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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 40, New Delhi, September 19, 2020

‘Forty Rules’, Gita, Commusings and the question of Inner Change | Kobad Ghandy

Friday 18 September 2020, by Kobad Ghandy


Why did socialist societies reverse, inspite of being economically far more just? Why did some of their leaders become dictators? Why does money and power corrupt the best of persons? Why do comrades willing to give their lives for revolution, become, at times, the worst autocrats within the organisation, with even a little power? In short why does human nature change for the negative with power (money), and how can we acquire positive values needed, not only to bring and sustain an equitable society with happiness for all, but even to just develop positive relationships between people.

Such questions arise not merely for the social activist, but also for everyone more and more caught up in the rat-race, facing extreme isolation, depression, fears, and lack of love and affection in relations. Somehow merely existing has become the norm, not truly living a full life, with many pushed to the edge. Social -distancing and lockdown has only aggravated the situation, with the added factor of economic insecurity and regular police harassment. This has resulted in an epidemic of suicides, and not just hunger and starvation deaths, most of which go unrecorded unlike the Covid cases/deaths which are fed to us day-in-and day-out. And greater the technology, the more is our interaction with it and the less with humans, isolating us even further.

No doubt this is the product of the system which feeds on insecurity, isolation, alienation, and more and more on hatred built on cut-throat competition. So much so, that much of these negative values have become deeply internalised, engrained in our sub-conscious, without us even realising it. We have been defacto turned into a programmed monstrosity. The problem becomes more complex as we not only have those promoting evil (big-business, governments, political parties, main-line media, etc), but much of this evil has been internalised within ourselves as well. Take the example if corruption. It has reached such monstrous levels that no development is really possible in this country as the high levels of corruption eats into the vitals of any project. But it is hardly an issue, though people face its harassment daily, as it is so deep-rooted that any normal earning tends to involve it. People would rather take the few crumbs than attack it. So, let alone fighting it, the easier path is to live with it, nay indulge with it for our personal gain and security. In this scenario to create a better society one has to struggle therefore on two fronts — one, is to fight the evil within, and second, fight the evil in our surroundings and, even, if necessary, destroy the incorrigible outside as Krishna advised Arjuna.

Most religions and even the book FRofL and Commussings discourses focus only on the inner struggle which can have little impact, as if our surroundings don’t change, one gets continuously re-infected, if at all we are able to change. We see these limitations in the book itself and its absence in the discourses.

On the other hand, the Gita only focuses on war against the evil-doers and not on the negative within us, and if at all internal, there is little on love, affection and more on duty, valour, cowardice, etc. It may be effective to face a cruel world, but not to change it.

Both approaches have positive points from which one can learn, but change would probably entail going beyond what is said in these discourses. Even mighty revolutions have been reversed, due to the inability to evoke such a change, so what about our little circles. Yet, one has to start from somewhere, and it is, after all, drops that go to fill an ocean.

The more every person takes a stand against the evil both within and outside of ourselves, the more we advance in building a better and more humane society. While the battle within needs to be ruthless and uncompromising (without of course, guilt complexes arising of not having done enough), that against evil in the outside world will vary and depend on everyone’s particular abilities, strengths and the situation in which they exist.

For social activists, this would entail changing our values and emotional makeup to keep them in tune with the ideology and the social system we desire/proclaim. While, there is much written on aspects of this by may sensitive writers and religious gurus through the ages, here we shall examine Sufi thought through the book FRofL and the Gita, as also some more modern-day concepts as put forward on the net in ‘Commusings’. The fact of the matter is that in the real world all these, including the communist attempts, have failed and people more and more fall prey to the ruthlessness of the marketplace where everyone and everything, including one’s emotions and feelings, are available for a price to be sold to the highest bidder. Things have only gone from bad to worse and people’s alienation, isolation, and insecurities have today reached epic levels.

After reading ‘Forty Rules of Love’ by Elif Shafak on the Rumi/Shams relationship as also the story of Ella; listening to the discourses by Eisenstein ‘Commune Commusings’ and the video discourses on the Bhagvad Gita there are a number of interesting aspects one can learn and utilise in our daily lives to help change ourselves and impact our surroundings. The first two are on similar lines while the last has a different approach. Yet none of these have been effective in changing the world and people, except probably at a micro-level. At best they give us some solace and maybe strength to face the dog-eat-dog world — not necessarily change us and our relationships. We even see these limitations reflected in the book FRofL, where the main protagonist is not able to impact many and for all his forty rules his attitude to his young wife borders on the extremely insensitive and defacto criminal, callously pushing her to her death.

Before taking up this book and the net discourses by Commusings which both focus on inner love, let us first look at the Gita which is the main spiritual guide in India for most.

The Bhagvad Gita (BG)

The Bhagvad Gita and the Mahabharata is more about a war against evil for the good of mankind ........ even if that war entails killing the nearest and dearest. Here there is no question of love. In it, there is no attempt to change the evil mongers through love, only to destroy them. Taken philosophically it can be interpreted as waging a war against the evil within ourselves to become better beings. In that way the two overlap to some extent but, in essence the approaches are different, probably diametrically opposite. The first two focuses on love; the Gita on war and duty.

Both have their valid points in the contemporary situation, as we will see; and Naxalites have always compared their war as similar to that of the Mahabharata - taking up arms against evil. Ganapati for the Chhattisgarh naxals can be the veritable Krishna for the Mahabharata. Even their weaponry, as reported in the media, included not only modern weapons but bows and arrows, as used in the Mahabharata. The protagonists in both were the local tribals of Dandakaranya (the same forest where Ram did his vanvas, even the name the naxals have adopted is from there), where the Ramayana portrays the locals/tribals metaphorically as the monkeys led by Hanuman. Therefore, the Hindutva crowd should in fact embrace the Dandakaranya Naxalites, but they are, as yet, unwilling even for talks with them, while they can agree to the ongoing talks with the far more ruthless Taliban in Afghanistan. Is this not hypocritical and dishonest given the present ruling dispensation’s avowed hatred to Islam, while for the naxals it is merely on the question of the model of development.

 Anyhow the purpose of this discourse in something quite different — the question of changing ourselves and, with it, the environment in which we associate, learning from these three works and also seeing their limitations.

As far as waging struggle/war against evil the Gita is commendable. The trouble is that those who tend to quote the Gita the most are the real Kauravas of today, perpetuating evil and destruction and bent on destroying the Pandavas who fight for justice and truth. Some of the problems with the Gita is its focus on duty and that too the duty of a Kshatriya, which is to fight. It defacto perpetuates the caste system. This is further solidified with the extensive discourse in the Gita on the concept of reincarnation. Such a concept is all very well for the upper-castes and well off, as they supposedly did good things in their last life to be leading a good existence in this life; but for the poor, starving and Dalits they would be apparently paying for their sins in their past life. The concept of reincarnation tends to rigidify existing structures as no change is possible in this life only in the next — by doing good deed now. What happens in future life no one really knows, but in this life, some must suffer and others enjoy the fruits of their past lives. This is very sinister indeed and loaded against the downtrodden. The discourses on the net go at great lengths to prove ‘scientifically’ this theory of reincarnation giving the examples of child prodigies.

And the definition of violence is strange. The discourse said that it is not violence when we kill in self-defence and that it is as great a sin to tolerate a bad person as it is to kill an innocent. It is then caught up in contradictions saying that after all most Hindu god are shown with a weapon. So how can the religion be non-violent. Then again it goes in circles saying that when we kill, we kill only the body and not the soul; thereby implying it is not really killing, as the body is, the discourse says, made up only of inanimate material. To elaborate the discourse adds that body is merely of material elements, the food materials we eat, while it is the soul that lives on and is untouched by death (which in Sanskrit means ‘change’).

In actual fact, seen logically violence is violence, whatever name you may call it — at most, one could say, there is unjust violence and just violence. In fact, even the millions who die of hunger, starvation and curable diseases is a form of violence. Also, the body is not just matter as mentioned, it also comprises emotions, thoughts, feelings, etc.

Then it goes on and on speaking at length of the concept of the soul. This concept is there in most religions together with the concepts of heaven and hell. This has to be studied more scientifically to conclude either way.

The main tenets of the Gita can be summed up as :

1. Know the reality of the world in which you live. Know it to be impermanent, unreal and the source of your suffering and delusion. True, though the causes could be discovered in real life itself.

2. Know the Reality about yourself, who you are and what you are really. Know that you are neither your body nor your mind, but the true self that can neither be slain nor hurt. It is eternal, divine and transcendental. First part is OK, but most in this society are in hurt and in some form of pain - physical and mental — one cannot wish it away.

3. Know that the senses are responsible for your desires, attachment and the instability of your mind and that by restraining your senses you can achieve the stability of your mind and become impervious to the pairs of opposites, such as pain and pleasure, which is the key to self-realization. Seems to suggest we be insensitive in order to get stability of the mind. True if we are insensitive to, for example, the horrors of the migrant labour and the unemployed locked out by Covid, we may be untouched by what is going on and stable, but we lose our humanity.

4. Cultivate buddhi or your discriminating intelligence to discern true knowledge, and practice wisdom so that you will know the difference between truth and untruth, reality and illusion, your false self and true self, the divine qualities and demonic qualities, knowledge and ignorance and how true knowledge illuminates and liberates while ignorance veils your wisdom and holds you in bondage. What then is knowledge and ignorance; is it merely restricted to the scriptures (which anyhow the Dalits were not allowed to read); how does one “practice wisdom”; the truth for the starving unemployed and an Ambani may be quite different; ........

5. Know the true nature of action and inaction and how actions bind you to the world and cause you suffering. Know that it is not actions but the desires and the attachment behind your actions which are responsible for your karma. Know the truth about the doer-ship and who the real doer is. Do not seek to escape from your responsibility because not doing your obligatory duties is also bad karma. To neutralize your karma, perform your actions without desires, without attachment and without seeking the fruit of your actions, as a sacrificial offering to God, accepting Him as the True Doer and yourself as a mere instrument. Know that true renunciation is the renunciation of your desires and the fruit of your actions. ........ Surrender yourself to Him completely and offer Him everything that you have. To do this one would have to be a sanyasi...... and if there is no desires there is no love, no sex, no emotions, etc and no attachments may insulate us from the vicissitudes of others, but it is accompanied by the dangers of turning us into machines.

The Gita no doubt, overall presents an excellent concept of not running away from a war for righteousness, and condemns Arjuna’s wavering as an act of cowardice. Yet, how many of us who follow the Gita are implementing this central theme in our daily lives, even a small aspect of it. One sees evil and untruth all around us, and yet we tend to remain silent; many even supporting the evil-mongers, yet waxing eloquent of the beauty of the Gita. The Gita needs to be interpreted within the present context and not in some esoteric way to be really meaningful, and the negative aspects rejected. The concept of treating any book, whether Gita, Marxist classics or the Bible results in enormous rigidity and negates rational thought.

Forty Rules of Love

The book operates at two levels. The story of Ella as she lives in today’s world; the type of life many of us would encounter; and the Rumi - Shams relationship of the 13th century.

The story is a beautiful expose of the emptiness of life today as exposed by the role of Ella. Ella, now 40, and married for two decades, with three lovely grown up children and a successful husband, could not have had a better life. All the comforts, wealth, status, etc; but total emptiness without love and affection anywhere. Children have grown up and have their own lives, the husband is busy in his work and numerous flings with other women, and Ella looks after the house and children. The children no doubt adore her and the husband is caring, yet she feels emptiness all around. She observes the husband’s covert flings and remains silent lost in her loneliness, with both not wanting to disturb the applecart.

Then comes this project to edit the book ‘Sweet Blasphemy’ on the relationship of Rumi and Shams of Tabreiz. And in the process comes into email contact with the author, Aziz, a person who has converted to Islam and has become a Sufi, living the life of a ‘dervish’. In the course of the correspondence they become extremely close and finally one day he lands up in her neighbouring city in the US. She is already in love with him, and secretly goes to meet him. He discloses that he too has been in love with her and just before they make love he stops and discloses he has cancer and only a few years to live. She is faced with a dilemma — continue the life of security and with-it boredom and lovlessnes, or chose the life of adventure, risk and love. Though into 20 years of marriage she walks out of her house to live with Aziz, knowing he will die soon. They live a beautiful life for about two years and then he dies.

 Again, faced with a dilemma, whether to go back to her husband and children who are willing to accept her, or live her own life, though she has no money. Again, she decides on the latter going to Amsterdam — the city where Aziz lived - to rent a small flat and live her own life. How many of us are today caught up in such a similar existence, but very few of us would choose love with its attached risks over security and acceptability/status. Most of us would continue to live an empty life without love for the security of the status quo. Only the handful who have the resources may — that too rarely - break free. Of course economic survival in the west is much easier than here in India, which has to be considered. Yet this book brings out the spirit of an Ella, the spirit of freedom, that too at the age of 40 and 20 years of a staid and monotonous marriage. Something to emulate.

If we turn to the other aspect of the book of the Rumi-Shams relationship while many of the 40 Rules of Love outlined by Shams are beautiful and worthy of bringing into our lives, Shams, the main spiritual guru, comes across as somewhat disappointing.

But some of the forty rules that he espouses are of much value, like:

  • The whole universe is contained within a single human being — you. Everything that you see around, including the things that you may not be fond of and even the people you despise and abhor, is present within you in varying degrees. Therefore, do not look for Sheitan outside yourself either. The devil is not an extraordinary force that attacks from without. It is an ordinary force within. If you get to know yourself fully, facing with honesty and hardness both your dark and bright sides, you will arrive at a supreme form of consciousness.
  • Hell is the here and now. So is heaven. Quit worrying about hell or dreaming about heaven, as they are both present inside this very moment. Every time we fall in love, we ascend to heaven. Every time we hate, envy, or fight someone, we tumble straight into the fires of hell.
  • Rumi: Is there a way to grasp what love means without becoming a lover first? Love cannot be explained. It can only be experienced. Love cannot be explained, yet it explains all.
  • If you want to change the way others treat you, you should first change the way you treat yourself. Unless you learn to love yourself, fully and sincerely, there is no way you can be loved. Once you achieve that stage, however, be thankful for every thorn that others may throw at you. It is a sign that you will soon be showered in roses.
  • The universe is one being. Everything and everyone is interconnected through an invisible web of stories. Whether we are aware of it or not, we area all in a silent conversation. Do no harm. Practice compassion. And do not gossip behind anyone’s back — not even a seemingly innocent remark! The words that come out of the mouths do not vanish but are perpetually stored in infinite space, and they will come back to us in due time. One man’s pain will hurt us all. One man’s joy will make everyone smile.
  • Eternity does not mean infinite time, but simply timelessness. If you want to experience eternal illumination, put the past and the future out of your mind and remain within the present moment.
  • Shams ........ this is the conflict between the scholar and the mystic, between the mind and the heart.
  • It is never to late to ask yourself, “Am I ready to change the life I am living? Am I ready to change within? Even if a single day in your life is the same as the day before it surely is a pity. At every moment and with each new breath, one should be renewed and renewed again. There is only one way to be born into a new life: to die before death.
  • Rule No. Forty: A life without love is no account. Don’t ask yourself what kind of love you should seek, spiritual or material, divine or mundane, Eastern of Western ........ Divisions only lead to more divisions. Love has no labels, no definitions. It is what it is, pure and simple.

“Love is the water of life. And a lover is a soul of fire!

“The universe turns differently when the fire loves water.

Having said that, Shams himself does not seem to live up to his own rules on the way he treats his young wife Kimya who finally pines away to death due to neglect from Shams ignoring her and not reciprocating her love. Why in the first place did he agree to marry this 15-year-old and pretend to be attached to her in the first place, if he was not willing to consummate the marriage and give her affection. Besides while she was pining away to death he did not even seem to bother. What could be crueller?

Besides he seems to have no impact on the wicked including Rumi’s son Alladin as also the security guard, Baybars and the Zealot ---- those who probably killed him. Even amongst the decent, while he appeals to the beggar, the drunk, Suleiman, and the prostitute, Desert Rose, he was not able to change any of their life conditions nor inspire them to a better existence, except for Desert Rose. Only she revolts from the brothel and comes to live in Rumi’s house. Besides her, Shams seems to have had little impact on anyone, though many were impressed by his discourses. No doubt he had a major impact on Rumi.

While the Ella part of the book is inspiring the other part on Shams, while it gives many good principles of love, it is somewhat lack-lustre.


The Commune and Eisenstein discourses says much the same things on love. They basically say that it is ‘separation’ that is affecting all; I would call that alienation in our lives and relations. While that is very true, and in this consumerist society it has reached peak levels, they too show no method of countering alienation in our lives.

Living in communes is no doubt the ideal in social fraternity but history has shown it does not last unless we have been able to already overcome the alienations, jealousies, mistrusts, likes/dislikes, etc before going into such a structure or at least soon after. Earlier, others have attempted communes but none lasted. The hippies of the 1960s and 1970s tried it but they did not last for long. The most successful was Tachiai and the other communes in China under Mao in the 1970s — in both agriculture and industry — which was the largest such experimentation ever; but these too crumbled after his death. And an extreme example of forcibly pushing communes was in Kampuchea under Pol Pot. They went so far as to dissolve all currency, and confiscated everyone’s kitchen vessels so that all were forced to eat in the community kitchen. But people have different tastes and as this was not dealt with at the consciousness level, they only partook in it out of coercion and fear. Obviously, any structure built on fear and with-it guilt cannot last and this too soon crumbled and in fact people felt liberated with their collapse.

 Neither Eisenstein nor the discourse showed how or why the earlier experiments failed. The concept of privacy and personal attachments is deep-rooted and unless there is a big change in the mindset before setting up such structures it is bound to fail. Also, in such communes there needs to be a deep common understanding to issues, say, between the sexes like love, sex, jealousies, openness, relationships, etc where people should be free to express themselves and evolve relations but without others feeling threatened and developing grouses? Or can an understanding evolve that a couple will exist in relation as long as the relationship stands and only when it breaks should another relation evolve. Whatever is decided, unless there is an atmosphere devoid of jealousies and prejudices, it will lead to bitterness and the commune relations will collapse. The same can be stated about other relationships, division of work, various habits, and even food tastes.

The Question of Change in the Mindset

The Gita teaches us about justice and righteousness; FROL teaches us about love and the question of individual freedom; and the discourses of Commusings brings out the negative impact of separation/alienation in our lives. That is all very well, but the question is how are we to acquire a new set of values and relationships in a world where injustice has reached epic levels; where love and freedom have been replaced by hatred and claustrophobia reaching unheard of levels during this ‘pandemic’; and where the economy and the extreme consumerism has led to unbelievable levels of alienation.

Not only that, every moment in such an environment we are further pushed into the prison of injustices, hatreds and extreme forms of alienation. How are we then to resist all these as one has to somehow survive.  Unfortunately, none show how we can change our mindset to achieve justice, love and cooperation in our personal lives and relationships. If we do not seek to build it in our relations with others and society at large, it can turn counter-productive, giving us, no doubt, the inner strength to face the world but not necessarily impact it. Arjuna may have won the war, but was justice ushered in; Shams could not impact even the decent people let alone the bad elements; and all commune experiments have failed. On the contrary, the strength gained internally, may be used to more effectively dominate and control others’ lives or even go to the extent to destroy them. Do we not see many a fake sadhu and spiritual gurus duping vulnerable people or dominating them? Our inner change must result in happiness for oneself and others in our surroundings.

So, in the circumstances while much of what they say may be true, the question is what do we do to bring about that change in our mindset to acquire justice/ peace, love and cooperation/freedom, if not in the entire country at least in our immediate circle. Besides, the real test as to if we have really changed can only be assessed by our impact on others.

 In today’s world any sensitive person, and even the not-so-sensitive, is in a terrible crisis as the rampant consumerism, competitiveness and alienation in life are driving people to seek solace in many alternate therapies and also in religion. Merely seeking solace, may to some extent help the individual, but does not really help the society as it invariably merely gives us the strength and stability to face the cruel world around us, invariably resorting to the methods visible in society. So, we merely move from a position of weakness to a position of strength to face the evil world, either adopting their methods or cutting off from society and taking solace in religion, nature, etc. So, the extent to which we have changed, whether by the methods of love taught by Rumi or by war taught by the Gita, or living in communes, needs to be measured only by our ability to impact our surroundings and help change people around us, including thereby ourselves.

To enable this, we need to go to a study of psychology, the question of our mental make-up ---- what it presently is, and how and where can we bring about a change in it. No doubt the latest research and knowledge of the functioning of mind will help us use methods to bring about a more effective change.

Generally, one acts at the conscious/rational level using increased scientific knowledge, logic and ideology to bring about the change. But the mind functions at not only the conscious and rational level but also at the level of the sub-conscious. In fact, it is said that the latter comprises 95% of the mind while the former is a mere 5%.

Merely by bringing about changes at the conscious level will not necessarily change the entire mind-set as the sub-conscious mind will not be impacted. And it is the sub-conscious mind that determines much of our emotions and thereby value systems. And the bulk of these emotions and values are programmed into the mind in the first seven years of our life — i.e. before rational thought develops. And these childhood impressions get firmly stamped on our mind from images we pick up from our surroundings. i.e. primarily the family and neighbouring environment. The point mentioned here is of key importance: whatever we learn, be it by Rumi, Gita or the Commusing discourses or on Marxism, unless we use our conscious mind which may have grasped new thoughts to impact the subconscious, our earlier emotions will continue to coexist together with the new knowledge we may acquire. So, I may really appreciate Rumi’s discourses on love, but if I am full of hatred, insecurities, mistrust, etc it will be of little use in changing myself. And however much I may read of Krishna’s discourse on righteousness and justice if I am filled with feelings of superiority (due to caste/money privileges from childhood), feelings of casteism and patriarchy, etc — justice and righteousness will not reflect in my day-to-day life and relationships. And on the Commusing discourses will I ever be able to get over the separation/alienation ingrained in me since childhood and strongly reinforced by the consumerist atmosphere, and live amicably in a commune if I am filled with selfishness, jealousies, prejudices, mistrust, suspicions, etc --- I will not be able to adjust for even a minute in a commune-type atmosphere unless I have already shed much of this baggage. Why, for that matter even Marxists study all about equality, justice, etc but often leaders turn autocratic, unfair, manipulative, and are often filled with caste feelings and patriarchal attitudes inculcated from childhood.

The key factor here is the necessity to use the knowledge out rational/conscious mind acquires to change all our negative emotions deeply embedded in our sub-conscious. It may be only 5% of the total mind but it is the most powerful part of it. It is very difficult to bring about these changes as, not only is the childhood impact deep on our sub-conscious/emotions, it continuously gets reinforced by the negative values pervading our environment. In additions habits acquired over the years, become even more difficult to change. So, our emotions is intricately programmed not only by our mental make up from childhood but also further consolidated through the force of habit. Much of this operates at a very subtle level of which we may not even be aware.

So it is not easy to change this mental make-up embedded deep in our sub-conscious by mere rational thought and greater knowledge. To change ourselves requires not only the conscious effort from ourselves, but is also dependent on the type of environment/relationships we keep and foster. For this there needs to be a further study of psychology and even some of the methods like meditation, Meenal’s energy programmes, and other means (including Marxist attempts) need to be considered to bring about the required change in a positive direction.

If our goal is happiness for all as the ultimate aim, and this approach is strongly imbibed, maybe we will not do things that hurt others and thereby start to develop a positive environment.

September 10, 2020

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