Books, Music

Time, Life and Stoicism via Songs

As another year ends, it is perhaps appropriate to reflect on the passage of time. This is also the second part of my blog on exploring stoic philosophy through songs, particularly Hindi songs.  This blog focuses mainly on Seneca’s  “On the Shortness of Life” (“De Brevitate Vitae”), a moral essay that he wrote around 49 AD.  I’m relying on the CDN Costa translation, which is a Penguin publication.

This essay is particularly thought-provoking and I read parts of it every now and then.  As I mentioned in my previous post,  following the philosophy in real life is easier said than done.  The songs that I have selected have been written by a larger group of lyricists as compared to my previous post that focussed entirely on lyrics by Shailendra and Sahir Ludhianvi.   I have broken Seneca’s essay down into very broad themes and suggested songs whose lyrics in my opinion reflect the theme.  Once again, I have to admit that I have a passing acquaintance with stoicism, and my translation skills of Hindi/Urdu songs leave much to be desired!

Life is Short, we complain
Men complain that life is too short says Seneca.  He notes that even Aristotle lamented that animals had life spans in excess of humans when the latter were destined for great and extensive destinies.  Seneca takes exception to people who complain that nature has been unfair in giving humans a short span of life.  The lyrics that come to my mind that reflects this sentiment is from the song “Chotisi ye zindagani teri” (Short is this life of yours) from the movie “Aah” (“Sigh” 1953) lyrics by Hasrat Jaipuri.  The song is sung by a tonga (horse carriage) driver, featuring Mukesh, the singer of the song in a cameo appearance. His passenger, Raj Kapoor is dying of TB at a young age.  The rest of the song reflects the context of the movie where a dying Raj Kapoor is on his way to meet Nargis, who is getting married at his insistence to his friend Pran. 

Choti si ye zindagani teri
Chaar din ki jawani teri
Hae re hae re gham ki kahani teri

Short is this life of yours
Your youth lasts all of four days
O woe, tragic is your story.

Seneca points out that life is not necessarily short, it’s just that we waste much of it.

But it’s long enough if we know how to use it
Seneca makes the point that it is not that our lives are short but that we don’t make the most of it.  While we zealously guard our wealth and property, we are profligate with our time. 

“We are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it.” – Seneca

Wealth and property if lost, can be regained but not the time that we have lost.   We, in fact, take time for granted.  While we focus on many other things in life, we fail to grasp the fact that time is slipping by inexorably.   He identifies the different ways in which we expend our time.  And it is not just of our own making, we willingly give up our time to others in idle gossip and useless pursuits.

“How many have plundered your life when you were unaware of your losses; how much you have lost through groundless sorrow, foolish joy, greedy desire, the seductions of society; how little of your own was left to you.” – Seneca

When we do realize that life has passed us by, we are filled with regret. The lyrics that capture this for me is from the song “Sajan re jhoot math bolo” (O beloved, do not tell lies) from the movie “Teesri Kasam” (“The Third Vow”, 1966), lyrics by Shailendra

Ladakpan khel mein khoya
Jawaani neend bhar soya
Budapa dekh kar roya
Wahi kissa purana hai

I spent my childhood in play
Youth, in sleep, I frittered away
I wept when confronted with old age
It is the same old tale

Regrets are futile, say the stoics. We have to learn from the past but there is no point regretting things that we cannot change. It could be the other way around too, we don’t realize that we are living our best days until they have passed. Here is Shailendra again with lyrics for the song “Koi lautaa de mere, beete hue din” (Could someone return to me the days that have passed) from the movie “Door gagan ki chaoon mein” (Far Away Under The Shadow Of The Sky/1964)

Koyi lautaa de mere, beete huye din
Koyi lautaa de mere, beete huye din
Beete huye din wo mere, pyaare pal chhin
Koyi lautaa de mere, beete huye din

Could someone return to me the days that have passed
Could someone return to me the days that have passed
Those days that have passed, those lovely days
Could someone return to me the days that have passed

While it is natural to rue days that have passed and to either pine for our salad days or to regret the time we have lost, we cannot move back in time.

“No one will bring back the years; no one will restore you to yourself. Life will follow the path it began to take, and will neither reverse nor check its course. It will cause no commotion to remind you of its swiftness, but glide on quietly.” – Seneca

Time waits for no one
While we are preoccupied, time marches on.  It neither waits for us nor announces its passing.  We cannot halt its progress.

“Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too.” – Marcus Aurelius

Yet we do not realize this fact. Seneca makes the point that when it comes to desires, we act as immortals.  We are continually working to accumulate material possessions, none of which can buy us time, and while they may outlive us, we will have no use for them when we are dead. We, however, have wasted our time in their pursuit. As much as we cling to our life and think everything is permanent, it is not.  The world will go on without us.   “Yeh Zindagi ke Mele” (These fairs of life) from the movie “Mela” (“The Fair”, 1948), lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni captures this sentiment beautifully.

Yeh zindagi ke mele
Duniya mein kam no honge
Afsos hum na honge

Ek din padega jaana, kya waqt kya zamaana
Koyee na saath dega, sab kuch yahin rahega
Jayenge hum akele, jayenge hum akele
Yeh zindagi ke mele
Duniya mein kam no honge
Afsos hum na honge

These fairs of life
Will never cease
Sadly, we won’t be around

One day we will have to leave, no matter the time or era
None will accompany us, we will leave everything behind
As we go alone
These fairs of life
Will never cease
Sadly, we won’t be around

And while this song looks at impermanence on a grand scale, time is discrete and even as I write this and as you read this, it is gliding away imperceptibly without our cognizance. The song that captures this sentiment for me is ironically, a club number “Suno Gajar kya gaye” (Listen to what the chimes sing) from the movie “Baazi” (“Gambler”, 1951) lyrics by Sahir Ludhianvi.

Suno gajar kya gaye
Samay gujarta jaye
O re jinewale o re bhole bhale
Sona na, khona na

Listen to what the chimes sing
Time keeps passing
O mortal, O naive one
Sleep not, lose not time

While the song has a definite hedonistic theme to it, the lyrics though capture the theme that time is fleeting and we have to make the best of it.

So make the best use of your time by living in the moment
Given then that time flies, Seneca instructs us to make the best use of it and to use a well-worn cliche, to seize the moment. 

So you must match time’s swiftness with your speed in using it, and you must drink it quickly as though from a rapid stream that will not always flow – Seneca

What would be the best use of our time? Seneca points out that it would be folly to assume that spending our time in accumulating possessions or collectibles is the best use of our time. In his opinion, learning from the philosophers of the past who have lived examined lives is the key. He cautions us from putting too much weight into foresight and undue planning for he says the future is uncertain and we could lose the present while planning for the future. Implicit also in his following quote is the notion that we should be not putting off things for the future or adding them to our bucket list indefinitely. We may never get the opportunity to do the things we enjoy or are interested in. Or when we do get the opportunity, the spirit, as well as the flesh, may both be weak!

“But putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future.  The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today.  You are arranging what lies in fortune’s control and abandoning what lies in your own.” – Seneca

Perhaps no philosophy captures the essence of mindfulness as Buddhism and perhaps the term “mindfulness” itself comes from Buddhism.  There are parallels to Buddhism and stoic philosophy.  Mindfulness, in its essence, refers to focusing one’s awareness on the current moment. It also reflects the stoic quality of accepting the present and viewing it dispassionately.

It is ironic that some of the more meaningful lyrics in Hindi film songs are cloaked in the garb of glamorous club numbers. An example is “Aage bhi jaane na tu” (You know not what lies ahead of you) from the movie “Waqt” (“Time”, 1965).  Lyrics again by Sahir Ludhianvi.  The song  is filmed on a glamorous singer at a party and is more of a paean to hedonism but the lyrics I think capture the importance of living in the present

Aage bhi jaane na tu
Peeche bhi jaane na tu
Joh bhi hai, bas yah ek pal hai  

You know not what lies ahead of you
Neither can you retreat into the past
All you have is this is very moment

Or in short, as John Lennon sang “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”

I have grappled with what it is to live in the moment. There are people who advise us to live as though each day is our last day, indeed Seneca does this too. I understand that this would force me to reckon with what is most important to me and focus on it while casting aside negative emotions and thoughts. While this would be ideal, I think it would be hard to do this every single day and every single moment. Instead, I think it would be better if I could be cognizant of the value of time and use it meaningfully, focussing on what I’m doing at each moment and enjoying the present. I think at the end of the day each one of us wants to be happy and happiness comes from contentment and Seneca has this observation:

“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.” – Seneca

A song with the same message is “Aaane wala pal” (Moments that are yet to come) from the movie “Gol Maal” (“Messed up”, 1979), lyrics by Gulzar.  In this song, life is considered to be a stream of fleeting moments.

Aanewala pal, jaanewala hai
Aanewala pal, jaanewala hai
Ho sake to is mein zindagi beeta do
Pal joh ye jaanewala hai  

Moments that are yet to come, are bound to pass
Moments that are yet to come, are bound to pass
If possible live your life within these fleeting moments
Moments which are bound to pass

So we have to live in the moment, making the best use of our time. Indeed time is very precious and while we cannot hoard it like wealth or regain it after it has passed, if we did understand its value, we would probably give more importance to it and guard it metaphorically like the words of the song “Yaad na jaye, woh beete dinon ki” (The memories don’t fade of those days that have passed) from the movie “Dil Ek Mandir” (“The Heart is a Temple”, 1963), lyrics by Shailendra.  While the song itself perhaps is the lament for a lost love and a yearning to recapture the time spent with her, the following lyrics, to me, capture the preciousness of time.

Din jo pakheru hote
Pinjare mein main rakh leta
Paalata unko jatan se
Moti ke daane deta
Seene se rahta lagaee

If days were birds
I would guard them in a cage
I would expend great effort towards their care
Feeding them grains of pearls
Keeping them always close to my heart

Jim Croce’s song “Time in a bottle” is in a similar vein.

If you have made it this far, I thank you for the time you have invested in reading this blog. Indeed, time is the most precious gift we can give anyone and I appreciate you spending the time reading this blog. If all this is too hard or confusing to remember, I think the following verse from my favorite poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling captures the gist of my blog:

“If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!” – Rudyard Kipling

  • The featured image has a portrait of Seneca and the poet and lyricist Shailendra on either side of the hourglass.
  • There were a few other songs that I considered for this blog but did not end up choosing. These include: “Zindagi ke safar mein guzar jaate hai jo makaam” from “Aap ki Kasam”, “Kaal ka pahiya ghume re bhaiyya” from “Chanda aur Bijli” and “Zindagi ek safar hai suhana” from “Andaaz”

4 thoughts on “Time, Life and Stoicism via Songs

  1. Brilliantly woven Joe miyan!!

    I loved the selection. One of the projects I am on is identifying songs that communicate the essence of an essay written as user guides to living. May take your help. Keep writing, that soul has a deeper purpose than coding 😉

    1. Thanks, Narenbhai! I would be more than happy to be of any help. The soul might have a deeper purpose than coding, but coding feeds the body!

  2. A very thoughtful conclusion to Part 1 on this theme. I can tell that that you did a lot of research into writing this post.
    Your translations of the Indian songs gave us the gist of the original language and came through very effectively.

    1. Thank you, Dan! Indeed, posts like these tend to take more time than some of my other posts relating to memories of childhood. I have to ensure that the quotations are correct. It also forces me to reexamine my understanding as I read what I have written and then change my interpretation if I think I had it wrong, to begin with.

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