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Man’s Eternal Search:
Discovering the Meaning of Life
by H.N. Bali Bookmark and Share

Cultivating the Art of Living - II

Continued from “The Pastime of the Well-heeled ”

“There is no meaning to life
except the meaning man gives his life
by the unfolding of his powers.”
– Erich Fromm
Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics

All serous thinkers of our time have endeavored to find a way out of the meaningless impasse which they regard as the plight of the modern man groping for a meaning of life - a real purpose for living. One of such thinkers was Eric Fromm whom I’ve quoted above. In one of his works, Man for Himself, he tried to identify “what man is, how he ought to live, and how the tremendous energies within man can be released and used productively.” He discovered that fundamental to this pursuit is the promotion of self-knowledge. In encouraging people to analyze their own behavior, Fromm identified the crucial link between psychology and ethics that, all said and done underpins all our actions. This is one – yes, just one of the many – key to the discovery of meaning of life – an eternal pursuit to come to terms with the ultimate reality.

We, in India, enamored of the Western world tend to forget that our ancient scriptures, especially the Upanishads grappled with this perennial problem and offered solutions far superior to those that are being hawked around today. And to illustrate that let me begin with a story of an historic meeting between two great minds.

Profound Answer

After the mahasamadhi of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda (then just Narendranath Datta) and eight other direct disciples of the Master took their formal monastic vows at Baranagar math. In 1888, Vivekananda left the monastery and started his life as a wandering monk – called parivrajaka in Sanskrit – to see for himself, his country and the problems of its people.

In June 1891 Vivekananda reached the princely state of Khetri in what was then called Rajputana. It was on June 04, 1891. Raja Ajit Singh, the ruling king of Kehtri, was told that there had arrived in the town a monk from Calcutta who spoke English extremely fluently. Curious to know about this rare being, the Raja sent for him. In their stimulating encounter, the Raja asked his new-found guest straightforwardly the all-important question that you and I have often wondered about: (All said and done) “What is life?”

Spontaneously, Ramakrishna’s disciple answered: “Life is the unfoldment and development of a being under circumstances tending to press it down.” Few philosophical statements dealing with the purpose and meaning of life are as profound as this simple-sounding definition.

Circumstances, in which most of us live our lives, are hardly conducive to real growth other than an engagement in the two fundamental pursuits innate to human nature, namely, self-preservation and self-procreation. Human nature is only too amenable to absorbing and assimilating perverse elements from our environment. How then to ensure life’s “unfoldment and development”

That is possible only by asserting Sreyas over Preyas as expounded in Katha-Upanishad – choosing that is between courses of action – what appears satisfying and what’s, in reality, the right one. The Gita puts it across more explicitly – vi. 5 – “A man should uplift himself by his own self”. He very easily can do the opposite as often we are tempted to do.

Mirror Test

All said and done the final test to measure whether we spent our life only to self-preserve and self-procreate (something which animals too do) and if we achieved something beyond that is the “mirror test.” That’s the test every thinking being should subject himself to in those crucial choices he makes in life.

Peter Drucker in his Management Challenges of the Twenty-first Century tells us about the person to whom the test is attributed. He was a great German diplomat, who, in the first decade of the long-forgotten twentieth century, was accredited to St. James’ Court in London. The ruling sovereign of the United Kingdom (now threatening to self-implode) was King Edward VII who followed Queen Victoria on the throne. One occupation that most rulers of the House of Windsor excelled in was the satisfaction of their insatiable sexual appetite. Prince Charles certainly isn’t the first to excel in this. In a way, Mrs. Brown (as Her Majesty Queen Victoria was referred to) herself had bequeathed the legacy of the gene responsible for sexual peccadilloes.

Victoria’s heir, Edward VII was a notorious womanizer. When he completed five years on the throne, the corps diplomatique was asked to arrange a banquet in his honor. That was in 1906. The distinguished German Ambassador who was widely expected to be his country’s next Foreign Minister, as the senior most diplomat, was supposed to preside over the banquet. The British monarch had made his preference well-known in advance. The banquet with all its royal regalia must end, after the dessert, with a giant-sized cake materializing in the center of the hall, out of which were supposed to emerge a dozen naked shapely women, one of which His Majesty will condescend to take to bed that night.

To the utter shock and dismay of the entire diplomatic world, the German ambassador tendered his resignation rather than be called upon to preside over the banquet that the British sovereign had suggested. That was in response to the query to his self the previous night: “Are you, old chap, prepared to see a bloody pimp in the mirror next morning when you shave?”

All of us, in life, are called upon to take the mirror test; not once but many a time by looking straight into our own eyes in the mirror and answer: “What are you doing? What decisions are you making? And, above all, “Who are you? What values do you uphold?” You would recall how Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray finally couldn’t stand the sight of the real person he had become. He chose to kill himself. Each of us has to face the moment of truth. Perhaps Indian politicians are the only exempted lot.

Lion Raised as Sheep

Amidst the unending grind of life and its problems in our day-to-day existence, we have to take time off to ask ourselves how far have we strayed away from the road we chose to travel on? Suddenly, one day the unending quest for the dil-mange –more—and—more culture, looks devoid of impetus. Sociologists give it a philosophical name i.e., man’s search for his roots, a search that an unlettered priest of the Dakshineswar temple succinctly summed up in one of his most insightful parables called “The Lion Raised as a Sheep.” Ultimately, how simple is the truth when it has finally been realized.

Addressing an American audience on the theme of “The Essence of Religion” Ramakrishna’s St. Paul retold the epic parable in his own incomparable way:

I will tell you a little story. There was once a baby lion left by its dying mother among some sheep. The sheep fed it and gave it shelter. The lion grew apace and said “Ba-a-a” when the sheep said “Ba-a-a”. One day another lion came by. “What do you do here?” said the second lion in astonishment: for he heard the sheep-lion bleating with the rest. “Ba-a-a,” said the other. “I am a little sheep, I am a little sheep, I am frightened.” “Nonsense!” roared the first lion, “come with me; I will show you.” And he took him to the side of a smooth stream and showed him that which was reflected therein. “You are a lion; look at me, look at the sheep, look at yourself.” And the sheep-lion looked, and then he said, “Ba-a-a, I do not look like the sheep – it is true, I am a lion!” and with that he roared a roar that shook the hills to their depths.

That is it. We are lions in sheep’s clothing out of habit, we are hypnotized into weakness by our surroundings. And the province of Vedanta is the self-de-hypnotization. The goal to be reached is freedom. I disagree with the idea that freedom is obedience to the laws of nature. I do not understand what that means. According to the history of human progress, it is disobedience to nature that has constituted that progress. It may be said that the conquest of lower laws was through the higher, but even there the conquering mind was still seeking freedom; as soon as it found the struggle was through law, it wished to conquer that also. So the ideal is always freedom. The trees never disobey law. I never saw a cow steal. An oyster never told a lie. Yet these are not greater than man. (Emphasis added.)

Yes, we’re in reality lions in sheep's clothing of habit, we are hypnotized into weakness by our surroundings. And the message of Vedanta is the self-de-hypnotization. Christopher Isherwood - probably the most persuasive exponent of Ramakrishna and his mission for the western world - put it brilliantly:

“Vivekananda wants us not to think of ourselves as sinner; such seeming humility can easily degenerate into masochism.”

Three P’s

Man is free to shape his destiny even amidst circumstances hardly conducive to that goal. Vivekanda, in a way, clarified the whole complex problem of existence. He made national reconstruction with the ideals of ‘Tyaga’ and ‘Seva’ the most important purpose of living. He had seen his country and knew what its problems are. To the more discerning, he made this way of life a ‘spiritual pursuit’. The transience of human achievement and the impermanence of material wealth were of critical consideration to this thinking. What he attempted to do was to show us a higher reason to live, a higher ideal to live for and a higher state to reach within the limitations and boundaries of a human existence. He has given us, in very simple terms, – especially the youth – a higher ideal to strive for and in this striving he found answers to the material problems of the suffering millions. All that he wanted our youth to have was an ability to ‘feel’. He wanted that feeling for our downtrodden and the poor which would spur us to effort. In doing so, he had assured us that an indomitable power would come to us and we will be able to throw away all our self-concerns and place ourselves as servants of society and use our inner energy and will to transcend the problems of our fellow brethren. The only qualification that we, especially our younger generation, must have is this wonderful ability to ‘feel’.

To those who wanted to go beyond just feeling and take to concrete action – he gave this potent mantra. The power of the 3 P’s – Purity, Patience and Perseverance: Purity in thought word and deed. Patience to understand the dynamics of any community development activity and the fact that society is always slow to understand and quick to label all such efforts, one also needs great Perseverance to work.

Continued to “They Alone Live Who Live for Others”

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