Integrity Guided by the inner light
By sharing the perspectives of like-minded righteous personalities, Nitya Rajagopal enlightens us about the various facets of the priceless jewel called ‘integrity,’ whose light is nothing but a reflection of our Source
Let me begin with a confession. At various points in my life, I have wondered about the value of integrity—the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles. In a world where integrity is seen more as a liability than an asset, how was it possible to practise it and still be happy? Moreover, from whatever I have seen and read, I have felt more than once that honesty is a deterrent rather than a catalyst to success. Sometimes I’ve wished I could be less steadfast in my values and more flexible with my ideas of right and wrong. To me, it felt like it was the source of all problems.
I soon realised that I couldn’t change my integrity. We were bound for life, whether I liked it or not. As I began to reflect more deeply, I understood that the true value of integrity doesn’t depend on the state of the external world, as I had previously thought, but on one’s internal dimensions. The true rewards of integrity, and life itself, lie in something much deeper than what meets the eye.
The word ‘integrity’ has its root in the Latin word integer, which means whole. Perhaps it is this wholeness that allows for such a variety of meanings and contradictions in a single term. In essence, integrity is the total harmony of principle, thought, intention, speech, and action, geared towards the overall well-being of oneself and society. For people of integrity, this inherent congruence is a guiding light, a source of immense strength and resilience.
‘Integrity’ itself is a deceptively simple word. While it’s most commonly understood as a variant of honesty, a deeper examination reveals that ‘integrity’ is a profound word and not easily defined. Integrity’s expression varies with different situations. For example, sometimes, integrity could mean following rules to the letter, while at other times, it calls for pardon, mercy, or cutting slack. Indeed integrity, in practice, is often a delicate balancing act between upholding one’s principles and responding skilfully to the situation on hand.
The epic of Ramayan is an epitome of the spiritual heights a person can achieve when they practise integrity. The characters of Ram, Lakshman, Bharat, Sita, and Hanuman exemplify the value of integrity and how it glorifies a person. Bharat, who was crowned the King of Ayodhya after Ram was exiled, vowed that he would never ascend to the throne and wait for the return of Ram. For 14 years he sat below the throne acting as Ram’s emissary rather than a king and happily gave away the command to his elder brother, the rightful heir to the throne, after he returned from exile. Such display of integrity is difficult to fathom as well as find in today’s world.
Integrity: One word, different meanings
So what is integrity? I posed the question to some people who, to me, are inspirational in the way they have upheld this value in their lives. Their responses shed light on the diverse dimensions of the word.
Vimla Mehra wears many hats. A retired IPS officer and former director general, Delhi Prisons (Tihar), she is also a certified sound healer and a natural farmer among other things. She says, “For me, integrity means that one is honest to oneself. It is a wholesomeness, which means things are incomplete if you make a compromise with this. It is following your beliefs and doing things the right way.” Integrity is also being accountable to a force higher than oneself. She continues, “I have followed this principle: You must always think that somebody is watching you.”
Debjyoti Mohanty is a CSR professional and head of the Youth Leadership Training Program (YLTP) wing of the Art of Living, which focusses on rural development, including empowering rural youth to take responsibility for themselves and their communities. For him, moral and financial integrity take precedence over all else, perhaps, because of his role in implementing social development projects which derive funding from a variety of private, corporate, and government sources. On a professional level, integrity is adhering to the book of law, while on a personal level, it means practising the morals one preaches. He says, “You have to have faith in your principles. If you say ‘I have integrity,’ if you say, ‘I am moral,’ you should say it from your heart, from your stomach. Your values should be very close to your heart. That’s when you don’t compromise on them.”
Geetanjali Chauhan is a trauma surgeon by training, but she is also a healer, coach, and writer. For her, integrity is honesty, truth, and self-respect, which she upholds as the highest values in her life. It is trusting one’s inner voice. It is the willingness to step outside one’s comfort zone and take responsibility. It is sharing oneself and one’s resources. She says, “Integrity is also using hardships for personal growth. It is letting go of one’s judgements and respecting other people’s views. It is having a clear understanding of one’s higher purpose.”
Mrs Krishna Anand’s commitment to self-improvement and social service is truly inspiring. An octogenarian and a former senior technical officer in a prestigious biophysics laboratory, she is now a dedicated volunteer at a local NGO and an integral member of her Vedanta study group. For her, the word ‘integrity’ takes on a strong social dimension. She says, “From my life, from my family, from society, from my education, I have learnt this: Be one with everyone. Everybody is the same. You and I are the same consciousness.” Integrity, for her, is also respect, humility, and recognising one’s own imperfections. She says, “When you live together with people, you must listen to everybody, engage with everybody, understand everybody’s perspective. Whether you tally with that idea or not, it’s okay. But listen to them, think about ‘Why is he (or she) saying this?’ ”
Integrity: A portrait
“If you really want to judge the character of a man, look not at his great performances. Every fool may become a hero at one time or another. Watch a man do his most common actions; these are indeed the things which will tell you the real character of a great man.”
People of true integrity stand out from the pack. There is something unmistakably different about them, although it may be difficult to discern at first. Is it in their look or conduct? In the way they carry themselves? In their speech or in the moments they choose to remain silent? Or, perhaps, it lies in something much deeper, which reflects itself through all these external parameters. What is it that lends them a certain grace and poise that never fails to command respect, although in a most quiet, dignified way?
• Comfort with themselves: One of the most striking things about people of integrity is their comfort with themselves. Their clarity and self-assuredness are impossible to ignore. They are the same wherever they go. They don’t mould themselves differently to be perceived a certain way by certain people. Although they can come across as unassuming, even self-effacing, deep inside, they are sure of their value. Deep self-respect is the backbone of integrity.
• Sense of right and wrong: They have a strong sense of right and wrong and an inherent ability to discern between the two. They go about their work quietly and steadfastly. Integrity is so much a part of who they are, they often don’t give it a second thought. Deeply connected with themselves, they are adept at handling internal conflicts when they arise and are able to find the answers by themselves. Rarely will you find such people measuring their worth by external factors. Rather, people of integrity measure their worth by their adherence to their cherished principles and their impact on the world around them.
• They keep their word: Words are sacrosanct for people of integrity. They mean what they say and they say what they mean. They keep their promises, both to themselves and others, and they follow through with every commitment. Humble by nature, people of integrity are committed to self-improvement and refine themselves through constant introspection. They are completely honest with themselves and are able to perceive themselves objectively. They trust their inner voice completely and follow it, even when it is at odds with society.
• Broad vision of life: People of integrity have a broad vision of life and perceive life in all its wholeness. For such people, the means taken are as important as the end. Such people are far more likely to make choices which will benefit them in the long run, even if they bring short-term difficulties. The words of Hazrat Inayat Khan capture their attitude, “The object attained by both good and bad means is the same, but the way one tries to attain it makes it right or wrong. It is not the object that is wrong; it is the method one adopts to attain it.”
• Inner gratification is paramount: For people of integrity, gratification is purely internal. It is in inner satisfaction and conviction rather than in indulgence. For this reason, they are rarely enamoured by ephemeral gains and trifling pleasures. Material rewards—money, power, name, and fame—rarely dictate their actions, although they often come to them on their own accord as a consequence of their righteous behaviour.
K Kamalathal, an 80-year-old lady from Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu, sells idlis (rice cakes) every day at the rate of Rs 1/- per piece so that the poor could easily fill their stomachs. She wakes up early in the morning to prepare food for her customers who are mostly daily-wage earners and has refused to increase the rate despite inflation and the rising cost of ingredients. “Many people have told me to hike my price, but I tell them that I do this for the needy and hungry. My grandchildren ask me to stop working so hard at my age, but I do this work because it brings me joy,” says Kamalathal, with a smile gracing her toothless gums. After her story became famous all over India, she began to receive customers from many adjoining villages too, but she has refused to hike the price even after burgeoning demand because her purpose is to serve, not to make money.
Integrity: A journey
Integrity is not a destination but a path. And certainly not an easy one. As Vimla Mehra says, “While you are on this path, you have to surrender yourself to it. When you surrender, Nature keeps guiding you.” With their values forming their inner compass, and principles acting as their guiding light, people of integrity confront inevitable challenges that test their mettle at every step. Thus guided, they emerge stronger with each obstacle, with greater faith in themselves and in nature’s wisdom. Their growth and maturity are hard-earned and may demand sacrifice or require them to face immense darkness, pain, and suffering. “It can be trying at times, but it won’t kill you. It will pass,” says Geetanjali Chauhan. Indeed, the process can feel brutal as it unfolds, and they might begin to question their values, principles, and choices. In such moments of doubt, the experienced ones are able to step back and see this as part of a larger unfolding, a quantum leap towards the next stage of personal evolution. As this process repeats itself, time makes them glow with the lustre of victory and experience.
The path of integrity is a spiritual journey of inner purification. Those who tread it are unfailingly guided by their inner light and always know the right thing to do. As they place their faith in their conviction, follow their inner voice, and surrender the rest to nature, they find that doors open in unexpected places, people appear out of thin air, things fall into place when it seems least likely, and where it seems like all hope has vanished, solutions magically appear. Because they have clarity in their heart and mind, they have very little internal conflict, and the Universe supports them in every way.
People of integrity are often prepared to sacrifice material rewards when they find themselves battling against the world to protect the values they hold so dear. While the world may berate them for their perceived foolishness, these warriors know that a clear conscience is paramount to their peace and that the satisfaction of doing the right thing is more valuable than any external reward or recognition. This gives them the courage to follow their inner voice fearlessly. Their true reward is often in something as simple as a good night’s sleep, a clear mind, and inner contentment—precious things, which they know cannot be obtained by any amount of adulation, possession, or position. “Throughout my career, I never accepted any kickbacks or bribes from people who wanted favours from me. My contemporaries called me a fool for not cashing in on such opportunities, but I was resolute that I will not let anyone bring harm to the organisation I worked for. I had pledged to a life of loyalty and commitment, and I could never compromise on that,” says Shishir Kumar, a former government official.
The path of integrity inevitably broadens one’s sense of self and makes one acutely aware of the inherent interconnectedness of all life. As one walks on this path, the ‘I’ expands progressively, bringing with it an unshakable sense of responsibility not only for oneself but also for those in one’s immediate vicinity. The well-being of others becomes as important as one’s own.
Integrity in relationships
How does integrity translate in a relationship? “At the most basic level,” as Debjyoti Mohanty points out, “integrity in relationships means being truthful and respecting those who are close to you.” In marriages, it means respecting the vows you made during the nuptials and keeping them. You are aware that you are supposed to be loyal, committed, and dedicated to your partner, and you stick to your word. However, if, for a certain reason, the spark seems to have left your marriage, then instead of committing adultery, you will choose to have a frank and honest discussion with your spouse. You will attempt to resolve issues as best as you can. But if things go south, despite all your efforts, you will part ways honourably and respectfully, before entering into a new relationship. You do not let fears of loneliness and being left to fend for yourself come in the way of your inner truth. You do not take the easy way out by cheating on your partner to fill your emotional void. You know that if you do the right thing, the Universe will come to your aid.
People with integrity make loyal friends and do not abandon their friends during their difficult moments. They are keepers of secrets and do not betray their friends’ trust in them. As parents, people with integrity lead by example. They take care to walk their talk as they know that children learn from their behaviour and not what they say. They know that no matter what, their children are individuals with a life path of their own and they [the parents] cannot control their lives. Geetanjali Chauhan credits her own inner journey with giving her this perspective. As a parent, rather than try to fit her children into a particular box, she has been able to identify their distinct outlooks and creative talents and has given them the support, nurturing, and freedom they require to flourish. Her 11-year-old son is a budding writer and artist, while her teenaged daughter is a gifted dancer. Although she and her husband are surgeons, they have been conscious to never impose this career path on their children.
But what if you are dealing with someone who doesn’t necessarily share your values? How do you remain dignified when your actions are dictated by your principles and others behave in a way that subverts them? The answer came through a story narrated in a casual conversation.
A friend’s father recently needed to fix a pair of shoes. He went to our local mochi (cobbler), a tremendously wise, evolved soul, popular with young and old alike. That day, like most days, there were a few people around him, chatting with him as he worked. As my friend’s father stood there waiting for his shoes, the ongoing conversation came to a sudden halt and all heads, except the cobbler’s, turned to the other side of the road, where a man was slinking by, his gaze down as he purposely avoided looking the group of people in the eye. Suddenly, one of the men asked the cobbler, “Usne paise wapas kar diye?” (Has he returned the money?) The cobbler shook his head. Another man asked, “How many days has it been since he last met you?” The cobbler replied that it had been five to six months, although this man passed the area often. “How much money did he take?” asked another. He responded it was five or six thousand rupees. The people around expressed their surprise. One asked, “Aap us se poochte kyun nahi?” (Why don’t you ask him?) To this, the cobbler replied with a smile, “Koi baat nahi. Usko jab andar se lagega, woh khud aayega.” (It’s okay. When he will realise from within, he himself will come.)
To me, this touching story sums up what integrity means in a relationship. As the cobbler demonstrated, integrity begins with oneself, with one’s own character and conduct, and then reflects in one’s interactions with others. People of integrity take responsibility for their own happiness and do not demand it from others. They have implicit faith that if they did the right thing, things will turn out as they are meant to be and that they will always be taken care of.
Humility is essential to integrity
When relating to another, integrity can manifest as humility and as honest communication. It is the willingness to acknowledge one’s faults and mistakes and the ability to apologise when one recognises they have hurt another person. It is speaking the truth and being capable of listening to the truth when it is spoken. It is the ability to forgive and let go.
Integrity can also mean receptivity and unconditional acceptance of oneself and others. Mrs Krishna Anand says, “As far as life is concerned, everybody has individuality. You can’t compare it—it’s so vast! It is wrong to expect everybody to be like me. Nobody should be like me. They should be themselves.” Integrity is respecting each person’s inherent uniqueness. It is receiving people wholly without trying to change them. It is giving people space to grow and evolve on their own terms rather than moulding them to what we think they should be. It is giving the people we love the freedom to be themselves instead of constantly measuring them to our standards and ideals.
Integrity in a relationship is a reflection of one’s own cherished values. It grows from inner stability and security. It is asking “How can I contribute to this person’s life?” rather than “How can this person benefit me?”
Mrs Anand is a revered member of her large family. Being the eldest, her evenings are often filled with phone calls from various family members seeking advice or sharing news. The genuine respect she commands is not just a matter of age. She says, “They like my habits. They think I have followed the right path, the right values. That is how I can have integrity with everybody, small or big, rich or poor.”
Integrity at the workplace
For people who uphold integrity in every aspect of their life, their principles will definitely carry over to the workplace too. Professional integrity begins with sincerity, diligence, and honesty. It is taking responsibility for one’s work and giving one’s 100 per cent to every task at hand. Generally, people of integrity do not take shortcuts or cut corners in order to achieve something. They do things the proper way.
In positions of power, professional integrity is taking responsibility for others. It is having concern for the welfare of every person in one’s team. It is paying one’s bills and salaries on time, returning loans, and respecting people’s time. It is maintaining dignity, even in the face of politics. Professional integrity is also leading by example and earning respect by one’s conduct and behaviour rather than demanding it by virtue of one’s position. In their work, people of integrity have immense clarity of purpose. They work quietly, often preferring to let their work speak for them.
Vimla Mehra sums it up aptly: “Wherever you are, you add value to that post, that place of responsibility that you occupy, to the work that has been assigned to you.”
She narrates an incident which occurred when she was a mid-level officer and was given the charge of recruiting some drivers. She made a system to implement this task according to the given guidelines and followed it diligently. In spite of her meticulousness, there were many complaints against her. Those who were not recruited accused her of favouritism. Her work was questioned, but she stood her ground and managed to convince her seniors that the task had been carried out with total honesty. “That was appreciated,” she says.
Many such instances took place in her career, but each one only made her stronger. She credits her seniors and colleagues for their support through those times. Did the dissatisfaction of others ever make her question her own capabilities? She says, “I was given a task, I had to do it. You know what you have to do, you have to follow certain rules and regulations. You don’t do it to satisfy anybody. You do it to satisfy your inner voice and your constitutional responsibility which was given to you through official orders. You follow that. At the same time, you keep your conscience alive. Then ultimately, you get support.”
How does a person of integrity react when things don’t go their way? Dr APJ Abdul Kalam speaks of ISRO’s failed satellite launch in 1979 after ten years of hard work by thousands of people. As project director, Dr Kalam was at a loss as to how to manage this failure. He describes how during the press conference that followed, the chairman of ISRO, Satish Dhawan, took responsibility for the failed project, although as the project director, the responsibility actually lay with Dr Kalam himself. The next year, when the launch succeeded, the chairman asked Dr Kalam to conduct the press conference. He says, “I learned a very important lesson that day. When failure occurred, the leader of the organisation took responsibility. When success came, he gave it to his team. The best management lesson I have learned did not come to me from reading a book; it came from that experience.” Rather than get disheartened and give up, people of integrity take every mistake in their stride, learn from it, and move on. In times of success, they share the credit. Humility is their hallmark.
Debjyoti Mohanty elaborates on what integrity means for a person in a position of power and responsibility, “Suppose you’re the boss, you see what your people need, and you facilitate it for them. If they are in certain situations, you understand it from their point of view and support them at the right time, morally and, sometimes, financially.” Apart from basic disciplines such as punctuality, for him, professional integrity also means extending oneself and taking responsibility beyond just fulfilling the basic stipulations of one’s job.
For Geetanjali Chauhan, this last point has led to a whole new dimension in her medical practice. “Doctors,” she says, “are subject to rigid training. Everything goes according to what is written in the book. There’s a certain way it’s taught to you.” However, her own journey of self-healing has transformed her approach. Now, when a patient approaches her, she first addresses their negative beliefs or talks to them about accepting themselves rather than bring up surgery or medicine. This is quite an unusual practice for an allopathic doctor, but for Geetanjali, it couldn’t be more intuitive. Contrary to her training, Geetanjali now finds herself connecting with her patients at a human level. They are no longer merely bodies to be treated, but vessels of divinity, with their own minds, energies, and belief systems. “I have given up the corporate demeanour,” she says. “There is no longer a difference between doctor and patient.” Recognising that her approach may not fit into conventional medical establishments, she has started her own clinic, Panacea Surgicare, as a consulting space to blend medicine with healing. Although she has received her fair share of mockery from her colleagues, she takes it all in her stride, often taking the opportunity to laugh at herself along with them. “I don’t need to prove anything to anybody,” she says, for her proof is in her practice. “It helps me and my patients. I have seen miracles happen.”
Integrity: Can it be cultivated?
Integrity is often perceived to be an inborn trait. While this is true, the invaluable role of external support and nurturing, for integrity to blossom, is often neglected.
In Debjyoti Mohanty’s perception, integrity is both a trait and a state. He defines a trait as something inherent, which one is born with and which cannot be developed. A state, he says, is something which can be inculcated and nurtured. Although they see integrity as being inherent in their nature, Geetanjali Chauhan, Vimla Mehra, and Mrs Anand also speak of the pivotal role of their families, particularly one or both parents, in shaping their value systems. In addition, they also speak of the importance of good company and seeking out like-minded people who are on a similar life path.
While what we are born with is beyond our control, the values we choose to nurture in ourselves are surely in our hands. So how can integrity be cultivated?
Integrity grows when one is true to oneself. In this light, creating a habit of introspection is essential. Maintaining a diary for this purpose or engaging in dialogues with trusted people who hold these values dear can prove to be a fulfilling exercise. Cultivating a relationship with Mother Nature also brings one closer to what is truly important in life. Debjyoti Mohanty adds that any spiritual practice helps, along with consciously keeping good company. He has seen a number of people transform themselves in this way.
In the end, one must love the value of integrity for it to take root and flourish in one’s heart. Like any other positive trait, one must want it, cherish it, and nurture it for it to weave itself into the fabric of one’s existence.
In its broadest sense, the path of integrity is nothing short of a spiritual journey. With experience comes the awareness that everything is temporary, that nobody is indispensable. With this perspective, the individual sees themself as a mere instrument of a larger purpose. A person of integrity learns to surrender themself to the path, to Nature, and allow things to unfold as they must. Maturity on this path brings with it an intimate connection with life and an intuitive understanding of some of life’s deepest secrets. Perhaps, this spiritual wealth, more than anything else, is integrity’s true reward, for one who treads this path eventually becomes a quiet fountain of wisdom, a gentle guiding light for all of humanity.
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