It was around 1500 BC or may be a century this or that side of it, the nomadic Aryans, staring at the beauty of the star studded temporal and eternal night, marvelling at the splendour of the Ushas dawn, experiencing the benevolence of the unknown gods that greeted them with timely rains or their angriness that reflected as storms, floods, inundations, mass deaths and so on, and overawed by their sheer mightiness in defining their very existence, began giving expressions to their fears, weaknesses and aspirations in the form supplications, rather more as an involuntary prayer: Agnimile purohitam…and as they matured, their Ryks hymns became more universal:
“Mitrasya maa caká¹£husaa sarvaani bhuutaani samiikshantaam…
May all beings look upon me with the eye of a friend /
Mitrasya cakshuusaa sarvaani bhutaani samiikhse /
May I look on all beings with the eye of a friend /
Mitrasya cakshuusaa samiikshaa mahe
May we look on one another with the eye of a friend.”
— (Yajur Veda xxvi-18)
What a catholicity of a prayer!
As the years, nay centuries rolled on, these nomads turned settlers, moving away from ritualistic offerings to their personified and deified cosmic forces as gods, and turning philosophic started questioning: “Through understanding of what, pray, does all this world become understood? By whom impelled soars forth the mind? … By whom impelled this speech people utter? ...” With this enquiry, the gods of the Rg Veda and the ghosts of the Adarva Veda melted and coalesced into one supreme reality known as Brahman. Thus dawned the oneness of reality: All is one: Brahman and Atman are one. Man is one with God. Man is divine. All is divine. It was more of a journey from knowing to being, and everyone chanted: “Tat tvam asi That art thou.”
Coming to the present, amidst the coronavirus pandemic, we are now being bombarded day in and day out “not to touch others but to isolate ourselves, to maintain social distance.” What does this mean for the injunction of our seers of yore, ““Whoever knows this, ‘I am Brahman (aham brahma asmi), becomes the All”? Nothing much, for the present warning, ‘touch me not’ simply means, “’hands cannot reach other person’, but we can approach each other from ‘within’.” And the window for the ‘within’ is: eyes. When we meet someone in the pandemic from a distance, a deep look into his/her eyes can disclose more than a touch. Which means, we can still maintain our links and even strengthen them. Indeed, today, when we are asked to avoid our link with others who are close to us, we are experiencing their importance even more, “Aren’t we?”
Now, one may question, how this spiritual oneness is going to help us handle the present Corona-catastrophe? True, for seldom we learn, as Hegel commented once, anything from the history. Whether we learn or not anything from the pandemics of the past, one thing becomes apparent now: Corona is shattering our very foundations, causing immense amount of suffering besides worst economic havoc. It is increasingly becoming evident that we may not return to our known normal and we may have to construct a ‘new normal’ soon. Else, we may end up in a new barbarism.
The current plight of the migrant labourers and their journey back to their native villages on foot is perhaps, a pointer in that direction. Once lockdown was announced, it is this segment of our population that suffered most, for they were the first to lose their daily earnings. Amidst this crisis, most of them longed to return to their home-towns. It is also true that their going to native towns would no way better their lot. But who can deny the fact that in a crisis of this nature, one feels emotionally secured staying amidst one’s own kith and kin. But the absence of transport disabled them from doing so. In the absence of any kind of social security net, even getting a square meal a day has become a task by itself. The resulting distress emboldened them to use their own transport. They started walking along with women and children, placing sacks of belongings on their heads to their native places located thousands of miles away. And not even lathi charges, scorching sun, blisters on feet, road-accidents, deaths on tracks, nothing, not even the hunger and the uncertain future at the hometown, could hardly deter them from marching forward.
The callous indifference of their erstwhile employers to the unending lines of migrant labour on the national highways—construction workers, painters, plumbers, factory workers, delivery boys, hotel boys, etc.—and the brokenness of our public service systems cries for a new system that functions more responsively, more so in the light of the fact that there are more than 60 million migrant labourers working in states like Maharastra, Gujarat, Telangana, Tamilnadu, etc., who constitute the back bone of the real economy. Over it. One estimate put their overall income generation at around Rs 1.5 lakh crore, which means, reverse-migration of these labourers would entail a significant fall in the demand for consumption. That aside, their absence in these states cripples the economy once, the lockdown is lifted and factories start running.
So, all the concerned, putting their brains together, need to evolve a new system to address this economic problem, if not the human-problem. And, as our ancestors said, “what matters most is not mere chanting of the mantra, ‘… Mitrasya caksuusaa samiiksaa mahe” (…May we look on one another with the eye of a friend’, but living it), we must construct such a ‘new norm’, which works and delivers the intended results.