Religion is absolutely everywhere in India. Whether it’s from waking up to the muezzin calling Muslims to prayer at 5:30 in the morning, the Hindu temples on every corner, walls covered in Warli art illustrating genesis, or sitting in class with Buddha. The list goes on and on and as a student of religion I find it particularly exhilarating. Religion, rationalization, motivation, instructions, opiate, nonsense, are truly all synonyms. Religion and a lack thereof is how people make sense of the world and find their place in it. Part of the human experience is searching for meaning and people have been contemplating life, the universe, death, and everything for literally thousands of years.
King Solomon said sometime shortly after 1000BCE “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun,” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). This is true to some extent. The wheel of life in Buddhism depicts scenes from life that are common: people are born, they live for a short while, work hard, try to find happiness, and then die. Death occupies a large and ever-present space in human consciousness. There is no escaping death. Everything that is living is dying.
On one trip into Bangalore probably over a month ago now, I saw a dead man. A body was laid on the ground, covered in a white sheet, and adorned with flowers. A dead man literally on the side of the road! I remember feeling shocked and withdrawn for the remainder of that day. Let’s try to imagine Siddhartha’s shock when he ventured out of the castle for that first time. Legend tells that Siddhartha’s father kept any sign of mortality from his son, he even covered himself in makeup and colored his hair to hide his ageing. Then when Siddhartha wanted to see the world, he saw age, sickness, and death for the first time. Suppose you never knew anything beyond beauty, youth, and physical ability existed… In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh is distraught over the death of a friend and searches the ends of the earth to find the secret of immortality. Along the way, Gilgamesh meets a woman who makes wine and she tells him that the gods allotted man death and kept life for their own keeping.
She also tells him that he’ll never find the immortality that he’s searching for, but Instead he should fill his belly with good food, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice, have fresh clothing, bathe in water, cherish the little child that holds his hand, and make his wife happy in his embrace; “for this too is the lot of man,” (Epic of Gilgamesh Chapter Four). This sentiment is echoed in Sikhism by leading an ordinary life as a way to reach God. Siddhartha realized this too before his enlightenment. After living an extravagant life as a prince and spending six years self-deprecating as an ascetic, Siddhartha saw the middle path as an instrument: if the strings are too tight they will snap, if they are too loose they will not play. Thus Siddhartha became the awakened one, by occupying the space in the middle between two extremes, a place that is quite ordinary.
Living an ordinary life is much easier said than done especially when forces beyond one’s control destroy ordinary. Humankind has been inventing and perfecting new ways to kill, maim, inflict pain and suffering, and limit the agency of others for eons. I don’t know if King Solomon could have imagined the generation of children suffering in Bhopal, cancer caused by chemicals, or the devastation of nuclear warfare. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, quoted the religious text the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death. The destroyer of worlds,” after watching a trial detonation. This new breed of suffering goes beyond death by mutating genetics and degrading DNA. It sentences innocent people to lifetimes of physical and mental pain, which was unknown before the advent of the bomb and chemicals, completely decimating the potential of “ordinary.”
King Solomon got it mostly right. Life and civilizations are cyclical. The world has operated the same way for thousands of years. King Solomon saw that, but what he didn’t see was the potential for destruction and that what has been might never be again. Religion is one tool people use to organize life, making the anxiety of death that much more bearable, the uncertainty of disaster less intimidating, and justice slightly more attainable. Just as religion also has the potential to repress, scar, frighten, and create injustice. These contradictions are rooted in different understandings of purpose and why we’re all here on earth capable of thinking about these things in the first place. We’re all sharing in the common human experience of life, searching for our own ordinary.