On Altruism


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Dear all:
Wishing each of you and every one in your families a Very Happy New Year (2018). Best wishes for good health, happiness, joy and a true inner peace.
Our blog posts initiated in April 2010 has now 157 essays of which 14 essays (including this one) have been posted in Year 2017. While the early ones were not coherent we have settled on essays on  “Spirituality in Practice” in a true sense for the past several years.
Thank you for your continued reading and occasional encouragement through comments, or through personal contacts. Much appreciated.

Un-attached active engagement: Is it the same as altruism in action?

Every chapter of Baghawath Geetha offers some practical guidelines as well as some abstract concepts.  In BG Chapter 12, unattached active engagement (Karma Phala Thyagam)  is presented as the minimum required to acquire divinity. One would think that such minimum requisite  must be easy to accomplish. May be it is the most difficult to comprehend? How can anyone engage in any activity without the desire for the outcomes?

Psychologist Abigail Marsh describes an incident early in her life. While driving on the highway her car skidded and spun on off the road and to the other side as she lost control. With a dead engine and totally in despair she was facing the oncoming traffic. Another driver from a passing vehicle raced across the highway, running across lanes daring the traffic and pulled her out to safety. Without notice he took off continuing his travel. She wondered who was this brave person risking his life to save her life and yet left no trace to connect with him? All she could do was thank this altruistic person in public in her TED talk “Why some people are more altruistic than others?

Abigail’s experience is not far from my own experience. After my undergraduate education I was heading to the U.S. for studies at MIT. I had to travel by train from Chennai to Mumbai to catch a flight to London and onward to New York and ultimately to Boston. As our train pulled off the station at Chennai, I noticed that my briefcase was missing and along with it every form of identification. That included my passport, visa, admission papers. Everything! As the train was moving, I and my father who was accompanying me, could do nothing other than convey the news and the shock to my relatives still at the platform. Making the story short, when my relatives went home they found a person waiting for them holding my bag! This stranger had seen a thief who had stolen my bag – a young person – holding my bag.  He was trying to get change from passersby in a major road in Chennai at a location not far away from the train station. In those days the $5 bill looked more like 5Rs. note, both green in color! Looking at the dollar bill the stranger grew suspicious, grabbed the bag and found all my details including my personal address. He promptly proceeded to my home in Chennai and delivered the bag. He left leaving no trace of who he was! Till to date, I have no  information of this total stranger who has defined my higher education, career and even the course of the rest of my life without expecting or seeking anything in return. All I can do even now is to say “thank you” in public through this blog post!

Why do some people help others at times and at extraordinary cost, risk or sacrifice to their own self-interest? We call such actions “altruistic”, which Abigail defines as: Voluntary, costly behavior motivated by the desire to help another individual. It is a self-less act motivated only to help others.

Psychologists describe human beings as a spectrum of those who cannot recognize the distress of others (Psychopaths) to those who can instinctively relate to the needs of others (altruists). One example of altruists in our daily life are people who donate their kidney or other body parts during their life time to total strangers. There are about 2000 of them in the US today according to Abigail’s studies. When they were asked what motivated them to do such selfless act, invariably they said “nothing; it is not about me”. In other words they are altruistic for its own sake and not for any other reason! As one can see unattached active engagement (Karma Phala Thyagam) is not all that abstract concept for these altruists!

Altruism may be noted in the specific acts of individuals and at specific times. Hence there may be a tendency by psychologists to develop a causal connection between certain aspects of our brain or economic wellbeing as the prerequisites for altruism. In many respects this diminishes the role of human being simply to biological species.

Human beings are more than mere biological species governed by tangible causality alone or function only in response to specific means such as brain, economic conditions, etc. Selfless acts of charity and kindness are not limited to a few or based on their economic circumstances alone. Genuine love, empathy, compassion and forgiveness are not bound by results or expectation of some needs to be full filled as the pre-requisite.

Conditioned by our mind and our actions over the years or during our life time, we believe that nothing can be done just because it is the right thing to do. Through such conditioned mind and self-limiting approach we fail to see the true joy of life or the universality of opportunities to participate in. If we are truly part of nature – Thath Thawam Asi (You and the universe are integral in each other) – and not a self-limiting biological species then there are many evidences for us as examples of altruism: The sun does not shine to create light; it merely shines. Rain does not happen or wind blows for any specific reason other than it is just part of nature. The breeze in the spring time spreads the fragrance that we enjoy. But, the breeze merely responds to pressure gradients unaware of the fragrance or it being spread around or the enjoyment of such sweet smell by others.

Let us continue to respect and admire the altruistic acts of others. But let us also condition our mind to be altruistic – for unattached active engagement. It is not the ultimate accomplishment, but the minimum expectation for Spirituality in practice according to Baghawath Geetha. Caring for neighbors, kindness to elders and strangers, a smile at a baby nearby, acts of charity, donation to needy causes, volunteering to help those in need (and in no way connected with us) are all examples of unattached active engagement. Even help and support for any one known to us – starting from the near and dear in our families – such as raising our children or putting food on the table can be done because they are right thing to do and not because there is a personal connection or obligation for such actions. In other words “duty” is the right thing to do without attachment and not an obligation with an expected end benefit.

May be altruism – unattached active engagement – is much closer to us than we realize? In that case it can indeed be the minimum step towards spirituality in practice?

Arjuna: What is the best pathway to attain divinity?       B.G. 12. 1.

Lord Krishna:                                                               B.G. 12. 12

  • Controlling your mind to develop an objective outlook is the best.  Gnana Yoga
  • Controlling your emotions though faith in the larger order (God) is next best.    Bhakthi Yoga
  • Carrying out daily activities with a genuine commitment to your duty is acceptable as well.     Karma Yoga
  • If you are not able to do even that, at least forego the self-driven needs (attachment to the results).      Un-attached active engagement.
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1 Response to On Altruism

  1. K. K. Sankaran says:

    I believe a majority of human beings are intrinsically altruistic and are wired to respond to help others in dire situations without thinking about the risk or rewards resulting from their actions. In addition to the two examples cited in the blog (one of which is from the author’s direct experience), another recent example is the action of Ian Grillot of Olathe, KS who instinctively intervened in the shooting that left one person dead. See https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/28/us/kansas-shooting-india-immigrants-ian-grillot.html?_r=0

    The point is that true altruism is instinctive without any prior thoughts of the action. All other acts, while they could be noble, have a certain calculation of reward/self satisfaction with rajasam as the motive and cannot really be altruistic in the true sense.

    I would like to hear from the author and other readers about this subject.

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