The Lights to Navigate By

In a comment to the post on political parties launched by entrepreneurs, “Seven Times Six” wrote:

I don’t think renunciation and self-sacrifice is necessary for a nation to prosper. What is required is the exact opposite — a strong avarice and ambition to promote one’s well-being.

India’s problems are not due a lack of “leaders”. It is due to a lack of people not being allowed to lead themselves. For all your insightful thoughts, you do not seem to be cognizant of this.

I think the comment was in response to the quote from Swami Vivekanand which said:

“Even the least work done for others awakens the power within; even thinking the least good of others gradually instills into the heart the strength of a lion. As you have come into this world, leave some mark behind. Otherwise, what is the difference between you and the trees and stones ? What our country needs are some young men who will renounce everything and sacrifice their lives for their country’s sake. Only such men can do some real work. I too believe that India will awake again, if anyone could love with all his heart the people of the country – bereft of the grace of affluence, of blasted fortune, their discretion totally lost, downtrodden, ever-starved, quarrelsome, and envious. Then only will India awake, when hundreds of large-hearted men and women, giving up all desires of enjoying the luxuries of life, will long and exert themselves to their utmost for the well-being of the millions of their countrymen who are gradually sinking lower and lower in the vortex of destitution and ignorance.”

Swami Vivekanand was no idealistic fool. I think it is worthwhile to read what he actually says very carefully. He is not saying that every person renounce everything. He is not advocating communism. He says that some need to sacrifice for the society as a whole to awake. He says we need hundreds of large-hearted men, not hundreds of millions in a country of hundreds of millions. I will argue here why I agree with Swamiji.

Let me start by asking how many brilliant scientists does a nation need? A few hundred in a nation of a few hundred million would suffice. You really don’t need millions brilliant scientists to meet the needs of the society. Would it not be great if the society of a few hundred million people had a hundred million brilliant scientists? Not necessarily, because a society needs other sorts of people, not just brilliant scientists. Besides brilliant scientists an economy needs brilliant engineers, doctors, business people, actors, authors, programmers, poets, authors, artists, … the list goes on.

A society which consists of millions of poets would be as impoverished as a society of millions of scientists. It is the mix of a lot of small numbers of people brilliant in their respective fields producing whatever that they are good at producing that makes a good society. It is the work of the relatively few brilliant people in their fields that makes the labor of the rest of us non-brilliant people more productive.

Which brings me to the point that Swamiji was making. He says that for the awakening of India, what we need is a few hundred leaders who could dedicate their lives to doing what leaders are supposed to do – to inspire and lead by example. Everyone does not have to be a leader, any more than everyone has to be a programmer. But we do need a bunch of programmers who are so dedicated that they would do what mere mortal programmers cannot do. So also, we need a bunch of leaders that would be capable of doing what thousands of run-of-the-mill leaders cannot do.

It would be silly to advocate a nation full of self-denying ascetics. No one with any bit of sense would do so. But while the vast majority of the citizens should be concerned with their own narrow self-interest, society still needs those handful of men and women who would excel beyond the capacity of the average. And in all fields we need these exceptional people, not the least of which is the field of political leadership.

The works of geniuses in every field – especially in science and engineering – is very useful because the benefit of their work can be widely disseminated through the economy. You do not have to invent the laser or the microprocessor to enjoy their benefits. In a similar sort of way, what a genuine leader does is to inspire people in ways that ultimately benefit the society as a whole. By example, they raise the moral fiber of the people. All else being the same, a society that is composed of ethically handicapped people will fare much worse compared to a society of people who have values that go beyond narrowly selfish goals. A finite multi-person prisoner’s dilemma game’s outcome can lead to a very sorry outcome.

I totally subscribe to the proposition that if everyone of us looked out for our own interests and did so without harming others or preventing others from looking out for themselves, the system will work out what is called a Pareto optimum. But I also believe that it is possible to transcend that if there were a few who were not so narrowly selfish and set an example for others to aspire towards.

India’s leadership sucks. That is not a very sophisticated analysis of Indian leadership but I am sure that it is succinct and accurate. A bunch of narrow-minded bigoted corrupt idiotic people at the top does not inspire very much good in the hundreds of millions of grunts to push themselves. The corruption at the top inspires pervasive petty corruption at the lower levels. This impoverishes the economy. Conversely, a bunch of obviously principled scrupulously honest totally dedicated leaders would inspire us to put in a little more effort, all of which would add up to something good.

Where are they who would inspire? Where are they that when we hear of what they have achieved, we feel a surge of inspiration and become resolved to be better than we are? Where are they that when we hear of their sacrifice and their nobility, we ourselves become more of what we are ourselves capable of?

I long to hear of a story regarding our so-called leaders that would send a chill down my spine and exclaim, “Wow, how amazing that this should happen in my own land and time?” What I read about in the press, instead, is yet another story of unspeakable corruption and moral depravity of our political bosses. I have not come across a single uplifting incident associated with the leaders of this country. Please tell me it ain’t so.

Let me tell you one that is unfortunately not of this place, and more unfortunately, not of this time. It relates to the 30th President of the United States of America, Mr Calvin Coolidge (1923-29). Here is an excerpt from his autobiography:

My own participation [in the campaign] was delayed by the death of my son Calvin, which occurred on the seventh of July. He was a boy of much promise, proficient in his studies, with a scholarly mind, who had just turned sixteen.

He had a remarkable insight into things.

The day I became President he had just started to work in a tobacco field. When one of his fellow laborers said to him, “if my father was President I would not work in a tobacco field,” Calvin replied, “If my father were your father, you would.”…

We do not know what might have happened to him under other circumstances, but if I had not been President, he would not have raised a blister on his toe, which resulted in blood poisoning, playing lawn tennis in the South Grounds.

In his suffering he was asking me to make him well. I could not.

When he went the power and the glory of the Presidency went with him.

The ways of Providence are often beyond our understanding. It seemed to me that the world had need of the work that it was probable he could do.

I do not know why such a price was exacted for occupying the White House.

The fruit does not fall too far from the tree. Calvin junior’s statement tells you who Calvin senior was parsimoniously. Every time I re-read that passage, I can feel the pain of a father who has lost a son who he cared so deeply about and yet is beset with doubt that perhaps if he had not been elected president, his son would have been alive.

President Coolidge inspired more than just his son, I am sure. Read what he has to say about persistence:

“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

I want to read about the amazing sacrifices that our leaders have done, about the valuable thoughts that they have penned. Instead we have uninspired uninspiring mediocre people making insipid statements and acting like the petty money-grubbing power-hungry morons they are. These are the leaders we have and it is their names that are plastered on every institution and landmark. It is more than a little dispiriting when the person who is the chair of the National Commission on Higher Education is one who did not attend college even. Let’s just go the whole hog and make an illiterate idiot the chair of the National Commission for Nuclear Power Research.

Yes, Seven Times Six, people need to lead themselves. But they also need a few guiding stars to navigate by. And that, dear ladies and gentlemen, is what in our case we have not got.

Goodnight, thank you, and may your god go with you.

Author: Atanu Dey


8 thoughts on “The Lights to Navigate By”

  1. I admire Swami Vivekanand’s insights, and I hate to point out ideological faults in his writings, but this is such a pervasive one that I have to.

    I do not quite think he meant it purely in terms of guiding lights; look at the lines:

    Only such men can do some real work. I too believe that India will awake again, if anyone could love with all his heart the people of the country – bereft of the grace of affluence, of blasted fortune, their discretion totally lost, downtrodden, ever-starved, quarrelsome, and envious

    You have to also note that he was a Vedantic scholar, and one of the prime aspects of Vedantic philosophy is doing one’s dharma without an eye on the fruits.

    Selflessly working hard for one’s nation is only a step away from that.

    I won’t go into why such self-sacrifice is wrong because you too know this, and agree about it.

    Even if you consider the point abt guiding lights; I anyway don’t see why self-sacrifice has to do anything with being a guiding light. If anything it works in the opposite direction.
    Do most brilliant scientists “self-sacrifice”?
    Do most brilliant engineers self-sacrifice?


    The whole point is that self-sacrifice does not enable one to give that 200% effort which would be what would enable them to be a guiding light. In other words; a lack of self-ambition prevents people from being guiding lights. I’d reckon this pervasive brainwashing away of self-avarice and self-promotion to achieve that 200% on all our children is one reason why India does not have that many guiding lights.

    Atanu’s response: In a strict sense, there is nothing which any rational person does which is not selfish. The mother going hungry herself so that the child could live is a selfish act because she derives more satisfaction from seeing the child eat than she would have if she were to eat and the child go hungry. There is no self-sacrifice at the deeper level. The only variable is how one defines the “self.” If my definition of my “self” includes my children, then my acts that benefit my children are by definition selfish. If my notion of my “self” includes my intellectual children–that is my area of study–then I could well be at a deeper level be entirely selfish by ceaselessly working in that area and at the cost of my health, and yet at a more superficial level it could appear that I am being self-sacrificing for the sake of my interest.

    So I claim that the best of the breed, whether they be scientists or inventors or leaders, appear to be “self-sacrificing” even though at the deeper level they are as selfish as the guy who is entirely wrapped up in himself. They incur enormous costs to achieve their goals. They are motivated by something more than just the narrowly defined selfishness. I argue that these people are not the norm, and nor should they be the norm. The average person should just look out for his own interests and given the right institutional and economic environment, the society as a whole will prosper. This is a result that has its theoretical foundation in the fundamental theorems of welfare economics.

    Swami Vivekanand was a visionary. He was also a human being and therefore not infallible. I am aware of our tendency to uncritically accept everything from those we put up on a pedestal. I do not put him or anyone else up on a pedestal and worship him. The moment I feel that anyone is speaking nonsense, I would raise my objections. I therefore feel very gratified to find you scrutinizing what Swamiji said. I would do the same. I thank you for raising these issues for it gives us the opportunity to explore this topic a bit more.


  2. Atanu,

    (I may be going OT here so)
    What Swami VivekAnanda said is of significant importance.

    But here is my question, Is there any scientific explaination possible for something like self-sacrifice , altruism and martyrdom ?

    When I say scientific, I mean a explaination which can reconcile the contradictory approach to establish society on the basis of self – interest, and yet a need for handful of people to sacrifice themselves for principles.

    May be self- interest in absolute, with no regards to the surrounding is as harmful to civilization as self – abnegation of communism or ascetism.

    I read someone calling Swami Vivekananda foolish rhetorician, made me smile.


    Atanu’s response: Yes, there is the “selfish gene” Darwinian explanation for the existence of altruism in the biological world as explained by Richard Dawkins, of course. In the economic world, I have an explanation which has to do with externalities, scale economies, theory of the second best and all sorts of deviations that naturally exist and because of which the results of a purely competitive outcome are not optimal. I will explore this one in a post one of these days. Thanks for motivating that post.

    Now I am having fun 🙂


  3. We should abandon this immense interest in the word selfishness or self interest.

    Because I think it is irrelevant – the self of a human being can be as narrow / small as that of the tip of an arrow is or that of a religious fundamentalist’s is, or it can be vast as the sky, as maybe the environmentalist’s is, like Nelson Mandela’s was – and both the former and the latter when they are being themselves, when they are doing WHAT THEY WANT TO DO, because of who they are in their selves, can be said to be acting from self-interest, or being plain self-centered or selfish.

    But such labelling tangentializes our focus from what is most important – which is – our studying and knowing the effect, scope, range, depth, height, wideness each of these person’s self has on earth, on the times, on the thought of the whole human race etc etc.

    So, instead of talking about all being selfish or acting only from self-interest, we can study people’s thoughts and ideas and actions, and judge them as effective, important,good or bad…


  4. “I don’t think renunciation and self-sacrifice is necessary for a nation to prosper. What is required is the exact opposite—- a strong avarice and ambition to promote one’s well-being.”

    I could not disagree more…..ummmm, ’nuff said.

    “may your god go with you”

    I second that emotion. Atanu, apologies for not providing a “rational” argument to back up my disagreement, but would I really convince anyone if Swamiji (one of the most remarkable individuals to have walked this Earth) has failed? At any rate, wanted to voice my dissent at least.



  5. There is a short, beautiful work called the “Aishwarya upanishad” by Rishi Prabhakar ( In this treatise, he explains that Sanyasa comes from a state of inner richness (as opposed to renunciation and self sacrifice). To quote a few verses

    ” Poor are security conscious. The rich take on bigger and bigger risks”

    “Sanyasa is the ultimate risk. Coming into the world as a child of God, living without demands, living on what is offered, possessing nothing but the loving richness of his heart, the sanyasi is rich”

    “Richness starts with Sanyasa”

    So while we may think that people like Vivekananda have done a great sacrifice etc. from our own limited standpoint, those who take the vow of Sanyasa like Swamiji come from a state of richness that doesnt require accumulation of wealth to feel they have achieved something in this world. They are not self-denying, on the contrary they are in the state of “Everything in this world is mine” and hence they take full responsibility for the world. All their humanitarian work comes from this sense of responsibility to the world and is not just “good Samaritanism”.

    Self-sacrifice, renunciation etc will not be sustainable unless it comes from this state of inner richness. The initiation into meditation during the yajnopavitam ceremony in India was to give this training for an individual to reach the state of richness before accumulating riches. Such individuals, coming from a state of inner richness then created a rich country. Somehow this tradition got lost and was replaced by inner poverty in the hearts of people. This then manifested as the outer poverty we see in India today and saw in yesteryears (manifesting as social practices like dowry). No amount of economic policies will bring richness to a country whose people are in this state of inner poverty.


  6. Read this comment and just can’t sleep without responding to it.

    “But here is my question, Is there any scientific explaination possible for something like self-sacrifice , altruism and martyrdom ?”

    Its pretty simple. Emotions do not have scientific explanations attached to them. Can you explain an intuition scientifically? Can you explain how you cry scientifically, to the minutest details? Self sacrifice, martyrdom, patriotism are similar. There is no scientific explanation but lots of practical examples that prove its presence and continuance in society.

    And cannot help responding to this too

    “I don’t think renunciation and self-sacrifice is necessary for a nation to prosper. What is required is the exact opposite—- a strong avarice and ambition to promote one’s well-being.”

    Completely flawed. How would you try to promote your neighbour’s well being, when you are bent on promoting ur own? I think u simply have some limitations understanding the simple concept of self sacrifice.

    Now i can go to peaceful sleep 🙂



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