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ARTICLES > RELEVANCE OF GANDHI > Thanatos, Terror and Tolerance: An Analysis of Terror Management Theory and a Possible Contribution by Gandhi
Thanatos, Terror and Tolerance: An Analysis of Terror Management Theory and a Possible Contribution by Gandhi
By Kuruvilla Pandikattu SJ and Gini George
Abstract
Gandhian description of Swaraj as the "abandonment of the fear of death" is the point of departure of this article. Following the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, the relationship between death, terror and our ability to tolerate others who live or think differently from us is discussed. For this purpose, the Terror Management Theory of Death as elaborated by scholars in the last thirty years is examined closely. Besides outlining some of the main insights of Terror Management Theory (TMT), the paper highlights the challenge that Gandhi offers to it through his life and death. In spite of the terror that is caused by the awareness of our own death (Thanatos) and the corresponding tendency towards intolerance, there are some people, like Gandhi, who can look directly at death and still practise tolerance.

1. Introduction
Once Gandhi wrote succinctly that Swaraj "is the abandonment of the fear of death"1 Can we really abandon the fear of death? If we truly abandon our fear of death, can we be truly independent? Is the fear of death all pervasive and the main driving force for our human actions? In this article, following the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker (1924-74), we want to see the relationship between death, terror and our ability to tolerate others who live or think differently from us. For this purpose we study elaborately the Terror Management Theory of death as elaborated by scholars in the last thirty years. The aim of this paper is not only to outline some of the main insights of Terror Management Theory (TMT), but to propose the challenge that Gandhi offers to it through his life and death.
So, in the first part of this article, we expose the main insights of Earnest Becker regarding death, terror and evil. Then we study symbolic immortality as a way of coping with death. This leads us to study exhaustively the terror management theory, as developed recently by scholars. Essentially it is a way of coping with the terror of death. We also see some of the hypotheses and implications of this theory, making it relevant to our present life. Finally, we ask the fundamental existential question: Given our complex psychological need to deal with Thanatos, the personification of death in Greek mythology (equivalent to Yama in Indian mythology), can we live together as a community? Here we bring in Gandhi as a possible and hopeful answer for our collective survival, given the improbable gloomy scenario confronting human culture today!
Our basic thesis in this article is: In spite of the terror that is caused by the awareness of our own death (Thanatos) and the corresponding tendency towards intolerance, there are some people, like Gandhi, who can look directly at death and still practise tolerance. There lies the hope for humanity's survival.

2. Ernest Becker: Culture as Death Denying Impulse
The anthropologist Ernest Becker is well-known for his thesis that individuals are terrorized by the knowledge of their own mortality and they seek to deny it in various ways. Culture is the best antidote to this all-pervasive terror. So, according to Becker, a main function of a culture is to provide ways to engage successfully in the process of death denial. Born of Jewish Immigrants, Becker studied cultural anthropology and his first publication was "Zen: A Rational Critique".2 He became a writer and professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and authored nine well-received books.
In one of his initially significant works, "The Structure of Evil" (1968), he asked the fundamental question: Why do people do what they do when they do it? In order to develop a comprehensive account of the motivational underpinnings of human behavior in the service of promoting constructive individual and social changes, Becker uses the important insights of integration and synthesis which he has adopted from evolutionary biology, anthropology, psychology, sociology, the humanities, and listening to children. They provided him with a broad and powerful conceptual analysis of human motivation based on the notion that the awareness of death, and the consequent denial thereof, is a dynamic force that instigates and directs a substantial proportion of human activity.3
His last book, "Escape from Evil," appeared after his untimely death in March 1974. Escape from Evil is an application to the problem of evil of ideas Becker exposed in his earlier book "The Denial of Death" (1973), for which he was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. Becker considered the last two books to be an expression of his mature and deep reflection. In The Denial of Death Becker attempted to formulate a unified "science of man" trying to understand "the fundamental strivings of humans and the basis for the formulation of an ideal type of person—one who, being free from external constraints on freedom, might attain 'comprehensive meaning'"4.
In these books, together with "The Birth and Death of Meaning" (1971), his thinking evolved and Becker outlined a more pessimistic view that the quest for meaning resides not outside but inside the individual. The fundamental threat to his existence and meaning is created by a person's awareness of his or her own mortality.
The change in Becker's view was influenced by psychoanalyst Otto Rank, who viewed the fear of life and death as a fundamental human motivation. Becker used the idea of a "character armor" as "the arming of personality so that it can maneuver in a threatening world" and enlarged it with the concept of the society as a symbolic hero system that allows the practice of "heroics".5 By participating and fulfilling their role in the society—"low heroics"—or by pursuing and realizing extraordinary accomplishments—"high heroics"— humans maintain a sense of self-esteem.6
In "The Denial of Death", Becker presents examples of low and high heroics of normal individuals and sees how death-denial is a universal feature. For this purpose Becker used arguments from biology, psychoanalytic theory, and existential philosophy, especially Kierkegaard. Then he goes on to understand the terror caused by the fear of death as the cause for most of human actions.
In spite of this pessimistic vision, Becker also recognises the human potential for growth. In growing up, humans have a tendency of merging with the cosmos (the Agape motive) or of development beyond the present self (the Eros motive). The psychoanalytic concept of transference, as identification with an external object, corresponds to the first motive. Thus, transference may reinforce fear of death or open up the possibility for "creative transcendence." In both cases transference involves some kind of "distortion" or "illusion." Thus, according to Becker, problem of an ideal life becomes the problem of the "best illusion," the one that allows maximum "freedom, dignity, and hope".7
Only religion, with God as an object of transference, can satisfy these criteria.8 In fact it is religion that emphasizes an awareness of limits, introspection, and a confrontation with apparent meaninglessness. Becker's academic career suffered enormously because of his intellectual courage and because of the skepticism of "tough- minded" social scientists toward his ideas.
Becker's writings continue to influence psychotherapeutic, educational, and theoretical work, especially as regards the pervasiveness of the fear of death in governing individual and social behavior into the twenty-first century.9 But as experimental social psychologists interested in knowing the reasons why people find it very difficult to live peacefully with one another and to know the psychological function of self-esteem, they were convinced that Becker's ideas were significant. They realized that his profound insights could have powerful implications for understanding and affecting human behavior. Therefore, some social scientists have developed Terror Management Theory and have acquired experimental evidence in support of Becker's central claim.10 They are convinced that concerns about mortality play a pervasive role in human affairs and can explain many of human actions, including mindless violence, irrational instincts and needless power-game that humans are senselessly involved in.11

3) Searching for Symbolic Immortality
As already indicated Becker believed that fear of death is all pervasive and is the guiding force of our life and culture. We develop culture so that we can escape the pain and terror of death. Some of the numerous cultural mechanisms for diminishing the terror of death and personal transcendence are resurrection, reincarnation, or immortality of the soul, all of which are deeply religious ways. There are also non-religious ways of dealing with the terror of death, which are the more "symbolic forms of immortality".12 We can connect ourselves to immortality spreading knowledge to succeeding generations or by the preservation of one's memory through eponym, legacy, photograph, or artistic creation. Helping us and others, especially the future generation to remember us directly or indirectly is a way of associating ourselves with immortality. The holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel asked: "What does it mean to remember? It is to live in more than one world, to prevent the past from fading and to call upon the future to illuminate it. It is to revive fragments of existence, to rescue lost beings, to cast harsh light on faces and events, to drive back the sands that cover the surface of-things, to combat oblivion and to reject death".13
Human beings live in two worlds: the natural and the symbolic. At the natural world, the central drive of the biological self is to pass on one's genetic code. Similarly, at the symbolic level, the individual has a psychobiological drive to leave something behind that will be always remembered. Psychologically there is also a need to continuously feel there's something indestructible within oneself.
Such a sense of personal immortality entails, according to psychiatrist Robert Lifton, human's ability to symbolize one's own death and continuity thereafter. So we can visualise death as a transition, where another life is possible, or as one can survive through others' memories. In this manner the terror of death may be diverted to personal growth and social development. In fact, genetic or biological, immortality was undoubtedly the first mode grasped by the human primate. It involves the sense of connection with one's parents and familial generations past as well as the sense of personal continuity through one's progeny. Such a genetic immortality can be extended to include one's tribe, culture, and nation.14
Modern science has added new ways to biologically transcend death, such as through organ donation, sperm banks or cloning.15 Religious conceptions of immortality range from the resurrection- based beliefs of Christianity to the cycles of rebirths in such Eastern faiths as Buddhism and Hinduism. The suicide bombers sacrifice themselves knowing for sure that they will live better or their ideology will survive!
Being symbolic creatures, human essence resides not primarily in their own physical body but rather in the minds of others. Thus one can "live on" in others through one's works, through memories of one's deeds, and in one's enduring influence on generations yet to be born. Sociobiologists refer to this as "mimetic immortality," which may be more potent than genetic. As the scientist Richard Dawkins noted: "When we die we can leave behind genes and/or memes. The difference between them being that our genes will be forgotten in just a few generations. As each generation passes, the contribution of one's unique genes is halved.... But if you contribute to the world's culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a spark plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool".16
The natural way of symbolic immortality can also mean the continuance of the natural world beyond the individual's lifetime, as well as with the feeling of being part of the eternal universe beyond oneself. Seen from this perspective the ecology movement can be seen as an immortality attempt of many individuals whose efforts lead to the preservation of some natural habitat or species of life. Technological innovation producing a possible spacecraft that will continue to "fly on" even after human beings become extinct on earth may also enhance our symbolic immortality.17
The religious offer mystical experience of transcendence or an altered state of consciousness so intense that one "loses oneself" in a timeless, deathless realm, where one can identify oneself with the "Absolute Unitary Being", thereby further enhancing our symbolic immortality. Such religious experiences are characterized by extraordinary psychic unity and perceptual intensity. Such an experience is truly life-transforming. As the American psychiatrist and author Robert Lifton says: "One never 'returns' to exactly the same inner structure of the self. Having once broken old forms, one senses that they can be broken again, or at least extended beyond earlier limitations".18
Lifton said that history has brought about changes in our immortality symbolizations. For instance, with the rise of Darwinian thought "man's sense of biological continuity was extended back into the infinite past . . . [and] into the infinite future".19 Our sense of history now came to include, in some important degree, the history of all fellow species, not only animal but even plants—in other words, it produced a reactivation and modified reaffirmation of the natural mode of immortality.
Symbolic immortality may have its dark side also. Our attempts to transcend oneself through heroism may also lead to villainy. For example, being a "loser" in life, John Hinkley sought immortality through infamy by trying to kill the president of the United States.20 Thus the need to seek immortality has also got its terrible and shadow sides.

4) Terror Management Theory: An Overview
The writings of the anthropologist Ernest Becker (1924-1974) inspired the formulation of a psychological theory of social motivation—Terror Management Theory— and is supported by extensive empirical work. Becker wanted to outline a truly scientific account of human behavior that is to be formulated by recognizing both the commonalities between humans and all other forms of life, and (especially) the characteristics that render us distinctly and uniquely human. Such distinctly unique human characteristics are culture, history, religion and science which are different from anything else we know of in the universe.
a. Basic Presuppositions and Tenets

Accordingly, inspired by Becker's writings, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski begin the analysis with the Darwinian assumption that human beings share with all life-forms a fundamental predisposition toward self-preservation.21 This enhances the reproductive success of the individual and fitness of the species. There are numerous ways of possible physical, behavioral, and psychological adaptations that could enhance the success or fitness of the individuals and species. So different strategies have evolved, to meet the basic needs of various organisms. Some of the examples of such adaptations are bird wings, turtle shells, rosebush thorns, bat radar, and bee dances. When humans came to the evolutionary scene, relatively very late, the picture changes drastically. Lacking in physical size, speed, strength, and sensory acuity, they took up a radically different evolutionary trajectory to enhance themselves by relying on complex cognitive activities made possible by the highly sophisticated structure of the human brain. This led to consciousness and self-consciousness in humans enabling us to construct a world and the self. This helps us to regulate our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and provides us with an unprecedented degree of "freedom of reactivity".22
Simple creatures have relatively little freedom of reactivity; they respond immediately, instinctively, and inevitably to their specific needs (e.g., insects that are attracted to light for their survival also fly into candles that kill them). Human beings have the capacity to react consciously and to refrain from reacting immediately, so that they can think of different alternative responses and consider their potential consequences and imagine new possibilities. This enables us to alter the world around us significantly. Such an ability to react to the world in ways that alter it according to our expectations and desires is what makes human beings the only truly creative species in the world. This creativity is the primary reason why we "probably evolved from a small band in a single location in Africa to large numbers of rapidly proliferating humans in every conceivable environmental niche today".23
From such an evolutionary perspective, our brain structure and cognitive complexity have served us successfully. As Becker reminds us, an unavoidable consequence of this vast intelligence and self- consciousness is terrible awareness that death is inevitable, our permanent obliteration cannot be avoided. So self-preservation is common to all species, the awareness of one's own mortality characterizes only human beings. While we share with all living things the intense desire for continued existence humans are the only beings intelligent enough to recognize the ultimate futility of this most basic biological imperative. This awareness presents a difficult problem for humans: how to manage the terror that accompanies this type of knowledge.
Following Freud and Otto Rank, Becker held that humans would be "riddled with abject terror if they were constantly plagued by the ongoing awareness of their vulnerability and mortality —twitching blobs of biological protoplasm completely perfused with anxiety and unable to effectively respond to the demands of their immediate surroundings."24 In order to alleviate such abject terror, cultural worldviews evolved; these are humanly created beliefs about the nature of reality shared by groups of people that served to cope with the terror caused by the impending death.
There is the basic need to manage terror as a way of coping with death. According to proponents of terror management theory, the need for "terror management" is indeed a fundamental motivation of people as well as a main function of cultural systems.25 TMT attempts to explain various human behaviors, such as intolerance vis-a-vis others, by relating these behaviors to the basic motivation to protect oneself against mortality awareness and the terror it causes.
b. Formulations of the Theory
Developed by social scientists Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski and based on Ernest Becker's writings, TMT accepts the universality of death terror and the need to protect against it. Psychologically, the protective function is provided by a cultural anxiety buffer that has two components. One component consists of the individual's conception of the cultural worldview and the faith one has in this worldview. The second component involves a sense of personal worth or self-esteem that is attained by believing that one is living up to the expectations of the cultural system.26
Cultural worldviews facilitate effective terror management by providing individuals with a vision of reality that supplies answers to fundamental philosophical questions such as "Who am I? Where did I come from? What should I do? What will happen to me when I die?" The answers to these questions provide us with meaning, permanence, and stability and give hope of symbolic or literal immortality. Such societies provide their members with an account of the origin of the universe and explicit codes on what to do and not to do. They also provide information regarding death that affords opportunities for individuals to live forever— either symbolically or through religious beliefs promising immortality in a variety of ways.
However the immortality offered is usually limited to those who do the right thing. This entails adhering to the standards of appropriate conduct associated with the social roles that exist in a given culture: for example, for a farmer in an agrarian culture, growing large pumpkins, or for a person in a society that values athletic achievement, winning an Olympic medal. The resulting perception that one is a valuable member of a meaningful universe constitutes self-esteem; and self-esteem is the primary psychological mechanism by which culture serves its death-denying function.
In fact, self-esteem provides the anxiety-buffering qualities in the context of the socialization process by which "an utterly helpless and dependent, immature and slowly developing human infant is transformed into a symbol-sharing immortality-seeking member of a culturally constructed universe.27 This process begins with the infants unlimited capacity for the experience of primal anxiety, especially in novel situations. Long before babies have any awareness of death, the raw terror of everyday life enable them to be attached to the primary caretakers who are able to nurture and defend them. Such attachments in turn provide a sense of profound safety and security to the young child bathing in the unconditional and all-encompassing love of their seemingly omniscient, invincible, and inexhaustible parents. Those were indeed the good old days!28
When children grow up, they are obliged to join their social milieu by learning the language, beliefs, and customs of their culture, and toward this end parental affection becomes increasingly dependent on the child's behaving in socially acceptable ways. When the parents show their disapproval for socially unaccepted behaviours, anxiety and insecurity or even the fear of abandonment is created in the infant. In this way, children come to associate being good with being safe and being bad with being helpless and vulnerable. This leads the child to believe that being good is safe and it is to be alive or being bad leads to insecurity and finally to death. Thus if one lives according to the expectations of the society, his self-esteem is increased leading to security and indirectly providing a buffer against anxiety and ultimate death.
The anxiety-buffering qualities of self-esteem, initially derived from pleasing parents in the context of socialization, finally comes to depend on adhering to the standards of the culture at large. Such a transition begins during socialization, as children learn the ways and stories of their culture (its history, religion, and folklore) through myths, stories and rituals. From these shared stories (whether it be Krishna, Jesus or even Superman) they learn that the good and virtuous are rewarded with fame, fortune, and continued existence, while the wicked are humiliated, exiled, even eliminated by power of good over evil. The transition then begins as children become increasingly aware of the nature and personal implications of the inevitability of death. At the age of nine or ten, or even at the age of three, the promises of safety and overcoming death offered by the culture become more compelling and reassuring to children than their earlier idea of the omniscient, not so infallible, invincible, and immortal, all- too-human parents. Self-esteem is now derived from doing the right thing in terms of the culturally prescribed standards of conduct and not with the wishes of the parents, as it was earlier done.29
One of the important implications of this analysis is to show that self-esteem is a universal need of all humans. But the social roles and associated standards of appropriate conduct by which self-esteem is acquired and maintained are both historically and culturally relative. Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski give an example of the change of conduct in the contemporary globalized world.30 According to them, in Western Europe, in the Middle Ages, the traditional Christian worldview stressed virtue and compassion as means to salvation, whereas making excessive profit, more than the actual value of what one produced or what one needed to live comfortably, was called avarice and was considered a mortal sin.31 Sadly, today there is no such stigma attached to the infinite and selfish pursuit of material wealth. Indeed, in America wealth is a central means (along with physical attractiveness) of acquiring self-esteem, as indicated by books such as Ayn Rand's The Virtue of Selfishness (1964) or the more recent proclamation by billionaire Wall Street trader (and convicted felon) Ivan Boesky that "There is nothing wrong with greed." So, according to our authors, the standards by which self-esteem is acquired are arbitrary in that they vary across time and space.
A second consequence of our analysis is that cultural worldviews are also arbitrary in that there is a potentially infinite variety of cultural worldviews that have existed, do exist, or could conceivably exist, each of which may be assumed to an absolute representation of reality by its adherents. But no cultural worldview is literally true and there is no way to unambiguously confirm the truth of any cultural conception of reality; consequently, individuals must ultimately rely on faith.
c. The Two Basic Hypotheses
Two general hypotheses are derived from Becker's work, and TMT can be empirically tested. They may be formulated as below:
1. The Anxiety-Buffer Hypothesis: It states that strengthening the anxiety-buffer, for example boosting a person's self-esteem, should reduce this person's death anxiety. Since psychological structure offers protection against (death) anxiety, then reinforcing that structure should reduce anxiety in response to subsequent threats. So if we can strengthen self-esteem, anxiety and anxiety-related behavior in response to threats will be reduced.32 2. Mortality Salience Hypothesis: The need for defense is particularly high when one is reminded of one's mortality or when "mortality salience" is increased or when one's cultural system is threatened. In those cases one can expect negative reactions against those who cause or embody the threat, such as individuals who belong to a different group. In such situations positive reactions toward those who represent and enhance the cultural values, are also present. This implication of TMT was labeled the mortality salience hypothesis. Since the psychological structure offers protection against the potential terror generated by knowledge of mortality, evoking thoughts of mortality into consciousness will tend to maintain or even solidify that structure. If so, reminding people of their own mortality will activate the need for validation of their sense of self-worth and their faith in the cultural worldview.33
d. Attempts at Experimental Verification
In the last thirty years, numerous studies have provided supportive evidence for the mortality salience hypothesis.34 In various experiments, reminding people of their own mortality was shown to increase their inclination to respond favorably to people who reinforce their worldviews and to respond negatively to people who are different from them, a phenomenon occurring in adults as well as in children who may be only eleven years old. In these various studies death salience was achieved in a variety of ways, by asking people to imagine their own death, filling out death anxiety scales, or having them visit a funeral home or watch a fatal car accident. Generally, reminding people of their own mortality made them less tolerant towards the out-groups. Many works conducted on the anxiety buffer hypothesis also supported TMT.35 In 1993 Jeff Greenberg and colleagues found that positive personality feedback made people less inclined to deny the possibility that they may have a relatively short life expectancy. In the course of the last thirty years hundreds of books and articles have appeared supporting this theme. It is one of the well-researched hypotheses in psychology and philosophy. For example B L Burke, A Martens and E H Faucher have conducted empirical trials investigating the mortality salience hypothesis of TMT. Overall, 164 articles with 277 experiments were considered.36
e. Evaluation and Implications of Terror Management Theory
This theory, though elaborate and interdisciplinary, has also not escaped criticism. Some of the critiques tried to explain away the experimental findings like increased intolerance toward out-groups in terms of motivational theories and attempts to control. TMT's scope and claim to represent a general theory of motivation offering an overarching explanation of the whole human life was put into question by many scholars. Some scholars argue that death anxiety plays usually only a minor role in individual's behavior in everyday life. Adrian Tomer holds that one area of particular difficulty for TMT is the area of death anxiety in older age. Older adults appear to accept death more than younger adults, the opposite of what would be expected on the basis of considerations of death salience.37
Due to these criticisms, we may acknowledge that human creativity, growth, tolerance and genuine acceptance of death cannot be totally explained by TMT. Along with death anxiety and terror, there are also individuals attempting to grow, develop and mature and in this way to transcend themselves. Thus there is also the human need to achieve balance and harmony as one grows in life.38
As a theory dealing with death, TMT relates to behaviors that are conceptually very distant from death and dying, for example tolerance toward strangers and protecting one's own worldview. Thus the theory provides a useful tool for self-understanding. A good understanding of both the importance of death anxiety as a main motivation, and of the ways to protect against it, can allow one to achieve the goal: developing defense against death and not at the price of becoming intolerant toward others.39 It further provides us with empirically verifiable hypothesis, which has been tested. On the whole, this theory may be regarded as a way to explain how the construction of meaning achieved by individuals within a culture fulfills the double function of protecting against fear of death and allowing, at the same time, creative expansion and development.40


5) Conclusion: Living Together Is Possible

TMT analysis helps us to understand why human beings have such a difficult time peacefully coexisting with each other and different others. In so far as cultural worldviews tend to ameliorate the anxiety associated with the awareness of death, the mere existence of others who think, act and live differently poses an explicit challenge to the absolute claims posed by one's worldview. Because they undermine the anxiety-buffering capacity of that worldview, there is a tendency either to acquire a new worldview or reinforce the old one.
A worldview cannot serve its primary function of preserving psychological equanimity of its members unless its adherents accept it as absolutely and unequivocally true. Confronted by others thinking and living differently, an effective approach is to convince the other individuals to change some of the main features of their worldview and adopt those of the majority. Thus if out-groups are compelled or convinced to adopt the worldview of the dominant group, the result is even broader social support for, and thus greater faith in, one's own world views.
Another more subtle or insidious response from the majority community is to incorporate some portions of the alien worldviews into the dominant one in such a way that the out-group's worldview is divested of its threatening character.41
Finally, the most powerful and brutal response to the threat posed by the existence of others with divergent cultural worldviews is to annihilate them, thus proving that one's own point of view must have been "true" after all. From this perspective, the ongoing series of armed conflicts that characterize the history of the human race is best understood in psychological terms: the result of a fundamental inability to tolerate those with different death-denying visions of reality that result in mutually exclusive claims to immortality. Ultimately only sacred/religious concerns can convince mothers to send large numbers of a culture's young men to almost certain death.42 That human beings tend to respond violently to encounters with different others in defense of their cultural worldviews has ominous implications for the future well-being of humankind. As Becker has shown in "Escape from Evil", this problem is compounded by the fact that in the contemporary globalized societies even if people did not physically encounter the out-groups, psychologically we need to designate someone (an individual or group) against whose beliefs ours can be tested and proved as superior.43 By showing their vulnerability, their inability to stand up to our power, we are enhanced and our worldview reinforced. "We qualify for continued durability, for life, for eternity; and they, not fully human, as scapegoat bearers of evil, warrant domination, banishment, and death".44 Realising such possibility, Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski write rather pessimistically: "This raises the horrifying possibility that humans may not be a viable form of life in the long run, if one by-product of consciousness and self-consciousness is the awareness of death and the consequent inability to accept alternative death-denying cultural worldviews because of the threat they pose to the absolute validity of one's own cultural drama".45
They also note that for most of human history this intolerance of different others has had terrible, not fatal consequences, just because they lacked the technological expertise to exterminate ourselves entirely. Today things are very different, since our culture of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons of mass destruction is capable of annihilating completely human life from our precious planet.46
True, there are many significant and challenging insights that we can learn from TMT. Further, I believe that most of the valid insights of TMT do not necessarily take us to a gloomy or cynical human future. It is in this context that I want to draw inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi who maintained "Fear of death makes us devoid both of valour and religion. For want of valour is want of religious faith".47 His life was unwaveringly rooted in a strong (absolute!) Hindu worldview, which is at the same time open to Muslim, Christian and Western worldviews. Through his own life, by not fearing but daring to embrace death, he showed that, in spite of TMT, there is future for humanity. By walking the talk Gandhi showed that the terribly pessimistic comment of some scholars of TMT is unwarranted: "Perhaps a highly intelligent species of sentient meat is not fit for life on earth after all, and the radical right turn of human evolution from that of all other life forms will turn out to lead us off an evolutionary cliff."48
The British writer Thomas Hardy affirmed: "If a way to the better there be, it lies in taking a full look at the worst".49 That is precisely what Gandhi achieved through his life and death. He has looked directly into the eyes of death (Thanatos) and evil (terror) and still flourished! Precisely therein lies our collective hope for the future! Thus the final victory belongs to affirmative tolerance, respect and love!


Notes and References:
  1. M.K Gandhi, "The Fear of Death", Young India, Oct. 13, 1921; reprinted in The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Edited by Raghavan Iyer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986-1987), vol. 3, p. 235.
  2. Ernest Becker, Zen: A Rational Critique (New York: Norton, 1961).
  3. See Ernest Becker, The Birth and Death of Meaning (New York: Free Press, 1962); The Structure of Evil: An Essay on the Unification of the Science of Man (New York: Braziller, 1968); The Birth and Death of Meaning. 2d ed. (New York: Free Press, 1971); The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1973); Escape from Evil ( New York: Free Press, 1975). See also Solomon, Sheldon; Greenberg, Jeff and Pyszczynski, Tom "Tales from the Crypt: On the Role of Death in Life" Zygon, vol. 33, no. 1 (March 1998), pp. 9-43.
  4. Tomer, Adrian, 2003. "Ernest Becker" Kastenbaum, Robert, (ed). Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying (New York: Macmillan Reference, 2003), p. 57.
  5. Becker 1973, op.cit.
  6. Tomer 2003, op.cit., pp. 57-58.
  7. Becker 1973, op.cit., p. 202.
  8. Tomer 2003, op.cit., p. 58.
  9. Ibid., pp. 57-58.
  10. Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, and Sheldon Solomon. "The Causes and Consequences of the Need for Self-Esteem: A Terror Management Theory." Public Self and Private Self ed. R. F. Baumeister (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1986), pp. 189-212. Also see Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski. "Terror Management Theory of Self-Esteem and Cultural Worldviews: Empirical Assessments and Conceptual Refinements." Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, ed. M. P. Zanna. (San Diego: Academic Press, 1997).
  11. Solomon, Sheldon; Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski.. "A Terror Management Theory of Social Behavior: The Psychological Functions of Self-Esteem and Cultural Worldviews." Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, ed. M. P. Zanna, (San Diego: Academic Press,1991), pp. 91-159.
  12. Michael C Kearl. "Immortality: Symbolic." Kastenbaum, Robert, (ed) Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. (New York: Macmillan Reference, 2003), p. 461.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Jean-Louis Drolet, "Transcending Death during Early Adulthood: Symbolic Immortality, Death Anxiety, and Purpose in Life." Clinical Psychology 46, no. 2 (1990):148-160.
  15. Kearl 2003, op.cit., p. 462.
  16. Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (New York: Oxford University Press 1990), p.214.
  17. Kearl 2003, op.cit., p.462.
  18. Cited in ibid., p. 463.
  19. Cited in ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Solomon, Greenberg and Pyszczynski, 1998, op.cit.
  22. Becker 1971, op.cit., p. 7.
  23. Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski 1998, op.cit.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Adrian,Tomer, "Terror Management Theory" Kastenbaum, Robert, (ed) . Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying (New York: Macmillan Reference, 2003), p. 885.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski 1998, op.cit, p. 13.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid., 15f
  31. Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom (New York: Farrar & Rinehart 1941), p.71.
  32. Adrian,Tomer, 'Terror Management Theory", p. 886.
  33. Ibid.
  34. V Florian, & M.Mikulincer, "Fear of death and the judgment of social transgressions: A multidimensional test of terror management theory." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, (1997), pp. 369 -380.
  35. Adrian,Tomer, "Terror Management Theory", p. 885.
  36. B L Burke, A Martens, E H Faucher . "Two decades of terror management theory: a meta-analysis of mortality salience research." Pers Soc Psychol Rev. 14, No. 2), 2010, pp.155-95.
  37. Adrian,Tomer, "Terror Management Theory", p. 886.
  38. Jeff Greenberg, and Jamie Arndt, "Terror Management Theory," Lange, Paul A. M. Van, Arie W. Kruglanski, and E. Tory Higgins. 2012. Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology (Los Angeles: Sage, 2011), Volume 1, pp. 398 -415.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Adrian,Tomer, "Terror Management Theory", p. 886.
  41. Solomon, Greenberg and Pyszczynski 1998, 17f.
  42. Ibid., p.18
  43. See Becker 1975, op.cit.
  44. Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski 1998, p..18.
  45. Ibid.
  46. See K Pandikattu, "Collective Extension or Common Extinction: The Challenge of Being Human Today." pp. 189-210 in Rehumanising the Human: Interdisciplinary Essays on Human Person in Context: Festschrift for Dr Jose Panthackal CST, edited by A Pamplany (Bangalore: Asian Trading Corporation, 2006).
  47. M.K. Gandhi, Soul Force: Gandhi's Writings on Peace (London: Tara Publishing Ltd. 2004), p.139.
  48. Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski 1998, p.19.
  49. Cited in Becker 1961, op.cit.; Also see Lawrence L LeShan, An Ethic for the Age of Space : A Touchstone for Conduct among the Stars. (York Beach, Me.: Samuel Weiser, 1996).
Adapted from 'Gandhi Marg', Vol 33 Number 4, January-March 2012

* KURUVILLA PANDIKATTU is Professor of Philosophy at Jnana- Deepa Vidyapeeth, Pune 411014. Email: kuru@kuru.in
GINI GEORGE is attached to Loyola College, Chennai - 600034