The Unbearable Lightness of Becoming

Modernity has left people severed from symbolic reality, where they are a law unto themselves and bereft of any faith.

The Unbearable Lightness of Becoming

In an interesting article titled ‘The cloud of pretending’, Arindam Chakrabarti offers a reflection on faith (or a lack thereof). He writes,

“One of the ironies of the present times is that while human beings are obsessed with the future — in their greed for growth, dreams for newer technological wonders, political Utopias and fears of global ecological disasters — they also seem to be proudly bereft of faith. As faithless information gatherers, the late twentieth-century educated elite lives under the gloom of futurelessness, of not seeing where one is headed, not knowing what to want next, ready to ‘wait and see’ or, what is equally possible, ‘wait and not see’…”                                                                  

Chakrabarti’s “gloom of futurelessness” is rather similar to H.V. Dehejia’s idea of “existential despair” — a condition he calls peculiar to modern man[2]. I want to (re)consider this idea here and use it to explore a central presupposition — or preoccupation — of my own: that it is the ennui of a profane life (rather than faith/despair) that confronts modern man.

In Milan Kundera’s “Laughable Loves” is a dialogue that draws a rather beautiful — if not exact — illustration of this ennui: a tale called “The Symposium” (a satire on Plato’s eponymous dialogue) in which Kundera dramatizes the nature of erotic desire. Like its philosophic antecedent, this tale is a drama of ideas — a conversation that occupies three men and two women: Dr. Havel, a “modern Don Juan”; the nurse Elisabet; the Chief Physician — a bald, aging, and happily married philanderer; the woman doctor, his attractive young mistress; and the handsome, self-absorbed intern, Flajsman. In one scene, in the midst of wit and banter, the woman doctor teases Dr. Havel on his being a modern Don Juan, to which he offers a lengthy refutation:

Dr. Havel:

“If you ask me whether I’m Don Juan or death, I must incline, though unhappily, toward the (latter)… Don Juan, after all, was a conqueror. And in capital letters. A Great Conqueror. But I ask you, how can you be a conqueror in a domain where no one refuses you, where everything is possible and everything is permitted? Don Juan’s era has come to an end. Today Don Juan’s descendant no longer conquers, he only collects. The figure of the Great Collector has taken the place of the Great Conqueror… Don Juan was a tragic figure. He was burdened by his guilt. He sinned gaily and laughed at God. He was a blasphemer and ended up in hell. Don Juan bore on his shoulders a dramatic burden that the Great Collector has no idea of, because in his world every burden has lost its weight. Boulders have become feathers. In the conqueror’s world, a single glance was as important as ten years of the most ardent love-making in the collector’s realm… Eroticism, which used to be the greatest instigator of catastrophes, has become, thanks to him, like breakfasts and dinners, like stamp collecting and table tennis, if not like a ride on the streetcar or shopping. He has brought it into the ordinary round of events. He has turned it into a stage on which real drama never takes place. Alas, my friends… my loves (if I may call them that) are a stage on which nothing is happening… (for) In hellfire, where the Commander sent him, Don Juan is alive. But in the world of the Great Collector, where passions and feelings flutter through space like feathers — in this world he is forever dead…”

Of course, Kundera’s ideas of “weight” and “lightness” are entirely different from their traditional/metaphysical counterparts. Yet, it seems to me that he has stumbled (if inadvertently) on a crucial characteristic of modernity here. In this paper — or rather, an anthology of ideas (hence the large number of quotations) — I want to explore the idea that perhaps profanity runs deeper than the idea of faith/loss of faith in a God — that perhaps “faith in a God” is itself a modern construct.   

Ancient India, it is well-established, did not harbor a uniform idea of God — the mīmāmsaka-s, for example, considered devatā as nothing more than a word (śabdamātrakam devatā); in sāṁkhya, Puruṣa is infinite (in number) and is not the creator of the world[3]; for nayyāyika-s, Īśvara is rather like Plato’s demiurge — an architect who creates the world out of a pre-existing set of conditions and substance; and so on. For ancient Indians, “belief in a God” did not make the world “meaningful” — belief in myths[4] did[5].

Belief in myths is different from belief in a God — what it implies is that for ancient Indians, “reality was a function of imitation of celestial archetypes”[6]. Mircea Eliade remarked,

“If we observe the general behavior of archaic man, we are struck by the following fact: neither the objects of the external world nor human acts, properly speaking, have any autonomous intrinsic value. Objects or acts acquire a value, and in so doing become real, because they participate, after one fashion or another, in a reality that transcends them; human acts… their meaning, their value, are not connected with their crude physical datum but with their property of reproducing a primordial act, of repeating a mythical example… they are repeated because they were consecrated in the beginning (“in those days”, in illo tempore, ab origine) by gods, ancestors, or heroes.”                                                                             

Illo tempore does not, of course, imply a “beginning in time” but an origin in the First Principle — for creation is now as much as it ever was. The Śatapata Brāhmaṇa declares, “We must do what the Gods did in the beginning”, (SB VII. 2. 1. 4). “Thus the Gods did; thus men do” (Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa, I. 5. 9.4). So it is that the Indians built their cities, houses and their temples in imitation of divine paradigms[7]; their marriage was a sacred union of Sky and Earth[8] where the man told the woman: “amohamasmi sā tvam, dyauraham pṛthvī tvam” (I am ‘He’, thou art ‘She’, I am Sky, thou art Earth — Br. U. 4.4.20); the coronation of their kings (rājasūya) was in imitation of the consecration of Varuṇa, the first Sovereign; their arts, an imitation of the celestial arts. Even their animals, trees and plants had celestial counterparts — i.e., an origin in myths (and therefore worshipped)[9]. Mircea Eliade remarked that “archaic ontology” “tolerates ‘history’ with difficulty and attempts to periodically abolish it” through a “reduction of events to categories and of individuals to archetypes” (Eliade 1959: 36). So traditional life aimed at an imitation of models/types, and the full force of such a life was directed towards an effacement of the notion, “I am the doer”. Coomaraswamy(1923: 187) beautifully wrote,

“… and all this formality, for a cultured spectator, was far more attractive than can be the variety of imperfection so freely shown by the plain and blunt, or as he thinks, “more sincere” European… It has been well said that civilization is style. An immanent culture in this way endows every individual with an outward grace, a typological perfection, such as only the rarest beings can achieve by their own effort; whereas a democracy actually condemns each to an exhibition of his own irregularity and imperfection; and this imperfection only too easily passes over into an exhibitionism which makes a virtue of vanity, and is complacently described as self-expression…”                                                                                                                                      

Vedas, therefore, unconcerned with events in time, allowed an entering into the ever-now “beginning” (agre). And a reference of actions to archetypes/paradigms, in turn, allowed for an idealization/sublimation of passions, and therefore allowed a sacrificial interpretation of life — for such a life consisted not of one’s own whims[10] but was a transubstantiated life. For the ancient Indians, then, the Veda-s allowed a sacrificial interpretation for each of life’s aspects — breathing, eating, drinking and dalliance.  In Ghorāñgirasa’s words, (to Kṛṣṇa)[11],

“When one hungers and thirsts and has no pleasure, that is his initiation. When one eats and drinks and takes one’s pleasure, that is his participation in the sacrificial-sessions. When one laughs and feasts and goes with a woman, that is his participation in the liturgy. When one is fervent, or generous, or does right, or does no hurt, or speaks the truth, these are his fees to the priests. Wherefore they say: He will beget, he has begotten – and that is his being born again. Death is the final ablution.”

                                                                            (Ch. U. 3. 17. 1-5)

Each act was, then, a yajña; and if the “original sacrifice” is a “becoming”— an outward manifestation of the One who sacrifices his essential “one-ness” in order to be known — then yajña is its reflection (and therefore, the inverse of the original sacrifice) where man forsakes multiplicity in order to realize his primordial unity. In Coomaraswamy’s(1943: 12) words,

“The sacrifice undertaken… is a ritual mimesis of what was done by the Gods in the beginning… (it) reflects the myth, but like all reflections inverts it. What has been a process of generation and division becomes now one of regeneration and composition…”                                                       

It is precisely this idea that finds such vivid expression in the well-known Indian philosophy of action, the karma-mārga of the Bhagavadgītā, where Kṛṣṇa says, “yajnārthāt karmaṇonyatra lokoyam karma bandhanaḥ” — the world is enchained by whatever is done, unless it be made a Sacrifice (BG 3. 9). He says, “evam jñātvā kṛtam karma pūrvairapi mumukṣubhiḥ; kuru karmaiva tasmāt tvam pūrvaiḥ pūrvataraḿ kṛtam” — “Understanding this, the sacrificial work was performed even by the ancients desirous of liberation; so do thou do work even as by the ancients of old it was done” (BG 4.15). Significantly, in Sanskrit, the word “karma” refers equally to “action” and “sacrificial rites”— implying an essential non-differentiation between simply “operation” and “sacred operation”. Accordingly, all trades of a traditional society were considered sacred — a sort of liturgy. Illustrations of a sanctified vocation can be cited from different cultures to show its universal nature — an account of canoe-making from the Marquesas Islands, for example:

“On the first day of the work the canoe-maker (tuhuna vaka) with his assistants, called ta akau, accompanied by a priest to recite the sacred chants (tuhuna pu’e), went up the valley where stood the temanu tree that had been selected. While the workers stood about the tree, the priest chanted the pu’e, recounting the growth of the world. Then the tree was felled, fire being used to aid in the accomplishment of it (according to Linton)… A temporary shed (oho an vaka), open on all sides, was erected over the place where the work was going on. This building, like all other features of the enterprise, was sacred. All the workers were consecrated during the labor, sleeping at the oho au. The whole body of the canoe was completed here. The place was tapu to women and to strangers… In the sacred chant called oho au o Motuhaiki, which is part of the tona pou chant, and which was probably used in connection with canoe-building, are mentioned the stages in the construction of a canoe… The first master canoe-maker was, traditionally, Motuhaiki, who noosed the sun, so that he might have sufficient time to finish his work… Just before a canoe was launched, the crew and warriors were assembled about it in the oho au, and the pu’e was again chanted. The vessel was then carried into the water with all its paddlers and warriors aboard, the canoe and its crew alike being ornamented… its consecration was not regarded as complete until its mana had been thus demonstrated…”                                                  

                                                                               (Hardy 1923:154)

Similarly, in Japan,

“Whatever his occupation might be, some god presided over it; whatever tools he might use, they had to be used in such manner as tradition prescribed for all admitted to the craft-cult. It was necessary that the carpenter should so perform his work as to honor the deity of carpenters, — that the smith should fulfill his daily task so as to honor the god of the bellows, — that the farmer should never fail in respect to the earth-god, and the food-god, and the scare-crow god, and the spirits of the trees about his habitation. Even the domestic utensils were sacred: the servant could not dare to forget the presence of the deities of the cooking-range, the hearth, the cauldron, the brazier — or the supreme necessity of keeping the fire pure. The professions, not less than the trades, were under divine patronage: the physician, the teacher, the artist — each had his religious duties to observe, his special traditions to obey. The scholar, for example, could not dare to treat his writing-implements with disrespect, or put written paper to vulgar uses: such conduct would offend the god of calligraphy. Nor were women ruled less religiously than men in their various occupations: the spinners and weaving-maidens were bound to revere the Weaving-goddess and the Goddess of Silkworms; the sewing-girl was taught to respect her needles; and in all homes there was observed a certain holiday upon which offerings were made to the Spirits of Needles. In Samurai families the warrior was commanded to consider his armor and his weapons as holy things: to keep them in beautiful order was an obligation of which the neglect might bring misfortune in the time of combat; and on certain days offerings were set before the bows and spears, arrows and swords, and other war-implements, in the alcove of the family guest-room. Gardens, too, were holy; and there were rules to he observed in their management, lest offence should be given to the gods of trees and flowers…”

                                                                                      (Hearn 1905: 154)

Under such circumstances, the karma itself, however “menial” or “commercial”, was a valid path to perfection, and so it was that in a vocational society — uncorrupted by ideas of social ambition — it was taken for granted that everyone was proud of his kula-vidyā[12].

Modernity, on the other hand, is an anomaly in that it is utterly empty of myths and therefore rendered profoundly profane — “unbearably light”. Modern “belief in God” also does not suffice — it is often no more than sentimental notions, a vague morality without intellectual import. Furthermore, it is often that a “believer’s” life is just as profane as a skeptic’s. Of course, one cannot advocate a “rehabilitation of the past” — that would also amount to mere sentimentality. What, then, are we to do? Maybe reacquaint ourselves with the true meaning of tradition so we may at least re-create it in spirit? Maybe preserve — if impossible to understand — the tradition for the generations to come — for in Coomaraswamy’s words,

“so long as the material of the folklore is transmitted, so long is the ground available on which the superstructure of full initiatory understanding can be built”?

And in the meanwhile, maybe see, with Robert Pirsig, that

“The Buddha, the Godhead resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower”?



References / Footnotes

Chakrabarti, Arindam. (2000). ‘The cloud of pretending’. India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 26/27, Vol. 26, no. 4/Vol. 27, no. 1: Faith (Winter 1999/Spring 2000), pp. 93-100.

Coomaraswamy, A. K. (1923). An introduction to oriental art. Theosophical Publishing House. Madras.

Coomaraswamy, A. K. (1943). Hinduism and Buddhism. IGNCA. New Delhi.

Dehejia, H. V. (2000). Despair and Modernity: Reflections from Modern Indian paintings. Motilal Banarasidass. Delhi.

Eliade, Mircea. (1959). Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return. Harper Torchbooks. New York.

Handy, E. S. Craighill. (1923). The native culture in the Marquesas. The Museum. Hawaii. 

Hearn, Lafcadio. (1905). Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation. Macmillan. New York.


[1] After Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”

[2]  Dehejia, H. V., “Despair and Modernity: Reflections from Modern Indian paintings”

[3] caitanyāviśeṣād īśvarasyāpi sa eva vidhiḥ kāraṇatvapratiṣedhe boddhavyaḥ

[4] Veda-s, purāṇa-s, itihāsa-s, etc. Myths, here, do not, of course, refer to “poetic inventions” but to the most primordial and comprehensive body of knowledge possessed by man. See Coomaraswamy, Guenon, Eliade, etc.

[5] It is known, of course, that it is an agreement with the Veda–s that constitutes the criterion of orthodoxy. In his Sāṇkhya-Pravachana-Bhashya, for example, Vijñāna-Bhikṣu writes: “In the doctrine of Kaṇāda (vaisheshika) and in the Sāṇkhya (of Kapila), the portion which is contrary to the Veda must be rejected…”

[6] Eliade 1959: 5

[7] See Stella Kramrisch’s “The Hindu Temples”

[8] The separation & union of sky and earth are symbolic of becoming and being— see Coomaraswamy 1999

[9] Most often, it is rather ignorantly claimed that Indians worshipped “everything” because they “saw” God in everything — this is untrue; only the objects with mythical counterparts are worshipped.

[10] Whims/instincts, after all, are natural appetites; to behave instinctively is to behave passively — appetitive reactions are not to be confused with acts of the will.

[11] āhārārthaṁ karma kuryād anindyaṁ

      kuryād āhāraṁ prāṇa-sandhāraṇārtham |

      prāṇās sandhāryās tattva-vijñāna-hetos /

      tattvaṁ jñeyaṁ yena bhūyo na janma || (cf Bhāgavata 11.18.34)

[12] See Kālidāsa’s Abhijñāna Śākuntalam  and Mālavikāgnimitram

About Author: Manjushree Hegde

Manjushree is a Mechanical Engineer who decided to make a crossover to a serious study of Sanskrit and Indian culture. She has a post graduate degree in Sanskrit and is now working as a research scholar.

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