Ideals and Values/Empathy (Ātmaupamyatā)
31.1 What is Empathy:
Empathy means that in our interactions with others, we should always put ourselves in their place and imagine how they would feel. When we do this, we will realize that we will be fair, just and kind towards others. Just as we do not like being attacked, beaten, lied to, cheated and so on, others do not like it as well. Empathy helps us to understand the feelings and perspectives of others and stops us from behaving towards them unjustly.
An empathic person makes sure that none of his actions hurt others. He does not just stop at showing compassion towards others ? he acts to share their joys and sorrows. In a previous chapter, we saw how Vishvamitra was willing to forgo the blessing of immortality to save hungry people who were dying around him. This is an example of compassion leading to empathy.
31.2 Why Should we Practice Empathy:
There are several good reasons for practicing empathy.
- The same Bhagavān resides in all of us as our indwelling soul and connects all the creatures just as thread goes through the peals and gems in a necklace. Therefore, through Him, we are all interconnected. Any injury to others is bound to affect us even if remotely. Any happiness that we give to us will also eventually recoil to us. When he has identified the unison between all the moving things including creatures and the Ātmā, where is the question of him getting in to delusion or sorrow or a sleep or dizziness driven by any of these?
- Empathy is the Golden Rule to judge what is right and what is wrong behavior. We will never do to others what we do not want them to do to us if we practice the ideal of empathy. One, who is able to visualize the presence of Ātmā in all other moving things and even creatures is able to visualize the presence of all such things within the Ātmā, never gets angry and he never hates anything in life.
31.3 Scriptural Quotations on Empathy:
"In My view, that Yogi is the best who puts himself in the place of others at all times and seeing his own identity with them, he is able to experience their pain and pleasure." This is what is declared as the essence of all Dharma "One should not do to others that we would not like to be done to oneself." He alone sees who sees all other beings the same as oneself.
Do not do that to others that you would not like to be done to you- this is the brief definition of Dharma. And yet overcome by passions, humans do not behave according to this essence of Dharma. Just as receiving gifts and not receiving gifts, happiness and sadness, likes and dislikes cause joy and sorrow to us respectively, so do they to others as well. Therefore we should always put ourselves in other's place when dealing with them.
Example of Empathy:
Hindu tradition shows examples of saints where they literally experienced the pain of someone else in their proximity. Example, once Swami Ramakrishna Paramahaṅsa saw a man being whipped and he so empathized with the victim that marks of whipping started appearing on his own back! Another example was of Rishi Vishvamitra who refused to drink Amrit unless the hungry and dying people around him got food.
Story: Why did Mahatma Gandhi wear shoddy clothing? Once, Mahatma Gandhi went on a tour of a village in India. He reached a hut in which lived a family comprising of several individuals. Surprisingly, the individuals would come out only one at a time to see him. When the first individual went back in, the second came out. When the second went back in, the third came out. Mahatma Gandhi was surprised at this behavior of the family and asked the other villagers as to why they did not come all out at once to greet him. A villager replied, "Mahatma-ji, they are a very poor family. They have only one piece of cloth to cover their upper half of the body. Therefore, they are forced to share this piece of cloth and come out only one person at a time so that they are fully covered in front of you."
Mahatma Gandhi was very hurt to hear this. He thought that if his own countrymen were that poor, he had no right to wear multiple clothes on his own body. From that day onwards, he decided that he will wear only one cloth on his body. And from that day, the rich lawyer Gandhi who was fond of wearing expensive clothing now wore only a loin cloth to cover himself, wherever he went.
Story: Śri Nārāyaṇa Guru runs away from his home to save his family from disease When Nārāyaṇa Guru was a small child (not even a teenager), he sensed that he was coming down with Small Pox. In those days, this disease was often fatal and known to be very contagious. Fearing that he might infect others, Nanu stealthily left his house and went to a jungle. There, he found an abandoned Durga Mandir. Soon, Nanu developed high fever and small pox boils all over his body. For eighteen days as he suffered, Nanu kept praying to Maa Durgā to take care of him. He survived on forest fruit and river water, but did not go back to his home. Finally, when the disease was over, Nanu walked back home.
His family members were overjoyed to see him back, when they had thought that he had disappeared and was dead. But they were also sad to see that their little child had suffered from small box. An elder asked him, "Why did you not come back home when you were suffering so much with the disease? Here we would have taken care of you and you would have felt much more comfortable." Nanu replied, "I was suffering from a very contagious disease. I did not want any one of you to catch it. Therefore, I decided to stay all alone in the forest till I got well."
Story: Pandit Vishwanāth Tarkabhushan quenches his thirst by giving juice to others Vishwanath Tarkabhushan was a renowned scholar of Hindu Dharma in Calcutta. Once, he fell seriously ill. The physician warned his family members, "He should not be given any water, or else his condition will worsen." The scholar felt very thirsty but his family members would not give him any water. Finally, he called them and said, "All my life, I have taught that according to our scriptures, there is only one Ātman that resides within the heart of everyone. Today, I want to experience this truth. Please call the Brāhmanas, and give them coconut water and other cooling drinks." When the Brāhmanas were called and served, Vishwanath Tarkabhushan felt much better seeing them satisfied. He said, "Truly, I felt as if I had drank through these Brāhmanas. Now I no longer feel thirsty."
Story: Sant Jnāneshvara demonstrates how one can feel the hurt of others Sant Jnāneshvara's father had become a Sannyāsi, but he returned to his wife at the command of his Guru. It was after his return to a householder's life that Jnāneshvara and his siblings were born to the couple. In the Hindu society, once a man becomes a Sannyāsi, he cannot return to the state of a householder. Therefore, the society shunned the four children and refused to accept them in their midst.
The family therefore proceeded to Paithan, a town famous for its Pandits and the father begged them to admit the kids to their school. But the Pandits mocked, "If the child's name is already Jnāneshvara then what is the use of his going to school?" Suddenly, a water man was seen goading his buffalo to move forward on the road. He addressed the buffalo by its name, "Jnāna". The Pandits laughed and said, "Even this buffalo is called Jnana. Then is there any difference between Jnāneshvara and the buffalo?" Jnaneshvara said, "No respected Pandits, there is really no difference. The same Ātman dwells inside all of us." Just then, the water man whipped the buffalo because the creature was removing to budge. As he hit the buffalo, the Pandits were shocked to see that the marks of the lashes started appearing on Jnāneshvara's back instead.
Jnāneshvara said, "Indeed, no one is high or low because the same Paramātman resides within us all." Earlier, we saw a similar story from the life of a more recent saint Swami Ramakrishna Paramahaṅsa.
Story: Śaśibhuṣan Bandhopadhyaya empathizes with a servant on a hot day Śaśibhuṣan Bandhopadhyaya was a very renowned attorney of Hooghly in West Bengal (India). One day, he had a document for delivery to his very wealthy client. It was a very warm day. Dry and hot winds blew outside. Śaśibhuṣan rented a carriage and took the document to his client's home. The client said, "Why did you deliver it personally? It is a very hot day. You could have just sent it through a servant instead of taking the trouble of travelling in this warm weather." Śaśibhuṣan replied, "My servant would have had to walk to deliver it as no carriage driver would take him as a passenger. I did not want my servant to suffer in the hot weather. But at least I could have come in the carriage. And therefore I delivered it myself. After all, he is a human being too."
Does this example show your empathy? You are allergic to dairy products and therefore do not eat yoghurt, milk based deserts or milk. Your best friend arrives at your home. You think, "Let me not give him any deserts to eat." I would not want him to serve me any dairy based deserts. Therefore, out of empathy, I should not be serving these items to him as well."[Hint: In empathy, you try to understand the other person, whereas in this case, you want them to understand you].
- Krishnamani, p. 174
- Krishnamani, pp. 401-402