Why you should care
Because aging isn’t just about the body.
Walking through the sun-saturated courtyards of Mumukshu Bhawan, one encounters an array of pilgrims as varied as if Chaucer himself had written them. There’s an orange-clad sannyasi — an old man who has given up family and possessions to wander through jungles and cities subsisting only on alms and spirit. A widow, abandoned, she says, by her spiritually bereft sons. A retired intellectual pondering atoms and the self. A middle-age electrician who tends to the buildings and its elders with equal affection.
Mumukshu Bhawan translates to “seeker’s place,” but it goes by other names: Mukti Dhaam, meaning “place for freedom,” and, caustically, “Hotel of Death.” This spartan complex, which staff say is about a century old, is a kind of spiritual old-age home. Located in the holy city of Varanasi, it opens its doors to those looking their impending deaths in the face.
Some pilgrims are ill, some not; some infirm, others largely self-sufficient. Some are wealthy, though most are scraping by — a few asked us for money after we took their photos and interviewed them. What Mumukshu Bhawan’s residents share is an unflinching belief in a certain set of Hindu dogmas. They believe that those who die here in Varanasi, the city through which the sacred river Ganges runs, will attain moksha, or enlightenment, and be released from the cycle of birth and death. Here, they live out Hindu prescriptions for the final stage of one’s life: renouncing the material world, praying and singing holy bhajans and donating the rest of their days to God. So engaged, they prepare themselves for the next life or eternal peace.
For the uninitiated: Hinduism and its offshoot religions — including Buddhism and Jainism — subscribe to the doctrine of reincarnation. In Hindu cosmology, the soul migrates from the body after death to find a home in a new body. A person’s next birth is determined by his or her karma in the present life, meaning that the scale, scope and goodness of one’s actions today determine where on the social hierarchy one lands in the next realm. One might be reborn as a Brahmin, the highest caste within the Hindu hierarchy, or as a Shudra, the lowest. The worst sinners may find themselves reincarnated as animals. Only the enlightened can break the cycle of reincarnation.
As a person sheds worn-out garments and wears new ones, likewise, at the time of death, the soul casts off its worn-out body and enters a new one.
—Bhagavad Gita 2.22
“They come here to attain freedom, to be free from everything,” says Vinod Kumar Agarwal, the civil engineer who tends to Mumukshu Bhavan and oversees its buildings. Only so many people can enter the facility’s doors, because everything is provided freely, with support from charities and wealthy individuals. The Bhavan has about 116 rooms; for now, some 50 women and 40 men are here. A few elderly couples have arrived together, but most people come alone. Some are sannyasis, but others are here because they have nowhere else to go.
Mumukshu Bhavan provides the basics: There’s a small clinic nearby; homeopathic and allopathic doctors are on call. Food is available for those who want it; some residents cook for themselves, Agarwal says. This is not a nursing home or a hospice, and there are no IVs or beeping machines here. Instead, there is faith that long days of prayer are the truest treatment. Those who die here will die with their eyes trained on the spirit rather than the body.
When the end comes, the staff at Mumukshu Bhawan arrange for the rites. For the male swamis — the renunciates — there is no cremation. The old men instead carry their late compatriot’s body down to the river Ganges to set him afloat down the water.
The solitary nature of the elders’ lives at places like Mumukshu Bhawan cuts against the narrative many Indians tell about old age. Theirs, they say, is a collectivist society, one in which grandparents can rely on their children to support them. But life often fails to measure up to ideals, and some of Mumukshu Bhavan’s residents have become “disappointed with their children,” Agarwal says.
Such is the lot of Kalawati Vishukarna, 70, who has lived here since 2007. Squatting on her haunches near a temple, she is grouchy at first when asked about her children. “What do you want me to say? They didn’t take care of me. And no husband now — what to do?” When the topic turns to the divine, Vishukarna’s face grows beatific. “I have come here only for God,” she says. “For moksha.”
The promise of something better in the next life can be salvific, especially as this one closes. Which is why more than a few physicians have asked what role religious ideas can play at the end of life. Himanshu Sharma, director of the department of psychiatry at PS Medical College and SK Hospital in Gujarat, has worked on the intersection of spirituality and palliative care and believes doctors should treat patients within their spiritual contexts. He refers to one commonly held idea about how Hindus should live their lives: that in the first stage, one is a student; the second, a householder. In the third, one retires; and in the final stage, one renounces the world and retreats to the mountains to lead a low-impact life, preparing for the end.
For Hindus, the idea is not dark. In their thinking, it is better to face the moribund moment than to hide from it; the cycle of life will continue. “There is a strong idea of detachment at the end,” Sharma says. (Some devout Jains take that idea even further, choosing to end their lives by starving themselves to death, in hopes that they will not accrue any more bad karma at the last minute.)
Another explanation of the Hindu philosophy toward death comes from Lord Krishna, who, in the Bhagavad Gita 2.22, says: “As a person sheds worn-out garments and wears new ones, likewise, at the time of death, the soul casts off its worn-out body and enters a new one.” Nagesh Simha, a palliative care physician in Bangalore, refers to the lines when we discuss his work. Simha is medical director of Karunashraya, which provides free hospice care to poor patients facing terminal cancer.
At Karunashraya, Catholics can call in priests to receive counsel; Muslims have imams. Hindus, however, rarely have personal relationships with local pandits, and few people, particularly the poor, claim a spiritual teacher, says Simha. They have only their private engagement with the philosophy behind that Gita verse. Simha says he sometimes “fills in” as religious counsel for the Hindus, but that mostly he listens. And if someone asks, “Why me?” he urges them to try to answer the question themselves. “Most of the time, people will cope with it by giving themselves the answer,” he says — and often the answer is, “This is my karma.”
Doctors must assess whether or not a patient has spiritual needs, he says, but they can’t do much more than say, “I understand how you feel.” The physical should take precedence: “You cannot be talking to a guy who’s in pain and start talking about philosophy,” he says.
So Simha, who notes that he hasn’t visited places like Mumukshu Bhawan, has some criticisms of homes that focus on the religious elements of aging and death over the physical. For one, he points out that some homes are built on objectionable ideologies, like the notion that widows should retreat into somber joylessness after the death of a husband. “I feel those people get an overdose of ‘spiritual’ care,” he says wryly. Thinking of those abandoned by their families, mostly women, he adds, “I feel sorry for the people who die in Banaras” — the British name for Varanasi — “because they have been pushed into a corner.”
But 75-year-old Murali Mohan Shastri is anything but lonely, forsaken or trapped. A former physics professor nursing an abiding fascination with Hindu philosophy, Shastri and his wife moved to Mumukshu Bhawan in 2007 from Hyderabad. His mother moved to Mumukshu Bhavan 20 years ago and passed away in 2010. Visiting his mother several times a year, for a month or more at a time, he grew fond of the place. Even though he has sons back in Hyderabad, and his own house, Shastri and his wife have taken to a dark, unimpressive two-bedroom apartment, piled high with papers and a few dark windows. Because they can afford to, they paid a lump sum of about $8,000 for the place. His sons don’t mind him staying here, he says. “Probably, they may be happy we are not living with them,” he laughs.
Wearing a soft dhoti and the thread across his chest that marks him as a Brahmin, Shastri talks with me about his branch of Hinduism — he is a monist and is using his old age to try to become more familiar with the “universal self” and with “trying to see the universe as an illusion.” Living in Varanasi almost seems unnecessary, given that his spiritual practice is so meditative, so related to study and writing. Shastri goes to the temples situated along the Ganges here and there, but he doesn’t find his peace in stone buildings. So why stay here? “Well, yes, I wanted to die here,” he says, “but death is not always in one’s hands. I will stay here as long as possible.”
More important to him is the physical space of Mumukshu Bhawan and the philosophy behind its existence. In this place, people are reckoning with the universe, God and the Self. Here he is likelier to spend his days meditating on the phrase from the Upanishads, “Tat tvam asi” — “Thou art that” — and its intersection with Einstein’s and Oppenheimer’s pictures of the cosmos. He will do all this as incense blows through the courtyards nearby and women sing their devotional songs in neighboring rooms and starry-eyed swamis lean their orange-garbed frames on their walking sticks as they stroll around the garden.
One of those swamis is Rajnarayan Ashram, 80, who has made his way to Mumukshu Bhawan through some strange and winding paths. Unlike Shastri, Ashram is a sannyasi who says in parochial Hindi that he abandoned his family years ago to seek the divine. He describes his daily routine mysteriously: “I get up, I do Shiv-ji’s work, I do the moon’s work,” he says. (Shiva is one of the three major Hindu deities.) “A person is born to pray to God, to do the bhajans” — sing devotional songs — “to remember God, to do seva” — service. Ashram has some slightly more complex beliefs: He spends a long while explaining that this is his 84th birth out of an estimated 131 required to achieve moksha. He does not think he’s headed for enlightenment this time around, since for the first 25 years of his life he was a Muslim, an identity he describes as “a deviation from one’s path.”
Whatever ideas Ashram is framing his days with are not easy. He describes moksha as a “dangerous place,” an unknown, something that requires preparation. He is not here to waste away, but rather, it seems, to gather his energy for a rocky journey ahead.