Essays in Life and Eternity
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 14: Civic and Social Duty

The well-known programme revolving round the dictum, 'Love thy neighbour as thyself', has far-reaching implications. Why should one love one's neighbour? The Vedanta philosophy would give the answer: 'Because thy neighbour is thy own self'. The responsibility of a person to another person, who is here called the neighbour, depends on the extent to which one recognises in the person of another the essence of one's own self. Those who render the greatest service to mankind are people who do not merely behold in front of them a multitude of persons and feel a social obligation or a political necessity to be considerate and serviceful to them, but those in whom a deeper impulse is welling up to see their own selves in all. The spiritual leaders of mankind alone can render the greatest service to people in terms of their very souls, while the common social-welfare projects can touch only the fringe of humanity's needs. To serve the body with food, clothing, shelter and medical attention is indeed good, but a better service would be to educate people and make them confident in themselves with the recognition of the dignity of man as an emblem of divinity. To work for the salvation of the soul is the greatest of all services. The saints and sages, with their powerful thoughts and concentrated feelings, render a service which cannot be seen with the physical eyes. These masters descend on earth for a while, think a few thoughts that will vibrate for all time to come, and leave the world unnoticed. These are the greatest geniuses of the world, not the kings, the wealthy magnates and marshals of war.

The civic duty of man is a basic commonsense consideration that one should have to the environment of people and the world, and it is good to be always friendly with the community around. Not only that; it would be better to be kind and serviceful to persons in the vicinity. If charity begins at home, love and service also start in the immediate neighbourhood. Goodness of behaviour is more a quality of outlook than a quantitative reach of one's actions to distant corners of the world. To be qualitatively good in respect of even one person would speak more gloriously of that source of service than to be just quantitatively philanthropic to a large number of individuals. Goodness does not require any announcement in public, it does not seek recognition, not even a word of thanks, for, "Is not the least one in this world going to be recognised as the first in the kingdom of God?"

Civic obligations arise from human nature itself. They spring from the very needs of human make-up which has connections with different kinds of facility that is expected to be received from the world. If we accept the theory of the cave-man, the hunter and the tribal as the initial stages of human effort towards preservation of life and maintenance of security and read through the following stages of the development of the human mind, it would become obvious that there was a developing tendency of individuals to form themselves into small groups for the purpose of facilitating the acquisition of the common needs of life, as also to protect the group from rival communities. Perhaps, here is the crude beginning of the formation of principalities and such regional associations with a common cause, and with a leader, mostly of a warrior type, to become later a local suzerain, a royalty, the traditional king occupied with the protection of his jurisdiction and always cautious to ward off interference from other ambitious guardians of people living in different localities, which could very easily be proclaimed as the beginnings of kingdoms, investing their leaders even with a kind of superhuman divinity. This so-called 'divine right of kings,' thus originated and proclaimed by certain rulers, is a mixture of supposed human power and angelic superintendence over communities recognised as superphysical glories enhancing the status and recognition of the earthly potentates.

It is the specific contribution of Hegel in his studies of the phenomenology of mind that the original form of life was just identical with brute consciousness, which is a state of sleeping consciousness, gradually opening itself out into the vegetable type, animal type and human type of consciousness, self-consciousness becoming aware of itself only at the human level. The brute man, the vegetable man, the animal man and the truly human man are classifications possible even at the human level. At the lowest level, man concerns himself only with himself, with his physical needs, and would regard everyone else as his objects, either as things for his consumption or those that are to be feared and guarded against. The selfishness of man manifests itself in love and hatred towards others. In love one attempts to destroy the object by absorbing it into one's own person and in hatred one tries to abolish the object physically. Both in love and hatred the intention of the lover or the hater is to annihilate the isolated existence of the object so that, whether in love or in hatred, the ego asserts itself as supreme and would not permit a separate existence of another ego beside itself. The developing consciousness gradually realises that such selfishness cannot succeed in the end, and it is not difficult to see that, even in the attempt of the individual to abolish the individualities of others in love and hatred, there is a dependence of the individual on others through the impulses of various likes and dislikes. It now becomes clear to the more enlightened consciousness that it is not possible to annihilate the individualities of others, because of its dependence on them somehow or other, and it becomes necessary for every individual to recognise the existence of other individuals as unavoidables in life. Thus arises a necessity to create a situation where the existence of other individuals has to be accepted and yet the desire of the ego not to be dependent on others is simultaneously taken care of, a circumstance where sufficient importance is conceded to other individuals without diminishing one's own importance in any way. This is the beginning of the community-consciousness or social consciousness, where the acceptance of the value of others is co-existent with the value that one attaches to oneself. Social organisations crop up in this manner, where everyone is cooperative with every other, for, without such a cooperation, no one's individual existence can be free from the threat of self-annihilation.

In civic body or society it is obligatory that everyone should contribute something to the survival and welfare of that body, and no one can remain idle, doing nothing. Work everyone must. The participation of the person in the form of service to society is naturally graded according to the station in which the person is placed in society. The circumstances of one's life, one's knowledge and capacity, will decide the quality and the extent to which such a service would be expected by the society to which one belongs. Society lives by the mutual coordination of its constituents, as a fabric of cloth is what it is because of the threads that go to form it. Since no single individual can be said to have the ability to contribute individually everything that the society would need, the ancient system of law has laid down that each one should share with the social set-up the highest possibility of which one is capable. Analysing the requirements of society as consisting of the necessary ways and means of maintaining and administering society, the law-givers in terms of the social order spelt out such needs as the fourfold blend of directing power, executive power, commercial power and manpower, known in Sanskrit as Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra, representing wisdom, administration, trade and work, respectively. As a large machine is, so is human society, only differing from a machine in the purposiveness and aspiration of its existence. As every little bit of a mechanical body intended to raise a particular output is equally important, so also the people belonging to these categories by their knowledge and ability form a family integrated internally, living and serving on the basis of the dignity and the divinity of every labour or work. It is necessary to be humane before one becomes human.

Civic duties also include ecological considerations and the obligation to protect Nature in its originality and purity. Let mountains stand, let rivers flow, let trees grow, let fresh air blow, and let no one interfere with their freedom, freshness and innocence. Polluting air with smoke and dust, vitiating water by dumping waste and dirt on it, destroying living trees which are responsible for the strength of the ground on which they stand and are also responsible for rainfall in the suitable season, are civic offences on the part of man. Throwing garbage on open ground is prohibitory to commonweal and health of people. Is not Nature the first and immediate neighbour whom one has to love as one's own self?