Everywhere, in one form or another, we come upon the force of conservatism. Custom and tradition envelop us on every side—in the home, in the office, in social life, in the political sphere. There is bigotry in science and orthodoxy in religion. But the heterodoxy of the irreligious smart set is also not free from its taboos. Who has built these walls of convention surrounding us on all sides?
There is another queer phenomenon. We have Hindus who chafe against the colour bar in South Africa and elsewhere, but observe caste rules in India. We have Radicals in politics who are orthodox in religion. We have one class or community fancying itself superior to another class or community, but railing against the same conceit in others who consider it inferior to themselves. If we observe we find that in each one of us the Liberal and the Conservative, the Reformer and the Orthodox are present. Most human beings are not integrated units. Conflicting forces work in them and produce confusion of thought and of duties, leading to struggle and to unhappiness.
Every nation or racial struggle has its counterpart in the life of the individual, and the way to happiness lies in a harmonious blending of the two opposing forces of reform and of convention. He who wants to reform himself is up against the wall of his own habits, of communal customs, of national prejudices, of racial pride. Each one of us is called upon to distinguish between the forces of love and of lust, of liberty and of licence, of reform and of orthodoxy, which are struggling in our own consciousness. Our habits and customs which ordinarily are acquired by heredity and through early education are sometimes seen by us to need change and reform. When we attempt to modify them we encounter opposition from two sides—first from outside, from our relatives and friends who also have the same habits and observe the same customs, and who do not relish the criticism implied by our efforts at self-improvement; secondly, from inside, for when we brush their objections aside gently or brusquely, and endeavour to institute the change, we come upon obstacles from within ourselves and which are inherent in us. We desire to effect a reform, but circumstances wipe out whatever has been begun. Why is this?
A clever businessman does not attempt reform in his establishment without ascertaining the causes of existing defects and without deliberately planning what should be substituted. But in introducing change in our own individual lives we do not seek the roots of causes. We do not ask: "Will the change I am contemplating effect a reform, or the reverse?" There is no basis for rational action. We feel a change to be desirable and without any further thought we act.
Many young people of today, surfeited with the religious orthodoxy of their elders, try to break "the fetters the priest has imposed upon us." That there is great force and truth in their contention none can deny—not even their elders, if they be but logical and think for themselves. But the young reformers do not know the technique of breaking the fetters of conventional habits born of conventional thinking. In their zeal for progress they make so great a haste that they throw away the baby with the bath water; the prophet goes along with the priest; Smriti goes, but along with it Shruti; theology goes, but along with it philosophy; old customs go, but also good manners. Chafing against restraints, such young people start a life of what they call emancipation—and to most of them emancipation translates itself into an exaggerated sense-life. In addition, these young people, who are under the illusion that they are happy, are in reality making a sorry mess of their lives. This must not be taken as a sweeping statement applicable to each and all. There are exceptions, but a fair number of the youth of today in the so-called civilized lands are centred in sense-life and sex-ideation, and think that they are emancipated.
Now, in India, of all countries, the spirit of reform is necessary. By temperament, because of past mistakes leading to present vicissitudes, our people centuries ago became ultra-conservative. Tradition has acquired so strong a hold on the masses that the breaking of conventions has become a duty for those who want to renovate the life manifesting on our ancient soil. But in what way should we proceed? Shall we throw away conventions and risk a lower standard of thought and of morals? Or shall we, in breaking the fetters, rise to a higher attitude in culture and in good manners which are "not idle, but the fruit of loyal nature and of noble mind"?
Everyone will answer: "Of course, in emancipating ourselves we must ascend. In bodily health more sensitive and strong, in morals more chaste and humane, in manners more dignified and courteous, in mind more polished and cultured, in public life more urbane and cosmopolitan." The ideal to be realized agreed upon, there remains the method to be adopted.
Every type and system of education proceeds by precept and by example. What the mother or nurse says and then what she does; what the father or teacher advises and then how he acts; what the author writes and then how he lives his personal life—this dual influence constantly affects us. One of the difficulties in reforming ourselves lies in the disparity we see between the advice given to us and the action performed by the one who advises. We find and are apt to excuse within ourselves this disparity between preaching and practice. But as we scan history and study the scale of human leadership we come upon spiritual figures like Krishna and Buddha, Jesus and Zoroaster, in whom we discern a harmonious blending between instruction and action. They fully practised what They preached. All others only attempt to square their actions with their ideas.
We find another phenomenon in the lives of such great spiritual reformers: They all taught the highest form of morality—purity of mind and chastity of body; detachment in consciousness, yet due performance of actions in the world of men; breaking of fetters, be they of iron or of gold, but always with the motive of bringing ourselves and the world to duty and to sacrifice. Ever condemning sin. They never cast the sinner out of Their heart.
In these two facts about the spiritual Instructors—Their example and Their integrated attitude to the whole of life, through the rhythm established between preaching and practice, and through Their high ethical precepts—we find necessary clue to right reform, to the correct method of breaking conventions, which recognizes the place and the value of conventions, of restraint, of conservatism. The need of the individual today is for a proper blending between his thoughts and his actions, which will engender peace within himself and enable him to live in self-respect. Slavery to conventions is disturbing to conscience and to reason; but slavery to a thoughtless unconventionalism is injurious to conscience and contrary to reason. Peace of mind and self-respect in conscience do not emerge from either conventional orthodoxy or unconventional rejection of standards and proprieties.
In the Gita and the Gathas, in the Sermons of the Buddha and the Sayings of Jesus, we find knowledge about emancipation which elevates. It is only when the bondage of lust and of licence is broken that Love and Liberty manifest themselves. Krishna, Buddha and Jesus were not conventional. They were Free Men—Men who had freed Themselves from religious orthodoxy without becoming irreligious; from social cant and hyprocrisy without becoming selfish, irreverent or sophisticated; from political conservatism without becoming Machiavellian. Their precepts and Their example can also free us if we study and apply the former and, using discernment, humbly copy the latter. We should aim at living the religion of the Higher Mind, which ennobles our social being, deepens our insight, and on every occasion and at every turn teaches what conventions to break and how to rise higher, thus enabling others to do likewise. If the society in which we live is not improved by our freeing ourselves from conventions, we have erred.
To break conventions without knowledge and perception is risky; to acquire proper instruction to free ourselves from conventions is a duty; but how many really desire such instruction?