Social service, Philanthropy And Spirituality–M.S. Srinivasan

(Published in Sri Aurobindo’s Action and Next Future)

Philanthropy and social service are the expressions of the more generous part of human nature.  When these higher impulses of he nobler self in human beings are pursued with sincerity it can lead to moral growth of the individual and much material benefit to the society.  But can they also lead to spiritual growth? This article examines this question from a deeper spiritual perspective.

The Moral Pitfall

The ethical development is an important stage in human evolution.  The urge to serve the poor and the under privileged and to give money for a higher cause which brings material wellbeing to human life indicates moral awakening and when they are pursued with a certain selflessness can lead to a rapid moral evolution of the individual.

However for a seeker in the path of yoga pursuing spiritual growth, these altruistic activities have their limitations and pitfalls.  For, spiritual progress comes from a progressive dissolution of the ego.  But moral altruism, in most cases, does not dissolve the ego, but only shifts it to the moral plane.  In altruism, serving others becomes a means for self-satisfaction of the moral ego.  As Sri Aurobindo points out with his unerring and merciless yogic insight.

“But even charity and altruism are essentially egoistic in their immediate motive.  They are stirred by the discomfort of the sight of suffering to the nervous system or by the pleasurableness of others’ appreciation of our kindliness or by the egoistic self-appreciation of our own benevolence or by the need of indulgence in sympathy.  They are philanthropists, who would be troubled, if the poor were not always with us, for they would then have no field for their charity.” (1)

This moral self-satisfaction has a great danger for the spiritual seeker; it extinguishes the spiritual aspiration; he is so content and happy with his goodness, he feels no need for progressing deeper and further to his spiritual source.  The other defect of the moral ego is self-righteousness.  The ego of the do-gooder tends to look down upon all others who are not doing what it does as selfish and heartless.

The Primacy of Spiritual Growth

So the main focus of a spiritual seeker on the path of yoga has to be his own spiritual development which leads to the discovery of his true self.  Helping others or humanity are secondary concerns.  There is an interesting episode in Sri Aurobindo’s epic Savitri which brings out this need for self-discovery.  The heroine of the epic, after a long journey in the inner world, comes close to the inner sanctorum of her soul.  There she sees a large number of angels rushing out to help the world.  As she looks at them, she also feels a strong urge to rush with them to save the world.  But she restrains that passion in the heart and here comes the following beautiful lines:

“Yearning to the spiritual light

They bore

Longed once to hasten like them

to save God’s world

But she reined back the high

passion in her heart

She knew that first she must

discover the soul.

Only who save themselves can

others save

In contrary sense she faced

life’s riddling truth:

They carrying the light to

suffering men

Hurried with eager feet to

the outer world

Her eyes were turned to the

eternal source.” (2)

This brings us to the question why? Why Sri Aurobindo and The Mother and many other spiritual masters gave a much higher importance to saving our souls than saving others? The main reason is that our ego is incapable of knowing what is truly and wholly good for other or even for our own self.

Our ego doesn’t have the holistic vision to see the totality of life and therefore cannot understand the long-term consequences of its action.  The human ego is a fragmented consciousness which can see only a fragment of life; it may try to do good to the fragment of life which it sees or knows but this good may have adverse consequences for the other fragments or dimensions of life which the ego is not aware.  For example, during the period of industrial revolutions, industrialization is considered as the greatest good.  The ego in the pragmatic minds which spear-headed the industrial revolution was unable to see or understand the adverse consequences of industrialism in the environmental and human dimension.  In a deeper level also, ego’s desire to do good creates subtle mischief.  The ego of the philanthroper who wants to serve the poor, half-consciously or unconsciously wants poor people to be always there so that he can serve them.  Similarly the doctor wants people to be sick so that he can cure and the hero wants people to be in distress so that he can save!

In the spiritual perspective our true self or nature is an infinite, universal and unconditioned being, consciousness, force, delight and love.  The human ego limits, restricts and conditions our true consciousness with narrow walls and boundaries, limiting our capacity for knowledge, understanding and love.  So, more we are free from ego, more we become receptive to our true self and as a result, greater our capacity for knowledge, understanding, sympathy, love and a more creative and holistic goodness.  As the individual progresses spiritually by a progressive conquest over his ego and desire, he becomes more and more receptive to the more peaceful, luminous and kindly energies of his higher and deeper self and also with similar energies in universal Nature.  These higher energies flows through him and diffuse into the physical and mental environment of the community, which has its positive and beneficent impact on others.  The seeker who is progressing spiritually may not himself be conscious of this subtle and invisible help he is rendering to the community.  But he becomes a more or less conscious or unconscious channel for higher, purer and more beneficent energies which do a greater good to the community and its members than the externalized altruism of an egocentric, morally ambitious and self-satisfied do-gooder.  So as Sri Aurobindo sums up briefly in simple and luminous words:

“To concentrate on one’s own spiritual growth and experience is the first necessity of the sadhak—-To be eager to help others draws away from the inner work.  To grow in the spirit is the greatest help one can give to others, for then something flows out naturally to those around that help them.” (3)

This applies not only to the individual development but also to the growth of the collectivity. When we look deeply into the root cause of all conflicts, misery and violence among human individual and collectivities, we will find at the bottom, the human ego and its greed, ambition and attachments. So the greatest good we can do to human evolution and progress is to felicitate the spiritual evolution of the individual and the collectivity from its confinement within the ego to the egoless and limitless unity-consciousness of the Spirit. As Sri Aurobindo points out:

“The greatest service to humanity, the surest foundation for its true progress, happiness and perfection is to prepare or find the way by which the individual and the collective man can transcend the ego and live in its true self, no longer bound to ignorance, incapacity, disharmony and sorrow. It is by pursuit of the eternal and not by living bound in the slow collective evolution of Nature that we can best assure that evolutionary, collective, altruistic aim our modern thought and idealism has set before us.” (4)

Spiritualizing the Moral Act

This brings us to an important question.  Does this mean activities like social service, philanthropy and helping others have to be excluded from integral yoga?  But karma yoga of the Gita, which is a central part of integral yoga, views all activities, sarvakarmani, as part of yoga of works.  According to Gita every activity, including moral activities like social service or philanthropy, can be done in a spirit of karmayoga and if they are done in this spirit can lead to the spiritual development of the individual or in otherwords the moral act can be spiritualized through karma yoga.

We must note here that in our present world, social service or philanthropy are not merely individual activities of a few isolated philanthropist or social reformers. They have become integral part of the collective life, done in an organized, systematic and professional way by a  large number of NGO’s and the non-profit sector which has emerged as a major organ of society employing as many number of people as government or business.  And an increasing number of young and talented people in business are dissatisfied with the hectic and stressful rat-race for money and career in the corporate world and moving to the more relaxed and morally satisfying non-profit sector.  Within the corporate world itself, the concept and practice of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is gaining increasing recognition among thinkers and leaders in business.  Most of the major business houses and also many medium sized firms has a charitable foundation or a social service project as a part of their CSR initiatives.  The concept and practice of corporate philanthropy and social responsibility is now discussed extensively in business journals, management literature, seminars and conferences.  Another interesting phenomenon in the West is “Volunteerism.”  In a society where paid work is the norm, more and more young people are volunteering for community service without pay.  All these trends show that social service and philanthropy is emerging as an integral part of the contemporary society and economy.  If “All life is yoga” is the motto of integral yoga, then we cannot exclude these activities from it because they have become a major sector of the emerging corporate life.  These trends are in harmony with what Sri Aurobindo wrote in one of his early writing that the future evolution will be not in the material sphere but in the moral, psychological and spiritual domain.  As the moral evolution of the race progresses, more and more people and the human society as a whole will gravitate towards service-oriented, morally fulfilling activities.

So, a seeker of integral yoga need not hesitate to take up social service or philanthropy if they come as part of his professional work or if he has a spontaneous call of his nature, swadharma towards these activities.  For example, a well-developed Vysya temperament, the commercial man who is at the higher stages of his evolution, has a natural inclination for philanthropy.  But as we have said earlier a seeker in the path of integral yoga has to spiritualize the moral act with the deeper spirit of karma yoga.

This brings us to the question what are the inner attitudes which can elevate the moral act to the spiritual level.  The first one is renunciation of the fruits or rewards of action, material and moral.  We may not seek for any material rewards but may seek for moral rewards like expectation of gratitude, appreciation or karmic benefits for our good actions.  All these forms of reward-seeking have to be consciously renounced and eliminated.

The second attitude comes from the perception of unity.  The others whom we help or serve has to be seen and felt as part of our own self and therefore by helping others we are helping our own self.  The people whom we help or serve are in turn helping us to grow morally and spiritually by providing us the opportunity to serve them.

The third attitude is that of offering our activities to the Divine.  We have to offer the act of help or service to the Divine with an aspiration to become more and more receptive instrument of the Divine.  Here again this has to be done with great humility and we have to keep a vigilant eye on the raising of the ego of the instrument, flattering itself, “What a great instrument of God am I” or “What a wonderful work I am doing for the Divine.”

The fourth part of the sadhana is a constant and vigilant self-observation to detect and reject the self-seeking ego in every level of our being─physical, vital, emotional, mental, moral.  There can also be a spiritual ego.  This spiritual pride, vanity or ambition can hide behind a gentle, saintly and benign outer appearance.  We may keep all the spiritual ideals or attitudes which we have discussed earlier like, “by helping others I am helping myself ”in the upper layers of our mind, but the lower reaches of the mind and heart may remain dim and dark, full of ego, desire, ambition and self-seeking, hiding behind a multitude of disguises and subterfuges.  There must be a constant and unceasing self-observation to uncover the self-seeking ego in all our thoughts, feelings, motives and impulses.

References:

  1. Sri Aurobindo, Views and Reviews, p.9-10.
  2. Sri Aurobindo, Savithri, pp.501
  3. Sri Aurobindo, SABCL, Vol.22, Letters on yoga, pp.151.
  4. Sri Aurobindo, SABCL, Vol.20, Synthesis of Yoga, pp. 344.
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