history

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.
dry_flowers_white
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.

qutub_minar

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?

 

Leaving London

I am at the end of my stay in London which as lots of you know has been a really heartwarming and healing time spent with my family. Tomorrow I will arrive in Paris and start another journey in the rest of Europe. I am very excited for the unknown and unexpected and also to see my old friends who have spread themselves across the continent. Yesterday I spent some time at the Bank Junction in Central London and I marveled at the place which once held and accounted the wealth of the British Empire. I wandered around Parliament Square and looked for a long time at the newly installed statue of Mahatma Gandhi and then of the towering one of Churchill. While I do feel awe at the giants of history I feel greater awe for the people that live in the world now. The people who are willing to let go of the demons of past wars and work to forge friendship and understanding. Later I was at the Royal Exchange and I saw all the people walking about, trying to do their jobs with honesty and preserve their dignity in this world. Some had arrogance and a sense of being unsure, some tried to emphasize authority with fancy clothing or in the way they sat but all I saw were people trying to be happy and whether they realize it or not, trying to do the right things. Being humbled by their imperfections. More to be seen yet.

20150720_173058The Royal Exchange, Bank Junction, Central London

United Kingdom

An Emergence of Hope

Delhiites, sit back and take a deep breath.

Among the frustrations, disappointments, shocks and confusions that we suffer daily in this city of ours, there is a place where we can exhale. The Aravalli Biodiversity Park, where I spent the entire day hiking through a nature trail accompanied by two very knowledgable ecologists who had arranged the visit at the request of my father who himself is a molecular biologist and an avid proponent of biodiversity conservation in India. The park is generally closed for the public.

We walked through a canopy of green accompanied by the symphony of bird calls. The sky was clear and the bushes were alive with buzzing. A green pigeon sat quietly on a branch taking an afternoon rest. In disturbing contrast, every now and then a loud airplane would land at IGI airport nearby. The park is home to 15 species of snakes. For those of us who have a hard time appreciating the importance of biodiversity, consider that when we eat a meal consisting of vegetable pulao along with raita and pickle, there are about 50-60 species of plants that have made their way on to our plate. Further, mankind has selected these edible species via thousands of years of experimentation. The advantages of being born in an advanced civilization are often taken for granted. Plant species are disappearing from Delhi at an alarming rate because of intense urbanization, vehicular pollution and loss of habitat. If zeera (cumin) plants were to disappear from the world, raita would never taste the same again. Plants depend on bees, butterflies and other flying insects for survival. Though overlooked, it is still a fact that if bees disappeared from the Earth the human race would be wiped out, a prospect far more sombre than bland raita.

The Aravallis are 1500 million years old.

The mountain range that is right besides us in our very hometown, the mountain range we just drive by usually without a second look, is among the oldest mountain systems in the world. Keep in mind the next time you are in Vasant Kunj, you are walking (or driving more likely) along mountains that were around before the ice age, before there were animals on planet Earth.

Take another deep breath.

The portion of the Aravallis in Delhi were subjected to mining operations to extract mica and sand. Ruins of old structures like wells from the time can be seen in the park. This destroyed the natural habitat and led to the large scale disappearance of species and the conversion of the region into barren wasteland. A team of passionate people led by eminent Delhi University biologist Dr. C. R. Babu took on the Herculean task of converting this mining inflicted land into a biodiversity preserve. This is an enormously complicated operation that requires expertise in ecology, zoology, botany, immense manpower, bureaucratic agility and an iron resolve.

Dr Hussain, the ecologist in-charge of the preserve explained that a park or a botanical garden is different from a biodiversity preserve. A biodiversity preserve is a wild forest system where the insects, reptiles and animals are put to work to keep the balance of nature without constant human intervention. What this means is that species of plants must be selected carefully and introduced in a particular order starting with the top canopy and going down to the undergrowth so that a self-sustaining forest ecosystem emerges as the tree cover increases. Such an ecosystem provides what are called “ecological services” the larger urban area. The most important among these is the gathering of polluting matter from the air. A critically needed service in Delhi, the most polluted city in the world. As we sat in Dr Hussain’s office, the air felt clean and light. It was hard to believe we were in Delhi.

The development of a forest ecosystem requires monitoring and analysis of the plants and animals inside it. Species evolve together and live in a perpetual state of interdependence. Dr Aisha, another ecologist at the preserve, showed us a mining pit that has been converted into a butterfly conservatory. She pointed out that butterflies are expert botanists. They are very specific about which plant they choose to pollinate. If a particular species of plant disappears, so does the related species of butterflies. Dr Damani, the in house expert on reptiles showed us a picture of a snake eating a ground lizard. He said that lizards in turn eat the juvenile snake individuals and in this way the two species keep each other in check. A fascinating concept in emergent ecosystems is called “ecological separation.” This is a type of equilibrium that an ecosystem attains as it matures. Each species becomes localized to particular regions which decreases competition among them and the entire forest can flourish in a state of balance.

This is a unique effort of restoring a lost world. There are many aspects of this effort that are totally new. As citizens, we should be proud of the work the teams have done and help spread the word. This project is undertaken by the Delhi Development Authority and you can find out more at http://www.dda.org. The park allows high school, college students and serious scientific enquirers to enter the premises of the park. They have a path where local community residents can take their morning walks. We can all take heart from the fact that in our dusty inferno of concrete and asphalt, a beautiful oasis of natural beauty is taking shape.