Different Strokes|Jan 13, 2004 2:06 PM| by:

A Sunrise for Hope

In the infinite flow of time, what is so special about a New Year? Why do we become so alert, often full of expectations, on a New Year day? The question reminds me of an observation made by Thomas Mann in The Magic Mountain: “Time has no divisions to mark its passage, there is never a thunder-storm or blare of trumpets to announce the beginning of a new month or year. Even when a new century begins it is only we mortals who ring the bells and fire off pistols.”

One of the prime traits of we the human beings – even though we are not always conscious of it – is hope. It is hope that sustains us through the vicissitudes of life, through wars, disasters and a million catastrophes natural and man-made. The Greek legend of Pandora’s box is significant indeed. Pandora, a beautiful damsel sent by the supernatural beings to forestall the progress of man, entered the human habitation with an elegant casket – you can say the world’s first object of dowry – and proposed marriage with Prometheus. But he refused and Pandora next met his brother Epimetheus who accepted her. By the way, Prometheus meant forethought while Epimetheus meant after-thought. Married, Epimetheus opened the box his bride had brought. Alas, no sooner had the lid been taken off than sprang out of the box imps of misery, one after another – the beings of disease, sorrow and all kinds of suffering. However, the only solace the horrified couple had was in the last spirit that emerged from the box – Hope. Thus, while all the evils have remained with mankind since then, there is also the power of hope to steer it ahead. As Wordsworth put it in his Prelude:

Whether we be young or old,
Our destiny, our being’s heart and home,
Is with infinitude, and only there;
With hope it is, hope that can never die,
Effort and expectation and desire,
And something evermore about to be.

What did Wordsworth mean by “something evermore about to be?” That brings us face to face with another great, indeed, a very great question. Hope for what? Macbeth had achieved everything ambition could have secured for an average person. He had become the king. There was nothing more to be achieved in those days in terms of social or political hierarchy. Even then his last pronouncement on life was, it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing! If that is a statement extremely cynical, it is difficult to contest Disraeli’s quite realistic observation on life that youth is a blunder, middle age a struggle and old age a regret.

In other words, isn’t hope itself an illusion?

We can agree with Shelley’s optimism that if Winter comes, can Spring be far behind? But that does not stop us from asking Shelley, is the Spring going to be permanent? Wouldn’t it again give way to other far less glamorous though reasonably tolerable seasons and then once again to the intolerable Winter?

Isn’t a hope frustrated a sadder situation than having no hope at all?

Such questions have their legitimate place in our life; they are logical. But the fact is, life is a phenomenon that is far too complex for logic. Centuries ago, to a question by Yaskha as to what is the most surprising thing in the world, Yudhisthira answered that every moment men are dying, yet those who are alive behave as if they were immortal! Kimascharyam atah parah? What is more surprising than this?

It is impossible to contradict Yudhisthira. He is quite logical. But he is more than that too. He is pointing his finger at the mire of ignorance in which man remains submerged. Everyone knows that death is inevitable, but at the same time he or she thinks that so far as his or her death is concerned, it is a remote proposition. How remote? We choose to leave the answer vague. A great dictator of the 20th Century, who had ruled his country for a very long time, was lying in a state of comma. He was extremely old and it was obvious that he would breathe his last any moment. The members of his council of ministers had collected in an adjoining room, waiting for the doctor to announce that the inevitable end had come at last.

The dictator regained his senses for a moment. “Who are the people talking in the next room?” he asked his doctor. The doctor hesitated, but decided to speak out the truth. “Sir,” he said, “they are the members of your council of ministers.” The dictator asked, “Why are they here?” “Sir,” once again the doctor made bold to say, “They are here to bid you goodbye!” The dictator then shot his final question: “Why? Where are they going?” These were practically his last words.

Never for a moment did the dictator think that he might be departing himself instead of his ministers. Indefatigable was his hope for survival thanks to the state of ignorance in most of us. But can we say that ignorance is the last word in explaining such conduct of man? Couldn’t some truth be hiding behind that sort of ignorance? The mystic would say that man is essentially immortal. What dies is his body, not his soul. It is this truth of immortality, expressed through his ignorance, manifests either as a blind attachment to life or a foolish denial of death.

Should we not think that the same truth remains hidden in man’s clinging to hope? What is important is one hopes; not the object of his hope. We hope for things we do not get and we hope for situations that elude us. The fact that we still continue to hope, may hide the truth that one day our hope will be fulfilled, just as one day man may realise his immortality. But that will be only when we have learnt to hope correctly, hope for the reign of Truth to prevail upon the earth. In other words, when we have emerged from our state of ignorance and changed our hope into aspiration, an aspiration for the perfection of our life, for the justification of the very process of evolution which shows that if out of mere matter a miracle like life could emerge and out of life a greater miracle like the mind could emerge, there is no reason why something still more wonderful cannot emerge out of mind. In fact man is still a creature subject to the process of evolution. He dreams of God, Light, Freedom, Bliss and Immortality, but can only have fleeting touches of such things. Nevertheless, he hopes to find them one day, to realise them in their full glory. An analysis of human thought and activities would corroborate this thesis.

This innate hope needs some symbolic occasions to express itself. Such an occasion is the New Year. For over a century now children all over the English knowing countries have sung or recited, on the eve of the New Year, these lines from Tennyson’s In Memoriam:

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring happy bells across the snow;
The year is going, let it go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

This memorable stanza projects several emotions that are significant. There is that sense of joy in ushering in the new year; there is that robust optimism about the spirit of the year that is setting in. Last but not the least and what is most significant, there is that bold faith in the triumph of truth in the times to come. Indeed, falsehood is only a form of ignorance and the ultimate purpose of life is realising the truth. When man would have achieved that, the unconscious faith that has propelled our voyage on the ocean of time would have found its destination, its fulfilment.

As most of our readers do know, Sri Aurobindo presents before man a vision of this fulfilment. There is a Divine destiny awaiting man, despite all the signs to the contrary. We should not pass a judgment on man just as we cannot pass a judgment on an image that is still in the process of making. The Supreme sculptor is yet to give his final touches to his creation. We are still in the making. But our Maker – in fact who Himself has become His creation – would not leave us as we are, imperfect, ignorant and groping in the dark. He would lead us from darkness to light, from untruth to truth and from death into immortality.

Year after year the Mother had been welcoming the New Year with a message. All those who could receive the spirit of the message could feel the strength of faith in their hearts and confidence in their minds. The very first message which the Mother gave in the year 1933 read: “Let the birth of the New Year be the new birth of our consciousness! Leaving the past far behind us let us run towards a luminous future.”

The next New Year message read: “Lord, the year is dying and our gratitude bows down to Thee. Lord, the year is re-born, our prayer rises up to Thee. Let it be for us also the dawn of a new life.”

In 1939 began the World War II. The Axis elements led by the Nazis represented the anti-progress, anti-Divine forces. They could thrive only on the impurities in the consciousness of man all over the globe. As if in anticipation of the situation, the Mother had declared the year to be the year of Purification. Her message for the New Year was, “O Lord, all those who take part in the Divine work implore Thee, that by a Supreme purification they may be liberated from the domination of the ego.” For the Mother the year 1940 was “a year of silence and expectation…” and She said, “let us find, O Lord, our entire support in Thy Grace alone.” Her message for 1941, when the great war was in full swing, was : “The world is fighting for its spiritual life menaced by the rush of hostile and undivine forces. Lord, we aspire to be Thy valiant warriors so that Thy glory may manifest upon the earth.”

The external situation had changed by 1945. But can the peace for which man aspired, while experiencing the brutalities of the war, manifest even in the changed situation?

The Mother’s message for the New Year of 1945 was: “The earth will enjoy a lasting and living peace only when men understand that they must be truthful even in their international dealings. O Lord, it is for this perfect truthfulness that we aspire.”

Truth was the element the Mother emphasized in several of her New Year messages. In Her message for 1967, She said, “Men, countries, continents! The choice is imperative: Truth or the abyss.”

Nothing could be a more appropriate preparation for the New Year we have just entered than taking time for reflection on these messages. In every aspect of our collective life today we are endangered by false values. These darker fascinations cannot be warded off by law or debate or pacts. What is indispensable is an urge for inner change, a change of consciousness. Externally the century that ended only three years ago, despite the destructions wrought by two great wars and other calamities, achieved much for us. Fascism, colonialism and imperialism ended. Monarchy and feudalism too collapsed. Several tyrannical regimes and systems disappeared. Human rights were acknowledged practically all over the world. There was not only marked progress in longevity and literacy etc. but also hitherto unknown opportunities were created by science and technology. However, neither the institutions of democracy and socialism, nor the facilities created by science and technology can ensure us happiness or at least a sense of security and satisfaction as long as we go on reducing the freedom the 20th Century obtained for us into egoistic upsurges and licentiousness in the 21st Century.

Let us pray that this new year, which is a prelude to the unfolding 21st Century, be a preparation for a radical change in our attitudes and understanding which alone can justify the opportunities the departed century created for us. Our silent but collective prayer can do miracles.