There is a recurring theme in the classical Punjabi poetry that may look odd, somber, and even weird to some of us: dying before one’s death. Why should one die before one’s time at this earth is up? Is it a death wish springing up from the arcane mysteries of esoteric experience of mystics? Or is it simply an outcome of one’s inability to cope with the intractability of life’s harsh realities? The answer to all such questions is emphatic no if we care to delve into the intricacies of philosophical outlook of our poets who are celebrated as saints. Their practice is defined by their well-thought out stance on how to connect with our material world and what it offers. The guiding principle is; possess less and consume less. It looks strange when juxtaposed against the contemporary world’s motto of possess more and consume more because the amount of possession and consumption is considered to be indicative of level of human progress, prosperity and happiness.

Now in order to possess more and consume more you have to produce more. Unrestrained production and consumption have created unprecedented situation which was not imaginable a century back in the heady days that followed the industrial revolution thought to be a glory of human intellect because it brought plenty in the world stricken by scarcity. Now just after one hundred years of practicing such a way of life what we see is the opposite of glory; all pervasive degradation. Natural resources have been exploited relentlessly and ruthlessly in pursuit of profit which is thinly concealed greed. The planet we live on stands grievously wounded with ozone layer punctured, air poisoned, weather patterns disturbed, seas polluted, rivers full of toxins, underground waters contaminated, biodiversity damaged and wildlife destroyed.

This destructive process will gain further momentum unless we revisit and revise our view and way of life in a drastic manner. Sages, saints, mystics and poets have shown a viable alternative way of life but their advice has largely been politely rejected or taken as something of a mysteriously pious value and innocuously amusing. Is this exhortation or desire to die before death is something morbid, ghoulish or is it simply a death wish? Shah Husain [16th century] who pioneered Kafi, one of the most popular lyrical genres of our poetry, touches this theme in several lyrics. “Die before your death if you seek life [Kahey Husain Hayati lorin, maran thee nagey marrwo]”, he says. “Says Husain, the Lord’s Fakir, one has to say their farewells to the world / so die before death overtakes you [Kahey Husain fakir raba na, / dunya chhor zarurat jaana/ maran tea gey marrwoey], he says. “Says Husain, the Lord’s fakir, live like dead while being alive [Kahey Husain fakir sain da, jiwandyan marrrahiy yewo], says yet another verse.

Another important classical poet Sultan Bahu [17th century] takes up this theme and expounds on it. With unmatched eloquence he declares; “maran thee nagey marrrahey Bahu, jinhan ramz pachhatihu [Those who decipher the secret are dead before death is upon them]”.

Now the question arises whether it’s physical death that is sought? Is it the end of individual life that is being held out as goal of life or an ideal which would lead to nirvana? Do the poets /saints tout the negation of life as its affirmation? The reality is quite the opposite if we place the verses in context and try to discover the concept that underpins them. Man being a product of material world lives all his life surrounded by it. Being a concrete being he is sustained by a concrete interaction with the material world. But how much man really needs from the material world is the question.

This question is the hidden core of the concept of ‘dying before one’s death’ which looks at the face of it illogical. What is death? If one puts it in simple words death is what ends one’s dependence on the material world making the needs no longer relevant. Living like the dead means living with as a few needs as possible.

Fulfillment of essential needs is what you need with a view to living a life that takes from the nature as little as possible and keeps the destruction of nature and its tangible and intangible resources to minimum level. If you consume less you in fact spare the things others can benefit from. The urge to possess and consume more stems from our primordial sense of insecurity which is deeply rooted in our psyche. Act of possessing seems to provide you with a kind of shield that protects you from the perceived dangers. But what it does beyond ensuring your survival – what ensures survival cannot be termed possession— is precisely what is rejected by sages and saints, and poets and revolutionaries.

Owning things more than what is required gives you a false sense of life’s permanence. It creates a kind of mental state that lulls you to believe in your immortality. Power emanating from possessing or ruling has the similar effect. That’s why they used to whisper into Caesar’s ears that he was mortal [Memento homo]. Sages insist on taking life what it is; ephemeral. “Life is a night’s dream /it lasts as long as batting of an eyelid”, says poet Hafiz Barkhurdar. If life is ephemeral, does possession or unnecessary consumption make sense? Sages such as Baba Farid, Saint Francis, Guru Nanak, Bhagat Kabir, Mira Bi, Shah Husain and others have shown us the way by pointing out that consciousness of human impermanence humanizes us and consequently makes simple life worth living as it’s free from the deleterious effects that greed driven possession and consumption entail. But human follies are boundless; instead of being less of a burden on the earth, man wants to burden himself with what destroys nature and makes the life of others less livable. —

Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2020