Hindu Reflections on “Lockdown”
The CoVid crisis has caused a great deal of harm and suffering, but in bringing the hamster wheel of modern day British life to a halt, it’s also served to remind British Hindus, in the most graphic and irrefusable way, of many forgotten priorities and purposes
The nation seemed to be surging ahead, dragged by the AI artificial intelligence driven Financial services sector, until the real world pothole of Corona brought everything to a screeching halt. The runaway train of a debt infected, consumerism and inequality troubled society, slowly lost momentum and in less than a month ground to a virtual standstill.
One thing which I have noticed was that for the first time in so long, computers were not making decisions, models and simulations were proving inadequate and people at grass roots were making their own simple choices and decisions and it reminded me of a story in one of our ancient Hindu scriptures, a story which gave an insight into the difference between intellect and wisdom, between artificial intelligence and artificial stupidity.
Once upon a time in a forest in India A woodcutter was gathering wood in a forest clearing and as he worked he heard the sound of approaching voices. He looked up from his work and saw 4 men enter the clearing, deep in conversation.
From their simple appearance, their orange robes and their log white hair and beards he recognised them as sages, men who had renounced society in order to seek and discover the secrets of this universe and the secrets of the human being itself and he joined his hands in namaste and bowed down in front of them. He knew how rare it was to encounter such people, people who spent their lives in seclusion and he wondered if they might share some wisdom with him, if he asked politely and humbly.
When the sages saw the woodcutter bowing in silence, they stopped and approached him and raising their hands they blessed him with good health and a long life. The woodcutter thanked them for their good wishes and as he looked up, he plucked up the courage to ask them the following question..
“Dear Respected Sages, it is my immense good fortune to have met you today and I thank you deeply for your generous blessings. If you have no objection may I ask a question, the answer to which may help me become a little bit wiser than I am?”
The sages smiled at his humble nature and simple request and one of the Sages responded saying “ We have been impressed with your good and humble nature, please ask your question”.
The Woodcutter looked up and said “May I know what each of you have gained by giving up worldly pursuits and engaging in spiritual austerities?”
The Sages pondered the question and after a few moments, the nearest Sage said “I have mastered the ability of being able to take a single stray bone and with a magical mantra, manifest the entire skeleton of the creature!” The Woodcutter became wide eyed and the Sages could see that he was deeply impressed. The Sage reached down to the ground where there was a fragment of bone, he touched the bone with a finger and spoke the mantra .. and there on the ground a complete skeleton appeared.
The second sage stepped forward and announced that after many decades of deep and arduous austerities, he too had mastered an amazing secret art…. He announced “With a single mantra, he could restore flesh to a bare skeleton” .. and he too reached down, touched the skeleton, spoke another mantra and as soon as he finished the ancient Sanskrit words of power, there lay in front of them the complete body of a dead animal, looking as though it had only just died.
The Woodcutter looked on in amazement and just before the third sage could speak , the fourth Sage stepped forward and said “I’m feeling a little chilly here where the sun’s rays doesn’t reach, would you mind if I climbed up into the tree and caught a bit of sunlight to warm my old bones? “ And why don’t you join me Woodcutter, you will get an even better of these amazing feats view from up there.”
The woodcutter had been taught never to disagree with Sages and so he stepped forward and assisted the old sage to climb into the tree and then followed until they were seated on a branch bathing in warm sunlight. The third sage who was feeling a little impatient by know, stepped forward and announced that his mastery was the most powerful of all – he knew a mantra which when spoken could restore life to a dead body and with a flourish of his hand he spoke the secret mantra and the dead body started to breathe. The three sages looked up at the woodcutter with pride at their achievements and the woodcutter was dumbstruck with amazement. He turned towards the fourth sage and said to him “Sir, I don’t believe its possible to surpass the wonderful achievements of these three sages – but still I would like to know what you have mastered after all of your years of spiritual austerities”. The three sages on the ground too looked up into the tree wondering what feat they were about to witness.
The fourth elderly sage whose attention was on the animal body lying on the ground, paused and said “I have mastered the most important ability of all – I know what NOT to do, and when NOT to do “ and as he uttered these words the Sages looked down and saw that the Tiger had fully regained its senses and with a hungry roar, it leapt upon them and with three slashes of its razor sharp claws, instantly killed and ate the sages.
The guidance in this story is particularly relevant at this time of crisis, when those who influence society, the wealth creators and politicians, whose choices create our collective direction. We are taught that sometimes the collective actions of technocrats can be unpredictable and that the capacity to act must always be tempered by wisdom, just because we can do something it is no reason To proceed and do it.
Artificial intelligence is touted as the latest achievement of the current frantic and dominant civilisation and yet if we measure Gross Domestic Happiness as opposed to Gross Domestic product, as Bhutanese Politicians, we find that we are perhaps fallen behind in reduced suffering, and emotional fulfilment and far behind in the quality of living on this amazing planet with all of its diversity of brings and ecosystems ? When deep reflection is replaced by shallow thinking, and shallow thinking becomes ever more frantic and mechanical, humans are perhaps the greatest losers. At the time when doing is all the rage, when success is measured by incessant commercial activity, the teachings of the ancient sages Hindus which emphasize that there are times when the ecosystems of the earth require us to pause and reflect deeply and if we do not pause, the earth itself has the where withall to require us to pause, to and to reflect upon our behaviour and our impact on our fellow beings. We learned that the earth can push us with ever decreasing levels of gentle pressure, to reconsider what we are doing, what we are eating, who we are, and above all – why we are here. If more of us use this time of lockdown to reflect upon these questions, we may well emerge from this period of lockdown better equipped to navigate life with more harmony and tranquillity than we have so far displayed, and perhaps the price which we have paid in loss of life may even find some valuable meaning.