COSMIC DANCE, WORLDLY TRANCE
Free will and faith need to act and interact within the confines of determinism. None of the three can be forgotten in the process. But, how far will faith continue to outweigh and outrun free will, i.e. consistent and continuous efforts by the administration to engage with the virus, and dilute its impact?
by ALAM SRINIVAS
ON March 22, 2020, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked 1.3 billion Indians to clap, beat their utensils, and blow conch shells at 5 PM, one of the ideas was to create enough earthly dins to wake up the Hindu God of destruction to kill the deadly and deathly COVID-19. Social media was abuzz with other divine theories—at that time, the moon passed through a new ‘Nakshatra’, March 22 was ‘Amavasya’, and the combined vibrations of the collective sound would kill the virus’ potency.
Later, on April 5, Modi urged Indians to switch off their electricity in the night and, instead, light candles and diyas, or switch on flash-lights. A social media post said that research by the US NASA found that the virus cannot survive in hot temperatures, and if billions of candles were lit together, the temperature would rise by 9 degree Celsius, enough to kill the microbial enemy. Then, there was the power of 9, a magical number—the candles to be lit around 9 PM for nine minutes, on the fifth day of the fourth month of the year.
Finally, when the country-wise lock-down was to be extended beyond April 14, the consensus was to do it for another two weeks. How-ever, the new date was May 3, which raised social media flutter about the power of 40. From March 25, when the lock-down began, to May 3 is 40 days, which is the Latin root for the word, quarantine. The great mythological flood lasted for 40 days, Moses stayed on Mount Si-nai and Jesus fasted for the same number of days and, for some, the number represented change.
OF course, the rationalists piped in with their opinions. March 22 was not Amavasya; it fell on March 23 or 24, based on different calendars. And, there were no scientific data to prove that the virus could not withstand collective and consensual high-decibel sound or an overall increase in temperature. The magical powers of numbers like 9 and 40 were in the realm of a defunct and defective astrology. What was needed to combat COVID-19 was sensible, fact-based and reasonable decisions and actions related to public health.
In this milieu of divine intervention related to the cosmic dance of creation and destruction, and scientific realism based on cause-and-effect, was invoked the ideals of governance. Governments, both legislative and executive, need to be guided by the Indian Constitution, especially the Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSP) in the realm of administration. DPSP appeals to ideology (Gandhian and liberal aspects to ensure a welfare state), internationalism (adherence to global laws), and scientific temperament.
Hence, the virus, apart from unleashing rampant fear, even in developed nations such as the US (where over 37,000 people have died till now), Spain, and Italy, inevitably led to philosophical and commonsensical clashes between the proponents of faith, free will, and determinism. Caught unprepared between the crosshairs of COVID-19, global leaders, including Modi, sought refuge in all the three ideals. For those with the power to ruffle the world order, the consensus was that the combination of three paths led to safety.
In the past six years as the Prime Minister, Modi married the tenets of religious and personal faith with the science of governance. Just before the national election results in May 2019, he sought the darkness and peace of Kedarnath cave, where he meditated for hours. His loyalists maintain that his strength as an able administrator comes from his adherence to Indian spirituality. During a visit to the White House, he did not eat at an official lunch because he was on fast during the autumn Navratra.
AT a personal level, despite warnings from his cabinet colleagues and friends, he confidently declared the demonetisation of Rs. 500 and Rs. 1,000 notes. More importantly, the move began at midnight, a time when banks were closed and not many venture out to the ATMs. It was faith in his decision, and conviction in his people that enabled him to take a decision that would decimate the lives and livelihoods of the citizens for months. More importantly, he emerged triumphant after the dust of criticism settled down.
Similarly, when the US President Donald Trump expresses his enthusiasm to lift the viral lock-down, and get on with business and economy, it is a matter of personal faith. He went forward to set up “Opening Our Country” council, with an objective to normalise the situation by May. He has warned that if any of the 50-odd states in America refuses to do so, he is willing to use force. Like Modi’s belief in the people, Trump said, “Our people want to get back to work, and there is pent-up demand” to revive the economy.
Faith, when ignited, has a force and momentum of its own. It can move hearts and souls, at the expense of the mind. It can move people to action when everything seems unmovable and paralysed. It can move mountains and part the oceans. It can lift nations that fall into precipices. There is no antidote to belief, a soulful virus that continues to thrive in human body, and influences its consciousness and sub-consciousness in unbelievable ways. If COVID-19 is strong and scary, it is no match for our faith.
More importantly, in more practical terms, faith can contest determinism, the scientific laws of cause and effect. If everything has an underlying cause, and if every action (cause) has a consequence (effect), how does one can explain divine intervention, and human will? Consider how this plays out in the COVID-19 crisis. As medical science, and dedicated doctors, tussle to discover that elusive pill or vaccine to combat the pandemic, it seems inevitable that the majority of the global population will be afflicted by it.
In private, doctors whisper that the virus has to finally enter the bodies of most humans. The practitioners of science can only wait for people to either be treated after they develop the symptoms, or for them to develop antibodies to successfully fight the enemy from within. At present, until there is a cure, the idea is to flatten the curve—not allow it to exponentially spike, as it did initially in China, and later in the US and Italy. Lock-downs, quarantine, and work-from-home only ensure that the community spread is slow and even—and most importantly, over a period of time.
However, in Modi’s India, determinism can be positive. As the prime minister explained, India locked herself down when the number of cases was just over 500, way earlier than what the other nations did. Hence, it was clear that the state-imposed quarantine would work more effectively, and impede the spread of the virus. We took actions quickly, and those causes can only lead to better effects. More importantly, in a large country like India, the policy-makers scuttled the risks of community spread.
At the same time, however, we tend to forget about the new decoupling and delinking between science and determinism, or between cause-and-effect and cause-without-effects, as also effect-without-cause. As the renowned Sufi saint, Rumi wrote, “Before the (real) truth let your reasons pause, (for) what you thought was effect is but the cause.” He also said that like in the case of COVID-19 at present, there is never a cure for the sickness of the heart, even if one quarantines all the lovers, and keeps them apart.
In the quantum and relativistic worlds—the minute and glaringly massive ones—the absolutes can change. Matter can behave like a wave and particle. It can be present in several states, and we can only gauge their probabilities. The Schrodinger’s cat is alive and dead, unless we observe it. As the Cheshire cat tells Alice during her escapades in Wonderland, “it doesn’t matter which way you go” if “you don’t care where”. If your desire is to only “get somewhere”, that’s bound to happen “if you only walk long enough”.
SADLY, such quotes and theories in physics wrinkle, and rankle, us. What about free will? What about our abilities to change our destinies, as also those of our societies? In both the RSS’ philosophy of Integral Humanism, which Modi believes in, and Sanatan Dharam, which the prime minister talks about, free will has a crucial role to play in the cosmological dance of space and time. Our spaces may be warped due to gravity, and they may be enmeshed with time in a four-dimensional universe, but we, as observers, influence both.
In Sanatan Dharam, the path towards universal spirituality includes qualities that are almost-completely within our control. These include tolerance, self-belief, self-respect, truthfulness, and mercifulness. We can give excuses but if we are strong and steady, and we stick to the path, we can contribute to the overall good of our society. No man is an island, and no one comprises the nation – but together we can guide our fates. There is an eternal law, a code of ethics, which points at the way towards liberation.
When Deendayal Upadhyaya espoused the nuances of Integral Humanism, he knew that the objective of the philosophy was to enable the emergence of a ‘New Man (or Woman)’ who was different from the previous generations. He (she) was physically strong, morally seeped in Indian culture and spirituality, and socially destined to make a difference. The collective of such new men and women would give rise to a ‘New Nation’ – call it Akhand Bharat or Hindu Rashtra—which would become the beacon for the rest of the world.
This was because although the new men and women were independent and possessed the free will to change their destinies, their larger role was to transform the society. Hence, they were willing—and this is important for the act is voluntary and, therefore, dictated by free will—to subsume and consume themselves in the interest of the motherland. Like the billions of cells in our body, they were willing to die for a higher cause. Modi’s vision reflects this India, where transformation and behaviour change is critical.
If free will is the dynamite to effect societal transformation, then the basic foundation and art of governance in the same spirit. Elected representatives, and selected civil servants, need to possess a faith and belief in their abilities to inculcate long-lasting changes within societies. Schemes like Swachh Bharat and Start-Up India can work only if everyone works in unison, and they are not pushed down from the top. The top level has to work at the grassroots to benefit the masses at the lowest level.
This, in effect, was also the philosophy behind the Indian Constitution and DPSP. Although the latter wasn’t mandatory, it was worded in a manner that signified a collective will, and freedom to change lives and livelihoods. The makers of our Constitution believed that only if the leaders worked with the people, and for the people, can we change as a nation. Hence, they believed in constant voluntary “nudges” to benefit the citizens. However, this had to be done in a scientific, modern and practical manner.
ONE can, however, argue that free will combined with faith to change the so-called deterministic nature of the world is necessary to guide any society. More important, free will and faith need to act and interact within the confines of determinism. None of the three can be for-gotten in the process. But no overt emphasis can be given on either. It’s a fine balance, which can break down at any instant, and lead a society into a free fall.
To prevent this leap into the oblivion, the nation has to answer a few questions. How far will faith continue to outweigh and outrun free will, i.e. consistent and continuous efforts by the administration to engage with the virus, and dilute its impact? How long will policy makers hide behind the garb of a contested determinism—India will ride out the viral effects because it locked down much earlier, and we have the immunity to tackle the disease? In addition, when will governance become only scientific?