This article is an excerpt from
V. M. GOPAUL
Darius I was a much-liked king of ancient Persia. Unlike his predecessors, his popularity grew because of his spiritual qualities. He fashioned a society based on justice, kindness, and generosity. Darius I was fascinated by, and perhaps even secretly envied, the lifestyle of the dervish. Dervishes were known for renouncing the material world and roaming the countryside, spending every waking moment in devotion and praise of God. A dervish’s possessions usually included only his clothes and a basket in which to carry a few small belongings often given to him by well-wishers. Darius I was so attracted to this simple spiritual lifestyle that he invited a well-known dervish to his palace.
When the dervish arrived, the king sat at his feet and requested that he explain detachment. The king’s interest delighted the dervish. He stayed in Darius’s palace for a few days and, whenever the king had time, the dervish would teach him about the virtues of a beggar’s life. On the third day, after careful consideration of all he had learned thus far, the king left the palace, his family, and all the comforts known to him to join the dervish.
The next day, dressed in the garb of a poor man, the king left behind his worldly possessions and walked in the dervish’s company. By dusk, they had already traveled far. When it came time for them to retire for the night, the dervish realized he had left his basket at the palace. Looking very disturbed he said, “I beg you, we have to go back to get my basket!”
The king replied, “We can manage without the basket. Some generous soul will give us one.”
The dervish looked very determined, and exclaimed, “I cannot continue without the basket!”
Shocked by the attitude and behavior of the dervish, the king exclaimed, “I, a king, have abandoned my palace, wealth, and power. You, who preach the virtues of detachment, have been tested by this virtue and failed because you are attached to this world—to a small basket.”
In life, we are attached to many things which can hinder personal progress. And in the age of pluralism, attachment is one of the greatest obstacles to unity. There are many, but I have only chosen three for this chapter: identity, religion, and wealth. Discriminations based on these three often happen around us in subtle ways.
My wife and I have been married for over thirty-five years, and our cultural identity comes into play often. For example, she will emphasize how certain ways are English or Irish though she was born and raised in Canada. She is adamant on waiting until everyone is seated before eating. Similarly, though I was born on an island far from India, my cultural inheritance often surfaces, too, in mannerisms and personal biases. Of course, living in diverse groups means practicing empathy and honoring one’s identity, regardless of where they are rooted. And then comes compromise for the healthy life of the family. Also, one has to recognize that values given by our parents or society are not always the best for a different age. It means that we have to be flexible in our approach. When too much rigidity is applied, society breaks. In addition, understanding can help in a contentious relationship within a diverse group. For example, I have noticed that Westerners like to make eye contact during a conversation. But it is not so everywhere, especially among women of Asian backgrounds.
My biggest identity hurdle was tardiness. In 1970, at my very first job in Montreux, Switzerland, the boss always showed disgust when I arrived half an hour late. That habit continues while living in Canada, and I blame it on my Indian heritage, called “Indian time.”
Besides identity, religion is another obstacle to harmonious multicultural coexistence. It is said that one should not discuss religion with another person as it often ends up in disagreement and disunity. Why does such a conversation evoke heated emotions? Passion flares up, and we believe “mine is better than yours.” Everyone is entitled to one’s belief and have respect for another’s opinion. We reach a treacherous ground when the attachment to an idea or belief is so profound that it reaches a fanatical zeal. Therefore, instead of having an elevated conversation on a subject as profound as religious teachings, the exchange can easily become contentious when we are trying to convert the listener.
My wife and I attended the conference for the Parliament of World Religions in Toronto in November, 2018. It was an eye-opening experience from the moment we arrived there. We discussed beliefs with Christians, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jews, Muslims, and many other spiritual groups. We learned about the common ground in all of them but also discovered some differences.
Wealth divides people into three classes: rich, middle class, and minimalist. As a financial consultant, often I have discussed material assets with clients. What I have learned is that we are very proud of our own financial status, which is also called material attachment. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the good that our society has to offer. But when the I-am-better-than-you mentality creeps in, we tread dangerous waters.
To illustrate materialism, consider the fictional case of Steve Kalichuck, a very successful cosmetic surgeon who has one simple goal: to enjoy life fully. For Steve, there is no life beyond death. Therefore, he must make the most of this life, which to him means to enjoy it as much as possible. He adorns himself with gold jewelry, wears expensive designer clothing, lives in a luxurious home, takes exotic vacations, and drives fast cars. His wife and three children share his values. When they do not get what they want, they become angry, jealous, and are often rude towards others and even each other. Focused as they are on the material, they miss opportunities to develop spiritual qualities. This family has not experienced its spiritual birth.
Whether in identity, religion, or wealth, when we feel superior to others, our arrogance will be manifested in our behavior. For example, a kind person who grows proud of his kindness may start to perform acts of kindness not to be kind but to show off. He may further start to judge others as less kind than himself. The resulting behavior will be anything but kind. Pride and the tendency to view others as inferior are signs of attachment to divine qualities. Spiritual maturity, on the other hand, is evidenced by the ability to recognize that every soul has received its fair share of divine grace.
This attachment is the most dangerous of all. It is like the arrow that shoots down a high-flying bird. No matter how advanced it is, a soul can be brought crashing to the ground if wounded by the arrows of jealousy, lust, power, greed, or self-adoration. Everything around us, from food and clothing to family and friendship, has been created for our enjoyment. When gained in legitimate ways, we should enjoy them wholeheartedly and be truly thankful for them. None of these things, however, should ever become like gods to us, overshadowing the true purpose of our short Earthly life.
During any interaction, as in the case of the king and the dervish, our attachments come to the surface. Such opportunity gives us an awareness of the self and a time to assess what we hold dear to our heart. Sometimes it is worth throwing away old useless habits and replacing them with that which brings harmony and service to others.