Monday, January 19, 2009

Wake up and forget

ācakṣva śṛṇu vā tāta nānāśāstrāṇy anekaśaḥ
tathāpi na tava svāsthyaṃ sarvavismaraṇād ṛte

Recite numerous scriptures many times, my child, or listen to them.
Still, you will not be yourself until you forget everything.

This provocative verse (Aṣṭāvakrasaṃhitā XVI.1 ) suggests that all the religious practices one undertakes—listening to sacred texts, reciting them, praying, doing rituals, dutifully keeping commandments and following precepts—are in the final analysis obstacles to the project of being oneself (svāsthyam, literally, being situated in oneself). In other words, all those activities with which you identify, and all the doctrines with which you identify, are in fact concealing your identity from yourself and from everyone else. Those sacred texts and doctrines you study are the most probably the convictions of others. Most of them you never would have thought of on your own. They are not yours. Why take on someone else's self. Let's put it in stark terms. To the extent that you think of yourself as a Catholic, a Protestant, a Quaker, a Jew, a Muslim, rather than thinking of yourself just as you, you are failing to be who you really are.

It is not only a religious identity that conceals who one really is. Any attempt to see oneself as anything with limitations and boundaries is to settle for something incomplete and defective. Seeing yourself as a European American, or an African American, or an Asian American or a native American is to fail to be wholly American. To see yourself as an American is to fail to be wholly a human being. To see oneself as a human being is to settle for being less than just a being. Particularization is deficiency. Why celebrate being incomplete and unwhole?

Being fully who you are is to be aware of your being inextricably connected to everything that is. That kind of awareness is impossible so long as one is focusing only one part of your being, namely, the part with which you identify, the part you ordinarily think of as your self. The self is a persona, a mask, a disguise. It is what you wear when, for whatever reason, you will not or cannot appear as yourself.

The Hebrew prophet Isaiah voices a similar idea:

Don’t remember the former things, neither consider the things of old. Behold, I will do a new thing; now shall it spring forth; shall you not know it? (Isa 43.18–19)

Isaiah portrays God as saying that new things are constantly being created. The universe is in a state of constant renovation and re-creation. To the extent that you become rooted in the past, expecting the patterns of the past to be repeated, you miss getting all the updates and upgrades of the universe that are being presented at each moment. Expect yesterday's agreements and understandings to be in effect today and you may miss out on today's realities.

Remembering former things and considering things of old is behind some of the ugliest and most destructive behavior that human beings indulge in. When I was an undergraduate in Ottawa, I attended a public event in which a representative of the government of Israel debated with a representative of one of the Arab states. It took very little time for the debate to become heated and acrimonious. Each side had a long litany of injustices that they accused the other side of having committed. Before long it was apparent that both sides of this debate were so imprisoned by their memories of former things that they could consider nothing but things of old. Whatever new things might have sprung forth were entirely hidden from the view of these people who had become entrenched in their enmity. That was forty years ago. Turning on the news today and seeing the horrible slaughter of people in the conflict between Israel and the people in Gaza makes it clear that little has changed during the past forty years, and little is likely to change in the future, unless Israelis and Palestinians both wake up to who they truly are by forgetting that they are Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims and Christians.

It is fascinating to watch (and to participate in) the epidemic of hope that has gripped the United States of America as a result of the election of an African American to the presidency. For this to happen, a great deal of forgetting had to take place. Barack Obama is a deeply inspiring figure on the world stage, precisely because he reminds us all how important it is not to be stuck in remembrances of things past—past inustices, past failures, past successes, past victories for some and the inevitable defeats those victories meant for others. All those recollections that make up our particular social identities and mask our true identity as simple beings (or creatures, if you prefer that language) are to be forgotten as we focus on how we are all dependent on each other, as we remember that if forget our bonds with each other at our peril.

How the presidency of Barack Obama will unfold remains to be seen. I have no idea. But for now I am grateful that the invitation has been extended to all of us to wake up and forget.