Are Results and Rewards the Only Rationale of Life?
Is it still a selfless act of kindness if done only with the objective of keeping your own conscience happy?
4:00 am on the kind of day where the advance of hours goes unnoticed. Still awake, I sit on my bed resting my back on the headboard, listening to my cousin talk between her sobs about how it happened. She had been widowed some 10 hours ago.
The house was finally silent. All tired souls who had just returned from the crematorium around midnight had gone to sleep. I take another sip of water to keep myself from dozing off. I don’t know if this trick works, but I need to stay awake to listen.
That day and for the next few days until the funeral, consumed by all sorts of immediate responsibilities, I hardly took note of the trauma or the time. I just did what was asked of me verbally or silently. I was too exhausted to think anything beyond.
Four months later, on new year’s eve, as I sat down to review my year, I noticed a subtle sense of pride. I felt pride at how I had conducted myself — how I had been available and done the needful when needed.
Do you too relate to that feeling of clandestine gloating?
Was I proud because I had proved myself to be the “good girl”? I doubt that. If my life is to be believed, I have consciously lived to show the door to the “good girl”. I few moments of overthinking later I saw that I was happy because I felt this will add brownie points to my deal for heaven — or add good karma to my life’s ledger, if you will.
This reopened the floodgates of an old dilemma. What is Seva (service)?
Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has so often defined it as that which is done selflessly. But then I have in different contexts also heard him encourage us all into seva by saying that seva adds merits.
So, my dilemma remains — if we serve with the merits in mind, it does not remain a selfless act. Without being a selfless act, it stops being seva!
I know this trick. Truth is multidimensional, and hence, the seeming contradictions. The Bhagavad Gita is replete with so many contradictions that at one point Arjuna himself says to Sri Krishna that He is confusing him with contradictory instructions.
One of the most often quoted teachings of the Bhagavad Gita itself is to act without looking at the fruits of the action.
“karmany evaadhikaaraste maa phaleshu kadaachana” (2.47)
That is to say that you have no control over the effect of your action. You, however, have control over the action. Gurudev in his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita even jokes around this verse saying, “Every Indian can speak about it. Even if they don’t know anything else in the Gita, they definitely know this because it is so commonly used.” (Pg 48 from Bhagavad Gita: A Discourse by Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar)
So, the dilemma remains. Can we ever act with absolute selflessness?
Even our scriptures, pick up scriptures from whichever religion you want. None ever tells us what is the right conduct and stops there. They go on to elaborate on the benefits that will be bestowed on your life here and hereafter if you assiduously follow the stated rules of right conduct.
Why? Did they already know that without one eye at tangible results, we humanity are hopeless?
As a practicing Hindu, every ‘paath’, ‘strotra’ or ‘chalisa’ that I can think of, culminates with the beautiful exposition of falahshruti (listening to the results),
“jo sat baar paath kar koi
chutahi bandhi mahasukh hoi”
This is a couplet from the ‘Hanuman Chalisa’, a forty couplet verse sung as a prayer to God Hanuman. These lines say that one who recites these verses a hundred times is released from all kinds of bondages and shall attain great bliss.
Are we really incapable of doing anything until we know the rewards? Is there no other way we inspire or motivate ourselves? This makes service or for that matter any action a tricky game everywhere in life. More so on the spiritual path, because a selfless act is so hard to attain.
Now, I have friends who do not agree with me. They pointed out to me that very recently when the world went down into the dungeon hole of the pandemic, humanity arose to new heights. We stepped out to help each other, even risking our own lives. As I write this, people from across the globe are stepping up humanitarian efforts to help the people of Ukraine. Every time a calamity hits — call it a tsunami, a hurricane, an earthquake, terrorist attack, or a man-made war, humanity rises and serves without a second thought.
I agree with them.
And then I ask why do we rise in the face of a calamity?
Because if we don’t, we would not be able to go back to sleep with our tattered conscience. It is about us and our reward of a peaceful sleep.
Maybe this is why I had stayed awake on that night with my cousin. For my conscience wouldn’t have it otherwise, only for its own sake.