Published 13th May, 2023, in the Economic Times.
As the stock market rises and falls, as wars and riots do not yield the desired results, as foreign ties sweeten and sour, the word “amrit” is being used a lot in political circles. It reveals the human inability to accept the truism of impermanence. It is not just an Indian idea, or a Hindu idea – it is a global idea. Chinese mythology speaks of the ‘peaches of immortality’ that exist in the garden of Jade Heaven, and the eight immortals, who perhaps inspired the concept of Chiranjeevi, or legendary immortal heroes.
In Rig Veda, the gods (deva) drink soma and defy death, while the ancestors (pitr) yearn for life. They control the bright and dark halves of the day, the month, and the year. This idea was popular 3,000 years ago, but about 2,000 years ago, Aryan culture was detached from its Central Asian roots, and moved beyond Ganga to southern river valleys of India. Gradually, the fantasy of amrit (nectar of immortality) replaced the ancient memory of energising juice of soma (ephedra). We start hearing stories of an eagle bringing the celestial drink from the gods.
In the Mahabharata, amrit is churned out of the ocean of milk and jealousy guarded by the devas of Swarga, while everyone else endures mortality. This makes the devas the privileged beings. Were these the poetic metaphors for the rich and powerful upper classes of ancient times? The mythic equivalents of gated communities of South Delhi or New York or Dubai, the Hollywood and Bollywood gala events, evoking envy in the uninvited? The botox-filled yearnings of the super rich to defy ageing and death?
But while Swarga were aspirational, devas were seen as delusional. They were inferior beings in Buddhist, Jain and even Hindu lore. Greater value was placed on immortal ideas (sanatan dharma) that all matter is impermanent and happiness lies beyond material attachment.
In Buddhist lore, Prince Sidhartha of Kapilavastu sees dead, diseased, old people around him and realises that nothing lasts forever, and the horror of impermanence makes him turn into an ascetic and find the path that earns him the status of the Buddha. In Jain lore, Rishabh-nath goes to Indra’s paradise and witnesses the death of an apsara called Nilanjana, that Indra tries to hide magically. Rishabnath realises how even gods deny the truth of death. This motivates him to walk away from his royal life, become an ascetic and discover the Jain path. Ram and Krishna of Hinduism do not have access to amrita; they are born, they die, and they return to Vaikuntha, the heaven above Swarga. The world also goes through cycles of birth and death. Nothing can stop pralaya, the flood of doom.
The idea of impermanence was fiercely resisted by declaring cosmic death is actually Vishnu’s sleep. Cosmic rebirth is Vishnu’s awakening. Human lifespan lasted as long as Indra’s blink, Indra’s lifespan was Brahma’s blink, Brahma’s lifespan was Vishnu’s blink, Vishnu’s lifespan was Shiva’s blink, and thus mathematically the idea of infinity (ananta) was conflated with immortality (amrita).
In this we see a tension between the immortal and the mortal in all Indian schools of philosophy. Four hundred years ago, taking ‘amrit’ became part of the initiation ceremony of the Khalsa Sikhs, acknowledging the immortality and formlessness (nirakar) of the divine. The Sikh leaders differentiated between the ‘piri’ or spiritual quest from the ‘miri’ or material matters. All talk of immortality was left to holy men, who shunned materialism, and all talk of mortality was taken up by mighty kings, who embraced materialism. Ideally, the piri is the spiritual truth of divine immortality, hence superior to the miri. The piri should be the destination. But as piri attracts many followers, it becomes political fodder for miri. This is how the divide between church and state crumbles, and holy men become power-brokers.
Politicians therefore seek the support of holy men to make their regimes permanent, around the world. Muslim sultans sought the support of sufis, Hindu rajas sought the support of Brahmins and Mahants, American politicians know the value of the Christian preachers, Buddhist regimes keep the Sangha happy. Secular politicians find their spiritual guide in ideologies like Marxism, Liberalism, Post-structuralism, nurtured in academic institutions, which function like monasteries of yore, spewing out immortal truths that rely on facts and logic.
In the Mahabharata, the Yaksha asks Yudhishtira, ‘What is the greatest wonder?’ Yudhishtira replies that everyday people die but the rest live as if they are immortal. Perhaps what is immortal is the delusion of the privileged that their wealth and power can help them defy what afflicts everyone else – decay, degeneration and death.