These are troubled times. Conflicts beset our lives and everyone is at war with everyone. One way—perhaps the only way—to snatch a modicum of sanity amid the malevolence is to seek out the soothing words of the wise who went before us, the great men who made our lives sublime/and left footprints on the sands of time.
The need to do so is increasing by the day. Wherever we turn, we see people hating people, violence derailing life, religion fighting religion. An hour with the newspapers in the morning leaves us depressed. A half-hour with the news channels in the evening leaves us distressed; can “debates” among seemingly educated citizens be so disruptive, anchoring so maniacal? If we turn to the internet for relief, we see a scary world of unsupervised abuse from free-floating antibodies. Where has the world of decencies gone?
The words of wisdom passed on by past generations do not always cheer us up. Some merely help us cope by explaining the mess we are in. Thus, the texts on Kaliyuga tell us that we are living in times when “barbarians will rise as kings, humans with animal nature will multiply, Brahmins will sell the Vedas, sages will become traders and rains will not come in season”. What a perfect description of our lives?
The need for words of comfort explains the popularity of A P J Abdul Kalam’s books and the perennial appeal of the Tamil classic Thirukkural with its moral aphorisms: “The compassionate who care for other lives do not fear for their own lives.”
Collections of quotations remain evergreen because of their wit and wisdom.Winston Churchill, himself a master of quotable quotes (“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”, or, “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put”) did not hesitate to recommend the reading of quotations. When engraved upon the memory, he said, “they give you good thoughts”.
Dictionaries of quotations are a staple of the English language. But they are Western in their orientation. Thus, the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has 38 pages of quotations from the Bible and not even a stray one from the Gita or the Upanishads. To the dictionary reader, therefore, the unrivalled gems of the Bhagwat Gita are unavailable. And only Upanishad scholars will come upon beautiful thoughts such as, “This earth is the honey of all beings, and all beings are the honey of this earth” (Brihadaranyaka).
Thankfully, those seeking refuge from surrounding hostilities have enough in the English world to comfort them. Dostoyevsky does it with lofty insights: “Lying to ourselves is more deeply ingrained than lying to others.” Charles Dickens delights us with his rustic wisdom: “Never do tomorrow what you can do today. Procrastination is the thief of time.” Or, “we forge the chains we wear in life”.
Sheer nastiness can also give pleasure by being bright with wit. See what Cyril Connolly said of George Orwell: “He cannot blow his nose without moralising on conditions in the handkerchief industry.” Orwell himself said: “The worst advertisement for the Christian religion is its adherents.” H L Mencken was a master of this art. “Love”, he said, “is the delusion that one woman differs from another”. Among his endless wisecracks was: “A good politician is as unthinkable as an honest
One of the most popular quotation providers was Oscar Wilde. Poet, playwright, novelist and bohemian, his imagination was unrivalled when it came to expressing outrageous ideas in enchanting phrases. “Work is the curse of the drinking classes,” he said. And, “It is better to be beautiful than to be good. But it is better to be good than to be ugly.” He cautioned us: “A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies.” And also: “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That is his.” He defined a cynic as “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”. And he reminded
us: “There is no sin except stupidity.” And that “the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it”.
In the end, it is the noble-minded who win the day. In these troubled times, the simple words with which a simple man outlined a simple philosophy come through as the best quote. Said tennis star Roger Federer’s father Robert: “Cry when you win, cry when you lose—that’s sport. Just don’t cheat.”