The wondrous thing that “questions” are

In “Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and the Art of Living”, Krista Tippett writes: “If I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned this: a question is a powerful thing, a mighty use of words.”

In “Big Questions from Little People and Simple Answers from Great Minds”, we see an assembly of over 100 questions from children between the ages of four and twelve, and answers to these from leading scientists, thinkers, artists, and explorers. The questions are astonishing – some profound, some moving, some giving us a glimpse of a mischievous child, and others conveying an innocence that adults have long lost.  We read questions such as:

“Why are the grown-ups in charge?”
“How are dreams made?”
“Do aliens exist?”
“Is the human brain the most powerful thing on earth?”
“What is global warming?”
“Why can’t animals talk like us?”
“Why can’t I tickle myself?”
“Why do people have different coloured skin?”
“Do numbers go on forever?”
“What am I made of?”
“Did Alexander the Great like frogs?”
“What would I look like if I didn’t have a skeleton?”
“If the universe started from nothing, how did it become something?”
“Why do we have money?”
“How does my brain control me?”
“What do you do when you can’t think what to draw or paint?”

The eminent people who answer, treat the questions seriously, and with kindness.

For example, we have the philosopher Julian Baggini commencing his answer to “Who is God?” writing: “It’s a good question and the truth is that everybody seems to have an idea of who he is but nobody really knows.” He ends: “So, there’s no simple answer to the question ‘Who is God?’ You will have to work out which answer makes most sense to you. As you do, my personal advice would be this: if anyone tells you they know for sure who God is, be suspicious.”

Claudia Hammond, the psychologist, answers the question “Why does time go slowly when you want it to go fast?” writing: “The problem with time is that it warps and not always in the way you’d like it to. The clock says one thing, but your mind another….The reason time goes slowly, even though you’re willing it to go fast, lies in the way the brain counts time. No one knows exactly how it’s done….”

The evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, begins his answer to “Are we all related?” emphatically stating: “Yes, we are all related.” He then elaborates a broad approach to prove this, and ends by writing: “By the same argument, we are distant cousins not only of all human beings but of all animals and plants. You are a cousin of my dog and of the lettuce you had for lunch, and of the next bird you that you see fly past the window. You and I share ancestors with all of them….”

Photo by Ben Whiteon Unsplash

In “Night”, the Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel’s book about being in Nazi concentration camps with his father (who sadly passed on there, along with his mother and sister), we read him write about one of his early Judaic teachers, Moshe –

He explained to me with great insistence that every question possessed a power that did not lie in the answer.

 Elie then goes on to tell us that Moshe was fond of saying – “Man raises himself toward God by the questions he asks Him.”

Be the Light

A king and a merchant wander into a hermitage in the forest. Both of them are miserable — completely baffled by the tribulations Life has sent their way (and, as i see it, saddened). The king, despite having been an exemplary ruler has been deposed. The merchant, despite having been successful, and good to his family, has been cast out. 

Their dialogue with the sage Medhas is the “Devi Mahatmyam”, a 5th century Sanskrit text, which with vivid imagery describes the Divine’s battles with legions of powerful demons. These battles are to be read, Devadatta Kali writes (in the illuminating introduction to his translation of this text, “In Praise of the Goddess: The Devimahatmya and Its Meaning “) as “a universal allegory of human experience”.

Daphne du Maurier writes in the novel “My Cousin Rachel” that “life has to be endured, and lived. But how to live it is the problem.” The Devi Mahatmyam, among other things, takes on this profound question.

Devadatta explains that the Divine’s “adversaries represent the all too human impulses arising from the pursuit of power, possessions, and pleasure, and from the illusions of self-importance….the Devimahatmya’s killing grounds represent the field of human consciousness on which the drama of individual lives plays out” and “the demons of ego” are confronted.

The Divine faces demons ranging from the purely thuggish to the deviously sophisticated. Our inner torments are similar — from the direct assaults by anger, lust, greed, and jealousy to the more subtle provocations arising from pride, and self-deception.

In the final battle, we read the Divine facing the most powerful Mahisa who uses “the protective shield of his changing forms.” This is an enchanting and particularly profound set of verses. Until Mahisa “reveals his true form, he remains elusive and seemingly unconquerable.” Devadatta Kali writes:

In the same way, human delusion dons an array of guises to mask and protect the ego….Personal demons will continue to bedevil in one form or another until recognized for what they are.

Some of us see the narrative of the Devi Mahatmyam come alive every year as the Durga Pooja. This celebration, over a period of 10 days, is essentially a call to each of us. Responding to a question on whether life is worth living, the film-maker Stanley Kubrick said (in a September 1968 conversation, “Stanley Kubrick: The Playboy Interview — 50 Years of the Playboy Interview”) that “however vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.” The Devi Mahatmyam says, regardless of whether you believe in God or subscribe to a creed, be the Light.

thebibliophile — kolam at home, Coimbatore, India

Indeed, as Etty Hillesum (who died during the Nazi holocaust when she was 29 years young) points out (in “An Interrupted Life: The Diaries, 1941-1943; and Letters from Westerbork”), it is imperative that we do this: 

Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world……each of us must turn inward and destroy in himself all that he thinks he ought to destroy in others.

The composer of the Devi Mahatmyam would agree with Etty. Devadatta writes that, in its deepest sense, the text is a narrative of the “moral choices between divisive egocentrism and the uniting power of selfless love.”

Centuries after the Devi Mahtmyam was first sung, we find an agnostic, eighty-year old Bertrand Russell (in an essay titled “How to Grow Old”) advising that we would do well to choose a life that makes “the walls of the ego recede”.

When “egocentricism” is de-throned, we realize as Alan Watts did (“The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are”): “The world outside your skin is just as much you as the world inside.”