Dissecting how our priorities have all gone wrong in face of the Covid tsunami

It is in the midst of a monstrous Covid tsunami we are all here in India. People are dying, a very large number of them even without proper medical care; there are shortage of oxygen supply; hospital beds; other emergency medical facilities; medicines etc. It is a humongous task before every Indian to come together and fight this monster which is eating away precious lives. While rural India is affected, it is the highly urbanized metropolis which are badly affected. Scenes of relatives and kith and kin running around in desperation either for an elusive bed in a hospital or oxygen cylinder or even struggling to get their loved ones cremated have shaken every citizen of our nation. Also, unfortunately we see even at this hour of devastation, vultures roaming at large trying to entrap desperate relatives either in hospitals, medical stores or those selling oxygen. There is a huge premium attached to all these and suddenly we realize if we have lost the human in us in this grim hour. Of course, the silver lining is the enormous contribution and the spirit of volunteering amongst a large number of citizens who are trying to reach out and help those who are totally unknown to them.

While almost all countries of the world are usurped by the pandemic, it is the second wave of the Covid tsunami which is devastating India. Have we gone wrong in our priorities? It is a question that is now haunting most of us. Have our understanding of development which focusses on unabashed urbanization and materialism, have our current lifestyle architecture which is not in sync with nature, have our gloated food habits- all fallen flat in front of the monstrous Covid surge. It is time for serious introspection and course correction for all of us.

Notwithstanding the spirit of volunteerism and compassion shown by large number of citizens to help their fellow citizens in the hour of dismay, there are vultures too who are rejoicing at this situation. Like Shylock they want to make money at the death of people. This is human values at its nadir. The greed and hunger for money is so astounding as these vultures have killed the human within them; they remain unaffected at the cry and desperation of relatives trying to save their loved ones. It is undoubtedly a danger sign, a pointer to the crisis in our civilizational ethos. Each one of us including the vultures out to make hay while people die at some stage need to self-introspect whether any iota of human values are left. Let us do a self-talk, let us indulge in an inner dialogue and try to seek answers whether the humongous money that one is amassing from a desperate relative is really worth! Doesn’t it shake us? Do we have the courage to answer our inner self?

Chris Moore-Backman’s in his book, The Gandhian Iceberg: A Nonviolence Manifesto for the Age of the Great Turning uses the metaphor of iceberg to explain three core features of Gandhian theory and practice. In an interview with Miki Kashtan, Moore-Backman argues, “The biggest, weightiest part of the iceberg — the enormous mass under water — is what Gandhi called self-purification, which I refer to as self-transformation. This is the foundational expression of nonviolence, where we align our individual practice with our deepest principles. This alignment is the cardinal Gandhian commitment.” (https://truthout.org/articles/is-there-a-nonviolent-path-to-a-livable-future-a-conversation-with-chris-moore-backman/)

If we have to overcome the crisis in our civilizational ethos- the death of human values, each one of us have to go through a process of self-purification and self-transformation. Through our inner-dialogues and self-talk we have to dissect whether the act we are indulging in even when our fellow beings are going through unsurmountable crisis is appropriate.

The next danger sign of our civilizational ethos comes from the unabashed material development which we have started to think as the key to our happiness and well-being. Our idea of development starts with it and ends with it. Mahatma Gandhi in his seminal book, The Hind Swaraj critiques the modern civilization as one which equates the human body with machine consisting of interconnected limbs, tissues and cells. He explains how the modern civilization gives more credence to body welfare or material development than spiritual and moral progress. He says, “This civilization takes note neither of morality nor of religion. He then points out how the ‘civilization seeks to increase bodily comforts, and it fails miserably even in doing so’. Others like Albert Schweitzer also echoes Gandhi’s concern on the debasement in modern civilization and remarks that ‘the disastrous feature of our civilization is that it is far more developed materially than spiritually. Its balance is disturbed. We value too highly its material achievements and no longer keep in mind as vividly as necessary the importance of the spiritual element in life.’ As we are witnessing in the Covid tsunami, the world has definitely moved further into the abyss of civilizational decay since the times of Gandhi and Schweitzer. In fact, since Gandhi shared his concerns on the ill-effects of modern civilization, there have been tectonic shifts in the race towards crass materialism with humankind finding itself in a quagmire of deep environmental, moral and social degradation.

Bhikhu Parekh in his seminal book, Gandhi: A Very Short Introduction aptly encapsulates Gandhi’s perspectives of modern civilization. He explains, “Based on the beliefs, that unless one was constantly on the move one was not alive, and that the faster the tempo of life the more alive one was, modern civilization was inherently restless and lacked stability, it aimed to conquer time and space and developed increasingly speedier modes of transport and communication… Thanks to its restlessness and mindless activism, mistakenly equated with dynamism and energy, modern civilization undermined man’s unity with his environment and fellow men, and destroyed stable and long-established communities.”   

These thoughts of the Vietnamese Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh actually encompasses the civilizational crisis that we are currently witnessing, “We are seeking happiness, but there is suffering inside of us. We are getting sick. We don’t feel at peace with ourselves. There is a big vacuum inside of us, so we look for things outside us to fill up the vacuum. We think that new and exciting things will work, but they do not seem to have an effect. We are consuming more and more, but we do not feel fulfilment. We need love, we need peace, but we do not know how to create love and peace. We know there must be a lifestyle that will create love and joy, but unless we know how to create that kind of life, we will continue to buy things.”

While a large number of volunteers continue to serve those who are suffering, we dissect another danger sign- the perils of an over individualistic society. For very large number of us we are just an individualistic society interested in our own well-being rather than for the society at large, we unfortunately have stopped thinking of our collective well-being. In fact, although there may be arguments and counter arguments on what is wrong and what is right and in many cases the lines of right and wrong may be blurred, overall traits like hatred, jealously, hurting others for one’s own aggrandizement can never by any stretch can qualify as right moral values. We cannot by any means sacrifice moral and ethical values at the altar of strange explanations. 

Here it would be pertinent to look at Bhikhu Parekh’s description of the Gandhian understanding of the decline of moral values in the context of modern civilization. He says, “Morality was reduced to reciprocal egoism or enlightened self-interest. Since self-interest was not a moral principle, Gandhi argued that enlightened self-interest was not one either. In modern civilization, morality was a form of prudence, a more effective way of pursuing self-interest, and was virtually exorcised out of existence.”

Parekh explains on how in Gandhi’s views modern civilization ignored the quality of soul. According to Gandhi, jealousy, hatred meanness, ill-will, perverse pleasures at another’s misfortunes were some of the moral impurities. Exploitation of another human being was an inbuilt immoral value in the very structure of modern civilization. So, when a hospital or medical store or a vulture start exploiting a person who is fighting for life, it reflects the immoral value in the very structure of our civilization.

Another important danger sign which the Covid tsunami portends is our increasing disconnect with nature and other living beings. Eminent primatologist Jane Goodall has blamed human behavior for the current coronavirus pandemic arguing that it as ‘our disregard for nature’.Expressing concern at rapid deforestation which forces wild species come closer to human inhabitants and the human habit of hunting wild animals for food, Goodall pointed out, “ Because as we destroy, let’s say the forest, the different species of animals in the forest are forced into a proximity and therefore diseases are being passed from one animal to another, and that second animal is then most likely to infect humans as it is forced into closer contact with humans.” (https://thehill.com/homenews/coronavirus-report/492357-jane-goodall-blames-disregard-for-nature-for-coronavirus-pandemic?fbclid=IwAR3ZGCyHdPkJHB3IH6Vh0HivGVMhDFwRSSV6i9lp0y0jtVa8xZw-HMt4jgI)

This disconnect and dysfunctional relationship with nature and other living beings is bringing untold misery to humankind. We need to dissect our relationship with nature before it is too late. The spirit of our relationship with nature and other living beings should be interconnectedness.The spirit of interconnectedness is deeply embedded in the reality of our existence that social and universal responsibility becomes enlightened self-interest.

Bhikhu Parekh in his book, Gandhi: A Very Short Introduction talks about the Gandhian approach to interconnectedness, “Human beings were an integral part of the cosmos, and were tied to it by the deepest bonds. In Gandhi’s favorite metaphor, the cosmos was not a pyramid of which the material world was the base and the human beings the apex, but a series of ever-widening circles encompassing humankind, the sentient world, the material world, and the all-including cosmos.” The Gandhian perspective reminds us that we are all interdependent and definitely human beings are not the most superior race.

The Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh has beautifully explained the concept of interconnectedness or inter-being. In Healing Ourselves, Healing the Earth, Thich Nhat Hanh points out, “Your happiness and the happiness of other species inter-are. If you are healthy, if you are happy, then other forms of life can profit from you. If you are sick, if you suffer, then other species will have to suffer with you.”

He further notes, “We have been talking about the environment as something different from us, but we are the environment. The non-human elements are our environments and we are the environment of non-human elements. So, we are one with the environment, we are the environment, we are the Earth. The Earth has the capacity to restore balance.

In the context of the danger signs dissected here and amidst the deep abyss we find ourselves in this Covid tsunami, it has become imperative that all of start sincerely self-introspecting and analyze our actions. Only when we start understanding and act in the context of our interconnectedness, we can cultivate true love. We will then slowly learn on how to generate the immense energy of loving kindness, compassion, joy, empathy and our inclusive nature.  This will probably dissuade us from being vultures and practice self-aggrandisement at the expense of others. It is only when we make sincere efforts to realize the goals of our interconnectedness, we can encourage empathetic and compassionate connections. It will help us tread the path of self-purification and self-transformation. It will also help us rekindle the human values that seems to have become dormant due to our race towards crass materialism.

Vedabhyas Kundu,

Programme Officer,

Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti, New Delhi

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