God is absence. God is the solitude of man.
According to an ancient legend, the institution of marriage originated from the fickle-minded nature of man, who was born alone, grew up and soon started feeling the pangs of loneliness. He went to God in search of a pleasant, lovable companion. He found what he wanted; but in no time started feeling fed up with companionship. He started whining, fuming and fretting about his partner and kept pestering God to emancipate him from this relationship. God granted his wish. But unable to endure his loneliness, he soon started troubling God frequently and begged for the same companion again. This happened a number of times till God was finally exasperated and told man to accept his condition uncomplainingly and not bother him again. According to the ‘divine origin theory’ of the institution of marriage, this is how marriages began.
Amusing as it may seem, the story does describe the human predicament very succinctly. We are born alone, get bored with ourselves, and create a society. Soon the society we create begins to get on our own nerves. We start searching for solitude.
Solitude and isolation
Personally, however, I feel that the need for solitude does not always arise out of one’s inability to endure loneliness. Solitude is not a sigh of the lonely. It’s not a shelter for one who has fallen “upon the thorns of life, and is bleeding”,2 who finds his ‘thrownness’3 into this hostile world too insufferable and therefore seeks the comforting refuge that solitude promises to offer. A person seeking solitude may not necessarily be wanting to hide behind thick walls of isolation.
The English word ‘isolophilia’ means a strong affection for being alone, for solitude. Solitude has its own fragrance and one who is completely drowned in the “ignoble strife” of “the madding crowd”4 may not have any inkling as to what it is like. One doesn’t seek solitude in reaction to a bitter experience that one may have had. When we use the word solitude here, it has a different implication altogether. It is devoid of any rancour or malice for oneself, for others, or the situation one is in.
Yet, it is very common for many of us to seek ‘solitude’ mainly because the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”5 are too fierce and challenging to cope with. Isolation, in the garb of solitude, then becomes a false thing, a pretence. It is then like a smiling fiend with an abundance of bitterness, vindictiveness and animosity hidden up his sleeves. It seems like solitude, but is not.
Byron speaks about the real pleasures of pure, non-reactive solitude in one of his poems:
There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more. …
The Buddha exhorts his disciples to be alone, like the horn of a rhinoceros. Khaggavisana Sutta is a well-known Buddhist text in which the Buddha is believed to have exhorted his disciples to seek solitude, and go on a solitary walk and wander alone like a rhinoceros. The sutta, in the form of a long verse, begins with the following stanza:
Renouncing violence, for all living beings
harming not even one
you would not wish for offspring
so how a companion?
Like the horn of a rhinoceros.
Solitude is in fact a sine qua non for those who are creative or those who are on the religious path. Aldous Huxley uses the beautiful expression, “the religion of solitude”. He says, “The more powerful and original a mind, the more it will incline towards the religion of solitude”. This is a solitude away from the noise of rituals, superstition, or beliefs and bigotry, which are often associated with organized religion.
Solitude then becomes the soil in which the flower of authentic selfexploration blossoms. It can also become a source for scientific and creative insights. William Wordsworth’s ‘Solitary Reaper’ has immense beauty, which can be only savoured by those who have a deep respect for solitude. Time spent in solitude may nurture and lead to creative thinking and work. Solitude may thus be seen as a potentially beneficial form of withdrawal.
Solitude and unsociability
Could solitude be a double-edged weapon, which can feed both the good and the evil in us? Perhaps Aristotle was right when he said, “Whosoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god.”7 Both the grim-visaged villain and a gentle-hearted poet may use solitude to suit their own purposes. A hedonist may need solitude to wallow ceaselessly in things that please him. But then a creative person may use it in ways that are beneficial—physically, mentally and spiritually. If your desire for solitude is truly driven, not by fear or avoidance, but by a desire to be in communion with your true self, there is absolutely no harm in it. Being in solitude isn’t the same thing as being antisocial or unsociable. As Albert Camus rightly puts it, “Do not be afraid of spending quality time with yourself. Find time or don’t find time, but ‘steal’ some time and give it freely and exclusively to your own self. Opt for privacy and solitude. That doesn’t make you anti-social or cause you to reject the rest of the world. But you need to breathe. You need to be.”8
Solitude and fear
A crucial factor that stops us from seeking solitude is the fear of being alone, or the fear of what others may say. Although our modern societies may value solitude as a living arrangement, a deeper kind of solitude is still undervalued and often scoffed at. There is a strong fear in many of us, as Marquez9 says in his One Hundred Years of Solitude, “He really had been through death, but he had returned because he could not bear the solitude.” The image of solitude that we have seems frightening, but its reality is not so. It is in facing up to our aloneness that, paradoxically, we come to recognize how essentially connected to others we truly are. Although we are essentially alone, we are also essentially related. The way out of loneliness or isolation, then, is to love more deeply. It is in going beyond the ego that we also go beyond loneliness and isolation.
Krishnamurti on solitude
What does Krishnamurti have to say about solitude? Krishnamurti visited Kolkata in 1984 and on the day of his first talk there The Telegraph published a full-page interview. The interviewer Pritish Nandy quoted him as saying, “Truth can only be found in the brutal loneliness of one’s own heart.” These words are permanently etched in my memory. It would be very pertinent here to quote what he has to say further about the importance of being in solitude, of turning away, inwardly, from human society. For him to be alone is to be far away from misconceptions and illusions bred by society. What follows is an excerpt from Krishnamurti’s Notebook:
Keep far away but they are waiting for you, the educator and the businessman; one trains you for the others to conform to the demands of their society, which is a deadly thing; they have a thing called society and family: these two are their real gods, the net in which you will be entangled. They will make you into a scientist, into an engineer, into an expert of almost anything from cooking to architecture to philosophy. Keep far, far away; they are waiting for you, the politician and the reformer; the one drags you down into the gutter and then the other reforms you; they juggle with words and you will be lost in their wilderness. Keep far away; they are waiting for you, the experts in god and the bomb throwers: the one will convince you and the other [show you] how to kill; there are so many ways to find god and so many, many ways to kill. But besides all these, there are hordes of others to tell you what to do and what not to do; keep away from all of them, so far away that you cannot find yourself or any other. You too would like to play with all of them who are waiting for you but then the play becomes so complicated and entertaining that you will be lost. You should never be here too much, be so far away that even you cannot find yourself.10
I doubt if one can find anything more powerful and profound in favour of solitude.
- Jean-Paul Charles Aymard Sartre (1905–80) was a French philosopher, playwright, novelist and literary critic. He was one of the key figures in the philosophy of Existentialism.
- ‘Ode to the West Wind’, PB Shelley (1792–1822)
- ‘Thrownness’ (German: Geworfenheit) is a concept introduced by German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) to describe humans’ individual existences as ‘being thrown’ (geworfen) into the world.
- ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, Thomas Gray (1716–71)
- Hamlet, Act III, Scene I by William Shakespeare
- ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’, Lord Byron (1812–18), a British Romantic poet.
- Francis Bacon (22 January 1561–9 April 1626) quotes Aristotle in his Essays, XXVII ‘On Friendship’.
- Albert Camus (1913–60), Notebooks, 1951–59
- Considered one of the most significant authors of the twentieth century and one of the best in the Spanish language, Gabriel Garcia Marquez was awarded the 1972 Neustadt International Prize for Literature and the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature. His novel One Hundred Years of Solitude was first published in 1967.
- From Krishnamurti’s Notebook, 7 March 1962, Bombay