With the Durga puja and Thanksgiving holidays coming up in a few weeks, I cannot help ruminate about a persistent idea that has been at the periphery of my thoughts for a while. I have begun to think about the concept of gratitude and thanksgiving as a normative quality and state of mind that is intrinsically connected to the companion qualities of generosity and acceptance. Most religions, including the two that I am most familiar with, Hinduism and Christianity, require these qualities of their adherents as a central principle of behavior that, put in practice, invariably brings humans closer to that which is divine. The Bhagawad Gita defines action or Karma as one that must be fulfilled in a detached manner without the desire or motivation to receive anything in return. Sri RamKrishna Paramhansa explains this through the analogy that one should live their life in ways similar to a domestic worker lives and conducts her action in the household of a rich person. The duties are completed as if one’s life depended on them, with a wholeness of concentration and care as if she were serving her own relatives, yet nothing is her own, and the beneficiaries of her action may or may not repay her labor with gratitude. What she performs becomes ideal action as it does not guarantee any reward. Within the Christian tradition, the notion of service and the love that accompanies it, Caritas, emerges out of a giving of the self so that the community and the neediest within the community may benefit. In this, the believer replicates God’s descending and unconditional love, Agape (a term borrowed from Greek philosophy in Christianity), that allows a beloved to be martyred for humanity. In this divine idea an unconditional love free from “cause/effect” drives underlying ideal behavior towards the community and family.
These matters are of paramount relevance when working as a volunteer in an organization primarily meant to be serving the larger community. True to the tradition of Hinduism, the idea of “action devoid of its fruit” becomes an exercise in practical lived experience. Essential to such service is a humble acceptance of the trope of the “domestic servant” who works purely to serve without any expectation of external praise, or “office”, or to be part of a caucus. Service itself has to be made into vocation where the latter implies a broader understanding of “karma” or action for its own sake. My Christian clergymen in college call it a form of worship. While this may sound lofty and pleasing to our finer aesthetic sense, it actually translates into a gritty, at times gut-wrenching battle with the self which seeks easy praise, high office, or material benefits. A “yoga’ or exercise of sorts is required to push such extrinsic desires out of the way and search for the kernel of truth that lies within this action. The exercise is to be in the self, yet without self, the “self” here denoting the egotistic personal being that drives most of our actions. The conundrum here is that because of our ego and its drive, we derive the energy to hone our specific talents. Thus, years of practice has made someone a gifted singer, dancer, raconteur, actor, painter, and so on. But in “selflessly” serving as a volunteer, how does one “detach” from the concomitant desire to exhibit this talent? How does one tell this self, “No, not this time. You will be driving the U-Haul truck with Ma Durga’s idol in it, rather than sing for a thousand people on a glittering stage?” That is where the “rub” lies in that struggle. And yet, that is where self-less action resides.
Greek philosophers like Socrates and Plato had broadened the discussion to suggest that there are “forms” or idealized versions of every material existence one could think of. Thus, for them every material expression or emotion has stages of ascent from the purely material to the spiritual state of the forms which is ideal. Particularly useful is the Greek idea of “desire” or Eros which, for them, emerges out of a sense of lack. According to this notion, lack of knowledge kindles in me the desire to gain knowledge; when I lack love, I seek it in a relationship. And so, the same is true when, because I lack spiritual knowledge, I seek the Divine. Those of us who have left home to come to another land thus desire communion with others from our native community; one could place nostalgia as the ultimate desire for our past lives. For the Greeks, then, desire was not so much a barrier but a catalyst, once recognized by the self, towards greater excellence and wholeness.
In each tradition then we see perhaps a common underlying need to know the self. Who am I? What do I consider true action where I could bring my best self and the best kind of “desire” that allows the paradox of selfless action and self-fulfillment to co-exist and better still, to complement each other. However, we are not alone with our selves; rather, we exist and interact with others, who bring their own specific motivation for action.