IS SELFLESSNESS A VIRTUE THAT MAN CAN ACHIEVE?

The sacred text of the Srimad Bhagvad Gita urges selflessness in Chapter 18 Verse 23. It says:

“niyataṁ saṅga-rahitam arāga-dveṣhataḥ kṛitam
aphala-prepsunā karma yat tat sāttvikam uchyate”

Loosely translated it means:

“Action that is in accordance with the scriptures, which is free from attachment and aversion, and which is done without desire for rewards, is in the mode of goodness”

In the Holy Bible, the Book of Acts 20:35 states that “It is more blessed to give than to receive”. This advocates selflessness as a virtue and something that is desirable because God wishes it so.

The Hadith in Islam holds up the concept of Al ‘eethar as a desirable virtue. Al ‘eethar means the giving of preference of others over your own and is illustrated with numerous examples.

Over the centuries, philanthropists and charities have made it their business to help the needy on a large scale. However, what really matters is not what a handful of people do with money they have earned, stolen, or been given. What matters is the individual in this world. You and I, and a host of other individuals. Not groups, not institutions but the individual.

I submit that, by nature, the human being is not a giving person. If he is anything, he is a taking person and acquisitive in the extreme. Perhaps the hunter-gatherers of prehistoric times shared, but did they actually give as a virtue? Perhaps anthropologists would know the answer better than I would, but I would submit not.

Humankind has been in a race. A race to grow personally, better than when it started out. Success is measured only in terms, not of giving, but of achieving, acquiring, growing academically, materially and physically. Giving goes against human nature. And if there is any giving, it certainly does not follow the tenets of the Holy Srimad Bhagvad Gita, that one should give without any thought to a reward for giving or doing one’s duty. There is yet one more fundamental principle which is hard to deny.

Acquisition, growth, whether financial, academic, or in any other dimension means beating someone else. Becoming wealthier means acquiring more wealth which may have gone to someone else had it not come to you. Succeeding academically, perhaps topping an examination, means beating others for that top spot. So, when we talk about the nature of man, it is driven by the need to be better, wealthier, more successful than others around him. No giving is involved of any kind.

However, we always make a virtue out of selflessness. If something that goes against the nature of a human is a virtue, it is then an unnatural expectation, is it not? Someone once told me that the status of reaching true selflessness and total detachment is the status of having achieved “ananda. Perhaps that is why well known ancient and current religious scholars as well as self-proclaimed Godmen use the suffix “ananda” after their names. Swami Vivekananda is perhaps the best-known example of this. In recent times, however, some Godmen with this suffix have been discovered to be anything but selfless and been a blot on this suffix.

Very few of humankind can be said to have reached total selflessness and the purity of giving without any expectations in return. I suspect only a handful of humans have ever achieved this. I am sure there are many other unsung heroes who have done this without the publicity but even then, it is not even a drop in the ocean of humanity. The question that begs to be asked is this, “In a planet of over 7 billion people, if only a handful have achieved this level of purity, then is it normal to assume that such a trait comes naturally to us?”

I think we all know the answer to this. So, it seems that the scriptures ask us to aspire to a level of purity and selflessness that is against human nature. A further logical conclusion to this is that whoever taught these values were no mere humans. They were either manifestations of God or demi-Gods themselves. Because their standards were such that us mere mortals could never aspire to that level of being.