The Truth of Despair

In the anime/manga series Fullmetal Alchemist, alchemists who perform the forbidden human transformation pass through a gate of truth. Here they come face to face with the God of their universe (also referred to as Truth) and are made to part with something extremely valuable to them. For example, a woman who tries to bring her dead son back to life loses her internal organs, making it impossible for her to ever bear a child again. Towards the end of the series, it is said when a human becomes proud enough to think that he can achieve anything with his skill and knowledge, this God or the truth of despair takes away from them the thing that they are most proud of (or value the most), showing them how weak and powerless they are, pushing them into ultimate despair. This despair, they further say, is the very nature of Truth!

Truth of Despair, or God of the Universe of Fullmetal Alchemist
The Truth of Despair, or God of the Universe of Fullmetal Alchemist

At first, we find the import of this idea to be overwhelming; its fatality, crushing. But as we reflect on it more deeply and analyze it in the light of scriptural (Vedic) wisdom, we begin to see how this truth applies to our own reality. At this point, instead of being terrified by it, we are gradually able to appreciate how despair is often the greatest expression of God’s compassion (kripa). Now to see how we get there.

To start with, let us look at some real-life examples to understand how easily and helplessly people are deprived of their most valued ability or possession. Or they are made to see that what they valued the most are actually worthless! A friend was once telling me of a Yoga teacher in his neighborhood who awed everyone with demonstrations of his lung capacity and powerful pranayama techniques but died young of pneumonia. I have heard of a gifted violin maestro who could work magic with his fingers but later became unable to even hold a spoon with control, due to Parkinsonism. Some of the greatest dictators and rulers of men have died deaths more pitiable than that of a wretched dog on the street.

In what might be a fictional account, Vasavadatta, a most coveted courtesan, was proud of her physical appearance. She once happened to meet the young monk Upagupta and, taken over by his charm, requested him to go with her. He declined, saying that it was not time yet. Later, when Vasavadatta contracted a disease that disfigured her and was cast out of her town, Upagupta seeks her out and takes care of her.

Regardless of whether this account is true or not, I find this story a good illustration many points that are relevant to our discussion. Firstly, it shows how all those things we are proud of and depend on will fail us at some point. If not this disease, old age will surely have affected her physical appearance in time. This is equally true for everything else in the world – riches, power, health, intelligence, allies, and what not. For anyone who depends on these ephemeral sources of security and happiness, despair is an inevitable truth. This is the half-truth that Fullmetal Alchemist has got right and is scary to even think.

To understand it fully, however, we need to look further. What is the purpose of this despair and what does it lead to? In my opinion, its purpose is to awaken us to the impermanence and unreliability of worldly supports and to make us seek out the only support that is dependable. It is this support that is represented by Upagupta in our example. Upagupta’s love for her is the only real love, love that goes beyond her physical appearance and anything else that will be lost over time. It is this love that Vasavagupta always wanted, and sought in the love of others who were quick to get rid of her when her external beauty was lost.

This love was also always there, but Vasavagupta couldn’t see it as long as she was blinded by pride and ignorance, and couldn’t see the difference the love of Upagupta and her many companions. When she first asked for Upagupta’s company, she thought that it is his youth and looks that attracted her. If he had accompanied her then, she would have developed the same aversion towards him that we all develop towards all the pleasures in this world. There is no worldly attraction that we don’t get tired of after a while. But when, through despair, she let go of all that was not real, she woke up to what is real and eternal.

Pride and identification with what we are not is the greatest impediment to true knowledge. In Mahabharata, Arjuna was perhaps the greatest warrior of his times could obliterate entire armies singlehandedly. After Lord Krishna left this world and Dwaraka was consumed by the sea, while taking consorts of the Lord and other women from Dwaraka to Hastinapura, this very Arjuna was waylaid by some primitive tribal warriors and defeated easily. The women under his protection were taken away as he watched helplessly. This warrior who had defeated Indra himself and who with his valor had pleased Lord Siva, could now not even lift his bow! It was at this moment of utter despair that he had the recollection and realization of the Truth received from his friend Sri Krishna through Bhagavad Gita.

There are many other instances where it is seen that when God wants to shower a devotee with his grace, he first removes all the false supports that the devotee banks on. One occasion in which the Lord himself states this in unambiguous words is when he blessed Mahabali by taking away his kingdom and riches. Though Mahabali was unperturbed and gladly offered himself to the Lord, Brahma prayed and asked that Mahabali, foremost among His devotees, be released from bondage. The Lord replies:

ब्रह्मन् यं अनुगृण्हामि
तद्विशो विधुनोम्यहम् |
यन्मद: पुरुष: स्तब्धो
लोकं मां चावमन्यते ||

O Brahma, I destroy the material riches of those in whom I bless, for it is the pride due to his opulence by which men disdain the world and myself.

Mahabali also says that while the Lord is usually seen as an enemy of Asuras, it is actually for the Asuras that He turns out to be the ultimate benefactor and supreme teacher, for by removing their false pride, he bestows on them the eye of knowledge. Mahabali was already highly advanced on the spiritual path and a great devotee. Owing to this maturity and God’s grace, he could see the loss of his wealth in the right perspective. So once he was freed of his pride and established firmly in true knowledge, the Lord again grants him even greater riches because they cannot delude him anymore.

For those lacking Mahabali’s wisdom, even if they feel a momentary vairagya (dispassion) when the source of their pride is destroyed, they soon bank on something else in which they again start taking even more pride. A person who loses his wealth to the one with political power, for example, will try to gain more political power and be proud of it until that is also lost. This process may have to be repeated numerous times over before they finally let go of all worldly props and turn to the only reliable support in which the world itself is manifested.

So even if right now we don’t know how a setback or misfortune is helping us, if we can think of it as a blessing from God, as a reminder that we are getting attached to things that will eventually leave us and have no relation to who we really are, that misfortune will have served its purpose of moving us a little closer to our real self. This, I believe, is the full truth of despair.

Related reading:

  1. Weaning, a necessary evil
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