Plight of those who work for public weal, & humanity’s tragic optimism

She asked me yester-evening: Why most persons who have tried to do public weal come to alarming woe? I never expected such a fundamental question so casually raised over a cup of tea. After some pregnant pause, with my usual seriousness, I  told her a story from the famous Panchatantra illustrating a principle  drawn from  the observations of the plight of those who have worked for a public cause.  The principle is stated in some immortal lines of deep depth and infinite beauty:

नरपतिहितकर्ता वेष्यतां यति लोके
जनपदहितकर्ता त्यजते पर्थिवेन्द्रैः
इति महति विरोधे वर्तमाने समाने
नृपतिजनपदानां दुर्लभः कार्यकर्ता

In plain English, I can render them thus:

[Satisfy the King to invite the people’s wrath,
Work for the people but to incur the royal wrath,
Such workers are rare who can work for their common weal,
Even by existing precariously on the cusp of this conundrum.]

Such workers have so evolved  to work pro bono publico that  they  never  smug under the notion with which  Doctor Faustus, held ransom to Lucifer, had invited  his  doom just saying: Que sera, sera” (What will be, shall be).

I told her how Einstein suffered on seeing all his efforts at ‘disarmament’ fail. He strove to save the world from the World War II. His experience distressed him. He wrote to Freud bewailing the lot of humanity, and the endemic foolishness of persons in power who refused  to see what was obvious. She replied, with her face strangely wry: “Why to go back so far? Think of the fate of those who are working  in our country against corruption in public life.” Perhaps, she had in her mind: Anna Hazare, Swami Ramdeva. Yet I continued my thread. I said that in his reply, Freud told the great scientist that those who worked for a great public cause experienced sufferings for which they were  themselves responsible. Those who have not culturally evolved can seldom appreciate such endeavours.

When she went out, I  kept for some time reflecting on her question. What Freud wrote in his  Civilization, Society, and Religion came to mind:

“There is something to be said, however, in criticism of his disappointment. Strictly speaking it is not justified, for it consists in the destruction of an illusion. We welcome illusions because they spare us unpleasurable feelings, and enable us to enjoy satisfaction instead. We must not complain, then, if now and again they come into collusion with some portion of reality, and are shattered against it…”

But I have never been able to persuade myself to accept what Freud said in his cynicism. The citizens of a democratic republic cannot afford to think that way. Cynicism is capable of producing ‘death wish’ to which the great Freud himself had succumbed: he committed suicide! Life is God’s gift under trust for the welfare of all. We must work with history in the marrow of our bones believing that every government, whatever be the form, is capable of betraying the interest of common man. We should reflect deeply on the chemistry at work in our system of governance.

Krishna and Freud have influenced me most. Lord Krishna said in the Bhagvadgita:

uddhared atmana’tmanam
Na’tmanam avasadayet
atmai ’va hy atmano bandhur
atmai’va ripur atmanah.

Dr. S. Radhakrishnan’s translates this shloka thus:  ““Let a man lift himself by himself ; let him not degrade himself; for the Self alone is the friend of the self and the Self alone is the enemy of the self.”

Humanity has suffered, yet has evolved only through good deeds. This  is  the  feature of tragic optimism with which people work for public weal, and humanity advances. It is tragic because much is wasted in the pursuit; it is ‘optimism’ because  without it we shall perish.


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