There is a story, not often told, in Mahabharata where the eldest of the Pandavas, Yudhishthira, comes upon a lake and finds that his brothers lay dead on its banks.
Before beginning the search into his brothers’ murder, the prince in exile finds himself burning with thirst and reaches into the lake to drink, not knowing that it was drinking from the lake that brought his brothers’ end.
At that moment a celestial appears, a Yaksha, no god or angel but instead a presence of power presiding over the lake. The Yaksha warns Yudhisthira not to drink lest he suffers the fate of his brothers.
He has an alternative: Yudhisthira can instead answer Yaksha’s questions. There are said to be eighteen questions that Yaksha asked Yudhisthira, but here is the one that concerns what I am writing today.
Yaksha asks, “What is the greatest wonder? To this, Yudhisthira replies, “Each day death strikes, and we live as though we were immortal. This is the greatest wonder.”
I had my grandmother staying with me late last year. While we discussed about her experiences in a life spanning 88 years, she narrated a very interesting story.
It was the story of a boy in a village who once saw four people carrying a dead body on their shoulders to the cremation ground, and a few others following them.
Everyone who was part of the procession was chanting, “Ram naam satya hai, Hari ka naam satya hai” (The name of Rama is the truth, the name of Hari is the truth).
The boy watched these people silently. He seemed surprised as to why were these people chanting “Ram naam satya hai, Hari ka naam satya hai” to a dead man who was not going to hear them.
He approached the villagers with this question. They thought he was one crazy fellow but explained that the chant meant that God is the only truth. The boy then asked, “But why is it needed for the man who is already dead?” An elderly man answered that it was not for the man who was dead but for all others who followed him till cremation ground to remind themselves that death is inevitable and that God is the ultimate truth.
The boy pondered over that discussion and thought it would be a great service if he started reminding people every day of this truth of life. From that very day, whenever he met people, he would greet them, “Ram naam satya hai, Hari ka naam satya hai”.
The villagers thought he had gone crazy and started avoiding him. All the villagers who accompanied the dead man to the cremation ground had forgotten the truth that they had realized only for some time at the cremation ground. They felt the temporary or passing mood of detachment from their body and the world.
A close friend of mine told me that this is what our scriptures term Shamshan Vairāgya. Shamshan is the place where the body is cremated, and Vairāgya means dispassion, detachment, or renunciation, in particular renunciation from the pains and pleasures in the material world (Maya).
Now, this kind of vairāgya does not last long. It is temporary. The ephemeral nature of life and the emptiness of worldly existence that the person felt when he was greatly moved, is soon forgotten and he resumes his attachment to the world and its allure. Soon, it is back to normal – life goes on as before.
My grandmother who narrated the above story to me passed away last week. And I am certainly experiencing Shamshan Vairāgya. I understand that its nature is temporary, and that life will get to normal soon. But the very fact that I would try to keep reminding myself of the temporariness of this vairāgya should make it somewhat sustainable, isn’t it?
Now, to say that I was close to my grandmother would be an understatement. She meant the world to me, and the void she has left would not be filled.
But I find myself fortunate to have spent some time with her just recently, and that she left me with a lot of life lessons, one of the biggest being about our mortality and why we must meditate on it daily.
This is exactly what the citizens of one of the happiest countries in the world, Bhutan, do. They meditate on their mortality five times a day. “It cures you,” the Bhutanese say.
Not just the Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, even Stoicism talks about memento mori that is the practice of reflection on mortality, especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits.
Now, the thing about meditating on your own mortality is that it doesn’t make life pointless. Instead, knowing that you will die one day creates priority and thinking about it helps you live with a more positive perspective. So you can focus on what’s important.
Like Seneca reminds us to be spendthrifts of time given so little time we have on our hand –
Were all the geniuses of history to focus on this single theme, they could never fully express their bafflement at the darkness of the human mind. No person would give up even an inch of their estate, and the slightest dispute with a neighbor can mean hell to pay; yet we easily let others encroach on our lives — worse, we often pave the way for those who will take it over. No person hands out their money to passersby, but to how many do each of us hand out our lives! We’re tight-fisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.
He then advises –
Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.
Let me not forget that this is an investing blog, and so I must draw parallels from anything I write here about life, living, and death…to investing. And the parallels do exist.
When Warren Buffett asks us to “never lose money,” I see that as a meditation on mortality in investing. This is because only when you focus on the idea that you can lose money permanently (mortality) that you will work hard to make decisions that will help you make money from your investments.
When Ben Graham quotes Horace as the first thing in his Security Analysis – “Many shall be restored that now are fallen and many shall fall that now are in honor” – he reminds us of the passing nature of things, so we should be humble.
When Charlie Munger quips that all he wants to know is where he is going to die so he will never go there, he asks us to meditate on the fact that we can easily get killed in investing and thus we must try as much as possible to avoid that for as long as possible.
The irony is that, like Shamshan Vairāgya, we remind ourselves of these sane thoughts only when we are losing money or when stock prices are falling. And then when good times return, we go back to our old, speculative manners. We stop meditating on mortality in investing. And that lays the ground for trouble when the grim reaper strikes again.
My work at Safal Niveshak is to remind us (you and myself) frequently not of how we can make a lot of money from investing, but how investing has a high mortality rate when not done well, and what we must do to meditate on this fact that can help us stay sane on our investment journey.
Like that boy who greeted everyone with “Ram naam satya hai, Hari ka naam satya hai” not just as a way of reminding them of their mortality, but also as to incidentally lead them to live lives that were more peaceful, meaningful, and kind to others.