Rishi ji was lying immobile with closed eyes, breathing imperceptibly, on a bed in Safdarang hospital, New Delhi, in ICU. His motor cycle had skidded a week back in Dehradun and his head struck the pavement during the fall that sent him to coma. He was immediately brought to New Delhi on the same day and was admitted to hospital but there was no improvement for the last seven days.
Shri Rishi was not related to me but I used to call him mama as he used to address my mother as jiji (sister) in a typical UP style. He was around forty, slightly short, almost bald, mostly dressed in a safari suit and always spoke with a smile. My mother had known his family in Kanpur even before her marriage. He worked as a clerk in LIC and stayed in a rented place near our house. He visited our family frequently in the evenings and carried long conversations with all of us.
Shri Rishi was usually full of energy. As young children we accompanied him on a picnic with packed lunch to Dakpathar, a dam site seventy kilometers away from Dehradun; he and my elder sister on his motor-cycle and myself with two other siblings tripling on our scooter. On another occasion he did a trek with me and my younger brother, while we were in school, to Mussoorie and back on the same day. When I asked him before we ventured on the trip whether he would be comfortable trekking, he replied confidently, “Why not? I am only forty!” He could complete the trek with great difficulty and complained of pain in legs for the next three days because of which he had to take leave from office. His wife, a simple lady, ridiculed him for undertaking that trip, admonishing him for trying to keep pace with youngsters like us who were half his age.
I was studying in Delhi when I got the information from my family about Shri Rishi’s unfortunate accident so it was obvious that I had to visit him in the hospital. As soon as his wife saw me she thrust her saree pallu in her mouth trying to stifle her sobs and I hugged her silently in a bid to comfort her. No words were needed to share the grief. Her brother, sister-in-law and their children were also camping in Delhi to look after Shri Rishi. However, only one person was allowed to be in ICU while others waited helplessly outside during daytime and went to a nearby hotel at night.
As happens with coma patients, a hole was cut in Shri Rishis’s neck, below Adam’s apple, by the doctors and a tubular opening was made for feeding liquid diet to him. During non-feeding time the hole in the neck was covered with a medical gauze that had to be wetted every fifteen minutes and it was also to be ensured that no stray fly or any other insect found its way in that hole. This was the primary duty of the person, a close relative, attending to him in ICU.
It was a pathetic sight to see Shri Rishi, a man full of life, lying almost lifeless on the bed. After a brief visit inside the ICU to see him, I came out saddened and asked Shri Rishi’s wife if I could be of any help to them in their hour of distress. Her brother immediately jumped at my offer and explained that he had kept the vigil for seven nights in ICU that made him exhausted. He wondered whether I would be willing to attend Shri Rishi for one night so that he could take a break. I readily agreed to volunteer though I had not gone prepared to spend a night in the hospital.
Once I agreed to volunteer I was quickly given a demo as to what was expected of me – to change the medical gauze every fifteen minutes after dipping it in water and to be watchful for any stray fly. It was clear that I would not be able to take a single wink throughout the night. After the evening visiting hours were over and the relatives of all patients had departed, the hospital bore an eerie silence. I took my post on the chair beside the patient’s bed and religiously kept on doing the assigned job though I had an apprehension that things could go wrong at any moment. It was indeed a very strange experience to be on the side of a person who was hanging between this world and the next one. I marveled at the patience of the brother-in-law who had already performed the monotonous job diligently for seven long consecutive nights. I was thoroughly exhausted by next morning when I was replaced by Shri Rishi’s brother-in-law.
Clinically the patient was not dead. Mystically speaking, his Self was partially eclipsed; while all his automatic systems like breathing and digestion were on, the things that make a person unique – speech, smile and movement of limbs – were off.
Fortunately, Shri Rishi came out of his coma after two months and was discharged from the hospital but he never recovered fully. Though he was able to shuffle around sluggishly on his own but he lost much of his memory, developed a squint and his speech was also unclear thereafter. It was as if he was a totally different person altogether after the accident.
In medical science there is a queer thing known as acquired or sudden savant syndrome. It has been recorded that many times people who have serious head injuries sometimes emerge with more talents and capabilities like exceptional memory, ability to play a musical instrument or speak fluently a foreign language that the injured person had not attempted to learn earlier. One such example is that of Neelakantha Bhanu Prakash, a young boy from Hyderabad, who has been declared as the fastest human calculator on earth after he won a gold medal in Mind Sports Olympics in 2020 in UK. Apparently, he developed this talent only after a head injury in an accident when he was five- year old. Unfortunately, Shri Rishi’s case was not that of savant syndrome.
The purpose of relating this coma episode, though not very uncommon, is to share something about Self. Religions, gurus, spiritualists, motivational speakers and books talk about Self and yet it is unfathomable. There is an interesting contradiction too. Many people profess that each one of us is unique – just like our fingerprints- and possesses different thoughts, likes, dislikes, potential, abilities and purpose of life. There are others who preach that each one of us is simply a reflection of the bigger reality- just like a wave in a big ocean. Different waves rise from the same ocean and merge back in to it without any separate identity over a period of time. The same principle is sung poetically and rather courageously in the following words of Akbar Allahabadi:
हर ज़र्रा चमकता है अनवार-ए-इलाही से
हर साँस ये कहती है हम हैं तो ख़ुदा भी है
(Every speck is blessed by the glory of God. Every breath that we take confirms that there is God.)
This essence has been recognized by many people in different languages and in different regions. I got hooked to Kishori Amonkar’s voice and style when she sang Kabir’s lyrics in the semi classical style:
घट घट में पंछी बोलता ,
आप ही दंडी, आप तराज़ू ,
आप ही बैठा तोलता ,
आप ही माली, आप बगीचा ,
आप ही कलियाँ तोड़ता ,
सब बन में सब आप बिराजे ,
जड़ चेतना में डोलता I
(God resides everywhere. He is the needle of the scale, He is the scale and He is the one who uses that scale too. He is the gardener, He is the garden and He is the one who plucks the buds from the garden. He resides in many forms- lifelessness and life are closely linked.)
A couple of years back I was listening to a short interview of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of Art of Living, on TV. I felt that the interviewer threw a googly when he asked his guest, “Your followers think you are God. Do you accept it?” For me it was an interesting moment and I wondered whether the response would be binary- yes or no type- even though in either case the guest would had invited both bouquets and criticism. There would be adulation, feeling of letting down or a charge of being audacious – depending upon which camp one belonged to.
The tension in the question was released when Sri Sri Ravi Shankar replied spontaneously with a smile, “The followers of Art Living are right when they consider me as God! However, I must add that they are also God.” After a pause he continued, looking straight in to the eyes of the interviewer, “In fact, you are also God! Each one of us is God as we came from Him and will get merged with Him finally”.
Similarly, on another occasion I heard Shri Sadguru talking to an audience about the oneness of the universe. I liked his line of argument when he talked about the importance of trees because they give life nurturing air for all living beings. He said dramatically, “It is almost like your own lung is hanging on the tree branches- that is how closely things are interconnected in this world.” However, it needs contemplation to see one’s Self as an integral part of the universe because mostly the separation from others is the default thought.
In Nature, attachment to Self can go to weird proportions not only among human beings but generally in the animal kingdom too. There is an insect called Australian bull ant that fights other individuals of the same species, very often fiercely to death. Interestingly, it has been observed that if one bull ant is cut in to two equal pieces then each half starts fighting the other half with the same brutality that is reserved for other individuals. This may appear bizarre at first reading till we realize that this is exactly what happens in human beings time and again when one fine day cancerous cells in healthy bodies start killing other normal cells leading to sure and painful death.
We are also aware that a human body has more number of ‘other’ micro-organisms than the human cells. We need to be thankful for those micro- organisms in our gut that help us to digest food that we eat. Therefore, we live or breathe because of the synergy of so many organisms working in tandem within our body. Even if we leave aside spirituality and mysticism, it is difficult to pinpoint to something physically that one can call strictly as one’s own- except probably the illusion in our mind.
Ordinarily, all our life we spend in carving out a niche for ourselves and therefore have an attachment to our own individual Self- physical as well as mental. This attachment brings pain and grief too. On the other hand, the evolved souls preach that happiness lies in dissolving the individual Self and that is exactly what meditators attempt to do in each session when they sit down to meditate. It has been researched, based on scientific measurements, that the happiest man on this earth is Matthieu Ricard, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, who has been meditating for years.
There is an interesting story in Indian mythology that also links the loss of attachment to Self with ecstasy. Many people must have read the story of Trishanku who wanted to go to heaven with his physical body. Rishi Vishwamitra, using his spiritual powers, was almost successful in doing so but Indra, who did not want any human being to enter heaven with his body, hurtled him back with the result that Trishanku was stuck midway between heaven and earth because of the opposing forces. He has been hanging upside down since then. This part of the story is known by many but I read an interesting extension to it that may not be generally known.
Now, hanging upside down is not a comfortable position for anyone -except for bats, slender loris and sometimes monkeys! In the extended version of the story someone asked Trishanku, while he was thus stuck in between heaven and earth, as to how he was feeling. Surprisingly, his response was that from his awkward position he was able to see the entire cosmos as a seamless one entity and no feeling of separation existed within him any longer because of which there was no longing or desire left in him and he experienced only perpetual ecstasy. The learning from the story is that happiness in not be sought in heaven elsewhere but can be created here and now provided one gives up the illusory Self – a stage called anatta in Buddhism. However, it is easier said than done. Truly evolved will ask in haiku style, “ What is there to give up?”