A rather strange title indeed for this post! The SARS-CoV-2 virus causing COVID-2019 is an equal opportunity infector, transcending race, nationality, age, wealth, power, technological advancement or political polarization and posturing. Not unlike the famous quote made by Oppenheimer on witnessing the awesome power of man-made bomb, I can only think of quoting from the same chapter from the Bhagavadgītā to this Nature-made virus with global impact. To me the virus seems to be declaring
‘World-destroying mighty time am I’ (Bhagavadgītā, Ch.11:32)
It is ironic to see history repeating itself since the flu pandemic of 1918, a century ago, showing the vulnerability of the human kind, perhaps human irrationality as well in dealing with this type of unseen enemy. As one interested in history, I read about the Spanish Flu pandemic, the refusal to wear masks, organizing protests agains mask wearing directives and the pandemic coming back with greater ferocity in spring of 1919 causing even more deaths than it caused when it first arrived in 1918. Santayana, the 19th century philosopher perhaps foresaw this to state “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it“. Sadly it is true in the 21st century as well!
Since the last six months of almost near shut down of activities thanks to the SARS-CoV-2 virus induced pandemic I have been thinking about what positive effect it can have on humanity, can there be any silver lining? Can a person really relate to it, as Shakespeare wrote:
“Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything”
(As You Like It, Act II, Scene 1)
Another poem, a favorite of my father (who was a high school English and history teacher before he became a head master, called a high school principal in US) also comes to my mind when thinking of the current situation, if it can provide us a rare opportunity to ‘have time to stand and spare’. This is a poem ‘Leisure’ is by the 19th century Welsh poet Davis.
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
Over the last few weeks, I have been thinking more and more about discovering any possible silver lining in this dark cloud hanging over the entire globe. I was reminded of my life at an āśrama (a monastery offering a way of life of study and contemplation) in Bombay (Mumbai) in India during 1976-1978. This is one of the several interesting anecdotes that has relevance to the current situation we are confronting and its potential for transformation of the human being in more ways than one.
Though most of you may know my years of study of Vedānta, here is a brief background setting the context, for the anecdote I refer to here. Almost 45 years ago, a close friend of mine and I decided to leave our respective professions in New York and go for a full-time study of Vedānta at an āśrama in Bombay, after listening to public talks by Swami Chinmayananda for several years in US. This place was devoted a residential course for study of vedānta texts, learn Sanskrit to allow us to study the commentaries of texts that were not covered in this short 30-month course, and included daily guided and silent meditations. The resident teacher was Swami Dayānanda, an erudite Vedānta scholar and an excellent teacher. His Sanskrit name Dayānanda means ‘the joy of compassion’, and he lived true to the name – dealing with a motley crowd of 65 of us of widely different ages, cultures, educational qualifications, expectations and, at times bristling with irritation against any kind of do-s and don’ts. The suggestions of activity reduction were construed by many among us to be an imposed ‘discipline’.
We were told not to go to the āśrama library and delve into books on Vedānta or any other philosophic systems; not to go out of the āśrama premises to see movies, visit restaurants, eat street foods etc., etc., Naturally there was some murmur about these impositions. Swami Dayānanda devoted one of his talks explaining the reason for these suggestions misconstrued as an ‘imposition’. He thought that these suggestions were helpful in bringing about a transformation of oneself, the primary goal of any monastic life style of study and reflection. This is what I remember about his discourse, it is not a verbatim quote.
“All your needs are taken care of here. There is no cause for mental agitation since boarding and lodging are free. Even necessary books to study are provided free. So no worries about having to pay for anything. There is no expectation as to what you have to do after this 30-month course of study and reflection. The reason for my suggestion about not reading any books on philosophy, reading papers, journals etc., and curtailing your external activities is just this: In our daily life there are so many distractions and external stimuli so the mind is constantly engaged with no time to turn inward. Thus the impact of constantly changing inputs does not allow one to change, to let the mind look at itself – this is the first and necessary step towards transformation. Only then the teaching about the Truth of your Being I impart, based on these sacred texts can take hold in yourself. In our āśrama setting, I reduce the external stimuli to the minimum to provide this opportunity for personal growth.”
His talk made a deep impression on me, and this lasts even to this day, after forty five years, two bouts of monastic living, getting back to pressure-cooker high tech work for two decades with its inescapable consequences, looking forward to and longing for retirement and after almost two decades of retired life! Despite my sporadic but nowadays a more sustained efforts in exercise, yoga and meditation, I have to admit that regarding this inner transformation, I am still a WIP (work in progress), but at peace with continuing effort!
I think that with my background, with this Nature-made bomb still showering a global sense of helplessness and untold misery with no clear end in sight, I can see the sliver lining! It appears to me as though the virus telling us “Stop! You have enough of escape distractions despite what I have done – Your internet, cell phones, other mobile devices, social media and doom-scrolling! This is an opportunity for looking at yourself, try to transform yourself into better human beings with greater compassion, kindness, forgiveness and understanding!”