Where were you before you entered your mother’s womb? The latent desire of the soul finds its first impulse via the father’s semen. This impulse then attaches itself to an egg before it gestates in the womb. Whether this child will be a male or a female has already been pre-decided through the genetic material of the father’s semen. Humans, however, will only become aware of this knowledge around three months into the pregnancy through the assistance of an ultrasound. Sometimes, it may even take longer.
The symbol of Bharani nakshatra is the yoni: the gateway of the female reproductive organs. The deity for this Nakshatra is Yama, the God of the Underworld. In all mythologies that I know of, the Underworld is described as a place of darkness and of either suffering or bliss that feels permanent. In the Eastern theologies, neither states–neither suffering nor bliss–are deemed to be a permanent state of affairs. In Hinduism, there is no concept of heaven or hell. Rather, the afterlife was a realm where one was reunited. But reunited with what, exactly?
It is where one is reunited with their future mother.
The mother brings new life into the world at the cost of great labor and pain. Yama’s role is thus to make sure that people die so that the Underworld doesn’t become too crowded. The twilight hours of life and death–the two most important rites and initiations in every human’s life–are both laborious.
Death could be a joyous occasion, but we, as humans, have shunned Death itself.
The Japanese film Departures (Okuribito おくりびと) which means ‘the one who sends off’ follows the story of a young man who returns to his hometown after a failed career as a cellist. He ends up working as a nōkanshi: a traditional Japanese ritual mortician. He is subjected to prejudice and is shunned by those around him, including from his wife, because of strong societal taboos against people who deal with death.
In traditional Japanese culture, the one who works in such professions is considered defiled–impure and unclean–as everything related to death is thought to be a source of kegare defilement. He or she is therefore shunned by society and forced to live in the shadows as a shadow, where only death lurks.
In the film, however, the nokanshi repairs these interpersonal connections through the beauty, dignity and necessity of his work.
But why have we shunned Death?
The Triumph Over Death
Who can defeat Death? We can delay it with modern medicine, but we cannot hold it at bay forever. Immortality may well be a state of perpetual doom. Imagine if you could live forever? Would such an existence be bearable? I’m not sure that it would.
Recently, I watched a Korean Drama called Bulgasal which featured an immortal character who didn’t want to live anymore. It takes him some 600 years, but in the end, he finally finds a way to die. But does the story end there?
Of course not. He is reincarnated a few years later in a human body. I don’t want to get into an ideological debate regarding which ‘vessel’ is better or worse to fulfil one’s karma. A vessel is a vessel. It is a temporary vehicle or even a garment which we receive through the genetic and evolutionary impulse of our parents who received it through their own parents.
Perhaps the ancient concept of immortality did not refer to the ability to live forever. Perhaps all it referred to was the ability to delay or deny death up to a certain point.
But in the End, an End that signifies a New Beginning, we, ourselves, finally find a way to triumph over it.
The Prosperity of Death
There is an old story that repeats and re-repeats itself in Hindu and Buddhist scriptures. It goes something like this.
Once upon a time, a young boy was told that he would die when he reached a certain age. He sought protection from what he considered to be a dire fate. He meditated and prayed before Shiva or the Buddha.
When he turned sixteen, Lord Yama’s Death Collectors tried to take him, but could not approach him due to the boons and blessings he had accumulated. In the end, Lord Yama himself personally appeared to collect the soul. But when Yama came, the young man cried out to Shiva or to the Buddha.
After a bit of negotiation (we can also call them calamities), a deal was brokered. The boy’s lifespan was extended, but not indefinitely.
I have sometimes wondered if these stories speak towards the ancient discovery of medicine that enabled us to live longer and better lives. Imagine if you got really sick and were about to die, but you found a way to be cured. Then, you would have, in essence, extended your lifespan well beyond what was allotted to you.
In either case, like the boy, we also try to escape the Death Collectors. While we can, through the fruits of medicine, achieve this goal temporarily, we cannot escape death indefinitely. And sometimes, our ability to ‘cheat’ death time and time again causes severe imbalances in the world in between worlds.
I suppose what the story tries to convey is that, at the end, Death will come for us.
We can delay it, but we can never deny it.
The mantra the boy meditated upon was the famous Mahāmrityunjaya Mantra The Great Triumph Over Death. While death has more popularly been associated with Lord Yama’s realm–the realm of divine justice–there exists another less well-known deity, a feminine deity who is known as Mrtyu.
Who is Mrtyu? She’s certainly not as famous as Lord Yama. But like him, she is a personification of an aspect of death.
Yomi or Yomi-no-kuni is the Japanese concept for the land of the dead or the World of Darkness. According to Shinto beliefs, it is where the dead go in the afterlife. This dark and vaguely defined realm was believed to be located beneath the earth.
In Japanese mythology, Yomi is ruled over by a deity known as Izanami. The entrance to Yomi, however, was sealed off by her husband Izanagi when he left Yomi. He permanently blocked the entrance by placing a massive boulder at the base of the slope that leads to Yomi.
So who or what is blocking the entrance? Why have they blocked it or why has it been blocked?
To answer this question, try and remember when you were a soul looking for a womb with which to incarnate into this world. I highly doubt you remember such an incident taking place.
But then again, neither do I.
There’s probably a queue in the afterlife. You cannot just ‘be born’. Many events have to happen on earth before you can be born. Imagine your future parents meeting. Imagine them having sex. And then nine months later, you are born.
Who orchestrated the event? You could say that it is Aryaman, the Divine Matchmaker, who rules over the Uttara Phalguni Nakshatra. You could conclude that it is our Pitrus, our Forebears, who rule over Magha Nakshatra. You could even say that it was the Nagas, Kamadeva and God knows who else.
Or these days, you could even say that it was Tinder…
You laugh, but let me tell you–when people poke fun of the ancient tradition of arranged marriages–I always remind them of the Apps and the Algorithms that matchmake people in this day and age. We still haven’t worked out how to do this marriage thing.
Anyways, coming back to my point, someone would have had to orchestrate the meeting of your parents so you could be born. What happens after you are born is a different story altogether. You may go on to be adopted and so on and so forth.
The point that I am trying to make here is that for a child to come into this world, many disparate elements have to come together. You even have to find a midwife or doctor to deliver the baby.
So when you remember your birth–regardless of your relationship with your parents–know that it was all written in the stars. And what happens when a boulder is blocking this path?
For that, we will have to look at the story of The Birth of Kartikeya.
In either case, I think that perhaps there is a reason why the firstborn in a family has been awarded ‘special status’ in just about every culture I’ve ever known.
Perhaps, the first born is a bit of a matchmaker? Oh, who knows!
Let’s just say that the journey of life begins when Death herself dies, making room for life to flourish once more.