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When change strikes student life || With IIT Kharagpur (2022)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
8 min
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Questioner: Most of our physical activities have come to a halt because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This situation has been new to us all. Two years have gone by like this, and while there has been some improvement in handling the situation compared to the initial chaos and confusion, the future still seems very uncertain to us all.

The side-effects of the coronavirus on our bodies are not yet fully known to us. Similarly, we do not know what kind of long-term effects being confined to a room for extended periods of time has on the mind. Since the beginning of the third wave, we have been receiving several emails from our students here at IIT Kharagpur regarding the psychological hardships they are forced to endure due to being confined to their rooms. Please guide us on how to deal with this situation.

Acharya Prashant: I am really glad to be connecting with IIT Kharagpur students once again. All my previous interactions have been intense and quite fulfilling, and I look forward to another meaningful and authentic evening.

The context has changed, the environment has changed. When I was in the IIT campus, much of the time outside of the sleeping hours was spent in the campus engaging ourselves in the multifarious activities that the campus had to offer—several kinds of sports, then club activities, and obviously the academics that used to account for the bulk of the time. So yes, as you have just now put, it would be really a very different and taxing experience to be in the campus and be confined to the hall or the hostel.

But you see, that is the thing with life. Situations are supposed to change, and situations will change without notice, rather unpredictably. It is not just about the pandemic or the restrictions that came with it; the day the student steps out of the four walls of the campus, the situations totally change. My young friends here in the campus would be living a particular kind of life for four years, and the day they step out into the larger world, they find it is totally different.

Similarly, when one switches jobs or one moves to another campus—several IITians enroll into programs of higher learning in technology, science, and management—the situations are going to be different. And how about the change when one gets into married life? How about the change when one steps into the workplace for the first time? All these are very important changes.

And this age when you are in your late teens or early twenties, this is the age when life is constantly and rapidly changing around you without giving you a moment to take stock of things and to be assured, even for a small while, that things will continue as they are this moment. Because they do not continue the way they are right now, everything is then changeable and everything is randomly—if not randomly then unpredictably—changeable.

What does one do? Because one requires to have some anchor, some center, something unchanging, something unmovable; without that there is just too much insecurity. If everything and anything can change any moment and one’s existence is linked to all these changing things, then one’s existence itself is in jeopardy. I am linked to this, I am linked to that; my existence itself is a function of a thousand things outside of me. A lot of students, for example, would lose a big part of their identity if they find out tomorrow that they are not IITians. So, the identity within myself, my existence itself—in the psychological sense—is dependent on things outside of me. And things outside of me, as we are seeing, are just so unreliable.

Now, if things outside of me are unreliable and I depend on them for my identity and my existence, then it is almost like facing annihilation when situations change because tomorrow my identity itself is threatened. And that keeps happening continuously, and one has to not only survive but actually flourish in the middle of all of that. One has to prosper, one has to do well, and one has to be a champion—that is what life is for. You cannot spend life just complaining and suffering. Life has to be joy. Life has to be a certain youthful flourish. So, what does one do?

Now, that brings out very clearly the importance of self-knowledge. When one knows all that which keeps changing outside of us and inside of us, then one comes upon a certain pure point that is untouched, unchanging, unknowable, and incorruptible. And it is that point and that point alone that can give us the courage and the faith to go through the vicissitudes of life. Otherwise, one is at the mercy of the ruthless waves, and they keep throwing us about in a very random way and without any consideration for our wants, purposes, or feelings. It is no good to be at the mercy of an indifferent set of masters.

So, that certain thing which looks at everything but cannot be looked at, that certain thing which no force in the world can ever dare to even touch, let alone corrupt—the virus may come and infect the body, the government may impose restrictions, and so many things may keep happening in the outer world, yet there is something within where nothing happens at all. And if one can be attuned to that point within, if one can be affiliated to that point within, if one can be in love with that thing within, then life becomes not only bearable but actually joyful—and actually only then. Otherwise, just travails and whims. Who knows, the next virus or the next mutation might be just on its way. The virus does not conform to our desires. Life in its entirety is just capricious.

Self-knowledge is extremely important. It is in moments like these that it becomes both easier and important to see how one is just at the mercy of external factors and forces. And when one realizes that, it is in the first instance not a good feeling to have because we usually believe that we all have a certain degree of power and control over our lives, no? And that is what we want to believe, otherwise there is loss of self-esteem. We believe, “I exist, and hence I can exercise power over my conditions.”

It is in such situations, I am saying, where it becomes easier to see that we really exercise very little power over even our inner conditions. The outer conditions we anyway exercise almost zero power over, as the virus has shown, and internally, where our domain should ideally exist, even there we can come to see that we have no sovereignty. Even internally we are not self-ruled or self-sufficient. Situations rule us, the world rules us, external objects—people, thoughts, this, that, past—all that rules us.

So, one then looks at himself and figures out: Well, if that is so, is that necessary? Must one be governed by all the random things that keep on happening in the world? And if one’s life is being lived that way, how good is such a life?

And then one keeps, with discretion, rejecting stuff that does not deserve to be at the center of life. This is the process of dissociation. Classically it is called discretion, followed by renunciation. But ‘renunciation’ somehow happens to be a scary word; therefore I prefer to say empowerment. “If I am associated with something that disables me, it is within the domain of my choice to dissociate myself from everything that makes me weak.” And if one can do that, there is a realization of one’s capacity, one’s strength. And then, even in the most adverse of situations, one can continue to be centered, wise, strong, and compassionate.

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