Truth from the Cosmic Brahman

First published in The Pioneer, December 31, 2011

Let’s look back at a year of great passion dispassionately. After all, it was nothing but maya

What a calamitous year it was! However you measure it and whatever one’s standards for evaluating disasters, 2011 was a big mess. There are always some who prosper even in the worst of times, and those Wall Street bankers who will take fat year-end bonuses might be heard saying, “Bad year? Really?” And let us remember that newspapers don’t usually report good news, and despite all the mayhem and the tragedies good people continued to do good, feeding

the hungry, cleaning up cities (like the “Ugly Indians” in Bengaluru), and bringing a smile and some warmth to many who needed them.

But the earth shook, the seas rose, the forests burned, and there was deluge that made millions cold, wet, homeless, and hungry. Nothing was as devastating as the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that pushed the seas into Japanese homes and businesses and dragged away 20,000 to their deaths, and crippled a nuclear reactor. Dumbstruck as we were watching television footage of the horror, nagging thoughts immediately made their way into our hearts: “Is this life, and is there meaning to this life?”

Rabbi Schmelzer summed up how different religious ideologies would explain natural disasters and catastrophes: Taoists would say, “Bad things happen.” Buddhists would proclaim that “If bad things happen, it isn’t really bad”. Hindus, with their very, very old and long cosmological calendar, and their belief in karma, would simply say that “this bad thing happened before!” Muslims would proclaim that it is all the will of Allah; Protestants would pray “Let bad things happen to someone else,” and Catholics would scold us saying that “If bad things happen, you deserved it”. The Jew, alas, would bemoan, “Why do bad things always happen to us?”

Even in Virginia, where few rumblings have been heard for over a century, the earth shook, vigorously enough that the Washington Monument developed cracks, and masonry fell off

the National Cathedral in the heart of the American capital. The tornadoes that struck the American heartland this year were especially cruel, and in April 753 people were killed, making it the deadliest month in American history for tornado-related devastation. Around the world, from New Zealand to Turkey, and from Indonesia to Burma, people felt the earth shake beneath their feet, and they wondered if it was the end of the world.

It will indeed be the end of the world, proclaimed American Christian broadcaster Harold Camping, who told followers that on May 21, 2011 Jesus Christ would make his way back to Earth. If you thought good things would follow you would be mistaken, as Camping “calculated” there would follow five months of fire, brimstone and plagues with millions of people dying each day, and that the world would end on October 21, 2011. No, it didn’t happen, but what did happen was that Mr Camping hung up his hat and called it a day. Before we could say, “No more predictions from the Camping camp, thank God,” Internet posters pestered us with their prediction of how the “real” end of the world would occur on December 23, 2011. The Mayan calendar predicts as such the story went, but December 23, 2011 came, and it ended, and we are still here, despite the few million around the world who died of natural causes as well as the many who died in the calamitous events, and due to war and hunger.

Among the millions who “passed on” were some celebrities: Osama bin Laden, taken out by hard-charging American Navy Seals who had hunted the tall, mad Saudi prince for more than a decade; our very own Dev Anand, the “evergreen hero” whose heart finally gave up after the many turns around bushes and trees; Steve Jobs, because of whom we now think of an apple not as a fruit but an electronic gizmo; Joe Frazier, who once pummeled the “prettiest” boxer into

submission; Elizabeth Taylor, Hollywood’s star beyond par; Muammar Gaddafi, beaten, brutalised, and shamed before being shot to death; Mario Miranda, and Miss Nimbupani finally parted; Bhimsen Joshi, truly a Bharat Ratna, and whose rendering of Purandara Dasa songs in Hindustani style was unmatched; Jagjit Singh, who lulled us with his ghazals; and not least, Satya Sai Baba, who changed not just Puttaparthi but the lives of hundreds of thousands around the world. And may the souls of Bhupen Hazarika and the Nawab of Pataudi also rest in peace, lest we forget.

The world shook for other reasons too, and the Arab Spring led to the collapse of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, whereas it was barely averted in Bahrain, thanks to Saudi largesse and chicanery. In Syria, citizens continue to bleed and die, as Bashar al-Assad’s army uses brutal force seeking to keep the regime in place; and in India, despite Team Anna’s persistent efforts, and Baba Ramdev’s passionate pleas, the Madam Sonia Gandhi and the Manmohan Singh dog-and-pony show carries on, though for how long no Indian astrologer can correctly predict.

In the US, “Occupy Wall Street” protests have petered off and been pepper-sprayed to submission. Republican presidential candidates have, one by one, flown too close to the flame and burned down. Millions are without jobs, even as a few thousand have stashed away additional trillions in off-shore bank accounts. Europe teeters on the edge, and China continues to flood the world’s markets with its cheap goods.

Cataclysmic year, indeed, and whatever our individual karmas, and the ups and downs in our careers and in our lives, we have to wonder at the fate of the nearly seven billion human beings now crowding the earth. Why do we have creation and annihilation, every child will ask its parents. If you are Hindu parents you would tell your children that the present world was

created some 1,972,949,112 years ago. Time, for us Hindus, is not linear but cyclical. It is in the nature of circles that they are beginningless and endless. We believe that the process of creation moves in cycles and as the process of creation is cyclical, it “begins to end and ends to begin”.

Time is a manifestation of Brahman, our scriptures tell us. God uses time to create an illusion of life and death, and thus the term maya: ma (not), and ya (that) — to indicate to the seeker not to

identify with a particular object (“I am not that fragment of reality”). So, breaking through the veil of maya, understanding the transient nature of life, the seeker of truth will also reject the notion of cataclysmic events as “real” events but merely reminders to hold steadfast to the truth of the Cosmic Brahman.

But who knows? Evolutionary biologists will argue that the idea of the Cosmic Brahman emerged as a palliative at a particular point in our evolution and that it was a palliative

then, and is a palliative now. If you are spiritually inclined you may therefore exclaim Om tat sat, or if you are a “rationalist” you may simply conclude that “it is all chance!”

Hari om tat sat!

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