Anguish and After

When I was thirty I wrote a poem and called it Autumnal.  I thought that was the end of the world. I was facing the worst critical intellectual dilemma in my life so far and didn’t know where to go, which way to turn. I even considered terminating my life in a philosophical manner. My greatest passion then was the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky. And Kirilov who appears in The Possessed was one character whom I totally identified myself with.  At one stage in his life he states categorically that life offers barely two options: either to kill oneself or the next immediately obvious one – to kill the other. Suicide or homicide would lead to some definitive action and thus provide meaning to one’s life. This was indeed crazy and the more I reflected upon this logic the more crazy I felt within. There was no essential morality no essential ethics. In fact, faced with a philosophical existentialism I realized there was no valuable essence as well. Existence precedes essence—that was Sartre’s dictum. And I then wholeheartedly believed it too. However, there was action, the possibilities of commitment to life in the real world, some ideological yearnings that my thirsting mind was egging me on to. What about the world out there that held me and everything else? What about my fellow creatures? What about earth and nature and all that beautiful world of sun rises and dawns long bright afternoons and awesome evenings leading on to silent star-studded night skies? How could I terminate my life? Shouldn’t I seek out the answers to those million questions of existence and being that my thinking brain churned out second by second? What am I? The passionate nature of my quest led me on from question to question. And no answer came up. It was interminable anguish.

Readingwas one way. Meditating, another. I would spend long silent hours lying under the shade of my favourite tree on a hill slope overlooking the border of our city. Many of my friends thought I was foolish and was simply wasting my time avoiding work and entrepreneurship. Of course I had also indulged a great deal in my other passion of sketching, painting and writing poetry. And then there were the innumerable birds. I had taken ornithology quite seriously and kept a small bird note book. Wherever I went I had it in my sling bag along with a copy of the Bhagavat Gita and my other favourite books by Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus and Nikos Kazantzakis. The world held the answers to all my questions, some how I was sure of all that. But then how does one go about getting the world to spill them all out? On the one hand there was this nagging anguish that was like a deep unquenchable thirst that left the throat parched and dry always—existential questions that loomed large like some lilac mountain, solid, unrelenting, mysterious, and yet tempting, tantalizing…on the other hand there was this tremendous feeling of an oceanic nature, beautiful, bounteous, wholesome, that was on an aesthetic and spiritual dimension—this was never fulfilling though; however, it is the experiences of this second kind that held greater promises of a holistic kind that was as yet probable and possible.  There is bound to be some order, some harmonious rhythm that would set the heart and soul at ease and satisfy the deep yearnings of the inquisitive intellect. Poetry and art gave some hints of such possibilities. The natural world of beautiful creatures and exquisite experiences delighted the sensuous aesthete in me and prodded me on like a passionate pilgrim in an eternal search of stars and sonnets. There was Rilke, there was Yeats, there was Herman Hesse, and above all there was KCS Paniker and Pablo Picasso, Ravi Varma and a multitude of like minded souls who appeared and disappeared perpetually taunting the mind as though they were equals and kindred spirits who also underwent such distressing moods of depression and loneliness and who also somehow survived to set everything right. However, there never was anyone who in my view succeeded in finding some permanent solace to the yearnings of the heart. Each encounter only served to deepen my troubled mind and dampen my creative self. Not in poetry not in art, not in nature, then where in the world was I to seek recompense for my self-quest? Nikos Kazantzakis and Freidrich Nietzsche and Herman Hesse spoke about the torments of the self and soul—while on one side the flesh with its pounding heart and sensuous skin held multitudinous desires of the self that throbbed for unending gratification, the soul that gleamed like a distant star uncontaminated and untainted by any of this tumult and turmoil, held the profound promise of a spiritual fulfillment. The split with in was so deep and I could feel this eternal battle raging in the apparent silence of the dark night of the soul! I empathized with Zorba, the Greek; Narcissus and Goldmund; Zarathustra and a dozen other great existential heroes of the world literature. This, I realized, was not the sheer romantic tensions of an immature soul, they were abiding passions of the human mind.  W.B Yeats has immortalized this in one of great poems: The Dialogue of Self and Soul.

When such as I cast out remorse

So great a sweetness flows into the breast

We must laugh and we must sing ,

We are blest by everything:

Everything we look upon is blest.

However, I believe he has given a more touching poetic expression in his Wild Swans at Coole. This could work like the Arnoldian touchstone:

Passion or conquest, wander where they will,

Attend upon them still.

This not withstanding, my greatest humbling fear was that what if all these torments were merely another aspect of the human mind, the trickster? Then this great human tragedy would become nothing but the human comedy of errors. I was hooked on to The Tragic Sense of Life by Miguel de Unamuno. I identified with that great pessimistic philosopher and the prophet of the will: Schopenhauer who also remarked that “life is essentially tragic and I am willing to make it more tragic by reflecting upon it!”

On my book shelf I found Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and Immanuel Kant resting side by side with the Gita and the Koran and Khalil Jibran and Gurudev Tagore. I rode with angels and demons. Recited the Lalitha Sahasranamam, chanted the Gita and relished the immortal lines of Omar Khayyam in Fitzgerald’s classic translation.  The Buddha spoke to me and so did Christ. Lenin and Mao and Che Guevera found equal place in my inside. I was like Hesse’s Siddhartha meditating on the moving river all day and night. Sri Aurobindo and Ramana spoke to me. I lived through the struggles of these great minds. While Ramana sounded simple at the outset he made me pause and think. Sri Aurobindo was tough. But then I was fortunate enough to read through all that he wrote, not missing out any single line. His complexity I found was only at the outside, while deep within he was like I was, confused and bewildered, confronted with a million existential questions, relishing the great aesthetic experience of being and becoming, at one with the universe. Of course it took me only a little while to recognize his great and steadfast will that gave him the continued impetus to forge ahead in the supreme quest of the spirit. I felt I understood the reason for his overt withdrawal from the world of politics into the silence and solitude of the ashram. It was not a withdrawal at all but an all inclusive immersion into the larger being of the cosmic spirit. What delighted me most about this amazing intellectual yogi was his continued openness to the questions of the body and the intellect. Someone had called him a radical mystic. Yes, Sri Aurobindo gave clear cut answers to many of my questions. However the greatest challenge was in unlocking these observations in the laboratory of ones own mind. Behind every Jelkill there is this Hyde. It might be one thing to follow these teachings of these noble masters as teachings but another to experientially encounter them. My questing mind was always alert and devious, mischievous. I wanted the cake and to eat it too. Yoga and spirituality demanded great disciplining of the senses and the mind. I was worried whether these might lead to an incarceration of the sensuous self. I wanted the passions of the body and the soul to be equally well balanced. It was a virtual impossibility.

There are among the many possibilities of life two major options: having or being. The desires of the physical self are only gratified by the possession of material objects and other things relishable through the physical senses. The hungers of the higher self are not easily satisfied: the entire being has to be transformed. Now, the most wonderful aspect of existence as I came to understand aesthetically is the inexhaustibility of life. There is no end to what you can, have or be. The craving of the self can never be abated; the desires of the soul are equally well unsatisfiable. One can go on possessing the endless riches of this world and still feel the emptiness that only becomes vaster by the second. The physical being is like a hole in the ground the larger it becomes the more emptier it becomes. The soul on the other hand desires completion of being, as Sri Aurobindo has rightly pointed out in his The Life Divine. Aspiration rises up and grace comes down– the final union results in a transformation of the being. The physical ceases to be itself and the encounter enhances the human being. The process, as I understand it, is never complete in a stasis, but results in a dynamis—a constant process of becoming. Being is becoming. The passions of the mind are not mere freaks of the imagination but they are the beacons of the divine becoming.

This is the point where the Nietzschean superman recognizes that morality and ethics are for the commoners. This is devious turn of events; leading only to fascism and eternal perdition. This is anti humanism. But reading Nietzsche closely revealed to me that he was not so naïve as to lead humanity into eternal damnation. If I were to state that he was a self-realised soul it might raise many an eye brow and even raise the hornet’s nest against me. But then the man who debated music with Wagner and pried open the philosophical positions of the western rational enlightenment grounded on binary opposites only to reveal that there are no contradictions but only complementarities, could be no simple intellectual philosopher but only one with a profound insight gained out of rigorous self analysis very much in the lines of the Upanishadic Rishis. Blake had claimed : without contraries there is no progress. Nietzsche propounds: there are no contraries but only complementarities.  Not in complete possession but in complete surrender lies the ultimate becoming of the cosmic spirit.

I have come to understand that the intellect never gives up. It always craves for more. The mind never is satisfied. It is always questing. The passions of the self are uncontrollable. Well, why should one try to do the impossible? Living is its own becoming. Love and compassion, understanding and tolerance swell forth from a completeness of being, that is forever becoming. Not in having, that is for sure, but in becoming is the greatest satisfaction of having lived! A life that is free from regrets and misgivings, free from intentional acts of evil that bestow pain for the other, relishing in the completeness of being, is spiritual indeed.

To believe the poet: after such knowledge what forgiveness? Once you have looked into the heart of anguish there is no escape. Knowledge is pain. The more one comes to know the more one feels burdened, until one learns to empty one’s intellect like unwinding a taut spring. My passion for the unknown that used to torment me then is with me still; however, I have learned to look upon those tensions with more controlled ease. The Upanishad speaks of two birds sitting on a tree. One calmly looks on while the other eats the fruit. I am sure this is to be seen in the symbology of the Upanishads as the self-aware soul reflecting on the self. There is a certain calm that befalls one as one enters a huge cathedral or a temple or any religious site, and provided one is able to maintain the same calm one can come away with it. Just like the sannyasin who returns to the human habitation after sojourning the jungles as a vanaprasta, with a calm that passes all understanding, the tormented intellect is smoothened after it allows itself to be percolated by the spiritual.  Perhaps this is the self same condition in which Dostoevsky’s Kirilov comes to decide that he is ready to quit the world. It does no more matter whether he exits this way or that; no more is he a vassal to the flesh, nor bound by the lesser moral laws of the mortals.

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