Social distancing or Social discrimination: Post COVID-19 days through the lens of science and spirituality

The ability to ‘discriminate the good from that which is not’ is certainly a gift that help one take humane decisions.

We are living through a time where an event, the COVID-19 pandemic, is set to or already has changed the course of human history on this planet. The question is when this pandemic subsides, nobody knows when, either by natural causes or by human intervention, whether what is left of us are only names framed in time or we live to share some good lessons worth passing on to the future generations?

We have been taught all throughout our school days and even during and after the university years that ‘Man… which means us humans… is a social animal.’

Merriam Websters dictionary defines ‘Social’ as  relating to or involving activities in which people spend time talking to each other or doing enjoyable things with each other.

Of or relating to human society, the interaction of the individual and the group, or the welfare of human beings as members of society.

The meaning of ‘being social’ may never be the same anymore. Social distancing is supposed to mean ‘socializing at a safe distance’ and not to become ‘distant socially’.

The ability to ‘discriminate the good from that which is not’ is certainly a gift that help one take humane decisions. Very often than not discrimination takes up a completely different definition: the practice of unfairly treating a person or group of people differently from other people or groups of people. This generates a conscience that lacks empathy, servitude and the spirit to sacrifice for a greater good which is most important for any community to thrive. Such attitude then acts as a catalyst in the metamorphosis of social distancing to social discrimination. Why such a metamorphosis takes place? Because people do not understand what life is, what is the meaning and purpose of the human form of life.

The first aphorism in Vedanta Sutra says ‘athato brahma jijnasa’ (Vedanta Sutra 1.1.1) which means ‘Now, one should inquire into the nature of the Absolute truth or God.’ Further inquiries stem up from here: Who am I? What is my relationship with the cosmos and all the living entities? Madhvacharya, a great teacher in the Vedic traditions, proclaimed that only when a man asks such meaningful questions and embarks on the scientific quest to find their answers, has he become a human being; otherwise he is only a two-legged animal. It is interesting to note that Erwin Schrodinger, the founding father of Quantum Physics asked the same fundamental question in his monograph ‘What is Life?’ which was published in 1944. A synthesis of Science and Spirituality, is therefore, necessary to pave the way into days to come post COVID-19so that our existence on this planet proves meaningful.

For human beings, socializing goes beyond mere gathering of the pack to determine who is the alpha, grooming to show allegiance, maintaining territorial boundaries, fighting off intruders or leading the group to a waterhole or better pasturing grounds. Or it is supposedly so?

The Vedic scriptures point out,

ahara-nidra-bhaya-maithunam ca          samanyam etat pasubhir naranam
dharmo hi tesam adhiko viseso             dharmena hinam pasubhih samanah

[Hitopadesa 25]

“Both animals and men share the activities of eating (ahara), sleeping (nidra), mating (maithuna) and defending (bhaya). But the special property of the humans is that they are able to engage in dharma,spiritual life. Therefore, without the practice of dharma or spiritual life, humans are on the level of animals”.

The word dharma has been misinterpreted or wrongly defined as religion. Dharma is that which gives an identity or existence to the object,it is the occupational duty of a person. Religion refers to a kind of faith and hence people change from one faith to another. Dharma, on the other hand, is fixed and unchangeable. For instance, the dharma of sugar is to be sweet, sweetness is the defining characteristic of sugar. If sweetness is taken away from sugar, it is no longer sugar. Fire must give heat and light; if heat and light is not there in fire, it is not fire. Chemically, every element has its distinctive solubility, conductivity, bonding and reactive properties, atomic structure, etc. which defines its dharma.

What, then, is the dharma of a human being? To render service. The father serves the family, the mother serves the children, children serves the parents and elders, people serve the society, citizens serve the nation, the king serves his subjects, the prime minister or president too serves the citizens. If somebody has no one in life, he or she keeps a dog or a cat and render them service as pets. Therefore, the underlying fabric that makes us uniquely social as humans and which differentiates us from other social animals and insects is ‘dharma’; being aware, being sensible and sensitive to the service we can give to others. World Health Organization (WHO) is taking up the same principle as educative measures to fight the COVID-19(Learn more to be Ready for #Covid19: www.who.int/COVID19).

Be KIND to address fear, stigma during #coronavirus

Show empathy, solidarity with those affected

Learn about the disease to assess the risk

Adopt practical measures to stay safe

We need to question ourselves, “Are we supposed to be afraid of the virus or the person infected or whom we presume to be infected by the virus?” Survival of the fittest may still be at work. Nature may eliminate the weak but it is good to keep in mind that nature or the virus will not discriminate between the privileged and the less fortunate. Anybody can be affected. We used to hear of a time when leprosy was considered incurable and lepers were shunned by the society.

We have come a long way from those days and in 2020 if we are still shackled by the same mentality of shunning the sick instead of helping them recover then will this mentality not be considered primitive? Will it not be worthwhile to introspect what values of life have we gained from our so-called modern education and advancement in science and technology?

WHO fears that depression among those who are in quarantine centers, isolation wards or being hospitalized will be the bigger cause of concern in the coming days and in days post COVID-19whether or not we are able to contain the effects of the virus and the virus itself. How much are we, as individuals, prepared to minimize such an outcome? Because once we lose our instinctive social nature based on the principles of dharma, we are no longer social animals. Remove the world social from “Man is a social animal” and you get, “Man is a (an) animal”. We cannot avoid ‘Social Distancing’ in our fight against Covid19but the stigma of ‘Social Discrimination’ will only slow down the efforts. How would you heal the scars of a person who was physically, mentally, emotionally traumatized by the public just because there were or could have been chances of his or her being exposed to the virus? We have seen just numerous cases where none other than the frontline COVID workers who are our first and most effective shield against the virus, namely the doctors, nurses, hospital staffs, police and law enforcers are harassed, physically assaulted, called names. These are wounds that will take a long time to heal.

Chanakya niti says, ‘… atmavat sarva bhutesu, yah pasyati sa panditah’, he is learned who treats others as he would expect himself to be treated by others’. Bhagavad gita gives the basis of being social as a human being which is to see everyone with equal vision because the learned person, a pandita, sees the spirit within and not just the external body.

vidya vinaya sampanne             brahmane gavi hastini
suni caiva svapake ca                panditah sama darsinah

“The humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog and an outcaste.” (Bhagavad gita 5.18)

Marie Curie, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, echoed a similar concern.

“We cannot hope to build a better world without improving the individual. Toward this end, each of us must work toward his highest development, accepting at the same time his share of responsibility for all humanity.”  
Eve Curie, Madame Curie – A Biography by Eve Curie, Gallimard Press, 1938, p.53

Whether we survive to tell our side of the story or perish at nature’s will, we can still leave a legacy of goodwill to tell our stories so that generations to come will find inspiration from their ancestors who faced a global pandemic called Covid19, just as we were inspired when our grandparents told us stories of those amazing lands from the bygone ages. Everyone loves a good story. “Social distancing without Social discrimination”, definitely not a bad idea for a storyline.

First Published:May 28, 2020, 3:12 p.m.