Author: Suhas Mehra (2019). Published in Sraddha, Vol. 11 (1), August 2019, pp. 140-152
Dashrath Manjhi, a poor labourer from a village in Bihar, single-handedly carved a path through a hillock, a road 110 m long, 9.1 m wide and 7.6 m deep, using only a hammer and chisel, the work which took him 22 years. This road shortened travel between the towns of Atri and Wazirganj from 55 kms to 15 kms.[i] Dashrath came to be known as ‘The Mountain Man.’
One hundred and six-year-old Padma Shri Saalumarada Thimmakka had once tried to commit suicide at the age of 40 because she was unable to conceive a child. Even though she had no formal education and worked only as a casual labourer in a quarry near her village, she could achieve the remarkable feat of planting and taking care of over 8000 trees including 385 banyan trees.
Padma Shri Jamuna Tudu took on the timber mafia to stop the illegal cutting of trees. She was saddened when no one from her village community was willing to stand up with her, so she single-handedly decided to take the charge. Armed with sticks, she began challenging the wood cutters. Later she formed “Van Suraksha Samiti,” a group of women who would patrol the forests, carrying arrows, bows, sticks to fight the mafia and to protect the 50-hectare forest around the village.
When her husband died of gastroenteritis due to lack of medical attention, Padma Shri Subhashini Mistry vowed to construct a hospital so that nobody else would have to face the kind of difficulties she had to face due to lack of timely medical care. Over the next twenty years, she toiled as a housemaid, manual labourer, and vegetable seller, and saved Rs. 20,000 and educated her son so that he would become a doctor. And then she used up all her savings to open a hospital.[ii]
Indian hockey player Sandeep Singh made his international debut in 2004; later he took over as the captain of the Indian national team. Singh was a well-known drag-flicker, probably the best in the world. Under his captaincy, after 13 years of long wait, the Indian team managed to clinch the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in 2009. While on his way to join the national team for the World Cup, Singh was seriously injured after being hit by an accidental gunshot on a train. He was paralyzed and on the wheelchair for a year. Remarkably, Singh not only recovered from that serious injury – despite the serious doubts by his doctors regarding his ability to even walk – but also established himself again in the Indian hockey team.[iii]
Bharat Ratan A. P. J. Abdul Kalam came from a very humble background but made significant contributions to Indian missile programme at DRDO, as well as India space programme. He later went on to become the most loved president of India, who continues to inspire millions of Indians to this day. Narendra Modi, also coming from very humble beginnings and facing numerous hardships, rose to become the three-time serving Chief Minister of Gujarat. And is now perhaps the most popular Prime Minister of India ever, serving his second term after a landslide victory.
These are a few inspirational stories of individuals who defied all the odds to achieve something remarkable. What made these individuals into who they became? What was the source of their strength? From where did they find the right inspiration? What was it that made possible for them to achieve what they were able to achieve? Is it possible to identify some common threads in stories such as these?
Aspiration and Grace
“There are two powers that alone can effect in their conjunction the great and difficult thing which is the aim of our endeavour, a fixed and unfailing aspiration that calls from below and a supreme Grace from above that answers.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA 32: 3)
This is how Sri Aurobindo begins the book “The Mother.” The phrase that caught my attention the very first time I read this book was – “fixed and unfailing aspiration calling from below and supreme grace.” And slowly it dawned on me. The first and foremost requirement for achieving anything, whether it be in the realm of spiritual quest, artistic endeavour, science, sports, business, research and development, leadership, etc., is summarised in the phrase – “aspiration and grace.” Without aspiration and grace nothing can be achieved. As the Mother reminds us often, one can’t even begin to walk the path to the divine without a deep inner aspiration. Same is true, I propose, for anything else in the world one wants to achieve.
Cambridge dictionary describes aspiration as “something that you hope to achieve,”[iv] while Oxford dictionary defines it as “a hope or ambition of achieving something.”[v] Merriam Webster describes it as “a strong desire to achieve something high or great, example an aspiration to become famous.”[vi]
True aspiration is, however, much bigger and deeper than what is described above. It is not merely an ambition, and it is definitely not about wanting to become famous. According to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, aspiration expresses something which is based upon a deep physiological truth, it is a deep thirst, a commitment to one’s own evolution or self-perfection, and a determination to move in the direction of one’s highest purpose. Here are two practical explanations of aspiration given by the Mother:
“Aspiration is like an arrow, like this (gesture). So you aspire, want very earnestly to understand, know, enter into the truth. Yes? And then with that aspiration you do this (gesture). Your aspiration rises, rises, rises, rises straight up, very strong and then it strikes against a kind of… how to put it?… lid which is there, hard like iron and extremely thick, and it does not pass through. And then you say, “See, what’s the use of aspiring? It brings nothing at all. I meet with something hard and cannot pass!” But you know about the drop of water which falls on the rock, it ends up by making a chasm: it cuts the rock from top to bottom. Your aspiration is a drop of water which, instead of falling, rises. So, by dint of rising, it beats, beats, beats, and one day it makes a hole, by dint of rising; and when it makes the hole suddenly it springs out from this lid and enters an immensity of light, and you say, “Ah, now I understand.”
“It’s like that.
“So one must be very persistent, very stubborn and have an aspiration which rises straight upwards, that is, which does not go roaming around here and there, seeking all kinds of things.
“Only this: to understand, understand, understand, to learn to know, to be.
“When one reaches the very top, there is nothing more to understand, nothing more to learn, one is, and it’s when one is that one understands and knows.” (CWM 7: 235)
“We can, simply by a sincere aspiration, open a sealed door in us and find… that Something which will change the whole significance of life, reply to all our questions, solve all our problems and lead us to the perfection we aspire for without knowing it, to that Reality which alone can satisfy us and give us lasting joy, equilibrium, strength, life.” (CWM 9:74)
Faguni Devi, wife of Dashrath Manjhi, who used to bring lunch for her husband every day, slipped and seriously injured herself on that fateful day while crossing Gehlour hills. There were no nearby hospitals where she could be taken; the nearest medical facility was 64 kms away. Due to lack of immediate medical care, Devi died shortly after her accident. The Gehlour hills are a low but treacherous spine of mountainous terrain, dividing the settlements and services on either side. In fact, many villagers from Manijhi’s village had to trek for miles around the hills just to reach their fields and schools, even though the aerial distance was much less.
The deep grief and sense of loss after the death of his wife perhaps became the initial source from which an early flame of an aspiration might have sprung forth in Manjhi’s heart. An aspiration to ensure that nobody else should suffer such a loss in this way. This would later consume him completely, and make him dig out – almost single-handedly – a long road through the Gehlour hills, so that people in his village could have easier access to medical attention. So, literally like the “drop of water which falls on the rock, it ends up by making a chasm: it cuts the rock from top to bottom,” Manji’s aspiration grew and grew, and the result was a road 110m long, 9.1m wide, and 7.6m deep through the hillock, dug out with the help of only a hammer and a chisel. It took him 22 long years, and he worked day and night to carve out the road. But now the villagers are able to receive medical aid just after a quick travel of a few kilometres. Such is the power of deep aspiration from below, and of grace acting from above.[vii],[viii]
Padma Shri Dr. G. Venkataswamy (fondly known as Dr. V) was born in 1918 in a well-respected farming family in a small village in South India. During his childhood, he witnessed several child delivery deaths in his village, and out of his compassion and love for people grew in him an aspiration to become an obstetrician. He received his medical degree from the Stanley Medical College in Chennai, and joined the Indian Army Medical Corps to practice as an obstetrician. Soon after joining the army, Dr. V. faced a major tragedy when rheumatoid arthritis, a degenerative disease, attacked his hands. Due to this condition he had to give up obstetrics and seek retirement from the army. He was bed-ridden for about two years.
But the flame of aspiration to help humanity was still burning strong in him. After regaining his health, he began studying ophthalmology, and had instruments specially designed for his arthritic hands – each one custom-made to fill a specific need. These instruments enabled him to perform as many as 100 cataract surgeries a day. He quickly became the most admired cataract surgeon in India. At the age of 58, when most people plan their retirements, Dr. V founded Aravind Eye Care. Since its inception, the organisation has grown into a network of eye hospitals that have served a total of nearly 32 million patients in 36 years, and performed nearly 4 million eye surgeries, the majority of which are done at subsidised rates or even free of cost. It must be noted that the organisation started by Dr. V has remained self-reliant with regard to its finances.
The model of Aravind Eye Care has been applauded all over the world and has become a subject for numerous case studies. Pavithra Mehta and Suchitra Shenoy, in their well-researched book, Infinite Vision: How Aravind became the World’s greatest business case for compassion, provide an excellent glimpse into the aspiration that motivated and guided Dr. V throughout his career as an eye surgeon and his life as the Founder-Director of Aravind Eye Care.
Sri Aurobindo and the Mother remind us that the state of consciousness and the attitude with which a work, any outer work, is done are real force behind the transformative power of the outer work. For example, if an act of charity or philanthropy are done with any kind of vested interests or from a lower level of consciousness, then they will not be helpful in real growth or inner evolution of the person. Therefore, introspection is essential to recognise from where the motivation for an action is originating. The Mother cautions:
“Aspiration is always good, and if some demand is mixed up with it, you can be sure that it will not be granted.” (CWM 14: 73)
An ambition for a tangible gain or even an intangible outcome such as fame or social prestige or the recognition as a great humanitarian or patriot – all these are not true aspirations. These originate from a lower or rather an ordinary, unpurified level of consciousness within us. Dr. V wrote of the frequent internal tug-of-war experiences he had between pure aspiration and restless ambition. In his journals, he often called himself out on the distracting impatience of his desire or ambition to serve:
“Lots of times I get lost in small things like a better order for seeing patients in camps or hospital, better training of doctors, building a better kitchen for patients, etc. There was a sweepers strike. Got mentally worried. To watch yourself by stepping back is interesting. Normally mind gets frequently bogged with needless problems, confusions. You get Ambitious of having more and more Health jobs, Hospitals etc. To keep the mind absolutely still, to understand the reaction, impulse and attitude and to work from the Soul is the Aim”. (Mehta & Shenoy, 2016, Ebook para 24.29)
It is appropriate to conclude this section by recalling these words of Sri Aurobindo on the subject of aspiration:
“Souls that do not aspire are God’s failures; but Nature is pleased and loves to multiply them because they assure her of stability and prolong her empire…Those who are poor, ignorant, ill-born or ill-bred are not the common herd; the common herd are all who are satisfied with pettiness and an average humanity.” (CWSA 13: 208)
TO BE CONTINUED…