Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
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REACHING OUT: April 08, 2001

Reaching out

G. N. Devy

Why a person gives up the comforts of a normal life and starts working for the betterment of the community, is quite a mystery. Legends may ascribe this mysterious desire to certain dramatic moments of realisation; but to believe that a Mahatma is motivated to dedicate himself to the cause of freedom merely because he is thrown out of a South African train is to give too much credit to mere outward circumstances. We know that there are innumerable persons who are subjected to injustice everywhere and everyday. But only rarely does one of them give up his self-centered existence and take to an altruistic mode of life. Besides, not everyone who does so has had to face a mind-shattering agony. There are some theories of the link between goodness and divine inspiration. It is believed that a special touch of the divine inspiration turns human beings into saints. This belief is strengthened because often, though not invariably, we see god-men doing work that shows the quality of goodness. But it would be worth considering if this theory is tenable beyond the realm of faith. In fact, one may notice on a closer scrutiny that it is their goodness that bestows sainthood on the saints and allows us to conceptualise the divine. What appears as the consequence, therefore, is really the cause of what appears as the cause. It is of course true that those who possess goodness disown it by ascribing its origin to their faith in a power which is superior to the human mind. But that should be taken as a measure of their moral commitment to altruism as a way of life.

R. Prasanna Venkatesh/Wilderfile

Religious philosophies have another way of explaining goodness, particularly those philosophies which privilege a single prophet as the representative of god. In their account goodness is a pre-human and perennial force eternally poised against an opposite force such as evil, and the human existence and history are the predestined battleground for the two to prove their might. Such philosophies imply that the freedom that the human mind has to create its own forces is limited to making choices alone, whether metaphysical or existential.

If we were to think of the human mind differently, as Sigmund Freud did, we would have to think of goodness as a twin not of evil but of self-centredness. Modern psychology is inclined to interpret a person's desire to do something beyond the call of the person's self-preservance as a result of the individual's self-perception. This amounts to saying that an individual engages in acts of goodness in order to protect one's own image as a goodness agent. It is pointless to argue that whereas psychology offers us excellent insights in the essential nature of violence, greed, guilt, erotic desires, jealousy and possessiveness, it does not prove much help in understanding compassion, helpfulness, nobility of thoughts and other "good" emotions. This discipline developed out of the need to treat mentally irregular persons and therefore it has spent most of its energies on analysing the socially dangerous and physically undesirable drives. Therefore "goodness" is not something that modern psychology can explain satisfactorily.

Such being the present condition of our knowledge about altruism, we have to rest content merely at describing it in a subjective and tentative way. As such it may help to look at some examples.

When there is a national calamity such as a war, everybody is prepared to make sacrifices. If the calamity is caused by the fury of Nature, such as an earthquake, cyclone, floods or volcanic outbursts, we notice that even those outside the national boundaries are prepared to make sacrifices and help the victims of such calamities. These are special moments when communities rediscover their benumbed sensitivity. Nature's fury sends us a reminder of how fragile and easily perishable human civilisation is; and we instinctively participate in restoring our claim to a continued existence by helping those in distress. Such goodness is born partly out of fear and partly out of pity and is almost like the experience of Tragedy described by Aristotle. It quickens our sensitivity momentarily but is not long-lasting.

Dilip Sinha

There is another manifestation of "goodness" that we notice among the individuals working in the social sphere. In this manifestation the goodness drive is sustained over a long period. It does not remain merely as emotional energy but also acquires the form of the rational constructs. Such individuals, and the groups they form, start explaining the need for doing good deeds in terms of objectives which will lead to a better human habitation. Hence we have individuals or groups fighting for social justice and helping the oppressed and the destitute. There is, often in such work, an element of acquisition of moral authority if not social prestige. The moral authority that individuals gain out of the community work they do possesses a certain degree of permanence. Unlike the political authority, it does not depend on any social mandate, and unlike the money powers, it cannot be wrested away through competition. Therefore, it allows the individual an immense freedom for creative self-expression. However, this freedom can be understood only through a direct personal experience. It cannot be described, except in terms of metaphors. The English Romantic poet Shelley wrote:

I can give not what men call love
But wilt thou accept not what the heart lifts above and the heavens reject not
the desire of the moth for the star, of the night for the morrow
A longing for something afar from the sphere of our sorrow.

This desire to belong to a dream realm far from the sphere of our animal world is the source of goodness that individuals display in every society and age. The creative freedom that their sacrifice and dedication bring in return is the intoxicating energy that fuels their resolve to change the human existence. At the heart of goodness is the limitless freedom which allows the human to be divine.

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