2021 has been, in many ways, a terrible year. The Covid-19 pandemic, as of this writing, has infected nearly 290 million people worldwide, killing nearly 5.5 million. This is the official number. The actual figure is probably much higher. Since every human life is precious, this is a devastating toll. But it’s important to put things in perspective. The number of dead and wounded during the First World War is estimated at more than 40 million. If we add the deaths from the so-called Spanish flu, an influenza epidemic that has hit the world, the number of victims increases further by around 50 million.
When it comes to WWII, the death toll is easily double that of WWI. was a direct result of Imperial India’s forced involvement in the war, causing the numbers to rise dramatically. Shortly after the end of the war in 1945 was the terrible partition of the subcontinent.
Then the colossal suffering of the totalitarian repression of Stalin and Mao, which left millions more dead. All in all, the 20th century was by far the most violent and brutal known to human civilization. It should also be remembered that the world population was then around 2.3 billion. Meaning that up to 10% of humans on the planet perished from war or unnatural causes in the mid-twentieth century.
The last century has been worse than this one, although we are still only in its second decade. Looking back can give us a better idea of the extent of human suffering and tragedy that we have recently faced. As a result, we are doing much better today. While our world is quite confusing and divided, not only into camps and alliances, there is also sufficient evidence of cooperation, if not collaboration, in the midst of conflict or competition. In fact, the pandemic had largely illustrated the first.
That is why at the dawn of 2022 we must reflect on the past year, very much in the tradition of Nachiketa in the Katha Upanishad, the youngster who was sent home from death by his father. This ancient story can help us better understand the deaths of loved ones in 2021 by making peace with our losses. What is more, such thinking can teach us to hope, prepare and work for a better future.
The father had recklessly said to Nachiketa when the latter questioned his actions: “Go ahead! I give you to death! Sadly, we still say such things today to those we love—jao, maro, jo karna hai karo! I’m sure there are equivalents in all of our languages. The youngster literally obeyed his father’s order, which must have been so unusual even then. The father was also full of regrets. Nachiketa left her father’s house and knocked on the door of death.
Death, they say, was far in the world, busy as usual. Yes, even in those old days Death was very, very active. So what about corona-kaal? Remember all the burning pyres and floating corpses during the second wave of devastation right here in India? But the young man, Nachiketa, was very wise and courageous. He patiently waited for Death to return.
For three days and three nights he waited, without eating or drinking. When Death returned from his errands, he felt mortified. After all, he was Yamaraj, the embodiment of Dharma. As a great equalizer, he was not only impartial and fair, but also had impeccable manners. He said to himself, “This noble young man came to my door before his time.” In addition, I made him wait at my door, without food or water for three days, hoping that he would return to the living world. But seeing how persistent he is, I have to make amends.
Turning to Nachiketa, “Ask,” he said magnanimously, “a boon and it will be granted to you.” Death thought that Nachiketa would ask for the most obvious thing. Life. But the young man said: “O Death, I do not want life. I have come to learn the secret of secrets from you. I want to realize this Truth knowing that all can be set free from this cycle of birth and death forever.
Death was taken aback. “So young and yet so pure, so wise,” he wondered. “No, dear youngster, ask me something else, anything else. Ask me for riches, and for power and for glory, for gold and daughters, for chariots and for palaces, for kingdoms and for empires. Ask me for the suzerainty of the Earth.
“No,” said the young man, whose face shone with the light of truth and austerity, “do not tempt me, O death. Having seen your face, for what do I use gold and daughters, or chariots and palaces, things of this Earth. Because I know that this is all yours, O Death. Instead, teach me what will overcome sorrow and death. Teach me the secret of eternal life.
Likewise, having seen the terrible and dreadful face of death, we cannot be expected to waste our time on trivial matters. Immediately we need to focus our attention on what is of the utmost importance. And this is it. We should be proud to belong to the race of Terrans. We are creatures of the soil of this planet, terrestrial and related to Earth.
This Earth is our home. We were born here and die here. It is our only habitat, our sacred land. Let’s walk slowly on it. Let’s not destroy this beautiful green planet, this mother of all life. From deep-sea creatures to airborne ones, Earth and its atmosphere support us all. So let’s cherish and protect this Earth, our mother.
Second, let us remember that it has been a great privilege to have lived as human beings. Although our lives are short and full of challenges, we have the opportunity to choose the right things. As a species, we can participate and co-create our world. Not just as passive spectators of the cosmic dice game, but as active participants. We are not just creatures of Nature, but we can be the masters of our destiny.
Unfortunately, we have mostly used our powers to destroy or dominate each other, to establish our supremacy over non-human species and inanimate nature. It is a mistake. We must pool our energies so that the damage of centuries can be reversed. We need to work together and not against each other. We must move towards a world government and the management of our shared planetary resources.
Some things are too important to be left to states and governments. We, the peoples of the world, need to think about it and take action. It is now. If you ask me how, I will say that our collective will can create the energy necessary to bring about transformation. Trust and not suspicion is what is required today. We have spent many decades, if not centuries, resisting and fighting.
Finally, we must not give in to discouragement or despair. Our destiny is magnificent, greater than any of us imagined. We are creatures of light, love and perfection. We have to stop at nothing less than what we are truly capable of at our best.
Human history, despite its untold tragedies and suffering, is a great experience in which we are all involved. There is a providence that shapes our ends and an intelligence that guides our efforts.
Nachiketa, the young man of the Katha Upanishad, was taught a sacred rite by death itself. Today, only history remains, its secret hushed up in the folds of antiquity. But we who have faced Death or its shadow must learn to live as if our every action is consecrated, as if everything we do matters – as much as if it was our last day on earth.
We must all strive to bring about a revolution of consciousness that will make our world a better place for all of us. This, much more than a credo of personal transformation, can actually be the prelude and prerequisite for global change.
Makarand R Paranjape
English teacher at JNU
(Views are personal)