Originally posted on FB on 28/3/2019
The rickety rickshaw careened wildly through a crowded Kolkata alleyway. The smell of incense from a nearby temple and the stench of rotting garbage battled for dominance over my olfactory senses. Yet, it was the intoxicating musk of sweat and tenacity emanating from the rickshaw wallah that eventually won out.
The rickshaw ground to a sudden halt as a single pregnant cow sauntered dignifiedly across the street, strategically positioned herself right in the center of traffic and sat down.
Arun, the rickshaw wallah, swore under his breath then chastised himself for swearing, begged forgiveness and then set the rickshaw down.
“Ekhane thak tui,” (“You stay right here”) he said to me gruffly in Bengali, then proceeded to try and move the bovine leviathan, a task whose futility was abundantly evident to ten year old me.
I hopped down from the rickshaw, slung my schoolbag on and strolled around a bit keeping the rickshaw in sight. It fascinated me how much there always was to “do”. Everyone always seemed so busy. Over here was a street barber, squatting on the pavement and shaving his, also squatting, customer. There was a chai wallah barking orders to the errand boy, a raggedy looking urchin no older than I was wearing nothing more than an over-sized pair of shorts.
“Chol hot!” (Out of my way!) he yelled as he whizzed past me carrying six steaming tumblers of chai.
“The mass of humanity lead lives of quiet desperation” was a quote I had read somewhere recently. Perhaps, it was something my father had displayed in his study. Maybe I’d read it in one of my textbooks, I couldn’t quite remember. At the time, it hadn’t made much sense to me. What kind of desperation? Why quiet? What does “quiet desperation” look like when compared to just regular desperation? How does one know that this quiet desperation is what the mass of humanity feels? It just sounded like a whole lot of big words and intellectual mumbo jumbo for the sake of sounding profound.
Yet, watching the busy morning scene in the crowded streets, while Arun the rickshaw wallah wrestled with the cow’s behind, suddenly made the meaning of the quote crystal clear. As the epiphany began to settle, a single figure caught my eye. I had seen him sitting there before on my daily ride to school, yet his image had always been fleeting, so I’d assumed he was just another beggar sitting on the sidewalk. For the first time, I actually looked at him and realized that this was something else entirely.
The man was seated in a peculiar fashion, propped up against a wall with some dusty pillows. His eyes, shimmering with tears, held a strange and distant gaze. He barely moved and seemed not to notice anything happening around him. His mouth sat a little open and every once in a while he would let out this guttural moan which was something between a sigh and a scream. A woman came and sat beside him and opened a little plastic bag filled with some rice and dal. She then began feeding it to him with her hand in small amounts. His mouth moved ever so slowly to chew and he swallowed painfully like someone recovering from having their tonsils removed.
Was he a madman? I wondered. There certainly were plenty of those going around the city. But there was something different about him. Unlike some other crazies I’d seen who were perpetually walking about either muttering to themselves, yelling incoherently or engaging in some sort of disturbing behavior, this guy was completely docile.
“Cholo bhai! Hoi geche,” (come on kid, it’s done) Arun prompted from behind, wiping the sweat off his brow with his rickshaw wallah’s turban that doubled as his face towel. I pointed at the man on the sidewalk and asked,
“Shey ki pagol manush?” (Is that guy crazy?) I asked. Arun shook his head vigorously.
“Na baba. Pagol na. Shey pobitro manush,” (No, he isn’t crazy. He is a holy man.)
That was the first time I ever saw a “mast” (pronounced “must”). They were the “god intoxicated”, who lived their lives in a nearly non-functional state. Many needed to be cared for by others in the community: fed, clothed, cleaned and bathed while they remained completely immersed in mystical bliss induced states. They were considered to be in a state called “salik” which was a state of consciousness completely divorced from one’s surroundings.
I remember being both fascinated and terrified by them as a boy. There was something bizarrely curious yet repulsive about them…
In the comments section of my recent article “FATELESS”, a commenter asked the question:
“Can the author be so sure no human being has transcended identification with the body-mind?”
This question references my assertion that I do not believe there are “enlightened individuals” in the world. And that all individuals when immersed in the midst of intense chaos and suffering (as in the example of the Nazi concentration camp) will experience an element of that chaos and suffering as well, as long as they are not psychopathic or have not developed some deeply entrenched escape mechanisms. How one responds to that suffering may differ: whether by proliferating more of it (through a fear-based reaction, story making or belief systems )or by remaining clear and present, is really the only question worth asking, for me.
“Transcending that suffering” seems to provide a “third” option in which one can step out of the chaos altogether. It’s the holy grail that the spiritual seeker is in search of because the other two options feel insufficient. We neither want to suffer our suffering nor take responsibility for it. The third option promises to liberate us from it altogether.
Now, to answer the commenter’s original question about whether I am so sure that no one can “transcend identification with the body-mind”:
No, I am not sure of this. In fact, quite the opposite. I am quite sure that there are those who have “gone beyond” identification with the body mind altogether. And my story in the beginning of the masts of India is a perfect example of such individuals. These men are revered, cared for and even worshiped by people for their mystical states and “direct communion with the divine”.
But none of this sounds all that enlightened to me.
First of all, if as a human being you are unable to feed and clean yourself, I consider this a severe disability. Secondly, if one is held hostage by one’s very liberation and cannot escape it, what kind of liberation is that even?
Suffering is woven into the very fabric of existence. Everything decays, dies, grows ill, weakens and dissipates. And there is simply no way of existing that doesn’t, in some way, cause suffering and isn’t, in some way, affected by it. Even that mast sitting there drooling in ecstasy is causing a lot of suffering. Cleaning a grown man’s behind is no walk in the park, no matter how much of a holy spin you want to put on it.
“Transcendence” and “enlightenment” tend to be used synonymously as if to be “enlightened” is to somehow have “gone beyond it all”.
But what is this beyond? And where is it? And why is there such a desperate need to escape into it? How CAN one even escape what is so absolutely evident at all times?
We want to “go beyond” our thoughts, “go beyond” our identifications, “go beyond” the ego, “go beyond” our suffering. All of this “going beyond” is really the root of why we suffer in the first place.
And in that sense, the spiritual seeker is really no different from the common man. The common man is also always seeking to “go beyond” what is most evident in his reality. Each time he worries about his future he “goes beyond” in time to a place he can never actually inhabit. Each time he prays at the temple or the church he is “going beyond” what he can be certain of into a world of belief and false certainties. Each time he hopes to enhance his life through marriage or children or wealth or fame he is “going beyond” what is of real value into a realm of abstract value.
Transcendence is not some ultra-rare phenomenon reserved only for the spiritually gifted. It is something that pretty much every single person you meet is doing on a near, moment by moment basis.
It is that “quiet desperation” that fills the air and quickens our pulses the moment reality reveals itself as being ALL THERE IS, that motivates us to try and transcend it: through work, love, career, politics, religion, mystical states, alcohol, drugs, sex.
To ten year old me, the mast sitting motionlessly lost in bliss, in the midst of the flurry of activity happening around him, seemed to have “gone beyond” that quiet desperation. Yet in hindsight, his was also a quiet desperation that kept him fixed in his intoxication. He was no different than the addict shooting himself up to stay high. The bliss he was immersed in could be bought in the form of a pill around any street corner.
His was just another form of escape.
Believing that reality is hierarchical is what leads us to rank various forms of escape as “desirable” and “undesirable”. The mystic’s escape is “desirable” because he is drunk on love and ecstasy. We call it “transcendence”: the “upwards” escape.
The drunkard’s escape is “undesirable” because he is lost in an oblivion. We call it “addiction”. His is a “downwards” escape.
And the rest of us everyday folk are busy escaping in mundane ways in our routines, our hopes, our dreams and our fears of the past and the future. This escape we simply call “business as usual” and it goes mostly undetected by us. It is the “lateral” escape of going left into the past or right into the future.
However, the truth as I see it, is that there are no hierarchies to reality. There is no up, no down, neither left nor right.
And there can be no escaping reality. There is only the illusion of escape. No matter where we try and get to: whether up, down or round and round the only place we ever end up is right here. And the only reality we find ourselves sitting in is THIS one.
That quiet desperation that acts as the fuel of motivation in almost all our endeavors, both spiritual and material, results from a deep and fundamental denial within us; an existential refusal of the one truth that each and every one of us already knows deep down inside. A single haunting whisper that echoes unceasingly through the labyrinth of our minds, which says:
“There’s no way out.”