Because the idea of I, or being, is intimately tied to non-existence, or death, which is a primary driver of consciousness in a pandemic, as the one that we are in the middle of, it is self-evident that both must go together. This is as it was since Indian civilisation began to do such ruminations. For instance, as far back as somewhere between 1000 BCE and 500 BCE, in the Katha Upanishad, the entity from whom Nachiketa—the young boy who wants to know the secret of what happens after death—seeks answers, is Yama, or death Himself. His question is whether death ends everything or is there something that follows. And Yama, while free with two earlier boons, is reluctant to share this particular knowledge and does so only after prodding. The answer he provides is not straightforward. Sidestepping whether death is final or not, he goes on an explanation about the nature of the self, or the one supposed to be dying. And rounds in to Atman, the super-consciousness pervading everything and which the human consciousness is part of. It is in that realisation that death is overcome. In fact, it is the only thing that is worth striving for because everything else in the material world is taking you away from that realisation. It is, according to Yama, a choice between the pleasant versus the good and whoever chooses the pleasant, the default option, is condemned to be chained to the cycle of suffering and rebirths. The I, Death therefore implies, is actually a Bigger I, and in that knowledge your own I no longer exists to die.
It is a tricky answer. There is really no way to verify it one way or the other. You have to take his word for it. But the Katha Upanishad is illustrative of Indian thought beginning to go into the realm of the spiritual. It is an advance of religion because what precedes the Upanishads, the Vedas, are mostly hymns asking for favours from gods. Those are straightforward negotiations. You want to win a war. Do a fire sacrifice and chant in precisely the way the Veda instructs. Or, if the pre-Upanishadic Vedic seers were present today, the answer to Covid-19 would be to again seek the intervention of Indra, Varuna, Agni or the myriad deities waiting only for human propitiation to fulfil their needs. It is after the Upanishadic age sets in, that the possibility of there being more to existence than divine bestowments appears. Or even that divine help might be unavailable. That there are ways to find meaning through looking at the internal landscape of our mind. It is in the exploration of the I.
There need not be only one such internal landscape in theory. The Upanishadic age was followed by the new bodies of thought, Jainism, Buddhism, etcetera. Consider how the Buddha framed the solution to the problem and came out with a diametrically opposite view. For in Buddhist thought, as you meditate deeper and deeper into the idea of I, eventually what you will encounter is not a Bigger I, not Atman or Brahman. Instead, what will be clear is annata, or emptiness. At the core of your I is nothing, says the Buddha, exactly opposite to what Yama averred. But set that quibble away for the moment, a lot seems to be the same. In recognising emptiness, your life is fulfilled. In recognising absolute fullness, your life is fulfilled. The promised end is the same. What is true to both is that the idea of the awareness of I is the starting point, the way out of suffering.
When the individual is under threat, it is only him versus the disease. But a pandemic is different in that his safety is tied to the behaviour of everyone else
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Think of the initial days of the lockdown. What defined your thoughts and actions had a lot to do with the prolonging of life. It is the elemental instinct of creation. The first line of the software code—‘you must live’—from which everything else follows line by line, species to species, generation to generation, until you have the dazzling array of life on earth.
It is what the virus, the progenitor to animate life, half-being-half-thing, somehow arrived at and then evolution took over until at its apogee stands man, resplendent in his achievements, but still as much hostage to that one line as Covid, the latest virus. Both of them combating each other precisely because of that first line. And, as often happens, both triumph. The difference, however, is that the virus does not know the game it is a part of. We are both unwitting in the arena but because human beings became conscious—I know I am—we know we are participants and so we strive to become better in the game and possibly even take it over. It is a wild near-impossible ambition but is there any doubt that the end of all medicine is immortality? Otherwise, why try to cure a disease or death? It is why at this moment in history, no sooner is a new virus in our midst than we are aware of it, than we can sequence its genome and within a couple of months, have a vaccine ready to test it out. The entire world is put under lock and key to save the lives of a relative few, and that too the aged and the ailing. It is an ambition of the species not spelt out by a ruler or leader but arrived at through long experience at valuing not just life but all human lives as equally important.
The question of how our consciousness meets disease is straightforward. You combat it with the arsenal human ingenuity has developed. However, some diseases remain cunning. When the individual is under threat, it is only him versus the disease. But a pandemic is different in that his safety is tied to the behaviour of everyone else. He is dependent on others to not increase the danger of contracting the disease. Societies create rules that recognise this. The lockdown is that fallout. But to be tied thus to the rest of humanity also brings the suffering that all dependence entails. Your mental state is now hostage to whether the man who was walking next to you wore a mask correctly. You think the other person is the cause of your suffering. People who train themselves in self-observation by way of meditation are said to soon arrive at the understanding that you have barely any control over your mind, and since mind determines action, even a large part of your physical response is already predetermined. To expect perfect behaviour from the world is therefore impossible. To expect the world to do so only because it is your desire is even more foolish. Designing the perfect environment is an exercise in futility because you have no power over anything. Covid, itself, is an example of that. People have spent all their lives trying to create security and stability, and yet a totally new external force emerges and nothing is as it was in the past. Everything has been upended, from loss of livelihood to loss of people who mattered to you. Then what is it that you can at least monitor, if not control? Only yourself.
The pandemic also sabotaged the idea of who you are. Take successful sportsmen. They are constantly on tour, relentlessly competing and training. Their body is kept in peak form and the mind agile. When that is no longer true, what is it that remains? The hope that the present will end and the past equilibrium return. The longer the pandemic continues, the more that hope whittles away. This is not in sportsmen alone. All human beings are defined by a long list of rituals. The mind is a work in progress forever and this list keeps it feeding. In Buddhist thought, human beings should ordinarily have no I. It is created by ignorance of their own true nature, which is to not exist. But till then, the whole world lives in ignorance. The I is replenished every moment by the contents being poured into it. Take some of it away, and replacements are needed. Or the mind’s response is to inflict suffering on itself to force you to bring back the earlier state. Take your office and commute away, and add the possibility of an imminent infection, what else can it do but fill with fear? Think of your state of mind in April after the lockdown shocked you into the danger of the disease. What did you feel most?
Once you had a handle on that fear, your mind began to explore. Were you surprised at the intensity with which you took up a new hobby? Or became so conscious about your health that you worked out until your endorphins shot through the roof? Or went on an eating binge that left you the fattest you ever were? Or began to micromanage the behaviour of your children? Or rebelled against an aspect of your spouse that you found tolerable earlier? You might have been introduced to streaming shows and began to binge watch them. One of the things that became a trend during the lockdown was the baking of sourdough bread. Whoever you were, you built new routines. You had to complete the I that had been emasculated.
In recognising emptiness, your life is fulfilled. In recognising absolute fullness, your life is fulfilled. The promised end is the same. What is true to both is that the idea of the awareness of I is the starting point, the way out of suffering
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One day during the lockdown, I accidentally chanced upon online chess and played it. It was not a game I had particularly been interested in, but soon I had downloaded multiple apps and was spending hours on it. I began to look up online videos of chess tutorials, book openings and endgames. I was building a ritual. These new ones aren’t necessarily salutary. They depend on the innate character of the person. If one is prone to addictions, then that would be the new centre. If a wife-beater’s propensities had been tempered by his other rituals, then the opportunity and inclination both came together for him. Domestic abuse cases went up during the lockdown. As the usual external objects reduce in number, the intensity with which you attach yourself to what is remaining increases. If your neighbour’s voice is irritating you, it is probably because you only noticed it now as something discordant. It is something that mars your picture of what you deserve and how you should be. The voice didn’t change, you did. If you want peace of mind, don’t quarrel with your neighbour, at least appreciate what is happening within you.
How is one to do so? By cultivating detachment, is one stock answer. Ramana Maharshi, one of the sages of the modern world, had a simple advice to those who asked him how to meditate. He said just go to the source of your thought. If you feel angry, ask who is feeling angry. If joyful, ask where is it emanating from, who is being joyful. It is a relentless 24×7 self-enquiry. It is also clever because it veers the mind away from the object to itself. The promise is that an eventual answer might shine through. You might arrive at the source and find the I you are looking for, emptiness or fullness. He himself suffered severe cancer before his death. It was a disease that was met with equanimity from the accounts of those near him. One of his disciples, SS Cohen, would write in 1949, five months before the Maharshi passed away: ‘The body which is stricken by a most malignant disease, hacked on many occasions by the surgeon’s knife, burnt by radium, and drugged by all sorts of powerful drugs, bears no trace of the agonising ordeal in the brilliance of its eyes or in the joyful expressions of its face.’ If one is not beholden to the idea of I, who after all is feeling the pain?