A Smile Every Mile
The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status, or ethnic background, is that, deep down inside, we all believe that we are above-average drivers.
― Dave Barry
Driving is an interaction. It is an interaction between the driver and the vehicle. It is an interaction between the driver and the other users of the road. It is an interaction between a man with a powerful, potentially dangerous machine at his command, and others also having, and many others not having, similar machines. All interactions test how far we can put into practice what we know is the right thing to do. Spirituality is about knowing, doing, and finally being, what is right. Hence, every interaction is an opportunity for spiritual practice.
Interaction between man and machine
Spirituality acknowledges the all-pervasive presence of the Spirit of the Divine. Thus, man and machine have one fundamental thing in common, the Spirit of the Divine. Having something in common breeds intimacy and love. Hence, the interaction between man and machine can grow into a loving relationship. The interaction between the driver and the vehicle are just one example of the man-machine, or mind-matter interaction. The car cannot respond to love the way a human being does, but it does respond. That is why, it runs better and lasts longer in the hands of a driver who handles it with love. However, all love should be without attachment. Therefore, a scratch on the car does not justify flying into a rage and killing the motorcyclist who did it. The motorcyclist is also a manifestation of the same Divine, a child of the same God, and therefore a brother.
Interaction with other drivers
The man behind the wheel has at his command a very fast-moving heavy machine, which is therefore, potentially dangerous. To reduce the danger, there are rules of the road. But rules spell out only the minimum expectation for preventing head-on collisions, outright chaos and traffic jams. Spirituality goes beyond rules. For example, if somebody behind me has hit my car lightly at a red light because of inability to stop in time, poor judgment, or a mental preoccupation, there is no rule that compels me to put the person at ease by looking back, and giving him a reassuring smile that says, ‘doesn’t matter, it’s okay’. A few other examples of real situations on the road:
There is a car ahead of me. This car can run just as fast as mine. The prescribed speed limit is 60. The driver in the car in front is driving at 60, or may be 58. How pleasant it can be for everyone on the road if I stay behind this car, drive at his speed, and maintain safe distance. Overtaking in this situation is more an expression of my ego rather than a necessity for saving time. If I stay behind him instead of overtaking him for another 10 km, not overtaking him will delay me by not more than 10 minutes; perhaps not even that, because there may be traffic lights on the way, which are a great equalizer. Suppose I am egoistic enough to try to overtake this car. What is the best that the other driver can do? If my overtaking him is absolutely unsafe, he should give me a signal to hold on. If it is reasonably safe to overtake, he should remove his foot from his accelerator, so that his car starts slowing down, making it easier for me to overtake him in less time. But suppose, his ego also starts asserting itself, and he presses on his accelerator even harder to make it difficult for me to overtake, driving turns into a race. Having such a race is dangerous for both of us, for other users of the road, and also not good for anybody’s blood pressure. A race track is also a road, but not every road is a race track.
The principle of being in a queue applies even to driving. If somebody is ahead of me, it is his right to stay ahead of me, unless our natural speeds are very different and it is safe to overtake. A queue signifies equality, and so does spirituality. Spirituality acknowledges the universal presence of the Spirit of the Divine. The spirit binds all of us, and equalizes all of us. It is a paradox that the queuing habit is conspicuous by its absence in India, a country that takes pride in claiming to be a spiritual country.
But suppose the vehicle in front of me is a three-wheeler, a TSR (taxi scooter rickshaw), commonly called ‘the auto’. It has been designed to have a speed much slower than a car. But if the road is narrow, instead of honking and making life miserable for everybody on the road, it is better that I drive the car patiently at the speed of the auto till it is safe to overtake.
Thinking of others, which is what spirituality is about, also applies to the auto. If he finds me behind him, he should make way for me to overtake him as soon as an opportunity presents itself. If the road is wide, he should not drive in the fast lane. And if there are several autos around, which is very common, they should stay one behind the other. Instead, what they do so often is to compete with each other, and the fastest among them starts competing with the cars. The result is that quite often on a wide road, on which traffic can flow very smoothly, traffic is held up because there are four autos, one almost next to the other, competing with one another, none of them really succeeding in quickly overtaking the others, but all of them together very successfully blocking at least two lanes.
Even on eight-lane highways, on which there is enough room for everybody, it is so common to find slow vehicles in fast lanes and fast vehicles in slow lanes, making avoidable switching of lanes a necessity. On top of that, there are always a few reckless drivers who assume that all the rules and speed limits are only for others. They are the lords of the road, who brush past every vehicle from any side they please, flitting from one lane to the other like an agile snake without even as much as an indicator, with single-minded dedication to the one objective of leaving all others behind.
The indicator is not only meant to announce the intention to turn, but also the intention to drift to the right or to the left. The indicator is not meant only to make your turning easier and safer; it can also help somebody else slow down in time, or not slow down unnecessarily. The indicator may also help a pedestrian waiting to cross the road. If your indicator tells him that you will turn before you reach him, he need not wait for you. On the other hand, if he waits for you unnecessarily, he might have to wait also for another three vehicles which have now caught up and are dangerously close to him. Therefore, out of consideration for others, giving an indicator ahead of turning or drifting should become a habit which comes into play without having to think.
Interaction with the weak
Our character is judged best by how we behave with those in a weaker position. Suppose I am driving on a major road, and there is a driver coming from a small lane on my left. He wants to enter the main road. Just a little slowing down on my part, and perhaps added to that a wave indicating to him that he may start moving, can make it so much easier and safer for him to merge. Another example: suppose I am close to a crossing which does not have a traffic light; there is no traffic policeman either, and I have to go straight at this crossing. There is a driver on the opposite side of the road, who has to turn right at the same crossing. He is already at the crossing, but it will take me another few seconds to reach the crossing. One way to deal with the situation is that I slow down a bit, give him a wave to tell him that he may start turning, and as he turns we exchange a smile. Another way is that I start flashing my headlights, blowing my horn, and press on the accelerator to speed up aggressively. I scare him, make sure that he waits for me, and if there is any evidence of his being not adequately scared, cowed down and respectful, I shout at him. Yet another example: I am fast approaching a vehicle which is in a very awkward diagonal position, perhaps due to a mistake the driver has made, or because he is pulling out of a parking lot. All I have to do is to slow down, stop at a distance that leaves enough room for him to straighten his car, and then we can both start moving. Another way is to honk, abuse, and brush past him on his left or his right as I feel like doing, leaving him stuck in that awkward position, making it necessary for many behind me also to deal with the same situation. Worse still, if I cannot brush past him because there is just no space, I still come dangerously close to him, and finally come to a halt in such a position that it is impossible for either of us to move. Then I start hurling my choicest invectives at him while a traffic jam builds up behind both of us. I leave it for you to judge which of these alternatives befits the residents of a country that considers itself the spiritual guru to the rest of the world. In all these situations, all we have to remember is that today it is the other person, tomorrow it may be me in the weaker position.
A person driving a car is in a privileged and sheltered environment compared to so many users of the road who are much more vulnerable. Suppose I am in a car, and ahead of me on a narrow road is a two-wheeler, and on the pillion is a precariously balanced woman having a baby in her lap. Shouldn’t I be patient in overtaking them, if at all I have to overtake, instead of creating unnecessary panic and risk for the threesome ahead of me? With a little quirk of fate, the woman riding the pillion could have been my sister or daughter, and in a spiritual sense, she is, because we are all children of one God. Another situation, which almost everybody in a car has faced: at a traffic crossing, the light is green, I have to turn left, but I have just ahead of me a poor man on a bicycle with a few gas cylinders on the carrier who has to go straight, and he is pedaling hard so that he can go past the crossing before the light turns red. I have to turn left, and therefore I am at the extreme left of the road. He has to go straight, but since he is a cyclist, he is also at the extreme left. How rude, and unspiritual, would it be if I overtake him, and get into his way while turning left? It would be much better to slow down to his speed, let him stay ahead of me, let him negotiate the crossing before me, and then I can turn left slowly and gently, saying a prayer for a brother of mine who is lugging breathlessly such a heavy load.
Last but not least, the ubiquitous pedestrians. It is the relationship of the pedestrians to the vehicular traffic on Indian roads that brings out the unspoken rule, ‘might is right’. Let a lone pedestrian wait at a zebra crossing for eternity, and no vehicle will stop for him. But if it is a group of twenty pedestrians, they can cross the road anywhere at any time with the eyes closed, and the vehicles will have to stop for them. But God save the old man in this group of twenty if he cannot keep pace with the rest. Instead of the vehicles waiting patiently to let him also cross, they will make sure that he is made perfectly conscious of his being an intolerable burden on earth.
A celebrated quote of Sri Aurobindo is that “All life is yoga”. What it means is that all life gives an opportunity for the practice of yoga. To elaborate further, every situation in life can be handled in a way that is yogic or un-yogic. The yogic approach is to follow some basic principles, which we may call shastra. If shastra has no advice to offer, or if one is not sure about the shastra being appropriate in a particular situation, then it is best to follow the inner voice emanating from the soul. Driving is also a part of life, and is no exception to the general principle. The shastra for driving are the rules of the road. In general, they should be followed, except when breaking a rule is safer or better than following it. But there are so many situations on the road for which a rule is not available. In those situations, the inner voice emanating from the soul tells us clearly what the right thing to do is. The right thing to do is based on love for others. Giving and receiving love are both basic needs, both give us joy, and both can lead to spiritual growth. But giving love is enough. When one person gives, another naturally receives. So, let us focus on giving, and receiving will take care of itself. Let us give way, give thanks, and give a smile every mile as we drive.