Sisyphus’ nature of life
Lutyens’ Tower of Babel in Delhi has witnessed heated discussions on many topics in recent times, ranging from the renaming of Rajpath to the installation of the statue of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and the Central Vista project. These recall the central message of Gautama Buddha on the impermanence of life. What memories of these controversies will survive the ravages of time is a moot point. Over the past three millennia, many thinkers and poets have lamented the relentless human quest for the material aspects of life – wealth, fame, power, glory, lineage, etc. What unites these philosophers and writers is their recognition of the futility of human endeavors directed entirely towards material ends, and the need to develop a perspective that recognizes the transience of all human achievement. I am not denouncing the efforts of (wo)man as a sentient being trying to achieve self-realization by putting effort into actions that create things: be it objects, ideas or empires. But, in the final analysis, all creation must be accompanied by the realization that it is doomed to change and, ultimately, to destruction.
So Solon had the wisdom (and courage) to advise the Greek monarch Croesus on the quicksand of fortune, which proved true when Croesus was taken prisoner by Cyrus, King of Persia. Ashtavakra, in imparting knowledge to King Janaka, focused on the need for detachment (“vairagya”) in the individual, thereby freeing him from the bondage of earthly cares and concerns. Bhartrihari, in his Vairagya Shatakam, insists on the fears that accompany the achievements of life: pleasure-disease, honor-humiliation, beauty-old age, body-death.
Shelley’s Ozymandias graphically highlights the futility of seeking permanence in human effort in the following words:
My name is Ozymandias, King of kings;
Look at my works, you mighty ones, and despair!
There’s nothing left.
The ruins of so many capitals through the ages bear witness to the vagaries of fortune. Delhi itself has undergone at least eight metamorphoses in two millennia. The modern equivalent is the destruction of business empires, exemplified by Joseph Schumpeter’s term “creative destruction“, referring to the destruction of existing economic units and their replacement with new organizations. Only five of America’s top 100 companies from 1917 remain on the list today; half of the top 100 American companies in 1970 have been replaced by new companies. This is not due to price competition, but a reflection of a revolutionary discontinuity resulting from the introduction of new technologies, new products and new forms of industrial organization, many of which would not even have could have been envisioned decades earlier: we are all too aware of this in the age of the internet and ubiquitous all-in-one mini computing devices.
In the arena of 20th century politics, we have the empty boast of a millennial Reich in Germany that lasted barely 12 years, a mighty Soviet Union that collapsed almost overnight after little more than 70 years of existence, and the endless parade of monarchs and dictators in countries around the world. The Pax Americana, which was taken for granted after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, is now under serious threat, as a multipolar world order seeks to resurface. Scholars like Francis Fukuyama were optimistic about the rise of liberal democracies after the end of the Cold War; the first two decades of the 21st century see even long-established democracies struggling to avoid being overwhelmed by the tide of grassroots authoritarianism.
It is in the realm of the individual that the question of impermanence takes on its most poignant form. We are all witnesses of the movie superstar who falls into oblivion or the sportsman torn by illness or faced with impoverishment. No wonder, then, that in the Mahabharata, Yudhisthira replied to the Yaksha that “day by day countless creatures come to Yama’s abode, but those who remain behind believe themselves to be immortal.” Adi Shankaracharya’s warning to the person who is proud of his youth, wealth and lineage is a fitting reminder that all such accoutrements will fade with time and will be of no use once the mortal body is thrown.
What then is the meaning of this great opera that we call life? Do we have to flee all material comforts and pleasures darkly knowing that we will one day leave them behind? Not really. What must be realized is the evanescence of all that we enjoy today and the stoic acceptance that much of it can be taken from us even before we leave this earth.
Perhaps the final thought on this should go to someone I consider to be one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, Albert Camus. His Myth of Sisyphus illustrates the absurdity of human existence while emphasizing the nobility of seemingly meaningless human effort. Sisyphus was doomed by the gods to “futile and hopeless labor”, pushing a boulder to the top of a mountain from where it would roll to the plains below, requiring further effort on his part to push it to the top. top of the hill (in some ways it reminds me of the stories of Vikram and Vetal, where the king, Raja Vikramaditya, repeatedly has to carry the burden of a corpse and answer the questions of the spirit inhabiting the corpse, although that the latter tale has a definite closure, unlike the first). Sisyphus is the “absurd hero”, going through a torment that will never end. And yet, his awareness of torment and his contempt for the fate reserved for him make him a true sage “…who lives on what he has without speculating on what he does not have…”. It is only when we become aware of our human condition that we can say “…I am the master of my destiny, I am the captain of my soul”.
The author is a retired IAS officer from the cadre of Maharashtra.
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