Rahul Gandhi could take a lesson from St Augustine of Hippo. Wait, before you roll your eyes, let me finish. St Augustine of Hippo was a remarkable man. Born a Berber, this Algerian-Roman philosopher began life as a pagan. His mother Monica, ordained a Catholic saint, entreated him to lead a life of virtue. In his youth, Augustine was anything but. He wined and dined, had a rollicking time, wavered between hobbies and passions, and had relationships with a series of women.
As he says in his book, Confessions, Augustine’s early life consisted of “being seduced and seducing, being deceived and deceiving”. There is something comforting about a saint who sinned as spectacularly as Augustine. There is hope for the rest of us.
When he turned 32, Augustine—in somewhat Bollywood fashion that involved his mother’s death and chance meetings—reformed himself. He turned to celibacy and priesthood as a way to reach God. This continued throughout his life and he was ordained the patron saint of printers, theologians and, appropriately, brewers. In philosophy, St Augustine is known for his deeply personal account of the Western philosophic concept of “eudaemonia”, or the good life.
Gandhi junior, back after a two-month break, has taken up his role again stridently. The question is whether his reformation is for real—this time; or whether he will waffle, yet again.
Years ago, Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, entreated people to “follow their bliss”. Greek philosophers, including Socrates, Plato and, most importantly, Aristotle, called it eudaemonia. It is often misrepresented as happiness—but has more to do with practising virtues in daily life.
Eudaemonia is about doing the right thing at the right time in the right way, about having the wisdom to resolve conflicts, something that Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal could learn. It is a robust, action-oriented philosophy that is somewhat akin to the Hindu notion of dharma. Eudaemonia marries the idea of dharma, or doing the right thing, with the tantric notion of sahaja, or spontaneous ease, as poet Kabir called it, in which the mind is returned to its own primal ecstasy without the help of external substances.
I like eudaemonia because I think an action-oriented philosophy shouldn’t be plodding and diligent and entirely about duty and morality. What is Gandhi’s duty? Quit the party? Bear the burden? Take on the mantle? What is Kejriwal afraid of? Why does he win an election and then self-combust?
Much of philosophy, both in the East and West, focuses on duty and morality. The problem with this approach is that it excludes ownership, passion and enjoyment. To have power, and to take pleasure from wielding it, should be part of the composite as well.
Eudaemonia celebrates happiness, and all those daily activities that lead to happiness. It wasn’t popular among philosophers, by the way. Immanuel Kant vociferously opposed it, and although he is a giant in Western philosophy, let me adopt the immortal words of Bertie Wooster and say that with respect to eudaemonia, Kant “was an ass”. Later philosophers—the existentialists, for example—also viewed eudaemonia as a shallow fantasy put forth by medieval philosophers and theologians who had no idea about the harsh realities of everyday moralities.
The same could be said of eudaemonia’s counterpart in India: tantric philosophy. Mention tantra, and the average person usually thinks of the Kama Sutra. Well, it is that; but it is also about beauty, colour and bliss. There is a lovely passage in Sudhir Kakar’s book, Shamans, Mystics And Doctors, that explains this. “The true tantrik is always in a state of non-suppression and enjoyment. The purpose of every moment of life is to experience ananda. Ananda is active enjoyment of everything that comes your way.” No quarrel there.
How can one experience ananda, or enjoyment? Or eudaemonia, or happiness? Well, the reason those Kantian moralists were against eudaemonia is because they believed that humans needed external objects in order to experience happiness. Well, that’s true. Hand me a bottle of Ruinart and I’ll be one happy person right now. People like Kant would belittle this approach, and so would a vast number of anti-consumerists. Kant believed that true happiness or contentment comes from performing virtuous actions for their own sake. You do the right thing and you are happy. If not, you are guilt-ridden and have to drown your sorrows in wine, women (or men) and song.
But what if you could adapt your desires to suit the situation? Bear with me here. Again, to quote Kakar: “A tantrik has only those desires which the environment is ready, willing and in a position to satisfy. This is not because he denies any of his wishes or rationalizes them later, but because he has developed his capacity for attention and is intensely aware of where he is and what he is doing at every single moment of time.”
Read the previous sentence. Twice. Insert your name. “Rahul/Arvind/Rishad (or female counterpart thereof) has only those desires which the environment is ready, willing and in a position to satisfy.” That makes sense to me. Essentially, it says that since you cannot control what the world throws at you, you control your reaction to the external stimuli. You prime yourself to be receptive to the world and learn how to enjoy each experience.
Let’s say that you are going to a really boring party. Instead of flagellating yourself for accepting that invitation, what if you become “intensely aware” of where you are, and figure out ways of having some fun, given the circumstances. Maybe you decide not to make small talk; maybe you dress differently; maybe you decide to sing. The point is to extend your bandwidth; increase your surface area with respect to what gives you pleasure.
The ancients called it eudaemonia, or sahaja. Kejriwal and Gandhi should try it—Kejriwal for the sake of Delhi; Gandhi for the sake of the Congress party; and for the sake of the people that walked before them and fought to get them where they are today.
Shoba Narayan alternates between Kantian guilt and eudaemonia. Write to her at thegoodlife @livemint.com