The two of us usually talk on Sundays – a London-Mumbai conversation. Of late, the conversation, back and forth, has been over a book we have worked on — Dharma: Decoding the Epics for A Meaningful Life. As 2020 ends, we veered from the coronavirus pandemic towards authors and world-views – specifically, two: J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin, the modern era’s two high points of fantasy fiction literature in the West. Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. Two great authors. Two good men (by most accounts). Two great visions. Two different worldviews.
Some may ask, why turn to Western authors for insight on dharma? Why not? Goddess Saraswati showers her blessings on all, and wisdom pours in from all corners, unconstrained by human borders of nations and civilisations.
The worlds of Tolkein and Martin
The Tolkien world-view is driven by nobility, goodness, clarity of morals, of right and wrong. Even the violence in Lord of the Rings or LOTR is driven by honour. The Martin world-view is dark. Pensive. Brutal. Unforgiving. It is decadent, debauched, and violent. Game of Thrones or GoT often contains no-purpose violence, just because the character can. It is violence from a dark place.
At its heart, LOTR is driven by nobility, virtue, but simplistic judgementalism, while GoT is driven by power-play, absence of morals, but realistic pragmatism.
Tolkien was born in 1892 and died in 1973. He saw it all, for they were brutal decades. World War One — 37 million dead. Spanish flu — 50 million dead. Great Depression — unemployment, famine, inflation, ruination. Nazi ascension. World War Two — 60 million dead. Amazingly, humanity survived.
Martin was born in 1948. And the Western world took off from the late 1940s into a Long Peace. He was a baby boomer and grew up in a milieu of well-being in his society. He has seen perhaps the best time ever for humanity, when per capita violence is the lowest ever. Per capita prosperity is the highest ever. Baby boomers had a good life and Martin didn’t live through the horrors of war. He even dodged the faraway Vietnam war.
You’d think their life experiences would define their worldview. Someone who’s lived through wars and deprivation would create a dark universe and one who has lived in peace and had the good life would create a sunshine world of light and goodness.
But it’s the other way round. Why? How?
Is it that those who suffer, learn? Grow moral? Deepen their nobility (for there is potential nobility in everyone)? Ancient Indians talked about the role of suffering in spiritual growth. Challenges are opportunities. Tough times are a churn and can bestow nobility. Grief can bring out the best in us. Ironically, an easy life can create a sense of drift and descent.
Dharma in the pandemic
The elite Western youth of today are the most privileged generation in human history. It is difficult to understand why they are so angry. Why the nihilistic and destructive urge, despite having the best life, in material terms, that any generation has ever had?
The Buddha gave us the Chatvari Arya Satyani, or the four noble truths. A more accurate translation would be four truths for the noble.
The first truth of nobility is dukha. Grief. Misery. Life is misery, Buddha said. His concept of dukha was broader than mere suffering. It encompassed a sense of unease, dissatisfaction. The second is samudaya, which defines the cause of misery. It is a craving, a cloud of attachments and desires that surround our waking moments. It is non-positive, unconscious emotional and mental states. The third is nirodha, the possibility of ending misery. And the fourth, marga, is the path to ending misery.
Misery leads to the path.
The coronavirus pandemic, which emerged in China’s Wuhan has taken the world by a psychological storm. There has been death, destruction, economic chaos. Businesses have been wiped out. Over 16 lakh people have died globally. Too many more have suffered and are still suffering. It is terrible, heart-breaking, and an end seems far away. Furthermore, most experts agree that even when the pandemic ends, the economic and psychological scars will remain for years, if not decades.
And so, using the principles of dharma, and the role of grief, will we emerge stronger and wiser from this pandemic? Will we emerge better? Or have many among us, especially the elite, not suffered enough? After all, yes, we have been confined to our homes. Captive, but with running water and food; even innovative recipes. There is the face mask and social distancing, but also electricity, Wi-Fi, Netflix and Amazon Prime.
Have we suffered enough? Do we really need to suffer enough? How much is enough? Can we learn the lesson of the times without the tightest of slaps by Lady Destiny? What would Dharma say? Is there a spiritual purpose to the pandemic? Can this be a spiritual opportunity?
It is up to us. Every single one of us.
The lessons abound. We can re-ignite a sense of community. Root ourselves in the cocoon of family, friends, neighbourhood – meaningful human relationships, rather than the noise of social media. Can we live a life that is larger than our selfish interests, goals and ambitions? The pandemic has taught us that we can live with less. Much less. We have learnt that desires can be both infinite and very finite. It is a mental arrangement. Can we do quiet charity and abandon the egoistic urge to showcase it with press releases and social media posts? We might then open the space for dharma to enter our lives.
We have seen our fellow creatures of other species on this planet heave a sigh of relief. Can we create a better world not just for ourselves but for the animals? For water bodies, mountains and grasslands? For all living species?
Dive within. Divine the message of the times. Reclaim a sense of wonder. And an adult responsibility for all life.
Grief can lead to spiritual growth. Gautam Buddha said so. We should listen.
Amish is the bestselling, award-winning author of Shiva Trilogy, Ram Chandra Series & Suheldev. Bhavna Roy is a teacher and author. Amish & Bhavna have together written the non-fiction book, Dharma. Views are personal.