He came to our part of the mandir where tribal murtis were made from stumps of neem trees; we looked nothing like the rest of the Silicon Valley temple’s stone or brass deities fashioned in the imagery of beatific humans. Our intriguingly carved wooden faces reminded some California hippies of limbless, smiling, Hindu versions of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” For the faithful, our outsized eyes and wide, luminous smiles were generative—generating imaginative hope and the art of possibility.
This particular devotee hid his worried face behind hands folded in prayer. He pulled out a bunch of stapled papers. I imagined that the sheaf was not unlike what other devotees brought to the temple: ancient bhajans, or perhaps their own 21st century metaphysical journals, fastening together the cycles of life and death.
Sitting down with a lotus pose in front of my brother, my sister, and me, he read us a riddle: “On the way out of the cell, one more event makes this virus into an infectious juggernaut: a quick snip at a site of five amino acids prepares the virus to strike its next target. Respected deities, what is this variant that lives among us, invisible to the eye, infectious to the respiratory tract, deadly to the soul?”
I looked to my brother and asked, “Variant? Like an avatar?” Bala shrugged his non-existent shoulders.
I looked to my sister and asked, “Respiratory? Like pranayama?” Subha bulged her eyes even larger to convey uncertainty.
I asked our visitor, “Beta, does your soul, your atma, trouble you? My son, why have you come to my sister, my brother, and me with this conundrum?”
He said, “My soul is pure, at least pure enough for a mere mortal like me. I am here because of these.” Like a pankhawallah fanning his lords with a cool, gentle breeze, he waved his papers in front of us. I caught a glance of the cover sheet and noticed that it was a draft for the journal Nature.
“Are you a scientist, Beta?”
“No, ji. But I have been asked by immunologists to participate in their study of the virus. My life is nearly over, so I volunteered to be part of their clinical trials. As a courtesy, they mailed me their results before submitting their breakthrough to a publisher of scientific research. The article will surely be peer-reviewed before it goes online; I’ve printed it for your review.”
“Thank you for explaining. But Beta, what do my siblings and I know about the biochemistry of amino acids?”
“Lord of my world, I care little about what you, your brother, and sister know about cellular biology. But I must learn why this article references you.”
“Me?” I was rarely confused, but my devotee’s words had me perplexed. I continued, “Beta, perhaps you are mistaking me for a different deity. Maybe Dhanvantari, the God of Ayurvedic medicine? As for me, in my incarnation as Krishna, I have been on the Kurukshetra battlefield with Prince Arjuna. I guided his dharmic chariot through the fog of war. I helped him regain his nishkama karma.”
“Yes, ji, yes. I understand the sense of desire-less action, of staying true to one’s duty. But what does that have to do with the article referencing your holy name?”
“My holy name?”
“Yes. Juggernaut.” The temple visitor pointed to a sentence from the article: One more event makes this virus into an infectious juggernaut.
“Ah, I see. Juggernaut. Years ago, Christian missionaries did not understand my name. They mispronounced it. They misrepresented me, Krishna, Rama, indeed all of Vishnu’s avatars. Now, centuries later, your scientists have claimed my name for a merciless, destructive, and unyielding virus. But that need not be a source of worry. Not for my brother, Balabhadra. Not for my sister, Subhadra. Not for me. Not for you.”
I invoked a Sanskrit shloka that I hoped would shed light on karmic action:
karmanyevädhikäraste mä phalesu kadäcana |
mä karmaphalaheturbhürmä te sango’stvakarmani
I saw the look of recognition on his brightened face. “Please know, Beta, the seemingly inexorable spread of the virus need not be an insurmountable concern. Neither for you nor for your scientist friends. Each of you must simply do your duty without worrying about the outcome: discover vaccines, get your boosters, wear masks, socially distance, take proactive prophylactic precautions. The cycle of birth and rebirth will continue.”
Like a schoolboy who has just realized the correct answer on an exam, the devotee had a look of victory and relief. “Of course. I recall from college a translation of your passage from The Gita: The right is to work only, but never to its fruits; let not the fruit of action be thy motive, nor let thy attachment be to inaction. Is my Sanskrit still trustworthy?”
“Yes, it is, Beta.”
“Thank you, Lord Jagganatha.”