By Roshan, New Age Islam
08 February, 2015
There was a time—not too long ago—when I was obsessively addicted to what they call ‘news’. Almost the first thing in the morning, I would hungrily devour a couple of newspapers and sometimes a news-magazine or two, and would be hooked onto news websites from across the globe over much of the rest of the day. It was really important, I felt, to be ‘well informed’ about ‘major things’ happening all over the world—that is to say, all the many things that the ‘news’ media thought that we really ought to know.
But you know how people can change over time—and that’s what happened with me and my addiction to ‘news’. Gradually, I began to realise that the heavy dose of negative ‘news’ (which forms the bulk of what passes for ‘news’) that I wanted to be bombarded with every day was taking a terrific toll on me. It was bad enough, I suppose, when ‘news’ was available just in newspaper form, and, after that, for only half an hour or so a day on the one, Government-owned TV channel launched in India when I was a child. But now with I don’t know how many 24 hour TV news channels and websites graphically depicting all sorts of horrors almost as soon as they’ve taken place on every spot on the planet, you simply can’t expect to remain personally unaffected by what’s thrown in your face if you are hooked on ‘news’.
Consuming ‘news’ in such heavy quantities—dozens of new stories every day about rapes and murders, suicides and terror attacks, communal riots and caste atrocities, wars, sex scandals, enormous corruption in high places and so on—I realised, was playing utter havoc with my mind. And so, one day, last year, I made a vow to myself—never again to read a newspaper or to scan the Internet for ‘news’. If almost all our ancestors from Adam and Eve till two or three generations ago lived fairly well without newspapers, TV and Internet news, I reasoned, surely I could, too.
For a while, it was wonderful, being utterly clueless as to what was happening ‘out there’, in the ‘big, bad world’. I couldn’t care about it all in the least, I said to myself. If people wanted to kill each other in the name of religion, caste or nation or to cheat the public exchequer or on their spouses, why should I feel compelled to know about it? Surely, I didn’t have to burden myself listening to or reading about their crimes and thereby drive myself into further depression?
That’s how I defended my decision to abstain from ‘news’ for the rest of my life.
Some days later, though, I began to have doubts if this was really the right thing to do. By choosing not to know about much of what was happening in the world, was I being selfish, indifferent to other people’s suffering? Did it mean that I really didn’t care about others? That I was bothered only about myself and my own peace of mind? Was I being cowardly? Was I being an escapist? Was I forcing myself to deny a fundamental reality of life—the fact that here, in this world, evil and good, sorrow and joy, pain and pleasure necessarily have to coexist and that there’s nothing that can be done to change this law? By running away from ‘news’, was I trying to create a little cocoon of comfort for myself, an imaginary problem-free world of my own?
One of my favourite authors, an elderly Islamic scholar who is deeply engaged in inter-faith dialogue, repeatedly stresses that the absolute peace and joy that we pine for is something that God has arranged for only in heaven. In contrast, in this world, where human beings have the freedom to do evil as well as good, there is bound to be pain and suffering, along with pleasure and joy. In avoiding ‘news’, was I trying—in vain, of course—to avoid or deny this very basic fact of life?
These sorts of doubts and questions were swimming about in my mind when I landed up in an ashram in the hope of a few days of peace and quiet. There, I asked Swami-ji, the head of the ashram, what he thought about my news-boycott. Perhaps I hoped that he would support me. Maybe I wanted that he should tell me I had made a great ‘spiritual’ decision. It would have convinced me that I was right!
But he didn’t do that at all!
“What’s the use of reading all that negative stuff, day after day?” I said to Swami-ji “All those stories about violence and all. I can’t do anything to help the innocent victims of such crimes. I can’t rush to wherever all this is happening to be of any practical assistance. So, why should I read about all these things, especially if it might make me more negative, fearful and depressed? I think it’s a total waste of energy and time? I could use that time in a better way, isn’t it, like remembering God, meditating or doing something socially useful?”
Swami-ji patiently heard me out. And then, he simply said, “You can read the newspapers and pray for the victims of the tragedies whom you read about. That’s something useful you can do, isn’t it?”
Swami-ji didn’t need to say a word more! I had got the answer I needed! It was one that I had never considered before!
Not once in all my life had I ever thought that I could help people in distress whom I had read or heard about by praying for them. For all my supposed sympathy for the victims of all the many horrible things happening in the world that the media regularly reports, I had never thought of including them in my prayers. Swami-ji’s response forced me to consider the power of prayer and to realise that one can help people in distress not only in material ways—by donating money for flood-relief or for victims of a bomb blast, by sponsoring a box of medicines for a clinic in a camp for riot victims, or by volunteering as a teacher in a school in a remote village—but also by praying for them.
Spiritual solidarity and help is as important material assistance, I learned from Swami-ji.
Through most of my life I had never given prayer serious thought. For a hardened ‘secularist’ like me, prayer was basically a lot of mumbo-jumbo, although I wouldn’t have said that to anybody, at least not in so many words, not even to myself. The fact is that I didn’t think prayer could do anything at all ‘practical’ to address social grievances, including all the negative things that were routinely reported in the ‘news’. It was, as far as I was concerned, simply a bunch of words addressed to what I then thought might just be some imaginary being. It was also an enormous waste of time and energy, which could be put to better use in a ‘practical’ way. What was needed to change things was ‘practical action’—economic and educational ‘development initiatives, rights-based social activism, media coverage, political mobilisation, protest marches, and other such forms of non-violent assertion and resistance. It was these ‘real-world’ ways of intervention, I then thought, that alone could address social grievances and change the world for the better. Prayer couldn’t contribute a thing in this regard as far as I was concerned. Never once did I ever even remotely consider it an option.
All my life I had prayed only on a few occasions—and that, too, almost always for myself. As children, we said a short, quick prayer before sitting down to eat, but this lasted for just a few years. In later years, I would sometimes pray—perhaps just once a year—before the annual school exams, imploring God (whom I otherwise never bothered to remember) for a pass or good grades. Possibly the only time I prayed for someone else was when my mother was in hospital.
Although I wasn’t a hardened atheist (despite undergoing short spells of atheism), almost all my life I had never seriously believed that prayer could actually work and that it could actually make a difference, other than perhaps providing one with some sort of psychological (and, therefore, in a sense, ‘false’) comfort. I didn’t honestly think that prayer had power to do or change things.
It wasn’t that I had simply underestimated the power of prayer. Rather, I believed that prayer had no power at all! I had been through some really rough phases in life—but even then I had never turned to God and prayed to Him for help. Instead, I placed all my faith and hope in ‘professional’ therapists and counsellors and the anti-depressants that they recommended.
That was what ‘progressive’, ‘modern’, ‘well-educated’, ‘scientifically-minded’, ‘rational’, ‘Westernised’ people were expected to do, wasn’t it?
I didn’t give much serious thought to what Swami-ji had said to me that day, although it did inspire me to lift my news-boycott shortly afterwards. I didn’t go back to obsessive news consumption, though. These days, I cursorily scan the daily newspaper—it generally takes me 10 minutes or so—and spend around the same amount of time glancing at a couple of news websites. If I miss this, I don’t get jittery, as I might have some years ago. The content of the news hasn’t changed at all, of course, I have to report. It’s still the same stories about the same terrible things.
This morning, a thought came to my mind: “Okay, the news hasn’t changed—it’s still all about those awful things—but have you yourself changed? You can’t change the entire world and expect to get it to generate the good news that you want. The only person you can change is yourself. Have you done that, at least to some extent? Are you, for a change, generating ‘good news’ yourself?”
I thought of Swami-ji. I recalled what he had said to me that day: “You can pray for the victims, can’t you?”
Not once, I had to admit to myself, had I done what he had suggested.
I wasn’t pleased with myself then, as you can imagine. I had taken to prayer recently, but I had never bothered to pray to God for the victims of any of the terrible incidents that I had read or heard about in the media. Not once had any of these people—victims of wars, terror attacks and communal riots, of rapes and murders, and all other sorts of horrific crimes—ever figured in my prayers. Instead, my prayers were essentially all for and about myself—for help in my ‘spiritual growth’, for my ‘peace of mind’ and for making me a ‘better’ person, for instance, or for curing a pain in my stomach, for protecting me from people I found irritating, and for helping me in situations that I found difficult. In my new ‘spiritual’ avatar, I discovered, my selfishness still remained fairly intact. My prayers were almost always about I and me.
To be honest, I had prayed for others sometimes, too, but it was mostly for a close relative or friend. But that was also selfish in a way, wasn’t it—praying for my relatives or my friends? I hadn’t at all considered doing as Swami-ji had suggested—praying for people who had undergone terrible suffering whom I had no personal contact or involvement with but had just heard about in the media. I really didn’t care much for them, then, did I, despite how awful I claimed to have felt about their plight.
“Okay, you haven’t prayed for people you’ve read or heard about in the media who’ve been, or are still going, through hell. Never mind. That’s something that you can still do. It’s never too late,” I said to myself this morning after recalling Swami-ji’s wise advice. “You don’t have to go out of your way to do this. You can do it sitting in your chair while you read the newspaper and sip your tea. You can start today, if you like,” I added.
That made me feel a lot better.
As I write these lines I think, “Henceforth, each time I pick up a newspaper or chance upon a website and spot some painful negative news—of, say, a rape, murder, terror attack, a war somewhere, someone dying of hunger and poverty, an animal being maimed or trees being indiscriminately felled—I could say a quick silent prayer to God—even if it is just a sentence or two—for God’s blessings for the victims of the crime and for God to deal with its perpetrators in the manner He wills.”
If I think it might be difficult to say a prayer after each negative news report I read, maybe I could do one common prayer after I’m through with reading the paper for all the people I’ve read about whom I want to pray for.
Isn’t that a good idea?
This is one way I can respond—and in a positive and meaningful way—to the ‘negative’ news that abounds in the media. That’s a much more sensible thing to do, isn’t it, than blanking negative news out of my mind by not reading newspapers at all.
Ignoring negative news by not reading about it won’t, I now realise, help change things at all. It’s escapism, pure and simple. But prayers can help make a major difference. Sometimes, they can make all the difference actually. There was a time when I thought that ignoring or being indifferent to the harsh reality of suffering in the world was being ‘spiritual’. But now I realise it definitely isn’t. It’s tantamount to turning your back on the world—and none of the true men and women of God ever advocated that. Be in the world but not of it is what they taught. And this means recognising the suffering in the world and doing what one can, including through prayer, to help ameliorate it.
If we recognise the power of prayer, praying for people (and other beings) in distress whom we learn about in the media can help brighten their lives. In this way, we can also help promote peace, joy and justice in the world at large. We may not always be able to assist such people directly, through sharing our physical presence with them or by providing them material support, but we can certainly pray for them, no matter where or who they are.
Sometimes, people do pray for others in distress—but it’s often only for their friends and relatives, or, if on a bigger scale, for members of their own religious or ethnic communities. We could enlarge our prayer circle by bringing into its ambit people (and other beings) from across the globe, going beyond differences of religion, caste, creed, ethnicity, race, class and nationality. Keeping ourselves abreast of the daily news is a wonderful way to do this. Whenever we read or hear of some tragedy anywhere, we could pray for the innocent victims, no matter which country they may live in or which ethnic or religious group they identify with.
Praying for others can help us, too—by making us go beyond a narrow concern for our own personal needs, welfare and comfort. It’s a powerful way to help subdue the ego—and transcending the ego, all the religions teach us, is a fundamental aspect of the spiritual journey.
A wonderful idea, isn’t it, this praying for others we hear or read about?
I’d love to hear what you have to say about it!