It's hard not to feel bad when folks around you are blued-out. Lots of people have grave, terrible reasons for being disappointed with the hand they’re dealt and this invariably colours their human contact. It’s also annoying when those whose jholis God seems to have heaped full keep cribbing and sweating the small stuff. Add a third category: the relentlessly cheerful, hearty types who are always jollying you on when what all you really want is to drum your heels on the floor, throw the father of all tantrums and misbehave for at least ten clear minutes.
Damage control on ourselves seems the hardest game to learn, isn’t it? But religion and culture offer several interesting clues on the process. The most important step is to abstract the situation — think of life itself as a game. Sanatana Dharma says so upfront, that existence, the universe, everything that goes on, is God’s Lila, a divine play.
Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s famous epic poem, The Divine Comedy, explores this notion seemingly through 13th century European cultural filters. It describes Dante’s journey through hell (Inferno), purgatory (Purgatorio), and paradise (Paradiso), guided first by the Roman epic poet Virgil and then by his beloved, Beatrice. His description of Inferno gives you the mother of all queasy feelings, as it is meant to.
Except, that Dante’s famous line from that section, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,” (Lasciate ogni speranza, o voi ch’entrate, Divina Commedia, Inferno III, 9) was spoilt forever for me years ago when I saw it emblazoned on ladies’ innerwear in a trendy shop in Sloane Square, London. You can’t help chuckling at that feminine subversion of dire male visions of cosmic doom, though. Who could be so prissy as to find fault? A good dose of irreverence and a wry chortle are our only defenses as frail mortals against the unholy terror of existence.
However, Dante is a beloved poet for the ages because like the Upanishads, the Bhagvad Gita, the Bhakti poets, the Sikh Gurus, like Gandhi and Einstein, or anyone that the world esteems and hangs on to, he asks us to live by affection and to act with courage.
“The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis,” says The Divine Comedy, while urging us, “Consider your origin; you were not born to live like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge.” But how may we do that? “The secret of getting things done is to act,” reveals the epic. And the key? “Beauty awakens the soul to act,” says the poet firmly.
Now there’s a fine clue, if one were needed, on why art is so important in religious expression and in softening the sharp edges of existence. Explains Dante, “Art, as far as it is able, follows nature, as a pupil imitates his master; thus your art must be, as it were, God’s grandchild.” This notion takes us back to a particularly lovely verse in the Bhagvad Gita, when God reveals His cosmic form to Arjuna — Sri Bhagvan uvacha: pasya me partha rupani sataso ‘tha sahasrasah/Nana vidhani divyani nana varna krtini cha. (BG: 11: 5). The Blessed Lord said, ‘O son of Prtha, behold now My opulence, in hundreds and thousands of divine forms of all colours.’
Further down, in Verse 7, God says, Ihaika-stham jagat krtsnam payadya sacharacharam/ Mama dehe gudakesa yac chanyad drastum ichhasi. ‘O Arjuna, behold how in this body of Mine now and in the future, everything, moving and nonmoving, is all here, in one place: whatever you wish to see.’ Whatever we wish to see — is that the real key to ‘happiness’, a poetic hint in God’s own Voice to count our blessings affirmatively? It suggests that we must learn to appreciate the many splendours of our world while caring enough to want to make it ‘better’ through a spot of empathy.
Says Dante, “You shall find out how salt is the taste of another man’s bread, and how hard is the way up and down another man’s stairs.” Further, when we do make ourselves useful to a fellow being, “A fair request should be followed by the deed in silence.” Nor is there a better time than now, says the Italian poet: “Remember tonight…for it is the beginning of always.”