What is Right Action?

What is Right Action?

(Talk delivered at the International Theosophical Convention in Chennai, India in Dec. 2006)

IN our life all of us have from time to time to take tough decisions, and we are often faced with the question, what is the right thing to do? Perhaps more so for a Theosophist, because we claim to be world citizens, not confined to the narrow morality of a particular culture or a particular religion. I would like to examine the whole question of how to decide what is right action, and what is involved in taking that decision. If one looks around the world, one finds that the concept of what is right and wrong varies from culture to culture, religion to religion, and often country to country. In the Brahmanical culture of India it is considered unethical to eat meat, or partake of alcohol or other stimulating drugs; but it is quite normal for others in India, and certainly in the West, to do this. Sexual indulgence outside marriage is considered in many countries to be a private matter between consenting adults. In other countries one can be executed for it, as it is considered a sin on par with murder. Widow marriage is looked down upon among Hindus, but quite accepted in Islam and Christianity. So, depending on the particular culture in which we have been brought up and the values that we imbibe from that culture, our sense of what is right and wrong varies. This has been so for centuries. But it is a problem now, because the world has shrunk, we have globalization, large numbers of people go to work abroad, either for commerce or education, and live and mix with people of other cultures. Those who have had this experience will remember that the first time they came into contact with another culture, they received several shocks, and it took the mind some time to question and understand what was happening. These different moral values have themselves divided humanity, because one cannot very well say that what is immoral here is moral elsewhere. For Theosophists the question assumes a still greater significance, because we consider that we all belong to one human family. So how should we define right action, or is there no universal guideline? It is often said that one must follow one’s inner voice, the voice of one’s own conscience, but conscience also varies from person to person. Someone who has been brought up as a vegetarian is horrified at the thought of having eaten meat or touched it, feels guilty if it has crossed his lips, but another who has grown up eating meat does not feel so at all. So our conscience is also conditioned by the particular culture and religion in which one grows up, and the responses of different human beings are therefore varied.

In the business and political worlds they talk of right action as that which succeeds in achieving its objective. That which fails is considered wrong action, which means that the end justifies the means. Is that true? I ask myself whether it was right for the Buddha to leave his family, wife and child, and go into the forest in order to meditate and discover the cause of sorrow for humanity, or was he abdicating his social and family responsibilities in doing so? Was his action justified because he became enlightened and gave a profound message to the world? After all, when he left he did not know whether he would become enlightened or not, whether he would find what he was in quest of. So how can the result justify the correctness of an earlier action? Mr Bush justifies the deaths of ‘innocent’ bystanders in Afghanistan and Iraq as ‘collateral damage’. That is, it was not his intention to kill them but to create a democracy, and incidentally a lot of innocent people died in the process. So, reason is a double-edged weapon; you can argue either way. Indeed, in every court case there is a lawyer on each side of the issue. Is right action that which can be justified through clever arguments? Shakespeare wrote: ‘Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ Very true, but our thinking is also based on our values and conditioning, and the atmosphere in which we grow up; so different people think differently. Even if you consider expert philosophers, like Bertrand Russell or Will Durant, you will find that their opinions differ on what is right and wrong. So whose thinking should one accept and on what basis?

People who have lived in different cultures Often say that the practical thing to do is to assume that what ninety percent of the people around you are doing is right. So if we wish to catch a bus in Delhi and people do not stand in a queue there, it is all right to push others to get onto the bus; but it is not all right in Bombay, where everybody stands in a line and respects the queue. In India, if in a family everybody is vegetarian, that is the right thing to do; but when going to the West, it is all right to eat meat, because that is what most people there do. We also have the saying: ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ This is one of the guidelines that is often promoted.

Is right action something to be voted on and decided by the majority? Would the performance of sati by a widow on the funeral pyre of her husband become right if a million people approve of it, or would it still be wrong? If we look at our own life, we find that when we are at a loss to discern what is right and what is wrong through our own intelligence, we turn back to tradition and imitate what our parents or other elders in the family did in a similar situation. This means, if our parents thought ‘to spare the rod is to spoil the child,’ then when 291 May 2007 our child is being mischievous we tend to imitate them and beat our child because we were beaten in our childhood. That may mean we are perpetrating a wrong action from one generation to the next. Surely that is not very intelligent. Much wrong is thus perpetrated, justified by all kinds of clever arguments, historical and otherwise. Discrimination based on caste, race or gender has gone on in society for thousands of years in this manner. We can call it ‘our culture, our tradition’ but does that make it right? Or is discrimination evil at all times irrespective of where and when and how long it has been practised?

Are there universal considerations or moral values based on which we can take a decision for ourselves when faced with such a dilemma? Is there a secular, rational, scientific solution to this problem? If you ask a secular person, he will talk about enlightened self-interest. We know that we are all interconnected, that we are not living in isolation, therefore the rightness or wrongness of an action should be decided on the basis of the effect it has in the long run on the whole, and not just the effect on oneself. That sounds quite rational. It is often said that honesty is the best policy. That means honesty is not a moral virtue, it is the best policy because that is what succeeds in the long run, even in business. So again one is thinking in terms of success, not in terms of morality. Based on this principle one can create a scientific formula for deciding whether an action is right or wrong. Consider how the action affects all who are connected to it. Include yourself as one of the persons. Let +dH denote the happiness / pleasure / joy which it gives to one individual in one unit of time. If it causes unhappiness / displeasure / discomfort, treat it as negative (-dH). Now sum it up for all individuals, for all time, as a series. In science they call it integration. If the result is positive, it is right action; if negative it is wrong action! This concept makes sense, but how to do the mental integration logically? There is no mathematical formula to sum up this series, and different people will give varying importance to different considerations. The egotistic person will say the first term (involving him, his wife, children or neighbours) is the most important; and all the others which relate to other citizens or the environment can be disregarded. That is precisely what it means to be an egotist. Someone else who is attached to his family and feels a lot for them will include his wife and children, but exclude other people. So logic fails because the different terms in the series are given different values depending on the state of the individual consciousness and largeness of heart! Thus the dilemma is not resolved by becoming secular or freeing oneself from tradition.

This brings us to the spiritual definition of right and wrong action. This definition is not based on considerations of success or failure. It is not based on the results of that action. It is based on the state of consciousness from which that action springs. If the consciousness from which it emanates is egotistic, narrow minded and disorderly, it is a wrong action, even if it produces so-called desirable or good results. If it emanates from a consciousness which is loving, compassionate, non-violent, generous, and so on, then it is right action even if it fails. Such a consciousness is orderly, it has virtue. So the Buddha’s action in leaving his wife and child and going into the forest would be right if he did it out of love and compassion for humanity; and the same action would be wrong if he did it for egotistical reasons, because he wanted to get away from his responsibilities. The quality of the mind taking that decision determines whether it is a right or wrong decision. That is why virtue needs to be defined not in terms of outer actions, but in terms of the inner state or motive from which that action springs. If, as Theosophists, we accept that definition of virtue, then the most important thing for us to do is to come upon an orderly consciousness, because it has the wisdom and intelligence to realize what is right action. When you come upon that state of virtue, of enlightened being, then, do what you will, it will always be right.

Because there is no self-interest in that consciousness, there is no partiality for the ‘me’ and the ‘mine’. Krishnamurti expressed it in another way; he said: ‘Come upon love and do what you will.’ Then one does not have to think and calculate and so on. But we must understand what he means by ‘love’. To him, ‘Love is where the self is not.’ He is not talking about romance or attachment or sentiment as love. Only when self-interest is not the motivation, is there love. That is the definition of true love, the love that Jesus and the Buddha talked about. Today that word is bandied around with So many superficial meanings that we must be careful to discover its root meaning, which comes from the sages. The Buddha pointed out 2,500 years ago, three great truths about human consciousness. The first was just an observed fact: that sorrow exists. There is a lot of psychological suffering in the human consciousness. That is a fact. The second truth was that suffering has a cause which is igorance. Ignorance, not as lack of knowledge but in the form of illusion. Many illusions are present in the mind. An illusion is something we assume to be true when it is not so, or something to which we have given tremendous importance when it is really not important in life. To understand that and free the mind of the false is wisdom. There is very little wisdom in a mind that is full of illusion.

The third great truth the Buddha pointed out was that the cause of sorrow can be eliminated. The cause of disorder lies in illusion; therefore it can be eliminated. We cannot eliminate a fact, we can only eliminate illusion, because when we discover what is true, that which is false disappears. By way of illustration, if we imagine that there is a ghost hiding in every tree, when we go out at night we feel afraid of the ghost; but the whole thing is imaginary, illusory. If we learn that there are actually no ghosts, that it is just something which our imagination has conjured up because from childhood we may have been told about ghosts, then the fear will disappear. Fear or sorrow is created by our own thinking or imagination, and if we discover that it is false, it ends. Therefore illusion can be ended through the quest for truth. When illusion ends, the corresponding disorder in consciousness ends. All division between human beings is also born of illusion, so it can end, and that is wisdom. Theosophy is the quest for wisdom, which is synonymous with the quest for truth and the ending of illusion. That in turn is the same as the ending of disorder in consciousness. If disorder ends, there is order. We do not have to cultivate order. There is tremendous order in Nature. It is the manifestation of that order in the external world which scientists are studying. In our own body too there is tremendous order. A thousand things are happening right now in our bodies in an orderly way, and all we do is eat some food and do some exercise. It is Nature’s order or intelligence which is operating. That is what keeps this machinery going — not our intelligence. That intelligence, that cosmic order, must operate also in our consciousness, for it already exists. But we have superimposed our own ‘intelligence’, which is conditioned and has particular value systems we have not questioned it. From this arises division, hatred, discrimination and violence.

This creates the ego as the separate self, making us feel that it is valuable to act out of self-interest. But that is an illusion. It is not really in our self-interest to act out of self-interest! For example, if one is corrupt and takes a bribe, it appears that one profits from it. If profit is the main consideration, this appears to be right action. If it is right action for one, then it must be right action for everybody. Surely, this cannot be denied. But if when we go to admit our child in a school or take him to the hospital for treatment the school administrator or doctor is corrupt, we all suffer, because we are all dependent on each other. The ego may seek some immediate benefit, but that is an illusion. It is not really a benefit, because, in the long run, if we continue to be egotistic, we all lose, and violence is the result; we all suffer because we are not isolated entities.

Theosophy goes much further. It says that human beings as well as animals, plants, rivers, the entire universe is one whole, since everything is connected with everything else. That is what we saw in the film by Al Gore entitled ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, where he says that all the earth and its environment is like one huge living organism which has survived for billions of years with a certain balance arising from Nature’s intelligence; but human ‘intelligence’ is now breaking down that balance, and that is not really intelligent. That is another great illusion of humanity. A true Theosophist must deeply investigate what is true and what is false, and come upon self-knowledge; then that wisdom, that awakened intelligence, will tell us, at all times, what is the right thing to do.

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