Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide has sent shock waves across India. That a young, handsome, successful actor with a life one in a billion could ever dream of achieving take the extreme step is baffling. The talented actor’s last film, Chhichhore, dealt with the pressure for success and the depression that follows real or imaginary failure. Ironically, suicide isn’t the solution was the most famous dialogue of the film. Given that it was one of his best films, one can only guess how many people would have it inspired to look at life and its challenges positively, and helped them pull back from the abyss at the last moment.
It is heartbreaking when such icons who have given hope for many die in the most unexpected way. Going by the actor’s deeply spiritual posts and sense of wonder about life, one would have never guessed he was suffering from depression. Depression is a killer and many famous personalities have struggled with it in their lives. The list includes Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Isaac Newton, Vincent van Gogh, Beethoven and many others.
Not all ended their lives. Often, they tackled it and achieved greatness in life.
Speaking out about grief, pain and fear is the first step in tackling depression. Arjuna faces one of the classic cases of depression before the Mahabharata war. It strikes the most accomplished of warriors in the epic who is the lover of many beautiful women, who has the privilege of calling Krishna his bosom friend and not to any other lesser warrior. Arjuna seeks help when he finds he can’t handle the pressure. He talks to Krishna. Arjuna says, I am feeling the weakness of limbs, dryness of mouth, shivering of body, my skin is burning, my mind is confused, and I am feeling dizziness. I have lost the will to live. Even if I get killed in the war by my enemy, it will only do good. Arjuna lets out his fears and anguish.
Krishna does not ask Arjuna to sit under a tree and meditate. He leads out Arjuna from this panic mode and depression by enumerating the facets of life. Starting from mundane things like ‘if you die you will go to heaven’ and ‘if you win, you will enjoy your kingdom’, Krishna holds Arjuna’s hand and leads him out of the abyss his friend had fallen in. Krishna makes Arjuna understand that he is not that important to the world, yet he is the most important being. Krishna gives multiple prescriptions, like working for material gain, working for fame, working for the sake of duty, working with the understanding that everything changes, working with the understanding that nothing matters, working with the understanding that one is the part of the whole, working with no care about pleasing god but for the sake of Karma and knowing every Karma will have its fruits, working with trust in oneself, working as an offering to the God and so forth.
The messages are sometimes contradictory. Like most things Indian, there are no commandments like Thou shall do this, but the understanding that different things work for different people. The paths enumerated by Krishna are not one but many. He is slowly nudging Arjuna into action. Prodded by Krishna, Arjuna fights the war and wins it. The action saves him. The futility of this victory that the great epic deals in the subsequent chapters is another discussion altogether.
When the depression hits, many find solace in religion. It is found that the more religious a society, the lesser the suicide rates due to depression are. However, there is a caveat to this study. It is found that the religions that focus on collective pursuit of spirituality have lower rates of suicides than the ones that follow individual spiritual pursuits. Religions have many faults, but one advantage they provide is the safety net and feeling of belonging to the individual. Many rituals, which may seem absurd in the first glance, serve the purpose of catharsis. Death rituals are an example of this. The individual pursuit of spirituality may be a noble goal for an able mind, but it is no solace for those who are suffering. No amount of philosophising grief would annul it. To come out of anguish, it requires action. Rituals often prepare the disturbed mind for taking actions.
Clinical depression is a fact of life. There are many among us who suffer it silently, sometimes hiding it for fear of being judged unfavourably. Though extreme cases require medical intervention, we can help ourselves and others by speaking out and listening well. Pursuing individualistic spirituality while suffering depression is like running a marathon when stuck with viral fever. There are different prescriptions for different stages of life. Collective rituals like pilgrimage, prayers, bhajans etc are the ways to prod one into action and bring you back to the exuberance of life.