Driving toward liberation or hell, our choice

(The following article was posted in the "Meditations" column of the Hindustan Times, one of India's largest English language daily newspapers, on 27 May 2003.) EVERY DAY about 3000 people worldwide die in auto mishaps. Reckless and drunken driving, speeding, and distraction greatly exacerbate this unfortunate phenomenon of our times. Even before the industrial revolution got under way, some scientists envisioned a future in which millions would traverse long distances almost instantly. From an environmental perspective, it's notable that cars are now responsible for a third of global oil use. In Bangkok, congestion on roads is so great that many dress and feed their children on the way to school and work while riding in their cars. Is this rise of 'car culture' progress? Wisdom of the past says no. The Bhagavad speaks of 'illusory happiness' (Maya Sukhaya, 7.9.43), with solutions to problems creating greater problems. Cars, the machines Americans invented and mass-produced in the early 20th century, replaced horse-drawn carriages. But almost immediately they needed more roads. Then exhaust and the resultant air pollution became a problem. Costs to create and purchase devices to limit atmospheric contamination became a problem. Skyrocketing petrol prices became a problem. Because we're bedazzled by the speed and privacy cars afford, the sense of power of being in the driver's seat and all the other benefits to which we're addicted, these problems seemed inconsequential. But Bhagavad Gita speaks of another energy (Anyam Prakritim, 7.5) that is above matter, of the living beings -- the drivers -- who, with all their imperfections, still remain superior to the things they invent, modify, and manipulate. They can use cars for a higher purpose. Autos have become a symbol of affluence. Without them, one can more easily transcend the widespread conditioning that tells us materially privileged circumstances are ends in themselves. Even for holistic health reasons, some car owners now prefer walking, cycling and public transport. But the Gita also asserts that one who 'lights no fire' and performs 'no work' is not a 'true mystic' (6.1). This forecasts action and utilisation of technology. Cars can be meditation chambers or prison cells. We can use them to expand our spirituality or watch ourselves pile up in hell. Cars are an intoxicating extension of our being. Drivers would be wise to sober up, and learn how to use their vehicles in the service of the Lord. (The writer is emeritus member of ISKCON Governing Body Commission)