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Series III - Chapter 4 - 'Can One Know What Is Good For The People?'

Series III - Chapter 4 - 'Can One Know What Is Good For The People?'

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Commentaries on Living

THERE WERE SEVERAL of us in the room. Two had been in prison for many years for political reasons; they had suffered and sacrificed in gaining freedom for the country, and were well-known. Their names were often in the papers, and while they were modest that peculiar arrogance of achievement and fame was still in their eyes. They were well-read, and they spoke with the facility that comes from public speaking. Another was a politician, a big man with a sharp glance, who was full of schemes and had an eye on self-advancement. He too had been in prison for the same reason, but now he was in a position of power, and his look was assured and purposeful; he could manipulate ideas and men. There was another who had renounced worldly possessions, and who hungered for the power to do good. Very learned and full of apt quotations, he had a smile that was genuinely kind and pleasant, and he was currently travelling all over the country talking, persuading, and fasting. There were three or four others who also aspired to climb the political or spiritual ladder of recognition or humility.

"I cannot understand," one of them began, "why you are so much against action. Living is action; without action, life is a process of stagnation. We need dedicated people of action to change the social and religious conditions of this unfortunate country. Surely you are not against reform: the landed people voluntarily giving some of their land to the landless, the educating of the villager, the improving of the village, the breaking up of caste divisions, and so on."

Reform, however necessary, only breeds the need for further reform, and there is no end to it. What is essential is a revolution in man's thinking, not patchwork reform. Without a fundamental change in the mind and heart of man, reform merely puts him to sleep by helping him to be further satisfied. This is fairly obvious, isn't it? "You mean that we must have no reforms?" another asked, with an intensity that was surprising. "I think you are misunderstanding him," explained one of the older men. "He means that reform will never bring about the total transformation of man. In fact, reform impedes that total transformation, because it puts man to sleep by giving him temporary satisfaction. By multiplying these gratifying reforms, you will slowly drug your neighbour into contentment."

"But if we strictly limit ourselves to one essential reform - the voluntary giving of land to the landless, let's say - until it is brought about, will that not be beneficial?"

Can you separate one part from the whole field of existence? Can you put a fence around it, concentrate upon it, without affecting the rest of the field? "To affect the whole field of existence is exactly what we plan to do. When we have achieved one reform, we shall turn to another."

Is the totality of life to be understood through the part? Or is it that the whole must first be perceived and understood, and that only then the parts can be examined and reshaped in relation to the whole? Without comprehending the whole, mere concentration on the part only breeds further confusion and misery.

"Do you mean to say," demanded the intense one, "that we must not act or bring about reforms without first studying the whole process of existence?" "That's absurd, of course," put in the politician. "We simply haven't time to search out the full meaning of life. That will have to be left to the dreamers, to the gurus, to the philosophers. We have to deal with everyday existence; we have to act, we have to legislate, we have to govern and bring order out of chaos. We are concerned with dams, with irrigation, with better agriculture; we are occupied with trade, with economics, and we must deal with foreign powers. It is sufficient for us if we can manage to carry on from day to day without some major calamity taking place. We are practical men in positions of responsibility, and we have to act to the best of our ability for the good of the people."

If it may be asked, how do you know what's good for the people? You assume so much. You start with so many conclusions; and when you start with a conclusion, whether your own or that of another, all thinking ceases. The calm assumption that you know, and that the other does not, leads to greater misery than the misery of having only one meal a day; for it is the vanity of conclusions that brings about the exploitation of man. In our eagerness to act for the good of others, we seem to do a great deal of harm.

"Some of us think we really do know what's good for the country and its people," explained the politician. "Of course, the opposition also thinks it knows; but the opposition is not very strong in this country, fortunately for us, so we shall win and be in a position to try out what we think is good and beneficial."

Every party knows, or thinks it knows, what's good for the people. But what is truly good will not create antagonism, either at home or abroad; it will bring about unity between man and man; what is truly good will be concerned with the totality of man, and not with some superficial benefit that may lead only to greater calamity and misery; it will put an end to the division and the enmity that nationalism and organized religions have created. And is the good so easily found?

"If we have to take into consideration all the implications of what is good, we shall get nowhere; we shall not be able to act. Immediate necessities demand immediate action, though that action may bring marginal confusion," replied the politician. "We just haven't time to ponder, to philosophize. Some of us are busy from early in the morning till late at night, and we can't sit back to consider the full meaning of each and every action that we must take. We literally cannot afford the pleasure of deep consideration, and we leave that pleasure to others."

"Sir, you appear to be suggesting," said one of those who had thus far remained silent, "that before we perform what we assume to be a good act, we should think out fully the significance of that act, since, even though seemingly beneficial, such an act may produce greater misery in the future. But is it possible to have such profound insight into our own actions? At the moment of action we may think we have that insight, but later on we may discover our blindness."

At the moment of action we are enthusiastic, impetuous, we are carried away by an idea, or by the personality and the fire of a leader. All leaders, from the most brutal tyrant to the most religious politician, state that they are acting for the good of man, and they all lead to the grave; but nevertheless we succumb to their influence, and follow them. Haven't you, sir, been influenced by such a leader? He may no longer be living, but you still think and act according to his sanctions, his formulas, his pattern of life; or else you are influenced by a more recent leader. So we go from one leader to another, dropping them when it suits our convenience, or when a better leader turns up with greater promise of some 'good'. In our enthusiasm we bring others into the net of our convictions, and they often remain in that net when we ourselves have moved on to other leaders and other convictions. But what is good is free of influence, compulsion and convenience and any act which is not good in this sense is bound to breed confusion and misery.

"I think we can all plead guilty to being influenced by a leader, directly or indirectly," acquiesced the last speaker, "but our problem is this. Realizing that we receive many benefits from society and give very little in return, and seeing so much misery everywhere, we feel that we have a responsibility towards society, that we must do something to relieve this unending misery. Most of us, however, feel rather lost, and so we follow someone with a strong personality. His dedicated life, his obvious sincerity, his vital thoughts and acts, influence us greatly, and in various ways we become his followers; under his influence we are soon caught up in action, whether it be for the liberation of the country, or for the betterment of social conditions. The acceptance of authority is ingrained in us, and from this acceptance of authority flows action. What you are telling us is so contrary to all we are accustomed to that it leaves us no measure by which to judge and to act. I hope you see our difficulty."

Surely, sir, any act based on the authority of a book, however sacred, or on the authority of a person, however noble and saintly, is a thoughtless act which must inevitably bring confusion and sorrow. In this and other countries the leader derives his authority from the interpretation of the so-called sacred books, which he liberally quotes, or from his own experiences, which are conditioned by the past, or from his austere life, which again is based on the pattern of saintly records. So the leader's life is as bound by authority as the life of the follower; both are slaves to the book, and to the experience or knowledge of another. With this background, you want to remake the world. Is that possible? Or must you put aside this whole authoritarian, hierarchical outlook on life, and approach the many problems with a fresh, eager mind? Living and action are not separate, they are an interrelated, unitary process; but now you have separated them, have you not? You regard daily living, with its thoughts and acts, as different from the action which is going to change the world.

"Again, this is so," went on the last speaker. "But how are we to throw off this yoke of authority and tradition, which we have willingly and happily accepted from childhood? It is part of our immemorial tradition, and you come along and tell us to set it all aside and rely on ourselves! From what I have heard and read, you say that the very Atman itself is without permanency. So you can see why we are confused."

May it not be that you have never really inquired into the authoritarian way of existence? The very questioning of authority is the end of authority. There is no method or system by which the mind can be set free from authority and tradition; if there were, then the system would become the dominating factor.

Why do you accept authority, in the deeper sense of that word? You accept authority, as the guru also does, in order to be safe, to be certain, in order to be comforted, to succeed, to reach the other shore. You and the guru are worshippers of success; you are both driven by ambition. Where there is ambition, there is no love; and action without love has no meaning.

"Intellectually I see that what you say is true, but inwardly, emotionally, I don't feel the authenticity of it."

There is no intellectual understanding; either we understand, or we don't. This dividing of ourselves into watertight compartments is another of our absurdities. It is better to admit to ourselves that we do not understand, than to maintain that there is an intellectual understanding, which only breeds arrogance and self-imposed conflict. "We have taken too much of your time, but perhaps you will allow us to come again."