Death, Immortality, and Gelgamesh

Our brain is probably not wired to understand death. Our understanding of death is largely derived from the culture we have been exposed to. From the evolutionary view, a full understanding of death does not provide us with any advantage in surviving struggle. On the contrary, ignorance in death may offer some advantages. With their optimistic spirits not dampened by the anticipation of death, people may fight more bravely for their life. One of the social functions of religion is transcendence of death. So we have to use our religious practice to fight against the understanding of death our culture has taught us. Nevertheless we may have some natural, intuitive comprehension of death since it is a real happening in our world. Taoist teachings ask us to forget what our culture has taught us, to cleanse our mind by meditation and seek to merge oneself into nature. Then our mind may become like a polished mirror again. We use this mirror to see the reflection of death which should be close to our natural comprehension.

Our natural comprehension of death may change with age. Young children think of death as sleep. Grown-ups tend to think of death as going to somewhere else. The place we are going to after death is not an ordinary place where one can go in the morning and come back in the evening, but it is not a remote locale either. It is likely that different people have different places to go, and that they are not much different from the places where we have lived. Religion and culture have idealized them as unique and remote places.

Teenagers and young adults may see death as a heroic deed. Our ancestors needed young and strong men willing to fight the dangers they faced. Some may disagree with me about different comprehensions of death pertaining to certain ages but those intuitions of death are likely wired into our brain. Interestingly, the Chinese character for “ghost” shares the same sound as “return”. In ancient Chinese books, a living person was called “unreturned”. The ancient understanding of death is closer to our natural comprehension.

The gorilla Koko is able to communicate with scientists about her understanding of death. “Trouble old…comfortable hole bye…sleep”, she calls it. Thus an animal’s understanding of death is similar to that of our children. Some scientists observed that some gorillas and chimpanzees pay respects to or mourn over their dead. But they may come back to the dead several days later and repeat the “mourning”. An eight year old chimpanzee stayed beside his dead mother for three weeks, and poked her body with his hand for days. Apparently he was trying to wake her up.

Our present understanding of death started with our civilization. Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk in southern Mesopotamia who lived in the first half of the third millennium BC, apparently shared much the same understanding of death as us. His close friend Enkidu used to be a wild man living with animals but later moved into the city. When Enkidu was dying, Gilgamesh was overwhelmed by sadness. He told his dying friend:

The joyful will stoop with sadness, and when
you join the mother of earth I will let my hair
grow long for your sake, I will wander through
the wilderness in the skin of a lion. (The Epic of Gilgamesh)

Gilgamesh wandered in the wilderness to find a magic plant to serve as the elixir to help him reach immortality. Like many similar stories in other cultures, Gilgamesh ventured through dangerous situations and fought brave battles before he finally got what he wanted. In the end an accident or an ordinary event led to the loss of the elixir. Such stories convey the same regretful self-pity we have for ourselves today.

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