The Illusion of Control (Or the Belief in Immortality)

Some recent events and experiences – unrelated for others – helped complete an important part of my learning that had been incomplete for the past four decades.

The most recent event was Brexit in June 2016. The reactions to the Brexit Referendum result brought home to me (as an internalised understanding) that a particular type of people (let’s term them Class Y) believe that the European Union (EU) is good for everyone and that as an entity it should live forever. The question I asked myself is: Is it possible that this belief and the actions and behaviour arising out of this belief in the past few decades led to the slow but certain rise of the other section of people (let’s call them Class Z) who eventually caused the decision of the exit of the United Kingdom (UK) from the EU? Class Y believed that the EU is good for all and that all policies of the EU are good for all and therefore the voice of Class Z was irrelevant. Of course at some point, the scale tipped and at a point (now in June 2016), Class Z became the only voice that seems to matter. Like they say: a chain is only as strong as the weakest link. If the weaker links are not given due attention, it leads to formation of other weak links since the stronger elements become immune to all voices but their own and eventually there are as many weak links as there are strong ones and it is a matter of when something will snap rather than if. From where I stand, the certainty of the Brexit 2016 result was a given from the time of the formation of the EU and the EU’s lifespan so far has been a progression towards this result – just as death is a certainty from the time something is born. And like from every death there is also the possibility of new life, the exit of the United Kingdom is also a beginning: not just for the UK but also for the EU and the rest of the world since everything is now indeed connected (and not just as religious and philosophical scriptures have been cryptically alluding to for centuries). Turmoil and uncertainty and conflict and hardship are equally predictable (all one has to do is look at the history of any part of the world or the history of any life, even one’s own) – there’s also more than sufficient statistical evidence to give us assurance that the difficult period of transition will lead to stability in a different world. We also know that the transition will be longer and more difficult if the conflicting elements continue to dissent or if there are newer fragments or classes of people who have different aspirations or troubles. In short, history tells us that the cycles of social and political organisation comprise (with some shuffle in sequence and many variations in duration): Creation, Conflict, Strife and unrest, Conflict, Consolidation, Stability, Growth, Stable Growth, Golden Age, Decline, Conflicts, Instability, Dissolution, New Creation. Class Y had it good and are therefore now unhappy or enraged or some emotion in between. Class Z did not have it good and are now hopeful or deliriously happy or some emotion in between. In either case, the emotion is due to the unknown: what lies ahead.

A less recent event was the passing of my father in November 2015. My father rose out of the poverty of Benares (Varanasi) in India along with eight siblings and from the age of 12 worked his way through school and college to Masters degrees to middle class status in a span of two decades and maintained that status till his death at the age of 76. He wore his Hindu identity on his sleeve throughout his life, never afraid to let everyone know his Hindu opinion, but neither was he afraid of acknowledging the greatness of other religions – he was secure in his religion. He was a warrior in all its connotations and stood ever-ready for battle, and yet would nurture provided that there was respect for the ways of all Gods, and the laws of the nation – a live and let live philosophy. He touched hundreds of lives, was a mentor to many, a singer, theatre-artiste, administrator, family man, badminton and bridge player, and upon his death many factions of the family (some estranged) and hundreds of friends came together or called to pay their respects … and six months later, today, he’s a memory, like all others who have passed before him and like all others who shall pass after as well.  Every person – man or woman – has an eventful life, achievements and failings, friends and foes, strengths and weaknesses, and they will one day die and be forgotten or remembered by few. Just like every family. Just like every community. Just like every nation. Just like every political entity. Just like every great concept in any time. Just like a particular time or space itself. Just like you. And just like me. And so, the hard positions I hold dear today, the infallible notions, the concrete beliefs that often lead me to initiate words against others with different beliefs … they are also transitory, fleeting. What then is the meaning of life? And if everything is an illusion, transitory, what then is the purpose of life, the purpose of our actions? And if all that is certain is that if I am born, I shall surely die, what then is the point of conflict or resolution or going through the motions of it all?

A slightly more dated event was the 2014 coming to power of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India. I call it a coming to power since it wasn’t just a victory or just a mandate or a just a change of political guard. It was the coming to power of a philosophical identity that has been biding its time for centuries. The reactions in India (from the Class Y of that time in India) was similar to the Class Y of the EU. At this point, let me introduce a new class of people and term them ‘Class X’ and define them as: people who have been existing alongside others since one can remember but they are not counted as movers and shakers in a political scenario since Class Y and Class Z are the main players in a given context since they constitute the two major polarities in a society – in binary social thought processes, it’s the two polarities that rise or cause other forces to rise to power. Class X, then, comprises the people who become players suddenly at a certain point in time due to the coming together of various factors and the coming apart of the strengths of the existing power centres. In this specific context, the BJP was a Hindu party led by a dynamic and imaginative leadership espousing a global and universal message of development, with an underlying and clearly Hindu philosophy that came to power in a Hindu majority nation after several decades of secular liberalist governments which themselves had followed several centuries of oppressive rule by non-Hindu political powers. Yes, the BJP had come to power once earlier but from where I stand, the BJP leadership then was secular liberalist and their methods would have been similar to other secular liberalists and therefore the government’s longevity would have been at the mercy of the predictable cycle of a democratic election. The 2014 BJP coming to power is different because if one were to stand back in time and take a look at the context in centuries, evaluate the leadership and its strategy in the context of current leadership among other political parties, weigh performance of governments in context of national identity and the nation’s ability to influence global events, then to me it seems that a Hindu political entity had to come to power sooner or later in India for the nation to have a distinct voice – the secular realm is already championed by many nations, the religious hardliner cause is championed by many other nations, the communist epitome is well established, and the democracy flag is carried by every other nation. Any liberal who rejoiced at the BJP coming to power and then changed their minds when the development method changed, are not looking at what the data tells us – the majority voted for change. If I look at any government at any time in the world, I can predict that the official histories would have been rewritten by them. And those would have been rewritten by subsequent ruling powers and subsequently even restored by some other ruling power. Education would serve the purpose of the ruling power’s notion of a holistic development, that’s how it’s always been. What that also means is that the history the liberals grew up studying was also a white-washed history – white-washed to focus on matters that suited secular liberal thoughts. Development and its benefits would be available to all those who respect the ruling power’s philosophy and dissent in a manner that is acceptable to the government of the day. I don’t know one instance where it’s been different (in my admittedly very limited knowledge of human history). To my mind, benevolent rule is the closest humans have ever come to the romantic notions of equality, justice and social welfare – and benevolent rulers could be so because they had the power to be so. A government that is willing to let others bend the rules is weak and a weak government cannot stand up in an international forum and negotiate or demand terms that affords its citizens global respect. Just as the head of a family cannot raise a capable family without commanding its respect. Just like a religion cannot grow and sustain its message without commanding the obedience of its followers. Just like an individual cannot live a meaningful life, growing to fulfil one’s potential without commanding the respect and obedience of his or her own senses and faculties.

The next event was closer home: meeting myself in August 2015. Aged 44 years, I set out to climb Shaali Tibba (a rugged peak near Shimla). My body was in shambles, and my mind was trying to keep pace with life. I have a permanent limp on account of a knee surgery from when I was 19 years old; this is accompanied by degenerative bone calcium deficiency which in turn has gifted me Spondylosis, chronic back pain, and joint pain; finally, I have 40% vision in my right eye due to normal wear and tear of the eye, and a left eye lens that was replaced a few years ago, leaving me with only long-vision. Walking mountains is a childhood habit and nothing unusual. But to undertake a 5-hour journey in rainy season on my own was a bit insane I suppose. Five minutes into the climb, my breathing was shallow, my thigh muscles were cramping, the back of my shirt was drenched in sweat, and my eyes couldn’t focus with the blood rushing at breakneck speed throughout my veins. I stopped and looked back – I was 100 meters from where I had started. There was no way I was going to climb Shaali now or ever again. I turned back to the mountain and just started putting one leg in front of the other. I decided not to look back again. In the course of the next two hours, I thought about my marriage to a woman I love, our many disagreements and the positions I take, I thought about our children and planning for their future, I thought about all the problems at work and the positions I take, about siblings and family and friends, I thought about religion, about God, about the purpose of life, about death, about success … and with an hour of climbing still to go, I had most of the answers I was seeking.

The next half hour I climbed out of sheer muscle memory and because of the fear of failure. How could I go back without doing what I had set out to achieve? No one will know said a voice. But I will know, I answered. And in that moment, I internalised the most important thing about myself, about human beings, about society, about nations, about governments: The Ego. People and nations have beliefs and even when the circumstances that led to those beliefs change, we stay on the same path because our Ego does not allow us to back track and change. It is loss of face. The moment I realised my ego was pushing me to climb beyond the endurance of sanity, I stopped, turned around and climbed back down. There was a sense of peace about everything, the physical pain no longer troubled me, the mental turmoil had left me. By the time I was back down, I had greater clarity about myself and that changed the way the world interacted with me. The world hadn’t changed: I had. Strength comes from knowledge, not just power.

The final event is actually my interaction with a series of artistic works in the past few years that have led to a coming together of all the knowledge that I have gained from people, books, artistic works, work, and experiences over the past four decades. These artistic works include paintings, music, books, cinematic works, performances, and conversations with people who have built sustainable organisations. To name a very few and not in any order of preference whatsoever: The Red Tent, Tudors, Gangs of Wasseypur, Kublai Khan, Marco Polo, No God But God, Black Sails, Chris Rea, Vikings, Ayurveda, The Lords of Finance, Buckethead, Zealots, Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, Leo Tolstoy’s Childhood, Adolescence and Youth, Bo Burnham’s Make Happy, Munshi Premchand’s novels in Hindi, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Anand Math, the bhajans dedicated to Tara, and of course Vivekananda’s 8 volume series (I started reading that in 1986 as a 15-year-old and just completed the latest reading of the volumes). I have read and viewed many of these works several times in previous years, but this past couple of years, I finally started connecting all the information and identifying common patterns across different times, peoples, cultures, and events, and what I learned was that: Every people, every culture, in history have strived to build something long-lasting, some falling by the wayside of history, some succeeding, and without exception the eventual successful ones end up believing in their immortality, that they would be the greatest of all time, and that eventually drove them onto a path of conquest of one type or the other. (in today’s world, as in earlier times, the conquests were all for control of resources). And I learned that wisdom comes from knowledge about oneself and from such knowledge comes the power to control others (who don’t have the benefit of such knowledge and therefore such power). The EU, India, any individual, any nation, any family, any community can chart a course to stability only if it sees itself for what it is, accepting all the constituents of its entity, understanding the needs of the constituents (beliefs), and of the whole (traditions), and then agreeing the (values) that protect and sustain the entity and finally evolving a mechanism to communicate this entire set of values, beliefs, and traditions (culture) to itself and to the world outside.

And at this point allow me to introduce Class A. Class A are a type of people who are above everything – culture, religion, law, philosophy, power, strife, et al. And they always survive all eventualities and outcomes for they are always unseen. They are the hands that run the resources of the world, and they have no national identity, just an intuitive wisdom about the nature of human beings and their societies and an ambition to shape such societies. 

At the end of the day, all nations today shall pass into history. The lines that demarcate nations shall change (as they have many times in the past); the peoples who rule shall become the ruled, and the peoples who are today ruled shall become the rulers; the names of nations and peoples shall change as they have in the past; and thousands of years hence, the decisions of today shall be forgotten or remembered and it wont matter not for it will be a different time, a different people, and they shall also be as happy or enraged at the decisions of their times.

And before that happens, it is likely that the world shall go from the current phase (driven by logical economics-driven politics) of uniting into larger entities (the United Kingdoms and Unions et al) to fragmenting (back) into smaller identities based on deeper older ties (of race, ethnicity, religion, or simply longer-standing political entities). There will be forces that will try to unite and stabilise and forces that will drive independence and destabilisation (two sides of a coin really – depends on which side of any fence one is). But there is a change from previous times, a change that has occurred due to the present and previous churning that has led to the rise of a class people ((who are as yet Class X, not real players but given enough numbers, could become real influencers): people who have grown up travelling from one nation to another, who don’t see themselves as belonging to any nation religions or ethnicity, who don’t have any allegiances except to a homogeneous humanity, who are united by technology, by a need to connect, to learn, to grow, to work, without boundaries of any sort, without governments that seek to control resources, with an intuitive desire to be part of a neural network that just exists, lives, let lives, and grows because of the connection to all else.

Till then, all is as it always may have been, as it always may be. It’s a time for change and reshaping ourselves and the worlds we live in, and as an individual, and a common citizen of the nation that we live in and the world that we share, we have a mechanism to influence what the future looks like: by participating in the process constructively and stating our opinions. One thing I can see for certain: the generations that are growing up now are very different from the ones who have been here for some time. They are more intuitive, connected, and seem to have a broader sense of the Earth. And who knows how they may influence the shaping of our world?

And so finally, what was the learning that was completed? Well, it seems to me that Truth, Reality, Wisdom, Power, Knowledge, Good, Bad, are neither absolute nor universal concepts. They are of the moment, and have different meanings for different peoples and nations. And if that is true, then there seems to be no purpose to taking hard and unrelenting positions on the basis of any of these.

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