In last week’s issue of this paper, in the last page under ‘Life lessons’ there is an article titled ‘Success is a lousy teacher’. It is about a brilliant science student from Madras who always scored 100% and got admission in IIT Madras where his excellent scores earned him a seat at the University of California to do MBA. After passing out he got a high paying job, married a beautiful Tamil girl and lived in a 5-room big house with her and their children, and they had luxury cars in their garage. Then came the US economic crisis, he lost his job and couldn’t get another job even at reduced salary. His tragic end is described as follows:
‘His house instalment broke, and he and his family lost their home. They survived a few months with less money, then he and his wife decided to commit suicide. He first shot his wife and children and then shot himself.’
An academic psychologist carried out research on his case, obtaining information from family and friends, and concluded that ‘he was programmed for success not for handling failures’. Lessons are drawn from this sad case, one of which is that ‘knowledge of life’ will help to face every problem.
I do remember reading about this incident a few years ago, the news report showing the house where it took place. The story resonated with me: a classmate of mine at Royal College Curepipe died prematurely because of job problems he too had faced. I learnt this from a common friend who had settled in Geneva where I used to attend WHO work sessions. It was during one of my visits there, when I usually caught up with him that he told me about our erstwhile classmate, let’s call him Emile.
He was not only a brilliant student right from Form I but also a superb athlete who won countless medals. In HSC we used to work in adjacent benches in the physics laboratory, and once a few of us were discussing career options. He knew I was hoping to do medicine and told me that he did find medicine an interesting profession, but he didn’t like the idea of the odd, unsocial hours of work such as night duties and emergencies – probably because he had seen how that impacted the life of his doctor relative, a quite renowned one.
Emile excelled in physics and almost naturally went on to become an electronics engineer, which I think was an emerging field in the 1960s. He became one of the high-level cadres in a big firm in Geneva, where he lived in a mansion with his wife and their three children. One weekend when he was doing some odd job at home he fell down and broke his ankle, which had to be immobilized in plaster for six weeks, and he was given medical leave accordingly. However, his company would grant him only two weeks of leave – something which I found very strange indeed – and so they thanked him and gave him his due package.
That’s where his life takes a wrong turn. Once he had recovered, he started looking for a job, not easy when you are past 50. Finally, he accepted one at lower salary, and in the meantime the family had to move across the border to Ferney in France, to a smaller house and overall reduced amenities and social status. This led to family problems, resulting in him falling into depression and alcoholism, until he passed in his mid-fifties. I was very saddened to hear this, as we were fairly close friends; once when he had had some injury and was admitted to then Clinique Darne, a group of us went to visit him. All sorts of memories started to surface when my friend was narrating this to me.
Most probably all of us have personal knowledge about some similar cases, but equally there are those who have bounced back higher after initial failure, and among them my own favourite is the most inspirational one of President Abdul Kalam of India, as narrated in his autobiography ‘Wings of Fire’. After obtaining a BSc in physics and one in electronics he travelled to New Delhi from Madras to attend an interview for a post of technical officer. He was not selected, and since he had a few days to take his train back, he decided to make a trip to the sacred places in North India, starting with Hardwar. He next proceeded to Rishikesh in the Himalayas which he had heard a lot about.
On reaching there on a bright sunny but cold wintry morning, he walked about and reached the Divine Life Society ashram. Entering the forecourt, he went towards the Swami who was sitting on the steps in front of a temple. When he faced the Swami, the latter asked what was troubling him. He then explained that he had failed to obtain the technical officer job.
They spoke in Tamil because Pujya Swami Sivananda – for that was who he was, the founder of the Divine Life Society – was himself Tamilian. Swamiji commiserated with him but advised him not to despair and to go back with a peaceful mind, because he was destined for higher things. A couple of months later he successfully cleared the interview for a post of scientific officer, went on to become India’s leading rocket scientist and then her much loved and respected President.
How did Swamiji know? Well, this is who these illumined souls are, possessing the Higher (‘spiritual’) Knowledge, experience, insight and foresight that derive from a deep understanding of life, nay of existence itself, of its eternal laws and principles. One of them is the Law of Karma, which states that every karma (action) is followed by a fruit or result. As explained by late Pujya Swami Dayananda (who was also the guru of PM Narendra Modi), every action is accompanied by an expectation, and there are only four possible results or fruits of an action: equal to, more than, less than, and the opposite of what is expected.
For example, a student about to take his Higher School Certificate examination, sitting for three subjects at principal level hopes to get the best possible results in his three principal subjects (graded from A: highest to E: lowest) – that is, 3As. When the results are announced, there are only four possibilities to his expectations: 3As (equal), he becomes a laureate (more); 2As + 1B (less); failure (opposite).
Faced with these possibilities, how should he respond? Naturally, in the case of the first two (equal or more), he will be happy and would want to celebrate, which is quite legitimate, but he must not allow himself to be overtaken by euphoria. By the same token, in case of bad results or failure, the student must not feel guilty or become depressed, and nor should his parents.
Whether the result was higher or below his expectations, the student must keep a cool mind. The typical reaction to this advice is: easier said than done! Granted – but this is where the issue of ‘knowledge of life’ alluded to above becomes relevant, namely equipping ourselves to face any eventualities in our life, by understanding the ‘why’ of things so as to respond appropriately.
We have to know what is involved in performing actions as we go through life. Three basic factors are involved in the accomplishment of an action: time or kalam, the required effort or prayetna, on both of which the person has a degree of control; the third is the ‘divine’ factor or daivam over which the person has no control and that is often designated by the terms ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’.
For example, if on the day of examination, the student has a health problem or is delayed on the road (e.g., due to an accident), this can impact on his performance and lead him to obtain less good results.
The Bhagavad Gita imparts a teaching which will give succour to the student (as also to his family), and that is: to accept any fruit of action as kripa or divine grace from Ishwara, as a prasad of divine origin, since there is always some element that is beyond our control. We must maintain a balanced mind or equanimity in both success and failure and go on from there with confidence that new opportunities will show up if we persevere.
In other words, we must always have a Plan B, or even a Plan C in anticipation and prepare accordingly. This is what I have always advised my students and juniors, backed up by the numerous successful examples which can guide and inspire them.
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