By Purnima Yogi
Sacrifice is in the very order of nature. if the seed didn’t sacrifice itself, it wouldn’t become a seedling. The bud dies so that the flower can bloom, and the flower dies to yield fruit. Human society too progresses only to the extent it is willing to sacrifice for the larger good
Have you heard the story of Punyakoti, the noble cow who kept her tryst with a tiger because she had given her word to the beast? Punyakoti, once waylaid by the hungry tiger in the forest, is almost devoured by the latter but she implores the tiger to give her time off to go feed her calves who are waiting for her at home. She promises to come back to the forest and offer herself as food to the tiger once she has done her duty by them. Intrigued by this unusual promise and impressed with Punyakoti’s sincerity, the tiger lets her go, more or less reconciling to finding another prey for the day. However, to his amazement, Punyakoti comes back after making suitable arrangements for her calves to be taken care of after her death. “Why did you come back?” asks the nonplussed tiger, “only to be killed and eaten up by me, when you could have easily escaped?” “I am your food for the day,” says she, “how can I deny you your right? It is your dharma to kill and eat, and my dharma to uphold dharma – irrespective of whether it is yours or mine. I had given you my word, hadn’t I? Now please feast on me as much as you wish.” The tiger, shaken to the core by Punyakoti’s sincerity and implicit adherence to ‘dharma’, is instantly transformed. He jumps off a high cliff and kills himself rather than continue leading a life of killing.
I remember there wasn’t a single dry eye in the 7th Standard class when this Kannada poem was recited and explained dramatically by our teacher. Back then, Punyakoti moved innocent 12-year-olds to tears year after year. We sobbed at the vision of her helpless calves imploring her to stay back, cursed the tiger for choosing her as his food, and sobbed again as the tiger jumped off the cliff unable to bear so much goodness. Now, the larger and nobler aspects of Punyakoti’s story appeal to me – her selflessness, sincerity and commitment to ‘truth’ that could melt the heart of a beast. She had no agenda for her own survival; being the tiger’s food for the day came as naturally to her as caring for her calves. Punyakoti, for me, is the epitome of sacrifice.
And so are Mother Teresa, Bhagat Singh, and my housekeeper’s son who walks to school so that he may save the bus fare to buy a candy for his younger sister.
What is it about sacrifice, large or small or insignificant, that tugs at our hearts and leaves the sacrificer ennobled in our eyes? Why is ‘sacrifice’ highly rated as a virtue, worthy of being developed and emulated? How can an entire religion be sustained by the figure of Christ nailed to a cross? Surely a matter worth exploration.
What is sacrifice?
The Sanskrit word for sacrifice is ‘tyaga’ – which means ‘to give up’ and ‘to detach’, ‘to cast aside’, ‘to get rid of’, ‘to discard’ or ‘to leave’. ‘Renunciation’, ‘abandonment’, ‘relinquishment’, ‘forgoing’ and ‘forswearing’ are other terms that can be used alternatively for ‘sacrifice’, but none come close to capturing its essence. ‘Sacrifice’ means ‘to make something sacred’. Sacrifice, when it entails giving up something dear and precious for the sake of a higher good, is indeed a sacred act. Whether it is Christ who gave up his own life to save humanity, or the stranger on the bus who gives up his own seat for an elder, these are acts of sacrifice. Each gave up something of value to him, like Christ’s life or the seat on the bus, to something, which held more value – like love for humanity or wanting the elder to be comfortable.
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Humanity thus survives and sustains on sacrifice at all levels and degrees, even in this dog-eat-dog present times. Looking around, we find that sacrifice is in the very order of nature. If the seed didn’t sacrifice itself, it wouldn’t become a seedling. The bud dies so that the flower can bloom, and the flower dies to yield fruit. The sun is constantly burning itself out to sustain life on earth. Only when the sugar cane allows itself to be squeezed between the jaws of a juicer does sweetness overflow from it. And imagine if the earth stopped rotating even for a few seconds to take a breather! It seems the entire eco system and cosmos is being maintained by various agents that play out their parts to perfection without expectation. “What we humans refer to as virtues is common place in the universe,” says Sudheindra Shidleepur, an engineer whose hobby is to study nature to gain spiritual insights. “Universal Order is only virtue and nothing but virtue and is the most natural order of Mother Creation. Vices are man-made and are a mental construct generated by an inadequate understanding of reality. Absolute reality cannot, of course, be put in a mental framework, and has to be felt deeply within from the likes of examples as given above.”
Sacrifice in nature maintains and sustains, and it is utterly natural. Among humans, sacrifice not just maintains and sustains society, but is also an exalted tool of evolution of the human consciousness. For householders, sacrifice implies charity; for austere spiritual seekers, sacrifice attains more and more connotations, ultimately leading to renunciation and salvation. For both, only that which is given away wholeheartedly without expectation of a reward in return, is sacrifice.
All religions advocate charity (daana) as the right form of conduct. Riches win glory by renouncing them. Indeed, it is well said that a generous mind never enjoys its possessions so much as when others are made partakers of them. Jainism prescribes four types of charity, chaturvidha daana, for a householder, ahaara daana (feeding the hungry), abhaya daana(sheltering one whose life is in danger), aushadha daana (distributing medicines) and gynana daana (spreading knowledge).
Renunciation is the religion of the soul. Buddha and Mahaveera attained salvation by renouncing their kingdoms. Rama renounced Ayodhya to uphold the dictat of his father. Bharata sacrificed the throne too, to revere his elder brother. The mother in the legendary Hindi movie, Mother India sacrificed her wayward son for the welfare of society. The youth in the movie, Rang de Basanti sacrificed themselves to make a point. Innumerable are such examples that glorify the act of sacrifice, signifying that it emerges from a higher, nobler calling.
Tangible and intangible
Money and material are tangible things which most of us part with willingly to help out others, while time, energy, talent, skill and effort are the intangibles. The former is often classified as charity, but there can be an enormous difference in the philanthropic acts of a Bill Gates and of someone who parts with money and material even though he himself is in crying need of it.
Padma Bhushan awardee, Dr DV Gundappa, was a towering personality in the field of Kannada literature. This well-loved and respected philosopher of the mid-20th century could have led a lavish life due to the benevolence of the state and his wealthy and powerful admirers, but he and his family lived within their means, in utter poverty. DVG, as he was and is fondly known, never accepted anything other than what he earned as a self-employed journalist. He lived by the principle of aparigraha or non-avariciousness and astheya or not coveting that which belonged to others – two of the eight principles of ashtanga (eight-limbed) yoga. His wife often never ventured out of the house as she had only one patched-up saree to wear. Even when the state government awarded him a prize of Rs. 1 lakh (a princely sum in 1975) for his contribution to Kannada literature, DVG donated it all to establish an institute dedicated to spiritual pursuit. Such was his adherence to dharma and passion for the propagation of spirituality.
Holy Mother Sri Sharada Devi, wife and spiritual counterpart of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa was subjected to heart-wrenchingly adverse circumstances after her husband’s demise. She and the young disciples often went for days without food. Once, unable to bear hunger, Sharada Devi foraged for food in the nearby paddy fields, separated the rice grains from husk, cooked and fed the hungry disciples. Finally, when she was about to put a morsel into her mouth, she was visited by another hungry soul. Without a second’s hesitation, the Holy Mother offered it all to him and went hungry herself.
These are examples where the act of sacrificing the tangible is elevated to an exalted status. Lives of great personalities are thus selfhelp workbooks on the art of life, love, duty and sacrifice.
In the great Indian joint family system, sacri- fice was a way of life not long ago, a basic requirement for survival. A ’70s Hindi film, Piya ka Ghar starring Jaya Bhaduri, captured to perfection the dilemma of an Indian daughter-in-law; she is expected to blend in like furniture in the new household and subjugate her every little personal need, hope and aspiration as the needs of the extended family always came first. “And we invariably did,” recalls 72-yearold Lalitha Ramaswamy. Like thousands of other daughters-in-law back then, Lalitha nurtured her numerous sisters- and-brothers-in-law, helped them find jobs, build their own houses and got them married and settled.
Lalitha sacrificed the intangible – her youth, energy, space, comfort plus the tangible finances – to nurture and keep her family together. Why did she and others like her, put up with this pressure and discomfort for most of their lives? “Because I was not even aware I had a choice, and I am not sure I would have taken it either,” says Lalitha, “I was not just a sister-in-law to my husband’s siblings, I was mother to all of them. How can a mother abandon her children?”
Since 2004, Sister Adele Korah of Bangalore has been spending Christmas and New Year with 5,000 friends, all of them in the Central Prison. Sister Adele works 24 hours for this neglected section of society, giving them tuitions in English, nursing the sick, distributing goodies during celebrations and generally spending time with them just laughing and joking. While a prisoner is serving his/her term, Sister makes sure that the person’s family is taken care of by admitting their children to good schools and sees to it that they don’t suffer. Thirtyfive other volunteers help Sister Adele in this mission.
Sister lives by the philosophy of ‘the hands that serve are holier than the lips that pray.’ She feels that it is all about redemption and reformation. “Even the most hated criminal in the world is precious before the eyes of God. He would have erred in a moment of frustration. But my duty is to free them from the world of unforgiveness, hatred, and anger,” she says in a newspaper report.
These women, at their own levels, have sacrificed their own comforts to foster healthy, happy human beings. What can be a better barometer to a life lived purposefully?
Sacrifice can be compulsive and impulsive. Once on a cruise ship, a little girl tipped over and fell into the sea. There was a lot of commotion, and another splash was heard – a man was already in the water, saving the girl from drowning and pulling her out. When the duo came up, gasping for breath, people rushed to congratulate the brave rescuer. As soon as the man could catch his breath, he blurted out angrily, “Who pushed me into the water?”
This is what is called compulsive sacrifice – unintentional, inevitable, or forced. In India, there is a practise of dropping the craving for foodstuff when we visit holy places like Benares and Gaya. The pandit there will exhort us to drop something – a favourite vegetable, fruit or a sweet, and make a solemn promise to God that we shall refrain from consuming it again. This is a compulsory symbolic act of disciplining the senses. We are subjected to such compulsive sacrifices many a time during our lifetime because of our reluctance to sacrifice on our own, says Guru Shri Nimishananda. “If we do not perform tyaga on our own, even after repeated opportunities, prompts and reminders, nature will create circumstances that will compel us to do it. For instance, if we are used to overindulging the palate and do not discipline or restrain ourselves when we should, our health will be affected in some way. Then diabetes may make us give up sweets, hypertension may make us give up fried, salty snacks or obesity may make us give up all kinds of junk food,” says Guruji.
On the other hand, when feelings of love and compassion overwhelm us momentarily, we part with something of value on impulse. Looking at a poor boy wearing tattered clothes, we may dig into our pocket and part with whatever currency we find there – maybe even a hundred-rupee note. But later, we may regret our own generosity, and start thinking how useful that money would have been to us otherwise! This kind of sacrifice is impulsive, when we touch base with our nobler instincts by default.
When sacrifice is neither compulsive nor impulsive, but is done voluntarily with awareness, it takes one to a higher level of consciousness.
External and internal
There are several spiritual organisations in India, like the Ramakrishna and Chinmaya Missions, that take in children at the tender age of eight and groom them into a life of asceticism. In the late 1990s, the sanyasi who headed one such organisation in South Karnataka created a furore by giving up his three decades of ascetic life to get married and raise a family. The pull of cupid was greater than the call of sanyasa for this swamiji, and it is commendable that he had the awareness to recognise it and the courage to stand by his decision. Last heard, the Swamiji is rendering music concerts and is quite in demand during religious celebrations for the same! Thirty years of external sacrifice, by wearing ochre robes and being brought up in an ashram, were not successful in helping the swamiji transform his inner personality.
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That’s because external sacrifice is not sacrifice at all, says Gopal Krishna, a software engineer who is deeply into spirituality. Can we sacrifice something that does not belong to us in the first place, he asks rhetorically – what is ours that we can sacrifice? Everything is given to us by God – the air we breathe and the food we eat. Everything that we have at any point of time is given to us by God on a lease. He may choose to withdraw any or all of what he has given us at any point of time. If at all we can consider something as ours, it is only our pre-conditioned responses to the world we live in, says Gopal. This is the only thing that is man-made and not God-given. We have to surrender to God or the guru, to help us to transcend them. There is no way we can sacrifice them by our effort entirely.
Thus, we cannot give up material, but can get over our desire for it.
We cannot give up abundance, but can get over the insecurity of scarcity.
We cannot give up relationships, but can get over our expectations from it.
We cannot give up the world, but can get over our attachment to it.
We cannot give up our senses, but can get over our experience of ‘bodyness’ through it.
We cannot give up our life, but can get over our bondage from it.
We cannot give up our ego, but can get over the vices it produces.
A story from Indian mythology talks of one such personality. Janak Maharaj, father of Sita and king of Mithila, was a contradiction of sorts. He was known for his flashy lifestyle as much as for his spiritual advancement. The king used to go to the forest to study under his guru sage, Yajnavalkya, who gave him pride of place right in front of him. This was unbearable to the other disciples, many of them hard-core ascetics. Though Yajnavalkya sensed their resentment, he did nothing to change the status quo. One day, while a discussion on the nature of ‘Brahman’ was in progress, a messenger from the palace came running to the forest with bad tidings. He said that Janaka’s kingdom Mithila was on fire, and was spreading to the forest too. Hearing this, all students started running hither and thither, grabbing their belongings. Only King Janak stayed seated, and calmly continued the discussion. Yajnavalkya then addressed his students, “You think you have renounced the world, but at the first hint of danger you are scrambling to save your pitiable belongings! Here is Janak, whose very kingdom is ablaze and he bothers not about it. Now tell me who is the real sanyasi?”
Externally we can sacrifice money, status, lifestyle, and relationships when the situation demands, but we might still be, and most often are, attached to it mentally. On the contrary, Janak Maharaj was in the world, yet was detached from it, like a dewdrop that rests ever so lightly on a lotus petal. Ideally, external sacrifice should lead to internal renunciation for everlasting peace and happiness.
Sacrifice is expansion
Whatever be the nature of sacrifice, it appears that it is a continuous expansion of identity and consciousness, a process of evolution. After marriage, a woman’s identity expands to include her children, husband, and her family. A teacher’s identity includes her whole class, a principal’s the whole college, and a Prime Minister’s identity includes the whole nation. Only when all of them sacrifice their own limited identity, comforts, pleasures, and joys in favour of their collective identity will they be able to work for the welfare, peace, prosperity, progress, and happiness of the larger group. For realised masters, sacrifice is not just an expansion of identity but dissolution of the same to merge with the Divine. Jesus’ sacrifice is most often described as God’s plan to save humanity. Speaking of His certain death just before the Passover feast that would see his execution, Jesus said, “For this purpose I came to this hour … And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to myself.”
Sacrifice, for Christ, was nothing less than his duty towards mankind. What else could be the motive of spiritual souls to continue being in their embodied form, once they have attained self-realisation? The Mahabharata says that even the bliss of trance should not be enjoyed just for the sake of enjoyment. If Adi Shankara had been content to remain in bliss and shut himself away, the world would have lost an entire stream of philosophy called Advaita. Swami Vivekananda was taken to samadhi by his Guru Ramakrishna Paramahamsa only once – because the latter wanted his disciple to be very much in the world to accomplish what he did for humanity. The 24 disciples of Ramakrishna were so poor that they lived in a single shed and had just one pair of clothes among them – the one who needed to venture out into town was privileged to wear those clothes. For years, they survived on a diet of just rice and salt. However, not one abandoned their master because they were firm in their cause – pursuit of truth and propagating their master’s teachings to the world. It is a Buddhist tradition to give away their firstborn male child to the monastery – an act of supreme sacrifice. Spiritual masters go to any lengths to take care of their disciples – Ramana Maharshi and Swami Rama are known to have taken their disciple’s diseases and karma upon themselves, and suffered with cancer. Such is the extent of love for their disciples whom they have promised to protect and guide.
What is real sacrifice?
“Real sacrifice is renouncing the ego. Once the ego is surrendered then there are no selfish motives at all or separation from God. We will become a fountain of love and compassion,” says Mata Amritanandamayi.
Real sacrifice is when the doer does not even know that his actions can be classified as sacrifice, but does it because he can’t help it. When sacrifice is the very nature of the doer and not separate from him, like fragrance is the very nature of a flower and wetness the very nature of water. When tyaga becomes dharma. Lord Krishna says selfless service is sacrifice, and calls those who engage in it as tyagis or karma yogis. Sacrifice, after it goes through the fire of self-knowledge, turns into renunciation, says Krishna, and that should be the ultimate goal of humans. Sacrifice provides the preparation, discipline, and purification necessary for renunciation.
“Obligatory work performed as duty, renouncing selfish attachment to the fruit is alone regarded to be sacrifice in the mode of goodness, O Arjuna,” says the Lord in Chapter 18 of the Bhagavad Gita.
Dr. Ramananda Prasad of the American International Gita Society, California, USA, describes the following ways one may practise renunciation or sacrifice for the evolution of human consciousness, based on the Gita:
• Renunciation of actions forbidden by the scriptures
• Renunciation of lust, anger, greed, fear, likes and dislikes, and jealousy
• Spurning of procrastination in the search of truth
• Giving up the feeling of pride of possession of knowledge, detachment, devotion, wealth, and charitable deeds
• Rejection of selfish motives, and attachment to the fruits of all works
• Renunciation of the feeling of doership in all undertakings
• Giving up thoughts of using the Lord to fulfil selfish material desires
• Spurning of the attachments to material objects such as a house, wealth, position, and power
• Sacrifice of wealth, prestige, and even life for a noble cause, or for the protection and propagation of dharma
From sacrifice to salvation
“I understand what is sacrifice and all that – but why should I sacrifice?” asks a friend of mine cheekily, “I have no grandiose agendas of getting enlightened and all that.” Fair enough, one can live an ‘unenlightened’ life, but can one live without peace? Acquiring more and more worldly possessions leads to stress and insecurity while Tyaga shantirantaram – peace, eternal and ecstatic, follows sacrifice.
Alexander the Great, after vanquishing all the mighty kings of India, had a taste of this when he met a yogi sleeping peacefully under a tree. “I have never seen such peace in anyone before,” said the Emperor, “I have conquered the entire world, yet cannot enjoy a good night’s sleep. You, in your loin cloth, appear supremely peaceful. Please come with me to Greece. I will give whatever you wish – wealth, land and a palace to live.” The yogi laughed. “O Emperor,” he said, “I am able to sleep in peace precisely because I neither own nor covet any of the material possessions.” Alexander flew into a rage, “Do you know who you are talking to? I shall cut you into pieces if you do not obey me!” The yogi told the Emperor gently, “You can only cut my body, but I am not the body. I am that which dwells within the body. You call yourself a mighty conqueror? You are a slave of my slave!” “How is that?” asked the miffed warrior. “I have conquered anger, but you appear to have not. Anger is my slave, and you are a slave of my slave,” said the yogi.
One cannot become happy without sacrifice, one cannot become fearless without sacrifice, and one cannot attain God without sacrifice, says the Mahabharat. The Yogi in the above anecdote was peaceful, happy, fearless, and one with God, only because he had renounced both the tangible and the intangible both externally and internally.
Adi Shankara’s Bhaja Govindam is a step-bystep manual on how sacrifice can lead to salvation. Says the great seer, Satsangatve nissangatvam – through good and noble associations, sacrifice the lower associations and move towards being alone; nissangatve nirmohatvam – abiding in yourself, sacrifice desire and attachment; nirmohatve nischalatatvam – devoid of desire, sacrifice the wavering mind and become steady; nischalatatve jeevanmuktihi – with this unwavering mind, you are now liberated from the vagaries of this life and also the cycle of births and deaths.
Be a living sacrifice, said Jesus to Peter. If we, humanity, would resolve do so by dying to our former, limited selves and identifying ourselves with the whole of God’s creation, we would also bloom like the flower and flow like the river as nature intended – utterly beautiful, unselfish, unattached, carefree and in bliss!
Purnima Coontoor is a Mass Communications professional from Bangalore, freelancing as a writer, editor, translator and teacher, an Osho admirer and lover of life!
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