MahaMementoMori: Fables Beyond COVID’s Warning Wall – A monthly series that gently reminds us to remember what life would be like if we succumbed to a pandemic. While settings shift from India to America, and characters change as well, each story explores the vital nature of relationships in life and death.
My student appeared to be at the end of his cycle. Perhaps he had succumbed to the evil chaos that characterized the age he was living in. I said to him, “You are far too young to be beyond my reach as your teacher. As the Preserver of the world. I must do everything I can to preserve your well-being.”
He said, “Thank you, Lord Vishnu. Some days I want to fight to my last breath. On dark nights like this one, I feel that when my time comes, I will answer it just like I do the morning alarm clock.”
“Do not give away your life so easily. It is precious. Attach yourself to it like a chela to his guru.”
“Yes, my Lord, life is as precious as the jewels of your wise words. That being said, the Gita proclaims that ‘The right is to work only, but never to its fruits.’”
“Well quoted. But you have omitted the following line: “‘Let not the fruit of action be thy motive, nor let thy attachment be to inaction.’ You must not yield to inaction. Fight till your last breath.”
The frail young man paused to catch his breath and then proceeded to quote the Gita:
“Whenever righteousness wanes and unrighteousness increases, I send myself forth. For the protection of the good and for the destruction of evil, and for the establishment of righteousness, I come into being age after age.”
“And why this lengthy quote, may I ask?”
“Vishnu-ji, just as you ‘come into being age after age,’ will I not return in a different form, a new avatar?”
“You are well-versed in Vaishnavite thought. Thus you know that I have many forms: Matsya the fish; Kurma the turtle; Varaha the boar; Narasimha the man-lion; Vamana the dwarf; Parashurama the Brahmin warrior; Rama the dutiful son and king; Krishna the guiding voice of the Gita; Buddha the serene prince who found nirvana; and Kalki who may someday end the Kali Yuga. They represent a kind of reverse evolution.”
My student brightened. “Evolution like Charles Darwin? I studied evolutionary biology in college.”
“Yes, but my avatars lived in different ages that progressively declined from the perfect state of the Satya Yuga through Treta and Dvapara Yugas to today’s sinful Kali Yuga.”
“I’m a bit confused. Are these Yugas four eras in the Hindu way of thinking about time? Was there moral and physical decline during these eras? If so, then why have your avatars evolved from swimming in water to walking on land, from a fish to an ascetic prince who sat under the Bodhi Tree. Similarly, might not my own future incarnations also evolve to a heightened state?
“Correct and incorrect. You are right that the Yugas span all of time. However, in regards to my avatars’ evolution, who is to say whether wandering on the Gangetic plain is superior to swimming in the Ganga? Are not both land and water equally virtuous homes for different creatures? As for your own incarnations, they may indeed evolve. But why not fully experience this life that you are living now?”
As the God who is responsible for preserving the universe, I was able to see into my student’s past and preserve his memories. I saw that in his college days he had roamed eclectically.
I continued, “You went from classroom to classroom, intending to find yourself in one of them. First biology. Then engineering. Then anthropology. Ultimately, you found yourself on a bus, going round and round the city, reading V. S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas. You could have been home in your warm bed on that winter’s day, but instead, you read about Mr. Biswas lying on his Slumberking in sunny Trinidad. Back then you asked complicated questions about how people like you and Naipaul found yourself so far from the home of your Indian ancestors. Today, I ask you a simple question: What was Mr. Biswas reading while lounging on his bed?”
“I’m sorry, my Lord. I don’t remember that small detail.”
“It is no small detail. The book was Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.”
“Oh, yes. I remember wondering why Naipaul mentioned that particular book.”
“Good. Now you must move from wondering to reading. Read the book. I know, I know. Time is short. At least internalize this small excerpt if you really believe you don’t have much time left in this incarnation: ‘You have the power to strip away many superfluous troubles located wholly in your judgment, and to possess a large room for yourself embracing in thought the whole cosmos, to consider everlasting time, to think of the rapid change in the parts of each thing, of how short it is from birth until dissolution, and how the void before birth and that after dissolution are equally infinite.’”
“Vishnu-ji, this gives new meaning to the word ‘meditation.’ A writer’s life is spent in meditation.”
“Correct. Now go find a room for yourself. Your troubles are small. Embrace the cosmos. Consider what time means. Use your remaining time to consider change. Not as some overpaid Change Management Consultant, but as a child of the universe that is undergoing constant and accelerating change. A child with a pen and a blank sheet of paper.”
“This feels more like a Newtonian physics problem than a Darwinian biological one.”
“Yes and no. It is physics. It is biology. It is literature. It is history. It is mathematics. It is religion. Most of all, it is interdisciplinary personalized anthropology, the study of one particular man’s integrated place in the universe. But since you mentioned the physical sciences, I suggest you recall the words of your high-school physics teacher who dabbled in writing science fiction like his hero Isaac Asimov. Do you recall what he chalked on the blackboard before each exam?”
“Oh, yes. Mr. Sloan would point at the clock and say, with a benediction: ‘Time will pass. But will you?”
Dr. Raj Oza has written or contributed to: Globalization, Diaspora, and Work Transformation; Satyalogue // Truthtalk: A Gandhian Guide to (Post)Modern-Day Dilemmas; P.S., Papa’s Stories; and Living in America. He can be reached at satyalogue.com or amazon.com/author/rajoza.