The Elephant in the Room
People use the expression “the elephant in the room” when referring to a major issue that may be affecting their lives, but which they shrink from acknowledging. For more than a year we have faced the Coronavirus pandemic, which has brought the world to a standstill. It has caused so many difficulties and has brought grief to millions of people who have lost loved ones, taking over 4.5 million lives worldwide. Yet most of us do not face the fact that death from this disease could be imminent.
Historians tell us the world has faced many similar tragedies caused by disease. Over 50 million people died from the Spanish Flu in 1918. Over 40 million people perished from smallpox during the 1700s. India weathered two severe epidemics in the late 1800s and early 20th century. The sixth cholera pandemic (1899–1923) began in India, probably starting at a Kumbh Mela in Haridwar; in India it killed more than 800,000 people and then spread to the Middle East, North Africa, Eastern Europe, and Russia. Bubonic plague arrived in India from China in 1896 and lasted till 1921; an estimated twelve million Indians lost their lives, compared with three million in the entire rest of the world.
Aside from illness, humanity has faced other challenges during our lifetime. Several African famines have led to the deaths of up to four million people at a time – and there have been countless earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and other such natural disasters. So the pandemic is running its course during this modern era. We have also experienced similar crises during our past lives in this creation. The saints explain that our soul has been trapped in a transmigratory cycle in this world for millions of lives, in one physical form or another, ever since the Lord brought the creation into being.
What has provided comfort and solace for many people during this pandemic has been their love and devotion for the Lord. They have retained their faith that He is the creator and sustainer of this entire universe. He is all-powerful and all-knowing. This pandemic has not happened because the Lord has lost control, or looked the other way for a while, or because He wants to punish us. Baba Ji has explained to us that the current situation is of humanity’s own making, whether it’s affecting us personally, our families, or the society around us, environmentally or medically. All the mystics have explained that human beings are the authors of their own destiny, through their actions committed in previous lives. All of us are simply reaping the karmic outcomes from past actions, which we ourselves have committed.
Guru Nanak Dev explains that our soul is caught in this world as if trapped in a net. The only escape is through having the good fortune of meeting a true Master, understanding the philosophy he shares with us, and acting on it. Only the mystics can show us the way to escape from the net of this world. Guru Nanak explains:
In an inextricable net
Is the whole world caught.
Only through the guru’s grace,
by contacting Nam,
can we swim across.
The true guru is the boatman,
and the Word (Shabd) ferries us across.1
This world is a dreadful ocean, and our mind is a loaded boat – loaded with the heavy weight of our karmas. Our boat is floating on the dreadful ocean of this world, which is very difficult to cross. The only way is to seek a true Master who can ferry us across. The Master acts as our boatman. The Shabd, the ringing radiance or sublime sound within, is the oar that steers us back home to the Lord. Only when our soul returns to its home with the Lord can we escape from this world.
The saints explain that our soul has been mortgaged to this world through the vast karmic debt we have accumulated during the millions of lives it has been bound here. Our situation is, in fact, “the elephant in the room” which we don’t like to face. Our suffering is caused by the mind, which compels us to try to satiate the five passions, without any thought of the karmic repercussions we will subsequently have to bear. This results in us increasing the karmic debt already weighing heavily on our shoulders, and this has been happening life after life. The result is we are miserable in this world, yearn for true contentment, fail to find it, and have no inkling where to seek it.
During the recent lockdowns and quarantine periods, businesses, factories, offices, shops, and public places have been closed. People have had to stay indoors, permitted to leave home only for essential trips. This social distancing and isolation have affected people’s emotional health and wreaked havoc with their mental wellbeing, because people crave human companionship and look to the world for solace and comfort. But to make progress on the path towards our true home, the saints say we must withdraw our focus from this world and let go of our obsession with it. We need to focus inwards towards the Lord, through our daily meditation. So from a spiritual perspective, solitude and stillness are helpful to a disciple. There is a very beautiful quote in the Bible:
Be still, and know that I am God.2
“Be still” – first we have to still the body by sitting quietly, without moving, eyes closed, making the body still. Then we make the mind still by focusing our attention at the eye centre and engaging the mind in silent repetition of the five holy names. When we totally still the mind by absorbing it in simran, our consciousness will go within, with the Master’s grace, and we will experience the ringing radiance of the Shabd within. When we are able to direct our consciousness inwards, we will hear the Shabd resounding within, and we will know the Lord himself is within us. Hence, “Be still, and know that I am God.”
To their credit, many people have taken advantage of this lockdown to finally look the elephant in the face. They have spent even greater time in devotion to the Lord. The mystics say our silent inward contemplation, as prescribed by the Masters, will bear fruit. We are investing our invaluable time for the ultimate purpose of this life – to seek the Lord. We should remember that it is our duty to put in this spiritual effort every day – but it is also our privilege. We will eventually reach the spiritual destination we are seeking – so let us continue in that direction joyfully.
- J.R. Puri, Guru Nanak: His Mystic Teachings, 2nd ed., RSSB, 2004, p. 295
- Bible, Psalm 46:10