From My Notebooks 1

Silence


It’s a tall order to ask for meat without bones, and tea without leaves— Tibetan saying.

Solitude begins where the market place ends—Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

It has often happened that many a concerned visitor from overseas has enquired of me how in the midst of so much noise we in India could still consider silence to be a desirable value at all. Turn wherever we might, except perhaps in the very lonely stretches of the higher Himalayas or in the profoundly hostile sunburned wastes of the Rann of Kutch, where by very virtue of the terrain, solitude and silence are forced in upon the human mind, one cannot easily experience silence—in the sense of total lack of sound—and solitude—in the sense of absence of other human company.  We are so much people, and we appear to love noise so dearly! Nevertheless as a spiritual-minded people we have always extolled the virtues of silence and solitude as well down through the ages. This always would appear as a contradiction to the non-Indian no doubt. Do we account for this contradiction? Do we take responsibility to reflect on this at all? Do we need to, in the final analysis?

Is it that we in India have changed so much that we have spirited ourselves off from the path that those wise ones trod once? I do not wish to propose to be able to answer such a conundrum. No one can, I guess. Because of the inexhaustibility of life that propels us off our feet when we are so dismally unaware ourselves. However somewhere deep inside myself I feel that these apparent contradictions are only apparent and seen on the outside! Once we break in to the inner levels the oppositions cease to be and things get sorted out easily. Yes, noise is there on the outside, and may well have existed for ages. We are a lot of people indeed and we seem to love such a noisy world. And yet we worship silence and solitude! Perhaps in the very contradiction truth lurks. Only in the noise can one seek silence, only amidst the crowd can one seek solitude.

There are so many people in the Indian subcontinent and our living spaces are so cramped and limited in comparison with the some of the western countries. In Sweden for instance you could walk for a long time on exquisitely maintained town-roads and still not meet with any one human being for miles and miles on end. Space and time appear so different there. So healthy and crisp the air. One suddenly feels so wealthy and wise. One finds so much time and space at one’s disposal and one could also suddenly feel so desperately lonely. On the other hand, the moment one lands back in India, the market place begins and solitude and silence end. For one who is used to the noise and polluted air of the market place there is no other heaven as being back home and the feeling of belonging. There is a tale that goes like this:

A flower seller in the town had a friend who lived beside the sea and was a fisherwoman. Once she visited her friend after a hard day’s work. The friends kept awake a long time in to the night talking, laughing and sharing jokes.  However, when the time came to sleep the poor flower seller could not sleep for the stench in the hut! Somehow she tossed and turned all through the rest of the night and bid adieu to her friend the next day. It must have been a real welcome treat for her to be back amidst the sweet smelling flower filled home. Now, it so happened that her friend returned her visit one day. Of course they were delighted to meet each other and shared their dinner with equal delight. When the time came to sleep the poor fisher woman found it so terrible to be amidst the strong smell of flowers that she could hardly breathe. What is fragrance, what is stench? What the flower seller cherished the fisherwoman could not tolerate. Very late into the night she decided to drag the basket of unsold fish into the room. The pure stench of dry fish crept into the room slowly and put her to a lovely sleep.

Just like beauty that is held to be in the eyes of the beholder, smell is something that besets the smeller! The relative truth of things is a different matter. What is significant for us now is the habitual world we live in and that makes us feel at home. Now, this is not to mean that we Indians are so used to being in the midst of noise and sound that we do not feel ourselves at home elsewhere without these! The point I wish to highlight is that noise and sound are very much a part of the Indian reality. One needn’t be ashamed of it. However we as a people have always extolled the virtues of silence and solitude nevertheless. And we might as well do so because we are rightfully entitled to those! Where else can we seek silence and solitude other than in the very midst of noise and sound? Silence and sound are not binary opposites, they are complementary! They are not mutually exclusive categories, but so integrally unified. Silence begins where the marketplace ends! Solitude begins where the market place ends. There is this Tibetan saying that I have quoted as an epigraph to this essay: It’s a tall order to ask for meat without bones, and tea without leaves. Just as meat without bones is unthinkable tea without leaves is also a misnomer. Silence without the experience of noise does not make any sense at all. No wonder Indians from very ancient times have extolled the values of silence and solitude.

According to ancient Indian wisdom life is seen as a pilgrimage: and the realization that betokens the end is liberation or mukti. The purusharthas or value graph that are supposed to guide the Indian seeker after truth (and everyone is a potential seeker irrespective of caste, creed, race, ability or gender) is set out thus in our scriptures: dharma, artha, kama and moksha.  It is through the rightful path that is morally and ethically righteous (dharmic) that one seeks the pure pleasures of meaning (be it material or ideological) and life (be it love, affection, desire or sexual fulfillment).  Ultimately one moves towards that one realization—freedom from all and everything, moksha. Life is seen as liberation from itself, a release from all bondages.  And freedom is that one unique self realization. In the light of this wisdom tradition, liberation can be achieved only through the path of engagement and commitment. Only one who has traveled the entire gamut of human emotions experiencing the pleasures, the trails and travails of life can relish the final understanding. Living through means engaging at every point — experiencing every minute, relishing and living through contradictions and discrepancies. Nothing is anathema to the Indian vision. This is an all inclusive view that does not see binary opposites and mutually exclusive categories. This is the integral vision of the seer, the kavi, the drsta. Where is the fragrance, where is the stench? Both are very much real and present. In a way, silence begins where the market place also begins.  After all when Parvati, as the Puranas tell us, underwent the tapas for attaining Siva, she stood undauntedly amidst the panchagni—the five fires—during the severely scorching summers, and lay on chilling cubes of ice during the marrow-chilling icy winters.  Where else can one seek silence but in the very midst of the market place and the racket of life? This is the very place where we begin our quest. This is the real point of embarking on this adventure of life.   It’s a tall order to ask for meat without bones, and tea without leaves.

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