Books, Music

Stoic Philosophy through Hindi Songs

My introduction to stoic philosophy came via a YouTube video.  Titled “Stoicism 101”, the engaging video was presented by Dr Massimo Pigliucci, professor of philosophy at the City College of New York.  Presented at an informal setting, likely a pub in NYC, Dr Pigliucci provides a very good overview of the history and philosophy of Stoicism.  I was intrigued enough by his presentation and over the last few years,  I have read translations of some of the works by the latter Roman stoic philosophers: Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius and Seneca.

What attracts me to stoicism is that it is a practical philosophy applicable to my daily life.  Much of it seems common sense but it is still instructive for me to read thoughts of men, who a couple of thousand years ago, seemed to grapple with their own set of problems.  However, unlike me, they led examined lives and gave their problems a lot of thought, and came up with suggestions and solutions which make sense to me. 

As with everything else in life, it is easier to read philosophy than to practice it.  I can read all I want about moderation, mindfulness or impermanence but when it comes to the brass tacks of living, I do find myself forgetting what I’ve read and giving in to anger, envy, frustration or needless worry.  I read a little bit each day,  a passage here and there.  Sometimes, during my reading, I’m reminded of a Hindi song that seems to echo the same sentiments that I have read.   The entire song may not reflect the meaning of the passage, it could just be a verse or two.  Indeed the song itself could have a different interpretation in the movie, but when I look at the lyrics in isolation, they tend to reflect some stoic maxim.  

Now I will be the first to confess that I have a fleeting acquaintance with stoicism and while I’ve listened to Hindi songs all my life, my familiarity and understanding of lyrics is somewhat abysmal given that I focus more on the melody of a song and the memories I associate with it.  Also, my Hindi and Urdu skills are lacking for a deep understanding of the songs and their translation.  Nevertheless,  I thought it would be interesting to match some principles of stoic philosophy with Hindi songs.

The songs that I have chosen were mainly written by Sahir Ludhianvi and Shailendra.  Both were sensitive and fiery poets.  Most Hindi/Urdu poets who wrote from the 1940s to the 1970s were influenced by India’s freedom struggle and were members of the Progressive Writers Association and the Progressive Writers Movement which were established prior to India’s partition.  Its members were by and large anti-imperialistic and left-leaning.  Sahir Ludhianvi and Shailendra belonged to this group and many of their songs speak of social justice.  This trait is very much a stoic trait.  Their experiences and perceptions would have influenced their writing, I’m not making the claim that their writing was influenced by stoicism.

Also, the songs chosen for this blog are from 1950 to 1970.  My knowledge of (and interest in) Hindi songs drops off precipitously after the mid-1980s.  In my biased opinion, the overall quality of Hindi music also dropped steeply after this period, so my loss has not been great.  While mentioning the songs, I have focussed on the lyricists and not mentioned the composer or singers.  A song is a collaboration of all these individuals as well as the musicians but for the purpose of this blog, the lyrics are important and sufficient to convey the meaning.

While the lyricists for the most part tended to be left-leaning, the stoic philosophers I mention spanned different walks of life.  I have mainly quoted the Roman stoics.  Epictetus, a freed slave who went on to found his own school.  Seneca, the younger (his father was “the elder”), a statesman, playwright, and senator.  Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor whose private diary, filled with his philosophical musings, is now a much-read work known as “Meditations”.  The word stoicism comes from the Greek word “stoa” which is a covered walkway or porch.  Stoic philosophy originated in one of these porches near the marketplace in Athens,  where the founder of stoicism Zeno (a ship-wrecked merchant turned philosopher) and his followers met to discuss their thoughts.   Stoicism identifies four virtues that lead to a good life.  These form the ethics of stoic philosophy:  wisdom, courage,  justice and temperance. I plan to touch briefly on these in this blog and write a subsequent blog that will deal exclusively with time.  This is not meant to be a primer on stoicism, there are some wonderful resources on the web if you are interested.

One of the fundamental principles of stoicism is the concept of dichotomy of control.  It states that we need to understand what is and is not under our control. 

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.” – Epictetus

Epictetus’s philosophy was no doubt influenced by his experience as a slave in first-century Rome.  He probably had few freedoms but his thoughts and opinions were under his own control.  Many things are out of our control but our ability to respond to external stimuli and our ability to maintain our composure is within our control.  At the end of the day, we live in our minds.  We spend all our waking moments in our minds worrying about external factors.  Sorrowing for loss, craving objects that are outside our reach and seeking relationships with people who do not reciprocate our feelings.  In many ways, this is also the essence of the serenity prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The song that captures this principle happens to be one of my favorites  “Man re tu kahe na dheer dhare” from the movie “Chitralekha” (Chitralekha is the name of a courtesan in the period drama released in 1964.  It is set in the Mauryan empire of  roughly 300 BCE) , lyrics by Sahir Ludhianvi

Mana re, tu kahe na dheer dhare
Wo nirmohi, moh na jaane, jinka moh kare
Is jeevan ki chadthi dhalti, dhoop ko kisne baandha
Rang pe kisne pehre dalle, roop ko kisne baandha
Kahe ye jatan kare

Utna hi upkar samajh koi jitna saath nibha de
Janam maran ka mel hai sapna, ye sapna bisra de
Koi na sang mare
Mana re

O Mind, why don’t you develop  patience
The one you desire is without desire and does not desire you
Who has succeeded in fettering the brightening and dimming of the sunlight of life?
Who has been able to suppress colors?
Has anyone been able to restrain beauty?
And yet, why do you attempt to do so?

In life, consider the companionship you enjoyed as a favor bestowed
The cycle of birth and death is a dream, dispel this dream
In death, there is no companionship, you die alone
O Mind

This is a particularly beautiful song, reputedly voted in a poll as the best lyrics ever composed for a Hindi film song.  My translation does scant justice to the original

The poet makes the point that just as we cannot control natural phenomena and other externals, we cannot control the affections of another.  We can give them our love and we can desire them but they are free to reciprocate or not.  I can try to make this blog as interesting (in my opinion) as possible but you the reader can choose to read it or not.  That is outside my control.   Stoics also make the point that we must act with the best intentions and put in our best effort but we should keep in mind that the results are outside our control and that we should not attach desire to the results.   You might notice a similarity to one of the best-known verses from the Bhagavad-Gita

You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only.
You have no right to the fruits of your work.
Desire for the fruits of work must never be your motive in working. – The Bhagavad-Gita

Wisdom of the practical kind is required to allow us to differentiate what is under our control and what isn’t.   Failure to control externals or attempts to do so leads to disappointment, anxiety and worry.

If there is one Hindi song that could be considered the stoic anthem of Hindi songs, it would be “Main zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya” from the movie “Hum Dono” (“Both of Us”, 1961).  Written by Sahir Ludhianvi the song is filmed on Dev Anand.  Dev Anand smokes a cigarette in the song, perhaps to convey the metaphor that his worries are blown away in rings of smoke.

Main zindagi ka saath nibhaata chala gaya
Har fikr o dhuen main udata chala gaya

Barbadiyon ka sog manaana fazul tha
Barbadiyon ka jashn manata chala gaya
Har fikr ko duen mein uda

I’ve walked in step with life
Casting all my worries into rings of ephemeral smoke

It’s pointless to dwell and ruminate over my losses
Instead, I celebrate my losses as I go along
Casting all my worries into rings of ephemeral smoke

Consider what Seneca and Epictetus have to say about worries:

“It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough when it arrives; so look forward meanwhile to better things.” – Seneca

“Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems” – Epictetus

We spend a lot of our lives worrying.  I heard a statement on a podcast recently that rang true. It was to the effect that “Media and social media today would like us to believe that every problem is our problem.”  We mistake the media’s (and indeed everyone else’s) opinions for facts and worry and obsess about them.  It serves them well to attract their audience and advertising dollars, we develop the ulcers.

The diagnosis of our son’s disability was a crushing blow.  It took us a while to accept our new reality but when we eventually did, it put things into perspective for us.  Things that used to frazzle me, no longer do as much as they used to.  Like the possibility of rain on a day we had planned a much-anticipated outing.  We can’t control the weather, we just change our plans.  If we can’t go, we don’t go. Life goes on.  In the past, I would brood over the injustices of life, assuming that the rain gods had singled me out for punishment. I have no ability to change the outcome of much I worry about.  It is hard not to worry though, we are wired to do so but perhaps we could start by not sweating the small stuff, and much of what we worry about is the small stuff.  One of the ways to mitigate worry is to accept that there are things out of control, our fate.

Acceptance of Fate
The phrase “Amor Fati” or love of fate was coined by Nietzsche but is a well-known stoic philosophy. To accept fate without questioning it. What happens to us is not under our control, but how we respond to it, is.  We cannot wish away or avoid what will happen to us but if we accept what happens to us, we could respond with grace and acceptance.

Here is what Marcus Aurelius and Seneca have to say about fate:

“Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.” – Marcus Aurelius

“Fate leads the willing and drags along the reluctant” – Seneca

It is not just fate, it is our interactions with others.  To a certain extent, we cannot control how others will treat us. I go back to “Main zindagi ka saath nibhaata chala gaya” by Sahir Ludhianvi

Jo mil gaya usi ko muqaddar samajh liya
Jo Kho gaya main usko bhulata chala gaya
Har fikr do duen mein udata chala gaya

Gham aur kushi mein farq na mehasoos ho jahan
Main dil ko us muqaam pe laata chala gaya
Har fikr do duen mein udata chala gaya

What I gained in life, I considered as fate
What I lost in life, I forgot as I went along
Casting all my worries into rings of ephemeral smoke

Where the difference between happiness and sorrow is not felt
That is the destination I sought to lead my heart
Casting all my worries into rings of ephemeral smoke

If we go back further in time to “Dilwale Dilgir hua kya” (Goodhearted why are you disconsolate) from the movie “Yatrik” (“Traveler”,1952), lyrics penned by Pt Bhushan, the song goes

Sukh aur dukh ko
Samajh baraabar
Dheeraj tu dheeraj
Dhar sadhu
Kyun soch raha
Kya soch raha hai tu

Considering happiness and sorrow
as equals
Foster patience and courage
Why do you brood?
What are you thinking about?

Accepting our fate requires courage.  Courage to deal with unpleasant events and people.  So should we just resign to our fate and not try to change?  No, we should try to change our circumstances, keeping in mind what is under our control and by observing the virtues.   If we can figure out what is outside our control, accept fate and mitigate worries to the best of our ability, it will lead us to live a reasonably peaceful life, one which is consonant with nature.

Living one with nature
There is a fair bit of debate on the internet on what this means.  I interpret it to live harmoniously with our fellowmen as well as with nature, following a virtuous life and doing our best to improve the lot of others.  This brings me to the last two virtues – justice and temperance.  Justice as in doing the right thing.  Temperance as in living a life of moderation.  (Though Oscar Wilde famously said  “Everything in moderation, including moderation!”).  This leads to a life of peace and hence contentment.  

“Joy for human beings lies in proper human work. And proper human work consists in: acts of kindness to other human beings, disdain for the stirrings of the senses, identifying trustworthy impressions, and contemplating the natural order and all that happens in keeping with it.” – Marcus Aurelius

Shailendra’s “Kisi ki muskuraton pe ho nisar” from “Anari” (“Naive”, 1959) captures the spirit of generosity and justice beautifully

Kisi ki muskurahaton pe ho nisar
Kisi ka dard mil sake to le udhaar
Kisi ke waaste ho tere dil mein pyaar
Jeena isi ka naam hai

Sacrificing to bring a smile to someone’s face,
Shouldering the burden of someone else’s pain,
Harboring love for another in your heart,
This is the essence of living!

Does this mean one has to live as an ascetic or minimalist?  It means to live life in balance between the extremes but with the knowledge that one could lose everything that one possesses.   The stoics were also the first to bring up the concept of cosmopolitanism with Marcus Aurelius observing “That which isn’t good for the hive, isn’t good for the bee.” So better your lot by all means, but not at the cost of your community or the environment. And hopefully you get to live a life of serenity and peace.

If you made it this far, I thank you for your patience and your time!  Even though this blog probably seemed to go on and on, the stoics will tell you that nothing lasts forever!   I leave you with the stoic maxim that the universe is in flux and we don’t control the events but our quality of life is determined by our opinion about them.

“The universe is change; life is opinion” – Marcus Aurelius

  • The featured image is that of Sahir Ludhianvi and Marcus Aurelius.  The former’s picture is courtesy of the cover of Akshay Manwani’s “Sahir Ludhianvi – The People’s Poet” and that of Marcus Aurelius is from Wikimedia Commons.
  • The quotes from stoics have been compiled from different sources on the web as well as from “The Daily Stoic” by Ryan Holiday and “Seneca’s Letters From a Stoic”.
  • The quote from the Gita is from “The Song of God – Bhagavad-Gita” translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood.
  • The translations of the Hindi songs are my own, so I am responsible for any misinterpretations!

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