Life is a constant pursuit of “SUKH”. The word “sukh” stands for happiness, pleasure and joys – basic emotions that seem to need no definition or explanation. Similarly, dukh, the antonym of sukh, seems to be self-explanatory and obvious. Yet, strangely, one comes across vastly different perceptions of what constitutes sukh and what is dukh.
More than three decades ago, when I was a student at IIT Bombay, it first struck me that there could be different perceptions or view points about sukh. On a lazy weekend afternoon, about eight to ten of us (all in late teens) had collected in a room, chatting about one thing or the other. Someone floated a question about what each one of us would do if he got a lottery of Rs. 100,000- (a princely sum in late 70’s, when starting salary of an IIT graduate used to be less than Rs.1000 p.m.). Someone said that he would go on a world tour. Someone wanted to buy a car. Flashy clothes, expensive music system, travel to one country or the other, a booze party for all friends – these were some of the favourites that were thrown up amidst a lot of mirth and laughter. The fantasy-discussion was just coming to an end when someone noticed that Kelkar, dressed in his typical old ragged pajamas and thin vest with holes, had not spoken. Everyone started pestering Kelkar for his dream. Kelkar was a shy guy. He was not very fluent in English, being more at ease in his native Marathi. After much hesitation, Kelkar said that for many years his father had been planning to add a few rooms to their house and if he has the money, he will use it to construct an additional floor in the house.
There was complete silence after Kelkar had spoken. This not-so-impressive fellow had shown us a mirror that we did not want to see. Each one of us had a vision centered only on individual pleasures, possessions and excitements. In contrast, Kelkar saw himself as a part of his family. He could not even imagine himself enjoying a world tour or an expensive car, while his father struggled to meet both ends meet. None of us came from a rich family. In many cases, the family had struggled and sacrificed to pay for the education. Yet, in our consciousness, the central theme was I and I and I alone.
On that lazy afternoon, for a moment, we did appreciate that Kelkar had a different view of things. With Kelkar’s words, our dreams hit the hard ground of reality where two cultures were clashing. One was the individualistic (often called as “American”) culture where self-interest, personal joys, personal achievements, personal possessions were the focus. On the other hand was an old traditional viewpoint where everything was collective and family shared everything – joys, pleasures, sorrows, poverty, riches, food, possessions, house and even clothes. In this traditional view, “I” was a word to be understood only as a part of the big we and never in isolation.
At that time, neither I nor anyone else in the room, saw things in the above terms. Somehow, intuitively Kelkar seemed right and we seemed to be wrong. Pursuit of personal happiness of all types was the great mantra that America of 60’s and 70’s had taught the world. All of us, except Kelkar, were steeped in this indoctrination. We had grown on a heady mix of Ayn Rand, Beatles, Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Richard Bach, and of course, Marx. Pursuit of individual’s goals, aspirations and dreams was typically glorified in the 70s bestseller Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach.
Each of us wanted to be the seagull that soared in the sky far ahead of all the rest - alone. And then we read about angst, alienation, loneliness meaninglessness and boredom in all those fat books by existentialists. We never realized that the so-called weltanshauung concerns and problems highlighted by the existentialists were a direct fall-out of the pursuit of individual goals as propounded by Bach and Rand. Of course, existentialists offered no solution. In fact, they seemed to be convinced that a solution was not possible.
Whether it be the scientific philosophers or existentialists or the modern individualists, all of them were looking at the world from a common vantage point – that of a self-centered individual. Words like sacrifice and love were meaningless for them. To help them were the psychoanalysts (à la Freud) who analyzed man-woman relationships strictly in terms of sex and ego. The great virtue of the time was liberation. Each and every individual had to be liberated from the shackles of social mores. Women had to be liberated form men and in turn men had to be liberated from ‘outdated’ institutions like marriage. To achieve freedom, women were advised to burn their bras and smoke pot with their male friends. Of course, it was beyond any doubt or argument that everyone must have a right to be a homosexual and choose / change sexual partners at the drop of a hat. When future historians write about second half of twentieth century, they will be surprised by the extremes of self-centeredness. All the philosophies and culture of the post-second-world war era will be summed up in one slogan popularized by a cigarette advertisement – Live Life Kingsize.
The race for living life kingsize started in twentieth century and continues even till today. The irony is that no one understands the meaning of kingsize life. What started in the post-renaissance era as a celebration of man’s capabilities has become a civilization whose aspirations, dreams and values have been and are being shaped by copywriters of ad agencies. Freedom, first became a value unto itself, and soon degenerated into a farce when Marlboro man became its icon.
In the pursuit for freedom and for living life kingsize, modern man lost sight of the primary goal – of sukh. He is running after a mirage buying palatial houses, flashy cars, expensive cosmetics, vacations to the most exotic places on earth and so on. He has been everywhere, he has bought everything and he has done all that he could ever imagine. Yet, he feels hollow. Of course, he keeps convincing himself that he is happy.
The realization that everything exciting and thrilling is not a joy came to me on an evening in 1982. I had gone to Germany on my first foreign trip. All the new sights, new foods, new drinks had gone to my head. I returned to Mumbai and took a sharing taxi to go to Nasik – my abode at that time. Sitting on the front seat of the taxi, I started talking to the taxi driver. I told him that I was returning from Germany. He asked me if I had gone alone or with some friends. I told him that I had gone with my boss, but for most of the trip I was alone. He commented, “to kya maza aaya hoga?” (what fun would you have had in that case?). For a moment I was shocked. All my excitement and thrill about narrating my experiences of maiden trip had been killed by this man. In the view of the taxi driver, irrespective of how beautiful a place one went to, one could only enjoy if one had good company. According to him, one could only enjoy company, any place was always incidental. He closed the argument by saying, “apne bibi-bachhon-doston ke sath baith kar dal-roti khane me jo maza hai, weh jannat me bhi akele aa hi nai sakta” (The pleasure that one gets by eating simple chapatti with lentil soup in the company of one’s wife, children and friends, one cannot get even in heaven). It took some time for the wisdom of the taxi driver to sink in. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the taxi driver was right.
Almost two and a half decades later, the same thought was confirmed by a friend - Kaku. He runs a confectionery shop in Bhopal. He and his five friends planned to go on a vacation to USA. All of them applied for tourist visa. For some strange inexplicable reason, application of one of them was turned down by the consulate. Rest of them could have decided to continue with their plans. Instead, they cancelled the trip altogether. Kaku told me that it would have been meaningless to go since they would have not enjoyed at all. Surely, Kaku belongs to the same school of thought as the taxi driver whom I met a quarter century back.
The idea that there can be no fun or pleasure without one’s loved ones around oneself is not strange to most Indians as well as to people of many other cultures. In fact, this forms a fundamental basis of a world-view, which stands in stark contrast to all that modern philosophers, thinkers and advertisements have shouted from rooftops. According to this world-view, an individual is a part of a number of wholes – family being the primary one. Individual’s consciousness of his own identity is defined by his being a part of the whole. Individual does not even see himself as independent of the whole.
The two world views – individualist with “I” being the centre of all attention and holistic where everyone forms a part of the whole – stand in direct contrast to each other. Almost all philosophies propounded and popularized in Europe and America during the past two centuries can be labeled as individualistic. On the other hand, all major religions are holistic.
Notwithstanding the different approaches and hairsplitting on innumerable issues, all religions talk in one way or the other of empathy, brotherhood, compassion, kindness, honesty, humility, sacrifice, love, devotion, contentment and service. None of these words has any meaning in the lexicon of individualistic philosophers, thinkers, authors and ad copywriters whose key words are possession, achievement, passion, obsession, acquisition, pride, envy, sexy, grand, kingsize, magnificent, glamorous, powerful, sensual, seductive, erotic, voluptuous, fashionable, lethal etc.
In the Hindu mythology and religious texts, the differences between individualistic and holistic ways of life are highlighted using the Sanskrit terms – danav and dev. A dev or devta or sur is one who gives without any direct expectations in return. On the other hand a danav or asur or rakshas tries to grab all that he can by hook or by crook.
In the world view of a danav, one stands for oneself and all relations that one enters into are equations of give-something-take-something. In the danav consciousness, the central theme is always, “I, my pleasures, my body, my life, my money, my possessions, my ….”. Since I and all that is mine forms the core of danav consciousness, sukh and dukh are defined in terms of I and all that is mine. Everyone around a danav is either for the purpose of enhancing his / her pleasures or is a nuisance to be either tolerated or eliminated.
Quite in contrast with the danav mind, everyone around a dev offers him / her an opportunity to shower love and affection. In case of a dev, relationships are not delicately balanced equations of give and take, but define one’s role in the grand oneness to which everyone belongs. The dev sees himself or herself as a part of the big picture. In other words, one does not see oneself as independent of one’s family and society. For a danav, life is a constant struggle between I and the world. For a dev, life is a constant attempt to be in better harmony with the cosmic oneness. A danav is always trying to acquire something or the other and every acquisition is an act to further inflate one’s ego. A dev is trying to submerge his identity into the cosmos and hence, ego (or even consciousness of one’s identity as distinct from the part that one is assigned in the cosmic scheme) is discouraged.
Sukh and dukh, for a dev, are not defined in terms of I, my and mine, but on the basis of one’s identity as part of the whole. This may sound esoteric and strange to all those who have been exposed to the so-called modern values and cultures. But to millions of people all over the world the dev world-view is the only right one.
In the known history of mankind, the civilizations that have survived and flourished for thousands of years have always believed in the dev or holistic view. Indian and Chinese civilizations are prime examples of societies founded on holistic view. Greek civilization (especially Athens), as far as my understanding of it goes, was based on individualistic thoughts. No wonder that Greek civilization lasted for such a short period – less than one century.
In Europe, individualistic thoughts started gaining strength during the post-renaissance period. However, full bloom of individualistic thoughts came only after Second World War in the United States of America. It has been less than a century of full-scale experiments with the danav way of life. It is not possible to predict how this experiment will end. But, looking at the state of American society today, it is not difficult to see the direction in which it is headed.
At an individual’s level, dev way of life leads to peace, contentment and an inner satisfaction that is truly divine. The danav way of life is full of strife, anger, violence and disturbance. What appears as a sukh to a danav is always a temporary affair. A danav has loveless sex which lasts for less than a few minutes and leaves him / her craving for more. A dev experiences the elixir of love which makes his / her whole life glow.
In the dev world-view, sukh can only be experienced by giving and by sharing. Sukh does not come from a flashy car or from an expensive bottle of wine or from a vacation in an exotic location. Sukh is running one’s fingers through one’s children’s hair. Sukh is not in the bed of the world’s most shapely prostitute.
I have no intention to indulge in a debate about the superiority of dev way of life over the danav way of life. This is truly a matter of faith – beyond any discussions and debate. I believe that the dev / holistic way of life is the only true way of life and the danav / individualistic self-centered attitude might lead to temporary gains in short run, but in the long run it leads to mental, physical, financial ruin of the individual concerned.
Let us all pursue sukh, not the danav variety, but the one that brings us in greater harmony with our family, society and the world.
31 March 2008
Please write to me your comments about the above article.
ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer (and now a lawyer too) by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a management consultant by profession.
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