Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Sacrifice vs. Righteousness

Concern for fellow-beings sets apart sajjanas from others. As a Sanskrit proverb goes,
मृदुलं नवनीतमीरितं नवनीतादपि सज्जनस्य हृत् ।
यदिदं द्रवते स्वतापनात् परतापात् सतां पुनः ॥
"Butter is said to be soft, but the sajjana's heart is softer. Butter melts only when it is heated, but the heart of the sajjana melts (even) when others are in

Years ago, there was a very short story in the Kannada magazine, Mayura (I think). The protagonist was a poet, very poor but large-hearted man, like the sajjana in the above shloka. His child was ill, and the whole family was clothed in rags. Our poet was at the end of his wits. At this juncture, he received an unexpected sum of money as a fee (as far as I remember). Then there was a knock on his door. A poor man had come to ask him for help; he wanted to get his daughter married and did not have the money. Our poet gave him all the money he had, and he walked away happily. The poet then told his wife, "What could I do? I have a poet's heart!" ("ನಾನೇನು ಮಾಡಲಿ? ನನ್ನದು ಕವಿಹೃದಯ"). The wife accepted his decision.

Even back then, I had a question. How could the heart that melted at the plight of the poor man, not melt at the sight of his own sick child?

A few days ago, December Stud said in a comment, that all of us are selfish, or should at least be selfish to a certain degree. That struck me as being true, and I got thinking about the various stories of self-sacrifice that appear so often in our mythology and literature. I then realized that I have never liked the extreme self-sacrifice that is, as a rule, praised to the Heavens.

What Jimutavaahana did, was against dharma, in my opinion. As the king, his duty was to protect all his subjects, but he chose to protect Shankhachuda alone, because he was there at the right time and place. His sacrifice had a good result, in that Garuda stopped harming naagas any further, but suppose it had gone unnoticed? True, Jimutavahana was a vidyaadhara and a bodhisattva. But I think I would have had far more respect for him if he had fought and subdued Garuda like a true Kshatriya. (I did not like naagaanandam, the play written by Harsha, either... Well, that's the topic for a separate post).

We have a more realistic view of sacrifice and kshatriyadharma in the Mahabharata. When Kunti offered to send Bhima with the food for Bakasura, even Yudhishthira, the epitome of righteousness, did not approve of the act (as far as I remember). However, this had a good result too; Bhima killed Baka. What appealed to me here was the "down-to-earth-ness" of Yudhishthira.

Sometimes, the idea that self-sacrifice always brings about good results, is comforting. At other times it is disturbing. Finally, it all comes down to doing the right thing, and not just sacrificing. But just how can we decide if what we are doing is right?


Aram said...

How values change over the yugaas!

Self-sacrifice was a great virtue in the Satya, Tretaa, and even Dwaparayugas.

Today in Kaliyug, Ayn Rand has written a whole book on "The Virtue of Selfishness" and established her philosophy of selfishness.

Even DecemStud, steeped in the sanathana dharma, has conceded that all of us should at least be selfish to a certain degree.

Let me substantiate this argument based on an old saying. If you donate your whole catch of fish to a needy family and you and your own family starve that day, you will have saved that family from starvation. On the other hand, a bigger virtue would be to teach fishing to anyone or all from the needy family so that they will never starve again in their life time and your own family will also not have to starve.

Bit Hawk said...

It somehow beats me - this whole concept of acting impractically in the name of great self-sacrifice or dharma. If I was in the poet's place, I would have kept whatever minimum money is needed for my family and donated the rest. And feeding the hungry family (yes my family - I am being selfish and my kids will be proud of my selfishness!) is any day more important than money spent on somebody's marriage. Well, I think very practically and people like me will be branded cold, unemotional and unsympathetic by such kavi hrudayas (listening to the heart over head is something that seems very romantic to the poets!)

Coming back to dharma, if somebody is a king, is his dharma only towards his subjects or as an individual, is his dharma towards his friends and family? And in case of a conflict, should he act as a king or as an individual? Well, this may be a good topic for another post!

Aram said...

"How could the heart that melted at the plight of the poor man, not melt at the sight of his own sick child?"

-- Your thoughts are on the right track.

An old colleague was always fond of saying:

"First my self-interest, then my wife and children's, then my friends', then my employer's, then my neighbour's, and lastly public's and country's."

If I don't know how to look after my own interests, how can I be confident of looking after the interests of others'?

There's a funny, but true (?) story as well. In the good old days before the Banks were nationalized, they were run by promoter directors whose main objective was profit maximization.

There came before the board of directors a case of a corrupt branch manager. Was he dismissed or given punishment? No, he was given promotion with more powers.

The directors argued that if he knew how to make money for himself, he would also know how to make money for the Bank.

Obviously, the board of directors did not want a "righteous" manager who would scrupulously observe all rules of the Bank but could not make much profits.

Check my comments on Edison in Nilagriva's blogsite: I observed that Edison probably was able to give to the world so many innovations and inventions because of his very selfish nature.

I read somewhere that there is no right or wrong -- only effective and ineffective actions and people.

December Stud said...

I have never appreciated self-sacrifice. Thy first, then the rest. At the end of the day, if you don't exist in som shape or form, how can you help the rest? So, take care of yourself before you take care of others.

And, an extension of this argument can be seen in Rama's story where he prefers "rAjyadharma" over "patidharma", as you have pointed out in an earlier post. That totally beats me too.

This is true with any righteous trait. Don't you remember a story (I can't really recall if it is from Mahabharatha or Jataka tales....maybe you will know) where a few rAkShas are chasing a few good men. Then there are some saints who see the good guys run in a certain direction. The rAkShas come by later and ask the saints if they knew where the good men ran. The saints have vowed not to ever lie, so they tell the truth and the good men are caught by the rAkShas. This totally sucks. The saints go purely by theory, which is absolutely useless.

As for the story you read in 'Mayura', now that's what we call fiction, huh? Poets are fools, but certainly not idiots....trust me on that.

@ bit hawk:
Nobody would call you selfish. You are as practical as anyone should be.

parijata said...

I do not think that the values should change over the yugas. The Gita teaches us about the value of fighting and winning, along with renouncing. IMO renouncing and sacrifice are good if done for the right reasons, not otherwise.

The story about the bank directors is amusing, and instructive as well.

I am a very regular visitor on Nilagriva's website. I read your comment, and really liked it:)

@Bit Hawk,
All sane people would have done the same thing. Yes, even the "unselfish" ones.

The conflict between two dharmas is very tricky. I guess Conscience will be the best guide, but you cannot escape criticism and blame, if you follow one or the other.

True. That story is from the Mahabharata, thieves chasing a good guy afai remember. I think Krishna told that story to Arjuna when he wanted to kill yudhishthira for making fun of his gaandeeva bow. (Arjuna had made a vow that he would kill anyone who made fun of his gaandeeva!)

That story from Mayura is fiction, yes, but it irked me because the writer had written it in such a way as to make that kind of idiocy sound so good and followable.

I think we all should read at least some part written by Ayn Rand, as part of our curriculum.

nIlagrIva said...

This self-interest with others has been highlighted so much in our culture. For example, you have Shibi's story. He gives up his flesh to save a pigeon from an eagle. Rantideva's story is another one where he gives up food for his family so that another person can get it.

All these things are eulogy or artha-vAda which glorifies a certain value very much. However, arthavAda also means that something has to be taken with a pinch of salt.

The jAtaka and buddhist stories are all full of this self-sacrifice stuff. Surprisingly, the rAmAyaNa and the mahAbhArata don't seem full of it. That story that DS mentioned is a point in case. Krishna in fact uses it to show that speaking the truth is not always the greatest thing and that one has to use one's head! In fact, there is a story where the Buddha sees one of his disciples putting fleas on his own body from an ailing dog. The Buddha admonishes him for doing that. Getting rid of the fleas or insects from the dog's body is good - but putting it on your own body is not - says the Buddha to his disciple.

Of course, the extreme selfish people are the chArvAkas, who funnily while not believing in any self abiding after death, glorify it so much - drink ghee and make merry even if you have to make a loan!

However,whatever we do is selfish. If somebody gives away his wealth to other poor people instead of his own poor family and thinks of himself as selfless, there is no bigger loser or a more deluded one than him. It is just that he gets a "higher" kick by denying his own folk. But he does it for that "altruistic" high which is ultimately selfish.

So, whether we like it or not, we are all selfish. It is just that some find more satisfaction in helping others and most find it in helping themselves.

Aram said...


"So, whether we like it or not, we are all selfish. It is just that some find more satisfaction in helping others and most find it in helping themselves. "

Brilliant lines, Neel!

your comment reminded me about what I wanted to write yesterday but forgot.

I wanted to write about the greatest of all the selfish people - the Yogis.

The yoga, dhyana, etc. which they do is all for their own self-realization. As my 82-year-old aunt who is a founder member of a sprawling Yogashram says, she is waiting for Atma Sakshaatkaara - HER atma.

A minor point - Both she and one of her nephews' father-in-law Yogacharya Devadas Rao who is the moving spirit and founder of the Ashram are, according to my opinion, are very possessive about the things they own and handle - meaning they like to handle these things themselves and dislike others handling it be it the grinder, oven, turntable, or car.

We have heard of many Rishis, Rajarshis, Brahmarshis, etc. doing great tapasya -- but all for their own individual needs and urges - and very rarely for loka kalyaana.

In fact, kindness kills !

Kills the individual initiative, street-smartness, and self-reliance in the person who becomes the victim of repeated kindness.

We increase the number of beggars by our continued alms.

On this day after the I-Day, let us pledge ourselves to inculcate swaabhimaana and self-reliance and self-confidence in everyone with whom we interact.

The most beautiful words, you will surely agree, are all SELF-CENTRED ones, namely, self-confidence >> self-respect >> self-reliance.

mouna said...

selfishness perhaps, is one of the many traits that mankind possesses. and the same is found in other animals too. perhaps, it can when we pursue nirvana. being selfish is essential to mankind's survival. at times, what we define as selfishness may mean the extreme kind, u get what i'm trying to say.

subtle acts bordering on selfishness are always performed by us. which is provided by the rules that we regulate ourselves with.

Aram said...

I am inspired to tell this story by the relevance of the punchline, "Finally, it all comes down to doing the right thing, and not just sacrificing."

This is a story about why Mr.N.R. Narayana Murthy and the company he heads are great. They are great and command our highest respect because they are selfish in the most righteous way.

A small company X wanted to benchmark its KM practices (Knowledge Management)with those in different companies. It approached the KM Division at Infosys whose VP welcomed the X-men and arranged an almost half a day's demo of Infy's KM portal. The X people were royally treated as if they were VIPs.

Contrast this behavior of Infy's with that of another well-known company also with an I in its name. Company I flatly refused to entertain the X-men's request although X and I were neither competitors nor rivals.

A few months later, Infy's KM department personally invited the X-Men again for a function for releasing a book on KM authored by their VP and to be released by Mr. Murthy.

In his inspiring speech, Mr. Murthy explained why Infosys believed in sharing freely with the world what Infoscions had innovated and developed. He said the moment these innovations were shared with and used by the whole world they would become obsolete. This would necessitate and force the Infoscions to keep innovating further to stay ahead in a competitive world.

Durga said...

"doing the right thing, and not just sacrificing. But just how can we decide if what we are doing is right?"

My Guru has given this thumbrule to follow before deciding on an action :

1. See if the action results in short term happiness and long term misery. If it is so, dont do it.

2. If your action brings about pain for sometime but leads the way for happiness in the long run, please do it.

I have read Ayn Rand's Fountainhead and Atlas shrugged, somehow dont feel like reading "The Virtue of Selfishness".

Aaraam said...

Your Guru's two thumbrules are truly words of great wisdom.

Daniel Goleman has evolved his whole concept of Emotional Intelligence on this.


Thous shalt not commit a sin - and how do we know something is a sinful act?

I remember reading an old book by G.P. Rajaratnam where he said Paapa is any act which makes you feel bad later.

In a lighter vein, we can do practically anything so long as we scrupulously observe the eleventh commandment, that is "Thou shalt not get caught (breaking the ten commandments").

parijata said...

The story of the Buddha was really good. I have read a similar story about paramahamsa too.

Again, this reminds me of another story. There was a very tall wall. A person, with great effort, scaled that wall to see what was beyond. He was overwhelmed by the sight and fell off, to the other side. The same thing happened with two more people. The fourth one climbed up, again with great effort. He was also seized by the desire to be on the other side. But restraining himself with great effort, he came back down, told the people what was beyond the wall, and helped them to get on the other side. The first three were just 'jnaani's. The last one was a 'guru'.

Very true about beggars and alms.
"The most beautiful words, you will surely agree, are all SELF-CENTRED ones"
These lines reminded me of Ayn Rand's 'Anthem'.

The story about Infosys was very good too. I think that by that gesture, Infosys gained a lot more than company X.

"Thou shalt not get caught" :D

Yes. Selfishness is everywhere. We are all selfish. And the sooner we realize it, the better for us.

Guruji's rules are simple and practical. I am sure that those who follow that will find that happiness and bliss are not so elusive, after all.

Aram said...

@ Parijata:

I liked your comments here very much.

The story of Jnaani Vs. Guru is worthy of publishing in our company newsletter. Hope there is no copyright. Can I mention this source too?

Aram said...

Jim Stovall's thin 128-pages classic "The Ultimate Gift" makes a very interesting reading.