The reason I still haven’t lost hope in youth is that, firstly, if I did that, I would lose hope in living itself, and also because I have been blessed to know that even amidst the general atmosphere of sloth and apathy and dissolution and crass opportunism and bad taste, there are so many nice and bright and thoughtful young people all around – though they may be confused, and distracted, unsure about which way to go, discouraged from all sides and nobody to pour out their woes to, nobody to ask for help, terribly embarrassed to open up even before their peers for fear of being misunderstood, ridiculed and left out. It is to connect with them, and help them connect meaningfully with one another, that I am making this effort through orkut, gmail and my blog.
Raunak’s post (on the thread titled ‘You are doing it for yourself!” started by Sayak at my orkut community ‘The Good life!’) gives me the occasion to write this essay. The subject under discussion is selfishness – rightly and wrongly understood. On the one hand, we have always been told by grown-ups not to be selfish (though many of us have uneasily sensed since childhood that the grownups were not being very sincere about it!), because selfishness hurts the world and stamps you as a ‘bad’ person. And indeed, we must all admit, at least to ourselves, that there is a certain kind of selfishness (perhaps, even, the most common kind) which cannot be too strongly condemned.
Spreading nasty rumours about friends behind their backs, haggling rudely with poor hawkers over a rupee or two, depriving siblings of their share of chocolate or of parents’ money, indulging in good food and wine while your children’s school fees are not being paid, being ‘too busy’ to pay attention to your wife’s ailments when you actually fool and laze around at your workplace much of the time, adulterating medicines for some extra profit, rigging elections so that you may enjoy the loaves and fishes of government office for a few years more – such things are certainly bad and indefensible: the less of such selfishness we have, the better the world will be. Such selfishness, though, is born of folly rather than downright evil, if you ask me. And the reason that such things have been with us since the days of Troy and the Mahabharat is that either people refuse to listen to good counsel, or they are too lazy to change, or that they deeply believe that they are being clever by behaving thus. They will even solemnly assure you from ‘long personal experience’ that there is no other way to prosper and progress in life! You cannot argue with them, because they disagree with you over the definition of prosperity and progress itself. All you can ask them is whether Duryodhan and Ebenezer Scrooge and Harshad Mehta were the happiest men they know, despite all the gold and fine houses and dancing girls, and whether such people are really very good role models, and whether it is really not possible at all to be rich and famous and much admired without being petty and crooked. What about all the great philanthropes of the world from Anathpindada to Andrew Carnegie to Bill Gates, what about the public assertion of the founders of Google Inc. that you can make money without doing evil, and what about so many people who have chosen to live simple and humble lives throughout history, like Socrates and the Buddha, Michelangelo and St. Francis and Einstein, and are remembered and revered by countless millions still? If those who are born good cannot take heart from all these instances to stay good simply because they find the pressure exerted by the bad herd overwhelming, they have only themselves to blame for their lives souring up and the world being a rather unpleasant place. When you have learnt to be honest with yourself, you cannot but admit that such selfishness simply does not ‘pay’, especially in the long run! Some people simply find that out when it is too late – look at Duryodhan again, or Macbeth, or Al Capone! Or simply check out with the boys who cheated through all their examinations and cannot find decent jobs now. Didn’t I say that such ‘selfish’ people are actually only very silly, and their own worst enemies?
But given this context, it does sound bizarre to a lot of young folks to hear anybody (whether it’s Raunak or Sayak’s dad or me or Sri Sri Ravi Shankar) saying that apparently all religions tell us to be selfish! What rubbish, they will exclaim – we know very well that religion tells us to be kind and considerate and charitable and not greedy and grasping! We know that, even though we may have no desire to become that way, or feel incapable of becoming that way: we know that religion is all about being un -selfish!) We ‘know’ this so well that when some great man says he did all that he did for mankind, at great ‘cost’ to himself (in worldly terms, of course, right upto sacrificing his life) he did only because it made him feel good, many people have retorted, ‘Ah, in that case he acted out of a selfish motive, so he cannot be called truly great after all!’ (A very silly journalist made exactly that sort of remark when Mother Teresa assured him she did all her charity work not so much for the poor and destitute as for the sake of the Jesus inside her).
But the truth is that all the great books and wise men and true religions have started teaching the mass of mankind not by saying ‘be kind and good and loving and charitable and active and not-greedy’, but by insisting atmaanam viddhi, gnothi seauton, ‘know thyself’, ‘look inside yourself’, connect with the Real You, Be Who You Are. Whether we are comfortable with words like God, holy, sacred, divine or not, the deepest conviction of all truly wise men has always been that there is a Higher Self buried far beneath one’s superficial, smaller, lesser self. To rise above the smaller self – which is fearful and greedy and lazy and eternally seeking to avoid challenges and looking for ease and shortcuts, always chattering like an ape inside us and distracting and fooling and ultimately hurting us – is not just the key to the Good Life, it is the only real purpose of life: not merely making a living, not even winning Nobel Prizes and Oscars and Olympic golds. To make that connection, one needs first of all to avoid distraction of all sorts, or at least cut it down to the barest minimum. By distraction is meant everything from crowds to loud noises, drink and drugs and gambling and dancing girls and shopping malls and gossip and bothering about what people are saying about me and whether I am looking good and examination scores and pay packets… everything that doesn’t really matter, everything that keeps me away from the Real Me all the time. Meditation is one good way of doing it; good work (which includes everything from genuine scientific research to art to charity) is another. It is not an accident that the happiest and most successful men in the world – business tycoons, generals, scientists, poets and statesmen alike, not just bearded sages! – have been highly focused in this sense; they were always connected with their Real (or Higher) selves; they always knew with perfect clarity and conviction just what they (as distinct from their parents, neighbours, friends and relatives) wanted out of life. And most people of that type have always found out for themselves, without sages lecturing them, that being ‘unselfish’ in the conventional sense – that is to say, kind, loving, not-greedy, not ‘status’-conscious and charitable – helps to stay connected with the Higher Self and thus really to enjoy life the only way it can be enjoyed. See what a paradox that is: we discover the real worth of unselfishness only by being consistently and determinedly selfish, in the sense of being totally focused on the Self (the Real Me, that which does not die; the atmaan and not the aham)! – I shall make bold to say that the story called ‘Manager’s Lesson’ in this blog, properly read, might help quite a bit to resolve the paradox. Even if one gives up one’s life for another – one’s own blood relatives or one’s country or someone at the other end of the earth one has never even seen, it must be because it makes one’s Real Self supremely happy: there is never any other justification for good works, not even conventional ideas of ‘duty’. Beware: don’t even expect recognition or gratitude or reward from those you do good to: most of them will either forget or pay you back by reviling you – because they are still driven by their little selves, and all they can feel is burning, helpless envy at the fact that you are a better person than they! It is better by far to make a fortune through an honest business than to give away a fortune in the hope of fame and reverence: you will be cruelly cheated nine times out of ten, and you will have only yourself to blame for it. That is what Mother Teresa and all others like her have always known; one does even good works for selfish reasons alone (though some choose to call that Higher Self Krishna or Jesus or Allah or Wahe-guru; the eternal, the absolute, the universal, the totally-loving, all-good ever-friend – ‘though I walk in the shadow of the valley of death/ the Lord is my shepherd/ (so) I shall not want’!) Otherwise they would have changed their minds early on: read their biographies to find out how much abuse and ridicule and opposition they faced for trying to do good.
I would like to continue in this vein a little longer. But some readers are scared away by long posts on the blog, so I’ll pause for now. If my readers encourage me with their comments and questions, I’ll carry on from this point. Happy reading! - and get as many of your friends to read this as you can.