Ramanujan, Oxford University Perennials, 139).
An ordinary man, who has lost a near relative, would hardly be in a frame of mind to wade through such philosophical quicksand. The old man shared on WhatsApp the snapshots of the urn with a friend of his for an opinion. Before the end of the day, that man sent him back photos with the spot removed, of course. That was his way of telling his curious friend that there was nothing much to it. But how did the spot appear in the first place? The sceptic had no viable answer to that. The man then went with the question to another of his friends. The gentleman, a retired university professor of Physics, listened to him patiently and gave the photos a close look. It was all in accordance with the laws concerning light, concluded the former don. For a good measure, he voluntary gave him a demonstration of the way light behaved before the mirror of his own dressing table. The old man was overawed by the scientific explanation. Yet his mind refused to accept what the learned professor was at pains to explain to him.
Was it the mulish denial of the old man to accept a scientific answer to the question that the circumstances had connived to pose to him? One could perhaps say that. But does everything perceived by us have to be ‘normal’ so as to be explained by science? One is reminded of the story of Procrustes, a rogue smith and bandit from Greece, who cut off the legs of his victims so as to fit them to the size of his iron bed.
Talking of a disembodied soul, one may say it was there; it wasn’t.