Sacrifice: The bane of India


We, the people of India, have been conditioned to believe that tyaag or sacrifice is a great virtue. The list of personages revered for sacrifice is long—from the Buddha and Lord Mahavira to the saint-poets of the medieval period and Gandhi and Jayaprakash Narayan in modern times. Nobody in our country, however, has bothered to examine the supposed great virtue. It is time it was done now.

Normally, sacrifice is considered to be an act of giving up something precious for the sake of something else; if that something else is not for the direct and immediate benefit of the sacrificer, we regard the act as noble. So, Prince Siddhartha renounced his worldly belongings, royal status, and family because he wanted to improve the lot of fellow human beings.

The problem with his sacrifice was that it sought metaphysical solutions to the physical, material problems—be it starvation, poverty, disease, or old age. Unfortunately, the Indian civilization went on to glorifying such sacrifices. It can be argued, though, that Prince Siddhartha, with all the power and possessions at his disposal, could have endeavored to ameliorate the sufferings of his subjects by initiating medical and scientific research, boosting economic growth and development, and starting social and political reforms. He chose to give up everything instead to lead the life of a wandering ascetic; it was dereliction of duty. That the result of his sacrifice was serendipitous, giving rise to a great religion, is another story.

The journey from Siddhartha to the Buddha is not the only underpinning of the Hindu civilization; there are many more underpinnings as well, as we shall see; but he was arguably the greatest among the large number of people of heightened consciousness who charted the path of renunciation for salvation. Over the millennia, sacrifice and asceticism came be valued as cherished ideals. My contention is that such ideals sapped Indian civilization of energy, vibrancy, and elan.

Eventually, such ideals and values segment the individual’s life into the immediate, mundane concerns and the nobler, spiritual pursuits, bypassing his social and political responsibilities. My life, my family, my home, and the responsibilities related to them—that is the sphere of my worldly existence. I don’t think beyond this sphere as far as my worldly affairs are concerned. My higher calling is not about thinking about an ideal state (as Plato and Aristotle did), contemplating about ethics in society, and making the world a better place; it is instead a trek into the wonderland of metaphysics, for which the renunciation of the world is a prerequisite.

So, there are various schools of Indian philosophy; there is a lot of speculation on epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics; there are also several texts on and many insights into statecraft; but there is neither political philosophy nor a philosophy of life which ensures equanimity, if not salvation, in the world. As A.L. Basham wrote in The Wonder That Was India: A Survey of the Culture of the Indian Sub-continent Before the coming of the Muslims, “From the days of Plato and Aristotle European though has turned its attention to such questions as the origin of the state, the ideal form of government, and the basis of law, and politics has long been looked on as a branch of philosophy. India also thought on such questions, but she had no schools of political philosophy in the Western sense. The problems which form the stock-in-trade of the European political philosopher are answered in Indian texts, but in a take-it-or-leave-it manner, with little discussion…”

This is not surprising, because something as worldly as statecraft could never have enjoyed as great importance in India as Platonic and Aristotlean theories did in the West; for in our country the worldly and otherworldly spheres were like two disjoint sets with the latter above the former in every sense of the word, and ascension being impossible without… well, sacrificing the worldly. This also reflects in the lexicon: while the West has had its philosophers and thinkers, in India we have had sages, seers, mystics, and preachers; even the greatest Indian philosopher, Adi Shankara, ended up as a pontiff; Plato founded the Academy, whereas Shankara set up temple-monasteries. The Western intellectual tradition is embedded in the world, this world, whereas ours hangs in celestial space.

One consequence is that the Hindus seldom developed a sense of the public, for in their scheme of things dealings with people beyond family and kula have little relevance. They have a great social life—marriages, requiems, religious functions—but not-so-great public life, which is often afflicted with sanctimoniousness, deceit, and fickleness. The difference between social life and public life is that while in the former we deal with people we know, even distant relatives and faint acquaintances, in public life we are amid complete strangers, with whom we share nothing except humanity or nationality which are essentially abstract concepts. How I interact with those in my social circle, even those on the fringes of that circle, is likely to be known by everybody I know; not the same with public life.

In short, the glorification of sacrifice and asceticism adversely affected political thinking and public life.

There have been exceptions, though. Of all Indian religions, I think Sikhism is the only one that unequivocally rejects asceticism. It is important to note that Sikh Gurus lived as householders. Specifically, Guru Nanak, the first Guru, said, “Asceticism doesn’t lie in ascetic robes, or in walking staff, nor in the ashes. Asceticism doesn’t lie in the earring, nor in the shaven head, nor blowing a conch. Asceticism lies in remaining pure amidst impurities. Asceticism doesn’t lie in mere words; he is an ascetic who treats everyone alike. Asceticism doesn’t lie in visiting burial places. It lies not in wandering about, nor in bathing at places of pilgrimage. Asceticism is to remain pure amidst impurities.” Such ennobling teachings made the Sikhs one of the most hard-working and prosperous communities in our country.

Thankfully, sacrifice has not been regarded as the supreme ideal in the Hindu universe. Karma has had much greater importance as a guiding principle tyaag. In Bhagavad Geeta, Lord Krishna gave the commandment of action to Arjun, not of abnegation; he didn’t tell the Pandava warrior to give up the claim to the Hastinapur throne.

In other words, the Indian intellectual tradition has various strands, of which sacrifice is one. It is because of other strands, and in spite of sacrifice, that the Indian civilization can boast of its achievements—the Vedas and Upnishadas, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the works of Kalidas and Kautilya, Khajuraho and Konark temples, Adi Shankar and Nagarjuna, Aryabhatta and Varahmihir, Ayurveda and Kaamsutra, and so on.

Yet, the importance accorded to sacrifice and asceticism in our intellectual tradition has had an immensely deleterious effect on the politics and public discourse in India. From Mahatma Gandhi to Jayaprakash Narayan to Anna Hazare—the men who have influenced the course of Indian polity in varying degrees—sacrifice and asceticism are the threads that run through them. Their USP has not been vast erudition, sharp intellect, or grand vision but their abnegation. They were outsider saints who led mass movements with strong millenarian streaks.

People at large saw a deliverer in these saints or saintly politicians. In a way, they were all outsiders. Gandhi came to India in 1915, at a time when a galaxy of nationalist leaders had already made their presence felt in the political arena. JP practically reentered politics in the 1970s after loitering in the deserts of ‘Lokniti’ and bhoodan. And Hazare, till a few years ago, was a social activist with little impact on national politics. And they remained outsiders as far as power politics is concerned: Gandhi and JP never held any office; this is the reason that Indians continue to see them with a halo. Hazare has also not exhibited any desire to hold high office.

Though the RSS pracharak or apparatchik is quite different from Gandhi, JP, and Hazare, he shares at least a couple of traits with the three—sacrifice and abnegation. He is not supposed to marry; he lives a simple life; actually, he has sacrificed the worldly, material comforts for the sake of the nation. A consequence of this lifestyle is self-righteousness. Because I work only for the nation and I have given up the good things in life, I am always right. And because I have devoted my life to the nation, I know what is good for it. This arrogance is the product of not superior knowledge or achievement but of sacrifice.

This is where the problem starts. For any knowledge is born of either of both of the two—study or education and experience. Now, the RSS pracharak may have many virtues, but scholarship is certainly not one of them. As for experience, well, he has sacrificed the worldly existence—that is, family life—so it is unrealistic to expect that he would be aware of the joys and pleasures and the trials and travails of the normal householder. Therefore, we are left with a man of action who wants to change the world he knows little about, a man who is a bundle of weird doctrines, outlandish certitudes, and remarkable self-righteousness—all this because he has… well, made a great sacrifice. Sacrifice is the bane of India.