In the well-known Vivekachudãmani of Sankarãchãrya and other spiritual texts, it is indicated that to be born as a human being is a precious opportunity. The human mind is wonderfully endowed: it has the gift of self-awareness, of moral insight, aspiration for knowledge, the ability to realize values and to experience in depth the beauty and meaning of life. Most people do not recognize the inestimable value of these gifts of the mind and waste or misuse them, holding very firmly to one idea -- that all the faculties and powers of the mind are to be used to promote self-interest.
The beginning of wisdom lies in understanding that all gifts of Nature, of the karmic and evolutionary processes, are meant to be employed for the benefit of others, and not for self-advancement. 'Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above' and is therefore not meant to benefit any one person. In consonance with this, Annie Besant urged all who receive education to return it in service, and all 'owners' of wealth to hold it as a trust for the common good. Every intellectual, artistic, moral, spiritual or other talent should be used freely and wholly for the benefit of others, and then the laws of Nature recompense the giver in more than full measure..
This may be part of the meaning of the first step to perfection (paramita called dana, translated by HPB as 'charity and love immortal'. Altruism is the supreme characteristic of a true Theosophist. Even though the odds may seem unfavorable in the present day, it is necessary for an increasing number of people to learn to become altruists by conviction. Then their very existence will help to change the mental atmosphere of the world and the state of human society.
We learn from the latest UN Human Development Report that the total wealth of the world's 358 billionaires equals the income of 45% of the poorest of the global population. The gap between the small minority of fantastically rich 'digital billionaires' and the extremely poor continues to widen. The rich are able to increase their fortunes without any labor simply by operating their computers, while the poor, bearing incredibly hard burdens, cannot even dream of ordinary education, let alone of entering the information age.
At the end of the nineteenth century, with prophetic insight Annie Besant wrote (Autobiography, 1995, pp. 318-19) that it was as though 'science was standing on the very threshold of knowledge which shall make all her past seem small':
Already her hand is trembling towards the grasp of forces beside which all those now at her command are insignificant. How soon will her grip fasten on them? Let us hope not until social order has been transformed, lest they should only give more to those who have, and leave the wretched still wretcheder by force of contrast. Knowledge used by selfishness widens the gulf that divides man from man and race from race, and we may well shrink from the idea of new powers in Nature being yoked to the car of Greed. Hence the wisdom of those 'Masters', in whose name Madame Blavatsky speaks, has ever denied the knowledge which is power until Love's lesson has been learned, and has given only into the hands of the selfless the control of those natural forces which misused, would wreck society.
People are often misled by reports of so-called economic growth. The UN Report mentions five ways in which economic growth actually leads to deterioration and not to improvement in the quality of life -- when it fails to provide jobs, harms the environment, destroys cultural diversity, subverts democratic institutions, and when the benefits are captured by the rich. Studies also show that 'growth' calculated on the basis of market activity, includes the earnings of sex and drug traders, money spent on excess food by people who then spend more money to lose weight, expenses incurred on enterprises which damage the environment followed by the cost of cleaning it, and many other such absurdities. Promises and pictures of economic growth are meaningless without a growth of the altruistic spirit, which is the theosophical spirit, for that spirit alone can ensure real improvement at every level and in every field.
One of the truly human gifts, as mentioned earlier, is moral awareness. Every one of us, however poor materially, has something of value to share, and that sharing enhances our humanity. It might be a talent for cheerfulness, knowledge which others need, or energy to do things. All we need to do to initiate a radical change in the world is to put everything that we have to the service of others, and not regard it as a personal possession or merit.
Dana or true generosity is natural and self-forgetful, not self-conscious. At the lofty level of the Bodhisattvas, who constantly pour out their love, there is no consciousness, we are told, of being the giver, and of someone else being the receiver. The act of sharing has no trace of duality attached to it. Lesser people may not be capable of such untainted altruism, but we must begin with the attitude of not seeking and wanting, and learn the joy of serving and sharing. How many Theosophists are there in this sense?
The quaint accounts of the past lives of the Buddha are full of meaning, because they illustrate how, long before a person has advanced far on the path of enlightenment, the attitude of dana can inspire his or her life. The Buddha is pictured in the Jãtaka tales as having surrendered in life after life sometimes his flesh or his body, sometimes his honor or wealth, for the sake of others. He gave without reservation and thus became buddha. May we learn to follow in his footsteps and not to hold what we acquire, possess, or are endowed with as our own, but as gifts to be given. Then we might be entrusted with the key which opens the first portal on the way to enlightenment.
As The Voice of the Silence declares:
O thou candidate for Nature's hidden lore! If one would follow in the footsteps of holy Tathãgata, those gifts and powers are not for self.
It is well known that the spiritual path challenges the pilgrim with a variety of paradoxes. Where there is lack of subtlety and openness to truth, the challenge posed by the paradox is not realized as an opportunity to break through to a new level of insight and awareness. While the concrete mind is puzzled by the seeming irreconcilability of the two sides of a paradox, the mind which is fully receptive to truth leaps to a new dimension in which life is revealed more meaningfully.
Theosophists know that each one of us is responsible for his or her own inner progress or lack of it. The inexorable law of karma metes out to each one, with absolute justice, what he has prepared for himself.
Each man is...the dispenser of glory or gloom to himself; the decreer of his life, his reward, his punishment.
Asking for what has not been earned is useless. On the other hand, hope need never be lost, for not even the mightiest of powers can deprive a person of what he has earned. All are under the sway of law. Therefore, the aspirant concentrates on working hard to purify himself, and seeks the wisdom with ardor. Yet paradoxically, he must work without a goal, seeking no results; he must seek ardently and strive with all his heart without desiring anything. This is bewildering to those who do not have an open mind, uniquely engaged in understanding life.
Ordinary religious teaching lays down a code and tells people what is right and what is wrong. To give alms is good; therefore, charity is practiced as a form of obedience to those who 'know more'. There is then no awareness of the link between the outer act and the invisible activities of the mind. Within there is division and duality; outside there are the visible acts of kindness which others see and appreciate. For all those at this stage of life there is no giving without a giver and a receiver.
To the thoughtful and truly religious mind, the outer and the inner are not apart, and therefore there is no paradox or puzzle. There is sensing, if not actual experience, of another level of consciousness, where work can be done without a goal and effort made without effort. There can be seeking without a goal. There can be striving without wanting. As our late President N. Sri Ram said:
Our own progress will take care of itself if we leave it to Nature. Everything evolves, everything unfolds. It is a universal process which brings certain things out of latency. If we are persuaded of this truth, we can leave our progress to Natyure, to the Law, so that we are not concerned with our own progress, but rather with what we do, what we need to understand, what the right way of acting is, and the true note to strike.
Mrs Radha Burnier is current International President of the Theosophical Society.