(Another in my occasional essay series)
Nirvana, in the belief system of my ancestors, is not merely a decent band once led by Kurt Cobain. It is, instead, a wonderfully blissful state which we must all strive to achieve through disconnecting ourselves from real life. Those who reach Nirvana enjoy a peaceful existence where they transcend the misery of the endless cycle of birth and rebirth through reincarnation, all of which are marked by endless suffering because of human greed and desire. In short, getting to Nirvana means that the next time we die, we finally get to make a one-way trip to the great library in the sky, rather than merely spending a half hour transit stop in the lobby.
People who believe in these eastern philosophies have a tendency to bang on about how wonderful this nirvana thing is, and always point you to the serenely happy faces of Buddhas (literally a term to describe a person who has got to this nirvana place, not just one much revered individual). In their view, this is what sells their religion as the coolest thing around. But I think that frankly that while admirable as a goal, its based on at least two wrong assumptions. First, that life on earth is all about suffering, and we cannot wait to find a way out of it. Two, that the thought of being reincarnated on a regular basis is an abhorrent one and we are all happy to be rid of this curse of coming back a 100 times, given a chance.
So, to the first wrong assumption. The evidence is strongly against this overwhelming suffering of life thing. I do not see a rush of people eager to end their earthly suffering. Were the suffering of life so intense and all consuming, a lot more people would be hurling themselves underneath the wheels/hooves of the nearest train/bus/horse. I do not see such a lemming-like march off the cliffs, except by, well, lemmings.
Indeed, one might say that most people seem reluctant to rid themselves of this earthly coil, in no hurry whatsoever to end the suffering. This would indicate to the casual observer that their suffering is greatly outweighed by the satisfaction they derive from the beautiful happy things in life, however fleeting and few. This seems to apply not just to relatively comfortable professors living in wealthy decadence, but to multiple amputees begging for scraps by your average developing country railway station.
In fact, most people I know seem rather keen on the idea of living forever, or at least do not seem in a great hurry to die. We have an in-built fear of death, and I wonder if that means that this instinct is based on some DNA-programmed instinctive fear of ‘the other side’. No less a person than the great Mullah Nasrudin pointed out that heaven couldn’t possibly be a nice place, because we come into the world crying, and most people leave with regret.
While everyone has a heaven that everyone believes to be a pretty decent place to go to, the eastern religions are more ambiguous about the visa requirements for this journey. It is not a matter of being righteous; saying the right prayers, and so forth. Death does not automatically lead to judgement and a tenured position in a land of green pastures and incredibly meaningful relationships with beautiful and intelligent people with harps; it leads to a return trip where you get to do everything again, and again, and again, until you get the hang of the nirvana business. Then, and only then, do you get the harps and the chicks. The whole idea of heaven in the Abrahamic religions appeals to the very same thing. But much simpler, because instead of starting from scratch every time, they are promised a single encore performance when the messiah returns, with only positive outcomes, devoid of the current misery.
Perhaps this emphasis on earthly misery needs to be edited given the current context. Remember, these books were all written where the average person did not make it to 40, infant mortality was high, and most people were serfs or slaves or otherwise downtrodden. Plus nowadays we have drugs that stave off depression, and other drugs that make us deliriously happy even when our lives are completely rubbish.
And now to this second mistaken assumption. It seems the incentive structure works heavily against wanting to ‘getting it right’ and achieving nirvana. It implies giving up on worldly desires, not caring about good food, sex, love, money, friends, conversation, even music and books and in short, of all the really, really cool things that make life worth living. Unlike the Judaeo-Christian view, failure to be a good person gets you hellfire and brimstones, and floggings by goat-like creature with horns and sharp implements. Instead, you get to come back! And do it again! And again! Until you finally say, ‘I have had enough’, and go for the self-denial.
I’m afraid I don’t see that happening.
Most people are like me. I already feel a sense of regret that there are many things I wish I could have done, or perhaps done differently, but time or age now precludes these: I have won no Olympic medals; I seem distant from making any important scientific discoveries; I have not yet kissed Natalie Umbruglia, or even Shilpa Shetty; I cannot play a saxophone. There are days – and I challenge any of you to deny you have at least once thought the same – when I find myself thinking, ‘were I to do it all over again….’ In other words, we are quite open to the idea of coming back for an encore performance, and we feel certain that next time an incredibly sexy young thing throws herself at you, you will not say, ‘I don’t want to go to jail’ and go with your imagination rather than worry about the consequences. We hope that the second or third time round we will get it right, but being rational people or people who believe in an immediate punishment, we sit there and regret our choices.
Reincarnation, is therefore, really cool. It means, you get to try your luck two, three or more times, until you get it right. So why should anyone want to go for the nirvana thing?
I think that our behaviour says something, particularly in the rich countries. We are not rushing towards the light; instead, we are doing everything possible to delay it. We exercise, spend fortunes on vitamins, health foods, cosmetic surgery, read books on how mental agility keeps us young, and drink smoothies with fruit pulp from a hitherto unknown Brazilian fruit, all with the express goal of slowing the ageing process. We want to live forever, or at least, until all our friends are dead. And be incredibly sexy all the while. So this reincarnation thing and the promise of a groundhog day-like existence really should appeal, except that, apart from a few clearly whacky types there is little evidence that the whole reincarnation thing is really true.
Since there is no hellfire, the only reason we have for being nice
is that if we aren’t, we come back as a lower life form. However, the idea of
returning as a non-human is no deterrent in my case. I look at the very cute
doggy snuggling in Angelina Jolie’s cleavage, and I
think, surely this cant be a terribly punishing existence, certainly better
than your average Indian peasant, bent over double in the noon day sun. I watch
the bees and the flies buzzing by, and question whether they are bothered by
impending deadlines for papers, the rising prices of real estate in central
I think religions such as these need help from the marketing folks. A little repackaging is called for here, a little product differentiation, a strategic refocusing in order to move with the times, respond to the obviously high market demand for living, on and on….. and perhaps some more solid evidence for us more existential types who are not completely convinced that we do not all end up in dog food cans, or pushing up daisies in a field somewhere.