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How I Finally Understood the Essence of This Sanskrit Shloka During the Pandemic

Energy is neither created nor destroyed; the universe is always whole.

I have a new favourite mantra. It’s the Shanti Mantra (invocatory verse) of Isha Upanishad. It goes:

Om Purnamadah Purnamidam
Purnaat Purnamudachyate
Purnasya Purnamadaaya

Purnamevaa Vasishyate
Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih

This Sanskrit shloka has become a daily part of my life ever since the lockdown. I began doing yoga through the Sivananda Yogashram YouTube channel in these months, and they end each yoga session with this mantra so I was imbibing it every day.

One day, I decided to look up the meaning of it, and read it out to my kids: “That is the Whole, this is the Whole; from the Whole, the Whole arises; taking away the Whole from the Whole, the Whole remains.”

They laughed and laughed. “That’s a lot of holes!” they giggled with much merriment, and perhaps I sounded comical as I said it. But something about this mantra drew me in. Of course, it sounds similar to the physics lessons we learnt in school: energy can neither be created nor destroyed. But more than that, there is a sense of comfort I find in it, a sense of being enveloped in a benevolent universe. A sense of, well, wholeness.

In late August, my younger daughter was to leave for foreign shores and begin her independent adult life and new job. As the date of her leaving approached, my heart became heavier and heavier. I could not display this; the last thing I wanted was to cloud her new journey with my maternal sentimentality. On the morning of her flight, I could barely control my tears.

I did my YouTube yoga and lingered on this mantra much after the video ended. I repeated it over and over, tears streaming down my face. “Taking away the Whole from the Whole, the Whole remains.” After I said it many, many times, its essence sunk in and a deep calm descended over me. There is no loss. Nothing is ever lost. The Whole remains.

Photo: Pixabay

Yesterday, my friend’s cousin passed away at age 45. She had had early stage cancer last year but was presumed to have recovered. Due to the Covid lockdown, she had not gone to the hospital for follow-ups all year. A few days ago, after returning from Diwali shopping, she lay down and had a paralytic stroke. An MRI scan revealed the cancer had spread to her brain. Before doctors could operate, she haemorrhaged and died. Her children are 7 and 17. Her husband’s parents are no more; he has only his kids now.

I sent prayers to the family and meditated on my mantra. The condolence and sorrow is not for the one who died – for she is merged with the universe – but for the ones left behind. How does one comfort the survivors of such a tragedy, or any great loss? How do you tell them, “There is no loss, the Whole remains”? It appears cruel to say so.

And then as I meditated, the answer came: The suffering too is part of the Whole. The pain too is part of the whole. The vacuum too is whole. Accept them all. Surrender to the process.

And another realisation came: Who am I to comfort them, or anyone? My prayers are merely to comfort me. My blessings, perhaps, are the only thing I have to offer them.

There is much suffering in the world, there has always been. But there’s also so much joy. They are both parts of the same reality, and any gain or loss we perceive is illusory. The Whole remains.

First published in eShe’s November 2020 issue

1 comment on “How I Finally Understood the Essence of This Sanskrit Shloka During the Pandemic

  1. Nina Krishna Warrier

    The ever-changing, never-changing universe. Beautifully explained. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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