Nepal | July 05, 2020

Opinion: A tryst with Karuna

Deepak Rauniar
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KATHMANDU: The Mahankal Temple, located near the New Road gate, occupies a special place in the culture of Kathmandu. The literal meaning of Mahankal is one who is beyond time. With deep-rooted belief, shared across generations, the deity of Mahankalor Kaal Bhairav (a form of Lord Shiva) is believed to remove all sufferings from one’s life.

Legends say that the temple was founded by a Tantric Guru, who upon seeing the deity flying over the skies of the valley requested him to settle down permanently in Kathmandu. But the god refused, saying he belonged to the entire universe and could not withhold to one location.

However, pleased with the services of the guru, he agreed to visit the temple built in his honour every Saturday and bless the devotees. Over time, the temple has integrated itself seamlessly with the fabric of Kathmandu. Thousands of devotees throng the temple, overwhelmingly on Saturdays, with the profound belief that the visiting god will take away all their sufferings and fill their life with happiness.

The temple is located at the sides of a busy road, and it is customary for the devotees to distribute alms to those seeking. The other custom is to tie threads around the trunk of the Pipal tree that stands tall in the middle of the road facing the temple.

I presume every life in this world comes with its own good share of pain and suffering, and longs for joy and happiness. I too succumb to the deity infrequently. But, somehow more from the worship, I draw bigger satisfactions from distributing those alms: small packets of foodstuffs with some notes that I pack the night before for the train of people who fill the pavement outside the temple. Giving obscurely makes me happy.

One Saturday morning, after completing my affairs at the temple, as I was crossing the busy road for my vehicle, my sights fell on this truck passing by. To be exact, on the verse it carried. In general, trucks all over South Asia are feared for the lives they take on the road, and I fear them, too. But I also adore them for their colourful outlook and short verses, mostly of two lines, written right above the rear number plate.

From humorous messages to maintain distances, to portraying the hardships of the journey or the pain of separation from families of a truck driver, those two lines do speak. Seldom, I also come across trucks with profound words of wisdom that leave me wondering how the purpose and depth of life can be so beautifully expressed, just in two lines.

“Ahimsa parmodharma” just like the great archer Arjuna, who saw only the two eyes of the fish as his target in the archery competition in the great Indian epic Mahabharat, everything around me melted, and I saw only those two words while crossing the road. As I started to drive my car, a thought crossed my mind – why was Ahimsa (non-violence) the parmo dharma (the biggest virtue)? And if it indeed were the biggest virtue, what was I doing in the temple?

For a single father with a huge demand on time from work, home and family, I have very little time for religion and dharma. So I thought, shouldn’t I be utilising this little time wisely – pursuing a virtue that offered maximum returns on minimum equity?

It was not the first time that I had come across the statement: Ahimsa parmodharma. Like most middle class South Asian families that believe in planting seeds of goodness and non-violence in their wards from early childhood, mostly through stories and folk tales, I too had my fair share growing up. Besides our own stories from Nepal, almost all the popular ones from India, too. Perhaps my parents believed increasing the national boundary of these stories would make me even more virtuous.

So far I had wholeheartedly accepted all these stories and their moral values. But, today I felt like questioning.

Karuna, or compassion, has been a rich influence in my life. I recognise that it nurtures love and feelings of well-being in me. It enables me to feel the suffering and need of others. It fuels me to help people that I don’t know and without expectations of returns. It frees me from all those distinctions of religion, race, gender, colour and wealth and makes me see only a human in every being. It satisfies my soul by making me self-less and others-more. Then why was Karuna not parmodharma or the biggest virtue? And only subordinate to non-violence? I asked.

More than for anyone else, I had sought the answer for myself, as all of a sudden my belief, my conduct and my joy were at stake.

I had started to reason. While Ahimsa is a good virtue, it has limitations to explicitly nurture love and promote the well-being of others because of its endocentric nature. More than building and promoting qualities in a being to support others, its intent remains to shape one’s character through a set of controls, refrain and self-sacrifice such that one desists from conducting physical and emotional acts of harm on others.

Do not harm others, do not speak badly (includes harshly, dishonestly and alike), tolerate and forgive, keep anger in check – popular values promoted with a belief that if people practise them, it will help to create and maintain an environment of minimal conflict that will foster broader well-being in a society.

In those set of do not’s, I felt Ahimsa was broadly a list of negatives and had a fallacy in its assumptions. A life is supreme, and it should be protected at all cost. But, if I take this value out from the virtue, I wondered how a set of self-control was of general good to others? Didn’t promoting good explicitly for others matter? If yes, didn’t it require actually performing acts of goodness? While I have often heard people saying that if I have not been able to do good, at least I have not harmed others. How was not harming and doing good similar? I pondered.

A friend of mine had once cautioned me that there lies a thin line between an act of benevolence and an act of mercy. Giving or acting good alone is insufficient, if it is not blended well with such positive values as modesty and politeness. Preserving the dignity of the receiving entity mattered – he had argued. So true, and this is where Karuna flourishes, I had continued to reason.

If Ahimsa is endocentric, Karuna is exocentric. It extends beyond the boundary of self to others. Because it requires feeling for others, not from one’s own perspective but by placing the self in other’s shoes, it is genuine in emotions. More it has an action orientation. It knows that the feeling of empathy in the head alone doesn’t mean much unless it is actually acted upon to alleviate the suffering or promote the well-being of others. Because of this rich emotional connect and positive action orientation, Karuna is more positive a virtue than Ahimsa. And thus, it is able to join more people and hearts together, build harmony and foster humanity better.

Empathising and extending help is more important than just being harmless, I concluded. And with this a sense of delight started to fill me. I had started to feel happy realising that I was on the right path, and whatever I had been doing mattered. My belief, my conduct and my joy all gushed back to me. And with this I did not long to learn which between Ahimsa or Karuna was parmodharma anymore. It had started to appear trivial and of little sense.

Soon I had reached home, and the mundane of life had overwhelmed.

I had almost forgotten that conversation when it suddenly filled my mind as I was going through the latest news on the global coronavirus pandemic. Sadly, the news these days is increasingly either stories of sorrow or apprehension. Daily accounts of infections, heartbreaking narrations of deaths, the facile and shallow preparedness of governments to handle the pandemic, inadequacies of the health care systems, risks and stress of the frontline health care workers, and grueling tales of hardships to the commoner and invariably the poor from the lockdowns.

And when one rises from these sets of news, one seems to open the news of apprehensions. The learned continue to argue how vulnerable and fragile the whole world economy and its systems had been. How the world is going to change, painting gloomy pictures and predictions of business failures, missed opportunities and job losses. A glimpse of the new norm that is on the horizon, tips on survival and revival. Suddenly, the joy of being and life has become hostage.

With so many lives tormented and torn apart, one can only comprehend the healing that individuals, organisations and economies will require before they are able to stand up and walk forward. And nothing works better than Karuna, when it comes to healing as I had learned that day. It is even more fulfilling to those leading and showing the way.

In the early morning quietness of the Mahankal Temple, I have often heard those subtle chants “sarvebhavantusukhinah, sarvesantuniraamayaah” meaning “may all be happy, may all be free from illness from devotees. Amidst the pandemic, I feel happy that the god Mahankal didn’t settle down permanently in Kathmandu. May he continue to look after the universe from Sunday to Friday delivering sarvebhavantusukhinah and sarvesantuniraamayaah.

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