Introduction – The Present Crisis
With so many people in their homes facing a lock down due to Corona Virus, life has come to a sudden and screeching halt. It almost feels as if the clunking, grinding wheel of samsara has come to a standstill. We can’t work, go out, meet people, or explore places. Confined to our homes we are in fear, scared of contacting the virus ourselves, or for people known to us. Some of us may be fearing death. We are facing a crisis, with an uncertain future. And this crisis is a prolonged one, with consequences that are going to extend much beyond the lockdown. Difficult decisions are staring at governments as they negotiate paradoxes; while most of the people wait in a lull caused by an invisible virus suffocating the global lungs of a techno-economic world. We are plunged into a crisis.
The genesis of this article was a request made by one of my journalist friends to write about how people should gainfully utilize their time during the extended periods of lockdown in the Corona Virus crisis. He wanted to publish it in the Hindi newspaper daily he works in. I dashed him off an article, typing it on Whatsapp, not intending to do anything further with it. Since it was for a very wide audience, I did not delve into the topic in great detail. However, after writing it, I got the idea of refining it, making it more substantial, and publishing it in my own website. In this article I am examining the possibility of using the crisis produced by Corona Virus to ask deeper questions in life. For a crisis like this makes many people to go within, reflect and re-evaluate their goals in life. Through this article, I hope to use the current crisis to encourage people move towards seeking permanent solutions to the problems of life, by examining what our country’s ancient science of self inquiry has to offer in Vedanta.
Prior to this, I have not written any Advaita Vedanta articles for a wider audience. Rather, I had busied myself writing stuff mainly for my own explorations and for very advanced practitioners of Advaita. This is my first article on this website, which addresses people at large, with the topic of Advaita Vedanta, so that they can see that it has something very pertinent to their lives.
Cut to Present Article
What can we do under the present circumstances of lockdown? Do we just pass our time watching Netflix, browsing the internet, chatting on social platforms, or can we use this as a time to reflect and ask some questions about ourselves and our lives. A crisis may stir us to action, total inaction or reflection. Since the crisis we are facing evolves slowly, rather than at a rapid and dramatic pace, it afford us the chance to reflect. In Julius Ceaser, Brutus – the idealist – counselling Cassius on the need of acting at the right time, says
There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat…
In the Field of Battle/Crisis with Arjuna and Krishna
The context for the dialogue between Brutus and Cassius above was war. Spiralling back in time, in a much more ancient era and culture, we see how the same crisis of war precipitates the greatest words of eternal wisdom issued for humanity by Krishna to Arjuna. The Bhagavad Gita, one of the world’s greatest literature, reveals the eternal truth to man through the words of an Avatar – Krishna – to the worldy Jiva (individual soul) in the form of Arjuna, facing a moral crisis of war, standing between two vast enemies, going to lay a sea of corpses. Great crisis demands the mind to dig deeper, as all it’s conventional thinking patterns are disrupted.
Arjuna, seething with revenge, preparing for war for 14 years in exile, is waiting for this day. But a moral crisis overtakes the greatest of warriors just at the onset, for which Krishna has to give a long discourse of 18 chapters of Bhagavad Gita. His friend and charioteer – Krishna – had been visiting him during his 14 years exile. One would wonder why Krishna did not lecture to Arjuna in the peaceful environs of his forest exile? Why on earth did Krishna choose the greatest time of crisis to propound the greatest truth of – man, life and his destiny – to Arjuna. Well, because till then, Arjuna’s thought was singular, as it is for almost all of us as samsaris/men of the world. For Arjuna it was to avenge Duryodhana for his misdeeds and claim back his rightful kingdom. Not at all complex. To such a man, words of eternal wisdom are like water on a duck’s back. At the battlefield, the war conches of the two vast armies blow – heaven and earth reverberate, and Arjuna gets ready to fight the righteous war. But just before that he wishes to survey the enemy he wishes to destroy. He instructs Krishna to place his chariot in between the two vast armies, with the words,
For I desire to observe those who are assembled here for the fight, wishing to please in battle, the evil minded sons of Dhritrashtra (Verse 1.23)
As the chariot of Arjuna moves ‘in between’ the enemy, he gets a view, a view which in his single minded pursuit of revenge and desire for his kingdom, had never precipitated earlier in his imaginations. What does he view?
Then Partha saw stationed there in both the armies, fathers, grandfathers, teachers, maternal uncles, brothers, sons, grandsons and friends too. (Verse 1.26)
Moving in life as we normally do, our views of world – development, technology, morality, governance, ethics are rarely shaken up. But in a crisis, when the view is shifted, and the mind stands in the midst of crisis, great dilemmas arise. We can see from the following verses, how quickly Arjuna’s mind sinks in them. Though it was clear from the beginning what the war would entail, Arjuna had never imagined that he would be facing his own people in this war. The black clouds of revenge and euphoria of a victory in his mind clear up as the intense glare of reality shines at the moment of war. His mind and body collapse at the sight. Truth is stranger than fiction: always!
My limbs fail and my mouth is parched, my body quivers and my hair stands on end (Verse 1.29)
The Gandiva-bow slips from my hand, and my skin burns all over; I am also unable to stand and my mind is whirling round, as it were (Verse 1.30)
And finally, he slinks down in inaction
Having thus spoken in the midst of the battle-field, Arjuna sat down in the seat of the chariot, casting away his bow and arrow, with a mind distressed with sorrow (Verse 1.47)
Krishna looking at this dejected state of the grandest of warriors, queries him for it’s reason. In his reply, we see Arjuna coming out with a radical revision of his earlier held view of life. The crisis and dilemma of war against his near and dear ones, as well as the tragedies that would entail in the wake of war, makes him do an absolute volte face from his former views, and he moans
Better indeed, in this world, is to eat even the bread of ‘beggary’ than to slay the most noble of teachers. But, if I kill them, even in this world, all my enjoyments of wealth and desires will be stained with blood (verse 2.5)
And further he says – this is where his mind has slipped from a linear logic of black and white sureties in life to a deeper zone beyond the dualities of good and bad, or right and wrong created by binary thought.
I can scarcely say which will be better, that we should conquer them or that they should conquer us. Even the sons of Dhritrashtra, after slaying, whom we do not wish to live, stand facing us (verse 2.6)
The Mahabharata/Battlefield/Crisis of the Modern World
Why are we doing all that we do in our lives? Isn’t it to gain happiness? What has the Corona Virus outbreak shown to us? Hasn’t it shown that the external situations from which we are trying to gain happiness are actually completely beyond all our control. Who would have though that almost the whole world would come to a grinding halt, by a small virus that cannot be even seen by the human eye? So this is the time for us to ask whether outer situations can ever give us happiness?
Before Arjuna moved his chariot in the midst of the battlefield, he had one view of life and happiness : revenge for wrongdoing and gaining back the kingdom. But after he moved in there, in the middle of the looming crisis, he got another view of life : the ambiguity of whether war can give any happiness, no matter who wins.
Our ancestors, the Indian sages, realized very long back that the source of happiness is not outside but inside. Unfortunately, borrowing elements of westernization, we have forgotten the wisdom of our ancestors: our real spiritual past. We have got lost in a materialistic culture pursuing material aims.
I grew up studying in an English Medium Public School, with it’s typical scientific, materialistic approach, which does nothing but create workers for an industrial society. I grew up thinking that materialistic science has all the answers, that science is God.
Today we have a situation where a small virus has made the most modern science and technology bend down on it’s knees. The greatest technological nation – America – is facing the greatest tragedy from a tiny little virus. Nature is always going to be smarter than science. So science cannot give us permanent happiness. This is quite clear. We shall develop a vaccine for Covid19, but a new mutation of virus shall develop, and the race of man against nature shall go on. Technological or scientific solutions cannot solve man’s crisis permanently.
Becasue even after all technological development, everyone one of us finds our self in the position of Arjuna in this life. Life is not just a bed of roses. It is a battlefield of death and suffering. This time the agent of destruction is a virus. Some other day it is going to be climate, some day it is going to be the economy, some day terrorism, and yet another day – nuclear wars. Otherwise too, in our personal lives, we all find ourselves fighting some war or the other – in our workplaces, in our homes, in our social lives.
So, can we see and examine the limitations of material science? Material sceince has it’s uses: the problem is that we have stopped looking at anything beyond it. Something more enduring and holistic.
From Material Science to Spiritual Science
When I came to the Vedas and Upanishads, I was stunned to find that their outlook was not only scientific, but their science went further than just matter: into mind and spirit. It was a complete science.
My life changed with this contact with the spiritual science of Upanishads. The Upanishads gave me the whole and complete spiritual science of life by which I am no longer dependent on outer circumstances to feel whole and complete. The Upanishads showed me the door to freedom from all suffering.
So why don’t we use this time to read books and gain some knowledge about the subject of the Upanishads. Why don’t we use this time to study the Bhagavad Gita, not as books of faith and religion, but books which contain in them the science of permanent freedom from suffering.
The Bhagavad Gita talks about Karma Yoga, the science of doing action with a detached mind. All our suffering comes from different attachments. The Bhagavad Gita is showing a way of working without attachment, so that we can work without ever losing the peace of our minds. Can anyone ask for something more in life? We have all this wealth of spiritual literature and yet we are not using it. We spend our time reading books on popular psychology which are nowhere near the depth of human psychology explained in Bhagavad Gita.
And this is the best time for us to dip into our spiritual books. In the past, I faced the times of greatest crisis in my life by remembering some verses from the Gita. So can’t we use this time to read the timeless wisdom of Krishna, which he gives to Arjuna, in the middle of a battlefield? This timeless wisdom is not to be found in any of the sciences you read in school or college. But the spiritual science of Gita, given to Arjuna, being timeless, can give you that knowledge which no outer situation of life can disturb or destroy.
Like Arjuna, this crisis may spark a new and deeper train of thought in our minds. And then like Arjuna we should approach Krishna (Vedas, Upanishads etc.) to get an answer for life’s eternal and vexing questions.
My heart is overpowered by the taint of pity; my mind is confused as to duty. I ask Thee. Tell me decisively what is good for me. I am Thy disciple. Instruct me, who has taken refuge in Thee. (Arjuna’s words in Bhagavad Gita – Verse 2.7)