In the 18th century, thousands of people died by the outbreak of ‘smallpox’, a disease that respected no social class, disfiguring those few people who managed to recover from its attack. The only means of combating smallpox was a primitive form of medication called ‘variolation’ where a healthy person was intentionally infected with the ‘matter’ taken from a patient suffering with a mild attack of the disease, for one attack of the disease saved them from future attacks. Unfortunately, the transmitted disease did not always remain mild and sometimes proved fatal. Furthermore, the inoculated person could spread the disease to others and thus became a source of infection.
Edward Jenner, an English physician, was impressed by the fact that a person who had suffered an attack of cowpox – a relatively harmless disease that was contracted from cattle – could not become infected whether by accidental or intentional exposure to smallpox. In May 1796 Jenner found a young dairymaid, Sarah Nelmes, who had fresh cowpox lesions on her hand. On May 14, using matter from Sarah’s lesions, he inoculated an eight-year-old boy, James Phipps, who became slightly ill over the course of the next 9 days but was well on the 10th day. On July 1, Jenner introduced smallpox matter into the boy. No disease developed; the protection was complete and the child remained healthy. Jenner named the material from the cowpox sore vaccine, and the process in which he used it, vaccination. Both words are from the Latin vaccinus, meaning “from cows.” Use of the vaccine spread quickly; within 200 years smallpox had been eliminated from the world.
All living organisms are continuously exposed to substances that are capable of causing them harm. Most organisms protect themselves against such substances in more than one way. Human beings have an advanced protective system called the immune system. The immune system is a complex network of organs containing cells that recognize foreign substances in the body and destroy them. When an alien substance normally referred to as ‘antigen’ enters the body, the immune system is able to recognize it as foreign. To eliminate the invader, the immune system calls on a number of mechanisms, including one of the most important — ‘antibody’ production. Antibodies recognize and latch onto antigens in order to remove them from the body. The principle of vaccination is to cause the immune system to behave as if the body has contracted a disease. This activates the body’s defense system of antibody production, without risking the damage that may be caused by the disease itself. While ‘variolation’ means intentionally suffering the disease to prevent further attacks, ‘vaccination’ is a method of triggering the innate defense mechanism of the body avoiding the illness altogether.
Unfortunately we have not applied mere biological vaccines but have also begun to experiment with the world’s human psyche without precaution. It is common for the present generation to dismiss the loud hues and cries of the yesteryear generation as ‘melodramatic’. The sentimentality of the older generation in things insignificant irks the modern generation, who has learnt to vaccinate themselves from petty issues. But this disease of indifference has spread from little, insignificant matters to global, life-threatening issues. While earlier, the killing of one single man could inspire condemnation in a million people, today the annihilation of a few hundreds by terrorists has become the ‘way of life’! Listening to a simple story of the triumph of a human persona could move the listeners to awe and tears. But today elaborate themes and contrived plots to tickle the human psyche fall on flat ground eliciting no response. A suggestive visual of pain and forbearance could induce sympathy in film viewers till some years ago. Today we need elaborately cruel stories with graveyards and skeletons, cut human bodies stuffed in sacks, torture and sadism to prompt one lone tear from the viewer’s eye – and that too a tear he feels disgraced to let fall! Oh what have we done to our psyche? Isn’t it like ‘variolation’ where mentally healthy people are intentionally ‘infected’ with the decayed grey matter of vicious human insensitivity? Rather than acting as a ‘vaccine’ to stimulate our sensitivity and activate our defense mechanism to combat anti-social elements, these exposures have infested our psyche with crass indifference.
In Ramayana, on the day of her swayamvara, Sita is on the seventh floor of her palace looking at the festive preparations on the ground. Rama arrives and reading about the poetic meeting of their silent eyes can kindle the romance in any youthful heart – age no bar! But today’s lovers need the meeting not just of eyes that ogle, clothes that are invisible, bodies that slither like reptiles and words that prompt even the deaf to shut their ears – in all, kindling a sense of disgust rather than romance! The hungry cry of the neighborhood street-child prompts no response; yet a few hundred rupees are spent to see poverty stricken celluloid houses burst with artificial cries. No thought is given to the challenges real friends may face in life; yet many an unproductive hour is spent finding mock solutions to every conceivable problem of reel life persona. The ‘crude’ behavior of the ‘cine-villains’ has resulted in adulation prompting ‘heroes’ to be moulded with anti-social traits. The physically challenged earn no sympathy or support for the plastic limbs strewn in front of a camera with red paint has inoculated us against compassion.
Coffee sweetened with three spoons of sugar is too sweet for the palate. Yet the same coffee after a taste of chocolate seems bitter. Acts that seemed too ominous and intimidating to the common man have been exploited and encouraged by politics and cinema to such bizarre levels, that now even the loss of human lives has become a mere topic of gossip. We now find people comparing real life losses with film scenes of cardboard houses crumbling. “That is just like such and such a film” – they comment with avid curiosity rather than shame! Our soul of humanism has been sold to the devil of insensitivity leaving behind a gaunt hollow body of sectarianism. The disease of terrorism, violence, crudity, vulgarity and absolute idiosyncrasy has entered the blood stream of society. My understanding of immunity, be it biological or social, is that we fight against that disease and thereby conquer it, not breed it within us and succumb to its effects.
K.M.Munshi in his book titled Bhagwat Gita and modern life writes, “Professor Bhansali, when he was fasting because of the report of rape committed on women in Chimur told me, ‘I am shocked. But I am so earthy. I ought to have died when I heard of the rape.’ The remark struck me as describing dynamic unity in absolute form. If the hundreds of men and women who were in the village at the time, and who later trembled at the horror, or grew indignant at it in retrospect, had had dynamic unity, they would have died at the time, or given their lives in an attempt to intervene.” Humanity has witnessed so many such occasions were if only our entire being had been ‘dynamically united’ in rejecting that social ‘antigen’ we would have ‘died’ a million times. But earthy we remain – alive and ticking seduced by ‘time’.
‘Time’ is the natural immune system provided by existence that produces the antibody ‘acceptance’ in us. Every psychological antigen experienced in this world is capable of being healed by ‘time’. But with a craze to experience all that life has to offer within one short lifespan, we are hurrying up the growing act; speeding up our emotional lives that our ‘immune system’ has begun to collapse. The youth wish the heady experience of adulthood, long before they are ready. The responsible adults tire quickly and seek to voluntarily retire from activity. The old await with resignation the inevitable hour of death – not just their own but also those around.
We have begun to de-sensitize our human conscience by such gross over exposure that now the “psychological” human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) has spread like wild fire. Yes! Our innate psychological protective mechanism operated by our healer ‘time’ has been plundered and misused so greatly that today a “psychological” acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is wide spread. Like its biological counterpart that enters the bloodstream and destroys the white blood cells, this “psychological” virus of over exposure has killed the sensitivity of the human mind. Just as HIV causes so much damage to the immune system that the body becomes susceptible to a variety of opportunistic infections, our “psychological” HIV has taken advantage of the breakdown of the psychological AIDS sufferer’s immune system, producing devastating results.
Today a mere negative response by a friend prompts the child to find and use a gun; mere lower grades in school exams pushes the child towards drugs; the insecurity of rejection by others threatens the sanity of the child. Yes! We have de-sensitized ourselves to the outside world and over-sensitized our own personal ‘self’. It has become a case of absolute attachment to all that is ‘mine’ and total indifference to everything ‘outside’. Before it is too late, we have to learn to respect ‘time’ and rebuild our immune system so that it can rightly identify the ‘social antigens’ and produce the counter ‘antibodies’.
A woman crazed by her infant’s death, runs to Buddha pleading his intervention to bring her child back to life. Buddha calmly tells the woman to bring him a handful of mustard seeds with the condition that she should take it only from a household that has never witnessed death. The woman runs door to door to every house in the village only to realize that ‘death’ had touched every family alive. She returns to the Buddha wizened and calm. Every mother is attached to her child and if the loss of that child doesn’t even prompt tears, she is not human, and more so not a saint! When the woman in the story was old enough to mother a child, she was old enough to understand the inevitability of ‘death’ too! But her ‘indifference’ to others had bared her vision. Buddha prompted her to open her consciousness to others’ experiences. Her indifference melted and with it her attachment. She truly became ‘detached’ and wise!
If the bad times down memory’s lane still prompt tears in the eyes, we have remained very much attached. If the bad times in other’s lives don’t prompt tears of sympathy, we are absolutely indifferent. If the bad times in other’s lives prompt tears in the eye, yet no lingering bitterness surfaces from our own past, we have truly become ‘detached.’ And if those bad times in other’s lives, not experienced in our own lives, can be translated to deepen our understanding and help expand our consciousness, we will truly be ‘vaccinated’ from the illness of that experience.
The principles of ‘vaccination’ is to cause the “psychological” immune system to behave as if we have contracted the disease (i.e. to actually feel that those experiences are happening in our own lives); activate the production of the antibody (i.e. dynamically uniting our will to overpower that social evil), without causing any damage to our own selves (i.e. without succumbing to the emotional illness had we been the affected party). Isn’t it time we learnt to ‘vaccinate’ ourselves by relating to others’ needs rather than infecting our psyche with the disease of their deficiency? Immunization with proper perspective rather than contamination by crass indulgence is the only way to save our psyche from becoming immunodeficient!
Written by Gita Krishna Raj | Published in infinithoughts in December 2003