Thursday, October 1, 2015

Good or Bad

            We experience diverse emotions in our lives, but in essence we either refer them as good or bad. We all prefer more of good and less or none of bad. But it’s a simple fact of life to a discerning individual that these emotions are not in the objects sought or the emotions perceived or the thoughts thought. Else, the same object would give happiness to all. What is ironic is the same object or situation evokes different perception depending on the perceiver’s state of mind.

            The sun, the wind by itself is not good or bad. They merely are acting according to their swabhava (nature). A warm sun in icy winter is refreshing while a scorching sun in hot summer is not as welcoming. The woolen clothes that kept us warm in winter becomes an uncomfortable burden in summer. It is evident that the woollen clothes did not have the capacity to produce happiness. If that be the case with objects, how about actions? Some thug trying to cut another person with a knife is a crime and very undesirable, but a skilled surgeon making a judgement call to amputate a limb to save the life of a person is laudable. Killing another person is a heinous crime, but thanks to our selfless soldiers and their bravery in killing the intruding enemy, we are safe.

            So how does one evaluate good or bad? The most common explanation given is, if it helps more it is good. This again is subject to the same situation we observed earlier. The context seems to dictate everything, or is it?

            Our understanding gets murkier when we consider the web of human interactions. A doctor wants more patients, while we all seek good health. A coffin maker wants more deaths, whilst we all seek longer life. Employer wants more profits, which means less expenses while the employee wants more income, which is registered as more expense in employer’s accounting system. Customer wants a good deal while the shopkeeper wants higher profit margin. Which is good? Which is bad?

Ramakrishna Paramahamsa’s camel story

            Ramakrishna Paramahamsa explained the highest vedantic concepts in very simple parables and stories. One such parable I read as a child is fresh on my mind and continues to guide me.

            There was once a caravan of camels going through a desert. One traveler gets lost from the caravan. As dusk was approaching rapidly, the traveler took inventory of his supplies. He had everything except firewood. As he was pondering, his camel’s foot got stuck with something. He alighted and started to dig through the sand. To his delight he found big bundles of firewood. The desert sand had apparently covered the supplies from an earlier caravan. His excitement grew no limits as he found more and more. He spent the night thankfully. Next morning as he got ready, he thought just like his life got saved, some other lost traveler can find this hidden treasure. Thinking thus, he left some firewood, knowing pretty well it might get covered by sand.

            Few months later, another lost traveler gets his camel’s foot caught in something in the sand. He was in the similar situation as our former traveler, ready with all supplies but firewood. The thankful traveler spent the night in anticipation of joining his caravan the next day. As he was about to depart, he wondered, what would have happened if his camel’s foot got hurt more seriously. He shuddered to even think about being lost in the desert. He spent the next several minutes picking all the pieces of buried wood. He thought if he carried them all, the next traveler will not get his camel’s foot hurt.

            Now who amongst the two did the correct thing? Who did the more correct one? This kind of dilemma arises only when two good things are involved. When we are confronted with such a choice, it is better to choose the higher path.

            In other words the concept of good and bad is not always thrust from outside. Telling lies is definitely not a good character, but if the lie is going to save some innocent’s life, the same lie becomes a truth. We come across this situation again and again in Ramayana and Mahabharatha where we are suggested to take the higher path.

            One of the ancient Tamil texts, Purananooru, written by Kaniyan Poonkundranar puts it concisely as:

தீதும் நன்றும் பிறர் தர வாரா

Theedhum nandrum pirar thara vaara

Good or bad, it doesn't come from others.

            So it appears that our attitude towards the object, situation, emotions, thoughts make all the difference. We have seen in the earlier articles that our attachment to a specific outcome creates an expectation of what is good and bad. If it meets or exceeds the expectation, we find it good and anything contrary is bad.

            Wayne Dyer captured this idea in his quote:

Change the way you look at things, and the things you look at change.

            Modern science explains for every particle, there is an anti particle, for instance electron and positron, proton and antiproton. Good and evil are born of the same source. In the Abrahamic traditions, this almost amounts to blasphemy, but all dharmic religions have a blurry line between good and bad. The interesting thing is even self-help authors and new age gurus have accepted this mindset.

            One of Napolean Hill’s famous quote is “Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.” This quote has inspired many people to move forward in their life. So is the adversity a good thing or bad thing then? If friction is bad, then we cannot walk, drive or fly. A predatory animal eats a prey, is that good or bad. If all prey are saved won’t the predator starve to death, but without predator, prey populations also do not regulate in nature.

One Village, Two conflicting reports

            The way we see the world is a reflection of our own mind. To elucidate this, let me share a story from Mahabharata. (This story I have read only from secondary sources). Once Duryodhana confronted Krishna and said that he needs to treat him and Yudhishtra the same, as both are equally qualified and equally related. Duryodhana also wondered why the masses consider Yudhishtra as favorite. To help dispel this doubt, Krishna sent both of them to a village and give him a report about the nature of people by the end of the day.

            Duryodhana, eager to showcase his superiority, comes back first. He reports to Krishna that everyone in that village was bad. He came back so that he can show his smartness to Krishna, else he would have smashed the entire village before reporting. As Krishna was smiling at this report, Yudhishtra entered with a beaming smile. He reported to Krishna that he had hastened his return to report and sought HIS permission to return. He informed a puzzled Krishna that the entire village was populated with Mahatmas (great souls). Everyone was devout and dharmic. There is so much peace and prosperity in the village on account of everyone following dharma.

            One village, two conflicting reports. How is this possible? Were all the people really that bad or really good? Perhaps, Truth as we can understand is somewhere in the middle. Both Yudhishtra and Duryodhana saw their internal mind structure in the external world. This story showcases the fact that goodness and badness is a reflection of our mind. Attitude is one aspect of our mindset which deals with the world.

            In other words, the nature of our mind, if more Saatvic, sees the world as good. If the mental composition is more Rajasic or worse still Tamasic, it sees everything as bad. But rearranging our mental composition gives us the opportunity to evolve or devolve. Ratnakar, a robber, became Valmiki. How can one increase Sattva guna? This we will see in detail some other time.  

Om Tat Sat


  1. U r right....the good or bad is decided on the attitude of a person..... if the attitude is correct then the act will be automatically good...we can't define good or bad just like same act done by different people is taken in different way...but nicely brought out..

  2. Thanks Muni Raman. Two groups of people lose track of this subtlety. Purely materialistic person, caught in the web of his desires and attachment is unable to see that Good and Bad is just a mindset. Second group is that which believes in rigid definitions of good and bad. It is very evident in orthodox Abrahamic communities, as they attempt to follow their religious edicts, despite the hypocrisy in their implementation.