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Is there life after birth?

Educated people seem the least stoic about activating their coping mechanisms.

india Updated: Jul 17, 2006 11:14 IST

It doesn't make sense at first to anyone except philosophers when life is suddenly blown off the rails. Nor does anyone care about hitting the long cosmic ball when life is literally reduced to wondering how you’re going to arrange henceforth for fo

od on your plate, clothes on your back and a roof over your head. But there’s no other way out, really.

Anyone in that position absolutely has to take a deep breath, dust their hands, square their shoulders and show up washed and brushed for the rest of their life (it’s immensely cheering, though, to stick your tongue out at malicious fate and say “Nyaah! You don’t scare me, you mean thing.”) Yet ‘educated’ people somehow seem the least stoic about activating their coping mechanisms. It must be because we’re programmed from the start to have expectations, to take as given our right to a good home with all the fixings, a proper family life, a good job (meaning a well-paid one) and since liberalisation, the right to travel, spend and collect. In actual fact, there’s always a shortfall to these notions of having it all, which is why, presumably, shrinks and counselors are thriving.

But the point is, it’s perfectly natural and normal to have expectations. How can you help it? It just goes with being human and living in this cage of bones, this vaasna ka bhandar as Sakharam Binder calls it in Vijay Tendulkar’s play. What’s more, though our cultural literacy may be through sheer osmosis, just absorbing stuff unconsciously from the aab-o-hawa, we all know somehow that old Indian thought makes it perfectly legit. The four purushartha or goals of life are dharma, kama, artha and finally, moksha: ethical living, love, livelihood and finally, liberation from the karmic cycle.

These goals are set to be realised as we amble through the chaturashrama, the four stages of life: as students, householders, retirees and, if so desired, renunciates. And we all know that once upon a time until not very long ago, this astoundingly pragmatic gameplan was meant for men, though now, with general education and more women paying for their own lives, it transcends gender for some.

What’s truly fascinating is to look back and see how the ancients figured out this organised approach to life while factoring in the whole vaasna ka bhandar bit and what human nature was all about. I’ve often thought that the clue lies in the grand old Creation hymns, especially Sukta (Hymn) 129 in the Tenth Mandala (Book) of the Rig Veda (also found in the Yajur).

These Vedic hymns have major magic because they are supposed to be the first known compositions of the human race, the oldest-known stirrings of thought and conjecture, the first expression of wonder and intuition about the mys tery of existence. This is simply a fact and not a Hindutva tomtom, one feels vaguely impelled to add, alas, since the knickerdharis have done such a great job tarnishing old Sanatana Dharma for many of us, even the updated, reformed, own-your-moan (to God) version.

This particular hymn is often called the Nasadiya Sukta because its opening line goes Naa-sadaasino sadaasitdanim (in the beginning was neither being nor non-being). Professor Raimundo Panikkar’s translation is good to read (Motilal Banarsidas) if you’re interested in checking it out yourself. The last two verses go like this: Who really knows? Who can presume to tell it?/Whence was it born? Whence issued this creation?/Even the Gods came after its emergence/Then who can tell whence it came to be?

That out of which creation has risen/whether it held firm or it did not/He who surveys it in the highest heaven/He surely knows — or maybe He does not! It’s scary and yet strangely comforting to think that no one really knows the reason and purpose of life despite all the elaborate theories constructed thereafter — and the ancients stoically accepted this hard, cold fact. But meanwhile, you needed to bring some sense to the fact of living and dying. It seems likely then, that having faced the truth that no one really knew what life was about, that the next logical step was to come up with a plan, because, after all, one had to do something. And hence the four stages and four goals of life.

But how did they figure those out, now? Well, there’s a key line in one of the sukta’s middle verses that says, “In the beginning Love arose…and the sages, in their wisdom made the connection between being and non-being.”