By Nandini Murali
The process of seeking opens up our humanity, and enables us to see that we are part of a whole. this manifests as an increased desire to serve the world selflessly
It is in giving that we receive – St. Francis of Assisi
Ten years later, I still remember the incident. I jolted out of a dreamless sleep as the Madurai-Chennai Pandyan Express rolled into Trichy station. The compartment attendant announced that Trichy-bound passengers must disembark. I rubbed my eyes in bleary-eyed disbelief. My myopic eyes narrowed to peer at my watch.
It was 2 am. The train had reached Trichy two hours before schedule, and my car was expected only around 4 am. “Do you have someone coming for you?”
I turned around and saw that that it belonged to the ticket conductor on the Pandyan Express.
I nodded, and said I was awaiting my car.
“I’ll wait with you until your car comes. It’s not safe for a woman to be all alone at this time in a railway station.”
We sat on one of the benches in the platform. As the minutes ticked by endlessly, I was grateful for my companion’s silent presence. The station was as silent as a graveyard, and the atmosphere was surreal and other worldly. When my car arrived, I thanked the conductor profusely.
Today, I still remember the conductor, and his selfless act of reaching out to me. His unselfish concern for my welfare certainly touched me, and who knows, perhaps even warded off unpleasant encounters.
Learning to give
Several years later, my own journey as a seeker sparked off a desire to reach out to others. My work as a development consultant involves intensive interactions with children and adults infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. About four years back, I met Kavitha (name changed for reasons of anonymity), a 13-year-old girl whose father had died of AIDS, and whose mother was infected with HIV. A brilliant student, Kavitha was forced to discontinue schooling because of financial difficulties. Kavitha, her sister, and mother were ridiculed by their family and friends who also ostracised them. In desperation, Kavitha’s mother planned to get her married. The distraught Kavitha was harrowed at the prospect of her premature marriage, and the death knell to her dream of qualifying as an IAS officer.
Moved by her story, I spontaneously offered to support her education. Today, Kavitha is in Class 11 and a school topper throughout. Her mother works as a peer educator in one of the district networks of HIV Positive People.
As I look back, there have been several shifts in my altruistic curve. However, even when I decided to reach out to Kavitha, I wished to be clear about my underlying motives. As a child-free person, I saw the act of giving as a meaningful way to make a genuine difference in someone’s life. And indeed, the very act of doing so, seemed to sublimate my own very deep desire to have had a biological child. Were there traces of selfishness in my altruism? If they were, I desired to catalyse its transmutation to the wholly selfless act of giving.
As my quest as a seeker took me into increased self-awareness and inner transformation, I have been able to find a synthesis and harmony between my altruistic motivations and altruistic behaviour. In other words, I now help Kavitha not to feel good or out of any kind of “enlightened self-interest” but to do good for the sake of doing good. It’s simply beautiful and beautifully simple. It’s been cathartic to offload a lot of baggage about doing ‘good’ and pare the act of giving to its basics. In the process, I’ve discovered it has enabled me to reclaim large parts of my authentic self that were submerged like the Atlantis.
What is altruism?
The word altruism was coined by Auguste Comte, the nineteenth century French sociologist. Etymologically, altruism traces its origin to the Latin word “alteri” or others. According to Comte, humans have a moral obligation to “serve humanity whose we are entirely”. In its widespread usage, altruism is described as selfless concern for the welfare of others before one’s own. Despite its façade of appearing as easy as ABC, genuine altruism involves a lot of soul searching. Before we exult in the glory of altruistic acts, we need to ask ourselves: is our act of giving truly motivated by no prospect of gain or benefit – either material (money or any form of tangible reward) or non material gains (a boost to the ego) that are regarded as philosophically identical benefits?
Altruism is a cardinal principle enshrined in all religions. Christianity exhorts believers to “love your neighbour as yourself,” Islam declares “none of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself,” and Buddhism advocates “seeking for others the happiness one desires for oneself,” while Hinduism avers that “the whole world is one family” (Vasudeiva kutumbam).
Altruism in nature
Altruism is not a unique human phenomenon. In the animal world, biological altruism is widespread among species with complex social structures. For example, vampire bats regurgitate blood and regularly ‘donate’ it to members of the group who have not fed, and thus save them from starvation and possible death. Vervet monkeys raise alarm calls to warn other monkeys of possible predators, although in doing so, they increase their own vulnerability. Social insect colonies such as ants, wasps, bees, and termites also exhibit “maximally altruistic behaviour”. Sterile workers greatly assist the reproductive efforts of the Queen insect and devote their lives to caring for the queen, constructing nests, foraging for food, and protecting the larvae.
Unlike human altruism, biological altruism is not driven by conscious intent of helping others. For the evolutionary biologist, it is the consequences of an action for reproductive fitness (as in the case of social insects) that determine altruism.
Recently ,neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, USA, put volunteers through an experimental situation. The simulated situation involved either donating a sum of money to charity or keeping it for themselves. Based on brain imaging study of the volunteers, the results showed that when volunteers placed the interest of others above their self-interest, the response triggered a primitive part of the brain that usually is associated with primal urges such as food and sex. Shankar Vedantam in an article, If it feels good to be good, it might only be natural in The Washington Post, writes, “Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather basic to the brain, hard wired and pleasurable.”
Whatever be the cause of it, it is true that many seekers are oriented towards helping others. Partly, the cause is awareness. It becomes increasingly difficult to turn away your gaze from the yawning misery of the world. In many cases, it is also the natural corollary of taking more and more responsibility for the state of the world. One wants to do what one can to make the world a better place. Furthermore, as one progresses in spiritual unfolding, one recognises the interconnection between all that lives. Another’s misery becomes your own; another’s happiness, your own.
Anita Anand, development professional, writer, and healer, believes that “while there is a great deal of beauty, there is also sorrow, poverty, loss, and inequality in this world. By doing my part, I hope to make a small dent in this.” According to Anita Anand, her Arya Samaj family moorings, education in a Catholic school and college, and professional involvement with the Quakers in India, and Methodists and other interdenominational groups in the US, have influenced her altruism.
Anita Anand explains that she does several altruistic things a day. These include making way for someone on the road while driving, helping someone in need, or offering her professional services and networks without asking for returns. Her way of contributing to a cause, she says, is by taking care of people around her. For example, she pays her staff’s medical bills, supports their children’s education, and even provides them with loans and grants.
“For me altruism is an act not motivated by any return, but because it makes me feel good. Over a period of time, people realise that the more they do for others, the better they feel. Life experiences also make people altruistic. But there is a difference between people who do good, and those who think they should do good. The former is from the heart, and the latter because they want to be seen as altruistic, but actually they are not. And if they expect something in return for their altruistic behaviour, they are bound to be disappointed,” explains Anita .
Anita’s brand of altruism is a source of joy and satisfaction to her, and she loves to see the joy it brings to people’s lives. “I like to surprise people when they least expect it. I also believe that when I give without expecting any return, I am operating from my higher self, and not from a gut response to do good. It is deliberate and empowering,” reflects Anita.
Mumbai-based writer and journalist, Rajendar Menen, believes that it is sheer accident that he is educated, healthy, and employed in India. “I understand fully how circumstances can make or break people. Some people can’t be altruistic and they have good reasons too. If I give, it is only in tribute to the great accident of birth that has shaped my life.”
Most spiritual practitioners find themselves opening up to others and doing whatever they can to be of help. Healer Dinaz Dastur says, “I try to be a positive influence to as many people as possible and help people realise their true selves, by bringing out the goodness of their inner spirit, which may have remained hidden by negative thoughts, beliefs and habits.”
She adds, “I have had the good fortune of inheriting Rs.750 from a beggar whom I used to be occasionally kind to. I consider this gesture a big achievement, and learn what little acts of kindness can do to even total strangers!”
Dinaz and her family have also instituted a trust which helps the less fortunate with monthly necessities. They also offer clothes, blankets, and monetary assistance.
She sees her healing services as part of the seva she is offering to th world. “I’ve seen some miraculous results in this work; a balance seems to occur in the mind, body, and soul.”
Many seekers, especially those attached to spiritual organisations, are actively involved in seva. Says Gulshan Dudani, a former doctor who has dedicated her life to the Sadhu Vaswani Mission, “My life is devoted to the causes initiated by the Sadhu Vaswani Mission. They have put me in charge of giving scholarships to poor, needy students and help, in cash and kind, to needy families. . My organisation’s credo is that one must live for others, because the others are not apart from us. We all are part of the One Whole.”
Writer Jyothi Subramanian, a staunch follower of Yogiraj Siddhanath of Pune, says, “Spirituality led me to fearlessness. I developed a power to face not only the travails of life but any difficulty with equanimity. This feeling of love and absence of fear made me take on the issue of farmer’s rights and fight against forcible land acquisition by the local administration in my city.”
The spiritual gifts of giving are immense. Geeta Ramanujam, author, storyteller and founder of Kathalaya, the Bangalore- based academy of story-telling, believes that her altruistic acts “enhance her inner life” and make her “less reactionary”.
“I believe that what we do in this life takes us towards liberation, and all activities therefore must be directed to leaving no residue behind. Activities instead must be directed towards giving that leads to giving up in the end. It is humanity and not religion that influences me. I’m not altruistic because of expectation of a good life in heaven or somewhere else, but to feel light while we live,” muses Geeta.
Poonam Sareen, trainer and counsellor, regularly runs workshops called the ultimate AHAH – aligning the head and heart, where participants come for counselling for issues such as building self-confidence, enhancing relationships, and to heal. Poonam involves herself in such altruistic pursuits because several people stood by her unconditionally at “crisis milestones” in her life. “I do this for myself, as a thank-you to my mentors, and blessings from the smiles one gets. I feel we are here to give, and not just live insular lives. The whole world is our family!”
According to Poonam, such pursuits enhance her inner life as a seeker. “A seeker is like a river wanting to merge with the ocean. Humanity is that large ocean and oneness is what brings me more and more home as a seeker.”
The novel Daddy-Long-Legs by the American writer Jean Webster unfolds through a series of letters between the central character Jerusha Abbott, and her unknown benefactor who supports her education on the condition of anonymity. Not until the end does Jerusha unravel the identity of her benefactor, whom she marries. For me, the bus conductor and Jerusha’s unknown benefactor epitomise the sublimity of giving.
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