Greater Men Than Ourselves

Like all years preceding it, 2015 has been a very eventful year, perhaps a little more for different reasons that we shall not go into at this stage. There will no doubt be, as usual, some very weighty reviews of events and issues of the year by the relevant experts. It has seemed to me that, in the midst of all the turbulence that continues to assail us, what we most need is a clear sense of direction as to where we are headed. This is a perennial dilemma of mankind in all ages, and there are many who have left us their distilled wisdom for guidance.

As expressed by the English philosopher CEM Joad, “what is the point of life and how ought it to be lived? Philosophy concerns itself with these questions, not aspiring to answer them with finality, but considering and studying the answers which have seemed convincing to greater men than ourselves.” What better gift, therefore, than to offer our readers a bouquet of the thoughts of those great who have spent their lives pursuing this impulse of curiosity, and epitomised in their sayings their efforts towards finding some answers. There is much to humble us in what they say, if we are capable, that is, of humility. If we are not, as the majority of us would appear to be, then we shall continue to be directionless…

Ever since I listened to the lecture on Einstein by the Physics teacher (late) Kishtoe delivered to the Philosophical Society at the Royal College, Curepipe in 1964, Einstein has been one of my favourites. It is therefore without surprise that when, at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington some years back, I came across ‘The Quotable Einstein’, I immediately bought a copy. Here are some gems from this collection:

* Great spirits have always encountered resistance from mediocre minds.

* At times such as these, one realises what a sorry species one belongs to. I am moving along quietly with my speculations while experiencing a mixture of pity and revulsion.

* It is easier to denature plutonium than to denature the evil spirit of man.

The evil spirit of man reminds me of a book entitled ‘The Parable of the Beast’, an attempt at finding out whether man is a beast trying to rise or whether he is a fallen god.

My own conclusion, in this age of Kaliyug, is that we are surrounded by beasts in human garb. The question of their trying to rise does not even… arise. But let us continue with Einstein:

* The only way to escape the corruptible effect of praise is to go on working.

* Only a life lived for others is worthwhile.

This echoes, in a way, another saying whose author I can’t remember: “The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.”

Back to Einstein:

* We have to do the best we can. This is our sacred human responsibility.

And here I recall Paulo Coelho in ‘L’Alchimiste’:

“Lorsque nous cherchons à être meilleur que nous sommes, tout devient meilleur aussi autour de nous,” and, further, “C’est dans le présent que réside le secret; si tu fais attention au présent, tu peux te rendre meilleur. Et si tu améliores le présent, ce qui viendra ensuite sera également meilleur.” But the best follows: “C’est nous qui alimentons l’Ame du Monde, et la terre sur laquelle nous vivons sera meilleure ou sera pire selon que nous sommes meilleurs ou pires. C’est là qu’intervient la force de l’Amour, car, quand nous aimons, nous voulons toujours être meilleurs que nous sommes.”

I guess the cynic would remark “ce n’est pas évident”, and he would not be far wrong in this age. Nevertheless, the torch is lit for us to follow the path. That we do not do so is the cause of our ills, and we can quote Coelho again: “Le mal, ce n’est pas ce qui entre dans la bouche de l’homme. Le mal est ce qui en sort.”

So, if we desire good, perhaps we should be watching our words. But, at the same time, we must heed this Sufi saying: “Every impression of an evil nature should be met with a combative attitude.”

Let us continue with some more Sufi sayings:

* Seek not pleasure through the pain of another, life through the death of another, gain through the loss of another, nor honour through the humiliation of another.

It goes without saying that the implication is that those who act contrary to the above will have to pay for the consequences, quite in keeping with the Law of Karma, reflected to some extent in proverbs such as “As you sow you shall reap”, or “Qui sème le vent récolte la tempête.”

Some more Sufi gems:

* One single moment of a sincere life is worth more than a thousand years of a life of falsehood.

* Reason is a flower with a thousand petals, one covered by another.

* The moment a person becomes straightforward a straight way opens for him.

* A man without a character is a flower without perfume.

* A great person will stretch your mind to the breadth of his own heart, and a small person will narrow it to the size of his own outlook.

* Kindness which is not balanced with firmness may prove to be weakness.

* Failure in life does not matter; the greatest misfortune is standing still.

Take this together with: “Success is never final and failure never fatal. It is courage that counts.” (Anon) To be courageous requires that one faces the truth head-on — but how many to date are prepared to face the truth. However, the problem has been with us ever since for, as Aristotle observed: “Truth can influence only half a score men in a given century or time, while falsehood drag millions by the nose.” Goodness gracious! Are we really so doomed that only a handful of us do not dabble in falsehood! Looking around at the state of the world, where men are tearing each other apart and thriving on falsehood, we have perforce to agree with Aristotle…

But let us take heart with the spiritual guru JP Vaswani’s encouragement: “Problems and challenges are not a dead end; they are only a bend in the road. Problems are not stumbling blocks; they are stepping-stones to a better, richer, more radiant life. Not unoften, problems become the door through which God enters our life.”

God enters our life in many ways, and one of these ways is death. As the saying goes, there are only two certainties in life: income tax and death!

There cannot be one human being alive who hasn’t at one time or another reflected, however briefly, upon his own mortality. Only a couple of days ago this topic came up inadvertently and spontaneously with someone very close to my heart. My mind went back to the dialogue between Nachiketas and Yama in the Upanishads. Today, I re-read what Vaswani said about death: “Death is very much like the sunset: when the sun sets here, it has already risen elsewhere. Likewise, death here is birth elsewhere.” The other day, I read out this anonymous poem to the one with whom I was sharing my thoughts:

Do not stand on my grave and weep;

I am not there, I do not sleep

I am a thousand winds that blow

I am the diamond glints on snow

I am the sunlight on ripened grain

I am the gentle autumn’s rain

When you awaken in the morning’s hush

I am the swift uplifting rush

Of quiet birds in circled flight

I am the soft stars that shine at night

Do not stand at my grave and cry;

I am not there, I did not die.

And I will end on a Sufi note:

One day I met the Lord face to face, and, bending my knees, I prayed, “Tell me, O King of compassion, is it Thou who punishest the sinner and givest reward to the virtuous one?”

“No”, He said, smiling, “the sinner attracts his punishment; the virtuous earns his reward.”

In the year ahead and beyond, let us pray that more people will be looking for reward rather than punishment!

* Published in print edition on 18 December 2015

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