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As George Orwell famously said in his novel ‘1984’, “Big Brother is watching you.” Well, not any more. Now we’re watching Big Brother. Over six million people in the UK alone tune in to the “reality” TV show to watch others eat, sleep and largely fight with each other. That number spiraled skyward last month amid the furore surrounding the allegations of racism toward Bollywood goddess Shilpa Shetty. Millions more put on their voyeur glasses to see her suffering at the hands of her co-contestants. Which perhaps gives us some insight into the popularity of such shows, which are after all mundane affairs presenting what most of us can see in our own homes any day of the week. But it seems we like to see others suffer.
I know, that sounds horrible, but think about it. Forget reality shows for the moment; let’s look at soaps. They are nothing less than a catalogue of misery. The storyline of ‘Eastenders’, for example, is littered with fatal car crashes, illnesses, beatings up, people falling out of windows, robberies, murders, and thuggery of various kinds. That’s just in the last few months. And all these shows are like that, as any avid viewer will testify. But their popularity is immense¾some seventeen million tune in to Eastenders three or four times a week.
It’s not just soaps¾almost any popular TV serial is fuelled by sorrow of one sort or another. Books also, such as those by the like of horror maestro Stephen King, which are huge bestsellers. Then of course there is the news media. How much of that is good news? My wife begs me not to bring newspapers into the house as they are just “too depressing”. But they too sell in the millions. As Lewis Lapham, editor of Harpers Magazine, said, “Bad news sell good news. The good news is the advertising. That’s what it’s about, and the bad news¾the dead guys and the crime¾is to get the suckers into the tent.”
If we are honest we have to admit that we could easily get along in life without much of the media output. We don’t really need to know ninety nine percent of the things they report (especially the cricket results). So what is it that underlies our fascination with the gruesome and ghastly? Why do we keep coming back for more?
Maybe the Bhagavad-gita can give us a clue, wherein Krishna declares the material world to be a “place of misery where repeated birth and death takes place.” OK, that sounds horrible too, morbid some would say, but let’s do some more thinking. Apart from the evidence of the daily news and the reality shows, Vedic wisdom points out that there are four intrinsic features of the material world that none can avoid¾birth, old age, disease and death¾none of which are pleasant occurrences. And these are just the basics. These days we can add stress, anxiety, depression and much more to that ugly list. Maybe we are not all being afflicted by all of them at any given moment, but we have to admit that one or other of these little problems is always there for everyone.
There is a story about the Buddha, who began life as a prince. His father, who did not want to subject him to the miseries of the outside world, kept him in the palace. Nevertheless, one day he went out and walked from house to house. Everywhere he went he saw that the people within were suffering in one way or another. Finally he decided that this was the nature of the world and took to a life of renunciation.
Seeing then that we are all in the grips of a grim reality, perhaps we find succour in seeing that we are not alone. As the old saying goes, misery loves company. But although suffering is our lot in this world, we don’t like it and we do our best to avoid it. But failing that it seems we find some comfort in the fact that it happens to us all. When we have some condition it is always reassuring to know it is quite common, isn’t it? And though I hate to say it, perhaps even more comfort in knowing that some poor person is worse off than me.
Still, as common as misery may be, the Bhagavad-gita goes on to explain that it is not our natural condition. We are meant to be blissful, forever free of grief. That is why we endeavour to avoid suffering (at least when we are not watching it on the box)¾we want to revert to our original, misery-free, spiritual state. That state is one of loving God, who is our actual “Big Brother” who always watches us, seeking to bring us back to our senses and return us to him. That is what we really want, deep down inside. Nothing else can fully satisfy us other than our eternal relationship with the Lord.
Jean-Paul Sartre once said that we have a “God-shaped hole” in our hearts. He was right. Maybe he didn’t think it needs to filled by God, but Krishna says in the Gita that this is surely the case. Certainly we will never fill that hole with any amount of gloomy news or TV shows. They will only feed the misery that makes it grow ever larger.
By Krishna Dharma Das
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