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Saturday, December 17, 2016

Competition and Compassion


I was reading Kanchi Periyaval (KP) defending the varnashrama dharma, the duties of the four varnas. This word varna, unfortunately translates into caste system. KP argues that it was a good system. I do not agree with his conclusion. But, his arguments are worth thinking about.

He argues that equality and freedom do not go together. After completing a 10 volume History of Civilization, Will and Ariel Durant said the same thing, in the same words.  Taking it further, one can say that it is not possible to let everybody compete for every job and expect societal harmony. If division of labor and the rewards are set by competition, each to his own ability, some will fall behind. Those with money, connections or physical strength will get ahead. There is bound to be disharmony. Therefore, the method of division of labor by the varna (caste) was meaningful, says KP. Every one carried out the assigned duties without competing and therefore there were no hard feelings and there is wisdom in the division of labor which allowed unity of heart, says KP.  Yes, but that was based on everyone accepting the role given to them by birth. Most likely some did not. They were kept in place by force or by ex-communication. They were coerced.

I feel that division of labor cannot be, and should not be, determined by birth ALONE as was done in the varna system.  Even the scriptures say so.

I agree totally with KP that all of us have to be united in heart even as we do different things. When we add Gita’s advice, namely we do our assigned duty with passion but without attachment to the results, it will indeed bring peace and harmony in our individual lives and in the society. There can be no growth in the civilization without inner satisfaction.

The big problem is that we live in a period in history when competition and pursuit of happiness are emphasized. When we compete, the emphasis is on the individual. In our desire to “win”, some of us are likely to use “unfair” means. Even if we win “fair and square” someone else loses. That someone will be jealous and unhappy. He may wait for his chance to get even. There will be no equality. Some will be unhappy. There will be some degree of disharmony.

Add to this sense of competition, the fact that it is for possessions in the “pursuit of happiness”. The word “happiness” is connected for most people and most often with material happiness. That leads to more inequality and also to perceptions of inequality. There is more competition so that “I can get what he has”. More jealousy. More emphasis on individual happiness and individual success. That leads to greater isolation and sadness.

Nothing I have said so far is theoretical. We see this every day. How can we escape this cycle?

We need to connect with others who are also in the same dilemma. Buddha said:"My blood is red; so is yours. My tears are salty; so are yours”. I have to connect with the one source, common to all. We need to replace, or at least mix, Competition with Compassion.

The other part has an easier answer. But, it is difficult to achieve without individual effort. That is, to modify the words “pursuit of happiness” with the words “pursuit of inner happiness and harmony”.

In Buddhist meditation, methods are available to achieve these goals. They are called the Brahma Viharas. They are: Love (maitri), Compassion (karuna), sympathetic joy (mudita) and equanimity(upeksha). Meditation on and practice of these four items will make us connect with other lives with empathy and compassion. Once we feel connected with other lives in a deep way, we will be happy when others are. How can I make you happy without making myself happy (sympathetic joy) and not feel happy when you are,  when I feel that we are of the same source and material? How can I hurt you without hurting a part of myself? And, when I experience the entire universe and all creatures as extension of me, how can I not be in a state of equanimity? 

(Please also see my blog on Wisdom and Compassion from   February 5, 2010)  

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