Atithi devo bhava, adore the guest as divine. This is one of the hallmarks of Indian culture. The language is Sanskrit, associated with Hinduism, but the concept is purely Indian, and crosses all lines of religion, language, caste and creed. As a young sanyasi, wandering barefoot throughout Northern India, not even yet a teenager, I chanted Narayana Hari with hands outstretched in the unmistakable gesture of a Sadhu begging for alms. As I travelled for nearly a decade during my childhood of intense sadhana, regardless of how poor the family, regardless of the existence or nonexistence of food on their own plates, regardless of their religion, I was fed. Not because I was homeless. Not because I was barefoot. Not because they feared the curse of a sanyasi. Rather, I was fed due to the very simple yet deeply ingrained concept in Indian culture to feed before we eat, to give before we take.
What Indian would eat his meal in front of a hungry onlooker without offering some? To eat alone is not in our blood. Go to any worksite where impoverished manual labourers tire 15 or more hours a day in the sweltering heat in order to earn a few rupees. At lunch, as they sit in a circle with their individual tiffins, you will see them dishing out half a spoonful of this or that subzi to each other: ?Just try a little of this.? ?My wife has made that. It'svery good. Have a little.? How hungry they must each be, how empty their stomachs since the morning cup of watered down tea and bread rusk. But, despite the rumbling of their own bellies, those who have more share with those who have less. They are not martyrs. They are not saints. They are not humanitarians. They are simply Indians.
The topics which the editor of Organiser asked me discuss in this article were economic slow down, price rise, education, problems of minorityism, national security, corruption, environment and governance, all under the umbrella of ?Searching an agenda for national renewal.? What is it that needs to be renewed? Simply our Indianness. Simply our own humanity. Simply the deeply inbred yet tragically forgotten tradition of feeding first and eating second. These days, we are so busy piling our plates high with every comfort, convenience, luxury, tax-break, discount and perk we can find, that we have forgotten from whose empty plates we are stealing basic sustenance. Perks, tax-breaks and luxuries for those who can afford them do not manifest out of thin air in a vacuum.
The most basic physics law of conservation of mass tells us that matter is absolute and finite. Nothing is created or destroyed; it is simply moved from one place to another, changed from one form to another. This is as true of tangible matter as it is of national resources. The electricity I need to power my ACs in every room, LCD TV screens, and innumerable electronic gadgets is electricity an aspiring young student in a poor village is NOT getting to complete his homework in the night. He must either work by the light of kerosene oil or abandon his studies after dark. The loophole in the law I manage to find which gives me a break on my taxes is money the government doesn'thave to properly fund schools and hospitals in poor areas. The politician/officer/judge I try to bribe in order to get my file approved, my project passed, my fine reduced, or my case dismissed is another link in the chain of corruption that ultimately ensures no one without enough disposable income to bribe his way through the system can ever hope to accomplish anything.
The fundamental problem facing India today is neither the economic slowdown, nor inflation, nor poor education nor corruption. Rather these are symptoms. The problem is that Indians who have the power and the ability to make a difference ? not the politicians themselves but the constituents ? are too busy worrying about which fairness cream to purchase, which brand of mobile plays more mp3s, into which college they should bribe a place for their child, and which airline is offering the best rates to Singapore, Dubai and other hot vacation spots to think about the rest of the country. It is not the politicians we should blame; rather we must look at our personal motives for those whom we elect: is it really because we think he/she will serve the people with honesty, integrity and diligence or is it because we think he/she will do us or our company a personal favour?
In order for India to truly be renewed, we must get our heads out of the sand and worry more about India than about our own personal desires, possessions, egos and social standing. We must not only elect the proper, honest and scrupulous politicians, but we must also strongly force those politicians to actually do something rather than simply light inaugural lamps at various functions all day long.
In the aftermath of the tragedy in Mumbai, I read a beautiful article about the ?heroes?, ordinary citizens who had put their own lives on the line, again and again, to help and save others. There were stories of ?heroes? who had gone far out of their way to help others, who had put others? safety above their own. The article was touching and uplifting; however, reading it I realised that these stories are stories of true humanity, not of heroes. Those whom we hail as heroes are actually simply humans who have done what any true human would do in the same circumstance. The tragedy is that so many of us have lost our humanity; thus humans begin to look like heroes. Humanity does not know religion or colour of the skin. It knows only the touch of the soul when it connects with another soul. The magnetism of that touch is part and parcel of being human. When we lose that magnetism, when our heart and soul are no longer is pulled by another soul'ssuffering, we cease being human.
What does India need? To renew our humanity. To renew our Indianness. Today India is focused on vikas (development). Yet, development does not mean sacrificing values, ethics and tradition at the altar of personal prosperity. Development for India does not have to take place by stepping on the heads of the over 300 million who still live in dire poverty. In fact, true development cannot exist until and unless we get our feet off of their heads, bend down, give them a hand and help them hold their own heads high. It is said beautifully ?Jhukataa to vo hai jisamein jaan hoti hai. Akad to murde ki pehachaan hoti hai.? If we are alive we bend, we bend down to give a hand to those who are fallen. If the sight or simple knowledge of the plight of the vast majority of our brothers and sisters does not inspire, nay compel us, to bend down and help them stand up, then we are no longer alive.
There is much talk today about a shortage of food and water. I am not a political scientist or an expert in demographics, yet I can say with deep faith that there is enough food and water to go around. The shortage is a shortage of basic human compassion. The shortage is a shortage of Indians living as Indians, adopting the belief of atithi devo bhava. Atithi doesn'tonly mean one who actually shows up at our doorstep or occupies our guest bedroom for the night. Atithi is anyone whose nighttime meal and the roof over their heads depends upon us. In that case, there are more than 300 million of them in this country. Even if we do not actually worship them as divine, let us at least see them as equal humans, as deserving of a meal on their plate as we are, their children as deserving of a basic education as ours are, their wives and mothers as deserving of a safe, hygienic place in which to give birth as ours are. Let us renew our pledge to be humans first, Indians second, and whatever caste, religion, profession or social group last. That is truly the agenda needed by India today. Then, and only then can we truly be renewed.
(The writer is a leading saint and Spiritual Head of Parmarth Niketan Ashram, Rishikesh.)