The difficulty of altruism

All of us have altruistic urges, to a larger or smaller extent. But there is usually only a small part of us that is kind. However being consistently and uniformly altruistic is rare and fairly non-existent even among so called swamis and holy men.


The lopsided altruism: Most of us practice lopsided altruism. There are some who would not bat an eyelid in shelling out money to a charitable organization – to orphans, to the hungry and the needy. Yet these very same people will find it difficult to be charitable in their nature to their relatives or a colleague. They will be unkind, rude and biased. On the other hand there are those who will be generous to their near and dear ones. They will make sure that their family, relatives and dear ones get their full attention. However they will turn a blind eye to the destitute and the really needy.


The generosity oxymoron: We are expected to give without even the expectation of gratitude. However we generally tend to feel pleased with ourselves and our own perceived nobility. In fact some people even go to the extent of comparing themselves mentally and feel that they are superior in generosity. This is an oxymoron. There is never more generosity. It is as meaningless as being “more pure”.


Ego vs. altruism: This is another bind we typically get into. For e,g. if there is another who is also morally responsible for something then our altruism will depend on whether the other person is equally altruistic as we perceive ourselves to be. For e.g. if there is a village which can benefit from increased funding we will feel that we can give only if all responsible parties also give. Closer to home it is common for a spouse to ignore their child if their significant other ignores the child. In these cases the ego gets in the way and the child or the village suffers. It is better that we get rid of our egoism and give regardless of whether anybody else does or not.


While all of us have an altruistic and generous nature out pettiness often gets in the way. Generosity of heart has to be practiced till it becomes a habit. It requires a lot of thought to keep us broad minded and truly generous.

Parallel philosophies of Lord Krishna and Christ

There are many parallels in the philosophies of Lord Krishna as mentioned in the  Bhagavad Gita and Jesus Christ in the Bible. This post highlights some of the parallels below

Christ: Judge not, lest ye be judged. Condemn not, lest ye be condemned.

Lord Krishna: Enlightened men are those who see the same in a Brahmana with learning, a cow, an elephant or a dog. In other words the yogi does not form opinions or judgments about others. A true yogi treats all persons with the same footing.

Christ: Love your enemy. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who treat you with disdain.

Lord Krishna: A true yogi is unaffected by praise or criticism. By always dwelling in the Atman he is unruffled by hatred, contempt or anger.  According to the Gita, a true yogi is a person who is expansive in his heart. He has risen above the joy that comes from praise or the hurt that comes from bitter criticism

Christ: Thekingdom ofGod cometh not with observation. For behold, the kingdom of the God is within you.

Lord Krishna: Above the senses, the mind, the intellect is the Atman which is within you. In the Upanishad’s this is also mentioned as “Tat tvam asi”, “Thou art that”.  The Atman is inside you and we become aware of it through self-inquiry.

Christ: You cannot serve God and Mammon at the same. Here Mammon refers to the desire for wealth.

Lord Krishna:  Perform niskama-karma or desireless action. Offer all the fruits of your action to God. Rise above desires and passion. Lord Krishna in the Gita enjoins us to rise above the rajasic nature of passion to a sattvic nature of principled living.

Though the words were different Lord Krishna and Jesus Christ were saying the same thing.

The dance of karma and dharma

Often the Hindu philosophy is wrongly referred to as being fatalistic. We are supposed to be caught in the web of our own past actions or karma from which there is no escape. This in other words is our fate and we are supposed to live with it. In Tamil they say if it is one’s “vidhi” then one should just accept it.

But what people often forget that while we are bound by our karma we are free to choose our response to our past karma or choose our response in the present. We need not just lie down and face all the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. There is nothing stopping us from “taking arms against our sea of troubles and oppose and end them” as Shakespeare would put it. Now the crucial point is what should be our response. It is in this context that we have to look at the dharma of our response. There is always the right action according to Buddhist philosophy. So when we exercise our choice we have to fully understand the context in which are acting and make the correct decision. This is dharma. So if we are faced with evil then we
stand up and fight it. If we encounter failure then we take action to avoid it in future. As Stephen Covey’s states in his book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” that a fundamental principle about the nature of man is that he/she is free to choose in the space between a stimulus and its response. So according to the Gita the stimulus that we encounter in the present may be the result of our past karma, but our response to it is governed by our free will. The Gita requires that we perform right action and make the right choice. So while we are free to make a choice among a set of alternatives we do not have any control to the consequence of choices we make. While it is known that good action always begets good results and bad acts will always reap evil. Or in others we are bound by the karma of the choice we make. So we have to make the correct choice within the purview of the situation. Like Arjuna who was confronted on the battle field against his kin the Kauravas wanted to shirk away but the dharma of the situation as clarified by Lord Krishna was to fight against the Kauravas. It is a fact that good actions will result in good providence and evil acts will beget evil.

One’s present tense depends on whether one’s past was perfect. The future of course depends on the choices we make in the present with good actions usually resulting in good fruits. To summarize while our present is bound by our past karma, we are free to choose, based on dharma. However the choice we make good or bad will result in either good karma or otherwise.

Tinniam V Ganesh

The Essence of charity

If there is one quality that is essential to the character of man it is the virtue of charity. Nothing is more important than the ability to give and give wholeheartedly. Charity truly elevates the giver.

There is an interesting tale in the Mahabharata, an ancient Indian epic, which highlights the essence of charity. When King Yudhistra was appointed king he performed great acts of charity by giving food and gifts to the poor and needy besides performing great rituals. People spoke very highly of the charitable acts of the king. One day while the king was performing these acts of charity a mongoose whose one half of the body was golden came to the assembly and rolled on the ground. After some time the mongoose gave up and said that the charity of the King was not all that great. This brought about a stunned silence in the court.

When the mongoose was asked why it had made such a statement it recalled its experience a few years back. The mongoose told the story of an extremely poor family, whose members had not eaten for a few day, had one day received a small bag of wheat flour. The wife made some bread for the family and just when they were about to eat a guest comes to their house. When the father of the household learns that the guest is hungry, he gives away his portion of the food to the guest. Since the guest is still hungry the mother and the son also give away their portions of bread to the guest. The guest goes away satisfied but the entire family dies due to hunger. It appears that the mongoose which was around this area happened to roll on the ground where there were a few grains of flour. The flour was so sanctified by the charitable act of the family that half of the body of the mongoose turned a golden color.

The mongoose said that since then it has been roaming the earth to witness an equally charitable act to turn its other half of the body golden. When the assembly heard they were dumbstruck and realized the value of true charity.

Generosity does not depend on the monetary value but more on the intention to help and serve.

There is another interesting tale of Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk, who lived during the 5th/6th century and transmitted Zen. Once he was asked by the Emperor Wu “What is the karmic merit I have earned for building monasteries and performing other charitable acts?”. To which Bodhidharma was supposed to have said “Absolutely none, whatsoever. Good deeds done with selfish intent bring no merit.”

By far the greatest act of charity is the virtue of forgiveness, the ability to pay back with goodwill to an act of transgression. As Shakespeare states, “Mercy is twice blest. It blesses him that gives and him that takes”

Charity must be done without any expectation. We should not even expect gratitude.
We should not feel that we are doing something noble. Charity does not mean only mean monetary assistance. It could also mean sharing of knowledge or giving moral support.

The virtue of charity requires us to be selfless while the performing the act. We should give from our hearts and expect nothing in return.

Charity is not determined by its magnitude but the magnanimity with which it is delivered.

Uncovering morality through the Mahabharata – Part 3

The tragedy of Karna

The tale of Karna in the Mahabharata is really tragic. Karna is the illegitimate son of Kunti who disowns him at birth. Despite being born a Kshatriya or a warrior he is raised by a charioteer. During Draupadi’s Swayamvara though Karna wants to participate and prove his skills in archery, Draupadi he is barred from entering the competition since it is assumed that he is a charioteer’s son To add insult to injury Draupadi scorns his lowly birth.

Karna is also truly selfless. In fact his largesse and magnanimity becomes his undoing. Karna being the son of Surya is born with an armor and earrings which make him invincible. But Indra comes in the guise of a brahmin and asks Karna to part with his armor and earrings.

Similarly Kunti asks Karna to vow that he will not harm the Pandavas who are in the enemy ranks. Karna immediately obliges. Though he could have slain the Pandavas he upholds his vow to his mother.

Finally Karna is slain by an arrow by Arjuna when Karna is trying to lift the wheel of his chariot which is stuck in the mud.

So the question that arises as to what extent can one be selfless in one’s deeds. In fact the tragic story of Karna brings back the ethical question of the Greeks “Is it better to be strong or is it better to be good ?”.

Karna was both good and strong but his excessive selfless goodness proved to be his undoing. As somebody said ‘Don’t compromise on yourself, you are all you got.”

Karma or plain convenience

Last night while I was returning home at around 10 pm I had a stop at a traffic signal. In the maze of the stopped vehicles I saw two little girls stopping at cars to beg. They were dirty and ragged. They must have been around 5 years old. Their cute, innocent faces looked tired. One of the girls walked to my car and tapped persistently on my vehicle.  The other girl decided to take a breather and sat on the median between the roads. I am sure that their day probably starts around 6 am and end around 11 pm.

When I looked at the little girls faces I started to wonder what they had done to deserve this. Their life had hardly started and they were forced to work for their living at such a tender age, so late in the night. When other children of their age must be listening to bedtime stories or having cute baby dreams these two little ones were out on the street, in a dangerous road, working their way between speeding vehicles, begging for alms.

My mind immediately turned to the old faithful theory of karma. I thought to myself that it was the karma of these two little girls that they had to suffer this fate. But I realized that these two little ones were too little to have done anything bad in life to have to undergo this tribulation. So then I started to think that in their past birth they must have done things and are suffering in this birth.

Somehow I found no satisfaction in either of these trains of thought. I just realized that life is unfair. It can be cruel. There is no real rhyme or reason behind the inequities of life in the world. It is just a throw of the dice of fate and depending on how the dice turns up we see either good times or bad times.

It is definitely true that karma provides an easy excuse for most of life’s problems. When we experience problems in life for which there is no easy explanation we conveniently rationalize that it is all our karma. We think that in the distant past we must have done thing bad and we are seeing the repercussions of this now. If that does not satisfy us we argue with ourselves that we must have done something downright bad in one of our previous births which is having its effect in this birth and in the current time.

However looking at these two little girls I somehow came away feeling unsatisfied with the theory of karma, This time I felt karma is just a convenient theory to answer life’s inequities. To me there was no plausible reason for these two little girls to undergo such an ordeal so early in their life.

I just came away with the realization that life can be unfair. Some people just suffer while others get away. We need to accept this reality and move on life. There are no other explanations. Do you have any thoughts?

Dharma & Karma – Two sides of the same coin

Central to Hindu philosophy are the concepts of Dharma and Karma. Behind these two ordinary looking words is a veritable universe of meaning. In fact the concepts of karma and dharma are so abstract that we generally tend to get lost in details and their various connotations.

However astonishing as it may seem dharma and karma are two sides of the same coin. Dharma represents right action. Dharma represents action that would result in the greatest good to the greatest number. There are several kinds of dharma – the grihastha dharma or the dharma of the householder, raja dharma or the dharma of the king and so on. Dharma is an extremely difficult concept to comprehend and at times requires counter-balancing many equally ideal virtues to determine the action that benefits the largest number.

Karma on the other hand can be simply stated as the good or bad result that comes out of good or bad actions. So according to karma our current state in life is the result of our past karma or our past actions that we took. Also our current actions in life will determine our future. Any event that happens to us is the result of our past karma. Our response to this will result in our future karma.

So are dharma and karma really related? A little thought will clearly show that not only are these two abstract concepts related but are simply two sides of the same coin.

The stimulus or events that take place in our lives are the result of our past karma. We are free to exercise free will in the space between stimulus and our response. What should our response be to the stimulus that we get which is a consequence of our past karma?

A little deliberation on this will clearly indicate that our response should be based on dharma i.e. we should choose a course of action that is based on the highest value of dharma. Our choice if based on dharma will truly be an action that will be based on good values and principles. Any action that is based on dharma will set forth in motion a virtuous cycle of events. Hence the karma from our virtuous act will only lead to good karma or good providence. In other words bad karma is the result of adharma in our past and good karma is the result of dharma.

In life our exercise of free will should be based on dharma and we will reap the fruits of our action as good karma.