The concept of a heaven in the hereafter is perhaps as old as the human race itself. But in the entire history of mankind if one looks at the definition of heaven of any culture, of any religion, of any race in an era; one finds that it consists of the things that the people in that group are deprived of, or the things that they really miss in their lives. They project these things to be present in abundance in 'their heaven'. As an exam ple, the Indian heaven almost invariably has rivers of milk and 'ghee' flowing through it. It is nothing but a longing for three sumptuous meals a day, which lot of people don't get. When there is shortage, even of clean drinking water, you can well under stand why we would imagine heaven to be loaded with food.
The second thing that almost invariably pops up in the definition of heaven is that it is peaceful and tranquil up there. Might that reflect our desire for an end to the hatred that different ethnic and religious groups harbor against each other?
With this thought in mind, should it not be the aim of life to create the conditions of heaven right here on earth? Should we not be working to achieve material and spiritual prosperity in our lives and thereby make the whole concept of heaven in the hereafter obsolete? If we could tame our cravings and make our lives full of joy, we probably would not even accept the concept of heaven, much less long to retire to. And that brings us to the idea of feeling happy with what we have; striving for more but nevertheless being at peace with ourselves. The Upanishads tell us to think of ourselves as mere users and not owners of our worldly possessions, of our status in the society and of the family we are blessed with. Following this canon just might do the trick and enable us to experience the heaven while we still reside on the mortal shores.
The restless and incessant striving, with joy in the strife, is the greatest happiness that a man can experience in this world. The Isha Upanishad states that one must will himself to live for at least a hundred years and be occupied every minute of it. And the love of strife, the constant meeting of challenges head on, is what gives meaning to life and makes one desirous of living a long life. The poet says, "Zindagi har kadam ek nayee jung hai" (life is a struggle at every step of the way).
There are days when a person gets up and feels like crawling right back into the bed. For some people such days out-number the times when they are excited about another day of living. They hope to strike it rich one day through winning a lottery or through inheritance and then be able to live happily ever after without having to struggle every day to make a living. They somehow give up on life. Again the poet says, "Hai zindagi bhee maut jo himmat ko haren hain" (people who have lost the courage to fight are the living dead) A person who gives up the struggle, also loses his will to live on. For him the aspirations of youth end up in the disillusions of old age.
Whatever be your vocation or your hobby, you belong in the hustle and bustle of the marketplace. You belong where action is, because that is what sustains life. Designing new gadgets and fixing the old ones, treating and nursing sick people, being engaged in spiritual activities, making business deals, acquiring and disseminating knowledge, creating art and music, doing volunteer work, being engrossed in leisure activities is what you should be occupied with. As water retains its clarity only when it flows in a stream and becomes muddy and stale when it loses its flow; So does life lose its meaning when there is no struggle, no battles to fight and no excitement to keep the will to live strong. A person stays tuned up and razor sharp by being in the marketplace.
It is the struggle, and not the goal that brings salvation to the soul. The moment of man's greatest happiness is the moment of striving for others. And to make his strife more meaningful, man must over-soar his own little self, and must join with others in some united effort for the greater good of humanity. Above all he must stay involved.
Every time the state executes a convicted criminal, the debate over capital punishment resurfaces. The collective moral conscience of the society, which decides the fate of these individuals is largely shaped by our religious beliefs. What does our belief system dictate? Consider the following two scenarios from our scriptures:
1. In Mahabharat, at one stage in the great battle of Kurukheshter, Arjun was pitted against Karan. During this fateful fight, one wheel of Karan's chariot got stuck in the bloody mire of the ground. As he descended to make his chariot mobile again he requested Arjun to hold his arrows while he attended to his chariot. That was a reasonable request as per the norms of war fare in that age. But Shri Krishan urged Arjun to continue the fight. Arjun paused and hesitated since he did not want to take advantage of this awkward situation, but Shri Krishan once again exhorted him to continue fighting and to kill Karan. At this Arjun shot an arrow on his bow Gandiva, which cut off Karan's head.
2. In Ramayan, Lord Shiva is said to have bestowed a special protective power on the evil king Bali. Under the umbrella of this protective power, no one could defeat him in a fair fight. As per the norms of the day, for a fight to be fair the two dueling opponents had to fight face to face. No sneak attacks were per mitted. Even though Bali was bitterly detested by his subjects, yet no one could penetrate his protective shield in a fair fight and dispose him off. It was with this dilemma that Bali's brother Sugreev enlisted Shri Ram's help. Upon hearing the facts, Shri Ram did not hesitate in setting aside the rules of fair play and killed Bali with an arrow shot from behind a tree. There are several other instances in our scriptures in which even God Himself, in His different human incarnations bent the rules of fair play in order to get rid of evil. All these instances seem to point in the same direction, that is, 'Fight an evil per son to the end and take advantage of his every weakness to annihilate him. Show no mercy and even suspend the code of honor temporarily, to deal with the situation.' Can this code be extrapolated to mean that our scriptures endorse death penalty? You be the judge.
To Pray or Not to Pray
Secularists point to the rivalries between different religions as a proof of the futility of religion. Scientists question the very existence of God. Common logic dictates that when you pray, there is no one out there listening to you. The words you utter during your prayers just get lost in thin air. Religious people insist on the existence of God. So who is right, and who is wrong? Who can provide an answer to this dilemma about the very existence of God and about the need for prayers in our daily lives?
Psychologists seem to have a valid explanation. They think that self-talk is the way to propel yourself in a certain direction. For example when you repeatedly tell yourself that you need a new car, you subconsciously program your brain into working in that direction. Once the idea gets firmly implanted, your brain implores you to start looking for ways to finance your purchase. It might take the shape of another part time job. Or it might result in bigger savings from your present income. Whatever the mode your brain directs you to accumulate enough funds for your desired acquisitions.
People have been known to recover from near fatal diseases like cancer by asserting their willingness to live on. By their self- talk they were able to persuade their brain to manufacture and release the drugs required to kill the organisms attacking their bodies. Granted that it does not happen in every case. But people have been known to have willed themselves few extra years after the medical profession had given up on them. In each of these cases, the will to live on, the self-talk to program their brain into fighting their malady played an important part in their healing process.
Psychologists liken prayer to self-talk. They think that the self-talk programs our brain which in turn directs our actions towards achieving our desired goals. Priests on the other hand, look at it from a religious point of view and insist that God does listen to our prayers and grants us that; which we are worthy of. Whichever point of view you may agree with -- the one put forth by the psycholigsts or the one put forth by the priests -- the final conclusion is the same. Prayers are a very important part of our daily lives.
In the words of late Dr. Radhakrishnan, "When in the sorrow of death or the suffering of despair, when trust is betrayed or love desecrated, when life becomes tasteless and meaningless, man stretches forth his hands to heaven to know if perchance there is an answering presence behind the dark clouds; it is then that he comes into touch with the supreme in the solitude of his consciousness, in the realm of the profound and intense. It is the world of light and love in which there is no language but that of silence. It is the world of joy that reveals itself in innumerable forms." Must we wait for moments of despair before we acknowledge His presence? Must we be driven to total defeat before we surrender? Must we feel helpless before we start to pray?
A friend of mine, Mr. S had gone to Calcutta to look for a bride. While in India, he happened to travel to Bombay. There, in a store Mr. S met Mrs. M who was also visiting from the U.S. and had been looking for a husband for her younger sister Miss P. Mrs. M invited Mr. S to her parents' house. The next day Mr. S and his parents went to meet his prospective bride and her family and the rest, as they say is history. This is a true story which happened in the early seventies.
The pleasant ending of this story was the culmination of a series of coincidences. Mr. S and Mrs. M visiting India at the same time, Mr. S travelling to Bombay, his chance encounter with Mrs. M in a store, leading to his marriage to Miss P. To us Hindus, it was fate, divine intervention or simply a matter of Sanjog. Our philosophic thought teaches us about the acceptance of life as it unfolds because we believe that the Supreme Power has a hand in everything that happens to us.
In the West, the concept of Sanjog, until recently had been an alien idea. But psychoanalyst Carl Jung was fascinated by his study of this phenomenon in which two events take place at the same time with neither one causing the other to hap pen, and yet they are related to one another in a meaningful way. He coined a new name for it - Synchronicity. Thus was another ancient Hindu tenet blessed by the scientific West. It is not looked at any more as just another happening based on statistical probability.
The coming together by apparent chance, of factors that are not causally linked but that nevertheless show themselves to be meaningfully related is at the very heart of the process by which the purpose of an individual's life unfolds and becomes his "fate". Call it Sanjog or Synchronicity, it all happens through Divine Intervention.
Our Collective Heritage
As children we are introduced to one of the many creeds of our Hindu religion - Sanatan Dharam, Jainism, Arya Samaj, Vedantism, Shivaism - or one of the many other creeds on the horizon. From then on we develop a religious complexion which stays with us for the rest of our lives. When we want more light, we read only one set of religious books to the total exclusion of others, lest by accident we get more light than we want.
A beam of white light passing through a prism splits up into a rainbow of colors. We select one of these colors, say the red one, and look at life under the red light. In our ignorance we refuse to look at life under the illumination of the blue light or the green light or the yellow light. We miss out on experiencing the true picture. Our shallow thinking prevents us from learning about the goodness in other creeds.
We are the descendents of the mighty Arjun, the sublime Krishan and the noble Ram. The teachings of Shankaracharya, Swami Dayanand, Guru Nanak, Buddh, Mahavir, Ramkrishan etc. are the collective heritage of all Hindus. There is no need to shut any one of them out. No matter what his religion is, the experience of every mystic is the same. And these mystics have left us with many powerful thoughts to ponder over and to illuminate our lives with.
As we celebrate India's Independence Day (or should we call it India's Freedom Day, as we never did depend on the colonial powers for our survival), let us celebrate our collective heritage and not be blinded by the monochromatic lights of different shades of Hinduism. Happy 15th folks!