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August 25, 2011

A world of transient desires

Text by Radhika Jha. Illustration by Kunal Kundu

Is passion on the decline?

When I think of the word ‘passion’ an image springs to mind: my father listening to music.

When my father listened to music he went somewhere far away, a place I couldn’t go. Which is why the sight of his face when he was listening to music made me so scared that I would reach out and hold on to his arm till he noticed me and his face became once again the face I knew best in the world.

My father’s love of music became a passion when my mother was killed in the Israeli aerial bombing of Damascus in the 1973 Golan Heights war. After that what kept him alive was music. Until then, he had enjoyed music but it wasn’t the centre of his life. After my mother’s death it became the only thing in which he was able to lose himself the way he had lost himself in my mother. Such was his passion for music that there was never a moment when music was not playing in our little flat in Mumbai.

Mornings were western classical music time, afternoons and evenings were for raagas. Sundays were for opera. And not a week went by when I wasn’t being taken to some very traditional Marathi home or concert hall where my father would be up till one or two in the morning listening, recording and talking about music. I of course found a corner, made myself a bed of pillows and went to sleep. I was alternately jealous and awed by his passion. For only in the presence of music did the bubbling, never quite sleeping anger inside my father go away.

You’d think that a passion so intimately linked with death would lessen with time. But my father’s has never wavered. Even today, at 71, he still organises concerts in his home seven or eight times a year. And from the moment he wakes till the time he sleeps, there is music playing. “When you listen to music, you are never alone,” he always says. So when I think of passion I see my father’s face as he listens to music.

Passion is about life – not death. Passion is what makes it possible to survive defeat, death, loss in all shapes and forms. Our passions are born from our need to go beyond the purely material towards the transcendental: to reach for, and hold, something that defies time. Passion is a great weapon against loneliness because it has to be shared. Passion therefore forces us to bind with the world.

There are nine passions, says philosopher Roberto Unger in his book Passion: an essay on personality. These are lust, despair, hatred, vanity, jealousy, envy, faith, hope, and love. These are the raw emotions that all human beings are born with. But it is the context in which an individual finds himself that determines the form in which these will express themselves. The origins of passion lie in the need to be recognised as a separate, distinct individual, and to be accepted by others as a person of worth. In other words, passion is inextricably linked to the search for respect. But respect has to be given; it cannot be taken. So, as the self reaches out to others, forms relationships, gets involved, each involvement brings fulfillment but also fear. For while passion is exhilarating it is also terrifying. For every overture holds within it the possibility of failure, of non-recognition by the other.

Western and eastern religious and philosophical traditions are united in the belief that passion is inextricably linked to suffering. It was acute pain, caused by the suffering of mankind that made Prince Siddhartha seek enlightenment and become the Buddha. And Jesus Christ chose to die an agonising death on the cross in order to save mankind. Therefore, in the Hindu/Buddhist view, to attain moksha or nirvana one needs to liberate oneself from passion.

“Passion is maya,” my Odissi guru, the late Surendranath Jena would say. “You have to still your mind.”

“But how can I dance if I don’t feel  passion?” I would ask him. “With what can I communicate with my audience, if it is not through passion?”

The answer that the Hindu shastras devised was the concept of ‘Rasa’.  “Rasa is the vessel into which you pour your passion. Only then can you share it safely with others through your art,” my late guru would say.

But because of Jesus’ suffering on the cross – described not inaptly as the ‘Passion of Christ’ – the West has taken the more direct route of exalting passion. Passion is seen as transformative. So instead of suppressing or controlling it, artists, mystics, poets, philosophers have embraced it and sought in it a direct way to God. Sufis have looked for the same route within Islam.

When I look at the world around me – a world of transient desires and instant gratification – I cannot help asking ‘Is passion on the decline? Has the deluge of transient sensation made humanity lose sight of the bonding, transforming power of passion?’ I can’t help thinking that it has. The most tell-tale symptom of this is not the growing preoccupation with the immediate, but the rise of the desire for revenge. Most Hollywood movies that I have seen in the last three years have been about revenge. Sometimes it masquerades as a concern for justice. But to me justice without mercy is still plain revenge.

Revenge is not a passion, though it looks like one. It is actually something much darker. For revenge is about feeling humiliated. And humiliation comes from not being recognised as a person, from feeling that whether one lives or dies doesn’t matter. This is the opposite of passion. For it is through the passions that the individual seeks to connect with others, be it one person or all of humanity, a single revelatory moment or the transcendent eternal.

Revenge is the opposite of passion because it seeks the final and total destruction of the Other. When the mere possibility of not being recognised and accepted scares you so much that you prefer to destroy the object of your desire, then you destroy even the possibility of fulfillment through passion. But being able to take revenge makes a person feel powerful. That is why revenge is so incredibly seductive.

Sadly, this is the song that more and more people seem to be singing. Parents instill the ‘achieve, achieve, achieve’ mantra into their children because in our highly competitive world, the only thing that seems to matter is winning. So if winning is everything, losing then becomes unbearable. And the only way to accept losing is to look for someone to blame. This is where revenge comes in.

If we are to break out of this vicious cycle before someone figures out a way to destroy us all in a senseless act of revenge, we need to end the obsession with winning, to bring back passion as the prime motivator in life – not competition. If we want the world to survive, we need to change the music.

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