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What is to be respected? || Acharya Prashant, with BITS Hyderabad (2022)
Author Acharya Prashant
Acharya Prashant
22 min
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Questioner (Q): I'm a first-year student in electrical engineering at BITS Hyderabad. My question was, we often hear the notion that we should respect elders but when it comes to the elders, for example, in my family, every family has some sort of problems and I get to know some things about them. After that, I don't feel like I should respect them because those actions weren't right. So, if I don't respect them, society hates me and I get scolded for that. But if I do respect them, I feel bad. So, shouldn't we respect behaviour instead of just respecting elders and is the notion that ‘We should always respect elders’ correct?

Acharya Prashant (AP): What do you mean by ‘respect’? First thing.

Q: Like, talking politely, talking properly.

AP: No, talking politely and talking properly is something you should anyway unconditionally do, right? Even if you are talking to a crime convict, you do not want to be particularly impolite, do you? So politeness and propriety are not things that are, first of all, dependent upon something else. And secondly, these are not very intimately connected to respect. What is respect?

Q: Respect is having a genuine appreciation inside me of the person I feel…

AP: Valuing that person highly?

Q: Valuing that person highly, but after knowing such things…

AP: So, it's all right. It's all right if you clearly see that a fellow has very little that can be highly valued, then there is no compulsion at all to accord high importance or high value to him or her.

There is no need at all. We need to probably widen or deepen the question a little— before I assess or value somebody, do I, first of all, know what is valuable? Because you see, you too are demonstrating your value system when you say that if you do not respect people, elders, in particular, then you are frowned at or looked down upon.

You are valuing something here. What are you valuing? You are valuing acceptance. And you do not want to lose that acceptance. Hence, you are raising this question. You are saying there are people who do not deserve your respect, so, you do not demonstrate respect. When you do not demonstrate respect, then a lot of people do not look at you favourably. They think you are some kind of a rascal or renegade and you do not like that. Hence, this question Now, you value the fact or the possibility that you need to be liked accepted and loved. And when that love or acceptance is withdrawn by the others because they think that you are being disrespectful to elders, you do not like it, right? So, here it is a demonstration of your own value system. What does your value system say? ‘It is valuable, it is important to be liked and accepted by others.’ Otherwise, if you are just being true to your own independent, honest assessment of people, then why do you need to worry about how the people will respond once you honestly demonstrate what you think of them?

Are you getting it?

Let's learn what is valuable in life. And behaviours containing basic etiquette, politeness or courtesy—they should not be dependent on what a person's worth is, irrespective of the worth of a person. Just by the dint of being a human being, everybody deserves some consideration, basic politeness. So, that I suppose you could grant unconditionally. But when it comes to other things in life, you must have a very, very solid standard of values. Solid and Universal in the sense that there should be no double speak, no hypocrisy. The same yardstick you use to measure your own worth must be applied to others as well. You cannot hold yourself in high esteem and look down on others if you and the others are fundamentally the same.

What is worth valuing in life? Be it an elder, a younger one, a professor, a peon doesn't matter. What is it that you want to value in life? From what you have said, from your rebellious expression, there is one great thing I could gather. First of all, age is not the fundamental determinant of value. You cannot say, ‘Somebody has age on his side, her side, therefore, he deserves to be valued.’ It's not so arithmetical. Otherwise, at the age of 20, you just need to wait to let your age multiply and the day you become 60, you are already thrice as respectable. That sounds foolish, right? So age cannot be a determinant.

What else can be used to determine the worth of a person?

Q: It's usually the behaviour, the actions. How they interact with people or how they go about their life.

AP: Can we get deeper into that?

Q: For example, if there is a 20-year-old person who works in NGOs, who does a lot for society, who has a really positive way of talking to everybody and is polite to me, I would respect him a lot.

AP: But we just said that politeness is something we must, anyway unconditionally, extend to everybody. Right? So, politeness really cannot be a strong determinant. What can be a clear determinant or a set of determinants? How do we know somebody is actually respectable?

Q: If he is kind, and I think basic kindness.

AP: Kindness? So that's a good one. Nice. See, the moment you start going deeper into it, you will fumble and struggle a little. So, that's all right. In fact, that's a good indicator that now you are proving something new. When you probe something new, then you cannot come up with quick ready-made answers. So, you will struggle a little and that is great. You said, ‘Kindness.’ Kindness is a great thing. Some people also call it compassion. Wonderful! So, you respect someone according to her depth of compassion and you look for that, and that is not always visible in behavioural patterns of the kind we are used to. Because you have used the term behaviour, three or four times hence, I am emphasizing it. Compassion is something subtle. It sits in the heart. Behaviour can be manipulated. You can design your behaviour to make it look respectable, to make it look kind. But behaviour that exudes a figure, a semblance of kindness need not actually be arising from a point of kindness. But we all know what kindness looks like. Therefore, it is easy to put on behaviour that looks like kindness. So, you are on the money when you say that kindness is valuable, but you must also strive to know what ‘real kindness’ is. And kindness is not always of the face that you see in the movies or in fiction or in general culture.

In general, how do you spot a kind person?

Q: For example, there's a dog on the road and he's hurt. So, somebody's giving him biscuits or like, taking him to the hospital if he's sick, or helping people around them.

AP: Right, great. Let's extend this example. So, this fellow picks up the dog, takes into the example, and the doctor says, ‘The dog is weak.’ So, this fellow goes and gets fresh chicken to feed the dog. Then what happened to your example?

Q: Yeah, I understood whether a person is kind or not is a very broad thing, it's not that easy to judge a person.

AP: All right. So, behaviour can be deceptive, patterns can be put on. We, as intelligent beings, must take care not to be deceived by patterns and behaviours and such superficial things. Right?

So, kindness is one thing. What else do you think is valuable in life?

Q: I am struggling to find something right now.

AP: But then, you are very eager to take away respect from people without knowing what is respectable?

Q: The context that I had behind the question was, for example, there is a person in my family who abused me as a child, and now do…

AP: So now, here you already know what is not respectable. What is not respectable?

Q: Abusing someone.

AP: Broaden that—being exploitive.

Q: Yes.

AP: So, you have someone in front of you who is not strong enough or developed enough to resist your gruesome advances. And you're taking advantage of the kid’s position, need not necessarily be a kid, could be an animal, could be a grown-up, could be could be a 90-year-old disabled woman and you don’t want to take care of her, rather is seeking part of her, let's say, property. It's much the same thing—being exploitative. So, being exploitative is not good. If someone is exploitative, we have no obligation to value that person highly.

This is called having inner clarity. Otherwise, we all have just a haze of feelings. So we roughly know, we vaguely know but there is no clarity. Now, you have some clarity on that. If somebody is exploitative, I will not respect him, irrespective of his designation age relationship to me, whatever. Equally, if the exploitation is so disrespectful, what is it that deserves respect? What is the opposite of being exploitive?

Q: Helping.

AP: Being generous, being large-hearted, being magnanimous. If I see someone of that kind, then I will offer my unconditional respect. But the thing is tricky. Seeing kindness, I'm repeating, is not always simple because kindness will not always take the forms we are used to. Equally, exploitation will not always take the forms we are used to. The form that you are referring to is very obvious, very gross—a kid being exploited by an elder. Here it is obvious, what is happening. But then there are far more numerous and subtler, very hidden ways of being exploitative and we don't even detect exploitation taking place. And so we continue to offer respect. No?

So, to determine who is respectable, what is respectable, one needs to be attentive to life. Otherwise, your respect and disrespect will all come from a nebulous point within, a vague, kind of feeling. You'll just feel, this person is not good and you will say, ‘Oh, this is my intuition or my instinct’ but that's no good. You need to have clarity, not intuition, or instinct.

Intuitions and instincts are for animals. They have nothing but instincts. As human beings, we need intelligence not instincts. So, you need to think about these things.

Before we close, maybe a couple of more examples of things or traits that are respect worthy?

Q: Some people who distribute stuff among young kids, and the people who work in Anganwadi (a rural childcare centre) , the people who sponsor education for children, who are not able to do that on their own and people who help others with people with…

AP: Yes, you are very nicely covering that dimension—the dimension of kindness. Can we move a little to the other dimensions as well?

Q: I can’t think of something.

AP: So, you have a batch mate who has come from a very remote and ill-served part of the country, from a disadvantaged section of the society. And he could still somehow clear the entrance exam and make it to your place, your campus. And then there is someone who is coming from a metro city, from a good, affluent, upper-middle-class family, who had the benefits of all kinds of training and coaching and good food and vehicles and whatnot. Do you see what I'm going towards?

Q: Difference between their lifestyles.

AP: Yes. So, what really is respectable, that's what I want to come to.

Q: I am a bit confused right now.

AP: The heart to strive against odds, for obviously a just cause. That is respectable. Not so much one’s place in life, but the odds one concord to come to that place. Typically, students who come from these far-flung places do not belong very well to the campus. They remain on the margins. Right? Because their culture is different. They do not get that much acceptability and respect, whereas, if you think clearly, those are the ones who deserve greater respect. Because fighting against challenges is something we must value.

Do you agree?

Q: Yes, I definitely agree with that.

AP: Someone who gets things easily in life is all right, we have no grudges, but someone who fought his way against difficult odds to achieve something worthwhile is surely someone who deserves a salute. So, have an eye for that. And often, it also happens that such students at least initially do not perform very well on the campus. So, if you just look at their performance, they will probably belong to the middle rungs or even to the lower strata of grades. But one of them having a CGPA of 6 or 6.5 is probably doing better than a Delhiite or Mumbaikar having a CGPA of 8 or 9. How does it work on your campus? Is it CGPA, or percentage?

Q: It's CGPA.

AP: CGPA; a scale of 10. Okay, so where you are is not always a very definite indicator. Just as we said that your behaviour itself is not a very definite indicator. Similarly, your place, too, is not a very definite indicator. You have to see where the thing is coming from. Be it the behaviour or the person. Where is the person coming from? Now, coming from a point like that if that person could perform this way, then I value this, I respect this.

Then there is a word called ‘*conviction*’—being true to oneself. Being true to oneself. There is hardly anybody who does not know anything about life. Or there is hardly anybody who is totally wrong in his or her view of life. None of us are totally right either, but at least some measure of goodness, we all have. The idea of goodness that is. We know what goodness is like and still we fail to live up to our own concept of goodness. We know what is right, we know what is valuable, and yet, we do not act as per our own standards. Right? So, conviction, which is very intimate to ‘integrity’ is something very, very valuable. ‘Is this person living up to herself?’ We are not talking of standards set by others, we are talking of your own inner standards. Are you true to yourself? If you do not know a thing, it's probably all right, you're ignorant. But the problem with most people is not so much in their ignorance, it lies in their lack of integrity, hypocrisy.—You know! And yet, you do not live that way.

So, have an eye for that. See who is living his life as per his truth. I'm not talking of the absolute Truth here. I'm talking of your own truth. There is nobody, who has no concept, no personal concept of the truth. That personal concept is often flawed, I agree. But it does exist, it does exist and is very useful. It is useful because it helps you move beyond itself, but only if you, first of all, live up to your concept of truth. Most people do not do that. See that. See that, and when you find it somewhere, do not hold yourself back.

Then, there is a thing called ‘depth of love’, which is ‘*sincerity*’. Being attracted towards something, somebody, some ideal, anything is one thing and remaining true to it over a long period against challenges is another thing. Now, can you spot that and respect that?

Q: Yes!

AP: Wonderful! Then there is ‘*courage*’. Even if you know what the right thing is to do, there is always a price to pay. And most people just do not have the integrity to pay the price. The audacity to give up on their established and comfortable patterns of life, and where you find someone heart-fully paying the price, respect that. It's no mean thing. It requires a lot, and very few people live up to their love.

So, these are the things, rather some of the things that are valuable, and wherever you find these, it's time to bow down, to get close and learn. Of what use is respect if it just involves a token behaviour? You go to someone and say, ‘I respect you so much,’ and you fold your hands, or you offer an obeisance that does not mean much. The moment you say you respect something or somebody it is then incumbent on you to, first of all, get close. If something is worthy enough, why are you still distant? Get close and learn. Get close to rise. If something is respectable, it is higher than you, if it is higher than you, use that thing to get higher.

Anything more you want to add to it?

Q: No, this actually gave me a lot of clarity. My concept of respect was quite short and it broadened.

AP: I'm glad!

Q: Thank you.

AP: Thank you.

Questioner2 (Q2): Pranam, Acharya Ji. I have a follow-up question on that. Generally, respect is not one label on a person, right? It's more of a phased manner. We might see his actions are respectable at sometimes, and we might also see that at other times the actions are not respectful. You also spoke about unconditional politeness; I would like to understand that a bit more. So, especially in the family circumstances, the relatives and all that, I have seen elder people of all ages, without any age bar upon, I have seen they are not courageous to take certain steps. They do not have a conviction on their own truth. I see that they respect certain things, but they don't stand for them. They do not pay the needed price.

I wanted to know, when I see people who are not able to, you know, stand on their own conviction, and they are kind in one place like they do donations, but they kill animals. They donate to orphanages, but they don't take care of old people. When I see all this, it becomes very difficult to be polite to them. So, I would like to understand how this unconditional politeness comes when we see someone is not worth respecting.

AP: I just said unconditional, I didn't say infinite (laughter) . Unconditional but finite. I would be the last person to talk of infinite politeness. Why do you want to put that kind of blame on me? ‘Acharya Prashant talking of politeness,’ that's very sensational, isn't it? (both burst into laughter) .

Q: Indeed, I need to get the clarity so that I don’t miss what you are able to say.

AP: No, no. I'm talking of basic courtesy, even if you have to strongly put a point across, one need not degrade his manners or language beyond a point. I'm not talking of prostrating and kissing somebody's feet or not raising one's voice, even if that is actually needed. I am not talking about that. I was just trying to communicate that basic decency must at least be the point one begins from.

Aesthetics must not be compromised with beyond a point. And even if that compromise has to be made, there has to be a strong enough reason. And that must be after a due period of tolerance and giving the benefit of the doubt. Even if I have clearly seen that you are coming from a disrespectful point, a point that just cannot be accepted, still, I cannot begin the conversation by shouting at you. Right?

So, I said unconditional but not infinite. Limits have to be there. I do not want us to label people as unworthy or not respectable and therefore, give ourselves a free hand to indulge in unseemly behaviour. That was my point. You just label someone as unworthy and then, all the time, you allow yourself to shout or demean. That's not right. Certain tolerance has to be there, even if you do see, quite clearly that the fellow is coming from an improper place, still, to begin with, give the person some benefit of the doubt, maybe our assessment is flawed, who knows? So, after keeping all those allowances, then one should decide whether a change in behaviour is needed.

There is a danger in all this. We do not want to become what we call as ‘holier-than-thou’. That sanctimonious attitude that a lot of so-called spiritual people carry.—'I am the holy one, I am the one with piety, with piousness, and you are an insect of hell.’ So, my default mode is to look down upon everybody, all and sundry. ‘I'm the holy Soul and the entire world is a sinner. So, I arrogate myself the right to shout to demean, sometimes to even hit.’ Don't, you know history? Don't we know what kinds of crimes have been committed in the name of holiness and righteousness, and in the name of defending virtue and propriety, people have become exploitative? And we lose all touch with reality, we do not even realize that it's just ego talking loud through our piousness. So, that was all that I wanted to communicate. That was all.

Q: Another one, I generally respect is the person’s readiness to learn.

AP: Wonderful. Wonderful. Really!

Q: As you said, when especially I see elders, they would have sealed themselves so much that they wouldn't want to even question their philosophy of life or, at least sit and discuss it, or have such a conversation. So when such things are seen, it becomes very difficult to even converse with them.

AP: I fully agree. If we had the conversation a bit longer with the friend we had, we could have added this one to the list and given it a high position: ‘Humility and availability to learn’. ‘The receptiveness to change.’ Wonderful, wonderful. Yes, of course, I think this is an exercise every sentient person must do for himself. Sit down and make a list of what you think is worthy in life.

That reminds me of my teenage years. This question used to reverberate, ‘What is important?’ And I just couldn't get over it. This question was constantly there in my mind: ‘What is important? What can we call as important?’ That, I now realize was the beginning of the formation of an independent value system. I wanted to inquire, ‘What is valuable’. I think that would be something that would help all of us. That's an exercise grown-ups must do. That's a chapter that must be there in schoolbooks, in college books.—'What is important?’ And let each person figure out for himself or herself what is important. At least, let there be clarity. That list is, anyway, open to amendment. You can add to the list later, you can strike out a few things, but at least write down so that you know for yourself what is it you are living by.

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