Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, June 20, 2010

So I heard the breaking news that someone had opened fire at a guru. An attempted assassination, one was led to believe. The guru was not hurt but a follower was. The news upset me terribly: what is the world coming to, even gurus are not spared. Initially terrorists restricted themselves to adult men, then their targets included women and children. In some parts of the world, to escape detection, even pregnant women are made to carry weapons and bombs. Nothing is sacred anymore. Nothing. A decade or so ago, a holy site was used as a depot for illegal arms. For security reasons, the shrine was desecrated,an assassination took place, followed by riots and then a lingering silent hatred. Was it going to be the same again, I wondered. Gurus killed, bloodbath on the streets, agitations, protests. Was there to be no reprieve?

And then the next day, the government declared that there was no assassination attempt. Probably an internal fight between two followers. A minister was dismissive. The guru cried foul, demanding justice. Something was amiss. In papers, speculations were galore about a probable dispute with followers of another guru, infamous following a sex scandal. I moaned at the state of affairs.

And then finally, a newspaper report declared that it was all a misunderstanding. The alleged assassin’s bullet was fired near a farmhouse by a man who was trying to shoo away stray dogs who were threatening his chickens and sheep! So much for assassins and scandals. I laughed at the incident and at myself and everyone who believed in the worst.

I remembered a story from the Upanishads. A man once entered his house. It was night. All lights were shut. In the darkness he saw a snake. He let out a bloodcurdling yell. His wife rushed to his side carrying a lamp. In the lamp, it was clear that the snake was actually a rope left under the bed.

So what turned the rope into a snake? Was it the darkness in the room or our own anxiety? Wherefrom comes anxiety? The Upanishads warn us of our deep seated fears that shape our mind, making us see demons where there are none.

I remembered also an episode of Yes Minister, a British comedy series. The honorable minister is irritated by the security cover given to him following threat of an assassination; it strips him of all freedom. Later he is depressed when the security cover is taken away. He tells his wife, “Even assassins don’t think I am worthy of their bullet.”

That someone hates us enough to want to kill us makes us, in a perverse way, feel significant. And so we end up turning ropes into snakes all around us, and find vicarious pleasure in terror. We are enveloped by it. Every temple, every air port, every 5-star hotel is surrounded by layers of security. We are frisked everywhere we go. Our bags are checked. Traveling has become a punishment. All freedom has been taken away, because we assume that will keep us safe. There are more terrorists in our imagination than in real life. But in this dark room of modern society, we will never know which one is the rope and which one is the snake?