This pandemic has disrupted every aspect of our lives. Millions are infected and hundreds of thousands have already died across the world with no end in sight still. A staggering number of jobs have been lost and almost all major economies are facing the prospect of a protracted recession, potentially the worst in human memory. Politicians are trying to negotiate the minefield of domestic electoral interests, international diplomatic agendas, saving human lives and protecting economies from collapsing. So called“world leaders” and “superpowers”are on their knees, struggling to survive.
All of this because of an invisible virus.
Pandemic - A Collective Existential Crisis
Some reports suggest it got transmitted from bats to humans in meat markets. Others that it might have escaped from a lab accidentally due to lax security protocols. There are rumors that the virus was made and spread intentionally by a certain country in order to pursue its goal of world dominion. While conjecture and speculation is rife, facts are not. What is undeniable is that people are collectively in shock. They are at a loss to process and interpret what they are experiencing.
Everyone is wondering. Why is all of this happening ? What did we do to deserve this ? Is this some evolutionary process, designed to weed out the weak and the vulnerable ? Or nature’s way of punishing us for the way we have destroyed the planet ? Is it “Karmic Law” we are having to endure for killing and eating animals ? Some cosmic justice being delivered by a divine providence ?
As a practicing monk in the bhakti-yoga tradition and one of the mentors at Chantnow, I’ve had people come up to me with such questions recently, looking for a worldview which can assuage their existential dread. In this article, I try to provide some insight and perspective on the situation and argue that although uncomfortable, events like this can, and should, act as a catalyst for transformation. My assertion is that we can best respond to suffering only when we cultivate, and allow ourselves to be guided by, genuine spiritual vision and inspiration.
Let’s begin by briefly analysing some popular attempts of interpreting the crisis.
Corona virus as an evolutionary agent
Some people suggest in a bitter and cynical fashion that this is a Darwinian evolutionary process to rid human society of the diseased and the elderly. That there is a rational morality inherent in nature which is at play. This seems difficult to prove empirically. We have seen other pandemics in the past kill the old and the young, the able and the weak, supposedly resilient and vulnerable populations indiscriminately. The present pandemic itself, as it progresses, is no more restricted to the elderly or people with co-morbidities. There are various strains and mutations which are beginning to affect even babies etc.
Corona virus as an equalizer
A second popular hypothesis is that the coronavirus is a result of climate change and that nature is now self correcting, rebalancing itself by killing humans, forcing them to stop all activities so that healing can occur. According to the available scientific evidence, global temperatures, heat, humidity etc. don’t seem to effect the spread of coronavirus in a significant way. However, viruses are known to mutate much faster than cellular organisms. When environmental changes occur at an accelerated pace, it does give viruses a chance to adapt faster than humans can. Also, as animal populations shrink due to climate change, their genetic diversity reduces which is essential to control diseases. With more humans encroaching on animal habitats, there is increased human-animal interaction, providing greater opportunity for diseases to jump species. Though it might not be apparent, pandemics are not random and chaotic. Viruses selectively diffuse and propagate themselves to explore ecological niches that human beings have created. They uncover the fault lines in our relationship with our environment - including the built environment that we create and the natural environment that responds.
Corona virus as punishment
Now let's examine the view that the virus is a result of, and punishment for, animal slaughter. Research indicates that the coronavirus is related to a virus found in bats and that humans may have contracted it through a host called pangolin. For those who don’t know, pangolins are exotic animals traded at illegal wildlife “wet markets” together with civet cats, foxes, wild geese and boar etc. It is also a fact that most of the pandemics of the past 100 years were caused by “zoonoses,” i.e - germs that come from animals other than the human species. HIV came from non-human primates. Ebola from bats. The measles virus came from a disease that affects cows, as did Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (Mad Cow Disease), a result of disturbing practices in the meat industry, to give just a few examples. Thus, it is likely that pandemics have a string link to the production, sale and consumption of meat.
Karma is complicated
There is evidence, data, logic and expert testimony to support as well as refute all the above arguments. There is no clear, unequivocal conclusion as to how or why this calamity has befallen us. This might be frustrating, but is not surprising. According to the concept of Karma, we understand that nothing “just happens” to us. Whatever happens is intimately connected to our past actions. Such large-scale devastation is not merely an accident. It’s intrinsically connected to our collective past actions.
However, while this is true, we should also keep in mind that the intricacies of Karma are extremely difficult to understand. The whole science of Karma is explained in the Bhagavad Gita (which besides being the most widely read book on Indian philosophical thought, is also the handbook for bhakti-yoga practitioners). In essence, we learn that whatever happens to us is a result of an unpredictable combination of the reactions to our past and present activities.
Thus it is no wonder that when we try and trace a direct, one-to-one casual relationship between sequence of past actions and present circumstances, we end up frustrated. If you have ever wondered “why do bad things happen to good people” or some variation of that question, you are not alone. It stems from an incomplete, oversimplified understanding of Karma as an action-reaction paradigm which plays out in real-time.
So as individuals, there is no point in becoming fixated to pinpoint a single cause for the pandemic. It’s sufficient to know that in all likeliness, it was a result of a combination of factors ranging from our unethical treatment of animals, to a culture of consumerism fuelled by capitalistic search for profit at the cost of the planet’s health, to vested political interests taking precedence over saving people’s lives.
The more pertinent question is, what do we do now. How will we get out of this? What should be our ideal response?
Material solutions to material problems ?
As so called modern, educated and progressive people, we trust and depend on our well-funded research labs, state-of-the-art hospitals, latest technology, trillions of dollars in financial aid, and a functioning democracy, to come to our rescue in times of crises like the pandemic.
However, history proves that such things are but only a small part of the equation. An equal, if not greater role in the way we respond to, and emerge from, such crises is played by our moral, ethicaland religious views. Our response depends on our values, our commitments, and our sense of being a part of the whole human race, as compared to identifying with a certain nationality, race, religion, socio-economic status etc.
The bubonic plague, just to give one example, is believed by historians to have led to a society which was much more violent than before.As the mass mortality rate cheapened life, it led to increased warfare, crime, popular revolt and persecution. Having killed half the population of an entire continent, it had a tremendous effect on the advent of the industrial revolution, on slavery and serfdom.
This pandemic too, has unleashed a social upheaval the likes of which few people alive today have witnessed earlier. It has exposed our fragility. It has shattered the illusion that we are in control. Humbled our arrogance. The hubris that we can lord it over nature like never before in the past through our technology, scientific advances and global networks has been proven completely wrong. Ironically, the advances themselves, which we have grown accustomed to see as the source of our strength, became a major factor in the spread of the virus. It has shown us our utter vulnerability, not despite but, because of our so called progress and advancement. Already we can see our institutions, habits, relationships, and culture beginning to shift.
How will we deal with the widespread financial, mortal, and daily uncertainty? Will we keep throwing money, science, technology and politics at our problems and hope that somehow the outcomes will magically be different than what they’ve been in the past. A popular phrase comes to mind - “The definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results.”
Does this imply that we just resign ourselves to fate, give up all action, all endeavour and withdraw from the world. Bhakti Yoga suggests to the contrary.
Corona virus as spiritual catalyst
In Bhakti Yoga, feelings of helplessness, vulnerability, and uncertainty are seen as valuable opportunities. As our inflated material ego diminishes, although temporarily, in the event of an overwhelming crisis, it makes us uncomfortable. It is frightening. Yet, it can potentially jolt us out of our spiritual stupor.
A majority of us “humans”, actually lead an animal like existence. We rarely think beyond eating, sleeping, mating, and defending, which concerns even animals. If we analyze carefully, most human activity is little better than a more refined and polished version of what animals endeavor to do as well. Day and night we are busy making elaborate arrangements for such base pursuits.
Crises such as this pandemic however, collectively shake us out of our settled routines. We are suddenly confronted with the inevitability of old age, disease and death, so stark and in our face that it is no longer possible to avoid looking. Why do we grow old, become diseased and die, even when we don’t want to ? What happens after death ? Bhakti Yoga teaches us that it is only when we start looking for answers to such questions that our consciousness starts to expand.
However, a word of caution for the more philosophically inclined amongst us. It is easy and tempting to get lost in endless abstract mental speculation which serves little practical purpose. The Bhakti Yoga ideal is not to use endless philosophizing and theorizing as yet another temporary escape from reality.
Instead, we are advised to hear with humility, with an unprejudiced mind, and mediate upon the answers of self-realized spiritual teachers who have perfectly preserved the eternal wisdom of their tradition. When we do this consistently, we start becoming conscious of our true reality, our true identity, and our purpose in life. We begin to understand and modulate our thoughts, feelings, desires, aspirations, fears, and insecurities, instead of being a slave to them. We become more receptive and compassionate. We can see with more clarity the human condition. Our limited worldview grows. Our mindset gets bigger and more inclusive. We are able to dive into the deeper aspects of our being. We enquire and we listen, to our inner selves and to each other. Out of this emerges true wisdom, insight and transformation.
If we wish to be more resilient and better prepared now and in the future, there has to be an absolutely fundamental change in our mindset. We need to acknowledge that our culture has left us poorly equipped to deal with situations like this. Bereft of spiritual knowledge, guidance, and inspiration, all efforts towards improving our material condition are futile. In fact, spiritual bankruptcy itself is the very cause of our suffering. So it is up to us whether we continue to suffer or cultivate this knowledge. But..
Where is this knowledge to be found ?
Modern western society idolizes youth and beauty. If you are young and good looking and fashionable, you are worthy of attention. You are important. You have value. You matter. The identification of our “self” with our “body” is so strong that people will take desperate, drastic measures to not get, or at least look, “old”. The pandemic is now forcing us to re-account for the value of the elderly and closely examine…
Are we just perishable, dispensable “bodies” with a “use by” date ?
We have bought into the modern notion that “we can define who we want to be”. We use education, profession, consumption (what we choose to buy) and activity (what we choose to do and experience) to create and display this “authentic self” to others. This makes for an incredibly unstable, fleeting and fragile source of identity which seeks constant recognition and validation. The lockdowns, by taking away our dates, our concerts, our tournaments, our ability to buy stuff, are actually challenging our sense of identity. Similarly, a layoff is stressful not purely out of imagined future poverty and hunger. We are equally, if not more, afraid to confront and discover our lack of an overarching purpose in life, which in turn threatens our identity. So, we need to discover..
What is the most robust source of identity ?
We are terrified of death - the final failure, the ultimate tragedy. We spend our lives trying to forget the existence of death. We ignore it. We refrain from conversations about it. Desperately clinging on to longevity, hoping till the very end that somehow we’ll magically escape it. But do we know..
Does death really kill us ?
I leave you to reflect on a mystical verse from the Bhagavad Gita, which contains the seed to the answers of all questions raised above.
Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be. [Bhagavad Gita - 2.12]
If you want to further explore the science of spirituality, I highly recommend the book “Bhagavad Gita, As It Is” by H.D.G A C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. It will help you find detailed answers and explanations to the questions raised above, expand your consciousness and taste first hand what it is like to live spiritually. Its message is universal, above any religious denomination. You are not required to subscribe to any particular faith or dogma. All you need is to approach it with humility and be open to reflection. Hare Krishna!