About profound issues that confront and confound us humans. Religion is brave to grapple with the unknown; some would say the unknowable. It tries to explain the unexplainable. Indeed, that is its purpose. Why do bad things happen to good people? What happens to us after we die? Does a soul exist? How to lead a good life; how to overcome suffering; how to attain happiness. These are all big questions that all religions attempt to answer. The problem is that no matter how good the answer, it is only accepted by one religious group, not all people. When Nachiketa asks Yama profound questions about life and death, the answers don’t resonate with, and are unacceptable to, non-Hindus. Similarly, when Buddhism talks about the Eightfold Path to a good life, non-Buddhists aren’t willing to give it a shot. Therefore, when looked at from a pure question-and-answer perspective, the fact that religious answers are accepted by a group of believers and not universally is religion’s greatest flaw.
Timeless: The ancient Egyptians addressed the question of death on a grand scale. Christophe Ena / AP
In order for an answer to survive, it has to be accepted by a growing number of people, something that both evangelists and practitioners of dying arts intuit in positive and negative ways. Religious evangelism, whether it takes the form of Baptists knocking on doors and asking if you want to be saved or Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s followers waxing eloquent about the glories of Sudharshana Kriya, is about persuading a larger group of people to buy into its set of answers. At the other end of the spectrum is the spectre of dying oral traditions and folk arts. As William Dalrymple describes in his book Nine Lives, gifted Indian folk musicians could once recite the entire Mahabharat and other mythological tales such as the Story of Hamza from memory. The problem was that these oral traditions didn’t evangelize their art. Practitioners failed to perpetuate these traditions. As a result, all the profound issues they raised through story and song, all the good questions they asked, were lost forever.
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Science picks up where myth and art leave off by asking fundamental questions and attempting to answer them. How did the universe come into being? What is the world composed of? What are we humans made of? What is our relationship with the other species on earth? These are questions within questions and science, with its relentless pursuit of the truth, has mostly answered them. And yet, every question that science answers conveys the extent of our ignorance. Science has eradicated chickenpox but doesn’t have a grip on AIDS. Science has taken apart DNA but hasn’t been able to recalibrate it to create a live embryo. It has modelled our brain but is unable to help us control the mind. For that, we turn to meditation, yoga, and to come full circle, religion and prayer.
So what is the greatest question of all time? It has to be something that scholars and laypeople, scientists and philosophers, artists and economists all agree upon. When viewed in this light, the answer is obvious. How to conquer death? This arguably is the greatest question of all time. This question hasn’t been fully answered but one civilization comes close to answering it. When you stand in the temperature-controlled rooms of the Egyptian museum and look at the eerily preserved mummies of Ramses, Seti and Tuthmosis, all of which are some 3,500 years old (give or take a few centuries), with their intact teeth, hair, crossed arms and embalmed black skin on elongated bones, you cannot help thinking, “Man, these people figured out how to conquer death.”
Legacy is a word that is much bandied about. Silicon Valley talks about the legacy of Hewlett and Packard. We in India talk about the legacy of Gandhi and Nehru. But all these are less than a century old. It is only when you confront the scale and spectacle of the Karnak temple in Luxor, which was built 4,000 years ago, that you get an inkling of what legacy can mean. Tell me, what will be our legacy? What will exist from our time 5,000 years later? Will it be ideas or buildings or companies or books? I would wager “stone”, but beyond that I cannot guess which of, say, Mayawati’s statues will stand the test of time.
The ancient Egyptians didn’t figure out how to conquer death, of course. If they had, they would be in our midst. It is just that this question reached its full flowering during their civilization. When you see the wooden boat near the pyramids that was supposed to carry the pharaohs into the afterlife, when you see the gold treasures unearthed in the tomb of Tutankhamun, you not only see a civilization that was unafraid to ask tough questions. You see one that actually attempted to answer it in a far more cohesive manner than anyone before or after. Author and scholar Wendy Doniger said, “Myth picks up where philosophy has thrown up its hands.” The ancient Egyptians used myth, philosophy, architecture and art to address the greatest question of all time. They certainly didn’t throw up their hands.
Shoba Narayan thinks that the most frequent, if not the greatest question of all time is, “Where’s the bathroom?” Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org