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Good intentions, bad results? || Acharya Prashant, with BITS Pilani (2022)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
20 min
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Questioner (Q): When we do a root cause analysis of mistakes, we find two major components, intent and action, and they seem to be in constant conflict with each other. For example, Robert Oppenheimer was one of the leading members on the founding team of nuclear bombs. His intent was good, which was to end the world war, but the consequences were drastically on the wrong side. So, my question is, how to go about the conflict resolution between intent and action? Is it even necessary to address them as two entities?

Acharya Prashant (AP): Vedanta is so lucid and eloquent about this: If you just have worldly knowledge without knowledge of the self, then you are inviting disaster. In fact, it is difficult to say who is in a worse position, the person who is in the worldly sense ignorant—who does not know too much about how things are in the world, science, medicine, mathematics, what is going on in the various countries, history, and such things—or a person who knows a great deal about worldly affairs but knows very little about himself.

So, when you set out to unravel the mysteries of the atom, when you set out to go deep into the nucleus and split it open, you simultaneously carry the responsibility to know the human mind. You might be finding this a bit unexpected because that is not how we look at science or scientists; we never oblige our scientists with the responsibility to be good knowers of the mind. But if you do not know who you are and you keep increasing your knowledge of what you see, what you deal with, then is it really surprising that what you come to know of by way of science, by way of discovery, will fall into just the wrong hands?

And when I say wrong hands, I do not mean the hands of a few particular persons, I do not mean a movie-like situation where a bunch of baddies are pitted against a few good men. We as humanity share a collective mind. Our thirsts, our desires are common, and so are our vices. When you are unleashing a colossal source of energy such as the nucleus, how is it that you do not know the collective mind of humanity? How will you do without it?

Everything exists for somebody, does it not? When you say, “No, I am just an objective explorer of knowledge,” aren’t you being very economical with the truth? Wherever there is knowledge, there is a knower as well. Knowledge does not exist in a vacuum. Who is the knower? You are generating knowledge for whom ?

So, it is extremely important for scientists to be self-aware. In fact, it is extremely important for anybody in any position, especially in a position of power, to be self-aware. If you do not know the human mind, if you do not know the human situation, then you do not know for whom you are working, discovering, inventing, patenting, writing, creating, and destroying. You are doing all these things without knowing for whom.

Please stay with this. For whom? Who is the knower? Who will exercise that energy? Don’t you know him? Look at his past. Whenever he has been gifted with or he has stumbled upon something new, something powerful, what has he done with it? Even today, what do we do with anything that carries any power? You look at the ordinary man on the street and you vest some power in him—what do you find him doing? Social service? There are so many people who crave for power. Honestly, don’t you know what they want to do with that power?

When you introduced me, you talked of the Indian civil services. Half of India’s population is dying to get into those services, particularly the IAS. Why exactly do we want that power? Obviously, when you are in front of the UPSC board, you will say you want that power to do good to the society because you want to bring in positive changes, change the face of the nation and such things. But look at the ground reality; look at who we really are; look at our animal instincts. You give us some power, and all we do with it is destruction. We have deep, unfulfilled, latent, unexplored tendencies, and any power that we get falls into their hands. Those tendencies use the power to express and manifest themselves.

Now, you talked of two things: intent and action. You want to say that the intent can be good, but the action, execution, and the result can go haywire. No, that is not the case really. The intent itself is misplaced. The intent has to have a certain wholeness. When you say you want to know, you must first of all know who wants to know.

So, let’s not be in a hurry to give a pass certificate to the intention. Let’s not say the scientists did their work cleanly, it’s just that the discovery fell into the wrong hands. No, had the scientists known their own self, their own mind, they would have known what is going to happen. But often the creator of knowledge, the generator of knowledge is just as ignorant as the one who misuses knowledge later on. You can’t put all the blame on who misused knowledge.

You see, we are consciousness, and the only yardstick to measure our worth is our depth, our level of consciousness. The one who is misusing any kind of power or knowledge is operating at a low level of consciousness, and so is the one who is creating stuff to be misused. How do I give a clean chit to one and castigate the other? They both are one, though it sounds, I know, quite unfair as I say it. You want to say, “Well, a fellow is doing something in his laboratory and he does not know what is going to come out of it. Why are we putting the blame on him?” Then, I would ask, why are you so concerned about the laboratory that fathered COVID? Simply say, “They were scientists doing their job, and then something just happened out of it. It was a spill over, an accident.”

So, just do not validate this dichotomy, because a lot of us hide behind this mythical separation. When things go wrong for us, when we find life being rude to us, when the results of our actions fall upon us and they are not pleasant, we say, “Oh, I am a good chap. My intentions have always been pious. It’s just that I didn’t go very right in the execution.” Have you not heard of such things? “I am a good fellow at heart, it’s just that I didn’t know a few things. My failures are accidental, otherwise my intentions are pure. I wanted to, but I could not. Kindly give me credit for my intent, for my want.” Have you not heard these things?

I am asking you not to accord credit to mere intent. Intent without awareness means nothing at all. When you say intent, don’t you want to know whose intent? You are the one holding the intent and you are the one justifying the intent. You are the one exonerating your own intent: “My intent is pure, my intent is innocent, no guilt at all.” Whose intent?

Does the one holding the intent even know where intentions come from? “I want to do good things to you, but I am operating at a very low level of self-awareness, consciousness, whatever you may call it. I want to do good to you—what do I end up doing?” In fact, the fellow with low self-awareness with his proclamation of pious intent is probably more dangerous than the fellow whose intentions are obviously vile.

Go back to that story of the king’s pet monkey. The monkey obviously had good intentions towards his master. The master has gone to sleep, and a fly is troubling him; he is sleeping and the fly is there on his nose, on the forehead, on the ears, on the cheek, everywhere. The monkey does not like that. So, what does the monkey do? Full of good intent and brimming with the desire to serve the master, the monkey picks up the king’s sword. The fly is there on the tip of the nose—fortunately only the nose—and the monkey goes: slash! One clean sway of the sword, and the master has been served.

Q: Are you suggesting that one should be more self-aware to the core of oneself?

AP: I am saying that the word ‘one’ does not exist if you are not self-aware. What do you mean by ‘one’? Who are you? If you are not conscious, do you exist? Why do you burn the dead, then? Because the dead is no more conscious. Not only is the dead no more conscious—there is no hope, no probability that he or she will gain consciousness ever again, so you just dispose him off, no?

So, one does not exist in absence of consciousness. So, first of all, you have to know, you have to really exist. Just being bodily does not make you existent. It is a great fallacy to think that just because you are moving around in a physical sense, in a bodily sense, you exist. You exist when you know; otherwise, you don’t exist; otherwise, you are just a piece of matter. And what do you have to know? Not the things around you, because the things around you come to be known in a very mechanical way. In some sense, even an iron piece knows that there is a magnet around, does it not? It experiences the magnetic field.

So, knowing stuff outside of you is no proof of being alive. Being conscious of stuff outside of you is just no proof of really existing. And if you do say you exist, then you at most exist as the iron piece does—very conscious of the magnet it is, is it not? And you bring fire to it and it gets red, and then it melts. Is it not reacting to the environment? In some sense, is it not having an experience of the environment, which you may also, if you see, call as knowledge? Iron reacts with several other chemicals. Think of it. There is not much difference between this kind of knowledge and the kind of knowledge that most people have. It is just reactionary.

Q: But is it not true that one can know oneself only by the reference of surroundings?

AP: Yes, of course. But when you are looking at your surroundings, if the very ‘I’ is not looking at the looker, then you may keep looking at the surroundings till the cows go home, and you will never know a thing about yourself.

So, merely looking at the surroundings takes you nowhere. Now, I will say the intent has to be right—and that is the only right intent: to know yourself. Without that intent, all your other intentions will fall flat. So, the mother intention has to be right. If that mother intention is not right, then all your other good intentions are of no value.

People say they love each other, and lovers harm each other much more than strangers do. If you look at the cases of homicide, murder and all across the world, you will find a staggeringly high percentage of people who have been killed by their lovers, their family members, their spouses. Where is it coming from? We say, “The intention is good.”

Q: From our soul’s desires?

AP: Obviously those desires have to be known, because those desires are the content of our consciousness. Those desires are, on one hand, what pollutes our consciousness; on the other hand, they are so overwhelming that they are the very substance of consciousness.

So, if you keep saying ‘I’ or ‘one’, it will take you nowhere. This ‘I’ is a black hole; this ‘one’ is very hollow. You have to get into it. We say one thinks, one says, one moves, one loves, one does—what is this one? What really is its truth? That has to be known; otherwise, the reality just keeps hiding behind the ‘I’. ‘I’, not eye. We keep thinking that we are seeing the reality with our eyes, we think that the reality is in front of the eyes, but the reality is really hiding behind the ‘I’.

So, the eyes mean nothing, see nothing, when the ‘I’ has not been seen.

Q: So, intention and action are the same?

AP: They are the same. It’s just that the action is gross, visible, obvious, and irrefutable: you can see someone doing something. Intention is something subtle: it occurs in the mind. So, it is easy to lie about the intention. About the action you cannot lie; it is right there in your face with proof. So, what do we do? In our laughable cleverness, we say, “Oh, I know the action is bad and the results are bad, but the intent was good,” because the intent anyway cannot be displayed as something on the hand: “Here is the intent.” Nobody can come and prove to you that your intent itself is malicious. So, we say, “No, no, the action is bad but the intent is great.” Essentially they are one and their mother is consciousness.

Be more conscious. Let your intent flow from your mother intent to be more conscious. When you are more conscious, then all your intentions fall in place; then whatever you desire is alright; then what you want is just the right thing to want. But first of all, you must want the fundamentally right thing, and the fundamentally right thing is to know the one who wants.

“Who am I? Why shouldn’t I be better? Why do I run about like this in wanton directions? Why does something pull me so much? Why am I afraid of so many things? Where is my feeling of the self, the ‘I’ coming from?” These are the questions you must always be alert to. And once you are alert to these questions, then your desires are worth chasing because then your desires have a certain solemnity about them; then you won’t just randomly want something or ask something or do something.

Q: So, essentially our life must revolve around knowing our own self, the one which you are talking about.

AP: You see, you have no life if you are not conscious. We said, if you are not conscious, you are dead. So, there is no life. Don’t even say that life revolves around knowing yourself. Life begins when you start knowing yourself; before that you are dead. Though that hurts us—we want to call ourselves alive, but in reality we are not.

We come alive the day we ask the question, “Who am I?” Before that we are just a piece of flesh moving about very mechanically.

Q: There is a concept in sociology related to latent and manifest function. For example, if I am doing work for money, that is a manifest function: I think about money, and that is the reason why I am doing the work. Latent function means something that was not consciously desired. So, I did not think about happiness or security, but I got it as a byproduct. Latent function is related to byproducts; manifest function is what we have primarily thought of and exercised effort for.

For example, my primary intention was to earn money, but by earning money I have also managed to reduce poverty and improve the health of many poor people in the society as a byproduct. America, for example, is considered to be one of the bastions of capitalism, and their manifest intention is to make more money, and as a byproduct they are improving the health and the economic-social status of the people.

So, the intentions could be animalistic—such as competition, defeat, ambition, etc.—but even these intentions could have positive effects as byproducts. So, in such scenarios, am I and the society benefiting even from these so-called evil intentions?

AP: No, not at all. You are relying just too much on probabilistic randomness. You are hoping that even if you move about with your eyes closed, you may, just accidentally, reach a great destination. That may happen one in a thousand times; that would be an exception rather than the rule. But it is obvious, that cannot just happen.

If the U.S. has done a certain amount of good to the world, it is because of some conscious values that that nation stands for. Instead of talking of those values, you are talking of the U.S. as a money-making machine. The fact is, when the world, or a huge area of the world, was still engrossed in very primitive kinds of values and ideals, the U.S. as a young country, rather the youngest country, chose very liberated ideals for itself.

Whatever good the U.S. might have done to the world is because of what it fundamentally stands for. Do you find the Statue of Liberty wearing a garland of dollars, or is it carrying the flame of freedom? So, it is the Statue of Liberty that has done good to the world, not the U.S. Federal Reserve. And if the U.S. Fed has been good to the world, that is, again, because of the values it stands for. Equally, wherever the U.S. has been on a blind and unconscious pursuit of money, it has caused grave damage to itself and the whole planet. Don’t you know of that?

So, do not fall into the trap of attribution error. The good that has come to the world from America is because of one thing, and all the nonsense that has come to the world from America has been because of another thing. You are mapping the wrong result against the wrong kind of cause. In many ways, the U.S. has been a blessing to the world—the land of the free, the land of opportunity, the land where you can express yourself without the burdens of ethnicity, caste, religion, and so many other things—and in many, many ways, the U.S. has been the worst thing possible for this planet. You have to account for both. Do not mix the two up.

Q: One of my professors used to say that our life needs a purpose. So, the desire to be a wealthy person, or the desire to get a promotion, or the desire to publish a paper—all these things provide a purpose to our life. One the concepts that you talked about is of knowing the ’I’ before having a purpose. But from a practical point of view, does knowing the ‘I’ make my life better?

AP: Whose life? Do you even exist?

Q: My life.

AP: Whose life?

Q: The life of this body, maybe.

AP: The body has no life; the body has only programming. Do you call a programmed thing as alive? You write a piece of code—do you go and get it an Aadhaar card?

Q: Should the focus be first on the ‘I’ or on knowing the ‘I’?

AP: Not first, it is not sequential; it is not that way. It is not as if first the focus has to be on the ‘I’ and then the focus can be on other things. Self-awareness is a continuous process. It is not as if you have to first get a bachelors or a diploma in self-awareness, and that makes you eligible to gain admission in other things. It is a continuous thing till your last breath, and the earlier it begins the better, and it should never end. It should begin early and never end.

How do you become self-aware? Your friend who was speaking to me a while back put it beautifully. He said: Can there be awareness without engaging with the world? Can you know yourself if you are not engaging with the world at all? It’s just that we are anyway engaging with the world all the time. You want to know your thoughts? The thoughts will always have an object; the thoughts will be about something. So, you require that something to have that thought. It’s just that you don’t have to additionally bring that something into your life; something is anyway always there in the field of your consciousness, in your life, in front of you.

So, something is always going on—you are thinking about something, you are going towards some place, you are passionate or emotional about something or someone, you are looking at something. The world is always there. Now, when all this is going on, the entire game of sensory perception and the associated internal reactions, thoughts, feelings, passions, likes, dislikes, and fears—this entire game is going on all the time, right? It is happening even at this moment. It is concurrent to this that the process of self-awareness happens.

So, even as this entire mechanism is busy engaging with the world, there is something in you that is using this engagement to know itself. There is this engagement going on all the time—all the time. Never do we exist, not for a second, as an independent, isolated, self-dependent entity. We are always related or associated; we are always doing something. Now, that doing is the opportunity for yourself to know who you are.

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