The news is often determined to tell us that we live in uniquely critical times, beset by political disasters and afflicted by terrible crises and that the demise of human civilisation is surely imminent. We are encouraged to view the world — and our own lives — in bleak, apocalyptic terms. Oddly, history can be powerfully consoling, not because it tells us that our times are great, but because it shows us how normal large societal troubles really are.
The English 18th century historian Edward Gibbon is particularly helpful with this task of bringing us to a less frightened perspective. His massive, elegantly written work covers 1500 years, from the pinnacle of Roman power around the year 180 AD, through the collapse of the Western Empire to the final fall of its last outpost, the city of Constantinople, in 1453. Gibbon started work on the series of volumes around 1770 and completed the final volume on a summer’s evening in 1787 while he was on holiday in Switzerland.
The immense story he tells moves from one disaster to another, century after century. There are mad, despotic Emperors, the barbarians invade again and again, the plans for reform fail, the key institutions become corrupt, the government loses control of the army, there are plagues that last for decades, the harvests decline, there is insane factionalism, the economy collapses, the Roman Forum — once the heart of the Empire — is abandoned and sheep graze amongst the ruins. Only Constantinople holds out, getting weaker and weaker. The vastly prolonged decline ends with the fall of the city — where the people still called themselves Romans — to Muhammed the Second in the middle of the 15th Century.
And yet the world didn’t end. The main beneficiaries of the demise of the last fragment of the Empire was the city state of Venice, which became the most widely loved place on earth; and the exodus of scholars to the West was pivotal in the story of the Renaissance. And all the time — in the centuries of decline — new forces had been developing in the background. The wild people of the North who the Romans so feared became, eventually, Danish interior designers and German intellectuals and Parisian socialites. The Picts and Scots who were seen as the least civilised people on earth would, one day, renew their capital city, Edinburgh, as an architectural homage to Roman culture. The disasters are always happening on the surface: they are what we hear about. The gradual process of renewal and elevation escapes our notice at the time.
It’s nice to read Gibbon late at night, at the end of a day when the news seems unbearably grim, and to skim through his placid account of yet another moment of apparent catastrophe and think of him sitting learnedly in his study reflecting on disaster and yet being himself the obvious heir — with his classical prose, his quiet dignity and his sense of balance — of the very empire he though he was lamenting.
One of the most provocative analyses of love ever produced is to be found in the writings of the Danish Existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. In a book entitled Works of Love, published in Copenhagen in 1847, Kierkegaard — then thirty-four years old — proposed a theory which deliberately upset every leading idea that his own age (in this respect very similar to our own) liked to entertain about this hallowed concept.
First and most importantly, Kierkegaard insisted that most of us have no idea what love is — even though we refer to the term incessantly. The first half of the nineteenth century in Europe saw the triumph of what we today call ‘Romantic love’, involving a veneration and worship of one very special person with whose soul and body we hope to unite our own.
Kierkegaard insisted that through concentrating on Romantic love, we develop a narrow and impoverished sense of what love can actually be.
Love is not, Kierkegaard insisted, the special excitement we feel when in the presence of someone unusually beautiful, pure, clever or accomplished. He proposed that we return instead to an exacting version of Christian love, which commands us to love everyone, starting — most arduously — with all those who we by instinct consider to be unworthy of love.
He made a distinction between what in Danish is termed kaerlighed — true love, the kind Christians are commanded to give, and elskov — erotic love.
For Kierkegaard, we should learn to love all the many people it would be so tempting to curse and to hate; those whom we believe are mistaken, ugly, irritating, venal, wrong-headed or ridiculous; those who may have made some truly serious mistakes and offended our moral codes. To learn to love such people, to practise kaerlighed, this is the real accomplishment — and the summit of our humanity.
It is love when we can look at someone who appears misguided, lazy, entitled, angry or proud and instead of labelling them despicable, can wonder with imagination and sympathy how they might have come to be this way; when we can perceive the lost, vulnerable or hurt child that must lie somewhere within the perplexing or dispiriting adult.
Love means making the effort to extend our compassion beyond the bounds of attraction so that we may look generously on all those we might at first glance have deemed beyond the pale or ‘undeserving’.
Kierkegaard tells us that if we understood love properly, when we said we loved a person, we wouldn’t mean that we admired them but that we had a handle on all the many difficulties that underpinned their troubling and objectionable sides.
Kierkegaard was especially aggrieved by how his contemporaries had replaced the Christian-inspired emphasis on forgiveness with the pursuit of something that feels a great deal more objective, hard-edged and rational: justice.
The pursuers of justice want to give everyone what they actually deserve. This sounds extremely reasonable — until one comes face to face with an uncomfortable fact: that if we all actually ended up with what we truly ‘deserved’, the world would at once be rendered entirely unlivable. The attempt to pursue justice at all costs, and the belief that doing so is theoretically possible, gives rise to appalling intolerance, for if one really believes that one can be a flawless instrument of righteousness, then there is logically no limit to the degree of rage or the sternness of punishments that can be brought to bear upon ‘wrong doers’.
For Kierkegaard, our goal should not be to create a world in which everyone gets exactly what they deserve; it is to try to ensure that as many of us as possible get the kindness we need.
Applied to children, concepts of justice quickly reveal their absurdities, Kierkegaard could see. If parents were to give their children exactly what they ‘deserved’, most small people would at a stroke be put out on hillsides to die. The pursuit of justice may spring from the noblest of motives but it is a quick route to an unloving hell.
Kierkegaard proposed that there is a ladder of love, from the most undemanding to the true. On the first rung of the ladder, we love those who love us; then we love those who do not love us, then we love those who persecute us and finally, and triumphantly, we should love everyone without exception.
Kierkegaard mocks those who say they believe in love but add that they haven’t found someone they can love. There are millions of people around. If we say that they are not worthy of love, we haven’t understood love. We need to love those we can actually see, not ‘invisible beings.’ A Kierkegaardian dating site would force us to love utterly random candidates, not based on admiration or virtue, but on the basis of our shared humanity. He bemoaned ‘the selfishness of preferential love.’ ‘Christianity has never taught that one must admire his neighbour,’ he wrote, ‘one shall simply love him.’
Kierkegaard detects an appalling snobbishness in Romantic love. People who otherwise pride themselves on their lack of prejudice will apply terrifyingly strict criteria to their choice of partner: they want someone with just a certain sort of face or income or sense of humour. They think of themselves as kind and tolerant but when it comes to love, they have all the broad-mindedness of a believer in ‘a caste system whereby men are inhumanly separated through the distinctions of earthly life.’ Kierkegaard adds: ‘Christians don’t only love the poor; they love everyone. The rich, the corrupt, the powerful: “He who in truth loves his neighbour loves also his enemy…” Love is the fulfilment of a law…’
Kierkegaard talks about Christ’s love for his disciple Peter, who repeatedly lets him down: ‘Christ did not say: “Peter must change first and become another man before I can love him again.” No, just the opposite, he said: “Peter is Peter, and I love him; love if anything will help him to become another man.”’
So, in imitation of Christ, we should love people especially if they are hateful: doing something hateful does not disqualify anyone from love, in fact it makes them all the more deserving of it. ‘We speak continually about perfection and the perfect person. But Christianity […] speaks about being the perfect person who limitlessly loves the person he sees […] with all his imperfections and weaknesses.’
Ultimately, Kierkegaard wants us to do something that sounds both utterly odd and yet entirely kind: ‘To be a Christian means to be the imitator of Christ […] and to be an imitator means that your life has as much similarity to his as it is possible to human life to have.’
Danish readers of the 1840s who came across Kierkegaard’s writings on love must have been as surprised as we are on what this philosopher had to say on the subject — because his perspective is so different from that we ordinarily operate with. But however arduous his message to us may be, we can see how relevant it remains. We too so often get stuck on the idea that we have not found ‘the one’ and on that basis refuse to love anyone; we too judge and moralise rather than forgive and lend sympathy. We may still be at the dawn of understanding what true love really offers, and requires of, us.
It is completely understandable that we are often maddened by what might be called ‘normal’ humanity. The way in which emotion so regularly triumphs over careful reasoning; the power of group loyalty, even when the group doesn’t seem to deserve much devotion; the vast mechanisms of status-seeking that drive so much excess consumption; widespread selfishness and indifference to the greater needs of more distant others. And we can find ourselves — in the privacy of our heads, or in the occasional late-night outburst — railing against the fools and idiots who (so unfortunately) seem to occupy so many of the prominent places of power, wealth and influence.
In such moods the 19th century naturalist Charles Darwin has much to say to us. He was born in England in 1809 into a well-to-do and intellectually distinguished family. He was much influenced by visiting, in his twenties, the Galapagos Islands where he could see first hand species remarkably different from those that existed elsewhere. In later life he was a quiet, rather withdrawn man (he became the world’s leading expert on barnacles). He achieved worldwide fame for his great work On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection but he felt that people had not quite understood the implications of his ideas and in 1871, when he was in his sixties, he brought out The Descent of Man.
Darwin liked to say that he had thought of calling his book ‘the Ascent of Man’ — but that that would suggest some idea of progress. Rather what he wanted to do was show that despite the obvious technical advances of past centuries modern people were still at the same moral level, or perhaps slightly worse, than their remote ancestors.
His big point is that the basic psychological characteristics of human beings evolved to aid survival in the remote past. At the simplest level, we are (generally) attracted to sweet things because in the very extended period of early human development that meant eating wild berries which are great for our health. It has only been in very recent times that this inbuilt desire has turned against us and given us a craving for sugar, which by Darwin’s time had become a major industrial commodity.
We also evolved to be highly conscious of our position within our own immediate group, since so much of our survival — in the past — depended on that; so today being ‘liked’ feels as if it a life or death issue because in the past it indicated that you would be served when the spoils of the hunt were being distributed.
Practically everything — then — depended on having a mate and reproducing. And so our minds are massively preoccupied by these questions, even though today, they are not at all central to our individual survival or even happiness. And, obviously, emotive behaviour is much earlier and much more deeply rooted than elaborate reasoning, which is a very recent and still terribly fragile development in human culture.
We can put on clothes and drive in cars, but we’re still carrying our primate heritage and that, though disappointing, is not our fault.
Charles Darwin teaches us to feel compassion for the very large primitive part of who we all are.
Most world religions and philosophies make the cardinal error of supposing that what they see as the meaning of life should — by virtue of its importance — apply to everyone, irrespective of age, circumstance or position. So proud are they of their insight into existence, they can’t help but accord it universal and dogmatic application.
Hinduism is a great deal more supple and imaginative. It too has a sense of how a good life should be lived, but crucially, it never assumes that the rules should apply across the board. It cuts up populations into segments — and differentiates right conduct according to four life stages collectively called ‘ashramas.’
The first of these ashrama is termed ‘brahmacharya’ and covers the period of life when one is a child and a student. Here — however serious life might be overall — one is allowed to play, to be tender and to give free reign to the imagination. But one must also learn and obey. Then, more arduously, comes the stage when one becomes a ‘grihasta’ or householder: this is the time for maximal involvement in practical matters. There might be little time for prayer or contemplation; it’s the moment for building up capital, for buying a house, developing a profession and having a family of one’s own. The stage might last twenty years or more. But eventually, practical obligations recede, children grow up and leave home and it is time to become a ‘vanaprastha’ or ‘forest walker’: someone who can increasingly surrender practical tasks and reorient themselves to the spiritual realm by going for walks — ideally (and poetically) in mango forests. Then lastly, when we are truly done with business and when family life has ceased to make all but the most minor calls on us, we are allowed to enter the stage of ‘sannyasa’, where we renounce worldly goods, don a simple robe and wander the world in search of ultimate sources of enlightenment, charity and spiritual friendship.
We may not agree with every detail of the way Hinduism carves up a life, but we can admire the imaginative way in which it seeks to align its teachings with the particular demands of society, the body and the family across time. It would — knows Hinduism — be as absurd to entice an 18 year old to do yoga for six hours a day while contemplating the absolute as it would be to spend all one’s time in business meetings as a 70 year old. There is a time for ‘moksa’ — the striving to liberate oneself from the cycle of eternal life — and there is a time for ‘artha’ — when we must head to the office and sound serious during company presentations; both are, in their respective contexts, equally legitimate and equally important.
We are reminded that there is no simplistic unitary goal to life. We shouldn’t ask ourselves what the right way to live is per se; it all depends on where on the journey we happen to be.
They’ve been growing rice in the central Japan for 3,000 years; it has always been a complicated business and remains so to this day. Seeds will only germinate properly if they’ve been sitting for many months in a sunlit pool of water at least five centimetres deep but the stalks can only be harvested when the water has been drained and have been able to dry out for a few weeks.
This makes for an unholy degree of complication; it means that rice generally has to be grown in terraces facing the sun, with water flowing down the hillside through a well-managed network of sluices and dikes. There has to be an upper terrace that functions as a reservoir or holding pond — and an extremely detailed agreement between all the farmers as to when their particular terrace will be ready to receive or be drained of water.
The whole community needs a firm grasp of hydrodynamics, a law-biding nature and a highly punctual and discipled outlook.
When trying to understand the particularities of the Japanese character, sociologists in the 20th century focused in on what has come to be known as ‘the rice theory’ — which states that a nation whose diet has for centuries depended on rice will develop many of the qualities that are necessary for its successful cultivation. They proposed that the Japanese are the way they are — thorough, collaborative, precise, traditional, focused on the ‘we’ rather than the ‘I’ — principally because of the virtues a majority of them had to exercise to bring in the harvest; the rice terraces of places like Maruyama Senmaida moulded the national character. Conversely, the same sociologists have proposed that the characteristics of many Western nations — individualistic, impatient, self-reliant and innovative — have been the consequence of their cultivation of a very different plant: wheat.
However fanciful the two theories might sound, they point us to the idea that, far more than we’re normally prepared to recognise, our jobs don’t just occupy our energies, they shape our personalities. Teaching children all day will give us one sort of temperament, designing advertising campaigns another. Politicians might speak one way over the dinner table, psychotherapists another.
This can open up an avenue for compassion. The regrettable awfulness of many people won’t necessarily always be their fault; it may be a function of the work they have found themselves doing. If people in television are often disloyal, paranoid, unreliable and insincere, this may have far more to do with the vagaries of their industry than of anything fixed in their natures. If we gave them a rice field to cultivate in a picturesque village south of Osaka, some water sluices to manage and some neighbours to depend on, they might in time grow exceptionally calm, collaborative and forbearing.
Similarly, at a state level, the atmosphere of many modern nations — their ruthlessness, immaturity, aggression and exhibitionism — may ultimately be a function of the way most of their citizens have to earn their living rather than of any drastic deterioration in human nature. Japan’s rice theory asks us to explain — and then perhaps one day reform — our characters by looking in an unfamiliar and often painful place: at who our jobs ask us to be every day.
The Spanish painter Francisco Goya is one of the outstanding artists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Born into a middle-class family in 1746, in Fuendetodos in Aragon, he began painting young and was quickly recognised by his contemporaries for his genius. We acclaim him today for, among other works, his masterpieces, The Third of May 1808, his portrait of Charles IV and his family — as well as his series of unflinching prints, The Disasters of War.
However, his most emotionally compelling work is a print he made in 1799, titled — hauntingly and evocatively — The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.
The title is central to the work. In case we were to miss it, it’s even etched on the desk — and sounds yet more eloquent in Spanish.
As Goya knew intimately (he’d been manic depressive since late adolescence), night is when things can become unbearable if our minds are fragile. What each of Goya’s monstrous animals really is is a thought, a thought that can assail us when we are exhausted and depleted. Often, these night-time thoughts are an internalisation of the most awful messages we’ve ever heard from other people (probably those we grew up around): you are no good, you disgust me, don’t you dare to outsmart me.
— The owl with outstretched wings might be shrieking: you will never achieve anything.
— The furry beaked bat might be hissing: your desires are revolting.
— The lynx-like thing at the bottom looks on in judgement: I’m so disappointed in what you’ve become.
During the day, when we feel so-called monsters hovering as we talk to a colleague or have dinner with friends, we can fend the animals off with rational arguments: of course we’ve done nothing wrong. There’s no reason to keep apologising, we have the right to be. But at night, we can forget all our weapons of self-defence: why are we still alive, why haven’t we given up yet? We don’t know what to answer any more.
To survive mentally, we might need to undertake a lengthy analysis of where each animal came from, what it feeds off, what makes it go on the prowl and how it can be wrestled to submission. One beast might have been born from our father’s mouth, another from our mother’s neglect; most of them get excited when we have too much work, when we’re exhausted and when the cities we live in are at their most frenetic. And they hate early nights, nature and the love of friends.
We need to manage our monsters — each of us has our own version — with all the respect we owe to something that has the power to kill us. We need to build very strong cages out of solid kind arguments against them. At the same time, we can take comfort from the idea that the night-time monsters will get less vicious the more we can lead reasonable, serene lives. With enough gentleness and compassion, we can hope to reach a point when, even in the dead of night, as these monsters chafe at their collars and strike at their bars, we will remember enough about ourselves to be unafraid and to know that we are safe and worthy of tenderness.
Goya’s print isn’t just an evocation of night terror: it’s also pointing us — more hopefully — to how we might in time tame our monsters through love and reason.
On the evening of 10th November 1827, a much-publicised banquet was held in London. What set it apart from the many other festivities of the social season was the fact that it took place deep underground, in the first completed section of the first tunnel ever built under the River Thames.
It was a glamorous affair. Fifty guests sat down at a huge table illuminated by gas chandeliers; the place of honour was occupied by the greatest celebrity of the day, the victor at the Battle of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington; patriotic songs were sung and at midnight a shovel and a pick-axe were brought in and a toast was drunk to the labourers involved in the construction of what was recognised as a marvel of art and science. The whole event was commemorated in a painting, commissioned from one of the most fashionable and popular artists of the era.
Over the next few days, tens of thousands of people not fortunate enough to be on the invitation list had the chance, for a modest fee, to descend the shaft and admire the beautiful vaulting and elegant detailing of a new transport link.
Considering the event from our own vantage point, one might be struck by how little of this we do today. We, too, are surrounded by wonders of engineering and design, but we no longer give toasts in honour of bridges, pause to wonder at the alloy fan blades of our airplane engines, notice our transmission towers, pay homage to power stations, or even register our door handles.
For most of history, it was very different. The Romans were profoundly impressed by their road systems and the mechanics of their water supply; their engineering projects were a logical focus of their cultural pride. In 18th-century Venice, the Arsenale di Venezia – for centuries the world’s largest ship-building yard – was a major attraction; tourists came in large numbers to watch ships being assembled and repaired. An especially well-heeled visitor might even take home a memento in the form of a painting of the yard by the priciest of contemporary artists, Canaletto. Art was in the service of engineering, not the other way around.
In the 19th century, the admiring prophet of modernity, Walt Whitman, revealed his awe at the care that had gone into fashioning technological civilisation:
Shapes of factories, arsenals, foundries, markets
Shapes of the two-threaded tracks of railroads
Shapes of the sleepers of bridges, vast frameworks, girders, arches.
Walt Whitman, Song of the Broad-Axe, 1856
Our technology is yet more impressive, but our powers of appreciation have been reduced to nothing. It would be deeply unusual, even suspicious, to pause and admire the bold sweep of a concrete bridge over an alpine valley. Civilised people aspire to appreciate the great works of philosophy. Very few know or even care that a distinguished philosopher happened also to design an exemplary set of radiators and doorhandles, which he thought far surpassed the intelligence of his better known work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
If this neglect matters, it is because it is perilously easy to give up on human beings when we consider ourselves only in terms of what we get up to in politics or our private lives, in warfare or in ecology. The evidence from our news media is of insistent mania, querulousness, cruelty and self-absorption. We would have so many reasons to turn away from our species in lasting disgust.
If we want to keep a little faith in our own kind, however, it is possible to look elsewhere. In an average elevator, for example, lies a powerful covert argument against depression and misanthropy. This machine may never attract notice or praise, yet it is a summit of achievement in the quality, thoughtful dedication that went into making it. In the background of a plain ascending and descending box is a grand history of science and mechanics and an astonishing system of regulation and care that ensures that we can be safely transported in seconds down to the vault-like concrete garage or up to the observation deck at the touch of a button.
Likewise, while a commercial port isn’t currently on any of our lists of places to visit, it should be recognised as a sublime result of a vast creative and organisational collective effort. Similar wonder can be applied to the operating theatre of a hospital, a research laboratory, the loading bay of a supermarket, a sewage plant, an electricity substation, a motorway intersection, an airport control tower, a factory assembly line or an underground station.
There is every reason to be appalled by our race. But to retain a vestige of hope, we should look not at our books or our articles, our laws or our economic forecasts, our film award ceremonies and campaigns for justice, but at our docksides and warehouses, at our circuit boards and surgical instruments, at our flyovers and radar stations. Here, away from all grandstanding and sentimentality, viciousness and hard-heartedness, remain a host of convincing reasons to remain very proud of being human.
The Western intellectual tradition suggests that in order to be happy, what we need to do most of all is to go out and subdue the world; secure resources, found businesses, run governments, gain fame and conquer nations.
By contrast, the Eastern tradition has for a long while told us something very different. In both its Buddhist and Hindu strands, it has insisted that contentment requires us to learn to conquer not the world but the instrument through which we view this world, namely our minds.
It won’t matter, says the East, how lustrous and perfect our achievements end up being — how much money we accumulate, how many friends we acquire, how feted our name is — so long as our minds remain open to being troubled at any point by our emotional faculties. All the benefits of a palace with seven reflecting pools and gardens planted with almond and cherry trees will be wiped out by a depression. Chronic anxiety will spoil the ownership of the fastest jet. A fortune is of no use at all so long as one is nagged by paranoia. An unhappy relationship at once destroys any advantages of an esteemed name.
Given this vulnerability of external goods to the vagaries of the mental realm, the Eastern tradition advises us to stop spending our time trying to rearrange the material building blocks of existence only then to fall foul of psychological ills — and to focus instead on learning how to control and manage the inherently unruly and hugely complicated instrument through which the external world reaches consciousness. Rather than striving to build empires, we need to spend many years examining how we think and dream; we have to reflect on our families, the economic systems we were brought up under, the impact of our sexual urges and the biological and cosmological order of nature of which we are an infinitesimal part. We have to learn how to breathe in such a way as to allow maximal oxygen to reach our frontal context and to hold our bodies so that our organs are not crushed and our blood flow subtly impeded. We need to be able to sleep a regular number of hours and remove all distractions and excitements that might disturb our streams of thought.
This is by no means an easy set of priorities; it is indeed as much hard work as managing a law firm. But, the yogis and sages advise that it delivers us a far more secure hold on the actual ingredients of contentment than the bank account of a newly installed CEO with a yacht off Barbuda.
Some of the reason why this continues to feel unreal is that we simply can’t imagine that success, great wealth and a palace wouldn’t in the end do the trick. And that in turn is because too few people who have been blessed with such accoutrements have ever given us an honest account of what it felt like to have them. Intellectual history, with its dire incantations against a worldly life, has been written by a set of suspiciously poor and envious-sounding people.
It is therefore highly fortuitous and extremely reassuring that Buddhism should have been founded by a disgruntled former playboy, Siddhartha Gautama, who once had a palace and a trust fund, fame and servants, but gave them up to sit under a bodhi tree and could therefore tell us, with the benefit of lived experience, what material goods can really do – and not do – for us. And without false modesty, he insisted that they won’t be enough. The food may be tasty and the rooms elegant but such advantages cannot serve their purpose so long as one’s mind is haunted and unsteady, as it invariably will be without a long emotional education and regular spiritual practice.
We should take the East’s warnings seriously. However hard we strive, it is logical that we can only be as happy as our minds are at peace. And given how vulnerable we are to mental disturbances, and how short our lives are, we should on balance almost certainly spend a little more time on our psyches and a little less time on our plans for a second home and a New York office.
The West has produced too many unhappy playboys, and the East too many genuinely peaceful sages, for us not to shift our attention away from conquering the world towards taming our minds.
Even if we are not religious and have no interest at all in becoming a Hindu, Hinduism offers us at least four fascinating ideas…
1. Look Forward to Death
Hinduism is hugely radical in suggesting that there is nothing especially noble or interesting about being alive.
Once we look at matters dispassionately, a lot of what we have to go through is misery and suffering: we need — with great effort — to grow up, to assume responsibilities, to master a profession, to have a family, to take our place in societies full of backbiting and hypocrisy, to watch those we love get ill and eventually to succumb to old age ourselves. To think highly of ‘life’ is, through a Hindu lens, a fundamental intellectual error.
As Hinduism sees it, our real purpose is to be done with life forever; that is the true summit of existence. Hinduism reverses the Western equation: the sinful and blinkered are forced to live forever, the righteous and awakened are privileged enough to be able to die. If we are not careful, if we do not show sufficient mercy and imagination toward others, we may well — Hinduism suggests — be subjected to the ultimate punishment: we will have to carry on into eternity.
The symbol of this ghastly on-goingness is the eight-spoked wheel of ‘samsara’, the most commonly depicted item in the religion, which evokes the pitiless and unceasing nature of life — to which we are committed unless we take a disciplined series of averting actions which together comprise the central components of Hindu ethics.
Hinduism does not suggest that we will carry on forever in our own bodies. According to the process of ‘samsara’, we are reborn into a succession of different outward envelopes, as each example is eroded away and disintegrated by time. Because samsara is at work across the whole animal kingdom, we might find that our enduring soul (‘atman’) transmigrates at our death into the body of a woodlouse, a pelican or a house spider (though we might also be reborn as a paediatric nurse or the president). What determines the quality of the migration is the degree of ‘karma’ or virtue that we have accrued in our lives. Among the many reasons why we might have to be kind to others is an awareness that unkindness might wind us up having to suffer a cycle or two of life as a cockroach or a naked mole rat.
The suspicion that life is constantly painful and anxious is one that we largely have to bear in a very lonely way in the philosophies of the West; in those of the East, pessimism is ennobled and takes centre stage. We are permitted to feel weary and amply dissatisfied; we have, without quite knowing it, been alive since the start of creation — and it is untenably exhausting and frustrating. The trick, and the true prize, will be to be good and wise enough to learn to die once and for all.
2. Rejoin Cosmic Totality
For Hindus, the way to step off the treadmill of eternal existence is to realise that, despite many appearances to the contrary, however paradoxical or absurd the idea might sound, we and the universe are in truth one.
From the earliest age, we tend to assume the very opposite. It seems self-evident that we are one kind of thing and the tree over there, the relative over here, the clouds in the sky, the monkey on the parapet and the river wending its way to the sea belong to quite different categories. Yet Hinduism insists that our belief in difference belongs ultimately to a realm of ‘maya’ or illusion. If we look more deeply into the nature of things, through the help of teaching and spiritual exercises, we stand to discover the remarkable unity of all elements. Unlike what appearances imply, everything we can see and experience around us belong to the same life force: the leaves unfurling on the tree, the child learning to read, the earthworm digging its tunnels, the lava bubbling from the earth, all belong to a single unitary power which only egoistic prejudice has hitherto prevented us from acknowledging as one.
Most of our pain, Hinduism argues, arises from an overeager attachment to the difference between ourselves and the rest of the world. We pay inordinate attention to who has slightly more money or respect than we do, we are constantly humiliated by people and events that don’t seem to honour our sense of uniqueness.
But in a process known as ‘moksha’ or liberation, we can throw off the veil of illusion that works to separate us from the universe and can start to identify with cosmic totality. It no longer matters exactly where we end and others begin; everything belongs to the same whole that we have mistakenly and unnecessarily carved up into parts. There is a little less reason to grasp, to be puffed up, to be proud or to become embittered. We can survey the course of our lives and of our societies with calm indifference. We can cease to identify happiness with the working out of our will upon the world — and take in with compassion and serenity whatever destiny throws our way. We enjoy ‘paripurna-brahmanubhava’, the experience of oneness with ‘brahman’, the principle of all things.
Once we have let go of our own ego like this, we may have a few more years left to live, but we can be sure that — eventually — we will not need to keep returning. Constant rebirth is the fate of those who cleave too tightly to their own selves. By contrast, those who have learnt to surrender can at their demise merge with the universe and will never need to suffer the indignities of individual life again.
3. Don’t Forget Money
We might expect that a religion devoted to spiritual enlightenment would have scant concern for money and possessions. But Hinduism surprises and challenges us by suggesting that — despite everything — what it calls ‘artha’ or a concern for material prosperity has a place within a wise life.
Hinduism is not directing us towards crass materialism. It doesn’t want to exhaust us with overly rich foods or attention-seeking displays of wealth. But it is aware — with a touching practicality — that many good and elevated things require a degree of financial support in order to go well. One won’t be able to undertake spiritual exercises unless one is able to take a considerable amount of time off from practical duties every day. Meditation on nothingness can be substantially assisted by having a servant or two to take care of the laundry and the housekeeping.
Hindus traditionally direct their hopes for material comfort to Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity. One of the most popular of all Hindu deities, she is typically represented holding two lotus flowers that speak of spiritual liberation as well as material good fortune. She is usually accompanied by at least one elephant, a symbol of power and strength, and a swan, an animal that is at home both in the air and in the water, and thereby speaks of an ability to combine competence in the material and spiritual realms.
Lakshmi understands, and would never condemn, one’s appetite for a better house or a more high paying job. Her role isn’t to make us feel guilty about wanting more wealth, it is to remind us that the true point of money is — in the end — to enable us to forget about money.
4. Don’t Turn Against Sex
We have come to expect very little by way of encouragement or sympathy in relation to sex from religions. At best, a blind eye, at worst, a constant hounding and reminder of the evils of the flesh.
But Hinduism surprises us; it made the remarkable step of placing sexual fulfilment — ‘kama’ — among the four ‘puruṣārthas’, or aims of human life, alongside ‘dharma’ (morality), ‘artha’ (prosperity) and ‘moksha’ (spiritual liberation).
Hinduism’s respect for sex was rooted in a particular understanding of what lies behind our erotic feelings. These do not stem — as has so often been alleged — from a base animal impulse; they are a means by which we can sense the unity of the universe (‘brahman’).
Normally, we live beneath a veil of illusion which persuades us of the separateness of all things, bodies included, but our sexual desires push us to break down the barriers between ourselves and others. We might colloquially say that we are turned on, but through a Hindu lens, at the core of our excitement is the sense that we are breaking down the illusion of separateness and taking a small but important step towards oneness with what we can, without exaggeration, following the religion, term the universe.
The idea of a garden has always been central to Islam for reasons that are at once hopeful — because nature is so beautiful — and deeply melancholy — because life itself can never be made perfect.
For Islam, the world we inhabit will always be mired in khaṭīʾa or sin. No human enterprise or institution can ever be without significant degrees of dhanb or wrong-doing: jealousy, stubbornness, rage and lack of forgiveness predominate. Only in the next life can we hope to escape the irritation and the agony; only in jannah, or paradise, will we be assured of true contentment. In paradise, according to the Qur’an, there will be flowing rivers, flowers, incorruptible waters and unchangeable milk, golden goblets, ‘virgin companions of equal age’ and rows of cushions set out in the balmy shade of fruit trees.
Yet because this might all be a long way off, Islam recommends an unusual technique to prevent us from losing our poise and despairing: we should become bustani or gardeners. The enlightened should redirect their frustrations with the state of humanity towards the construction of a hadiqa, or walled garden. Within its limited circumference, with due modesty, it can be endowed with many of the qualities of the eventual garden of paradise. Our garden should have flowing water, some reflecting pools, symmetrical flower beds, fruit trees and places to sit. Everywhere that Muslim civilisation spread, gardens developed along with it, and in the drier regions, where nothing would grow, flowers and trees were represented on carpets, which functioned as miniature mobile gardens that could be carried on the back of a camel. When the Muslims reached southern Spain, the climate allowed them to create pieces of horticulture which astonish and seduce us to this day.
A telling observation about gardening is that almost everyone over the age of sixty-five is concerned with it, and almost no one in their late teens has ever evinced the slightest interest in it. The difference isn’t coincidental. A person’s enthusiasm for gardening is inversely correlated to their degree of hope for life in general. The more we believe that the whole of existence can be rendered perfect, that love and marriage can be idyllic, that our careers can reward us materially and honour us creatively, the less time we will have for beds of laurel or thyme, lavender or rosemary. Why would we let such minor interventions detain us when far greater perfection is within reach? But a few decades on, most of our dreams are liable to have taken a substantial hit, much of what we put our faith in professionally and romantically will have failed, and at that point we might be ready to look with different, and significantly more sympathetic, eyes at the consolations offered by cyprus trees and myrtle hedges, geraniums and lilies of the valley. No longer will gardening be a petty distraction from a mighty destiny, but rather a shelter from gusts and squalls of despair.
Islam is appropriately wise in its ambitions. It doesn’t tell its followers to plough themselves a farm, nor does it advise them to focus on a window box. The scale is carefully calibrated: neither too big to mire us in unmanageable expense and bureaucracy, nor too small to humiliate and sadden us. The garden becomes a perfect home for our remaining pleasures in a troubled world; it’s where we can repair to contemplate islands of beauty once we have come to know and sorrowfully navigated oceans of pain.