The gift of knowledge and humility


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Category: Reflections 23 Feb 14

“The question that we ask ourselves is, what protects you?  What protects you in this world from sadness and from the loss of an ability to do something?  For me, what protects work and love. And I think that those two things cover pretty much every single thing. Because what you do, who you love, what you love, and what you do with your time is really the only question that you have to answer.” —Illustrator Maira Kalman

Whisky in hand, like every retired Indian army officer, given to ruminating over history, theology and philosophy calculated to somehow educate his philistine children, my father repeated a story about Buddha (or the “enlightened one”), who was born in the Himalayas around 400 BC.

It was a dimly remembered story but I was glad to hear it again. Buddha, named Siddhartha, was born a prince, into nobility.  His father King Suddhodana and his mother Queen Maha Maya, a Koliyan princess, had three palaces built for him. When Siddhartha was a child, a sage prophesied that Buddha would be an ascetic who would live like a beggar, with no possessions, and spread peace and harmony wherever he went. The king, his father, grooming Siddhartha to be a great king, was horrified at the idea. With an abundance of caution he married him off at 16 and shielded him from religious teachings and knowledge of human suffering.

At 29, Siddhartha was allowed to meet his subjects with his trusted charioteer. On the first day, Siddhartha saw a very old bent man, shuffling along slowly.  He was shocked, having only been exposed to vigorous, young, beautiful people his whole life.  The charioteer told Siddhartha that all people grew old. The next day they encountered a diseased man, and his charioteer told him that everyone gets ill at some time or another. On the third, day Siddhartha saw a decaying corpse. He learned that everyone dies. Everyone decomposes eventually.

On the fourth day he met an ascetic with a begging bowl. Siddhartha went to speak to him. He offered the ascetic a home, a comfort, a livelihood. The ascetic refused and instead shouted at Siddhartha, shoved two bags of rice in his hands, pointed to a hovel and said: “Look, there is a family in need. Go and give them this grain.”

Siddhartha, puzzled, said: “I don’t understand. You’re giving away food. You’re refusing help.  Why are you humiliating yourself with your arms outstretched with a begging bowl to passers-by who treat you with contempt?”  The ascetic replied that he deliberately begged to rid himself of his own ego, to polish his soul.

To come back to Trinidad: every day we all encounter people who look so enraged at serving us that they don’t speak—they point.  They use their mouths. They are mute with rage. They barely look at us when we are in a hardware shop, will not move one inch more than they have to in order to help. There are exceptions, but in general, to people in the service industry, “serve” is an act of humiliation, of subjugation. Even greeting a customer or client at a gym appears to be such an act of self-abnegation that many cannot manage a smile of welcome.

I was sitting in a teashop watching with dismay as my tea got colder and colder because I made the terrible mistake of asking for warm milk to go with it.  The milk never actually arrived— perhaps the request was too specific, or felt like an “order,” and after pouring cold milk over tepid tea, I sighed and said: “In India this would never happen.”

I saw the look in my companion’s face, as if to say, “Yeah in a country of 1.2 billion people, everyone is a servant.”  Well, actually, no. India does have a tradition of serving (and I’m not saying this doesn’t come with its own problems, including the caste system and exploitation).  I’m talking about the fact that India is becoming a giant economy globally because the service industry is where the money is.  Indians, like Bajans, are willing to serve because it brings in the business. It’s why an American in Baltimore can call up directory assistance in the middle of the night and ask for a number and directions to a pharmacy in his neighbourhood, and an Indian accent from a call centre in Bangalore tells him how to get there.

But service is so much more than about money. It’s embedded in all great religions. I’m not Christian, but the idea of Christ washing the feet of his disciples resonates with me. In India there is a feeling of benediction when people bow before God, elders or teachers. In India, schoolchildren kiss books if they fall on the floor.

Civilisations that understand that everything flows from knowledge—love, art, civility, music, architecture—produce greatness: a Taj Mahal, the pyramids, Michelangelo’s David.  And they produce a deep humanity: because we discover that the more we discover, the less we know. Humility makes us recognise our fragility as human beings, and somehow, nature rewards us with a fullness of heart which allows us to give to ourselves and the world.

If—as Buddha saw, and we know from all our lives—we all grow old, we all get sick, we all die, we decompose, then where is the room for pride? That’s why I want to come back to the quote with which I began this column.  It doesn’t matter what you do, because the only real questions in life are what you love, who you love and what you do with your time.

This Carnival, our season of joy, I’ve seen people gyrating, but I’ve not always seen joy. Somehow we’ve got to find the link between our joy and our humanity, and therein we will find the link between our society and the brutality of how we treat one another, and at the extreme end, escalating murders—now blood sport on national TV.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur