Understanding what is “Selfishness” arises as a natural aspect of governing one’s own self. Learning about selfishness is a gradual and evolutionary process. Early on we learn about selfishness through a set of “dos and don’ts”. When you are really young – a toddler – “what is selfish?” is determined by a set of rules given to you, by your parents, teachers, nanny, other elders, etc. Rarely does a toddler challenge the parents and ask “Why should I share my candies with my friends?” On rare occasions when such challenge is raised, either the child is forced into submission or branded as a selfish brat! These are the rare opportunities for learning, missed in life, which later on come out as the genuine question: Why should I not be selfish?
When you are young (K – 12 and later on as an UG student) they teach you the rules of the road – the do’s and don’ts – in any number of ways. There is a famous poem in Tamil – AAthichudi – of twelve lines. Each line starts with an alphabet. I will write on AAthichudi in a future blog. While you learn the alphabets, you also learn the “rules of the road”. For the rest of the life, you do what comes natural without violating these 12 rules. Then, the questions of what is selfish or not, why and why not, gets taken care of through these or similar set of rules learned early on! You merely do what comes natural and appropriate under these rules! This process of self governance is called Karma Yoga.
Then as we grow older, we have situations, when “You can feel within yourself a discomfort, and an uncertainty, a feeling of conflict between right and wrong”. This discomfort arises only when we have a faith or belief in a larger order and a need to abide by it. The discomfort is often resolved by resorting to the “rules of the road” mentioned earlier. This process – faith based – of self governance is called Bhakthi Yoga. The question of “Why I should not be selfish?” does not arise for those who are at ease with this manner of self governance. These aspects of understanding selfishness and hence its control can be noted in the following quotes:
The true joy of life [is] being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one … being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown to the scrap heap … being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish clod of ailments and grievances.” —- Bernard Shaw
“As a Buddhist monk my concern extends to all members of the human family and, indeed, to all sentient beings who suffer. I believe all suffering is caused by ignorance. People inflict pain on others in the selfish pursuit of their own happiness or satisfaction.”
—- Dalai Lama
Then there are the limited few situations, where the “rules of the road” or a desire to feel at ease within oneself are not adequate. There is a burning urge to learn and understand “What is selfishness? Why and why not be selfish?” At this point the analysis becomes reflective and intense. We resort to looking at “selfishness” as an activity and its components. We recognize that every activity of any kind has three attributes associated with it: Knowledge, Ignorance and the bias imposed on them. This is the process of self governance (Yoga) through the understanding of the three attributes (guna) at play. This analytical process requires commitment, patience and perseverance. It is not for one, who raises the question ad-hoc or seeks casual answers. Please refer to our earlier blog: Why there are no good choices?
This process of self governance – Yoga – is the process of analytical reflection (Sankya Yoga or Gnana Yoga).
If you think about it, we use all three avenues – Karma Yoga, Bhakthi Yoga and Gnana Yoga – interchangeably and almost involuntarily. The reliance of one path over other has to do with the tendency or nature of each person and the circumstances in his/her life at a given point. For one who understands all these, the entire world (and life as a whole) is merely a theater in which we participate in all the activities under these three roles (Karma, Bhakthi and Gnana) through the three attributes (Gunas). For one who understands all these and practices these as a natural part of living, becomes/transforms to an “enlightened person” as a matter of course! In many respects, the above is the essence of Bhagawath Geetha. By asking a simple question, “Why should I not be selfish?” the student has raised the basic question of Arjuna. This question and the answers – summarized above – are noted in great detail in Bhagawath Geetha!