Thursday, 27 September 2012

Nine Lives: Indian Spirituality Revisted

I have just finished reading another exceptional book by William Dalrymple, "Nine Lives : In Search of the Sacred in Modern India". It is an essential book, that anyone interested in India's unique culture and spirituality, should read.

It is a collection of nine stories from nine corners of India, on nine different personalities. What gives this book its unique character and feel, is the art of story telling. The voice of the characters is manifest here, and it is through them, that the reader is taken on a wonderful spiritual and humane journey.

The book opens with "The Nun's Tale", a touching story of a Jain nun. Jainism, a religion, founded by Mahavira, a contemporary of Buddha, is little known outside India. Even in India, it has a minuscule following of about six million as compared to the one billion following of Hinduism and five hundred million following of its contemporary religion, Buddhism. However, Jainism has the highest degree of literacy of any religious following throughout India and it is one of the most richest religion, based on per capita income. The Jain religion has an unique way to end life, called "salekhanna", which any Jain ascetic monk or even lay worshipers can embrace, if they feel, their time to end life has come.

The nun in the first story, is on her way to embrace "salekhanna", and we get a glimpse of her life, both as a lay Jain worshiper as well as a nun, in the monastic order. It is difficult to believe, that each and every character in this book, the chief nine protagonists are real men and women, who lead ordinary lives like us.

The most inspiring story I found was The Monk's Tale. It is the tale of a Buddhist monk, Tashi Passang, who now resides in Dharmashala, a Tibetan enclave in the state of Himachal Pradesh. This monk, had taken up arms in order to protect Tibet during the Chinese aggression of 1950, thus breaking one of the inviolable code of the Buddhist dharma, non violence. He was later drafted into the Indo-Tibetan Border Police,or ITBP, and helped India win the Indo-Pak war of 1972, out of which the present nation of Bangladesh was created.

His story is one of great resilience, and an inner-conflict, which plagued a monk and his path taken to come back and search the true meaning of Buddhism. It is indeed an awe inspiring story.

There is yet another story that comes from a region outside of India's political borders, but very much, within the vast spirit of the land, Sindh. This is the story of "Lal Pari", The Red Fairy, and tells the tale of a disciple of the Sufi saint Lal Shabaz Qalander. This lady, the "Lal Pari", is actually of Indian origin. How a simple, rural girl from the state of India, became a Sufi disciple in Pakistan, is not only interesting, but hair raising as well.

Each and every tale in this book, carries with it an unique human journey, the journey of human spirit, and you are left encouraged and inspired by the tales in this book. The stories, take the reader on a colourful journey of India, and the reader finds an inner conflict taking place in modern India, between the forces of development, reason and science, and the forces of spiritualism, religion and conventions. Somewhere, the reader starts empathizing with the characters in each of the tale.

As in the West, where people have lost their touch with their inner self, as religion and society becomes more and more materialistic, India is still trying to hold onto its roots of age old wisdom, conventions and religious beliefs, as they are more and more challenged by Western convictions.

An amazing work. I would urge each and every body, to take a little patience, (the book is 251 pages, excluding Glossary, Introduction and Index) and read Nine Lives. It will take you on a journey that is incredible like the land itself.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Survival: The Keystone of Human Existence...

When suddenly out of blue, your world changes... when something you have planned for a long time, suddenly doesn't happen... when you are sure of everything going your way, and it doesn't, what do you do????? Well to be honest, none of the above has happened to me, or atleast haven't happened to me right now... it's just a thought that gripped me, when a minor plan went wrong...

But I started thinking, when a cataclysmic event happens, someone you love dearly dies, someone you have trusted, betrays you or something that you were sure of, starts going horribly wrong, and your entire world is shaken and falls apart around you, how does a person in that situation reacts... I am sure we all have been in a situation where we felt that we couldn't go any further, this is it, this is the end... I am sure, such a situation has come in each and every individual's life. How then do we overcome such a tragedy?

There are two basic ways in which an individual human being survives a deep personal tragedy, either, he fights over the situation, confronts the grief and overcomes it, or he commits suicide, gives up his/her life, so as to escape the problem forever. History is filled with such men and women, who have taken both the courses. How then are we to explain these two contrasting forces, survival and death, the will to live and the will to give up...

The human instinct to survive is very strong. If we look at history, humans have fought to survive, the vilest and meanest and the cruelest of situations and emerged as winner. I am not saying each individual has emerged, but the human race as a whole has survived. The human beings survived the Ice Age, two World Wars, the Holocaust, and numerous famines, floods, earthquakes, and different natural calamities... but it has each and every time, survived and lived to fight another day. I believe this human spirit of survival is one of the traits we are born with. I know "trait" by definition, is something that has to be learned, but for absence of a better word...

This utmost urge in human beings to win over odds and come up successful can be seen from evolution itself. Anthropologists speculate that we humans have been on earth for approx. 250,000 years to the present. Of course sharks have outlived us, but we have outlived the dinosaurs..!!! Plus, I have a huge doubt, taking into account the fatalities humans have faced, whether Sharks have faced them or not... So if we are to conclude that we outlived the dinos and sharks haven't faced the same tragedies and challenges as humans on earth have, then I would say, we are the fittest species to outlive the others, aren't we?? What does that say of us... us as a human race, wouldn't you agree, dear readers, that human beings are in essence "survivors".

So where did this urge to survive, to fall and to rise up come from? Probably the early "homo sapiens" or "homo erectus", whoever came first, realized, that they were born with something unique, something that the contemporary creatures inhibiting the same living space did not,something that made them plan strategies to survive the near fatal conditions, which many of their contemporary creatures did not posses.

This was, I believe the power of thinking, of realizing and of understanding and most importantly, the will to learn from past mistakes. If these four traits weren't there, I would scarcely believe that the "man" who walked the earth with mammoths and sharks (yes,sharks were land animals, in the beginning),could come up till this stage.

Now, coming back to the individual human being, when the common urge in our species is to survive, as established above, how, then, can we explain the anomaly of individuals committing suicides. All established religion in the world maintain that a part of the common consciousness, resides in every being... meaning that humans share a common consciousness, a part of which lives in every human being. So if our common consciousness teaches us to survive and fight for another day, how do we explain the phenomena of suicides, which contradicts this basic urge. When a person kills himself, it means he/she has given up all hope, and in despair, is embracing death, that he/she prefers to end this life.

According to WHO about 1 million people commit suicide annually world wide and is the thirteenth most popular cause of death. In the United States, it is the sixth most popular means of death. Apart from countries such as Japan, where suicides, have historically been associated with bravery, very few cultures, or religion support this form of death. It has also been found that a large majority of people committing suicide did not belong to any established religious following or did not have an established means of faith. I have already pointed out the basic grounds about why major religions across the globe consider suicide immoral in nature.

Many psychologists across the world consider mental disorder to be the biggest cause of suicide. I however feel, that the biggest cause would be to lose hope in oneself, and as a result in the entire human race. People committing suicide often see this as a method of relief from pain. However, "pain" and "relief" are two feelings which a person can feel only when they are alive.

There are several helplines across the world which help people avoid such meaningless deaths. If you know someone in your vicinity, someone who is really depressed, someone who is on the verge of loosing all hope, someone who has or is facing similar situations such as those I mentioned in my first two paras above, talk to them.

Human lives aren't created because we want to die, the will to live give human beings its true meaning. People who are committing suicides or are thinking somewhere along those lines, really need to know, that the purpose of human life is to live, to survive, to breathe... and when one doesn't do so, one is not just insulting his own willpower, indeed he/she is insulting the will power of an entire specie, whose evolution has been based on survival.

So committing suicide is just not an individual decision, every individual committing this act is a slap on the face of humans as a specie.
We would do great injustice to us or to our forefathers, by choosing, suicide as a means of ending our lives, when time and again, we have been taught to survive...