Human culture is meant to provide an environment wherein higher emotions can be nourished and lower emotions countered. Unfortunately, contemporary culture is increasingly doing the opposite
Our heart is capable of both noble and ignoble emotions. How we can cultivate higher emotions and curb lower emotions is demonstrated in this lesser known story from the Ramayana.
This incident occurs after Lord Rama has been exiled, and his father King Dashrath passes away in grief. Lord Rama’s brothers, Bharat and Shatrughna are returning to their palace after having performed the funeral rites for their father. Bharata, being the de facto head of state, is accosted by a city official about some administrative work. Satrughna moves on towards the palace and catches sight of Manthara, the scheming maid of Kaikeyi, who was the root of the conspiracy that led to Rama’s exile and their father’s death. When Satrughna sees her dressed in finery—evidently the reward for successfully masterminding the conspiracy—his blood boils, and he rushes toward her to catch her. On seeing Shatrughna and his expression, Manthara turns pale and flees towards Kaikeyi’s palace. But Shatrughna manages to grab her and shakes her violently in fury.
At that time, Bharata arrives and asks his brother to desist, saying that he too has felt the impulse to do what Shatrughna was doing but restrained himself by remembering that giving in to it will displease the very person whose cause they wanted to protect: Rama. Struck by this thought, Shatrughna releases Manthara,
Thus, for Bharata and Satrughna, whom they were angry at was not as important as whom they were angry for. They countered the lower emotion of anger by holding on to the higher emotion of love for Rama. For all of us too, cultivating such higher emotions is vital for freeing ourselves from our lower emotions.
Indeed, human culture is meant to provide an environment wherein higher emotions can be nourished and lower emotions countered. Unfortunately, contemporary culture is increasingly doing the opposite, as can be seen, for example, in the advertising industry.
Torches of Freedom Light the Path to Self-Injury
Advertisers recognise that people could be more forcefully persuaded to purchase products by appealing to their emotions than to their intelligence. So they use all their intelligence to design advertisements that capitalise on people’s irrational emotions.
Few things illustrate the deluding power of such advertising as graphically as the “Torches of Freedom” campaign to get women to smoke. This campaign’s high point—or rather low point—was the Easter Sunday Parade of 1929 in New York City, when a group of women, hired by a tobacco company, lit up and smoked their “torches of freedom”.
The women’s liberation movement was then increasingly capturing the female imagination. The idea of brandishing a “torch of freedom” resonated so strongly with their emotions that the rational question—“How does smoking signify freedom?”—was completely ignored. Millions of women started smoking, not just in America, but also in much of the Western world. Only decades later were brought to light the harms of smoking, especially for women, all the more for pregnant women. Thus, the “torches of freedom” ended up lighting for millions the road to self-injury.
Advertisements are just one of the many things in today’s society that exploit us by triggering our lower emotions. To protect ourselves from such emotional manipulation, we need to understand how we can activate and strengthen our higher emotions.
Devotion Brings Out Our Best
Relationships often help us bring out our higher side. Our desire to please the person we love inspires us to act properly, thus expressing our higher emotions. And our desire to not displease our loved one empowers us to avoid acting improperly, thus restraining our lower emotions.
To the extent that we avoid committed relationships, our commitment remains only to one person: me. And since our desires are often shaped by our mind, so commitment to me essentially boils down to commitment to our mind, which frequently drags us down to self-defeating actions.
While any committed relationship can help us restrain our lower emotions, the higher emotions thus awakened aren’t necessarily spiritual. Why? Because we may not be seeing ourselves or our loved ones spiritually—as souls, as spiritual parts of God. And without activating our spiritual side, we severely limit our access to higher emotions.
Our highest, purest emotions come from our essential self: the soul. And the soul is the reservoir of pure emotions, for it is, as the Gita (15.7) states, a part of God, the supreme reservoir of pure emotions. As parts, we are meant to live in loving harmony with the Whole, God. Bhakti-yoga enables us to lovingly link with Him and thereby activate our latent spiritual potential with its gamut of higher emotions.
There’s another reason why, for bringing out our higher emotions, we need not just any committed relationship, but a committed relationship with God. That reason is His omnipotence. No matter how committed we may be to someone and no matter how good that person may be, ultimately that person doesn’t have the power of God. Consider, for example, the purifying potency of chanting the names of God. This potency is demonstrated in the Ramayana itself. Its composer, Valmiki, was a bandit who, by chanting the names of Rama, became a saint. Chanting the names of others can’t bring about this kind of transformation—only God’s names can.
Thus, while relationships in general can bring out the good within us, a relationship with God can bring out the best within us.
The writer is a travelling monk and scholar