Cultivating the Art of Living - III
Continued from “Man’s Eternal Search: Discovering the Meaning of Life”
Peter Ducker mentions in one of his books how he discovered the measure of achievement in his own meaningfully rich life. And he found this much before he became the universally acknowledged guru of the management gurus, a genre of specialists much in demand in our fast-changing times.
It all happened in his life on the New Year Day in 1950. His aged father, Adolph asked him to drive down to visit Joseph Schumpeter, his old friend from Vienna, then nearing the end of his teaching assignment at Harvard. As Peter heard, both the friends nostalgically reminisced about that long-vanished “pre-war” Europe. Young Peter listened to them intently. Suddenly, the conversation took a sombre turn. Answering a question of Drucker Sr., Schumpeter said: “I have now reached a stage in life to know that it is not enough to be remembered for books and theories. One does not make difference unless it is a difference in people’s lives.”
How many of us are prepared to have our lives judged by this measure — the measure, that is, not of the material assets accumulated, not the social status achieved, not the public offices held, but while living a simple, ordinary life to have made some difference to the lives of those whom we came in contact with? And that difference registered itself by elevating their beings, by helping them acquire some control over their lives, by imparting some meaning to their existence, by giving some worth to the endeavors they are engaged in.
The above philosophy of life was reiterated by Vivekananda. In a letter written to the Maharaja of Mysore on 23 June 1894, he said: “This life is short, the vanities of the world are transient, but they alone live who live for others, the rest are more dead than alive.’ (Highlight inserted)
Our society has, let’s remember, an inexhaustible potential to throw up with unfailing regularity, Alasinga Perumals who (inspired by high ideals) lighted new torches from the perennial flame handed down to us from our once-glorious past. Who are these these Alasinga Perumals? They are the selfless beings who in their limited spheres of life exercised (and continue to exercise) profound influence by practicing and propagating eternal values of life and setting standards of service for others to follow.
Who’s this Alasinga I’m talking of? He was one of the pioneers of the Indian Renaissance in the South in the last decade of the nineteenth century about, and whom I referred to in an earlier essay too. He was born in 1865 in Chickmagalur (made famous in our day by Indira Gandhi choosing it her constituency). He studied in Madras Presidency College and later in Madras Christian College. As a student he was a favorite of the legendary educationist in the South, Dr. William Miller. After graduating in science in 1884, he tried his hand at law but, mercifully, didn’t pursue it. Alasinga started his life as a school teacher — a profession then rated high on the scale of social values. The devotion and efficiency he brought to bear upon his work enabled him to take over as the Headmaster of Pachiappa’s High School — a position in which he continued till his untimely death in May 1909 at the age of 44.
The society in which Alasinga lived was, like the rest of India, suffering from acute spiritual degeneration. The so-called educated upper middle classes embraced (as their counterparts are doing today) uninhibitedly and unabashedly, the very worst of Western materialism. They harbored nothing but ridicule and derision for their own religion and culture. Meanwhile, the leftovers of the society were steeped in superstition. It was an extremely backward-looking, caste-ridden society that Alasinga found himself living in.
Christian missionaries were feverishly at work to further drive the Hindus away from the moorings of their religious heritage. Were his contemporaries the inheritors of Vedanta, Alasinga must have often wondered, seeing the lion cubs living on a diet of grass (as the Ramakrishna parable put it). It was in such a society that a parivrajaka from Calcutta arrived in Madras in 1892.
Alasinga met Vivekananda for the first time at the residence of Manmothanath Bhattacharya (whom the Swami knew from his College). Curiosity to see a sanyasi from Bengal who knew Hindu shastras with the same felicity as he knew the English language and Western philosophy, brought Alasinga repeatedly to Bhattacharya who was then working as an Assistant to the Accountant General of Madras. Looking for the first time in Vivekananda’s eyes, Alasinga knew that he had found his mentor. After that there was no looking back for him.
Vivekananda’s trip to Chicago to represent Hinduism owes itself very largely to Alasinga’s initiative. He came to know about the forthcoming Parliament of Religions from William Miller whom Dr. Barrows had written from Chicago. Alasinga deployed all his powers of persuasion to convince an undecided Vivekananda that he should go to Chicago. Vivekananda thought that if his Master wanted him to go abroad, it was to represent “the people and the poor” of this land. And it was to them, therefore, that Alasinga turned to collect small donations for his guru’s trip. Finally, when on May 31, 1893, Vivekananda left Bombay, Alasinga’s dream was fulfilled. (The role of Raja of Khetri in this trip is admittedly far more significant, as later research revealed).
Sending Vivekananda to Chicago to represent Hinduism and thereby bring glory to India, isn’t the end of the story of Alasinga. All through his life he was in touch with his guru, corresponding with him regularly. It was on Vivekananda’s prompting that he started in 1895 an English monthly Brahmavadin. He threw himself — heart and soul — as the magazine’s editor and printer. Vivekananda continued to encourage Alasinga in this venture to disseminate the Vedantic message. (After Alasinga died his children continued publishing the journal till 1914 when it ceased publication).
Alasinga was also responsible for starting another journal Prabuddha Bharata — the flagship of Ramakrishna Math and Mission for over a hundred year now. He had envisaged the new publication as a counterpart of Brahmavadin. It was supposed to be for common readers while Brahmavadin was aimed at the literati. Both the magazines had the same ideal, namely, dissemination of Vedantic thought to rejuvenate contemporary society. It was again Alasinga who selected the young scholar B R Rajam Iyer as the first editor of Prabuddha Bharata which started publication in 1896 and has uninterruptedly continued since — a most enviable record for any monthly magazine in Indian journalism.
What does Alasinga Perumal’s life and work add up to? He didn’t make millions. He wasn’t known to the high and the mighty of the land. No titles were conferred on him. All he did in his brief life was to strive sincerely and selflessly to serve others. He was convinced of the grandeur and beauty of India’s Vedantic past. He tried to bring the eternal Vedantic message to the doorstep of the common man. Till Prabuddha Bharata is published — and may it never cease publication — Alasinga, to whose inspiration it owes its existence, will continue to live.
A life lived to earn this tribute is a life most enviable; it is a life that enriched beyond measure the society in which the man lived. My hope for the future of this country is derived from our society’s inexhaustible capacity to throw up the likes of Alasinga Perumal from time to time.
Each society has its quota of saints and scoundrels. Of course, the latter far outnumber the former, and more especially in our times. Our political system has a prolific capacity to throw up and sustain wrong-doers aplenty. Also, our media — both print and electronic — bend over backwards to titillate their clientele’s voyeuristic impulses with reports of rape and arson, but not the bravery of a man coming to the rescue of someone in distress. The first is news and the second isn’t worth wasting newsprint and precious sound bites between hip-swinging, breast-baring TV commercials.
Recently, Charles Handy, one of the reputed management “gurus” of our day wrote The New Alchemists describing the work of twenty-nine “original people” who made something out of nothing — an alchemy of sorts to enrich the society in which they live. Such alchemists are at work in every society, whose efforts go unrecognized, especially in ours.
In such a milieu, it was a very bold decision of the Kochi-based journal, The Week to select each year-end a genuine social worker who, in an obscure corner of the land, was doing whatever he could to make life livable for some less fortunate beings. And he was doing this not to earn a Padam Vibhushan but because it needs to be done. All credit for this goes to TVR Shenoy, its distinguished founder-editor who initiated this unique feature that has done Indian journalism proud.
The Week deserves all the credit for bringing to public notice many Alasingas of our time — those men and women who have dedicated their lives to the selfless service of the community in which they live. They’re the beings who symbolize what Vivekananda had said: “They alone live who live for others”. The list includes names like Baba Amte, Rukmabai Tullur, PKS Madhavan, Dr Parameswara Rao, Mrs Alice Garg, Rajendra Singh and many others.
Most of these names (except Baba Amte’s, if still some people care to remember him) are unfamiliar to readers of daily newspapers. They are not seen on TV screen. Away from the limelight of publicity, they are quietly engaged in selfless work to enable the helpless around them to gain some measure of control over their lives. They are living for themselves but have dedicated their lives for the betterment of those around them.