SARVE SANTU NIRAMAYA
It has been a strange, strange year, 2020. And it isn’t likely to end anytime soon, never mind that 31st December will be upon us before we know it. Still, now that most of us, no matter where in the world we live, have experienced at least six months of a life very, very different to the one we knew and took for granted, it seems like a good time to look back and take stock of what has popularly come to be known as annus horribilis – Latin for ‘horrible year’.
In fact, let’s begin with that phrase itself. Has 2020 really been as implacably awful a year for humanity as we have been led to believe? Or is it just part of the mega-churn, the samudra-manthan, that periodically manifests in human affairs, spewing forth toxic hAlAhala ahead of immortality-conferring amruta? At the end of this particular churning, with all its tragic but unavoidable collateral damage, will we emerge into a saner, safer, more compassionate space? Or will we lapse again into our old, unexamined ways of being, living mindlessly from one day to the next as we pursue the glittering but transient earthly goals that the world goads us towards?
Who knows? One cannot presume to speak for the world, but for each of us as individuals, this year, this time, has provided a huge opportunity for a system reboot. Whether we use the opportunity or not is really up to us – and remember, it isn’t too late to start (or restart, for we are creatures of indiscipline and sloth, dropping self-improvement projects as quickly as we take them up) on that journey now.
What are some things to keep in mind as we get ready for some internal spring-cleaning? What are we aiming for? How do we know that we are making progress in the right direction? Most importantly, where do we look for guidance?
The last question has a short answer: the Bhagavad Gita. In my mind, there’s no text more luminous or more reassuring, in times of spiritual crisis. Here are only three insights out of an innumerable number.
Be the yajamAna of the greatest yajna there is
One of the most powerful ideas in the Vedas is that of the yajna, or the sacrifice. The universe itself, says the Rig Veda in the Purusha Sukta, came forth as the result of such a yagna, in which the Supreme Being, the Purusha, was the sacrificial beast. The ancient ritual of the yajna was created as much to praise and placate the gods as to nourish them, leading to the stunning Vedic conception of the relationship between gods and humans – the gods nourish us, it is true, but it is only when we nourish them in return that the sacred cycle is complete.
In the Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna that since it is impossible for anyone in a physical body not to ‘act’, the only way for Arjuna to ensure that the consequences of his action – the killing of his kinsmen as part of a dharmic war – does not ‘stick’ and become part of his credit or debit account, is to offer up that action as a sacrifice to the gods, a giving-back to the universe for all the blessings it has bestowed upon him. What’s more, he cautions, Arjuna must perform his action without expecting anything in return, not even the satisfaction of a job well done.
That seems too high a bar for most of us to vault over, but is there a way for us to work our way, baby step by baby step, towards the same goal? How, for instance, can we nourish the gods in our own daily lives? What does it mean, in a practical sense, to offer our actions as sacrifice? Maybe, instead of railing against the unfairness of having to deal with toddlers and young children intruding constantly into our lockdown work-from-home lives (or having to once again share space with angst-ridden teenagers who should have been safely away at college) – we could treat what we do for our children, our spouses, our employers, and others, not as something we do for them, but through them for the gods, each action a small token of gratitude – for trees that flower on cue, spectacular sunsets, online marketplaces and good health in the midst of a pandemic.
And we could decide to pour our highly flammable – and most toxic – emotions into the crucible that holds the spark of the cosmic fire inside of us, ensuring that it blazes up constantly, purifying as it consumes, lighting our way to our own higher selves.
Now that would be a yajna worth performing.
Become the tortoise that withdraws its limbs into its shell
In the Gita, Krishna advises Arjuna to be a man of dispassion, a sage who is equanimous in what the world deems failure and success, who treats with equal respect both perceived friend and perceived foe, and remains unmoved by sukha and dukha, treating both impostors just the same. He asks him to be a stithapragna, that steadfast person who is not pulled in a hundred different directions by the thoughts that course through his monkey-brain at the speed of light. “Be thou instead, MahabAhu,” says Krishna (and I’m paraphrasing here), “the man who does his work calmly, purely out of a sense of duty, neither loving what he does nor hating it.”
This is great advice for a pandemic situation, in which our minds are constantly riven by anxiety and despair as all kinds of doomsday scenarios are presented to us, a mile a minute, by news outlets, WhatsApp groups, and concerned family and friends. What being a stithapragna really demands is paradoxical but not unachievable – while you surrender (the illusion of) control over your external circumstances, you tighten the reins on the horses of your own senses using your very powerful human faculty of discretion, withdrawing them into yourself like a tortoise his limbs, ensuring that your chariot maintains a steady course towards your higher, calmer self.
Especially when all about you are losing their heads.
Find your inner Yogeshwarah and your inner Dhanurdharah
In the very last verse of the Gita, Sanjaya lets his king know, unequivocally, that the side that will triumph in the war about to begin is the one that has both the master of wisdom – Yogeshwarah Krishna – and the master of action – Dhanurdharah Partha – as part of it. Taken metaphorically, Sanjaya’s message seems to be that it is only when wisdom and action, or ideas and deeds, work hand in hand, ‘on the same side’, that great victory will result in any endeavour.
And that’s another pro tip for triumphing over the current situation of uncertainty and unease – get out of your own head, where cauldrons of pointless anxiety, resentment and rage simmer constantly, and turn both your ideas and your deeds, your thoughts and your actions, towards making the situation better for those around you that are less privileged, less fortunate, less able.
One benefit of such an enterprise is clear enough – with both your head and hands gainfully employed, there is less room all round for self-pity. But the bigger benefit, the coolest part, is that by engaging in this one endeavour alone, the other two goals that we talked about earlier are also automatically achieved – you sacrifice your own selfish concerns into the fire of your inner yagna while you focus on others’, and you take control the horses of your senses by heading them in one specific direction – loka-kalyan.
Seriously, what’s not to like?
Now then, will 2020 be our annus horribilis or our annus mirabilis (the miraculous year)? As Krishna so lovingly said to Arjuna on another faraway battlefield, all those thousands of years ago – Yathecchasi tatha kuru. Truly, the choice is ours, and ours alone, to make.
To hear and learn more insights from Roopa Pai, watch her TedX Talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ckaEwJj2A1U
Author: Roopa Pai, Journalist and Children’s author