Is it Water? Earth or Sky? Light? Air? Ravi’s teacher, G Kumara Pillai, holds them all in awe and reverence, saluting each one of those five fundamental elements in a beautiful ode. Ravi, on his part, views air as the basis of it all, as its cause and consequence, as the irreducible minimum of existence. Air is life. Air is all. Air is Prana.
From journalism, which claimed half a century of his life, Ravi (Ravindran Nayar) has forayed into music, Kathakali, publishing and an ontological inquiry into issues such as being and nothingness. His philosophical positions were defined, by no means finalized, when a student pinned him down with an innocuous question about jivatma and paramatma. His immediate answer, trotting out cliches from scriptures and familiar sayings, satisfied neither the student nor the teacher.
It took almost a lifetime to grapple with the enigma of life and install, as it were, paramatma in his living room. I am sure he leaves it open to you to do it too. As is the elementary philosophy of monism, paramatma and jivatma are not two but inseparably one, ekam eva advitiyam. What animates life, what gives the living world its identity, is the air in and around us, as the bard puts it, jagat prana. From birth to death, prana operates as a cosmic force, sustaining itself, making everything work, superseding, and yet embracing, all else.
Ravi has an engaging, if rather simple, theory of birth and death. Birth is made possible by air. Without air, death ensues. Between the two events, vital and non-vital, prana pulsates as the essential principle. In his vocabulary deliberately rendered light, he describes it as paramatma in action. He shared with me a short essay combining wisdom with witticism, duly titled “The Mystery of the First Breath.” In my quotidian parlance, it is an article about death. As I began delving into it, Ravi metaphorically guiding me through its alleys and blocked lanes, secrets of life and its emergence involved me abysmally.
For a moment I wondered if he was an obstetrician-turned philosopher or the other way round. He had himself been excited by the mystery of childbirth, by the esoteric process of the infusion of life in the newborn through or by our good old paramatma, prana. Childbirth is so common, so ordinary an event in life, not only of humans but birds and animals, even plants, that its acute mystery is not often registered on us. There is a mystery within the mystery, the first breath of the baby, that constitutes the advent of life.
Midwives pray, when they set out to attend to childbirth, may the mother and the baby be their healthy separate selves. I had an occasion to ask a senior gynaecologist, K Radhakumari, whether childbirth had not really become a child’s play for her in a lifetime of attending to or overseeing deliveries. She would have brought out, I observed, anything like 30,000 babies. She chuckled. “Whatever be your statistics,” she said, “I am relieved, like old midwives, only when the baby and the mother are happily apart. Childbirth, you know, still has a magic about it.” Ravi calls that magic mystery, “The Mystery of the First Breath.”
For a figure of speech, he introduces an unlikely object, an automobile that is likened to a newborn. Everything in it is magnificently arranged but it needs the spark of ignition to start and surge forward. For the baby, it comes from the vital first breath that is made possible by the force of air pressure. And that clears in turn all fluids that clog the baby’s biological system. It is simultaneously prepared to receive oxygen-rich air from the atmosphere. Oxygen, prana, rushes through airways, inflating lungs and giving the newborn a spark of life.
Ravi takes a close look at the mysterious and intricate process of childbirth. It is the natural cause and consequence of that inscrutable energy, air, in commonplace lingo, and, prana, in philosophical terms. That leads us to the primordial inquiry as to who or what opens, regulates, and closes this “wonderful show” on earth, birth of a baby from nowhere. Who? What? I can do no better than quote Ravi’s scintillating prose for an answer:
“The question then is who is the magician wielding the baton in this ever wonderful show of the world? The mother, the doctor, the midwife? All of them do have a share in this great show, but the ultimate magician, undoubtedly, is none other than the Ultimate Life Force enveloping the entire world: the atmospheric air containing elements like oxygen, carbon-di-oxide, and nitrogen, so vital for life on earth, for humans, animals, plant life. It may be called by any name, Paramatma, Brahman, Supreme Self, Super Consciousness or Vishnu or simply atmospheric air.”
When you reach such an intellectual junction, a throw-back to spirituality, scriptures, Upanishads, what have you, is inescapable. It is not that the baby draws in the life force from outside on its own volition but the life force works on it and lends it the great elixir of existence. “In spiritual terms, it goes from the Supreme Self to the individual Self, from paramatma to jivatma, establishing a perennial connection in which both are one and the same. As the Chandogya Upanishad says: This universe consists of what that finest essence is. It is the Reality, it is the Self. You are That. Tat Tvam Asi.”
For a disparate not like mine, which has already lengthened to the horizon by the sheer power of prana, that would have been a befitting conclusion. But there is something else to be briefly noted about the evolution of Ravi’s views and emotional needs. God has been his close companion from his early years. That dalliance tended to become deeper when his wife had an acute brain disorder four decades ago. Imperfect surgery and physiotherapy followed with odd, occasional complaints of pain for which the best apothecaries had no result-oriented answers. They turned to god, with a modest cash offering to their favourite deity. Side by side, they sought a young physiotherapist’s help. Lo and behold, whether as a benediction from the son of man or god’s father, Sudha’s excruciating pain was significantly relieved. Such relief has been felt by few people.
“Oh My God,” or, as popularly chanted, OMG, was once the constant refrain of Ravi’s thought and speech and writing. The combination changed. God ceased to be an essential commodity. Deliberations on god usually brought down my comfort level. I was more inclined to go with the nasadiya suktam which recognizes no state of being nor non-being. The tricky teacher of the scriptures says perhaps the one up there presiding over the sky knows, or perhaps he does not. Ravi is not assailed by such multiplicity of views on god or his lack. It is all a matter of Prana. Prana is its mind, working within me and without, much like paramatma in action, minus its levity.
– The Mystery of the First Breath
– Paramatma in Our Living Room