Adapting to a pandemic world — the Yoga Sutra way
It is around this time of the year that India celebrates Dussehra — a festival commemorating the triumph of good over evil. Diverse regional folklore and mythological tales also reinforce this spirit. For example, Goddess Durga, standing tall in the triumphant Abhaya Mudra after successfully slaying the demon king, Mahishasura, is the quintessential Durgatinashini, — a rectifying force that arises to preserve, protect and uphold. It is said that when viciousness in the world reaches demonic proportions, a corrective backlash invariably kicks in to restore balance in the universe. One can’t help but wonder, whether the current COVID pandemic is the modern day version of this corrective force springing into action.
Has mankind, the most sophisticated sentient species on Planet Earth, become akin to the Asuras or demons of the scriptures, that need to be reined in and brought to its knees, to give planet Earth the much needed respite to regenerate itself? Are these forces of preservation so compelling that in order to restore natural balance in the world, mankind is left with no other option but to fall in line, to learn survival skills de novo and embark on an urgent quest for an ethical base that sustains life?
For young children, the tales from our scriptures play a pivotal role in shaping moral values. The fearsome images of asuras or demons contrast sharply with the effulgent, benevolent images of deities that generate faith and devotion. The good is so much more appealing than the bad. And thus the seeds of dharma, or the code of social conduct, are sown in a child’s mind.
But life is far more complex than binary choices of good vs. evil and our turbo-charged focus today, on archaic metrics of productivity and prosperity is actually obfuscating our path toward overall well-being and sustainability of the human race on planet Earth. In order to transition from a state of chronic stress and competitiveness to one of internal fulfilment, equanimity and overall well-being, one needs to consciously and continuously perfect the art of acquiring an integrated personality.
This transformative process, is comprehensively mapped in The Yoga Sutras of Maharshi Patanjali. Here steps are prescribed for all seekers to evolve to their highest potential. For beginners, it is the path of Ashtang Yoga ( or 8-fold path) and the Yamas or social restraints is the first step on this journey towards self realisation. Unless we are willing to stop, reflect and let go of some parts of our old self, inner transformation is not possible. Systematically overcoming our deep rooted, compulsive habits is thus the precursor to creating newer and more creative behaviour patterns in our personality.
The five Yamas or ethical precepts that one needs to introspect upon are :
1. Ahimsa (Non injury or non violence)
Ahimsa is an overt expression of our inner compassion. It cannot be practiced in the true sense unless selfish tendencies arising from greed, fear and envy are weeded out. Himsa or injury is more about the intent behind the act than the act per se. For instance, killing an assailant in self defence is different from wilfully taking a life with evil intent in the heart. To be truly established in ahimsa, one needs to develop and entertain feelings of amity towards all. This in turn influences all aspects of our life, from our food choices, to relationships with family, friends, colleagues and even the way we coexist with different forms of life in our ecosystem.
In the corporate context, it means creating vision, mission and value statements of an organization and implicitly abiding by them. When we subvert this defined value system, we cause injury to the organization and thus himsa lurks in myriad corporate corners from externally manifesting as environmental degradation caused by our operations to internal strife and uneven employee engagement. A work ethic of ‘service before self’ therefore remains an utopian dream for most organisations.
2. Satya (Truthfulness)
The practice of Satya is not about blindly telling the truth, heedless of consequences. Hurtful truths violate the spirit of ahimsa. Peacefulness arising from ahimsa and truthfulness from satya are thus like two sides of the same coin. Satya is more about balanced utterances that have been first screened by a calm, objective mind. As a Sufi saying goes, before we speak, our words should pass through 3 gates of filtration, namely — Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?
This process of auto filtration becomes even more necessary in today’s virtual, 24 x 7 information overload world. It gives us the much needed pause to step back and objectively view the larger picture. Today with the world at our finger tips, it is easy to show only a polished and perfected version of our true selves to our virtual social circles. Unfortunately, there has also been a detrimental effect on our cognitive ability to be objective amidst the huge volume of biased content, fearful images and scenarios constantly feeding the amygdalae in our brain. It is in this context, that the practice of satya becomes imperative. As Maharshi Patanjali puts it, “Satya pratishthayam kriya phala ashrayatvam” (When you are established in truth, then the fruits of action will follow).
3. Asteya (Non stealing)
The gamut of Asteya goes far beyond stealing of mere material stuff. It includes stealing from mother nature through indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources that lead to ecological imbalances, stealing someone else’s ideas without permission or acknowledgement, robbing someone of an opportunity, hope or joy — the list is endless.
Such tendencies to reach out for what is not rightfully ours can be curbed by having faith in ourselves; in our confidence to generate the resources needed to meet our genuine needs and our courage to step out of our comfort zones, if need be, to manifest our wholesome dreams. If we can re-orient our perspective from scarcity to abundance by connecting with our own limitless potential, the resultant effect would be one of collaboration rather than competition.
An interesting insight on the effect of practicing asteya has been offered by Mahatma Gandhi, who says, “One who follows the observance of Non-stealing will bring about a progressive reduction of his own wants. Much of the distressing poverty in this world has risen out of the breaches of the principle of Non-stealing.”
4. Brahmacharya (Continence, discipline)
Brahmacharya is perhaps one of the least understood and hence most misconstrued yama. Literally, it means a conduct that is consistent with Brahman or the Absolute, but generally it is associated with the much narrower perspective of celibacy. Brahmacharya actually refers to the first of the four phases (or ashrams) of human life. As per the guru — shishya tradition of ancient India, students (or shishyas) would stay in a gurukul under the tutelage of a guru from childhood up to the age of around 25 years. The focus was on studies and imbibing the principles of moral rectitude and moderation from the Guru. Practicing a life of strict celibacy was therefore deemed necessary in this process of acquiring knowledge, character building and gaining self-realization. Later on, the students entered the householder stage (grihasth ashram), where sex was a part of conjugal life for the purpose of procreation rather than of indulgence.
“ Brahmacharya is the battery that sparks the torch of wisdom,” said yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar. A strong foundation for Brahmacharya is created when one practices with dedication, the eight limbs of Ashtang Yoga. It enables moderation at all levels to happen naturally and effortlessly. Emotional turbulences and sensual urges automatically weaken and there is more balance in our way of life. At the workplace, an employee established in Brahmacharya would be unlikely to resort to unethical work practices or be prone to compulsive work related disorders that throw work life balance out of sync.
5. Aparigraha (Non possessiveness)
Aparigraha is non — covetousness, or non — hoarding. At a gross level, it is associated with material possessions and wealth; things, which end up possessing us instead. The efforts to preserve and protect these acquisitions weigh us down, impeding our own self growth and development. “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. When I let go of who I am, I receive what I need.” says Lao Tzu.
However, letting go is not easy. In fact we are genetically programmed to hoard for our survival. Mankind would not have been able to survive through millions of years of evolution if it did not have the capacity to store energy in the form of fat to survive. While optimum amount of fat is essential and healthy for our body processes, accumulating too much body fat has a detrimental impact on our health by increasing the risk of chronic diseases. Similarly on the economic front, in order to transform the present unequal order of society into an egalitarian one, Gandhiji had propounded a trusteeship model for surplus wealth to be kept for the common good and welfare of others. The practice of aparigraha thus liberates us from worries related to our material possessions and offers us the freedom to work and live nobly in the present moment.
This Dussehra, may we therefore celebrate, by lighting the lamp of our inner consciousness, guided by the Yamas of Maharshi Patanjali. It is in this awakening alone, and the urgency with which we integrate and re-align ourselves with the surrounding ecosystem, that the survival of our species depends.