War on Coronavirus? Or war on man’s psychic flaws?
The COVID-19 pandemic is not merely a health crisis, not even an associated economic crisis, but a deeper and wider crisis afflicting our modern, materialistic civilisation
“The only real danger that exists is man himself. He is the great danger. We are the origin of all coming evil. And we are pitifully unaware of it. We know nothing of man — far too little. His psyche should be studied. We need far more understanding of human nature.”
- Carl Gustav Jung, in an interview in 1959
Lockdown is slowdown. The 21-day lockdown all across India, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced at 8 pm on 24 March 2020, and which was put into effect at midnight, has slowed down life and will undoubtedly slow down the nation’s economy, too, for a long time to come. As a measure to arrest the spread of the novel corona virus pandemic, whose footprint has suddenly and menacingly expanded to cover a large part of the globe, it was as drastic as it can get.
Time will tell how efficacious it is going to be. The hardships caused by the unprecedented lockdown, especially to the poor and vulnerable sections of our society, are obvious. When so little is known about the disease and its cure, and when far too many COVID-19 patients are dying even in countries with fairly good healthcare systems, India and the rest of the world can take recourse, from local to global levels, only to unity, solidarity, cooperation and prayer.
Nevertheless, every adversity has its positive sides. One such positive side is that the prolonged and enforced slowing of life, with all of us staying at home, has helped us become more reflective and meditative about deeper questions concerning our life and the world. In the hustle and bustle of “normal” life — which is actually quite abnormal, we now realise in our contemplative moments — we hardly pay attention to questions about the meaning and purpose of human existence. We rarely ask ourselves why the world is the way it is, full of noise and unrest. Why is man in so much rush all the time? Where is he going? Is he escaping from himself, not able to heed the call of his inner being, much less the call of his Creator? Why is he not at peace with himself ?
And, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, why is the human species so fragile and vulnerable that, despite all the breathtaking progress in technology and material wealth, even its richest and most powerful members feel threatened by a mere micro-organism?
It’s now dawning on more and more thoughtful people in the world that the new pandemic is not merely a health crisis, not even an associated economic crisis, but a deeper and wider crisis afflicting our modern, materialistic civilisation.
Despite the variations in cultures, religious beliefs, economic systems, political ideologies and governance structures, what is common to many countries and communities across the world is a certain palpable indifference to, and a denial of, the overall security and well being of all human beings on the planet. Or, to use a more current term that is at the heart of the contemporary global discourse, what is still missing is a reliable pathway to ‘sustainable development’ leading to integral human renewal
Important though the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are, it is clear that the peace and progress of a nation or the wellbeing of an individual cannot be guaranteed merely by the satisfaction of material needs. Indeed, an excessive and exclusive pursuit of material wealth and comfort may indeed be the cause of a lot of unrest and conflict, both in the individual human heart and mind, and also in communities, countries and the world at large.
As the human species has raced ahead in technology-enabled consumerism (of course, a large section of the species is deprived even of the basic needs of material existence, a truth which must never be overlooked), what is largely neglected is some vital need, a more fundamental human need — to be at peace with oneself, with fellow-human beings, with nature, and with the wider universe of which we are tiny parts.
In our reflective moments these days — and the reflection itself is sharpened by the unending news about the Coronavirus we watch on television and watch/read on our computer/smartphone screens — we are reminded of the many ways in which man is proving Jung right — “The only real danger that exists is man himself.”
Did the virus originate in a lab linked to production of biological weapons, became rogue, and thereafter travelled uncontrollably? Did it surface out of a man-animal conflict? Was it lying dormant for many years and did some ‘black swan’ event in the severely unbalanced relationship between the human species and nature trigger its appearance? After all, man’s unending war on the environment in the past hundred years, when our material progress has accelerated, has exterminated many non-human species by destroying forests, poisoning rivers and oceans, and polluting the air? It has also caused deaths, diseases and devastation to human beings themselves.
We do not know whether the corona virus is nature’s way of taking revenge on the human species. One thing seems likely. The birth of the Coronavirus is not unlinked to human activity. In the coming months and years, scientists all over the world would be anxiously examining its civilisational epidemiology.
Nevertheless, what even ordinary people do know is that the human race has refused to learn lessons from history about the numerous other ways in which it endangers the health, happiness, safety and even survival of its own members. It was Qurratulain Hyder, one of the towering literary figures in the Indian subcontinent, who gave a pithy definition of history. “History,” she said, “is another name of humanity’s inability to learn its lessons.” Proofs abound. Mankind has continued with wars and violent conflicts in the 21st century, unmindful of the fact that it fought numberless wars in previous centuries, in which numberless people were killed. Two horrific world wars were fought in the last century itself. The second of the two world wars came to an end, ironically, with the use of a weapon that has since given rise to the fear that the next, immensely more catastrophic war, could be fought with far more lethal versions of that very weapon.
Stockpiles of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction (and these include biological and chemical weapons) have grown alarmingly after the end of the Second World War. And neither our own blessed land of the Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi, nor our neighbor that calls itself “The Land of the Pure” and the “Nation of Islam” (a religion whose very first teaching is “peace”), could resist the temptation of joining the exclusive and elite club of nuclear weapon states.
And when, in the midst of the Corona crisis, Antonio Guterres, the wise secretary general of the United Nations, made an impassioned appeal for a global “ceasefire” to all the armed conflicts and hostilities between nations — as evidence of the commitment of member-countries of UN to combat the corona threat collectively and cooperatively — there were no takers for it. Neither G7 nor G20, which represent the most powerful nations in the world and whose leaders recently held virtual summits to discuss ways to fight COVID-19 together, agreed to his call for a global ceasefire. Much less has there been any consensus among them on the imperative need to take the world towards a future without wars and violence.
Such being the sorry state of the world, can we blame Jung, one of the foremost scientists of the human psyche, for warning that “We [human beings] are the origin of all coming evil”? Or can we reproach Mahatma Gandhi for being an utterly impractical idealist when he said, after America dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, “Unless the world now adopts nonviolence, it will spell certain suicide for mankind”?
In an article in July 1946, Gandhiji said: “So far as I can say, the atomic bomb has deadened the finest feeling that has sustained mankind for ages. There used to be the so-called laws of war which made it tolerable. Now we know the naked truth. War knows no law except that of might.” When asked whether the atomic weapon had not rendered non-violence obsolete, he replied emphatically, “No. On the contrary, non-violence is the only thing that is left in the field. It is the only thing that the atom bomb cannot destroy.”
In our reflective moments in the days of the lockdown, we have to ask ourselves, “Why is man so incapable of practising nonviolence?” In other words, since nonviolence is nothing but love and care of oneself and all other human and non-human beings — and this is, indeed, the teaching of all the religions and all the humanistic philosophies — why are human beings, and human institutions, finding it so difficult to practice mutual love and mutual care?
We again come back to what Jung said. “We know nothing of man — far too little. His psyche should be studied. We need far more understanding of human nature.”
There is a book I have been re-reading these days — Man, The Unknown by Dr Alexis Carrel, a Nobel laureate French surgeon and biologist. “We cannot undertake the restoration of ourselves and of our environment before having transformed our habits of thought. For the first time in the history of humanity, a crumbling civilization is capable of discerning the causes of its decay. For the first time, it has at its disposal, the gigantic strength of science. Will it utilize this knowledge and this power? It is our only hope of escaping the fate common to all great civilisations of the past.
Our destiny is in our hands. On the new road, we must now go ahead.” Is India, and is the rest of the world, ready and willing to take the “new road” of self-renewal by jettisoning old and dangerous habits, sustained by old and harmful thoughts, in the post-Coronavirus era? To dare to ask this question, and questions like these, would itself be one of the positive gains of the slowdown caused by the lockdown.