Thursday, April 22, 2010

ON ASKING QUESTIONS

There is the story of a young college boy who was sitting in an apple orchard, and counting ripe apples about to detach from the trees. Suddenly one of them fell with a thud right in front of him. He jumped back a step, and looked at it. A strange idea came to his mind: why did the apple fall down ? Someone inside him, the voice of convention, asked him, ‘did you think it should go up ?’ ‘Ah’, he told himself, ‘why not ?’ He then picked up a big pebble, and threw it up. That also came down. Then he saw a bird taking off from a tree and fly away. It did not fall down. ‘There must be a way to explain why an apple or a pebble fall down on earth, and not a bird’, thought the boy. Rest of the story is history. Mankind will forever remain grateful to that twenty-three year old for asking these questions.

There is another story of a sixteen year old sitting by his first floor window watching the lethargic lane in front of his house. Presently a funeral procession passed by. Six people were carrying a sleeping man on a bamboo frame, and some others were following mourning. He heard someone telling someone else so and so died an hour ago. This boy began to wonder, ‘Died ! what does that mean ? He is sleeping peacefully. Then who died ?’ He was determined to find out who dies in death, and who lives. He lay down on the floor on his back, and began telling himself, ‘I am dead….I am dead..’ After a while he felt his breath was stopping, and body becoming stiff, but he was as alive as ever. At that moment he realized the supreme truth of life, and the bully Venkataramana of Tiruchuzhi, Tamilnad, was metamorphosed into a Ramana Maharshi.

The history of mankind has been made by such people, who dared to ask unconventional questions, and had the courage and stubbornness to pursue the answer. Asking questions reveals a mind that seeks to know, a mind which is the seed of civilizations, of all philosophies and sciences. Knowledge is born out of a sense of wonder and mystery. It is man alone who wants to know. Face to face with the unknown, he asks questions, and shows the courage to contemplate them. This universal urge to know embedded in man has been epitomized by Tennyson in his Ulysses, ‘to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield’.

Questions are born out of our interactions, generally, with things, incidents, and people around us. Out of this confrontation we deduce principles of science and spirit. Our understanding of the principles reveals the quality of our interactions with them. Just as what we know depends on what we intend to know, how we live manifests how we intend to live. Intention can open the gate to the mystery and wonder of the unknown, or lack of it may shut the gate. The present moment is a point in the flow of time, through which flows all time. Therefore only a minute fraction of the present lives in the present. The riddles of the present may have their answers in the time gone by, or in the time to come. So face to face with the now, if we refuse to expand into the ever-now, we shall be severely
handicapped, and insufficient solutions we arrive at might prove to be dangerous disabilities. Thus the questions we contemplate are a significant indication of our intention to adventure into the unknown, or call it a bluff.

The falling of apple has been a well known phenomenon like dying. After billions of people had seen billions of apple falling, and billions of people dying a couple of them questioned what they saw. Do we really know what we presume we know? These two boys were not sure, and asked ‘why does the apple fall?’, and ‘who dies in death?’ When a mother carried her dead son to the Buddha, and asked him to give life back to him, she did not ask the same question, ‘who dies in death’ but ‘why should my son die’, and the Enlightened One taught her what was the right question to ask. The same Buddha as a very young and accomplished Prince had seen a dying man, and his question was closer to that of Venkataramana, ‘is there a way to escape suffering and death?’ The questions they asked metamorphosed them into a Newton, a Ramana Mahrshi, and a Buddha. But the interesting part of this is that there was no metamorphosis; no alchemy changed the DNA of a Newton, a Venkataramana, or a Prince Gautam. The answers were always available for a seeker, it only needed opening a different door to discover themselves. Though asking the right question is important, to endeavour to arrive at the answer isn’t any less important. If the traveller can’t live long in uncertainties, he quits. This reflects the quality of life he has lived. So our questions reveal not only what we have been, but what we intend to be. Therefore true education is educating our intention.

When misfortunes strike us, we are prone to question them, for we believe they are unwarranted. The most often asked question is ‘what did I do to deserve this?’ or, ‘why am I singled out for punishment while people around me escape with impunity?’ We might even point an accusing finger to an ‘unjust’ God, and berate him for behaving in an autocratic manner. We question everything he represents, and declare this God has no business even to exist if he cannot live up to our standards. It is a cruel universe we are thrown into, and a blind thoughtless power rules the roost. This is the general outline of Thomas Hardy’s concept of man’s tragic predicament. Hardy tries to wrest some justification for life in an unjust world, without much success. Shakespeare tells us our unjust behaviour prompted by hubris unleashes a whole set of powers that takes the affairs of life out of our hands. Tolstoy takes a religious view of things, and suggests suffering in the hands of a mysterious power ennobles a man if we learn the virtue of surrender. The reader of Mahabharata sees life as a complex story of relationships with the known and the unknown, and one must stick to right living in spite of challenges, for the patterns are set by a wise God who has an active interest in the affairs of the world. Ramayana, a story of great personal sacrifices, sets the value of principles higher than personal choices. Mankind has always asked a great variety of questions, and arrived at either a blind wall, or ever shifting boundaries. While the ‘unwarranted’ ‘misfortune’ might be intended to lead us into the mysteries of life, we may choose to challenge the very possibility and get entangled in the morass of life, more and more. The book of Job is an interesting book in the Old Testament. Job is kind, honest, generous, God-fearing, yet he is crushed. Everything is taken away from him in a day, his property, his friends, his health, his family. His estranged friends advise him to admit he was a sinner, and the visitation of God’s punishment was just. Job refuses to admit that he had erred on God’s commandments. He is upset, angry, and insists God’s action has been unjust. He wants God to justify Himself. God finally speaks to him does he have full knowledge of life’s mysteries? Then why does he claim full understanding? Job accepts he has been asking the wrong questions. God of course restores his former status to a chastened Job, and blesses him with a longer life.

There is a similar situation in the Ramayana. Rama shoots the fatal arrow at Vali hiding behind a tree. The fallen king is surprised and outraged. How could Ram do this ! Born into the noblest of traditions how could Rama, accepted as an upholder of the most virtuous conduct of right living, do this dastardly act ! There issues a long conversation between the two about intricacies of right living, but Vali is not convinced. But when finally Rama offers to restore his life and his kingdom, Vali denies the gift and chooses death instead. It begins to dawn on him that whatever he has lost, he has lost in good hands, and he has no will to retrieve an apparently ill-spent life time. He understands Rama has a point in killing him the way he did, he no more insists on Rama to justify himself. He dies a reconciled man. Unlike Job, he dies a wiser man, because he begins to see the futility of a wrong question.

The Bhagavat Geeta offers us another similar situation. Arjuna asks why should he kill his own kith and kin. He prefers to forego a kingdom, and a heaven to indulging in this massive homicide. He is even ready to live the rest of his life on begged food than drawing blood of his guru and grandfather. But Arjuna was a man of sterling character and wise disposition. Even at this moment of unusual mental turbulence, he is listens to his friend, who does not mince words to call him a fool. Krishna tells him he has asked a wrong question. Then starts a series of questions and answers amidst the din of a huge war in preparation, the neighing horses, the trumpeting elephants, and the hissing bowstrings. At the end of the long conversation Krishna ensures that Arjuna has heard with undivided attention all that he said , and rewards him with the vision of the Cosmic Form. Job’s questions were not answered, Vali withdrew his questions, but Arjuna got all his questions answered. These three characters represent three positions we assume face to face with the mysteries of life, obedience, understanding, and wisdom. Job returned to his earlier position of balanced happiness, Vali was elevated to the joy of transcendence, but Arjuna received enlightenment. First two refrained from asking wrong questions, and the third asked the right questions.

When we feel crushed by misfortunes, that is ‘unwarranted’ situations, we immediately infer God has caused them, and unjustly. This primary position defines our subsequent responses. Once we see cruelty and tyranny in the universal order, we lose contact with the creative forces inherent in the order, and our questions become mere complaints. We no more need an ‘answer’, for a complaint isn’t a question. We deal with the unknown on equal terms, sometimes assume a position superior to it, and demand it function at the level of our variable understanding. We are in an unenviable position now: we are aware of the presence of a power far superior to us, for it has caused great distress to us, which we can not wish away, and still we insist it function to our approval !

Instead, what happens if I accept God hasn’t caused the distress, though I know not who has? When I cease to quarrel with God, he immediately shifts from the enemy camp to the camp of an ally, and I immediately stop questioning the modus operandi of the unknown forces presided over by God. I begin to contemplate a new question – how can I make use of God to rebuild myself. If God is on my side, I refuse to be destroyed, and with a new confidence rally forth, with God’s help, to rise from the debris. Looking at the whole operation from a practical point of view, even if God explains why, for example, I met with an accident, do I feel more comfortable in my hospital bed ? My misery remains the same, I go through the same convalescing period, borrow the same money to pay my medical bills, experience the same collateral inconvenience, except the ineffective information why it happened. And since I have no dependable means of verifying the veracity of God’s answer, I have to believe in him. So what is the difference between misery without knowledge of the cause, and misery with it? My concern is to be free from misery, not to know why it happened. It is a very simple deduction that if God can help me expedite my recovery then I should welcome it rather than a discourse from him about how he is just in plotting an accident for me. That was exactly the position of the Buddha about the existence of God. While our greatest effort should be directed towards achieving freedom from misery, and that can be achieved by simple eight steps, why should we spend sleepless nights and sweating days in our cellars in endless arguments for and against the existence of God? So why not ask God to help solve my problems, or ask what lessons He wants me to learn from my misfortune, or how can I rebuild myself. By this I can convert an apparent punishment into a tangible reward.

We face a lot of misunderstanding among relatives, kins, and colleagues. We misread each other’s motives and intentions, and hold on to our own as right, react and create a whole whirlpool of miseries. Whatever is true with individuals, is also true with nations. Some political commentator has said if about half a dozen statesmen had taken a week’s leave the day before the First World War started, the face of the world would have been much different now. What he means is, instead of projecting our prejudices and selfish intentions into situations, and creating problems out of them, if we perceive in them an opportunity to promote a more mature mind, or understanding, it would be a grateful history. A great Hasidim master says if one does not grow better, they grow worse.

I am tempted to illustrate by a personal experience what I have been trying to say. Once I had some difference of opinion with a friend. To me a certain action of his and motive appeared utterly unjust. But I was unable to convince him for obviously he wasn’t prepared to accept my point of view. A more serious confrontation was imminent, and as a result a breakaway. I was terribly unhappy that we failed to reconcile and stay together. The break would raise a host of other related questions that I would have to address. All the time I was asking a simple question: why should he be so foolish to behave this way. The more did I contemplate this the more stupid he appeared, and I grew angrier until one day I happened to ask myself a different question, am I right to demand he sees the way I do while I refuse to give any ground to him? Am I here to justify myself to him, denying him the same opportunity? Is it worth breaking away from a two decade long friend for sake of establishing my controversial justness? Can’t I let him go his way and hold my peace? Isn’t life too precious to spill on such trifles? Suddenly all strains melted, and whatever was till then an all important moral issue of right and wrong appeared na├»ve and childish.

What caused this turn around? He remained the same, the facts remained the same, the world remained the same, but the problem vanished, for I taught myself to ask a different question, which was important for me, he accept me, or I accept him? Between us the world changed, as I changed the level of my understanding. Einstein once said, ‘if you can not change facts, reinterpret them’. To save oneself from miseries, quite often, is to transcend them. When I remain the centre of my world, I fail to notice other centres. When I expect others to concede grounds for me I refuse to see their expectations of me. When we don’t notice the essential fact that life is a mutuality, we are only behaving in a very irrational manner. If a bird must see a larger ground, it must climb higher.

We need complete knowledge of the mysteries of life to create a complete package of answers to our problems. To arrive at this ultimate reference point one has to continuously upgrade one’s consciousness, expand understanding, and ask fundamental questions. Bhagwan Sri Sathya Sai Baba has defined these fundamental questions as, ‘Who am I? Where am I right now? What am I doing here? How long am I going to be here?’ Once we begin asking these questions, we realise that the story of life takes a different hue and secondary questions just fall away from attention. The whole truth can not be learnt through partial truths, it is the other way round. The partial truths have any semblance to truth as they are only partial reflections of the whole truth. Our consciousness, the ground on which reflections occur has to be on a continuous expanding programme in order that it can travel closer to the whole truth. Therefore Ramana Maharshi used to persuade his questioners to approach through the whole. When someone asked “Maharshi, how can I be in peace when such a thing has happened to me?”, he replied, “Find out to whom it has happened, and who asks this question”. Bhagwan Sri Sathya Sai Baba gives us the same technique, “A time will come when we shall find that the soul is infinitely better than its surroundings. In the struggle through what we call environments, there will come a time when we shall find that these environments were almost zero in comparison with the power of the soul”. This is the objective of all our questions: to rise above the environments, and attain ‘the power of the soul’.

This of course does not indicate we could belittle the environment just by denying it. Light is not gained by denying darkness, but by refusing darkness any finality. Dark nights put nerve into our journey into light, nevertheless, we can not judge light by its temporary absence. Though the shafts of the sun knows not what darkness is, and the shroud of the night does not have sun in its vocabulary, each suggests the other. Arjuna received the purified vision to see the Cosmic Form because even in the urgency of a battlefield, he ploughed Krishna with extremely relevant and unbiased questions. Therefore from the position of ‘My feet and hands are shaking, I can not hold the bow’, he travelled to win the great battle.

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