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“The philosophy of gratitude”- 30 October 2016.

Written by Rita Aggarwal
Tuesday, 01 November 2016 13:10

My sister called me one day and said ‘try something different- it works wonders. Along with saying your regular prayers on waking up in the morning, face the sun and say a thank you for a few things, whatever you would like.’ I said I would try and try I did. I must say my day was better in terms of being more cheerful and happy. In my home as a practice we were not allowed to complain much about this or that. My mother would chide us immediately about being ‘ungrateful kids’ and that was a real dressing down for us full of shame and regret. Greed was looked down upon. Charity for the poor was routine. Father would feed the birds daily with ‘bajra’ who would make loud chirpy noises awaiting his arrival every morning. A water vessel would also be refilled daily. During any ‘puja’ at home my Mother would take out a ‘Roti’ for the cow, the dog and the crow as a gesture of gratitude to God for giving us enough. Such Hindu rituals inculcate a sense of gratitude to a superior power outside ourselves who nurtures us and in return we must care for others. It shoots down feelings of arrogance of the narrow and self centred ‘I’. The belief is that ‘you cannot achieve anything in life without the blessings of the Almighty’. It’s a great thought to make us humble, respectful and peaceful. The text Ramayana says: "To repay a good deed with another is the essence of Sanatana Dharma."

Much later when I when studying the new movement in the West on positive psychology I came across many social studies on the virtue called ‘gratitude’. Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, the pioneer of positive psychology, at the University of Pennsylvania, tested the impact of various positive psychology interventions on 411 people. They were compared with a control assignment of writing about early memories. One of their assignments was to write and personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who had never been properly thanked for his or her kindness. This intervention evoked a huge increase in happiness scores of the participants. This impact was greater than that from any other intervention, with benefits lasting for a month. Such studies emphasised the link between gratitude and well-being.

Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have researched on gratitude. In one study, they asked three groups of participants to write a few sentences each week, on different topics. One group was asked to write about ‘things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week’. A second group was asked to write about ‘daily irritations or things that had displeased them’, and the third group wrote about ‘events that had affected them (with no specific emphasis on them being positive or negative). The duration of the study was for 10 weeks and the results were as expected- those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives than the other two.

‘Other studies have looked at how gratitude can improve relationships. For example, a study of couples found that individuals who took time to express gratitude for their partner not only felt more positive toward the other person but also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship’.

‘Researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania randomly divided university fund-raisers into two groups. One group made phone calls to solicit alumni donations in the same way they always had. The second group — assigned to work on a different day — received a pep talk from the director of annual giving, who told the fund-raisers she was grateful for their efforts. During the following week, the university employees who heard her message of gratitude made 50% more fund-raising calls than those who did not’.

Numerous studies have been done by positive psychologists to emphasise the point that gratitude is good in many ways. It helps in developing empathy for others, being thankful for the help people give you, it helps in developing a sense of well-being, improves your mood and your self esteem as well builds confidence. It improves relationships and restrains you from exploitative practices with others. Being grateful for what you have also grounds you to your reality and gives a sense of security in contrast to people who are constantly aspiring for more wealth and harbouring feelings of frustration with their current conditions however good they may be.

In the current age of materialism and ethical crisis, where everyone wants more of everything, through the shortest route possible by compromising on values, we find big confusion about the ethical code of conduct in every sphere of life. In Indian homes parents may not be laying down the right and wrong of behaviour with clarity. When a parent breaks rules and tells lies the children cannot be forced to follow the right codes of conduct. When there is immorality in the behaviour of parents and other significant guardians such as teachers, policemen, relatives, the children will follow the bad examples set by elders. It’s a vicious circle.

As gratitude is considered to be the most precious of all virtues, its rapid decline and descend will prove to be the cancer that will erode the foundations of social fabric of good living.


“Tolerant to a fault”- 16 October 2016

Written by Rita Aggarwal
Sunday, 16 October 2016 12:41

A youth stated that he belonged to a religious and God fearing family where he was taught to be polite, tolerant and respectful of others. Today he felt it was like a ‘huge mistake’ to do so, that because of his tolerant and shy nature because he never pushed himself to the forefront in dealing with people he has been suffering silently without protesting. He needed to change his personality and become more aggressive like his peers. He friends in college he realised were pushy to the point of being rude.

Assertiveness is often mistaken as aggressiveness. Unfortunately. The two types of behaviour are entirely distinct from each other and needs to be understood properly. When we talk of assertiveness we mean the capability to stand for your rights and the ability to express it in clear and bold terms in spite of being polite and respectful of the other. This seems like a tough task for many who either know how to shout and be aggressive or know how to be quiet and submissive! The magical rule lies somewhere in between the two. This golden behaviour needs to be taught to all and the beauty is that it can be taught from an early age.

A housewife in depression regretted her inability to ‘answer back’ the elders and other women members in house as she was taught by her parents to be quiet and tolerant in all circumstances. She confessed that all her four sisters were alike in this feature and suffered at their marital homes as a consequence of too much tolerance. ‘We were never taught how to speak up our mind and how to present a counter opinion or express a feeling’. ‘Other seniors have taken advantage of it and have pushed me and my family aside’. She was tolerant to a fault you would agree.

An officer suffered tremendous stress because his bosses would load him with anything and everything as he was sincere, dutiful and could never say ‘No’! He had no choice finally but to take a month’s leave on medical grounds because his body reported multiple health symptoms. This is not unusual for many honest workers who get exploited and pay a price either with mental stress or physical ailments. Instead of treating them for only stress what is needed is effective training in assertiveness. This is again a manifestation of being tolerant beyond your limits.

In marital situations we see this often enough. Generally a submissive wife suffers at the hands of her husband or her in-laws and takes all the nonsense for several years and then one fine day when her tolerance reaches a limit she becomes a ‘screaming siren’ so to say or a ‘nag’. Members of the family are dumb-founded at the change in her from being a sweet nothing to a bitter something. Ibsen’s classical play ‘A doll’s house’ is a lovely illustration of what I am trying to convey.

It is generally advised to be tolerant as it is known as one of the virtues of good living. Tolerance in general parlance would mean learning to adjust and adapt to the others in spite of their differences. Tolerance would mean being patient and respectful of elders and seniors. Tolerance would mean being calm and peaceful in your mind. But tolerance beyond a point translates into submissiveness and accommodation of others faults and bad behaviour which does not seem to work in the practical world. It would be difficult to arrive at a consensus of what is an ideal level of tolerance. How much to tolerate and no more?

One of the finest illustration is from the epic of Mahabharta. Before the beginning of the war on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, when Arjuna loses his confidence seeing all his loved ones in the opposite camp, Lord Krishna counsels him to control his emotions and fight for his ‘Dharma’. Mahabharta is known as a ‘dharma yudh’ because the war was about the righteous ownership of the land that belonged to the Pandava but was usurped by the Kauravas. It was hence a fight for their survival to get back their rights of property. Lord Krishna hence counsels Arjuna that he would go down into the annals of history as a ‘coward’ if he ‘ran’ away from the battlefield and did not fight for his rights. No one in the world would respect him for whatever good qualities he had if he did not assert himself to the best of his ability in the moment. If Arjuna had submitted to his emotionally weak mind history would have been different.


Hinduism teaches us to stand up for our rights and to fight for them if necessary. To submit to exploitation is cowardice and it does no good to anyone. This does not mean that Hinduism promotes aggression –far from it- it means it teaches assertiveness for a cause and purpose. We would be failing in our duty if we did not do so. Our first duty is towards ourselves and then towards others. Since each individual is a unit of this universe, if each one behaved with responsibility and duty towards first him-self / herself, then towards others and the society, the world would naturally become a better place to live in. The world is as perfect as each individual is and as imperfect as each individual is.

The half-truth of ‘tolerance of diversity’- 2 October 2016.

Written by Rita Aggarwal
Tuesday, 11 October 2016 19:19

A curious youth asked a seemingly simple question- is ‘tolerance’ a positive word or a negative one. Apparently we would agree that tolerance is a positive word for we often hear that we must increase our tolerance for others in terms of religious differences, caste and class differences and such other categories. In a nation where the range of diversity is very vast in each sense of the word, whether it is language, life-styles, cultural rituals or habits, ‘tolerance’ of diversity is a key word with ethical underpinnings. In the corporate world too ‘diversity’ is a buzzword which encourages tolerance for different races, ethnicity and gender. Psychologically we realise that too much tolerance may lead to a fault too. It leads to submissiveness and depression. But that makes a separate discussion. When we look at life around us, we are amazed and pained at the levels of intolerance that people display towards each other and behave irrationally as if it was a question of heaven and hell. We see people indulging in intolerant behaviour on minor and often insignificant differences.

Let’s take a commonplace illustration of a new marriage. A new bride says ‘in the home of her in-laws small issues matter a lot whereas her maternal side is modern where such issues are ignored’. These small issues are ‘blown out of proportion for no reason. Why cannot her in-laws tolerate small differences in her behaviour or her thought process or her life style? What is so earth shattering about it and why do they want you to conform to their standards at all times’. She adds that she has ‘enough capacity to tolerate the nonsense but it has caused tremendous stress’. This means many people with less capacity for tolerance would succumb to stress and fall sick either mentally or physically. If you tolerate beyond your threshold of tolerance you pay a heavy price to keep your sanity intact. The question is why should people want to enforce their own viewpoints on others and think that they are right and others are wrong? Why can’t differences be respected and accepted as they are and be celebrated instead? It is a self centred and narrow ego that believes in self righteousness and denigrates the other- a deadly state of mind.

This is also how many groups operate with their peculiarities of group behaviour. Groups can victimise people who are different and dare to be so. The situation could belong to any sector such as a home, an office, an industry, a shop or a social group. People like to operate in groups for it gives them a sense of cohesiveness, a sense of security, a sense of belonging and empowerment. Surprisingly this sense of cohesiveness is always partial and never total or complete because the undercurrents of differences are always there but yet there is something that glues them together. Most times groups experience a ‘shared perception’ of things or values or traditions and feel cosy about that. The problem begins when a person who does not seem to ‘belong’ to the specific group begins to assert his expressions. At such situations high levels of intolerance is shown by others to shout it down with an aim to enforce submission and conformity.

At the work force dominant groups can victimise and harass the other small groups, such as, men can dominate women employees, upper castes can harass the lower castes, the rich can suppress the lesser rich and so on and so forth. We create stress and sickness for an otherwise healthy population by our intolerant attitudes and behaviour. Empathy and regard for others would make us sensitive to differing viewpoints and increase tolerance.

We have a catchy slogan ‘unity in diversity’ but it remains at the surface level and is of cosmetic value only. We talk of diversity but do not know what it means and hence fail to agree to disagree. We look for uniformity and similarity in others and feel comfortable in those circles. Diversity is a much touted word today in politics and in the corporate world too. Operationally it means that we should respect the differences that people stand for which comes from their socio-cultural background, from their religions and from the basic differences between the sexes of being a man or a woman. In politics we have been blowing the trumpet of the women’s reservation Bill for 26 years and have not yet had the guts to pass it in Parliament. Why? Representation of diversity is encouraged in the corporate sector too but we know the proverbial glass ceilings that stops the process of women’s progress at all levels of management either at the entry level or at the higher levels. Diversity only remains at a level of tokenism where we need to display our sense of fairness and justice but it does not get translated into behaviour easily.

Tolerance of diversity requires two fundamental things- one is a deep rooted acceptance of differences of people at all spheres of life and second is respect for the differences and not contempt and disgust for others which springs from a sense of superiority. The day we start looking at all human beings as equal, unique, different and yet lovable we would become a tolerant race. What we need is not acceptance of diversity but celebration of diversity in the true sense.


“The continent of self”- 18 September 2016.

Written by Rita Aggarwal
Sunday, 25 September 2016 17:11

Whenever we visited our maternal grandparents in the village in Punjab, my Mother would get busy with relatives and the community in the village and would sort of dump us three siblings in the custody of the hosts. We were loved and cared for by Uncles, Aunts and cousins. The enchanting fact was that my Mother would mingle with the village the whole day and we would see her only at bed time! Each member of the large community was loved, respected, valued as almost an integral part of the family. The doors were always open and food was served to all. Everyone knew everything as secrets were generally open. That was rural India fifty years ago! The self was expanded and connected to the larger community in a caring and kind way. People had rights over others- they owned the other in a happy embrace.

A senior woman of a huge housing scheme noticed a young girl of the same society indulging in what she defined as ‘indecent behaviour’. Considering it her duty and her right to caution the young girl, she gave her a piece of unsolicited advice. The young one instantly reacted, ‘I know what I am doing and it is none of your business, please do not tell me what to do next time’. The old woman was aghast and did not know how to control herself. She realized that the world was changing and was actually degenerating. This is the story of an urban area, where community holds no value. It’s the responsibility of the family to take care of their wards and the ‘unrelated’ community could only watch but not act as watch dogs any longer. That was urban centres forty years ago! The self got restricted to the family as it disconnected from the larger community and did not allow any ownership of ‘outsiders’.

Rupa married into a joint family out of her own fantasised choice and regretted it severely soon enough. She could not tolerate the ‘interference’ of the brothers of her husband and their wives- she could not understand why the mother and father-in-law had to be informed about all decisions and why she could not do as she pleased. She complained that she was educated and had a mind of her own and need not be advised about ‘personal’ matters. Her ‘freedom’ was at stake as she felt stifled, suffocated and tormented. She had to get out and take her husband away from the family. It was for his benefit she rationalised.

Anita did not like the closeness her Aunts had with her father. He was an only brother of his three sisters and hence an apple of their eyes. He liked sharing his problems and did not believe in keeping secrets from them. But his wife and his daughter Anita had issues of ‘secrecy’, ‘privacy’ and ‘trust’ with them. They would conflict over such matters frequently which made him lose contact with his siblings for the sake of peace. The nuclear family was taking over, cutting off the bonds with siblings and their families. That was twenty years ago! The self constricted itself further to the immediate family and threw away the extended family. The so called joint-family became dysfunctional and disjointed.

Aryan was a natural citizen of USA as he was born there. He had no long term exposure of life on Indian soil. His Indian parents however continued to love their land and their people. Aryan feels his parents are dominating, conservative and do not allow him certain choices that his peers follow. He fights with them on most daily issues. He has a password on his mobile and ipad. He locks his cupboard and does not like his mother to enter his room without knocking. His sense of privacy is total and he protects his turf like a tiger. He has locked out his parents too as he becomes an island of his own self. He wants a lot of space for himself, accepts his parents as providers but with no rights over him. The devilish law of ‘child rights’ and the police helpline number has circumscribed the self further into a separate continent where no one has rights over you, not even your parents! The isolation is complete!

Western philosophy emphasises autonomy of the individual whereas Eastern philosophies give significance to relations. The ‘Bhagvad Gita’ emphasises the supreme importance of interpersonal relations. The self cannot be seen in isolation from its social connections. But we seem to be gradually losing out to the western philosophy.  Autonomy of an individual is important for psychological growth and self actualization demands personal space, freedom of thought, action, focus on goals and a touch of narcissism. The obsession with this in the West has led to extreme self centred behaviour to the exclusion of social relations. This excessive focus on ‘individualization’ has destroyed the social fabric like never before. The self became paramount- a continent by itself. This process needs to be reversed to bring in mental health and harmony by reconnecting to the larger society by expanding and transcending the narrow self. Some parts of an English poem by John Donne came to mind....

“No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.......
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee”.


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