There are two things that we do from the moment that we are born all the way to the moment when we die, breathing and ageing. It is, therefore, necessary for us to be aware of the many methods of breathing which include pranayam and other such practices, as well as of the many dimensions of ageing. I have identified five dimensions of ageing.
The first dimension is chronological, depending on our birth date. This obviously cannot be legally changed.
The second dimension is physiological age. Some people are healthy at 80, others unhealthy at 40. This depends considerably on the individual lifestyle adopted when we were young, including food habits (overeating is to be avoided); tobacco (smoking is an anti-social act because it poisons not only the smoker but all those around them); alcohol and drugs (these are highly addictive and cause severe psychosomatic damage); and a sedentary lifestyle (exercise remains essential for our whole life). This is where ancient disciplines such as yoga and tai chi are of tremendous benefit. Young people should always remember that what they do when young will have a major impact on the quality of their later years.
The third dimension is emotional age. Unfortunately, our educational system does not involve advice regarding how to maintain emotional stability. As a result of tension at the work place and at home, and as we age the loss of friends and dear ones, tensions within the family, between husband and wife and between parents and children as well as financial problems, all add up to the growing emotional trauma that we are now witnessing. There has been an exponential growth in mental illness and depression around the world due to the pandemic. This is particularly painful for elderly people and, therefore, we must, through meditation, yoga or any other means, learn to come to terms with our emotional problems. In India, psychological counselling is still in its infancy and needs to be strengthened, although some gurus do fulfil this role. Trained counsellors can make a marked difference towards helping elderly people deal with their emotional problems.
The fourth dimension is intellectual age. The body-mind relationships are now well established, and if we plan to have a healthy old age, our brain has to function in a positive and creative manner. This involves the practice of reading, doing puzzles, playing indoor games and so on. We must always remember that the brain has an infinite capacity to grow. As a famous psychologist has said, “people do not grow old, when they stop growing they become old”. I am often asked how it is that at ninety I seem to remain psychologically as active as ever. The reason basically is divine grace. In addition, I continue to walk half-an-hour every day, read a variety of books, mainly the glorious Upanishads, play bridge with my computer, invariably do the Asian Age scrabble, and of course, pursue my puja, pranayam and bhakti for two hours a day. Simply being a passive viewer of television may, in fact, have a negative impact, especially if we watch movies or serials full of violence and hatred. The Internet can also be a mixed blessing and we must use it responsibly.
Finally, there is spiritual age. Here we enter an ageless realm, because the spiritual quest cannot be put into a time straitjacket. Life is not merely a meaningless journey from the womb to the tomb, but a unique opportunity for spiritual growth. All religions speak of an inner light, which represents our spiritual goal. The Bible calls it “the Light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world”, the Sufis call it the Noor-e-Ruhani, the Sikhs call it Ek Onkar, the Vedanta calls it the Efflulgent Light of Lights. Whatever path we may be following it is very important that elderly people do have a spiritual awareness which will be a great support and solace to them in the ageing process.
I must finally address the question of death which ultimately will come to us all. The Gita simply says “that which is born must die and that which dies must be reborn; therefore, for what is inevitable, we should not grieve”. Of course, this is easier said than done, but if possible we should approach death with courage and dignity. This will depend to a considerable extent on how modern medicine can keep us comfortable. Geriatrics is now a specialised branch of medicine dealing exclusively with the problems of old age, and both pharmacological and handicapped-friendly products are growing rapidly. Buildings now are legally required to have special facilities for the handicapped. There is also the delicate question of giving terminally ill people the Right to Die. In fact, this is one of the last human rights that humanity has not yet achieved and is the subject of an animated international debate.
Let me end with a Vedic prayer for a long and vigorous life that has come down to us through the long and tortuous corridors of time.
“For a hundred autumns, may we see
For a hundred autumns, may we live
For a hundred autumns, may we know
For a hundred autumns, may we rise
For a hundred autumns, may we be
For a hundred autumns, may be become
Aye, and even more than a hundred autumns”
— Atharva Veda XIX 67
The writer is a senior Congress leader and a former Union minister