Kisa Gotami ran, carrying the corpse of her child to where the Buddha sat, observing the vagaries of the ever-moving world. “Give him back to me”, she cried. He had been so young that she could count the months of his life on the digits of her own body. His body, borne within hers only a little while before, weighed almost nothing in her arms. Only her heart was unable to bear the immensity of what was.
The Buddha agreed to help her – but to do so, he needed a single mustard seed from any household that had not experienced death.
Gotami, who had earlier stopped strangers and begged for medicine that would revive the child, who had been told that only the Buddha could offer her the cure she needed, set off again in search of this antidote. She roamed from house to house, raising her plea at each threshold.
“Who is able to count how many have died here?” she heard at one door. At others, the look in the eyes of the one left behind, upon hearing her enquiry, spoke clearly. At every home, a story was shared in lieu of a single mustard seed. There was no one living whom death had not visited, who did not carry in their hearts even a mustard-seed measure of grief. Gotami returned to the Buddha having understood the essence of life, accepting her loss as a part of what it means to love or to outlive.
This powerful parable has been with me every day in the last few weeks, as I grieve my father’s demise. When the pall of the second wave of the pandemic began to loom over India a few months ago, I too knew that my life would not go unscathed – almost no household in this land would. Our days and nights of mourning are also other people’s days and nights of mourning. In comforting another, I find comfort for myself. The knowledge of collective grief is a strange balm. It is not comparative grief, but a catchment of bereavements. I open the clasp across my roaring heart and let my sorrow merge into the flood-flow of all the world’s grief. I hold it and am held within it, and I know its mirror-name. “We are so lightly here,” Leonard Cohen wrote. “It is in love that we are made; in love we disappear.”
Now the second wave is receding, and it calls to mind how coastal waves recede before a tsunami – all that is hidden on the littoral floor is revealed. We may wish to understand the warning. All cycles and catalysts of nature are inevitable. But they are not insentient or without mercy. We cannot always grasp the deeper eloquence of the universe, or put into words its delicate stirrings in the smallness of our lives. But to know we are within a tapestry, one that connects us to all that has breathed, all that has thrilled to know itself in the uniqueness of its experience, all that has lived for itself or loved another, is a gift. It is, as Kisa Gotami knew, a form of enlightenment.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 10th 2021. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.