What can I do for you? Is a question that is usually asked as one approaches a person sitting behind a desk in a government office or a public utility service. The tone and tenor naturally vary from person to person. Some give an unwelcome look; some seem to be negative in their attitude, thinking of all the reasons why the request cannot be granted; some try to delay decisions for they like to play safe. The response also often varies according to the physical or emotional situation – lack of sleep, hangover of a late evening party, half-burnt toast at breakfast, quarrel with wife or husband, a flat tire while driving for work, and so on. But all these things revolve round the person behind the desk and have nothing to do with the man or woman who comes to seek help. Fortunately, there are still many others who are positively warm and friendly and even go out of their way to help.
However, rendering assistance when it is one’s duty to do so, like that of the person who sits behind a desk in a public service unit and is paid for it, is a very limited segment of the liability in this sphere, for duty to be helpful really covers the entire field of our relationships in life. It is surely one’s duty to be helpful, caring and considerate to members of the family, to colleagues and subordinates in office, to service people, to clients and patients if one is in a profession, to students if a teacher, to neighbors, and all others one has the privilege to come into contact with.
And then, over a period of time, as one goes on performing one’s duty willingly, sincerely and mindfully, one grows more sensitive to the needs and sufferings of others, and begins to feel within oneself that mere performance of duty is not enough. It is too narrow in its approach and attitude. The motive force in duty seems to have been some sort of a tangible or intangible compulsion, and is now felt to be too mundane, earthly. And so, one slowly moves on into a deeper and purer sphere of responsibility. One difference between duty and responsibility is the lack of obligation in the latter. The volition is purer. The attitude in responsible action could perhaps be exemplified by the reply the little girl, carrying her younger brother in her arms, gave spontaneously when asked whether he was not heavy: “Oh, he is my brother!” Responsibility thus carries with it a sense of inner concern for the other person, also an element of closeness and love. The motivation is nearness, affinity, interconnectedness. There is no feeling of compulsion or pressure of social norms. There is no desire for reward, recognition or reciprocity either. The urge ‘I am my brother’s keeper’ arises from within. And the perception of brotherliness slowly expands from the family outwards till it covers wider and wider circles of mankind and all other life, for all life seeks to be bound together with a fine thread of gold. I cannot prosper at the cost of others. I cannot grow by making another one small. I cannot bring happiness to myself by inflicting pain on others. I cannot be selfish and self-centered, unmindful of the suffering or deprivation I cause to the society as a whole of which I am also a part. These are some of the thoughts that begin to dominate. And so one feels responsible for the welfare of others as well. Every action now has its root in this ever-growing innate sense of concern for the good of others.
Mankind today enjoys more freedom than perhaps ever before. The Epistle of St Paul to the Galatians contained an advice and a warning which continue to be relevant even today:
“Use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: Thou shalt love thy Neighbor as thyself. But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another.”
The responsibility to help and serve covers a very wide range. Helpful work in relieving physical suffering, to the extent possible is the most obvious one. But most suffering and sorrow are deep-rooted – in avidya or ignorance – and need to be alleviated at the level of the mind through loving care and guidance. Those who know – however imperfectly – should therefore help others to know the cause of sorrow and pain and the way to overcome them.
In the larger sphere of life we scarcely realize that we are constantly affecting others through our thoughts and emotions, helping or harming them by adding our thoughts to the pool of the thought currents of the world. Positive, loving and joyous thoughts strengthen the invisible forces which help global well-being, while thoughts of anger, intolerance, violence, do much harm. Each one of us has to feel responsible about his/her thoughts and emotions because of the imperceptible influence they exercise over others. Long ago Annie Besant advised an aspirant who wanted to qualify for service thus: “As he chooses the thoughts to which he will bend his energy, he calculates their action on the outer world – how far they will work for helping, how far they will work for strengthening, how far they will work for purifying; and into the great stream of thoughts…he will send the thoughts that are useful to others.”
If helpful work is possible in wider spheres through radiating thought currents, much good can also be done by specific thoughts directed to individuals. In a letter in The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett, Djual Khul wrote to Sinnett:
“I assure you that I, though but a humble chela as yet, felt your good wishes flowing to me as the convalescent in the cold mountains feels from the gentle breeze that blows upon him from the plains below.”
And as one goes on acting and serving others with a deep sense of responsibility, a stage comes when the heart takes over completely and the sense of responsibility merges totally in compassion – a deep and vibrant love that envelops all, encompasses all life in its tender fold. In duty there is duality, as also to an extent in responsibility – I, and the other to whom I owe a duty or for whose welfare I feel responsible. In compassion, duality disappears altogether. Nor do resolve, effort, and consciously directed action find place therein. Compassion is not pity or sympathy, nor is it philanthropy, or even altruism; for all these carry in them the seed of duality. It does not work in terms of “I feel compassionate” either. Compassion is an expression or quality of what J. Krishnamurti often referred to as ‘insight’, for insight wipes away all that arises out of the consciousness of the separative self. Service then becomes an integral part of one’s nature, like that of a cloud to yield rain, of a tree to yield fruit and of a flower to bloom.
As N. Sri Ram once observed:
“There is nothing more dynamic than life; if a person lives a beautiful life, the very mode of his living, his thoughts, emotions, and inspiration will help others in ways we do not know.”
For such a one, paradoxically, service becomes a joy in self-fulfillment, as:
Seeking nothing, he gains all;
Forgetting self, the Universe grows ‘I’.