Old stories, new lessons to welcome 2022
This holiday season there is little to cheer and a lot to worry, what with Omicron doing the rounds and lockdowns being announced. It is a time for good wishes and lots of prayers as we prepare to welcome 2022. In his Christmas day message, Prime Minister Modi recalled the teachings of Jesus Christ, “which placed the topmost emphasis on service, kindness and humility”, words that are simple and profound, and at the heart of messages that have inspired humankind and taught the ways of good living to generations. They resonate well with the rich teachings of Indian and indeed all other spiritual traditions that have guided us since time immemorial.
In India, one would imagine we think we are getting stronger, muscular, powerful, dominating, forceful, at least that is the imagery sought to be created and made visible for the world to capture, but we are losing out on peace, harmony, togetherness, understanding and commitment that we learn from our traditions as the true reserves of strength.
This then is a good time to reflect on how the nation has understood and lived by these teachings and messages that have been around so long and told so plainly that we may forget there is much to learn from them every day. Consider that simple one, love thy neighbour as thyself, the toughest message to live by because it is one thing to love the Lord you don’t see but quite another to love the neighbour who you do see, and worse, the neighbour who has a perspective or an attitude that can be irritating, burdensome, or the neighbour who may be from a different place, colour, religion or caste! This is not to consider the even bigger question: Who really is my neighbour? Is there a physical boundary, a distance metric, beyond which people are not neighbours, and therefore who qualifies to be in and who is to be considered out of bounds?
And consider the image of that question from the Bible in the song that Gandhi loved, vaishnava janato, which explains that only the one who can understand the pain of another is the one who can be a true devotee of the Lord, the one who serves without pride, without claim, without greed. And then the simple teaching of the late Swami Dayanada Saraswati, one of the great exponents of Indian Vedic literature, when he told this writer years ago in an interview that a consumer is never free because a consumer always wants; only a contributor can experience true freedom and to help someone in need is the best form of service and freedom. In Swamiji’s words: “If you have the riches with you, you are just rich. When you do seva, you become richer because your heart has expanded to accommodate more people.”
Is there a physical boundary, a distance metric, beyond which people are not neighbours, and therefore who qualifies to be in and who is to be considered out of bounds?
In the India of today, the significance of these messages and the words of the Prime Minister is that they need to be retold because they are less heard, and have taken a back seat, almost banished and replaced by strife, conflict and anger as we negotiate our destinies and chart our course. There is more of hitting back, getting even, settling scores as the language of force comes to the fore and the language of love is lost in the battles, some of which are given and many of which are created.
In India, one would imagine we think we are getting stronger, muscular, powerful, dominating, forceful, at least that is the imagery sought to be created and made visible for the world to capture, but we are losing out on peace, harmony, togetherness, understanding and commitment that we learn from our traditions as the true reserves of strength. Cool inner confidence is traded for rage and roar, and somewhere the deeper messages that India gave to the world have been lost in the heat. We have signed up for a bad bargain. That is why performances of stand-up comics are stopped, as Munawar Faruqui’s was in Bengaluru, and the State becomes the one providing the comedy show, as the honorable Justice G R Swaminathan of the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court wrote in a judgement that should be a must-read for all those in power. The Justice laid out the duties of citizens under article 51-A of the Constitution, to which he added one more fundamental duty – the duty to laugh. But how do we laugh in a nation where, he pointed out, “we have holy cows grazing all over from Varanasi to Vadipatty. One dare not poke fun at them.”
India is in a hurry to reach a mythical place of stardom and power, and in that rush, we may not have the time to see the pain and the suffering caused by us in our midst.
To understand this approach in its fullness requires learning, and an education system that can help our young citizens explore their life purpose, interrogate the concept of the world they want to live in and nurture ideas of good living that go beyond the job role, the technical problem-solving or the pay packages. Our first set of Universities, the ones we held aloft in free India, focused on technical competence, creating word class engineers and scientists who can dive deeper into the problem, so deep that a lot else can fade out of the vision. Without the idea of service in which these skills are to be anchored, they can become the tools that can take India to the moon but cannot understand the pain of the neighbour in distress. V P Singh used to say it well when he talked of this kind of merit: What can I do with your head when you do not have the heart to understand the problems of the poor? A lot of education focused too much on the narrow goal can go that way.
Consider the case of The Good Samaritan – the parable that Jesus narrates to answer the question: “And who is my neighbour?”. The priest and the Levite pass the road from Jerusalem to Jericho where lies a man in need of urgent help; neither stop to help. But the Samaritan who follows on the road stops, shows compassion, dresses the injured man’s wounds and takes him to an inn to rest and recuperate.
We need an education system that can help our young citizens explore their life purpose, interrogate the concept of the world they want to live in and nurture ideas of good living that go beyond the job role, the technical problem-solving or the pay packages.
The story was recreated as part of an experiment. A set of students who studied Divinity at the Princeton Theological Seminary and knew the parable and went to teach it, no less, were made to pass by a man who was slumped, looking hurt and visibly in need of help, placed deliberately in the path of the students to see if the students would live by the role of the Good Samaritan or pass-by. Some of the students were told they needed to rush for the lecture. Of those placed in a situation of what was called “high hurry”, 90% did not stop to help. Some even stepped over the man in need of help to get to their task on time! That study was done almost half a century ago by professors at the department of psychology at Princeton University. There are many ways that the results can be explained, one of which is that the rush and hurry introduced in the case was a cause of the lack of ethical response.
Today, India is in a hurry to reach a mythical place of stardom and power, and in that rush, we may not have the time to see the pain and the suffering caused by us in our midst. That is a worry probably bigger than any other as we step into the New Year.
(The writer is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal)