The Coronavirus has brought a spurt of death and destruction in its wake. Having come to the fore in Wuhan – China, it has been spreading at an alarming rate, having crossed 5,00,000 cases worldwide. While it has not caused anywhere close to the casualties that, say, the 1918 Influenza pandemic did (with around 50 million claimed to have died), due to the infectious nature and lack of vaccines in the foreseeable future (with WHO experts saying that it will take no less than 18 months before any such vaccine can be put out), the danger looms large of this beast taking a much bigger form. As a result, the best countering of this pandemic lies in defense – preventing the spread of the virus by self-isolation and quarantine. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced a complete lockdown for 21 days, across the country. Much like in other countries going through this crisis, this has led to a need for economic recalibration and a general feeling of uncertainty that borders on those experience in times of national (military or economic) emergency. And this should hardly be surprising, since the churning we see right now (much like the famous Samudra Manthan of Hindu mythology) is, or atleast has the potential to be, as extraordinary as that seen at the turn of the twentieth century, before the Great War. John Maynard Keynes famous words:
the inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth.
banked on the self-assured smugness arising out of an overarching belief on the strength, power and resilience of a global free market that thrived on capital, goods and labour. It was a world with promise, a world conducive for enterprises. Most of all, it was a world where economical interlinking of the countries was assumed to be the best deterrent against any major military conflagration. The First World War (1914-1918) brought this period of harmony and peace to a screeching halt. Terms of reference between elements in society had to be renegotiated, ideas of economics and social order re-imagined, and the realms of science, fine arts, politics and culture had to go through revolutions across the world. Now with supply chains breaking, recession looming large and polities emerging within polities, there seems to be a similar call. Strangely, this time the cause is not human but viral, and the recalibration is more than just social, political and economic.
It is all that and more.
It is an existential crisis faced by, and yet the associated lockdown is an opportunity for, people the world over. An opportunity to move inwards, to know one’s true Self. To spiritualise. To facilitate Jñanagaman (ज्ञानागमन) – the advent of true knowledge, or, in modern parlance, the awakening of the Force.
Existentialism and the Spiritual
One can only move on from a certain reality either by willpower or when something is amiss. The former is usually a harmonious movement while the latter has a more abrupt onset. Our reality today is characterized by conflict, imbalances and an obsession with the material. The avarice and mindless hedonism that prevails today can be seen from extreme cases such as the Moldovan bank fraud (bungling of $1 billion by Banca de Economii, Unibank and Banca Socială) and the Russian Laundromat (a scheme to move more than $20 billion out of Russia in 2010-2014, while on average 3% of the population lived on less than $5.50/day in that period). Social structures have broken down, ranging from the family (with working professionals in Vietnam, Philippines and Thailand seeking to not start one, due to various factors), community (social distancing due to the advent of technology-based distractions has reduced social bonding), law (with legal abuse on one hand and misuse of legal provisions by criminals and the rich to escape punishment) and economic order (by malpractices, hoarding and corruption). Some may say there is just a renegotiation and re-imagining of these constructs on certain fronts but I feel the shift is more fundamental than that and making us more attached to ideas, identities and physical assortments to realize the essence of these social structure than is healthy.
In today’s world, techno-capitalism has seen consumerism and the self-centred consumer emerging out of a desire to self-fashion through ‘brand identity’. Even protest or ‘rebellion’ against the establishment or system ends up only establishing new brands and constructs. People are dogmatic, parochial and exclusivist. It is either their way or the highway, many a times. Due to the unsustainable lifestyle prevalent today, coupled with the negative impact of rampant industrialisation and urbanisation, health problems (both of the body and the mind) and ecological issues are on the rise.
Unfair taxations, leaders being an enemy of their own people, priests accused of transgressions, communalism, pollution, mindless killings, sexual trafficking and sex-violence, illegal drug trade, excessive drinking, teachers being disrespected, malaise of fake god-men and increasingly dangerous epidemics and pandemics are key realities of the day.
All of this is due to the preeminence attributed to the triad of materialism, identities and ideologies.
The only way to break this triad is only by moving inward, by reflecting. By meditating on one’s true Self. Human beings went from being in the middle of the food-chain, with limited natural capabilities, to occupying the top of the food chain with the power of the human mind and the capacity to self-organize based on communication and myth-making. It is with the power of the mind that man has also gone on what I see as a mode of self-destruction, with the aforementioned negative impact humanity has had lately on itself and the environment around. The mind is a powerful tool, as are our actions. While Rome was not built in one day or the Pyramids, for that matter, it was the human mind that expedited the process. Sri Krishna in the Srimad Bhagavad Gita speaks of the senses being like wild stallions with a tendency to move everywhichway. It is the Self and the mind that must control it. In our bid for short-term, material gratifications, one often mistakes the temporary happiness that comes of it as lasting. And this happiness from , and attachment to, the material, to the worldly and the illusory (as a Vedantin would know) is just that: temporary. Fleeting and insubstantial beyond the moments it prevails in. And to make matters worse, it has a certain addictive quality: one seeks to partake of it again and again and again. Even when it may come with its fair share of harmful byproducts (such as health problems due to substance abuse that comes with the high that excessive use of alcohol or drugs may bring or the fear of revenge or repurcussions with the temporary one-upmanship achieved by conflict and wanton destruction caused), which is usually seen since the Universe is based on dualities, binaries and multiplicities: happiness comes with sadness much as the rose comes with the thorns, the crest comes with the trough, the particle with the anti-particle. The desire, the drive to seek these fleeting gratifications, not matter what, which cannot be sustained is foolhardy but so ingrained in us that it is tough to get rid of.
Jñana is the only way to break free.
A realisation of the temporariness of these worldly aspects and elements, and a knowledge of one’s true Self. Though Jñana may be crudely translated as ‘knowledge’, it is knowledge not in isolation of other sensory or experiential realities but rather endowed and inseparable from them. It is knowledge of the sum-total of one’s reality and experience. It can be better understood as realization or Gnosis, whereby one gets to realize one’s oneness with the ultimate reality, which is called Brahman in the Dharmic traditions. This desire to seek such realization is natural for some, but quite often it is not.
The only way then is to throw the futility of the worldly pursuits into sharp contrast; to present an existential crisis that leaves space for survival (and here I do not want to regard the sufferings of thousands of people at all) but that also makes one ponder over one’s beliefs and ideas of life, and most importantly, one’s very existence.
When one realizes the transience of the temporal and the worldly, one looks at the world with dispassion and equanimity. The worldly has limited purpose and relevance, in the ontological sense. This existential inquiry and perspective makes one increasingly non-attached to the material. One must remember that it is very easy to move from existentialism (which is ontological) towards nihilism (which is moral and epistemological but can tread on the ontological as well) and to protect oneself from the assumption that there is no meaning to anything one must make the leap of faith that as absurd as Camus and Kafka find the social and the worldly, there is a purpose for this life, however illusory and superficial (and frankly quite contradictory, many-a-times) it may be in the higher sense of things. Sri Adi Shankaracharya beautifully rebuts metaphysical nihilism with his words in the Brahmasutra Bhashya
य एव हि निराकर्ता तस्य आत्मत्वात्
which translates to ‘The innermost reality is the very observer who denies the existence of everything‘. If someone or something (let us say- you) is (are) denying the existence of something (let us say – literally everything), surely there is a proactive, positive entity that is doing so. Whether this is true or not is not something I have ever or would like to ever prescribe or dictate, regardless of my personal spiritual experiences and realisations. The Dharmic way is one of seeking the truth, not blindly believing; of being, not becoming. In that spirit, I will keep to the systematic destruction of the pre-eminence of the material and worldly, and let the reader embark on the journey thereafter, into seeking who one truly is (and whether one’s mind, ideas, identities, circumstantial realities, familial bonds, emotions or even all them combined constitute the fundamental definition of ‘you’). It is only through such a quest, such a journey that Jñanagaman (ज्ञानागमन) can take place. Whether at the end of the journey, you can go through all the seven stages of Jñana or just end up with a purely physicalist conception of yourself is up to you. The Coronavirus, with its associated lockdown and unfortunate claiming of lives, has created a situation for the public which makes one increasingly detached from the humdrum of professional lives, self-isolate and explore oneself, and hopefully slowly grow inward, to see the beauty and Satya (truth) of oneself, whatever that may be for you.
The lockdown has also brought with it the need for certain socio-political recalibrations. For starters, being a pandemic, it has seen no class, caste, gender, race or nationality, in its wake. Everyone from US Senator Rand Paul and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to Prince Charles himself have unfortunately been tested positive. This has done away summarily with the notion of the immunity or invulnerability of certain sections of the human population globally, based on privilege or circumstance. It come for all, in myriad ways. Therefore, this fundamental demolition of the idea of discrimination as much as possible, though, yes, the economically well off can control their environs and other preventive measures a lot more than those that aren’t. Even then, given the lack of a vaccine and fairly long life of the virus, it seems more like this ‘enemy of humanity’ is just undertaking a siege-warfare against humans. The more privileged may eventually capitulate, if only their defense is longer. Thus, we need to stand as one, cutting across nations and class. This is far from the reality though, with the rich and the privileged getting themselves tested for the virus and creating safe environments for isolation and recovery while many from the lower rungs of society are either unaware of whether they are infected (with the tests being very expensive, at upto around $60 in private labs, for a country where more than 270 million people lived below $1.90 per day on purchasing power parity, as per World Bank estimates for 2011) or finding it tough to tackle the repercussions of government policies to battle COVID.
Secondly, the re-prioritization of resources and energies, at various levels of human organization, is the other major takeaway. I have previously spoken about the indulgences and even hedonism that have been key parts of human lives in many parts of the world. Not anymore. The Coronavirus has had a major economic impact: global shares and investments have taken a hit, central banks have had to slash interest rates in response to looming economic downslides, governments have released stimulus packages, and stagnation of economic growth is predicted. The Indian government recently released a massive ₹ 1.7 lakh crore package, with policy-moves such as wage increase under MGNREGA, special cash transfer scheme, insurance for health workers, free cylinders for BPL families, government paying EPF, collateral-free loans for SHGs! I have personally had some reservations against the new Parliament House plan of the Indian government (since that need not be a priority with the COVID challenge looming large, and it is here to stay for months to come, unless we find a vaccine soon) but have appreciated the good, sure-footed work done by PM Modi and his cabinet to tackle this global challenge. The challenge now is to look at steadying the ship, continuing to look at employment generation (especially if this COVID-battle is long-drawn), safeguarding the interests of workers (particularly in the unorganized sector) and looking after the essential needs of all and sundry, along with a proactive awareness-building campaign (which can be done with a combination of paramilitary and police forces, NGOs and civil society organizations, and government wings). I know things could have been done differently but I am hardly as negative in my assessment as some are,
Lastly, but most importantly, the battle against COVID can only be won by one thing: Decentralisation. Borrowing from the theme of the larger, spiritual direction of this article, of self-empowerment and self-realisation, I would say that this is a war where each of us has to be a soldier. No one is going to come from the skies and airlift us or drop adequate ammunition to fight this ‘enemy of humanity‘. We have to do it as much as the government and other international organizations, such as the WHO, can help with this. If there was ever a time when the words ‘God helps those who help themselves’ are relevant, it would be now. I have always believed that Swaraj (Self-rule) constitutes the historical backbone of the Indian socio-political order, and even now, more than ever, this needs to be applied. Small businesses and enterprises must be given a boost so that in this period of uncertainty, individuals in society, particularly youth, can harness their talent and resources to contribute to the economy even as it falters slightly. The government already has started to look at financing Self-Help Groups (SHGs), and I feel more steps should be taken to promote initiative, enterprise and labour, as and when permissible under current medical and social restrictions. As we move towards a society where the action of the individual is important to prevent spread of the virus, we shall move away from over-reliance on the state, towards a more decentralised model of politics, which promotes physical and spiritual individualism but social communitarianism and solidarity. We shall also invariable move towards a more socialist, egalitarian society as people from across classes, castes and races work together to fight this virus. Just as the freedom struggle of India brought people and kingdoms that had never worked together in the past under a common umbrella, this new common enemy COVID may do likewise, except the arena is much larger this time around.
I have been distressed at hearing about the casualties from around the world in our battle against COVID, from China, USA, UK, Italy, Spain and France, among others. However, I believe the lockdown that has come with the pandemic, as well as the steps that have been taken or will be taken soon, present an unprecedented opportunity for some fundamental recalibrations and reprioritisation of resources and realities, spiritually, socially and politically. It is a chance to move towards a more egalitarian, decentralised society and polity, which also values enterprise and liberty. It is an opportunity to finally cast off the encumbering scaffolds of materialism that bind our spirit, even as it seeks liberation and oneness with the Absolute Truth, the Ultimate Reality, as spiritual or physicalist you find it to be! Don’t lose this opportunity!
It is time to turn the page, and begin a new age, of Satya (truth), with Jñanagaman . ????