The Many Hues and Views of Courage


The Call Beyond
15 Aug 2020

Calotropis gigantea

Calotropis gigantea (Common names: Mudar, Bowstring hemp, Crown plant)

Courage. Bold, it faces all dangers.

Even a five-year-old knows what the right thing to do is, but even a fifty-year-old – and specially a fifty-year-old – often lacks the courage to do it. An act of courage may involve a risk. For example, a fireman needs courage to enter a burning building to rescue those trapped inside. An act of courage, such as confessing a crime one has committed, may invite punishment. An act of courage, such as whistle-blowing, may invite revenge. Doing what is right frequently means stepping out of our comfort zone. Courage is the inner strength required to do what is right, even if it is uncomfortable.

Doing what is right, knowing fully well the risks involved, is one type of courage. There are many other types of courage where there may be no serious risk involved. For example, saying something true but unpleasant to a friend needs courage. When the unpleasant truth will do the friend no good, not saying it may need still greater courage! Courage may reside in action; courage may reside in inaction.

Courage is required for not taking action when it is very tempting to act. Once a child complained to the Mother of being bullied by a classmate. He told the Mother that he felt like punching that boy. The boy was not actually punching probably because he was afraid of the teacher. The Mother asked him whether it was more difficult to punch him, or to forgive him. The child said it was more difficult to forgive than to give way to the impulse. The Mother told him that since he was a brave boy, he should do what is more difficult. The Mother was trying to teach the child that if somebody has hurt us, it requires greater courage to forgive than to hit back. The Mother was trying to take the child from the restraint due to fear towards restraint born in forgiveness. Forgiveness is an act of courage. If we keep away from hitting back simply because we are afraid, the failure to act is either cowardice or pragmatism, but it certainly is neither courage nor forgiveness. Genuine forgiveness is based not on fear but on love. Fear needs two, the one who fears, and another of whom one is afraid. Fear not only needs two, it also needs an acute awareness of the two being two. Love also needs two, the one who loves, and another who is loved. Love needs two, but it arises from the two feeling as if they are one.

When a person, who is patently wrong, is confronted, what is the most common response? The most common response is to go on the defensive; to justify oneself. The defense is unconvincing; the justification is hollow; the person knows it, and yet he goes on arguing. A classic example of this type is the way most people behave when caught cheating on the partner. They deny the charge, they defend their behaviour, they do everything except admit the mistake and apologize. What is behind such behaviour is the person’s ego. Transcending the ego and admitting one’s mistake is an act of courage.

Gary Zukav has summed up the essence of courage in a simple sentence: “Courage is required when will and fear intersect.”* If the will power is so strong that fear can be ignored, the person acquires the courage to do what he wants to do; if the fear of consequences overpowers the will, the person loses the courage required for doing what he wants to do. This broad perspective enables us to look at a wide spectrum of ‘courage’, not all of which is desirable, and much of which is not spiritual. Throwing a shoe at a leader may seem an act of courage but is foolhardy. It takes courage to do a stunt for a movie, but that may be done just to make a living. Climbing the Everest is an act of courage, but it may be driven by the desire to be admired, to win name and fame. A child may jump into an ice-cold pool when his other friends are doing so, just to be accepted by the peer group. That is courageous, but it is not a spiritual act. But if the child jumps into an ice-cold pool to save someone who is drowning, that would be a spiritual act. When Krishnan, who had a job offer from a five-star hotel in Switzerland, decided not to go there a week before he was to leave India so that he could feed the hungry homeless people of Madurai, it was an act of spiritual courage. In short, what makes courage spiritual is the motive behind the act and its consequences. If the motive is love, and the result is a rise in consciousness, the courage is spiritual in character. Choices rooted in true love bring with them the courage required to act. This happens because these choices are endorsed by the psychic being. The psychic being is our divine essence. The Divine is not only all-knowing, it is also all-powerful. Because of its all-knowing character, the choice that is given to us by our inner voice originating from the psychic being is extremely clear; it leaves us with no doubt about what the right thing to do is. Because of the all-powerful character of the Divine, if we decide to act on the voice of the psychic being, we also acquire the courage to act upon it. It is this psychic courage that made it easy for Krishnan not only to give up a lucrative job, but also to defy his parents and other well-wishers. The psychic courage makes it easy for the person to stand up to the whole world, if necessary.

One of the three pillars of sadhana on the spiritual path is ‘rejection’ – rejection of everything that is an obstacle on the path. The obstacles are more within than outside. All the negative tendencies arising from the ego, such as desires, anger, greed, attachment, arrogance and jealousy, need to be rejected, and should be replaced by their opposites. But we are so attached to our negative tendencies that it takes great courage to root them out. Thus, being on the spiritual path is itself an act of great courage. Being on the spiritual path shown by The Mother and Sri Aurobindo is an act of still greater courage because Their path does not insist on renunciation of worldly life; rather, it encourages engaging with the world with love and compassion. Their path does not have a onepath- fits-all approach; on Their path each seeker has to carve out her own path. Their path is not the well-trodden path; it is an adventure into uncharted territory. Their path is not for individual salvation; it is for individual transformation aimed at collective upliftment. Therefore, Their path is not for the timid or fainthearted. Hence, one of the prayers that the Mother has given us reads: “Make of us the hero warriors we aspire to become. May we fight successfully the great battle of the future that is to be born, against the past that seeks to endure; so that the new things may manifest and we may be ready to receive them.”

*Gary Zukav: Spiritual Partnership – the Journey to Authentic Power. London: Rider, 2010, p. 160.