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A Dubai commuter, stuck in traffic, muses on how modern inventions have failed to improve the quality of our lives and have added to our distress.
It’s 7:00 P.M., and I’ve been driving for more than an hour. As I head home from work along Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai, I’m caught in the usual evening traffic jam. Like the car ahead of me, my car starts, stops, and starts again. While my car moves slowly, my mind races. I do mental mathematics with the number on the car plate in front of me. The traffic keeps building up all around me, and I feel miserable, hopeless, and sick.
Despite the crowd outside, a strange loneliness engulfs me. In these hours of solitude, when my thoughts are my only companion, I become a philosopher; I turn my life upside down and reflect.
All around me is a sea of cars, the latest models of Pajeroes, Mercedes, BMWs, Land Cruisers, sports cars, and others competing with one another to get a few feet ahead. But what’s the use of the latest and jazziest cars when they’re forced to move so slowly that even a bullock cart puts them to shame? Material nature seems to conspire to nullify man’s inventions. And why should she not? Modern developments have distressed nature, with pollution, perversion, and calamity everywhere.
I feel suffocated. I want to run out of my car to freedom. But I am hopelessly bound; I am not free.
And I know I’m not the only one who feels like this. Hundreds of thousands like me in this city and hundreds of millions around the world stoically go through this ordeal every day.
The Traffic Jams of Everyday Life
We take traffic jams to be part of life, of civilized living, the subject of long discussions in our living rooms. We’re frustrated. We see the need for unified action to improve the situation, but who will do it?
I’m moved by a desire to express our collective resentment. Thoughts that don’t find words flood my mind. My anger and frustration garble all expression.
I’m in a situation my physics teacher in college would refer to as “diarrhea of thought and constipation of expression.” I remember him teaching physics like an artist. In his teaching, the arts and science mixed into one coherent whole. I would remain transfixed in the class, mesmerized by the way he would handle complex topics such as wave dynamics, thermodynamics, and quantum mechanics like an opera maestro waving a wand to the musical crescendo.
I rarely experienced anything like that till I read Srila Prabhupada’s books. In his books Prabhupada has dealt in a unique yet simple way with diverse topics like science, metaphysics, philosophy, the arts, spirituality, music, language, and literature—taking us beyond this world into a transcendental realm where all boundaries vanish. The reader is moved, fascinated, and convinced.
Our Desires Cause Our Bondage
I’m transported to my days in college when it was my ardent desire to study in the US and drive on American highways. I did eventually drive on American highways, but without the thrill I’d expected.
When fulfilled, our material desires fail to satisfy us. The objects of our desires pale in comparison to the mental picture we have of them. In fact, my experience in life has taught me that no material objects please us, even though our mind fantasizes on the pleasures of obtaining them. Once got, the real thing does not excite us anymore. It falls into our routine.
I now realize the futility of my wish to drive on good roads. Dubai’s roads are as good as America’s, but driving on them is now the cause of my pain. My desires have me suffering like a caged bird inside the car. I could have been free, but now I have to suffer to enjoy the fulfillment of my earlier wishes.
The Lord, being merciful, grants our wishes, one after another. And because we are dissatisfied, we keep asking for more. We think we will ultimately be gratified, but we are not. Sometimes we spend many lifetimes fulfilling one desire after another, forgetting the real meaning of life. The Lord is generous, providing us with different bodies, cars, and other toys to play with. When will we realize the ultimate futility of material progress and care for our spiritual enlightenment?
From Boon to Cause of Trouble
One of man’s greatest inventions, the car, is also one of his greatest banes. We started out excited to be able to travel great distances quickly, but that’s no longer a thrill, but a routine drudgery. Like other inventions, we thought the car would remove toil from our lives, but it has only aggravated our condition.
True, we don’t have to walk miles like our forefathers, but the car has brought with it a new set of problems. Our ability to travel fast and far has made it necessary for us to travel fast and far for things as mundane or routine as working, shopping, eating, and socializing. Our neighbors are strangers. We dislike what’s locally available and travel great distances for alternatives. We may fool ourselves into believing this is progress, but in the ultimate analysis it is sheer stupidity. The advantage of the car has been lost because we do not know how to use this great boon judiciously. And our attraction to the car leads to global warming, wide-scale wars, and conflicts that threaten our existence.
Beautiful Buildings Hide a Sordid Tale
I look at the buildings around me. Tall, imposing structures, with bright neon lights give a sparkling color to Dubai, a marvel of the modern mind. This is the place where the world comes to shop and tour. All the open spaces are gone, replaced by state-of-the-art buildings. A desert has been transformed into one of the most modern cities, complete with all the latest amenities and services and their attendant virtues and vices.
I see the beautiful and majestic buildings competing with one another, but do they bring about a feeling of greatness in my mind or anyone else’s? While the builders and the promoters boast of constructing such marvels on earth, my heart goes out to the hapless workers who toil hard daily for little money, inadequately compensated for the inconveniences and risks they take.
I see these workers, most of them from other countries, herded onto buses that transport them from and to their pitiable living quarters. They look curiously and sorrowfully out of the bus windows. They have many pressing issues on their mind. They are busy fending for themselves and worrying about their near and dear ones in their own country, trying to save something so their kith and kin can live a little better.
The Light of the Scriptures
I think of Lord Krishna’s answer to Brahma prayers:
rite ’rtham yat pratiyeta
na pratiyeta chatmani
tad vidyad atmano mayam
yathabhaso yatha tamah
“O Brahma, whatever appears to be of any value, if it is without relation to Me, has no reality. Know it as My illusory energy, that reflection which appears to be in darkness.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.9.34)
What is the relationship of all these things to the Lord, I wonder? Do these people at all believe in His omnipotence?
Everything I see is the illusory energy of the Lord. So many building have gone up and come down. So many innocents have toiled hard to satisfy the ego of the rich and the powerful. Did they receive a fair payment for the objects they created?
And how many people in their cars would think they achieved what they set out for? I look around. The man in the car next to mine seems frustrated and probably does not know why.
To seek an answer one has to study the Vedic scriptures, existing from the beginning of creation. In the above verse Lord Krishna tells Brahma, the creator of the universe, that anything we create is merely an illusion if it does not relate to the Lord. And how can we be satisfied by illusions? But this is modern development, a royal road to hell in the name of so-called progress that has no relation to the Lord. And every step takes us farther and farther away from Him. The bright neon lights that gorgeously illuminate the city cannot dispel the darkness within our hearts and souls.
I’m still looking at the wondrous edifices lined up one after another. The great marvels of science seem to me just a waste of time and resources.
Another fundamental question arises in my mind: Why do I—and everyone else—work hard to create illusory things? My modern mind balks, unwilling to acknowledge my plight. But I depend upon the light of the scriptures to dispel the darkness within. The Lord seated within our heart guides us. I realize that what I need is basic food, clothing, and shelter, a little love and care, freedom of the soul—can all these modern things give me that? The Lord provides for all these; the huge buildings, the billboards, the neon lights, and the cars do not provide me with my necessities. Modern industries produce unnecessary things better done without. But we keep adding them to our lives. In our quest for progress, we forget our real needs and run after illusions. I think of the futility of our endeavors. Is this the progress we strive for?
My mobile phone rings, a call from home. My wife and children would like to know how I’m doing. I tell them I’m fine and will be home after some time.
Help in the Holy Name
As my car inches forward slowly, remembrance of the Lord makes me feel better. I play the stereo, and a sweet bhajana fills the car and soothes my nerves. I start chanting the maha-mantra, and a wonderful transformation takes place within me. The traffic now seems to bother me less; the neon lights and the tall, imposing buildings mean nothing to me. I keep driving.
The metro construction near the Trade Center building is causing more traffic jams. We’ve been told the new metro will end our traffic woes. We hope so, but the material world is full of miseries, where there are dangers at every step.
Prabhupada talked of the spiritual sky, the Vaikuntha planets, the transcendental world—our real abode, without suffering or distress. But all that is beyond us unless we are willing to follow the spiritual path for which he laid out clear and easy-to-follow principles and guidelines.
The clock shows 7:45 P.M., a good two hours from the time I started. I turn the corner near my house. The hookah shop on the corner is set up enticingly for the evening, and a lot of people seem to be enjoying themselves. I cannot help getting the same feeling I always get whenever I pass by the shop. How much time and effort these people spend preparing themselves for the royal road to hell! Everybody who smokes knows what harm smoking does to them. And yet people are attracted to it, like moths to fire. To come to real knowledge, they need the mercy of a spiritual master. Now their desire for sense gratification gets the better of their intelligence. I think about someday shouting out to these people, but I lack the courage.
I park my car, and as I walk I feel happy at the prospect of sitting in front of my Gaura-Nitai deities and praying to them. I thank my spiritual master for having given me the most wonderful gift: the holy name. I can immerse myself in Krishna’s names and forget the pains of the day. And I can look forward to tomorrow—and more opportunities to remember the Lord.