05 - 07 - 2020

Look beyond for meaning;Pain goes hand in hand with prayers amid the coronavirus pandemic

As the taken-for-granted world crumbles, we find ourselves amid terrible uncertainty. In a way, the coronavirus has shattered our confidence in what we have been doing in the age of modernity — planning our ‘tomorrows’, establishing our ‘supremacy’ over nature, and intensifying the culture of narcissism.

And now as everything is upside down, it is not easy to redefine our modes of living, and regain the meaning of existence. Amid bewilderment and shock, we find ourselves wounded and broken. Life, far from being a picnic party, is now a tale of pain and anxiety. As the outer realm has lost its vitality and productivity, and the inner self is not easy to cope with, each of us, it seems, is living with psychic nausea, boredom, meaninglessness and fear of death.

However, this pain is not merely biographical or existential. The moment we open our eyes and think deeply, we experience yet another sort of pain. This pain emanates from the violence implicit in our broken/fragmented/hierarchical society. As we seek to understand the sociology of this pain, we find two reasons. First, the new middle class (I see its ‘newness’ in the context of neoliberalism — its market-driven culture of consumption, its reckless competitiveness and doctrine of the survival of the fittest) seems to have demonstrated its selfishness quite nakedly. While the gated communities have closed their doors, the entire brigade of ‘maids’ and ‘servants’ have been reduced to new ‘untouchables’. For us, it does not take much time to blame the poor for everything, including the coronavirus. We love to order and eat pizza; but if the pizza delivery boy is infected, he is projected as a villain. No wonder, as migrant workers lose their jobs, we reduce them to useless objects — a nuisance, a danger. While they are stigmatised and hungry, it is okay for us to consume the glossy stories of Bollywood stars and celebrities.

Second, think of social distancing. It is nothing new. Despite the struggles of Ambedkar and Gandhi, the privileged castes — driven by the strange logic of purity and pollution — continue to retain some sort of psychic distance from the ‘lower’ castes. And the rich, despite the much-hyped spectacles of charity, have abandoned the poor. Socialism is ‘ugly’, and the nation feels proud of its top 10 richest men! Added to this, ‘distancing’ has acquired yet another meaning at this time when the ruling regime, or its propaganda machinery, does not hesitate to exploit even the pandemic for spreading the poison of communal divide. Imagine the meaning of being a Muslim and coronavirus-positive. Toxic television channels castigate him, or see him solely responsible for spreading the virus; he is seen to be a ‘threat’ to public health — no less dangerous than a ‘suicide bomber’. And in a society like ours, characterised by the ghettoisation of space as well as mind, Muslims are further separated from the dominant consciousness. In other words, if you are sensitive, you feel this socio-political pain: the ugliness of selfishness, communalism and indifference to the misery of the downtrodden.

Yet, the paradox is that, despite this intense agony, this is also a moment of prayers. And genuine prayers emanate from a sense of wonder and humility. With prayers, we transcend our narcissism; we begin to connect; we beg forgiveness for all our misdeeds; and we seek to find a meaning of dignified existence even when things are not ‘normal’. It is the ultimate religiosity of man; it is something beyond the trap of priestcraft and organised religions. With this religiosity or prayers, we would realise that there are limits to the narcissism of modernity. If science becomes merely an instrumental technique of domination, it loses its connectedness with poetic wonder; it misses the wisdom that we are not conquerors, but are organically connected with the entire biodiversity. And then, Blake, Wordsworth and Tagore would join our prayers; we would beg forgiveness for the damage we have caused to nature.

With prayers, we would begin to long for collective redemption. We would realise that heightened inequality, exploitation and hierarchy degrade the sanctity of life. We would feel what it means to be a migrant worker, and walk ceaselessly without food and shelter in search of a ‘home’ that has already begun to suspect him as a carrier of the dangerous virus. And then, Gandhi would join our prayers, and we would realise that the good of the individual lies in the good of all. We would realise the hollowness of our obsessive desire for all sorts of manufactured needs; we would realise how consumerism intensifies our selfishness, and makes us prisoners of imaginary ‘comforts’. And at this moment, Thoreau would join our prayers; and we would realise why he went to the woods, and sought to live peacefully with heightened austerity.

With prayers, we would evolve the blueprint of a different kind of society. And then, ecological sensitivity would emerge from the spirit of connectedness and wholism; Schumacher’s ‘Small is Beautiful’ would not look ridiculous. Moreover, even amid extreme difficulties, we would begin to appreciate the values of patience and endurance, as Ernest Hemingway depicted in his classic Old Man and the Sea. Furthermore, we would learn how not to see death as a statistical abstraction; instead, with absolute mindfulness, we would live every moment as intensely as possible. We would realise that to love is to die because death is the ultimate dissolution of insulation, egotism, distancing and separate ‘me’. We would not fear death. We would live and die simultaneously.

Avijit Pathak

Sociologist