an outlier

 

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A statue of Buddha in Phnom Penh with a rare expression of intense concentration, unlike the serene expression one usually sees on his face

I have no idea whether most people in the world are happy with the work they do, or what drives them to do what they do.

About fifteen years ago a doctor working in the same hospital as I requested me to see her son because she was worried about his career plan. The boy was a 23-year-old graduate from one of the best engineering colleges in India. He had rejected a paying job that he got through campus placement and chosen to join an organisation that worked for the upliftment of slum dwellers, for a small monthly stipend.

He was self-assured and calm during the conversation. There were no psychiatric symptoms at all and nothing to suggest a personality disorder. He believed that what he was setting out to do was right for him. He was also clear that he wasn’t going to be a financial burden on his parents.

Subsequently I met many youngsters like him and began to realise that it wasn’t uncommon for people of this generation to do something like that.

Most people get degrees that lead to jobs. They look for jobs that pay well and give them a few perks as well. They enjoy the office atmosphere, the company of co-workers, the work itself and the pleasure of an independent income. They look forward to the future. As I said, that’s what most people do.

So who are these outliers? When someone tells me about one of them this is how it often sounds:

  • There’s no rush for him to get a job as he doesn’t have student loans, because his parents are affluent;
  • He doesn’t have to earn and save up to buy stuff because his parents gave him everything even before he thought of asking – spoilt kid, born with silver spoon, doesn’t know the value of money;
  • He knows his parents have enough assets that he will eventually inherit, so he never has to work in his life;
  • He will eventually marry a rich girl and get money from the bride’s parents as well!

When I actually get to know the youngster I discover a wholly different inner world, where none of these are on his radar. They are the minutiae of his life that he barely notices. If he is charming and relaxed I might take a little time to make sure he’s not a clever manipulator skilfully pulling wool over my eyes. Instead, he is intense and rarely cracks a smile, and never attempts to please. There’s an air of urgency and earnestness about him.

I wrote about the brain’s reward centre in my last post. It is apparent that this boy’s brain doesn’t recognise a good job and its perks as a reward. His reward centre seems to urge him to do something that makes a difference to people in need: helping the poor seems more fulfilling to him than writing code.

Did the ‘mature’ defence mechanism of altruism develop naturally in him through childhood because he was raised in a peaceful home, without much conflict with his natural empathic disposition? That is, protoaltruism of parents giving rise to generative altruism in the child. Or is this pseudo-altruism covering up his issues? Altruism is a mature defence mechanism, but a defence mechanism nevertheless.

The concept of altruism has always seemed fraught to me. Sometimes I think it’s better not to look too close when some good comes out of someone’s altruism, though I wonder if it will ultimately harm the doer, but the doer will not recognise it as harm because – wait, is he a masochist! Okay, okay, that’s enough. I simply don’t go there.

Why did Prince Gauthama leave his kingdom, palace, wife and infant son and ultimately become the much-revered Buddha? His background and the sequence of events that led to his renunciation have never been a cogent enough argument to convince me that it was a sudden decision. Maybe it was brewing in his head for years before he took the step.

Perhaps something similar happens to youngsters like the boy whose story I began this post with. A kid gets into a professional college at eighteen in India. That’s too young. In the four years at university he might discover that he isn’t cut out for it. By the time he works out what else he would rather do, four years pass and he’s in the final semester. He decides he might as well complete the course and get the degree and figure his life out later.

How people’s brains are wired is a combination of genes and environment, the way you can create many shades of green by mixing different shades of blue and yellow, adding black or white – or even orange – to get any number of shades. The phenotype doesn’t automatically tell you the genotype. How did you get this particular shade of green in this painting? No idea!

The daily newspaper has been featuring one or two ‘Lockdown heroes’ everyday. If I were to ask these generous people why they did it they might say: “I like doing this, I like helping people.” I wouldn’t want to ask, “Why do you like doing this?”

Everybody’s insides look the same on the operating table – unless there is a diseased organ – and the depths of everybody’s mind might too. So anyone’s answer to “Why do you like doing this?” is bound to disclose self-interest and take away from the warm, fuzzy, happy altruistic feeling. So, “I like doing this” should be morally good enough to qualify as untainted altruism.

To come back to the altruistic kid in question, every engineering grad doesn’t aspire to be a Nadella or a Pichai. Sure, the idea takes a little getting used to for parents, because everything you read and hear says the opposite. Parents need to believe in their youngsters and support them in finding their niche. Usually nobody has the clinching argument in these heated family discussions, neither parents nor kid, because the moot question is what will happen to the kid’s career in the – unknowable – future.

 

a smorgasbord, not a set menu

Part of the lore passed down orally in my family was that Jesus lived in India for many years. That he was an avatar of God, like Rama, Krishna, Buddha and others before him. That he lived in the Himalayas in his youth and learnt about samadhi from Indian rishis. That he was therefore able to survive after he was lifted down from the cross and placed in a tomb. That he returned to India and lived to a ripe old age in the Himalayas. And that his tomb is in Kashmir.

It sounded too far-fetched to me. Surely a young boy wouldn’t leave his home and family in the middle-east to come and learn about spiritual practices here, so far away, through high mountain passes and biting cold? And if he came here as a youth how did he die here at eighty? When did he preach in his own country then? I simply pushed the story to the back of my mind with the rest of Indian folklore.

My actual introduction to Christianity was at the age of nine when I began attending a school run by Christians. A school day started with Chapel every morning, and I learnt a lot about the religion over the years.

Born Hindu, I never had to commit myself to any one image of god because we had a pantheon in our pooja ghar, or altar. And when we went to other parts of India we worshipped at temples of gods who weren’t even on our altar, because all gods of all religions are representations of the only god there is. My parents said that a holy place was a holy place regardless of religion, because people bring only pure, clean thoughts and prayers to their holy shrines, and all places of worship are therefore imbued with holiness.

Growing up, I did wonder about the multiplicity of gods in Hinduism, unlike in other religions. Hinduism is monotheistic, but people worship god in hundreds of different forms. They invoke god in the form that traditionally represents what they need fixed: like goddess Lakshmi for money worries, analogous to the Christian patron saint, St. Nicholas; or Saraswathi, the goddess of music and art, who is similar to St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music; or any of the gods – like Ganesha, Hanuman, Krishna, or Durga-mata in desperate situations, like St. Jude, or Jesus himself. Prayer is just a matter of reaching out to god in his most relatable form in the circumstances, either directly or through an intercessor.

The name by which I address god doesn’t matter, nor does it matter if I don’t engage with him at all. I can be an atheist, which will make me a nastik Hindu, or an out and out materialist, which will make me a charvaka Hindu, none of which are bad or wrong; they are just where I happen to be on my karmic path. I can even worship Jesus as my ishtha-devatha (god of choice) and follow the path of bhakti yoga (path of love) and still be Hindu. Looking back, this is what I probably did for a couple of years in my teens when I read the Bible, went to church and subscribed to an American Christian youth magazine called Young Ambassador. All this fits in with the claim that Hinduism is not a religion, just a way of life, which can leave a child quite confused.

As a young adult, the Hindu way of thinking gave me freedom to not commit myself irrevocably to a fixed set of beliefs. I was wary of being expected to handcuff myself mentally to things I had stopped believing in, something that happens when you permanently accept any dogma. Religious syncretism allowed me to change or modify my beliefs when I understood something better while dipping into the teachings of different religions and philosophies, and I made up my mind that this was how fluid it was always going to be.

Being a medical student, one side of me said it was just neurones and synapses that process information continuously and throw up new patterns of thought, perception and emotion, and nothing was real, especially not god and religion. Another side of me said it was more than that, beyond science. There was room for that internal debate too because Hinduism doesn’t expect me to accept anything on faith.

What was my takeaway from learning the teachings of Jesus as a child? By clearly distinguishing between good and bad, they simplified the world for me at an age when I wasn’t yet able to grasp the complexities and nuances of Hinduism that I now appreciate. Having been introduced to two religions simultaneously I saw the world of abstract ideas about life and god as more of a smorgasbord than a set menu. Theism, as I still see it, is only useful if it enables us to live in harmony on earth, and not quibble over the name of the Maker or form armies to kill each other in his name.

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In 2002 I came across Jesus the man, a book by Australian historian and theologian, Barbara Thiering. One bit I remember from this book is that Jesus and the two men who were hanged along with him ­­– Simon Magus and Judas Iscariot ­– were brought down from the crosses on Pilate’s orders. They were then imprisoned in a burial cave where Simon, who belonged to a community of healers called the Therapeutae, revived Jesus. He survived and was taken to safety, a few days after which he left the country.

Around the same time I read Jesus lived in India by Holger Kersten. This book is about Jesus’ coming to India after the crucifixion. Apparently he lived to be eighty and was buried in Rozabal in Srinagar, Kashmir, when his life ended. The ancient inscription on his tomb says Hazrat Issa Sahib meaning Tomb of Lord Jesus. And it still exists!

I didn’t think of any of this for a long, long time as I was busy with profession, children and home.

Then, a few days ago, I read The Lost Years of Jesus by Elizabeth Prophet. This concerns the time Jesus left Jerusalem with a caravan of merchants at the age of thirteen and lived in India till the age of twenty nine: the lost years that are not accounted for in the Bible.

To quickly summarise, Jesus apparently spent six years in Eastern India in Hindu centres of learning like Puri, Rajagriha and Kashi. He later moved to Hemis, a Buddhist monastery in Leh, Kashmir, where he lived till the age of twenty nine. The Buddhist lamas refer to him as a Buddha (= the enlightened one), the Buddha Issa.

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I visited this Buddhist monastery at Hemis in 2007 on a family vacation to Leh in Kashmir. This is where Jesus is said to have spent the lost years that are not accounted for in the Bible.

Records of his teachings, as well as his biography, were maintained in the Hemis monastery in Leh in Kashmir. A Russian journalist, Nicolas Notovitch, heard about them by chance. He went in search of them in 1887and had them translated from Pali into Russian. His book, The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, was first published in 1894.

The existence of these documents was subsequently verified by reliable people, viz. Swamy Abhedananda (1922), Prof. Nicholas Roerich (1925) and Madame Caspari (1939), the details of which are in Elizabeth Prophet’s book.

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The questions I had asked as a child were answered. But more than that, thanks to trying to make sense of all that I heard in school and at home regarding god, I had concluded that swearing allegiance to any religion was not necessary. Cherry-picking from all of them was fine.

There’s this quote from ancient Indian literature called the Puranas: “Like a honey bee gathering trickles of honey from different flowers, the wise man accepts the essence of different scriptures and sees only the good in all the religions.”

Despite the differences in what religious fundamentalists – of all hues – say, at the deepest level we all feel the same thing in terms of what god, or the idea of god, is supposed to do in our lives: be there for us when we need him. Sometimes it’s easier to anthropomorphise god, and that’s fine too. The problem arises when a group of people act as though their virtual image of god is a photograph that god physically posed for, while others’ images are morphed ones of an imposter!