Indian society is not alone in awarding prizes for valiant acts. Worldwide, for example the military does it for their soldiers. Societies have a high regard for individuals or groups who act with courage and bravado. They catch the headlines and the television breaking news slots. We work under the assumption that courage is not a happening of day-to-day life, but a unique act. The courageous represent those of us who haven’t got the guts to speak out and stand up and do and are also ready to bear the consequences. They are the path-finders for an innovative way of life, they formulate visions of a life with social values and justice. We feel that the least we can do is to declare such activists heroes and support them in their acts with our consent and sympathy.
We all love our heroes of courage – children who have rescued other children, parents who have protected their daughters, boys who have saved their girl friends from harm, unnamed persons who have dragged unknown people from burning houses. A man who has protected a girl from eve-teasers, a taxi driver who has returned a cash-filled purse, another who has delivered an accident victim to the hospital braving all questions and hassles… Such spontaneous acts of enthusiasm and transparent honesty have, in the public mind, the air of selfless courage, especially if personal risks and dangers are involved.
Here is another scenario. An elderly husband cares for his bed-ridden wife for many years until one of them dies. They had a good married life, a successful family, but the daughters are away married and the sons are earning money elsewhere. So the husband spends his retired life staying inside doing what he considers his normal duty. Or another: A young man knows the financial strength of his parents and forsakes marriage in order to earn money for his younger sister’s marriage. He knows that without this contribution his sister will not be able to get a husband. Single women are more vulnerable in this society than single men, so he takes this decision which he considers his normal duty. Deeds of courage for the family, personal sacrifices for the greater good of the family are almost taken for granted in India and do not count as courage. However, I do think that many such deeds are heroically courageous as they affect the whole life of a person.
Consider a third kind of scenario: A village girl perseveres against mighty odds in her studies and ultimately obtains a degree. A village boy resolves to work for the progress of his village community. He begins evening classes for dropout students or a kindergarten. He goes begging for money at people’s homes to afford two or three teachers while he himself pursues his College studies. Or a teacher nearing the end of his professional life decides to open a school for tribal children who otherwise would not have the benefit of an education. Or a woman, a homemaker, decides to start a hostel for poor girls. She accommodates a few of them in her own home free of cost.
Another person decides to motivate every family of a village to build a toilet and oversees the progress of his project.
These are individuals who work for society at large building up organizations, institutions, bringing justice to a group of people, changing old habits, introducing innovative practices. With tremendous perseverance they begin from a void to create something admirable. No funds, no prestige, no family patronage help them; they are lone fighters. But “things happen”, there is a strange synergy at work, some may claim divine grace is the main agent, and over the years the results are for everyone to see. The service of these individuals is performed away from their own family, away from the “near and dear ones” whom it is deemed quite natural to serve.
To muster such endurance, the perseverance to pursue one particular project over years and decades without or with scant emotional, social and material support, is to me a sign of greater courage than spontaneous acts. I remember how I began my educational work in a tribal village near Santiniketan and how, slowly, the work grew. This meant that more and more teachers with their families and the students became financially and otherwise dependent on me. How would I maintain them in future? What would happen if I had to leave India? I was on an annual visa. My own resources were extremely limited. Only in hindsight I realize the full extent of the courage I had to employ to carry on and not buckle under the weight of my responsibilities.
Such courage is not sustainable without a conviction in the honesty and necessity of what we do. We have to be sure that our work is not ego-driven. Only if we realize the inevitable inner logic of our actions our courage has a significance and a purpose and it is different from mere irresponsible recklessness.
Those who walk that path face self-doubt and the indifference of the public, they become aware of the risks they take and therefore have to battle their fears, their impatience and the natural instincts to retreat and give up. To overcome the internal and external obstacles on that once chosen path is the essence of courage. Spontaneous acts of courage, indeed often urgently required, lack that element of a conscious decision leading to a premeditated deed.
Both these kinds of courage become demeaned by praise and awards and by elevating someone on a hero’s pedestal. Such accolades from outside can never properly do justice to the extraordinariness of courage, the pain suffered and especially the loneliness. Praise of courage is often embarrassing, almost humiliating. It can be truly offered only by those who have persevered in that battle of suffering themselves. If heroes need appreciation it can be given only from other heroes.
Let me add an afterthought. As I move on in years and reflect on what it means to lead the Good Life, I realize that yet another kind of courage is needed to succeed in it. Spontaneous acts of courage are surely essential in any society, equally so the courage of the lone fighter for establishing social justice and peace development. I believe that the courage which is supreme is the courage that turns inwards and struggles to accept oneself. Those of us who, after a considerable inner struggle, have become capable of accepting ourselves as what we are, are the truly courageous. To accept ourselves in our weaknesses and strengths and then live honestly according to our convictions and precepts, is the most heroic – yet least spectacular – kind of courage. Few possess it. Nobody praises it. But it is its own reward.