Trust

Often, people will exalt the glory of modern times by citing the marvelous technological progress we have made. Not only has it made life very convenient, technology can be used to save the Earth. For example, we now have paperless banking and bills and what not. This can be used to save trees.

I disagree.

Technology that is used to increase convenience for us without a consideration for justice is fundamentally a tool of violence. If we save time by using a blender to make our frappe instead of doing it manually, some person in China slaves away for hours at a terrible pay and in awful conditions to make that happen. Energy is conserved. We cannot save it without someone else picking up the slack.

This is my application for a visa to a first-world nation.

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The whole application procedure is online we save so much paper that way, except that there is so little trust left in the world that they ask for your entire life history in order to allow you to travel in their country for 3 weeks. I remember visa applications in my earlier and technologically backward days where paper was being wasted left right and center. You had to submit your passport and maybe 3-4 pages of documentation. It used to take a lot longer because the embassy would do the work of verifying your papers. Now, all they want is money and your entire life on paper. So it is faster. But it is faster because the time that is saved is offset by the amount we lean on nature. It takes a lot more paper and a lot more money which is essentially effort we have expended in our (almost certainly exploitative) employment. So the technological “progress” has done nothing. It has caused us to expend more natural resources and lull ourselves into a belief that things have got easier. This is nothing but confusion.

Progress.

Progress will come when we learn to trust each other. The road to progress for our generation is inward. That is where the solutions lie. As long as we seek progress outside of ourselves, we will cause more devastation than ever.

I realize that this is basically a rant. I am excited for my travels but honestly, the price that the Earth is paying for our adventures is starting to become prohibitively expensive.

 

Change

It is the nature of man to seek unity. To seek that which underlies the apparently known. I like to connect all my experiences. Weave them into a thread of meaning that could not have existed without me. That is how I know myself. We are all here to learn from each other.

A few things happened recently. I went to watch a production of Charandas Chor performed by the actors of the Naya Theatre of Bhopal, the company that was founded by the late Habib Tanvir. Then, I read about an organization that is promoting the arts as an agent of social change. Finally, I have started a project that aims to map a path through the collective shared memory of our generation. It is regarding this last that I started to watch an old Mahabharat episode on YouTube. I heard the familiar opening recitation of a Sanskrit shloka. I have heard it at least a thousand times in my life, because not only did I watch the Mahabharat every week when I was growing up, my flatmates and I in graduate school watched the whole thing again on laptops. Having heard the opening shloka a thousand times, today I realized that I did not know what it meant. This is a sign of our times folks. It is not too late to make amends so I Googled the meaning. It is the 47th verse of the second chapter of the Bhagvad Gita. I will reproduce it here in transliteration.

Karmanye vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana,
Ma Karmaphalaheturbhurma Te Sangostvakarmani

The meaning of the verse is—

You have the right to work only but never to its fruits.
Let not the fruits of action be your motive, nor let your attachment be to inaction.[1]

 

My heart was stilled by the beauty and profundity of the verse. I had to read it again and again. Why is this the opening verse of the 12 year epic series that captivated the imagination of an entire generation of Indians? More importantly, why do we not see it in their actions. Why has it not altered the history of the nation? Instead, the history of the nation is being made by what came later in the telecast. The display of macho strength, patriarchy, war-mongering, revenge, chest-thumping commentaries about the “naari’s sammaan” and the “kul ki maryada.”

Now, what does this have to do with the play I watched and with arts for social change? The play was performed by actors that have come out of the folk tradition in Chatthisgarh. These actors live in villages and small towns and while they are very experienced their cultural attitude is one of service and not performance. I don’t know them personally. I am not making a comment about their goodness as people etc. But it appears that when they are on stage, they work to serve the story. This means that they perform the actions required by the script whether or not they are feeling “personally inspired” in the moment or not. If the script requires them to laugh, they laugh, if it requires them to do a little jig, they do a little jig. They seem to be unconcerned by the result. The story flows merrily along with little or no anxiety shown by the performers. This is in sharp contrast to the modern, urban actor.
 
This person worries endlessly about how they are coming off. Their performance is riddled with anxiety about being “fake” or “not convincing.” The moment you attach yourself to “convincing” someone you have become attached to the result, you have lost the wisdom of the 47th verse of the second chapter of the Bhagvad Gita. You suffer from the delusion that you can somehow control the audience. You have become, if I am to indulge an exaggeration, a tyrant. It is a quality of scriptural text that it anticipates your questions and doubts. The next question in this case is, well, if we don’t have any control over the fruits of our actions, then why do the action at all? Well, first, because it is not your right to be attached to the fruit of your actions. It is your right only, to work. And further, do not become depressed and then attach yourself to inaction. In this second line, there is hope. We are being told implicitly, that there is virtue in this. It is good for us to keep working. That, that is the way. But the difficulty of our generation is that we don’t like to be told anything. We view it with doubt. We think it is an attempt to control us because we are so fearful. We do not trust that things may be told to us because they are good for us. And if we do allow ourselves to listen then we demand proofs and evidence and references. We are so blinded by the morality of scientific thought that we cannot trust our own hearts, intellects and bodies to be the vessels of experimentation with the truth. We have externalized completely, outsourced rather, the discovery of the purpose of life. We look for the meaning of the world in the world even though we know fully well that meaning is more subtle than what appears to us at the surface. It is no surprise that the theatrical and film world is blighted by depression, loneliness, insignificance all of it fueled by the delusion that somehow it is we who are the agents of transformation in the world.
“It feels fake. “
– The disgruntled actor.
This links us to the arts for social change agenda. It is a powerful idea, I think. The idea, broadly speaking, is to sensitize and expose people to techniques that help them to uncover the truth and meaning beyond surface appearances. In other words, to help them connect to their innate urge to find unity. The difficulty though, is compounded. The organization that runs the programs are sometimes headed by people who themselves are severely attached to the outcomes, the fruits. NGOs, while claiming to represent a counterpoint to the corporate rat-race, run their employees into the ground. Deadlines, fund-raising madness, field visits all in the service of good intentions. They do not take to heart the command of the Bhagvad Gita, that your right is only to work. You have no right to the fruit. So, to perform the duties is your only task. You must perform them efficiently, regularly and with all of your creativity and intelligence at work and attach not at all to the outcomes. When attachment does occur, you remind yourself of what you have been told. Here also, we run into the difficulty that no one likes to be told anything any more. Everyone knows far too much already. So, a creative, well-meaning, well-educated, passionate and sincere person is run into depression and anxiety by their own god-complex. That somehow, WE or I will make a difference. So the question we must ask is, if we have no right over the fruit of our labors, then who does? Who is it all for?
I want to make a difference.
 – Well meaning NGO worker.
In the Islamic tradition, the belief is that the purpose of man is to follow the command of Allah SWT. That all actions, all affection is directed toward Him. And further, that true, change and transformation is only possible through the power and will of Allah SWT. In Arabic, it is:
hawla wa lā quwwata illā bi Allāh

“The phrase may be translated word-by-word as:

lā = no, not, none, neither
hawla = change, alteration, transformation, movement, motion
wa = and
lā = no, not, none, neither
quwwata = strength, power, potency, force, might, vigor
illā = but, except, if not
bi = with, to, for, in, through, by means of
Allāh = Arabic name for the Supreme Being

Progress is only achieved through change and transformation… and spiritual progress requires the highest degree of change and transformation. We may wish to change, but we alone do not have the power to make such changes. Such change and transformation can only occur through the tahwīl (transformation) of Allāh. That is to say, true change and transformation can arise only through the awesome and glorious powers of Allāh.” [3]

The meaning of this bears great consequence in our lives. What is being said is that we cannot even change ourselves! Without the will and of Allah SWT who has control and dominion over all things. So, we must never expect to be able to change the world without His help. And to seek His help, we must remember Him. Dhikr, the Arabic word for the rememberance of Allah SWT. A highly recommended practice in the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
It is in the nature of man to become attached to what he strives for, whether it be personal transformation or the transformation of society. This attachment causes frustration. But this attachment is a delusion, a flight from our purpose, which is to act without concern for the result. On stage and in life. The way out of this attachment is dhikr, remembrance. To remind ourselves, of the message brought to us by the noble Bhagvad Gita and the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). That change and transformation are not caused by us. But to those who false arrogate to themselves the powers of change and transformation, those who are now laughably investigating “social engineering,” this is a message of despair. That we don’t control anything. But for those who can humble themselves before Allah SWT, who can find it in themselves to obey, for them this is humility. This is mercy, mercy for ourselves. That we can take ourselves off the hook. That we can believe in the justice of Allah SWT, which is perfect. That when we strive in His cause, when we perform the actions He has ordered us to, He will reward us in this life and in the Hereafter.
So the next time the self becomes too much on to you, repeat the shloka, repeat the words of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), take them to heart and be gentle with yourself. Inshallah, you will find yourself endowed with strength and vitality and then you can continue on your quest without fear.
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It is beyond the shadow of doubt that I am a fallible man who possesses but partial wisdom so may Allah SWT forgive me my errors of judgment. For indeed, Allah knows best. May His blessings be upon all of you.

Sources:
  1. http://www.swamivivekanandaquotes.org/2014/05/bhagavad-gita-chapter-2-verse-47.html
  2. Mahabharat, Episode 49-54, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjELJsDOVtU
  3. Wahiduddin’s Web, https://wahiduddin.net/words/tahwil.htm

 

Choose

I just finished performing in the play “Shiva Calling.” It is a piece that merges all the worlds, the galaxies, the star systems.  It merges past lives and folds time into itself. The Universe lives and breathes continuously, destroying itself and reforming in every moment. You believe what you perceive to be real.

Amar is going to be executed tomorrow morning. He sits alone in his prison cell at night. Or is he alone? He faces the task of believing that the path to freedom begins by looking inside. Will he believe? Or will he simply die? You know, they say you die twice. Once when you die and once when the last person that loved you dies. So I’m already dead. 

The show occurred in the backyard of a majestic historical site. The Qutub Minar. As we prepared feverishly, doing warm-ups, breathing through our nervousness, peering into the auditorium to see how many seats were still vacant, bantered backstage, the Minar and its surrounding ruins stood in silence. Witness to a time gone by. A million births and deaths. People must have gathered in the courtyard at night, just like us, to sing to the moon. To celebrate. To rejoice. To prepare for war. Belief clashing against belief, ideology against ideology.

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Time and again, they have come to me. Shiva! Shiva! To tell you the truth, I am just a simple ascetic who would like nothing more than to be left alone on his lonely mountain. Losing himself to meditation. 

Nothing is forever. Only impermanence. But we must keep playing the drama. On and on it goes. We have no choice. But, in that trap, we are free.

 

Qaid-e-hayat-o-band-e-gham asl mein dono ek hain

Maut se pehle aadmi gham se nijaat paaye kyun?

— Mirza Ghalib

 

The prison of life and the grief of man are the same

Why should man be free of grief before death takes him?

 

The Love Divine

Written for the play “Shiva Calling,” showing this weekend at Q’La, New Delhi.

 

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Oh you, who waits
Oh you, who waits
if it feels like another day
that is because it is
may you go in peace
may you go to peace
may your heart be at rest

 

The river dances on
to the beat of the cosmic drum
it flows past the setting sun
to the valley
of the beloved one

all desires spent
to the high temple I went
the snowy mountain wept
with the winds it swept
my dreams along the breeze

what is left?
wish everyone well
in to the eternal river I fell
no sound was heard
but a distant ringing bell

the heavens will draw ever near
the swan of fury dives in water clear
I was here once
who is here now?

like the scent of fine wine
you know its a love divine
when my heart beats in yours
and your heart beats in mine

 

 

Amar, The Eternal

Is khwaabgaah ke andhere mein main azaad hoon

Gahre neele aasmaan mein abaad hoon

(In the darkness of this dream chamber, I am free

in the deep inky blackness of sky, I thrive)

 

Tod saka hai kaun mere jism ko zanjeer se

Khoon ka rishta hai rooh ka taqdeer se

(who can break my body with chains,

the spirit is married to destiny through the blood in my veins)

 

Chala jaaoonga ek din doosre jahaan mein

Ummeed-e-kaamiyaabi rakhta hoon imtihaan mein

(one day, I will be gone to the next world,

I fancy my chances still in the test of life)

 

Roshni dar-o-deewar se gum hui to kya

Taron bhari raat se aati hai ik sard hawa

(the walls and corridors are blank, so what?

the breeze comes to me from the starlit night)

 

Sannata bahlaye hai mujhe har raat ko

Parakh chukha hoon beet gayee har baat ko

(the darkness whispers sweet nothings to me all night,

I’ve considered my past many many times)

 

Kaun kahe ke kyun kya hota hai

Kyun insaan guzre waqt ko rota hai?

(who will say why things happen that do,

why does man cry over things gone by?)

 

 

 

Ek Khwaab Hai

Ek khwaab hai

Ek khwaab hai

Dil mein ek sailaab hai

Jis din taqdeer avaaz lagaayegi

Maujud humein woh paayegi

Har ek sawaal tum karte jaana

Har ek hamare paas jawaab hai

Ek khwaab hai

Dil mein ek sailaab hai

Woh waqt bhi ek din aayega

Jab koi raaz nahin reh jaayega

Sach aasman se barsega

Us baarish ko ruh betaab hai

Ek khwaab hai

Dil mein ek sailaab hai

 

 

The Story and the Lesson

The word “present” is a noun, an adjective and a verb. That means, it is a thing, it is a thing that you are and a thing that you do. It is pronounced a little differently depending on the usage but is it simply a coincidence that the same word is all three?

First comes the noun form. The present. Meaning, the present moment as defined by time and space. The here and now. Then the adjective form. I am present. The doctor is present. Meaning, a condition of existence. A condition that is the foundation for any kind of relationship to exist. The third is the verb form. To present. Something that you, the one who is present, does in the present moment in time. I present, the President of the United States. This is the fourth form, a noun. The thing presented. The Christmas present. As we move across the meaning of this word from its nominal form to its verbal form, we move from a meaning that is abstract to one that is very pointed and specific. The present moment – implies the eternal aspect of time. The condition of presence – a more specific position describing a particular subject. And the act of presenting – a carefully formulated action which implies a subject and an object.

We all give presents. We all present something or the other. We present our identification if a policeman asks for it. This happens every now and then. But, there is something, we present almost all the time. Our selves. We present, the physical image of ourselves, our arrangement of garment, our point of view, our opinion and our entire being to people every day. People in the workplace, on the streets, at home. This act of presentation is motivated by our world view, our aspirations and our past – which taken together can be called our story. “What’s his story?” we often ask.

Currently, I am interested in two particular modes of presentation that, when thought about carefully, have a lot in common. The presentation of the theatre and that of the classroom. I am involved, currently, in the development of an orientation workshop format for new teachers at an exciting mid-journey startup in the Delhi NCR region. And I am calling it “Presenting Yourself.”

We have discovered, the teachers and I, that the theatre and the classroom much the same but also different. Both usually have rows of seats looking on to a stage area. Through the use of stationery-props, the actor-teacher presents a story-lesson. In the theatre, it is crystal clear to all concerned that the same script when performed by different actors will bring dramatically different results. But for whatever reason, this is less obvious in the classroom. People do understand in general, that a certain teacher will bring more to a certain lesson than another teacher but in the modern age of “smart” classrooms with their prepared videos and slides, the teacher is becoming relegated to a partial-mute who’s only job is to facilitate the dissemination of compiled facts. It is demoralizing, to say the least. Most unjustly, the teaching profession has lost the affection and heroism that it once afforded. A heroism and affection, that arguably, is still alive in the theatre. There is practically no good reason for this discrepancy to exist.

This brings us to the another difference between the theatre and the classroom. The theatre – when setup correctly, is a process-oriented environment and the classroom – more often than not, is a result-oriented environment. This is more acutely true when the classroom we are talking about is responsible for producing results in competitive examinations. In a play, actors don’t rush through the story as fast as possible to get to the standing ovation. They relish the story and pace each scene, giving it its right place in the narrative flow. The goal of this process is to produce understanding and engagement in the audience. In a lecture though, even though we have the same goals, we often find teachers trying to “get through” the syllabus. Students trying to reach an answer faster than others. These behaviors are motivated by the affect of timed competitive entrance exams. In these exams, it literally doesn’t matter how you get to the answer, only that you do somehow and that you do more frequently and rapidly than others around you. Students are not concerned about each step, how it goes from one to the next. Not concerned about the values of helping each other, of taking everyone along, of the group dynamic. Yet, every MBA worth her salt will tell you that people succeed in groups. I should caveat this by saying, that there is “commercial” theatre where results are gauged by ticket sales, likes, tweets, awards and all kinds of other rubbish but we are discounting this type of theatre for the purpose of this discussion.

The goals of the orientation workshop are still to be determined. We are administering a pilot. Firs and foremost, we must restore in our teachers, the sense that their particular  perspective is of prime importance. That not just the curriculum but their own interpretation and presentation of it through the lens of their unique self is important. We must also, develop in them, a habit for self-reflection. This is a habit that is well developed in actors. In the good ones anyway. They (sometimes over-zealously) talk about their “process” or their “method” and continue to refine it through the run of their careers. Finally, we must inculcate in our teachers, an appreciation for the process-oriented approach. We cannot, in this workshop at least, question the competitive examination system and must act within the constraints and motivations that it presents. But we can, produce in teachers, the ability and willingness to blend into their teaching regiments, certain aspects of the process-oriented approach.

We have chosen to structure our economy so that our kids and the people who mentor them must put themselves through the grinder in order to achieve what we have defined as success for them. We teach our kids the virtues of help, of friendship, of togetherness and of uniqueness but we then make them compete in cattle-style competitive exams for the purposes of earning a livelihood. Is it a wonder that most of our kids are confused and a generation of teachers are mired in dilemma? Ultimately, we have to accept that all of life is sacred. Our kids and their teachers cannot sully their selves in the profane as exams approach and then surface back into the sacred, after the exams are over. We have to question the bigger picture, where we teach our kids that a livelihood is obtained at the expense of others and still ask them to be “good human beings.” But until then, we have to continue our inquiry within the constraints of the present.