The C-19 juggernaut is rolling on relentlessly, mutating even more powerfully as vaccines work to build resistance to hamper and neutralize its course. Globally, countries are struggling to cope, by being forced into multiple lockdowns to protect their citizens, causing massive disruptions to work life as we know it – attending offices nestled in brick-and-mortar constructions became impossible. Yet, the rapidity with which the world responded – America saw work from home (WFH) employees growing from under 7% of its workforce to over 45% in mid-2020 – has been amazing. India’s IT industry in particular, and various state governments have also cited the value of WFH together with a permanent hybrid model where people would work partly from office and home (WFO&H) even after the end of the pandemic. Offering huge comparative advantage, both WFH and WFO&H drive inclusive growth, better participation from all parts of the country and enable greater number of women who would have flexibility to work from home.
Being at home working is not a new thing. Scientific inventions and books that revolutionized the world did not emerge from factories; it sprang from the home toils of great minds and geniuses. Fast forward to present times, digital technology empowered the transition to dynamic working, or staying connected and working on the move, multiplying benefits and growth. Employees appreciate its flexibility – a study found 88% Indian employees prefer work from home – and companies are able to observe rise in productivity. The acceptance of remote work by several companies globally is one of the blessings of an otherwise incredibly hard time. The model, adapted in stress and swiftness, has in fact worked out so well that, according to the finding of World Economic Forum, post-pandemic too employers are ready to give ‘work from anywhere’ (WFA) options to at least 44% of employees.
‘Work from anywhere’ now applies across industries, from tech to banking, finance, and even industrial companies handling manufacturing or supply chain management. Corporations leading the change will be pioneers – they will be magnets for talent because remote work enables a company to attract the best minds, oriented to growth and trended towards the future of work.
Such dynamic working is the next logical step in a globalized world, its flexibility easing international collaborations and expanding global talent pools. The greatest benefit for the employee is the control it provides over time, a temporal flexibility arising out of the elimination of the daily stressful commute and rigid work hours in offices as compared to WFH / WFA-enabled flexible work timings based out of convenient residential or resort spaces located away from the din and clutter of urban sprawls. For women, WFA provides added fillip to managing their careers and home lives. For a company, remote working facilitates global hiring of talent without the need to open subsidiaries in different geographies. For managers, the new system necessitates behavioural changes. Subordinates may have to be measured not by the duration of hours worked, but by the quantum of work and quality of output. Also, with remote work people may be in different time zones and, therefore, a lot of work will have to be done asynchronously, on accessible platforms like Slack channels or shared Google docs. Remote work is also an equalizer, contoured not by our location but by internet quality. Most remarkably, work from anywhere has the power to reshape old understandings of work, employees and companies now connecting in meetings of the mind and fusions of creativity, rather than the previous approach of physical attendance, hierarchical communication and regimented hours spent within office buildings. Additionally, WFA is blurring the line between work and leisure by setting the trend captured by the portmanteau term ‘workation’, the novel concept of working vacation, combining clearly planned business with curated recreational activities.
The flip side of WFH or WFA is the unhealthy overlap of home and office or work and leisure, resulting in a lack of respite from work pressures and consequent negative impact on health and wellness. Possibly there are other potential drawbacks too. It highlights the plight of those who do not have much flexibility, including frontline professionals and many in manufacturing and service industries. It accentuates the double shift women face, managing both official and domestic responsibilities. Such drawbacks could entrench inequalities. Instances like promotion biases against remote work, can, perhaps, be successfully navigated by managers drawing from increasing awareness and sensitivity. Technology will aid this journey, with futuristic innovations like hologram glasses, adding data to all that one sees, enhancing one’s view of the world with digitally created content and thereby improving the quality of work. Even the loneliness associated with working remotely may be addressed by augmented reality, bringing people virtually together.
Till previously, there was, apart from the physical, an invisible distance for everyone between office and home which enabled most people to mentally offload work pressure en route. Such an option is unavailable now and, hence, life is transforming into an added rat race from one stress to another. What is probably required to tackle the challenge is to instill greater systematization and discipline infusing consistently high energy levels into one’s day-to-day routine. At a glance, WFH and WFA are seen to facilitate higher productivity, lower establishment costs, near elimination of daily commute, substantially reduced fuel consumption and resultant traffic / pollution levels. Overall, a healthier lifestyle and salutary effects on environment. In spite of all such positives, it is doubtful whether the new high in productivity is sustainable over the long run. After extended time at homes, the compelling urge is towards social mobility and togetherness instead of further prolonging an enforced squeeze from expansive gregariousness to constricted creatures milling around computer screens; the primitive man evolved from hunter gatherers living in caves, moving on to agricultural farms and thence to factories and offices. The pandemic appears to have reversed history by pushing humans back to caves, as peering into digital screens is akin to drudging inside virtual caverns.
Annus horribilis 2020? It appears as such from most events and manifestations thus far. As customary around this time of the year, there is the relief of ending (of horrible times) and the hope of a bright new year. The worst is getting over, or so is the expectation, and the new is around the corner. Most people are conditioned to participate in the recurring ritual at midnight of every 31st December accompanied by the countdown that wipes the slate clean for the all-new to set in. Alas, it is just another evanescent bubble far removed from truth. There will be a sure flip of date on the calendar but it makes no difference to Nature whether the calendar is Vikram Samvat, Roman, Gregorian or Lunar. Animals and birds are blissfully unaware of any change because there really is none and nothing is any different. The mountains stay as majestic, the rivers flow, the tides keep ebbing and flooding in and out; the stars maintain their celestial journey but here we earthlings are prancing about in a parody of some grotesque dance, singing lustily and tunelessly, though in muffled tones this time around, in keeping with the sombreness of 2020, also linked to the passing away of some highly regarded writers, musicians, environmentalists, political leaders and sportspersons. Problems and tragedies cannot be wished away by a mere shift in time. Solutions are, however, possible through paradigm shifts in mindsets by imbibing lessons of the passing year. Patience, empathy, minimalism, adaptability and sustainable living are the qualities needed to take us forward. Trying to ring in the new year without taking these attributes on board amounts to just another diddly squat, that’s it.
The fundamental human urge is invariably to become better than the present, and keep going further incrementally, if not in giant leaps. Essentially longing to expand limitlessly, in an endeavour to approach the infinite in instalments. The strained expression of human desire is described as ‘ambition’. Ambition is a fanciful idea of what one should become. Whereas ‘vision’ is a larger picture of what should happen to everything around oneself. If everyone moves from ambition to vision, then our collective genius will unlock itself to achieve seemingly impossible objectives. The words of David Bohm assume contextual relevance: “We are internally related to everything, not externally related….consciousness is an internal relationship to the whole, we take in the whole and we act towards the whole, and whatever we take in, determines basically what we are.”
Often blinded by orthodoxies and conditioning, we step on snakes, run into fire and allow needles to poke us. Snakes of attachments, fire of desires, and needles of jealousy and covetousness. They bite, burn and hurt. We call it suffering and we think that this is the way of life. We mistake our pain for our suffering. We have little control over the former but the latter is in our hands. We can take things in our stride or be tossed about in the tide. The choice is ours. Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. Loss is unavoidable, grief is not. Death is certain. Life’s uncertainty, unpredictability, even irrationality make it worthwhile, a blessing. One can see its dimensions as appalling, boring and devious or as adventurous, beautiful and captivating. Up to us. Hearts filled with loving kindness, time enriched with noble actions, mind with good thoughts will eliminate suffering from life, like sadness from a heart that is content. Needles cannot prick one’s soul nor can fire burn it. And snakes, one may ask, what about the snakes of attachment? Well, an evolved person, at the spiritual heights of a Shiva, wraps them around his neck and yet remains unharmed.
Confined to home for most part of the year, we decided to move out to Kumarakom, a nearby lake resort, to enjoy the last weekend of December 2020. Uplifting it was, to spend time on the banks of the almost-sea like Vembanad lake and gratifying to lean on the bark of one or other of the many palm trees of its sylvan banks to absorb some of the equanimity and tranquillity that trees exude, as sentinels of wisdom, as it were, always unfazed, yet so giving, even as they soar skyward. Resting against the tree’s generous trunk is indeed very comforting. Probably this is what inspired sages to meditate beneath trees and attain enlightenment, facilitated in no small measure, perhaps, by the trees themselves. Both the Buddha and Mahavira are popularly depicted seated under a tree, radiating calm and wisdom, comforting all who came to them for succour. The concept is to just be in the forest, allowing the forest to caress and heal, as one opens up all the senses to receive its grace. Interestingly, scientists have found that spending time with trees boosts one’s immunity, via phytonicides – essential oils released by trees and plants to defend against insects, animals and decomposition – something we sorely need amidst contagions in no hurry to go away
With an abundance of coconut palm trees dominating its landscape, the resort is appropriately named ‘Whispering Palms’. It is a whisper that is audible in the pervading silence. Silence does not mean the absence of sound. It has a sound, a resonance, or, rather, it has many undetectable sounds creating a symphony perceivable at subtler levels. In the desert, the silence is composed of the whispered sigh of sand caressed by the invisible hand of the wind. In the forest, it is the gossipy chatter of breeze-ruffled leaves, the deep exhalation of giant trees; at the banks of Vembanad, it is the lake’s soothing babble and, in distant counterpoint, the lone call of a water fowl. To such sounds of silence are added the undertones of our own breathing, the rhythm of heart beat and the tidal pulse of blood coursing within us in tune with undulating waters of the lake. There is something called Brownian motion, so named after Robert Brown, a 19th C Scottish scientist, who first noted it as consisting of molecular interaction acting as a kind of background static, a faint buzz. The aria of birdsong and the scurry and scamper of squirrels added to the stillness of the surrounding, contributing to the sound of silence, a sound drowned in a raging tidal wave of cacophony as soon as one reverted to urban sprawls.
Life, surrounded by nature, can be awesome, instilling the feeling that we are a part of something greater than ourselves. Awe is triggered by wonder. Virginia Sturm, professor of neurology, University of California says, “It is such a simple thing to look around for small wonders while you exercise and there is no downside”. The good news is that awe can be cultivated in our daily lives. Consciously watching out for small wonders around us and invoking a spiritual perspective can inspire feelings of awe, a simple way to overcome worry and improve overall health. Looking at everything with fresh, childlike eyes can make us adept at discovering and amplifying awe.
The world is full of magical things, waiting for our senses to grow sharper. One may undertake awe excursions in nature and pay attention to everything around. Experiencing awe makes us more generous towards others, enhances creativity and moves us to do things for the greater good. It is found to increase feelings of connectedness, engender positivity and decrease attachment to materialism. According to Polish philosopher Henryk Skolimowski, “The first act of awe, when man was struck by the beauty or wonder of Nature, was the first spiritual experience”.
Epicurus of Samos was a major philosopher during the Hellenistic period, who influenced many later thinkers like Karl Marx, Kant and Nietzsche. He founded The Garden, a place where his teachings were put into practice. Contrary to the then prevailing Greek culture, his radical equality enabled women and slaves to join his school. The misunderstanding of his philosophy which persists till today is that it is rampantly hedonistic and self-indulgently pleasure-seeking, exhorting people to “eat, drink and be merry, / for tomorrow we may die”. In reality, his philosophy uses pleasure as the highest good, that which is valued for its own sake and not for the sake of anything else. He pointed out that one’s actions need to be directed towards attaining ataraxia, that is, deep calm and tranquillity. Ataraxia implies abstaining from unnecessary desires and remaining content with simple things and pursuing virtuous habits. Epicurus clarified all of the virtues as ultimately forms of prudence, and seeing what is in one’s best interest. The absence of prudence is when indulgence is equated with pleasure – such as excessive indulgence that ultimately offsets the initial pleasure and leads to pain. The key concern should be the weighing of pros and cons, of long and short term satisfaction as in the shreyas and preyas of the Upanishads, driving home the message of minimalism, empathy and sustainability.
A new year never fails to urge us to get on those weighing scales and make a solemn, earnest resolution to shed excess weight. Jog regularly, eat right, exercise, are all on the to-do list at least for a couple of weeks until it all gets forgotten in the hurly burly of life. But what of the weight, the burden, we have been heaping on planet Earth? Do we have any thoughts on shedding those mega pounds before we paint ourselves into a corner? According to scientists researching human impact on Earth, the mass of all human-created things including built-up infrastructure, vehicles and all manner of manufactured goods, now “exceeds the weight of all living things on the planet”. Not only that, using a combination of computational and experimental synthetic biology tools and satellite imagery, systems biologist Ron Milo of the Weizmann Institute of Science and his team in Israel approximate that “the amount of new material added every week equals the total weight of Earth’s nearly eight billion people”. And we thought it is only our homes that are overflowing with stuff. So, not only do we need to declutter our individual homes, we also must set about decluttering our collective abode, planet Earth!
Urban ecologist Timon McPhearson says that these study results ought to convince anyone that humans are indeed dominating the planet and not in pleasant ways. Since we are wielding such a huge influence on the planet, this age is being referred to as the Anthropocene Age. “Buildings and other infrastructure weigh more than the world’s trees and shrubs, and the mass of plastic is double that of all animals”, reports Science magazine.
While material transgressions have palpable outcomes, aberrations caused by extreme positions in thought and action may take time to reveal themselves. Buddha strongly advised the Middle Path that avoids both extreme asceticism and worldly overindulgence. Confucius pointed out that excess and deficiency are in fact one and the same thing, both straying away from the ideal of moderation. The Greeks promoted the Golden Mean, a philosophy that cautioned against both excess and deficiency. Al-Ghazali declared, “What is wanted is a balance between extravagance and miserliness through moderation, with the goal of distance between both extremes. As Krishna points out in the Gita, while overeating is gluttony, the one who refuses to eat is an egoist. The one who chooses moderation, a person of equanimity, finds the right balance. The Vedic culture had the required elasticity to embrace varied and newer dimensions into which our society grew in the march of time. The ideas enshrined in the Upanishads couched as discussions held by sages and their disciples in the forests along the banks of the Ganga, the way of life and the eternal values promoted therein, inspired in people an association with the mountains, trees, the silence and spirit of renunciation.
The Gita offers a practical handbook of instructions on how best to organise our ways of thinking, feeling and acting in everyday life and draw from ourselves a larger gush of productivity to enrich the external life around us and to emblazon the subjective life within us, unfolding a way of life whereby one is enabled to be socially more productive and individually more balanced and tranquil, pursuing life at peace with oneself. It has the right prescription for our sufferings – in the marketplace, in the squalor of slums or the luxury of drawing rooms, in the commune and the barracks. It serves us where we are; whoever we may be, whatever may be our challenges, irrespective of time and place, regardless of caste and creed. The more vigorous the wordly life, the greater the number and intensity of problems. Where there are no problems, there the life has decayed, and the community is dead. Life is a problem only at the realization of not knowing how to meet its challenges, despairing under the phobia of problems. Merely designating 2020 as annus horribilis and wishing it away as one of those horrible years without drawing the right lessons may be akin to a traveller shutting eyes to valuable signboards at her own peril. It must be treated as an year of learning and awareness going, hopefully, into making 2021 as annus mirabilis, a wonderful year.
Listening is a way of being in the moment and being with others. It is also a way of knowing the world, both the natural and human-built environment. Normally, we humans identify ourselves as thinking beings, looking out on and into the environs, separate from the objects that we see – but we are also feeling the vibrations of the world, and if we pay attention to them, a different province opens, which is a world of connection, rather than one of distance.
Upon listening, we realize that we are inside this world, part and parcel of it, instead of looking out at it. At moments of genuine connection through music, we feel a deep kinship with others. And it is based on this feeling of kinship that we can try to build more responsible institutions and a more just, caring and harmonious society.
The sound of nature is the purest form of art around us, for it enriches human beings at three vital levels. Nature’s music delights us at an aesthetic level – we are thrilled by a bird’s call, mesmerized by a gushing stream or soothed by a breezy, murmuring tree. Nature’s sounds make us aware of our environment. We feel the golden warmth of a summer’s day more vividly as bees hum around us while a winter’s cold, dark night comes wrapped in the sounds of an owl’s flapping feathers. It is not just the stunning views, refreshing scents and the physical exercise beyond the city limits, though, which are beneficial for us. In recent years, it has been found that one specific component of nature has a particularly profound effect on humans: her sound. Just think about how disturbing the noise from construction site around the corner or a colleague’s loud phone calls can be. Now, remember what we heard during our last trip to the countryside: we probably perceived those sounds as very pleasant. Whether it is humming of the bees or murmur of a stream, nature’s sounds have been proven to affect processes in the human brain.
It is not necessary to spend vacations around world’s exotic regions. Nor is it required to go hiking every weekend. Even if it is only a little time, one can spend it in the open air – just a few minutes of nature’s music make a difference! En route to office, for example, one could take a traffic-calmed side street or a favourite stamping ground, to possibly hear a squirrel cracking a nut. Instead of spending lunch break in a stuffy room, step outside, and enjoy the meal in the park. Pay attention, and it will be rewarded: even in the concrete jungle, the wind is dancing its way through trees and birds are singing their songs. A brawling river, chirping crickets, and a crackling fire – many people experience natural noises as soothing. Now a scientific study proves what some of us have always known to be true: Nature sounds have a direct therapeutic effect on living creatures as these are almost always associated with creating a soothing atmosphere, and with restoring a sense of peace and calm: the wash of the sea on the beach, for instance; the rustle of leaves, or the liquid sunshine of birdsong.
Sounds serve as medium for meaningful inter and intra species communication. As an example, there is cross-species communication among humans and domestic animals, whether Sami herders and their reindeer, Mongolian nomads and their sheep, trackers and their dogs or children and their pets. Such communication also exists between predators and prey – a noise from a human is often a danger warning to an animal, or an alarm call by an animal warns all other animals within hearing distance. The ‘sound commons’ prevailing among all living creatures is a natural characteristic that must be preserved by humans through environmental conservation, to enable all creatures (ourselves included) to communicate in our acoustic niches in the soundscape. A ‘commons’ is a resource that is shared but cannot be owned – it is like the air surrounding the land and the oceans. A sound commons is a sonic resource, an acoustic space that enables all living creatures and species to establish acoustic niches where they can communicate with least amount of interference. Anthropogenic noise, however, such as noise from ships and sonar or vehicular traffic, airplanes, construction equipment and so on, generate the most disturbance in this natural sound commons today.
A sound ecology is, literally, the study of beings and their sonic relations to one another and to their environment. These sonic relations are direct, physical connections. One being produces a sound vibration – the resulting sound travels in a longitudinal wave and vibrates other beings. By means of these sounds, these beings communicate with one another and with their environment. Importantly, those direct, physical connections also imply direct linkage among beings within a community. So, a sound economy is built on direct personal connections and exchanges, quite like the functioning of a local economy. This contrasts with the distant relations, the indirect exchanges, the legal relations, the contracts and competition we see in an unsound, global economy. Ecological connections expressed through music and sound are thus based on cooperation and sustainability.
It is very important to delve deeper into this way of experiencing the world. We should explore eco-musicology more and think about the study of sound, music, nature and culture, in a time of environmental crisis.
When we start to listen to the sounds of nature, we sense the huge and wonderful mystery that is life, all around us. In music created by humans, we put together sounds, having patterns, informed with emotions and beauty. We do not always know what the message of an instrumental piece of music is though – what we do know is what such music does to us. Animal music is, perhaps, the same phenomena. Animals put sounds together, they perform pieces of music, these performances are full of emotion, structure and meaning, but it cannot be turned into a simple message. But once animal sounds are understood as music, they become far more comprehensible. Upon listening with care, one understands why certain emotions are felt on hearing birdsong or whales singing. We instinctively recognize there is something much closer to music than language in these sounds. Cicadas emerging after years underground to sing for a few days before they vanish again, bees humming as they gather nectar, common birds with the most melodious calls; we hear these species without often paying much attention. Yet on really listening to them, something amazing happens. It is literally like listening to music from another part of the world, in another language, where one is suddenly moved by what is heard. There is a quality deep within animal music that stirs us as human beings.
Revelling in creation of unusual and beautiful sounds, animals are presumably the mysteries and the answers of evolution. Be it the all-night concert of nightingale, or the mellifluence of white-rumped Shama or the innate musicality of humpback whales, it is not always survival of the fittest but the most beautifully sounding in nature. Birds warble improvised melodies to get a ‘high’, and not merely as one of those quotidian tasks. As in humans, random musical compositions are said to release feel-good chemicals in animal brains; probably these endogenous opioids make them busk first thing in the morning, to jazz up the rest of their day. In a world impacted by anthropause, meaning the dramatic reduction in human activity due to C-19, Barcelona’s famed Gran Teatre del Liceu recently celebrated their reopening by performing Puccini’s Crisantemi concerto to a full-house audience of plants from a local nursery. It is reported that the ‘planted’ audience was as conceived by Spanish artist Eugenio Ampudia who, like many around the world, was greatly inspired by and drawn to the healing powers of nature; “I heard many more birds singing. And the plants in my garden and outside growing faster, and, without a doubt, I thought that maybe I could now relate in a much intimate way with people and nature”, Ampudia enthused of his inspiration. Given that it is possible to listen to plants and trees making music thanks to bio-sonification – technology converting bio-rhythms into beats and waves -, the possibility of listening to an organized concert of ‘foliaged friends’ in the not-too-distant future may not be far-fetched. Research indicates that our ‘green friends’ enjoy listening to classical music and hence must have been silently rooting for the UceLi quartet. Each species has its own aesthetic universe – sometimes these universes meet. David Rothenberg refers to ‘inter-species music’, citing his unique experience of performing music with birds, cicadas and whales. The music, he adds, made by a human and a nightingale together, is somewhere in-between the world of people and birds, a magical space which is fleeting but also very powerful. Through years of such inter-species concerts, Rothenberg feels a close connect being forged with species in nature which, perhaps, is perceived by animals and birds as well. A nightingale sings across the night but, significantly, it leaves a space for someone else to perform, interspersed with its own singing. Birds and animals do not choose to be alone, singing in quiet places with no one around. They appreciate a whole world of sound just as humans do. Music from the natural world instills a keener understanding of the ecosystem with our place in it, other beings that share it, and the seasons that shape us all.
We hear climate change in the sounds of the intensifying wind and rain storms around us, in the breaking and falling of trees, the sounds of more frequent forest fires and the terrifying sounds of floods. We hear climate change in the changing soundscapes of where we travel and live, as some species vanish, taking their sounds with them. Climate change is ensuring that our world never sounds the same again.
But nature’s music also touches a deeper place within us. It gives us – as great art always does – both bewildering questions and comforting answers. When we hear a bird trill, a dolphin click its call, or crickets chirp in unison as dusk falls, we become keenly aware of a mystery around us. That mystery is life, which poses to us its own questions – who are we? Why are we here? What should our existence mean? Through millennia, humans faced these questions and found inspiring answers in nature’s music, which murmurs, amidst breeze, birds and rainfall, that you and I are not alone. Nature’s sounds emphasize we humans are part of its great plan, sharing the Earth with other forms of life, many of which communicate with us as well. This is why birds sing around us human beings – they know we share this Earth and this life, of mysteries and love, sorrows and calmness, with them. We are in this together, they seem to say, and this is one reason why nature’s sounds are perceived to be so reassuring.
Alas, nature’s music is changing now. With hundreds of bird species endangered, nearly half the insect species facing extinction and seasons themselves changing as the earth’s air and oceans heat, environmentalists stress in despair that climate change is altering the way our world sounds. This is a change we must put a stop to, to stave off the loneliness of the Anthropocene. Time to cherish nature’s sounds, for it is only when we humans hear nature’s music that we are in harmony, with life and ourselves.
We are in the midst of unprecedented times, with a raging pandemic setting off far-reaching disruptions and enforcing adjustment to a new normal. In consonance with changes everywhere, the learning exercise is moving from a straight line (learning first in schools and colleges and then applying that same learning throughout one’s work), to a continuum of lifelong learning (learning and application of that learning in several cycles of continuous personal evolution), necessitating a massive overhaul of the ecosystem around us. K-12 schools have to be enabled to create lifelong learners. Once they create lifelong learners, the learning curve is programmed to go from simply learn to learn, learn to unlearn, and learn to relearn, in a process that will go on for decades. Digital learning and virtual classrooms have become the new normal way of imparting education, likely to enlarge into dual mode combining both real and virtual classroom sessions. People are living longer, occasional threat of a pandemic notwithstanding; their professional lives are up against unexpected complexities. At least four or five career options, traversing through distinctly different jobs, are explored during the tenure of productive years. All of that would compel the need to learn on a continuum and learn on a continual basis, leading to challenging imperative of learning just in case, vis-à-vis learning just in time. Learning just in case is about learning everything one can, which could be potentially used in later situations. Learning just in time is about learning exactly what is required in differing contexts. To switch to that philosophy, one must be a lifelong learner. Absent knowing how to learn to learn, it is not possible to switch to learning in a just-in-time paradigm.
Individuals and nation states are withdrawing more and more into themselves in the present de-globalizing world. “People are divided racially, religiously, politically, economically, and this division is fragmentation. It is bringing about great chaos in the world. There is the spreading violence of man against man… This is what is happening; and the responsibility of the educator is really very great. He is concerned in all these schools to bring about a good human being who has a feeling of global relationship, who is not nationalistic, regional, separate, religiously clinging to the old dead traditions, which really have no value at all. The responsibility of the educator becomes more and more serious, more and more committed, more and more concerned with the education of his students”, opined J Krishnamurti long years ago. If the teacher and student lose their deep connect with nature, to the trees, to the rolling waves of the sea, each will certainly lose his relationship with humanity.
Humanism and a sense of fair play are clearly on the wane in the field of international relations. The 21stC was generally deemed to be an Asian century holding the promise of peace and prosperity but it is apparently descending into a spectre of Wolf Warriors arraying menacingly around territorial borders of countries. Years ago, political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously coined the phrase, “the end of history”, predicting the triumph of western liberal democracy post the decline of communism, but sometime later, swept by winds of change, he relapsed into a slow but sure recant. Fukuyama now envisions a grand decoupling – at first economic and then political – between the China model and liberal western democratic model with serious implications for global stability. India is beginning to discern the full implications of that prediction as China’s power-obsessed leadership finds it increasingly hard to resist the lure of a bygone era where the arbitrariness of a regime or quirkiness of an individual could alter the course of geopolitics or the destiny of a nation. China’s bellicose assertions and brazen encroachment beyond borders of neighbouring lands and waters stem from an autocratic hubris clearly set for a speedy implosion, as no construct built wholly on opacity, political illegitimacy and a thorough disregard for an ethical rule-based world order can withstand the human yearning for freedom and harmony. The liberal democratic order espoused by India accommodates diversity, dissent and non-conformity, freedom of thought and action; non-conformism and liberal ethos fuel the spirit and allow imagination a free rein. The result is spurt in creativity and blossoming of human ingenuity; whereas all such urges are mostly snuffed out by rigours of a totalitarian system mandating conformity and unfailing compliance.
The discovery that the universe had a beginning fourteen billion years ago has dramatically changed how we see our place in the cosmos. We now know that we are all part of a vast unfolding cosmic process that had a beginning, and that is apparently headed somewhere. We know we are going somewhere because the mysterious beginning of this process rung in with a monumental, creative leap from primordial nothingness to the dramatic emergence of energy and matter, and, with that, the beginning of time itself.
Around ten billion years later, the miracle of life emerged from seemingly dead matter. And then around four billion years thereafter, the biggest and most significant leap forward occurred with the emergence of mind. Developing the capacity to think, to conceive, to imagine, the universe became able to bear witness to itself.
We are on a moving train that is in a perpetual process of complexification. The universe comes to life and becomes conscious through us. Our brains have evolved a highly developed capacity for consciousness and deep interiority.
From both a spiritual and scientific perspective, we recognize this universal creative unfolding as a virtually infinite process of becoming, with no end in sight. We recognize this process is one unbroken, unfolding, interdependent, unimaginably complex happening that never ends and which perpetually reaches beyond itself, as a quest for the ultimate reality, the unity of existence beyond endless pluralities of manifestation. Science usually concerns real nature of the physical universe within space time causality. In its parallel quest for ultimate reality, physical sciences are crossing the barriers of physics, entering the domain of metaphysics.
Scientific materialism, dating from Newton, Descartes or Laplace, had been a study of matter with atoms as the building block, essentially separate from mind or subjective observations. From this standpoint, Max Planck thought, “Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature… Every advance in knowledge brings us face to face with the mystery of our own being”.
Consciousness is emerging as the indispensable factor in quantum physics and neurophysiology. Max Planck held that matter is derived from consciousness. Schrodinger said that consciousness is the real substratum of all matter and it is always singular. It has no location and uses brain as the receptor mechanism. The wave equation of Schrodinger represents a world of multidimensional reality and validates that the world is a projection of mind.
Explorations into mystery of the universe have become a spiritual passion with many. The traditional matter and matter, mind and creation and creator differentiation stands fused in a holistic background of all pervading consciousness contemplated in non-dualistic spirituality. Science could ultimately emerge as the science of consciousness in tune with the essence of spirituality. A journey towards such an exalted state of awareness as a liberating goal, may begin with making friends across various cultural and social borders as a part of the ‘spirituality of friendship’. In our wondrously interconnected world, spiritual growth in the present times is best measured not only within religious and national territories, but also between them. One of the greatest signs of spiritual maturity is when we have discovered the freedom, ease and ability to connect with those who think, believe, eat, clothe and live quite differently from us.
The strangest thing about the emotion called love, which ennobles those giving and receiving it, is that it is often born as a response to its polar opposite, hatred, the virulent and vicious cancer of the spirit. The medieval alchemists were widely believed to transmute base metals, like lead, into gold. The physical transmutation, however, was a metaphor used by alchemists to draw a veil over their real quest, which was to find the ‘elixir of life’, to make a substance called the ‘philosopher’s stone’, and transform our worldly devices and desires into the gold of spiritual enlightenment. Just a few of days back, my home town experienced a similar alchemy at work, transmuting leaden sentiments into altruistic gold, when a poor woman afflicted by hepatitis was in critical condition in a local hospital requiring liver transplant for survival, a pricey procedure way beyond the widowed woman’s affordability in spite of having a willing organ donor in her daughter. The daughter’s heart-wrenching appeal for help met with an overwhelming public response resulting in inflow of funds that in addition to covering the medical cost would provide a surplus for her future needs. The Greco-Christian term described this love as Agape, to distinguish it from romantic, familial or patriotic love. Agape is the love that celebrates the indivisible oneness of all humanity, regardless of religious, racial, gender and regional divides. This creedless, borderless love that springs spontaneously is the closest one can get to an intimation of that which is divine.
The making of friends across borders – of religion, culture, nation, caste, gender, race, class – enables one to enter into a unique, yet hospitable space of unfamiliarity, similar to entering a divine space, for the divine or depth dimension of reality is essentially unfamiliar and cannot easily be manipulated into convenient categories of thought and expression. This space may seem quaint or even disconcerting at first, but reassured by the presence and accompaniment of a friend, one begins to feel gradually and gently at home.
The common humanity shared by all cannot be contained or divided by the several artificially constructed boundaries created over time. The spirituality of cross-border friendship is based on the deeper reality of a common human identity and kinship. National and other forms of social borders are contrived and fluid, and unlikely to stand the test of time. Friendship triggers the erosion of artificial margins, and provides a fertile soil for promoting inclusiveness and goodwill as opposed to the disquieting power of divisiveness. These relationships not only enable our entry into another human world, but also call our own limited horizon of meaning and purpose into question. From such relations, mysterious and magical new worlds promise to emerge: of mutual understanding and productive ways of being and relating. There is a new freedom to relativize or question one’s own ways, and to recognize that other ways of being human are also legit. These relations also prompt a questioning of the violence that lies embedded in each other’s histories and social practices, providing an implicit opening for a mutual supplication of forgiveness for past excesses of each other’s forebears, and thereby consigning iniquities of the past to history’s dustbins. More positively, such close interactions enrich and embellish old customs with newer ways of expression and celebration, reconstructing a new world of social relationships based on reinterpretation of old identities. Immigration and exchange of people and ideas led to growth and enterprise around the globe across millennia. The human race did not attain its current modernity and sophistication by being insular. Insularity, fostering xenophobia and nativism, also degenerating into colourism, racism and casteism, translates into dumbing down of societies. By forging equations across the spectrum of communities and cultures, we realize the potential of becoming more human and integrated ourselves, offering ourselves as radiators of bonhomie and happiness.
Everything that exists in Nature has its place and relevance therein. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem ‘Fable’ refers to a quarrel between a mountain, high and mighty, and a little squirrel, nestling in one of the trees on the mountain. It ends with the squirrel saying, “If I am not as large as you, / You are not so small as I, / And not half as spry, / Talents differ, all is well and wisely put; / If I cannot carry forests on my back, / Neither can you crack a nut”. Everything and everyone has a role to play in the total scheme of things – the mountain and the squirrel, the clouds high up and the dust down below, the tall trees and the tiny weeds growing beneath them. Similarly, every man and woman possesses different capacities that are necessary and useful in their respective spheres and positions in life. Nothing in Nature is redundant or superfluous. Nature’s resources are meant for prudent use, and not for exploitation and mindless consumption. Each one of us has individual genius and capacity for work and by making use of them, we have to try to contribute our best to the commonweal.
Emerson’s poem suggests the futility of any sense of pride over our positions in life, the talents we possess or the nature of work we do. To a keen mind, diversity of the physical world, human talents and capabilities appear to converge towards Oneness. A quick analogy is that of a colour-wheel, which is a flat disc whereon stripes of the seven colours are painted. When the wheel is spun at high speed, only a pure whiteness with no hint of any of the rainbow colours is visible. As the wheel gains speed, it is amazing to see the colours vanishing into whiteness, bringing in the realization that white is the only hue, which through a process of dispersion scatters into different colours of the rainbow. Each colour has its own wavelength. As light passes through different materials, those substances reflect light at various wavelengths, giving the appearance of myriad hues, whereas there is actually only one colour, that of pure light. Similarly, if we look at humanity, we see on the outer surface a variety of people with different hair, eye and skin colours. While appearances may vary, the underlying colour of all human beings is the same. That colour is light. Our soul is our true essence. The variances among us are only due to the different vestures in which the light of the soul is embodied. The varying external features are only seen at the physical level. When we develop a spiritual consciousness, we experience the same inner light within each person, perceiving unity of the soul.
The need, therefore, is to break free of sectarianism and separatism, move out of belief systems that create division, destruction, conflict and chaos. We have to make a paradigm shift in our collective consciousness. Way back in 1937, in a message at the Parliament of Religions, Rabindranath Tagore wrote, “Curiously enough, it is our religion that zealously maintains the inner barriers that separate and often antagonize nations and people, their respective votaries not even hesitating blasphemously to take God’s own name to humiliate or morally injure their fellow beings who happen to belong to a different community”. The compulsion is to move beyond limited mindsets and open up to merge with integrated wholeness, towards an awakened and ascending conscious level. For consciousness is all-pervading and all-embracing. And, irrespective of nomenclature, God is Supreme Consciousness. An elevated or awakened consciousness enables the connect with non-dual, non-divisible cosmic consciousness where synchronicity of universal oneness and inclusivity prevail. The Ishopanishad states, “He who sees all creatures in himself and himself in all creatures no longer remains concealed”. Through analysis, experiments and explorations, quantum physicists, too, appear to arrive at the same conclusion. According to panpsychism, every animate and inanimate object has consciousness. Consciousness is an all-encompassing energy present in all spheres; so it can change perceptions. Inner evolution is required to achieve higher state of consciousness, where Atman, soul, attains union with Brahman, cosmic consciousness. The infinite dynamism of awakened consciousness can become a unifying force in the face of any kind of diversity.
When the barriers of you and I are surmounted and pure consciousness takes over, our interpretation of life and living changes. Judgmental mind, limiting beliefs, contradictions and complexities make way for acceptance, compassion and understanding for a more cohesive world. Pure existence is where one is in all and all is one. Sage Ashtavakra explained, “You are not the body; rather you are pure Consciousness, the knower of all that you witness. The result of this knowledge will be peace”.
The concept of oneness is further amplified in the Sanskrit word, ekamevadwitiya, emphasizing the defining attribute of the supreme. It means One and only One, with no second. Extended further, it also connotes an important characteristic of every individual human being. Each individual is unique and no two individuals are alike. But here ends the similarity. Whereas the supreme is One, infinite, omniscient, all-pervasive and omnipotent, human beings are physically many, finite and dependent on others for sustenance, nay, even existence. While each human being is irreplaceably exclusive, none can claim or ever achieve complete independence from the collective called human society and the wider environment. Describing the unbreakable bond between the individual and society, Tagore said that “Emancipation from bondage of the soil / Is no freedom for the tree”. If I am the tree, society is the soil that supports and nourishes me. There is no life for the individual outside society and there is no societal progress without assured security and well-being of every individual. It is a mutual interdependence that manifests starkly in a Black Swan event that calamitously threatens both individual and society. Faced with mortality, there is protection only in mutual dependence encapsulated in the phrase, ‘each for all, all for each’. The spectre of destruction of lives that is presently playing out in the form of Covid-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented situation worldwide with consequences that are severe and inherently painful, driving home the powerlessness of mighty countries and continents against a lowly microorganism, and the humbling realization that, at the end of the day, humans are merely biological organisms in the vast chain of existence, deriving sustenance from wellness and equilibrium across the cosmic web.
The world must now come together as One. When asked why as a healthy individual he volunteered to participate in the corona virus vaccine trial in Washington state, Neal Browning enthused in a spirit of reaching out, “It’s to make this end as quickly as possible for the rest of the world”. Not only does the virus not stop at national borders, its antidote can only be found by international teamwork. Not just research on vaccine but even treatment protocols are largely outcomes of global co-operation networks. The well-being of all depends on how every individual behaves; each person can become a potential carrier of the virus, and also a preventer of its spread and thereby a protector of others. Catastrophic events do not recognize boundaries, which are both artificial and fairly recent in the planet’s history and time-span. Dodging the next apocalyptic meteor or the next civilization-blitzing pathogen by a particular country is not a selfish move but constitutes a protective act for all extant creatures and structures, because destructive global events are not selective, striking one nation and sparing another. Walls and quarantines are temporary. The future lies in greater, not lesser globalization to successfully counter a rougue pathogen or a stray meteor, or an equally destructive religious dogma spewing poison and radicalizing human minds. Situations, where the human being is positioned in tandem with life-threatening disease and its antidote, appear rarely in history. It may well be a laser-pointer to the current crisis as an opportunity, indeed an imperative, to promote three game-changing ideals. First, global solidarity based on awareness that we are now living in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world; second, realigning societies in ways that recognize and guarantee the essential equality and dignity of people everywhere; may the closing of national borders be a temporary measure to fight the pandemic, without allowing it to lead to erection of walls, greater insularity, xenophobia, stigmatization of victims or ideological closing of minds. And third, may the world shift irrevocably towards living wholly in harmony with Nature, eliminating violence and extending compassion not only to other humans but to all forms of life. That we are all in this planet together is not a romantic notion; it is reality.
“Velicham Dukkham aanu unni / tamasallo sukha pradam”, meaning ‘light is woe my little one, darkness is comfortable’, figuratively denoting the pain linked to worldly knowledge and relative bliss in its ignorance. Simple, yet deeply philosophical, these lines from ‘Irupathaam Noottaandinte Ithihaasam’ (Epic of the 20th Century), a Malayalam poem written by Akkitham Achuthan Namboothiri in 1952, are still relevant in the present day and age. The general rung of people are susceptible to play of egoistic pursuits and resultant pleasure and pain. The poet holds that, being illusory, it may be highly rewarding to maintain appropriate detachment from worldly knowledge continually defiled by complex ego-driven life of the sophisticated urbanite and gauche rustic haunted by identity born desires.
As compared to inner world of the self, the external world of forms, identities, dualities and divisiveness is bristling with sorrow and angst, increasingly becoming conflicted, fragmented, tense and polarized. “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”, the world is one family, proclaimed the Maha Upanishad. Regrettably, it remains a scriptural tenet largely used as a pious declaration sans intent, as communities, scattered around the face of planet earth, regressed into tribal, regional, religious and ethnic formations vying with one another for supremacy and thereby extending spheres of influence. As per recent turn of events, following the example of Assam, other Indian states are expected to consider a register of citizenship that will determine who is a native and who is an outsider. Across the globe, countries are facing waves of mass migration caused by prolonged civil strife, abject poverty and several other severe hardships. Scientists have inferred that these migratory movements are a case of proto-history repeating itself.
That the entire human race has sprung from a common root, located in what is today’s Africa, has long been established by geneticists who have followed the spoor of the DNA of the so-called ‘Mitochondrial Eve’, the mother of all humankind. A group of scientists have presently identified her precise location: the region that spans Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Now an arid zone, the area abounded in lush wetlands which 200,000 years ago gave rise to the earliest ancestors of homo sapiens. Between 120,000 and 110,000 years ago, two major migrations took place, one to the north-east, and the other to the south-west, leaving behind a residual population of indigenes. These findings give an entirely new mension as to what ought to be defined as ‘home’ and what as ‘outside’ for totality of the human species, and, prior to the designation of frontiers, nation states and setting up of travel-documentary control, provide the ‘inside’ story of humanity.
Is there no end to mankind’s obsessive propensity to create divisions and power structures based on partisan considerations in total disregard to overwhelming evidence of common ancestry? Are religions, specially the Semitic ones, only promoting vested interests, keen on institutionalizing themselves and expanding their base through rampant proselytization, euphemistically termed ‘harvesting of souls’ and thus causing discord in societies? The systematic and cleverly camouflaged religious conversions of today are reminiscent of the notorious Inquisitions of yore that swept Italy, France, Spain, Peru, Mexico, Portugal and Goa forcing Jewish anusim, Saracens, coastal inhabitants across India and other parts of Asia to Catholicism, revealing the real story of these exercises having hardly anything to do with genuine Christ-consciousness but stemming from the fear of being overpowered by the then growing Jewish population. The Jews were a threat to catholic monarchs who saw the Inquisition as a way to eliminate the source of one of their biggest problems. Furthermore, in the fifteenth century the territory of present-day Spain was at war with Italy and the catholic monarchs had recently re-conquered Granada, making poor economic conditions widespread among majority of the population. Since the Jewish community enjoyed a higher socio-economic status, the catholic monarchs feared a popular uprising; the expulsion or elimination of Jews helped to not only overcome the problem but also to gain access to their wealth. Religious missionaries and bigots perpetrated the same deception, loot and power-mongering extending to other regions in the past, continuing into the present.
The various religions can peacefully co-exist as long as there is respect and amity between them. The starting point of discord and unrest is the assertion of one god being the only true one to the exclusion of all other, deriding others as kafirs and heathens and spreading hatred; each religion consolidating itself into groups and, instead of remaining within confines of homes and places of worship, stretching uncouthly across social and political spheres to operate as power centers, scheming for growth by enlisting numbers through devious conversions and radicalization.
Religions have five distinctly different, though not watertight, domains: rituals, mythology, ethics, philosophy and spirituality. In terms of anatomical metaphor, the external body of any religion lies in rituals and dogma and its operating limbs are in mythology; while its backbone consists of ethical principles, its brain is in philosophy and its heart in spirituality. Rituals, dogma and mythology are dependent on faith of the followers; ethics and philosophy are based on reasoning and rationality, while spirituality flowers in esoteric and experiential wisdom. Hence religions are simultaneously based on faith, intellect and wisdom.
Mutually complementary rituals and mythology are confused by most people as the essence of religion and they rarely desire to venture beyond these two elementary means to an end, often sliding to fanaticism. Since these are based on faith of the followers, religious bigotry and fanaticism also emerge from same faith blinded by dogma and self-serving motives. It is here that Swami Vivekananda advocated that fanaticism be countered by open-mindedness progressing towards ultimate realization.
The backbone of religion lies in its ethical principles designed for self-development and peaceful co-existence in society, enabling followers to be better humans leading lives of honesty, humility, non-violence and benevolence. The philosophical brain of religion concerns existential enigma of creation and the creator, encompassing one’s eternal quest of origin, identity, destination and purpose, setting off queries such as who am I, where have I come from, where am I headed and what is the purpose of life?
The heart of religion is the home of spirituality which is experiential in nature, based as it is on esoteric experience. Spirituality is the culmination, not as much a process of knowing as becoming, attaining oneness with the singular cosmic identity, through infinite expansion of consciousness, merging individual self into cosmic, experiencing divine love, ecstasy and inner harmony amidst diversity of creation. These observations resonate in the Biblical, “I and my Father are One”, and Upanishadic “Aham Brahmasmi”, “Tat tvam asi”, “Prajnanam Brahma”, “Ayam Atma Brahma” expressing the ultimate oneness of the individual and supreme consciousness.
Given the strangle-hold of religions and religious divides plaguing most societies, it would appear that the eventual solution requires a new breed of evangelists to wean people away from the misleading light of ‘worldly knowledge’ doled out by religious dogmas, outdated customs and obscurantist forces. Such a drive cannot be expected from the powers that be aiming to preserve vested interests by somehow maintaining status quo. The young everywhere must take the initiative, in a spirit of ‘evangelism marketing’, explaining to the world how newer thought process can improve lives by ushering in the scientific approach to tackling life’s challenges on the personal and professional fronts. What does it mean to be scientific? The question is best answered by quoting Hasan Ibn al-Haytham, the 10th C Arab astronomer and physicist: “The duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and… attack it from every side. He should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination of it, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency”.
The scientific method calls for inquisition, not the draconian measure of bygone era, but a neo-inquisition focused on delving deeply or searchingly into the nature of things. Critical examen that subjects everything to thorough analysis. Human emotions often compromise with objectivity in arriving at prudent decisions when it comes to matters of importance. The scientific bent of mind facilitates better decisions and provides a rational outlook towards life’s conundrums. A scientific person questions the status quo, leading to innovation both in technology as well as social sphere, serving as engine for social and economic growth. It runs contrary to the top-down edicts of conventional religions, charged with emotion and couched in rhetoric, and mindlessly applied “to everything in life, even to those things which are capable of intellectual inquiry and observation”. While religion tends to close the mind and produce intolerance, credulity, superstition, emotionalism, irrationalism and a “temper of a dependent, unfree person”, a scientific temper enables a free human being, steeped in objectivity and fostering creativity and progress. The spread of scientific approach would be accompanied by a shrinking of the domain of religion, and “the exciting adventure of fresh and never ceasing discoveries, of new panoramas opening out and new ways of living, adding to life’s fullness and ever making it richer and more complete”. Inculcating a scientific temper among citizens is a part of democratization of society. As Buddha expounded, “Nothing is infallible. Nothing is binding forever. Everything is subject to inquiry and examination”.
While political parties and religious groups are vociferous about rights of citizens under the Indian Constitution, there is a deafening silence all around when it comes to constitutional duties and responsibilities of citizens. Says Article 51A(h), “It shall be the duty of every citizen … to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.” The term “scientific temper” is uniquely Indian, formulated by Jawaharlal Nehru. In his book The Discovery of India, Nehru says that scientific temper is “… the refusal to accept anything without testing and trial, the capacity to change previous conclusions in the face of new evidence, the reliance on observed fact and not on pre-conceived theory”. Science and scientific temper are not synonymous. Scientific temper is a way of thinking critically and rationally, the ability to question what is told to us, not being satisfied with an answer just because it is uttered by or with authority. Scientific temper is something that all of us possess and is as much a social and political tool as it is a scientific one. It is, as Nehru said, “… the spirit of the free man”, a thought that finds lyrical expression in Rabindranath Tagore’s oft-quoted poem: “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, / where knowledge is free. / Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls. / Where words come out from the depth of truth, / where tireless striving stretches its arms toward perfection. / Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit. / Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever widening thought and action. / In to that heaven of freedom, my father, LET MY COUNTRY AWAKE!”
A giant eagle is soaring several thousand feet up the sky on one of its routine flights, settling down to a glide to conserve energy and occasionally flapping its ageing wings to maintain altitude. The creatures and materials in the distant earth below are not as defined as it used to be to its once sharp eyes some twenty summers ago. Yet there is nothing like a daily relish of uncluttered wide open skies, reliving memories of more zestful flights of bygone years that opened up skyscapes of shifting hues and new vistas of freedom. The reverie is broken, all of a sudden, by an unusual object, sighted across the horizon, making a fast approach towards its trajectory. As it advances closer, the shape gains in clarity. It is the Pushpak Viman, the celestial aircraft bedecked with flowers, constructed by Vishvakarma, the divine architect, to serve as aerial vehicle of the gods. As the eagle is within striking distance of the Pushpak, it is able to hear a woman crying out for help, struggling to extricate herself from the hydra-headed demon Ravan. The demon is speeding away, abducting the woman, identified as Rama’s wife Sita. The eagle intercepts the aerial vehicle and assails Ravan with its talons in a valiant attempt to rescue Sita from the demon’s clutches but is unfortunately vanquished by the mighty foe who chops off one of its wings in the mid-air combat. The heavily bleeding bird flutters down, eventually falling on a hilltop awaiting its end. As it lay dying, Rama passes by, in search of his wife. The grievously injured bird, before dying, communicates to Rama about Sita being taken by Ravan who was heading to his kingdom in Lanka (present-day Sri Lanka).
The narrative heretofore is an episode from the Indian epic Ramayana and the giant eagle is Jatayu, a friend of Rama. The epic is etched deeply in the minds of a great majority of Indians through stories spelt out by family elders, depictions in performing art forms such as Kathakali, and television serials. An infuriatingly cold, precise, ratiocinating engine of a brain fuelled by a wholly egocentric passion may vainly try to aver that aerial vehicles originated out of early twentieth century development of the Wright Flyer and subsequent refinements thereof and, hence, the aircraft in the story a figment of someone’s imagination. Delving deeper, however, even the sceptic is bound to warm up to the realization that universe in its entirety cannot be divined merely through rationale but by combining rationale with devotion. As when gazing at the flamboyance of a flower; while rationale understands what the flower is, devotion occurs in appreciation of the flower and sense of wonderment at its beauty. Rationale operates in the realm of reality whereas devotion is the quintessence of mythos arising from early history, often progressing through fantasy, and transcending limits of the known. Hence myth is more overpowering than reality. Lauri Honko, the Finnish folklorist, puts it comprehensively when he says, “Myth is a story of the gods, a religious account of the beginning of the world, the creation, the fundamental events, the exemplary deeds of the gods as a result of which the world, nature and culture were created together with all parts thereof and given their order, which still obtains. A myth expresses and confirms society’s religious values and norms, it provides a pattern of behavior to be imitated, testifies to the efficacy of ritual with its practical ends and establishes the sanctity of cult”. Similar to literary cycle emerging from Matters of Britain, France and Rome, Jatayu wings its way into eastern cosmology from the Matter of Bharat Varsha, and symbolizes an era when humans and animals cared for one another and subsisted in perfect harmony with nature.
The hilly region, comprising the rocks on which the injured Jatayu fell, came to be known as Jatayumangalam, meaning the ‘auspicious place of Jatayu’. Jatayumangalam in due course corrupted to Chadayamangalam, as the place is known at present. Located in the southern Indian state of Kerala, around 38 kms away from Kollam city, it is reachable in about four hours drive from my home in Kochi. The tranquil beauty of the region inspired Rajiv Anchal, a famed sculptor and art director, into conceiving a giant sculpture of Jatayu atop the hill. The execution of the project took him ten years, to erect the sculpture on the hill crest at an altitude of 1200 feet. Linked to the highway by exquisitely laid out roads, signage, parking lots, helipad, food courts, amusement centre, it is connected by a cableway offering panoramic views as the cable car winds its way up the hill elevating visitors to the marvelous work of art. In artistically recreating an episode from the celebrated epic, the complex, sprawled end-to-end over twenty six hectares, has transformed a rugged country side into a spectacular feast for the eyes, capturing minds with an intense resonance of avian chivalry that met with a fatal end while trying to protect a woman’s honour, an event reverberating through corridors of history and lore. Lying flat on its back with wings spread across 150 feet, while stretching 200 feet from tail-feathers to head, and talons rising 70 feet into the air (see pics featured here), the Jatayu of the epic towers over the verdant expanses of Chadayamangalam, making it the world’s largest sculpture of a bird.
Eagle occupies a significant place in the world’s mythologies. In the Rigveda, Garuda (Sanskrit, meaning a giant eagle like bird) is a divine eagle, hailed as a personification of valour, one who is fast, capable of shape-shifting into any form to enter anywhere. Garuda is the vehicle of Vishnu, who has made him into an iconic symbol of king’s duty and power, an insignia of royalty and dharma. Referred to as Garula in Pali, it is the golden winged bird in Buddhist texts, often shown as sitting and listening to the sermons of Buddha. Garuda is the national emblem of Thailand and Indonesia. In Greek mythology, Aetos Dios was a giant golden eagle which served as personal messenger of Zeus. Once a king named Periphas it was, whose virtuous rule was so celebrated that he was honoured like a god. Zeus, in anger, arising probably out of jealousy, smote him with a thunderbolt, but Apollo intervened and transformed the king into an eagle and set him beside the throne of Zeus, who later sent the eagle to carry the handsome youth Ganymedes to heaven to serve as cupbearer of the gods
Viewing works of art is often thought of as an indoor experience, shuffling through museums and galleries to immerse in the beauty of paintings and sculpture. Yet Jatayu Earth Centre, as the site is described, is an affirmation that some of the best art must have an outdoor setting, blending seamlessly with nature. The allure of art and scenic environment is a delectable combination enabling viewers to mill the grounds and fan out to individual spaces spending time in quiet contemplation, to eventually return with mental images framed in sepia brown and lush green tones of Chadayamangalam.
“Rise above sectional interests and private ambitions…Pass from matter to spirit. Matter is diversity; spirit is light, life and unity”, was the clarion call of poet, philosopher, academic and politician Muhammad Iqbal, widely known as Allama Iqbal, from an undivided India of the first half of twentieth century. Further, as if caught up in a fervour of patriotism and anti-colonial ire, he went on to wax poetical with, “Sāre jahāṉ se acchā, Hindositāṉ hamārā / Ham bulbuleṉ haiṉ is kī, yih gulsitāṉ hamārā / G̱ẖurbat meṉ hoṉ agar ham, rahtā hai dil wat̤an meṉ / Samjho wuhīṉ hameṉ bhī dil ho jahāṉ hamārā / Parbat wuh sab se ūṉchā, hamsāyah āsmāṉ kā / Wuh santarī hamārā, wuh pāsbāṉ hamārā / Godī meṉ kheltī haiṉ is kī hazāroṉ nadiyāṉ / Guls̱ẖan hai jin ke dam se ras̱ẖk-i janāṉ hamārā / Ai āb-i rūd-i Gangā! wuh din haiṉ yād tujh ko? / Utrā tire kināre jab kārwāṉ hamārā / Maẕhab nahīṉ sikhātā āpas meṉ bair rakhnā / Hindī haiṉ ham, wat̤an hai Hindositāṉ hamāra…..”, roughly translating to: “Better than the entire world, is our India, / We are its nightingales, and it is our garden abode / If we are in an alien place, the heart remains in the homeland, / Know us to be only there where our heart is. / That tallest mountain, that shade-sharer of the sky, / It is our sentry, it is our watchman / In its lap where frolic thousands of rivers, / Whose vitality makes our garden the envy of Paradise. / O the flowing waters of the Ganges, do you remember that day / When our caravan first disembarked on your waterfront? / Religion does not teach us to bear animosity among ourselves / We are of Hind, our homeland is Hindustan…” Such an outpouring of patriotism notwithstanding, it would appear ironic that it was the selfsame Iqbal who played an influential role in sowing the seeds of partition, leading to violent secession that forced millions of people to embark on separate ways, carving out regions to eventually constitute new identity.
Into such a cauldron of conflicting politics, struggle for freedom and subsequently the herculean task of stabilizing a free country’s governance, stepped in the man of clear vision and iron will proclaiming that “The main task before India today is to consolidate herself into a well-knit and united power”. He was none other than Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel, who played a stellar role in the country’s struggle for independence and went on to become a founding father of the Republic of India, steer the nation and guide its political integration as the first Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister of India. Fondly called Sardar, meaning “chief” in Hindi,, he led the challenge of forging a united India, successfully integrating those British colonial provinces, that had been “allocated” to India, into the newly independent nation. Besides those provinces under direct British rule, around 565 self-governing princely states had been released from British suzerainty by the Indian Independence Act of 1947. Through tact and coercion, Patel managed to secure every princely state to accede to India because his commitment to national integration was total and uncompromising. These efforts earned him the sobriquets, ‘Iron Man of India’ and the ‘Bismarck of India’.
For having established the all-India services system comprising, inter alia, the Indian Administrative Service and the Indian Police Service, he is remembered as the patron saint of India’s civil servants. Describing the all-India services as the country’s “Steel Frame” in his address to the probationers of these services, he urged them to be guided by the spirit of service in day-to-day administration, maintaining utmost impartiality and incorruptibility, which is as relevant today as it was then. “A civil servant cannot afford to, and must not, take part in politics. Nor must he involve himself in communal wrangles. To depart from the path of rectitude in either of these respects is to debase public service and to lower its dignity,” he had cautioned them on 21st April 1947. He, more than anyone else in post-independence India, realized the crucial role that civil services play in administering a country, in not merely maintaining law and order, but running the institutions that provide the cementing factor to a society. He, more than any other contemporary of his, was aware of the imperative of a stable administrative structure as the linchpin of a functioning polity. The present-day all-India administrative services owe their origin to the man’s sagacity. Speaking at the Constituent Assembly discussing the role of All-India Services, Patel observed, “There is no alternative to this administrative system… The Union will go, you will not have a united India if you do not have good All-India Service which has the independence to speak out its mind, which has sense of security that you will stand by your work… If you do not adopt this course, then do not follow the present Constitution. Substitute something else… these people are the instrument. Remove them and I see nothing but a picture of chaos all over the country”..
Given the background constituted by pre-cited profile of a man who gave it his all to forge a united India, it can be opined that the foremost attributes, in the context of countries as in individuals, are unity and integrity. A robust unity that sustains for all times, as “unity to be real must stand the severest strain without breaking”, which Hermann Hesse described as wisdom when he propounded that “wisdom is nothing but a preparation of the soul, a capacity, a secret art of thinking, feeling and breathing thoughts of unity at every moment of life”. Almost in metaphysical concord, is Paramahansa Yogananda’s statement that “The physical ego, the active consciousness in man, should uplift its body-identified self into unity with the soul, its true nature; it should not allow itself to remain mired in the lowly delusive strata of the senses and material entanglement”. Similar unity ought to inform nation states as enunciated by Yemi Osinbajo, “The most successful of the nations of the world are those who do not fall into the lure of secession but who, through thick and thin, forge unity in diversity”. Almost in consonance are the words of Lal Bahadur Shastri, “Our country has often stood like a solid rock in the face of common danger, and there is deep underlying unity which runs like a golden thread through all our seeming diversity”. In this regard, it is relevant to also quote Klaus Martin Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, “Europe has grown to 27 member states, encompassing an amazing diversity and richness. Some argue this is part of the problem. Europe is simply too big and culturally disparate to be managed properly. But look to India for an example of how social unity can be forged within a culturally, linguistically, and ethnically complex nation”.
The lives of Mohammed Iqbal and Vallabh Bhai Patel ran contemporaneously with Patel outliving Iqbal by a little more than a decade. The former was a poet-politician and the latter a statesman. Probably it was nature’s way of ensuring that forces of secession were deftly countered by impulses of unity and nation building.
Seven decades after his passing away in 1950, the country erects a befitting monument in honour of the man who epitomized unity, Vallabh Bhai Patel. Hailed as the Statue of Unity, the structure stands tall at a net height of 597 feet (or 182 metres, conforming to 182 seats in the Legislative Assembly of the Indian state of Gujarat), Set on a base of 190 feet, it soars upwards into the sky attaining an inclusive height of 797 feet making it . in both net and gross height, the tallest statue in the world, taller than China’s Spring Temple Buddha, the Statue of Liberty in New York, and the Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar Square. Located in a river island on Narmada facing the Sardar Sarovar Dam at Kevadiya colony, 100 kms south east of Vadodara in Patel’s home state of Gujarat, the monument was inaugurated on 31st October 2018. The other attributes of the structure, which I visited on 31st March 2019, are that it can withstand winds of up to 180 kmph and earthquakes measuring 6.5 on the Richter scale occurring at a depth of 10 kms and within a radius of 12 kms of the statue. The statue is divided into zones of which three are accessible to visitors. The first zone contains a memorial garden and museum. An adjoining audio-visual gallery features a short presentation on Patel and the tribal culture of the region. The concrete towers forming the legs of the statue are equipped with two lifts each of which can speed up 26 visitors in around thirty seconds to the viewing gallery in the third zone where at a time 200 people can enjoy the aerial view from its height of 153 metres. Relishing overview of surrounding landscape in the company of family friends, it was also for me a fusion of moments giving definition to new associations and relationships.
Sculpted by Ram Sutar, the statue is a marvelous work of art. The cost of USD 420 Mn has attracted criticism from a few sections of people slamming it as wasteful expenditure. The fitting answer to it is already visible in the pace of development of the entire area surrounding the monument and its beneficial impact on lives of people. Inspiring awe and a profound sense of the country’s history, the place is visited by several thousands of people every day. The ensuing financial returns will not only offset the project cost over a period of time but it will also have a multiplier effect in terms of boost to tourism and accelerated development. Towering amidst enormous diversity of people and cultures not only in India but also around the world, the iconic figure of Vallabh Bhai Patel serves as a colossal symbol of the strands of unity binding large nation states and larger conglomerations of smaller nations.
Most of us may presently be looking forward to making new beginnings, as this is the time when new goals are set and resolutions framed to eat healthier, exercise daily, change dysfunctional habits, augment assets, improve relationships and take good care of ourselves. Soon as decisions are made, the endeavour is to translate it into action. Some meet with success and others fail. A good number of those who fail keep trying, with a few of them becoming disillusioned in the process. It is widely believed that high achievers are a happy lot, yet the truth often is that most of them struggle with emptiness and meaninglessness, with the realization that despite setting and accomplishing many goals, something big is missing from their life. It is probably because their most coveted goals lack a deeper vision, based on incomplete self-knowledge and social conditioning. The overwhelming feeling may be that nothing has changed and, perhaps, nothing will change. A deeper reflection leads one to the comprehension that life is too big and the goals are too small to yield any significant transformation in one’s life as well as the lives of those around.
If there is an alternative, it may perhaps be for one to let go of a narrow outlook to envision the bigger landscape. Sufi mystic Rumi believed that there is an undiscovered deeper knowledge within us holding the key to bliss: “There are two kinds of intelligence: one acquired, as a child in school memorizes facts and concepts…..collecting information from the traditional sciences as well as new sciences…. There is another kind of tablet, one already completed and preserved inside you. This other intelligence does not turn yellow or stagnate. It’s fluid, and it doesn’t move from outside to inside through conduits of plumbing-learning. This second knowing is a fountainhead from within you, moving out”.
Anyone aspiring to move forward may, therefore, stop chasing particular and transitory goals, substituting it with comprehensive vision capable of refining and guiding life. The strongest, highest, perfect and most evolved version of oneself may be visualized in combination with an ideal life to open up a pathway to changes to be wrought in the present. As such awareness becomes keener, the more resolute will be the urge to sculpt the body, heart and mind to move closer to the ideal. In other words, one calls upon the highest ideal within, to shape oneself to perfection and transform into a new being through patience, perseverance and practice. Goals set around grand visions lend it the right direction and movement.
The structural connect to goals is through discipline. A discipline is a path for acquiring certain skills or learning. As with any discipline, from playing the violin to acoustics engineering, some people have an innate gift; but anyone can develop proficiency through practice. To practice a discipline is to be a lifelong learner. You never ‘arrive’; you spend your life mastering disciplines. You can never say you are enlightened. The more you learn, the more acutely you become aware of your ignorance and deficiencies. Thus a corporation cannot be excellent in the sense of having arrived at a permanent excellence; it is always in the state of practicing the disciplines of achieving higher product qualities, of creating better values for the customer or, conversely, sliding down the slope towards mediocrity.
Humans think in terms of anthropocentrism, seeing humans at the centre of activities. From the systems perspective, the human actor is part of the feedback process, not standing apart from it. This provides a profound shift in awareness. It allows us to see how we are continually influenced by and influencing our reality. Such shift in awareness is ardently advocated by ecologists in their exhortations that we see ourselves as part of nature, as recognized by many of the world’s great philosophical systems. For example, the Bhagavad Gita’s chastisement: “All actions are wrought by the qualities of nature only. The self, deluded by egoism, thinketh: ‘I am the doer”
The proposed shift in awareness progresses one to the realization that having more or doing more is not always better, even though the mind keeps chattering that when the whole world is chasing success, we might turn loser by being content with having less or doing less. According to Taoist sage Chuang Tzu, “Be all that heaven gave you, but act as though you have received nothing. Be empty, that is all”. He admonishes us to be full and empty at the same time by aligning ourselves with the universal life force. The way of the Tao does not demand undoing development, retiring from life and living as a hermit in the mountains. The only prescription is to de-clutter and simplify life, releasing mental conditioning that clouds thinking, becoming aware of the imperative to consume only in accordance with need, work only as much as one comfortably can and be content with whatever is ordained by the universe. The ensuing freedom to be is healing, unifying and enlightening, leading to a oneness with the universal life force. The vital life energy then flows smoothly within, conveying perfect physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.
In this connection, it is interesting to examine the theory of karma, meaning ‘action’, the moral law of cause and effect governing the future. The sum of a person’s actions in the present and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future existences. Karma is an energy created by willful action, through thoughts, words and deeds. The loop of karma binds us all and we remain entangled in it. How to stay away from getting trapped in the loop? Can a person circumvent the karmic loop by not doing anything at all? The reality is that avoidance or non-involvement is a huge multiplier of karma. Performing good or bad deeds has less to do with acquisition of karma than the confused intentions and desires preceding within the person that triggers everything that follows. It is as if one is coated by a glue that attracts the karmic dust. Over a period of time, the cumulative outcome is a mountain of karma that is bound to leave the person perplexed as to how to eliminate it. The solution is to remove the adhesive that binds, for the karmic mountain to crumble. It is attained, not through avoidance of action, but through conscious involvement; human desire can be limited or boundless. One sees the end of karmic path by rising above likes and dislikes, greed and possessiveness. If one’s desires, through dispassionate involvement and unwavering focus, are expansive and all-embracing, the bondage of karma withers away. The Akashi mudra practice in the yogic tradition entails focusing on nothing at all; it is simply an unwavering focus on empty space. The premise is that liberation does not depend on the object of your focus, but the focus itself. Since life itself is a process without an established purpose, it is only in absolute involvement in the process that its inherent value may unravel itself. Hence process is all, and the goal just a consequence.
On a personal note, the past year has been replete with travails as I was wrecked for several months together by health issues. It initially manifested as sleeplessness in the night and, if that was not bad enough, stretched to gnawing pain in the calf muscles on both legs. Exacerbating the situation further, there was burning sensation while urinating. I went around consulting doctors as an in and out patient in as many as four hospitals, shunting from a sleep clinic, to neurologist, urologist, back to neurologist and psychiatrist across a period four to five months. All kinds of tests and several rounds of medication were not leading to any relief till at last a neurologist, after doing an NCS and blood test, correctly diagnosed the problem as acute deficiency of sodium and Vitamin D. Following appropriate medication, I am more or less okay now. The only remaining concern is my dependence on sleeping pills to get the much needed sleep during night. I have to come out of this protocol with gradual reduction in dosage spread over, hopefully, another few months. In the last year, therefore, I have keenly realized the value of good health and, through several weeks of deprivation, how relaxing an experience and precious a blessing is a good night’s sleep. I wonder whether William Wordsworth experienced something similar when he wrote: “A flock of sheep that / leisurely pass by, / One after one; the sound / of rain, and bees / Murmuring; the fall of rivers, winds and seas, / Smooth fields, white sheets of water, and pure sky; / I have thought of all by turns. / and yet to lie Sleepless! / and soon the small birds’ melodies / Must hear, first uttered from my orchard trees; / And the first cuckoo’s melancholy cry. / Even thus last night, and two nights more, I lay, / And could not win thee, / Sleep! by any stealth: / So do not let me wear tonight away:/ Without Thee what is all the morning’s wealth?/ Come, blessed barrier between day and day, / Dear mother of fresh thoughts and joyous health”. Clearly, the worst thing in the world is to try to sleep and not succeeding at it, lying awake all night while rest of the world slumbers in silence, wailing with Shakespeare, “O sleep, O gentle sleep, / Nature’s soft nurse, / how have I frighted thee, / That thou no more wilt / weigh my eyelids down / And steep my sense in forgetfulness?”.
In the ever expanding space-time continuum, how significant can yet another year be, particularly one in the Gregorian calendar whose beginning is as arbitrary as that of any of the numerous other calendars that mark time in different cultures around the world? The whirligig of time moves on, throwing up positives and negatives. The past year was catastrophic in a larger perspective as well since it witnessed the worst deluge in my home state of Kerala in nearly a hundred years. Hundreds of people lost lives, while thousands rendered homeless are still limping back to normality. The people united in the face of calamity and mounted rescue efforts and support for the needy, transcending barriers of religion and social status. A few months after the event and moving on to 2019, the country in particular and the world in general appear to be riven by differences of religion and hyper nationalism bordering on xenophobia. A truly religious mind is a deeply scientific mind that is constantly inquiring and discovering, not ensnared by established theories, formulae, dogmas or beliefs. It is a mind that is extraordinarily passionate in quest of truth; it is free, and being free it is incapable of accumulating knowledge and beliefs. It refuses to accumulate knowledge because knowledge belongs to the past and the past is a calcification of truth and often is no longer the truth. A calcified truth becomes a belief and therefore false. Truth can only reside in the living present, to appreciate which one needs to cultivate a mind that is forever young and learning. While there may not be any meaning to life, life can be made meaningful by the intention to be most useful or beneficial to oneself and others, by seeking what is real and true right now. Forgetting the pains of the past year, let us look ahead optimistically at 2019, making it another millennial milestone in our lives. Happy New Year…
In Johannesburg, another autumnal day, 15th April 2018, dawned like any other, wrapped in a chilly 12 deg C. Yet, suddenly from an overcast sky, the sun emerged, sending out golden rays as a radiant reminder of Vishu in the warm summer of my home state of Kerala in India, where people usher in the new year with predawn visions of prosperity as symbolised in the bounties of nature by way of assortment of fruits, new linen, gold and silver, neatly arrayed,
together with an icon of Krishna in a brass vessel known as uruli.
My mind harked back to the celebratory aspect of Vishu during my school days over half a century ago. The festival follows the solar cycle of the lunisolar as the first day of month called Medam, invariably falling in the middle of April as per the Gregorian calendar, on or about 14th / 15th April every year.
Vishu literally means equal, and in the festival context it connotes the completion of spring equinox. Vishu signifies the sun’s transit into the Meda Raasi or the first solar month. That is the reason why it is considered as the beginning of the year, a day in which the duration of day and night is equal (equinox).
The festival is notable for its gaiety and is marked by family time, preparing colourful, auspicious items and viewing these as the first thing on the Vishu day, seeking to view, inter alia, golden blossoms of the Indian laburnum or Cassia fistula, locally known as Kani Konna, and receiving money or silver items as handout from elders (Vishukkaineetam). The day also attracts merriment of fireworks in the presence of children, wearing new clothes and eating a special vegetarian lunch known as Sadhya.
In accordance with tradition, the first sight people see upon waking up on Vishu day is arranged, by the lady of the house, the previous night itself so that the setting serves as the initial auspicious vision for all family members in the early hours of the morning. Parents cover children’s eyes and lead them to the pooja room where the Kani is arranged. After looking at own reflection in the valkannadi (traditional mirror made of metal), one then admires the image of Krishna, to remind oneself that divinity exists within everyone and that each one must show love and respect equally to everyone else.
Intaking the symbols of prosperity – rice, vegetables, fruits, sacred texts, jewellery, coins etc – is believed to usher in a prosperous new year. The belief is that these auspicious sights will continue throughout the year.
Kanikkonna flowers (Cassia fistula) blossom during Vishu and is used to decorate the Kani. Lighted brass lamps and an adorned statue of Krishna are central elements of Vishu Kani. The Malayalam word kani literally means “that which is seen first”. The belief is that one’s future is a function of what one experiences, that the new year will be better if one views symbols of prosperity as the first thing on Vishu.
I vividly reminisce my late mother on her feet at pre-dawn hours, going to each member of the family one by one, blindfolding and waking each one up, walking them to the front of the setting. She then releases the blindfold so one can see the symbolic setting, and then greet others and radiate the blissfulness of another new year.
The mixing of sweet, salty, sour and bitter flavors for the Vishu meal is similar to the traditional festive recipes, that combine different flavours, as a symbolic reminder that one must expect all types of experiences in the coming new year, that no event or episode is wholly sweet or bitter, and to make the most from life’s transitory events and experiences.
Flash forward to the reality of our ongoing three-month sojourn in Jo’burg. It has not been possible to recreate the spirit of Vishu in all its ritualistic perfection here. The highlight of our visit this time around is certainly seeing Dev, our grandson, born on 14th July 2015, presently as a bubbly and chirpy kid of a little under three years of age. He has been, since last year, going to the pre-school class at the nearby German school, formally known as the Deutshe International School Johannesburg (DSJ), a renowned institution over a century old and cited as the best run German school outside Germany, in which as many as 1100 students of 35 different nationalities seek school education in cordial cosmopolitanism. I have temporarily taken upon, from his parents, the delightful task of driving him to school every morning and picking him back in the afternoon as he is still too young for the school bus permissible for kids from 1st standard onwards, which is another few years away as class one follows four years of pre-school, and two years of lower and upper kindergarten, unlike in India where the entire process speeds ahead by an year.
The Vishu day was hence expediently chosen to conduct Vidyarambham, initiation into learning. Dev was ritually initiated into the world of Akshara (Sanskrit, loosely translated as ‘letters’), through a simple ceremony with him seated in front of a lighted oil lamp, with his parents alphabetically guiding his index finger on a platter of rice grains, scripting Hari, Sri, Ga, Na, Pa, Tha, Ye, Na, Mah. Akshara means that which is present everywhere, denoting Brahman, or that which is imperishable. The infinitely expanding field of knowledge is similarly appreciated to be beyond destruction. Submitting the index finger to the deemed guru’s guidance in the ceremony is an expression of relinquishing the ego. When knowledge dawns, humility follows. A truly knowledgeable person will be humble. Seeing the divine in everyone, he will respect everyone. While knowledge is considered to be divine, ego is a human creation.
The chant, Om Hari Sri Ganapataye Namah, symbolizes all 50 alphabets in Sanskrit treated as the embodiment of nadarupini, the goddess of sound. In the mantra, Hari represents Vishnu, Sri represents Lakshmi and Saraswati. And Ganapati represents Om—the primal sound. In essence, the mantra is a complete form of worship.
As the ceremony began, I chanted the prayer, which is an invocation to goddess Saraswati, the epitome of all forms of knowledge, including knowledge of the performing arts. The Shloka is as follows:
Sarasvati namastubhyam Varade kamarupini Vidyarambham Karishyami Siddhir Bhavatu Me Sada
Translated as, O Goddess Saraswathi; salutations to you, the giver of boons, the one who fulfills desires. I shall begin my studies. May there always be accomplishment for me.
And so the day went, with Vishu also serving as an occasion for Dev’s ceremonial initiation into learning. At DSJ, he is positioned for an year-to-year progression to complete high school studies, by way of clearing the German Abitur in class 12. German being the medium of instruction and English figuring in as a second language, he is mostly bound to be cut off from his linguistic and cultural moorings. By first week of June 2018, my wife and I will be returning to India, and, in a few years, celebrations linked to Indian culture will fade away from his memory, to be, hopefully, replaced by newer interests and excitingly rewarding pursuits spread across hitherto unseen horizons. Well, these are hopes and expectations, not a prophetic glance into futurity, foretelling what will be. As the song goes, Que sera sera…