Shaukat Ajmeri

A fool’s journey, from falsehood to falsehood

9-minute read

April is the cruelest month, thus wrote T.S. Eliot. Probably he thought stirring of lilacs from the dead ground, coaxed out by spring rain, is cruel. In a way it is. Life, or renewal of life, with its promise of inevitable death does appear to be cruel – to lilacs and laymen alike. But what would you rather have, life and death? Or no death, and thus no life?

But of course we never get to make that choice. By the time we’re born it’s too late. Or is it? Do we choose our own life? Do we choose to be born and come into this world? Is there life before the body? Is there life after the body? Who is asking these questions? Who is reading it? Oh, the tyranny of not knowing. These are the ultimate questions which at first blush may seem ridiculous.

But when you are done blushing, done this and that and the other, done achieving success and wealth and fame, what are you left with? Satisfaction. Pride. Sense of fulfillment. Maybe. Yet there comes a time when the smugness about your successes becomes rancid. When all is said and done, a free-floating emptiness remains deep inside. A dull, un-named sense of despair silently plagues us, as if something is missing, as if you have reached someplace but have yet to arrive.

Maybe it is a bout of existential crisis that hits one at a certain age when you have seen through the arrogance of reason and the imperium of science. When you have wrestled with philosophy and high-thinking and have found them wanting. Intellect, no matter how brilliant, can only take us so far – at the end of all possibilities, at the end of all knowledge – beyond which lies the great unknown that stares back at us, mocking our learned pretensions.

This is not to belittle man’s intellectual achievements but to put them in perspective. When I was young – or rather younger – I prided in being rational, to the point of being militant about it. Bertrand Russell was god and Jean Paul Sartre the high priest. Religion was the opium of the masses and Marx the purveyor of secular nirvana. You were so cocky that you viewed all orthodoxies – religious, capitalist – with all-knowing disdain and didn’t even realise that you were clinging to one of your own. You only read books that confirmed your biases. The whole world was of course a bourgeois conspiracy and whatever was left over was laid at the door of religious bigotry. You pointed at human tragedy caused by senseless accidents and natural disasters and mocked the believers with “why is your God doing this?”.

You mistook your naïveté for intellect and used big words to impress the girls. Much later it dawned – much to your chagrin – that you actually frightened away the girls and what you considered intellect was nothing more than borrowed wisdom. You spent too much time grappling with a language (English) that was not yours, and had little time left to think your own thoughts. Certainties came easily. Impossible was nothing. You were young and feckless and full of yourself.

Maybe all this was a necessary part of growing up. You stumbled and fell, you got back up and then stumbled and fell again. You can’t even begin to imagine how much time, energy and agony was spent on defending an idea, a belief system which later turned out to be illusory. Why illusory? Because your perspective had changed. The world remained the same, only your way of looking at things had altered. But there are people who are still mired in what you now think is cow pie. And how can you be sure that your truths of today will not turn out to be the illusions of tomorrow? Perhaps, that’s what it means to grow up, to evolve from one truth to the next. Perhaps, this is what development of consciousness is all about. Perhaps, this is what life is all about.

You look at the young people of today and wonder whether they too must repeat the same routine, jump through the hoops of temporary truths. Surely, there must be a better way of growing up. At so many levels life has become so much easier for them. From vaccinations to training wheels for bicycles, modern innovations have rescued them from the “necessary” pains of growing up. If instant gratification was not bad enough, now our world is awash with instant messaging, too. The concept “here and now” uprooted from its spiritual moorings has now ironically acquired – hungrily and urgently – a new consumerist quality. Young people have more information at their fingertips and yet are none the better for it. Reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland, again:

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

The point I guess I’m trying to make is that the modern world of physical comfort and technological advancement is the best deal the young of today have got. But when it comes to making sense of this world, of this universe, and our place in it, why are the young people left high and dry without a clue, without a signpost. Not that the grown-ups are any better. We are all in the same boat, rudderless. But age and experience inevitably bring wisdom, and most people tend to reach a place of peace. But the journey to that place, despite all the modern ingenuity, is still fraught with pitfalls.

And somehow, despite ourselves, we trust that our civilisation if we abide by it long enough will make things better for us. This is what the people of all previous eras have sincerely thought. And we continue that legacy. We think good education is all we need to solve our problems. If only the whole world was educated.

The truth though is that schools are elaborate baby-sitting programmes (to take care of the children while parents are slaving away) designed to brainwash us with irrelevant facts and snuff out the spark of life from young lives. And years of schooling which we unjustifiably call education gives us a little more than a means to a livelihood. Those with drive, ambition and luck make it good, those who have none of these just make do.

In the end, everyone comes out the same: clueless and dead. And the drama of life continues haphazardly as it ever has for millennia. We can take pride in being modern, educated and savvy. Science and technology may have given us countless comforts but at the same time they have also made us more efficient killers. All the education and knowledge of the world just cannot shake off our moral inertia. Our flawed ways of doing things. Our ingrained habits of thought.

Count among those habits the instinctive rush to religion: in a moment of crisis, or when we are at an intellectual loose end, or when our rationality reaches the end of a tether. We think if we teach the default religion of our birth to our children we’ve done our parental duty and set our children on a path to God. Actually we’ve done no such thing except repeating the error of our parents and easing our conscience. Religions are nothing but stories about the unknown and man’s struggle with it. No one story is truer than the other. And as a general rule the more elaborate a religious doctrine the more fraudulent it is. Feeding children the fiction of God and submitting them to His ridiculous rules of reward and punishment would be funny if it were not so mind-numbing.

This is not to say spirituality doesn’t count. It does, but religions have nothing to do with spirituality. And spirituality itself, overused and over-rated, has nothing to do with making sense of this universe and our place in it. If science is superficial and religion hokum then what do we have to go by? Where are our certainties?

The answer apparently lies in mystical wisdom known to the masters for centuries. If ancient sages and modern mystics are to be believed, it all comes down to the self. Or rather not knowing our true self. They say life’s suffering stems from the false belief that we are this body, that we are this life. According to them, the only reality is the reality of the self – that sense of being, that sense of awareness, that sense of presence that animates you, that courses through your body, that makes you tick. That permanence amidst the transient. This is the truth, unadorned by religion and unencumbered by ritual.

This reality, the true nature of self, can only be experienced, it cannot be understood, it cannot be taught, it cannot be explained. Words no matter how eloquent fail to describe what is known as the Oneness of Being, the sense of the Absolute, the taste of the Supreme. The Brahma. To the uninitiated all this may sound gobbledygook, and not without reason weaned as we are on the thin gruel of mass religion. The difficulties in the path to Self are many, and limitations of human language and human knowledge make it only worse. Besides, this is not a communal, group activity. It is necessarily an individual, private, solitary enterprise. It is not a belief system nor some New Age pap.

The search for Self – commonly understood as God, Allah or whatever one may call it – as expected begins with the self. It’s not out there but in here, within one’s self, in the silence, the stillness and the emptiness of being. It’s that sense of presence which is always with you no matter what. It is you. In order to glimpse it all you have to do is quieten your mind just for a moment and look within, look at yourself. Again and again.

It is claimed that if you do this often enough you will reach a stage where the universe and its mysteries will fall in place. From the Vedas to Lao Tsu to Buddha to Sufis to Maharishis – all have validated this truth down the ages. The tragedy is not that we have forgotten our true self but also the teachings about it. T.S. Eliot sums it up brilliantly in Wasteland:

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.