March 2020 was a watershed moment for the world.
The coronavirus pandemic exploded onto the global scene and
intruded into the life of every person on earth.
Since then, everyone has experienced a great
upheaval in their way of living.
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended many plans and caused costly disruptions. The pandemic has paralyzed the world, freezing previously taken-for-granted free movement and causing unprecedented disruption in personal, community, national and international plans. And there is still uncertainty about the future course of this pandemic.
In many ways, the pandemic has jolted humanity out of its complacency, overconfidence and flawed habits. Our feelings of invincibility have been shattered by an invisible adversary which has rendered us largely helpless, defenceless and clueless. But we humans are resilient, resolute and resourceful. Even amid the enforced overnight changes, we have adapted to a ‘new normal’.
New Words and Practices
Since the onset of the pandemic, many new words and ideas have entered the public vocabulary: flattening the curve, social distancing, frontline workers, R0 (R nought), herd immunity, cytokine storm, spike protein, antigen, antibody, lockdown, superspreaders, contact tracing, mutations, mRNA and many others. Also, many new behaviours and social norms have become widespread: wearing masks, queuing while maintaining a distance, frequent handwashing and many more. People have become more hygiene conscious and expect others to consider the health of others when coughing, sneezing and even talking. Work from home, online schooling and video conferencing have become essential.
But despite the grim situation, there are methods that can help us conquer the scourge.
A single exposure to the virus for a short time may not be a problem for the majority, but repeated exposure increases the viral load beyond even a healthy body’s threshold to contain it – thus resulting in overt infection.
The troubling aspect of SARS-CoV-2 is that even asymptomatic people may be infected and can be contagious – spreading the virus to susceptible people without knowing. Only in hindsight is a link established between exposure and infection.
So, as the pandemic spread, authorities everywhere advised three main measures to limit one’s chances of infection: proper mask wearing, social (physical) distancing and frequent handwashing. And places where these guidelines were strictly followed did reap benefits, flattened the curve and reduced the burden on limited medical resources. These common sense safeguards saved many lives.
Coronavirus and Kusang
In spiritual terms, the coronavirus represents a form of kusang – which is company in various forms that endangers one’s spiritual health. Just as the company of (exposure to) the SARS-CoV-2 virus jeopardizes one’s physical health.
Infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus can lead to a wide spectrum of effects, from mild, barely noticed illness to death. Recovery may result in a return to normal health (for most people) or leave one with chronic debilitating problems.
Hindu shastras state that indulging in kusang, just like infection with SARS-CoV-2, can lead to a wide range of spiritual consequences – from fleeting to fatal. It all depends on the potency of and duration for which the particular form of kusang one is exposed to; just like exposure to the virus.
Among the more technical terms is ‘R0’ – R nought – a mathematical term indicating how contagious an infection is. It represents how many people may become infected from one infected person. The higher the number, the more contagious the disease. Measles has an R0 of 18, while R0 for SARS-CoV-2 is estimated at between 2 and 3. The objective is to reduce R0 to less than 1 to flatten the curve and control the spread of disease.
So, what does all this have to do with spirituality? Well, the safeguards to protect against COVID-19 (and many other airborne infections) have parallels in protecting one’s spiritual health.
You will be familiar with the adage ‘prevention is better than cure’ – because if one contracts an illness, then, despite being cured, lingering debilitation (morbidity) may remain.
The three main measures to prevent spread of the coronavirus advocate for avoidance of exposure to the virus. This is the same advice that shastras have stipulated for kusang – avoid it. Obviously, it is not always possible to avoid exposure to the virus or kusang. In that case, protection is required.
So, social distancing can be regarded as avoiding, whereas wearing masks and washing hands are forms of protection.
In Vachanamrut Gadhada I 18, Shriji Maharaj states that by exposing oneself to kusang in the form of sense pleasures one risks spiritual decline. Different types of materialistic pleasures can be said to have different R numbers. Some lead to speedy spiritual decline because they have a rapid effect, while some cause a gradual regress. In the spiritual domain, the only safe R number is zero.
Protection From Kusang
We have a number of tools to fight off kusang. When a virus enters the body, the first line of defence is the innate, non-specific immune response and then later the adaptive, specific or targeted, response takes over. Similarly, when confronted with kusang, there is the need for an immediate response – to exit the situation, or if that is not possible, vigilance and courage to control the circumstances.
The other, longterm, antidote to kusang is to surround and immerse oneself in satsang. As Mahant Swami Maharaj has stated in Satsang Diksha, verse 8: associate with the atma, Paramatma, guru and shastras, since this results in divine joy.
Satsang is further bolstered by the community of devotees and the multitude of spiritual activities that enable one to reinforce the satsang ideals. This is somewhat akin to herd immunity.
Sometimes, exposure to kusang can lead to the equivalence of a cytokine storm – wherein the mind whirls, churns and spins in a frenzy, destabilizing and disorienting a person and driving them to damaging consequences. Aggressive treatment is required to control a cytokine storm in the body, similarly swift, decisive action in response to the kusang antigen will limit the damage it does.
Whereas, treatments for virus infections are predominantly physical – drugs, medical accessories, etc. – treatment for kusang is mostly intangible, using techniques that target the mind to calm it and enable it to think rationally.