Saturday, February 21, 2015

Because compassion is all that counts

I will tell you the truth. I did not really think about the word 'compassion' for the first two decades of my life. I knew it, and had some sense of its meaning, but it did not figure in my universe as often as words like 'kindness,' 'consideration' and even 'gentleness' did. And then, someone described me as compassionate--something that surprised me (still does) and that also made me wonder what the word really meant.

Today, I cannot stop thinking about compassion. It seems to me to be the only thing that really matters. I've never valorised human physical appearance, nor even appearances in general. I thought being intelligent was important to me, and I valued it in others, until my years as a graduate student introduced me to an unbearable amount of intelligence. Intelligence came in a package with arrogance, rigidity and self-importance and I came to think it was overrated. After all, life is not a seminar. Compassion, however, undoes me. Kindness, consideration, the ability to notice another person's situation, to notice and give before being asked, generosity and empathy--now I think this is all that counts. And I know this is what every teacher or prophet has preached.

For me the word 'compassion' evokes two images from Buddhist art most of all.

I had seen photos of Ajanta's beautiful Padmapani Bodhisattva all my life, having grown up in Maharashtra. It was only when I saw the actual mural did I understand the power of his compassionate gaze. It sees and it understands and it looks for ways to help. The bronze Avalokiteswara from the Colombo Museum I first met and fell in love with at the Smithsonian. I could gaze at him forever, for his stillness and beauty. But the more I thought about that Avalokiteswara, the less the icon mattered and the more, the compassionate promise he represents. "I will be there for you," a promise friends make to each other. When I was in Class 1, I sat next to Ranee, who is still my friend. Ranee and I had this thing--because we were friends, we would write the same word at the same time and if one of us got ahead, we would stop and wait for the other to catch up. Avalokiteswara is everybody's friend, deferring nirvana until all of us catch up. 

But this is about compassion, of which Alice Walker writes, "if compassion be freely/ Given out/ Take only enough." Give compassion freely, without measure, without thought, without expecting a return, but take only enough. "Stop short of urge to plead. Then purge away the need."

As I have come to treasure compassion as an individual trait, I also wonder what compassion means in the public sphere. How does it come into play in the state and its institutions--or does it not? What does it mean for society? How do we create a compassionate society? Does compassionate mean charitable or equitable or inclusive or something else? What are the attitudes and behaviour we would identify with a compassionate community? I am looking for the questions that will give me the right answers.


lady_anemone said...

This is an interesting post. I think when we're just starting out, it's hard to know how much compassion is "enough" to soothe the ache within. Of course, the compassion we most need is the compassion we give ourselves.

Thanks for sharing.

Aditi said...

Glad to have come across your blog through #1000Speak. Beautiful write and this - the ability to notice another person's situation, to notice and give before being asked - I think truly reflects what compassion means.
If you look at the two images you've shared for a minute, the serenity strikes you and you understand what it means when you say "I will be there for you". Beautiful!

Beloo Mehra said...

A fellow blogger pointed me to your post, she thought I would relate well with this post. And I do. I actually love your perspective on Compassion. I am so happy to know about your blog, will be visiting your space again for more reading and browsing. Thank you for sharing your experience with Padmapani. I can absolutely connect with it, in fact I myself had a very special experience when I stood there at Ajanta. I wrote about this here -

Uma C said...

I loved the quote, " give freely but take only enough" But, how much is enough and how do you decide you've taken enough? A compassionate society has to come from every individual who thinks beyond his own response to a situation. The ability to feel the other person's emotions in a given condition.
Excellent piece of writing!

Swarna Rajagopalan said...

Thank you, Uma C, Beloo Mehra, Aditi and lady_anemone, for your lovely comments.

On "enough," I don't know the answer either (of course), but I wonder if it means to guard against self-indulgence and self-pity.

And ironically, I'd agree that it's hardest to be compassionate towards oneself.

Again, thank you for taking the time to write. I did not expect anyone would so I did not check for comments.