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Saturday, July 24, 2021

The spiritual lessons from Covid-19

Pandemic has exposed the limits of modernity. It is time to reflect on the illusory character of our inflated egos, the way we live.

Written by Avijit Pathak |
Updated: July 3, 2021 8:59:29 am
Is there anybody who has not felt the acute pain of being lonely — the fear of being stigmatised and insulated as the virus becomes irresistible the fear of a lonely death at the ICU of a hospital, or the fear of one’s dead body being thrown into the ‘sacred’ river? (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

I am large, I contain multitudes
— Walt Whitman

It seems we are all broken and wounded. As we pass through psychic bewilderment, existential uncertainty and fear of death, a question confronts us: How do we live? Is there nothing more in living than following a set of Covid-appropriate guidelines — wearing masks, using sanitisers, avoiding large gatherings and getting ourselves vaccinated as early as we can? Moreover, our basic survival issues as well as immense financial and economic anxiety continue to haunt us. Yet, despite these practical constraints, there are moments when we begin to reflect on the very purpose of living as each of us has seen our loved ones dying, our “taken-for-granted” world crumbling, and even our privileges — medical insurances and social capital — proving to be illusory amid chaotic hospitals and unmanageable crematoriums. Yes, we will take the vaccines; and possibly, economists and policymakers will assure us and promise a “better” future with enhanced growth rates and GDP. But, the psychic /existential/spiritual questions that the pandemic has posed will continue to bother us. Doctors, pharmaceutical companies, or even psychiatric drugs cannot provide a meaningful answer to these questions; nor can celebrity babas give us instant capsules of redemption. Possibly, the pandemic is conveying a message. We ought to redefine ourselves as seekers and wanderers — not narcissistic conquerors.

The tremendous vital energy that modernity generates tends to make us think that we are the masters of the world. With science, we can know, predict and control. With technology, we can shape the world the way we want. And with the remarkable growth in medical sciences and diagnostic technologies, we can postpone death. Well, who can negate the success stories of modernity? Yet, amid this glitz of modernity, we tend to forget the reality of impermanence, or the inherent uncertainty of existence. A beauty queen, despite the miracle of plastic surgery and anti-ageing devices, will become a skeleton; a sudden cardiac attack might deprive the most “efficient” corporate executive of his “productivity”; and not everything can be predicted, the way the meteorology department predicts whether this afternoon there will be rains in south Delhi. Yet, quite often, because of our modernist indulgence with “certainty”, “productivity”, ceaseless “growth” and limitless consumption, we forget that nothing is permanent, and the next moment cannot be predicted. It is sad that we needed a pandemic of this kind to make us see the reality of impermanence and uncertainty so vividly.

Think of it. Can we see beyond the illusory optimism of modernity and life-negating despair that is affecting many of us at this moment? Possibly, as we acknowledge the reality of impermanence and uncertainty, we begin to value the worth of mindfulness — the nuanced art of living at this very moment. Yes, our “tomorrow” is beyond prediction; neither a doctor nor an astrologer can predict whether we will be lucky to see yet another sunrise tomorrow. However, we can live — and live deeply, intensely and mindfully — at this very moment. Why do we negate the aliveness of this moment in the name of controlling or fearing the “future”? When we are really alive and experience this very moment, a sense of gratitude envelops us. Life acquires a meaning. Only then is it possible to echo with Tagore, and sing: “I have seen, have heard, have lived/In the depth of the known have felt/The truth that exceeds all knowledge/Which fills my heart with wonder and I sing.”

Possibly, this is also the time to reflect on the illusory character of our inflated egos. See the way we live. We erect huge walls of separation. While urban centres normalise anonymity, and workplaces transform us into strangers or competitors, we tend to think that money can buy everything, or we begin to see ourselves in the statistics of Facebook/Instagram/Twitter followers and subscribers. Or, for that matter, when the technologies of surveillance have taught us to suspect everybody, where is the possibility of a life-affirming human relationship, or a living community with a soul? Furthermore, even today we have not succeeded in becoming free from the practice of ghettoisation and untouchability. Yes, it is the irony of our times that we needed a pandemic to make us see the hollowness of this egotistic pride. Is there anybody who has not felt the acute pain of being lonely — the fear of being stigmatised and insulated as the virus becomes irresistible, the fear of a lonely death at the ICU of a hospital, or the fear of one’s dead body being thrown into the “sacred” river? Each of us has felt the need to be loved, touched and listened to; each of us has realised that money cannot buy everything; and each of us has felt that nothing matters more in life than the ecstasy of love. Love conquers fear; love makes death meaningful; love is more powerful than the vaccine. Possibly, the pandemic is compelling us to ask this pertinent question: Can we prioritise love over the power of money? Can we attach more importance to the spontaneity of human relationships rather than the hyper-reality of media simulations?

The pandemic is catastrophic. For the survivors, the world will no longer be the same. Yet, all attempts will be made — particularly, by the brigade of techno-capitalists and narcissistic political bosses — to convince the new generation that life must go on as usual with the same greed, violence and loneliness. However, if you and I are willing to be introspective, contemplative and reflective, we are bound to realise that we must alter the rhythm of life, and learn to live with humility, gratitude and love. Only then is it possible to realise the depths in Thich Nhat Hanh’s prophetic vision: “When we identify with the life of all that exists, we realise that birth and death are minor fluctuations in an ever-changing cosmos.”

This column first appeared in the print edition on July 3, 2021 under the title ‘From narcissistic conquerors to seekers’. The writer is Professor of Sociology at JNU.

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