Many years ago, when we stopped at an isolated spot on a highway running through Mandya in Karnataka, an old farmer came to us carrying sugarcane. I was so used to being accosted by hawkers and sellers that I began to very wave him away politely as he approached. He smiled and continued walking wearily up the slope from the fields to the road. Even though everything about his appearance spoke of his poverty, it became clear that his goal was not to sell but to give his sugarcane to my children who had stepped out of the car. He wanted nothing in return.
I have forgotten many things, but not that unknown peasant who wanted to give something to a stranger and sought nothing in return. Recently, another example made me think about another philosophy of life.
Asha and her cousins triumphantly brought mangoes and guavas to their grandmother. They were holidaying at their village homestead and had lain in wait for the children from the village who used to raid their family orchard. The city children had pounced on village children of the same age, challenged them, and successfully retrieved all the “stolen goods.”
Their grandmother looked at the fruits on the verandah and was not impressed. “What’s the matter with you children? Don’t you get to eat sufficient mangoes and berries from what is stored indoors for the family?”
“Yes, but this too belongs to the house.”
“It belongs to your compound, grandmother.”
“It belongs to us.”
“They have no right to it.”
The chorus of voices did not have an impact on their grandmother.
“Listen to me. After we eat well, the rest is to be left on those trees for those children to help themselves. It belongs to them. It is their right to raid the tree which has so much to give. Go and give all the fruits back to them and apologise for your rudeness.”
The city cousins were astounded at their grandmother’s philosophy. It was contrary to everything they had learnt so far about what they felt they owned. The world was something to be understood in order to be conquered. Marks were to be won; likewise, games and quizzes. “My” lunch, “my” seat and desk and “my” toys and books.
Many social philosophers feel that if children were raised differently, there might be a real change in world politics and conflicts. That the collection and codification of information is only the beginning of education seems to have passed many peoples’ understanding. Education to refine the mind, to help young people to accept and give of themselves rather than hoard, is the beginning of the only kind of wisdom that might one day save the world. Humans have survived successfully everywhere not because primitive societies fought each other over resources but because we suppressed our selfishness and learned to cooperate.
In the history of time, our industrialised age is as yet only a blip. It is not too late to teach the values of mutual progress and co-operation in order to look beyond the self.
But we are also living in times when technology is persuading people to become more and more self-oriented. Sensitising large populations may never come through; but if pockets of understanding and perception are created, there might still be hope for an increasingly violent world whose leaders have forgotten that sharing — not possessing — is the foundation of our existence.
It gives us the right to live.
The writer is Consultant, Publishing (Oxford University Press). Email: email@example.com