The world today seems to be such a tense place. People everywhere, in spite of major improvements in their standard of living and economic condition display a marked sense of dissatisfaction with their position. Every person is seeking more and more irrespective of the need. Possession and acquisition seem to have become more important than use or utility. The global earth’s resources are being put to tremendous strain and there is rising concern if the acquisitive, consumerist culture characteristic of the present times may not in fact cause major harm to the prospects of sustainability as also of human quest for peace and tranquility.
This commentary is not characteristic only of the materialistic quest of human beings. The same behavior is evidenced in pursuit of other desires – be those motivated by the inherent instincts or by the sensory drives. The societies therefore are experiencing increasing levels of tension, divisiveness and alienation.
These social issues and their moral underpinnings were always considered important and caused the sages and seers to think and ponder over them through the ages. Said Nursi has made frequent references to these concerns in his writings and has expressed his concern on the subject very candidly
Almost half a millennium earlier, Nanak and successor Sikh Gurus also have made extensive comments on these tendencies in their compositions included in the Sikh scripture, Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Over the ages Gurus identify the transition of human disposition from a state of contentment to flaming desire – controlled initially by self-restraint and then by more severe discipline of denial and austerity before complete capitulation in the contemporary age. The social ethos has likewise changed from righteous motivation to falsehood.
We thus have two visions here – one expressing deep concern at what is happening in the consumerist world today and the other a macro view of the erosion in ethico-spiritual values over the ages. Both these visions have a confluence in that these address erosion in the moral basis of the value system of our times. Contentment seems like being primal ethical value underpinning this phenomenon – hence the choice of the subject.
NURSI’S VISION OF WHAT IS/IS NOT CONTENTMENT
The thoughts of the Said on frugality and contentment are addressed in some detail in his 19th Flash. The treatise begins with the verse “Eat and drink, but waste not by excess” and his thrust stems from viewing human behavior through the prism of contentment and frugality vis –a- vis greed, wastefulness and desire.
Contentment and frugality appear together in Nursi’s writings at several places indicating a strong associated relationship. The other virtues given a high place in the paradigm of associated virtues include thankfulness; moderation in actions, words, speech, conduct and consumption.
He believes that contentment is acceptance of results of one’s labor and fate. Being contented strengthens the wish to strive and increases enthusiasm. On the other hand fatalistic acceptance of one’s lot indicates lack of enterprising spirit in the individual. This is not commended.
Nursi makes distinction between sustenance for survival and sustenance/provisions for needs arising from desires but acquiring the appearance of necessity. His view is that human body is so designed that its needs for sustenance are small and the Creator takes care of such needs for humans as also for the other beings in the creation.
His strongly advocates frugality as the means to achieve contentment. In fact the two have a symbiotic relationship – one who is content is frugal; and one who is frugal, finds the blessing of plenty. He also emphasizes that frugality and contentment are in conformity with Divine wisdom and argues that nature has stayed stable through the ages because there is no futility and wastefulness in it. Thus if we exercise control over desires, are moderate in consumption, are not wasteful and are thankful for His blessings, our lives would be closer to the balance intended in nature. In that setting “frugality — [is] a form of worship and active prayer for sustenance.” This then becomes a life of worship made prayerful through practice of frugality. I take frugality to imply control over desires.
He takes pains to explain that being frugal is not being mean and stingy though the frugal are sometimes thus stereotyped. His view is that frugality imparts dignity and generosity to a person and that practice of frugality “[is] – a source of happiness and pleasure – contentment and licit living.” Frugality in consumption and being content makes life easier and being thankful, one does not seek approbation and is more independent. Nursi also emphasizes that a consequence of contentment is better standing in the community as the Hadith says, “The contented person is respected, and the greedy person despised.”
Nursi is passionate about contentment and frugality and emphasizes that it is health giving for the body, a cause for self respect, powerful means of experiencing the pleasure to be found in bounties, cause of dignity and distinction– a very strong endorsement indeed.
Obviously Nursi has strong views on excess, wastefulness and greed. His advice is that if you love wealth; seek it not with greed but with contentment, so that you may have it [or it seems to be] in abundance.
In this paradigm of frugality-based contentment Nursi does leave some room for indulgence. Citing Shaykh Geylani he says that individuals may enjoy delicacies, when “one’s spirit rules his body, and his heart rules the desires of his soul, and his reason rules his stomach and he wants pleasure for the sake of offering thanks.” The important thing is control over desires, and imbibing God’s bounties in a spirit of thankfulness.
We have seen earlier that
- The most commended method for achieving contentment is through the practice of frugality. This entails control over desires and being guided by moderation. Over time the discipline of frugality may succeed in generating a state of contentment.
- Being true to one’s belief helps – to beseech God for the gift of thankfulness for what one has and to be content. Contentment with the Divine decree and submission to Divine Determining is a mark of Islam.
- Trust in God leads to contentment and is the means to God’s mercy. He cites the example of trees and plants that remain rooted ‘contentedly’ in one place and God sends sustenance to them. One can debate their state of consciousness and choice options but the example does convey an important message in its own way.
- Nursi also suggests that to be content one should inculcate the quality of preferring others to oneself without demanding or inwardly desiring any material reward.
- In another context Nursi says, “if the anxiety is removed by contentment — the physical misfortune will gradually decrease, dry up and vanish.” So much of it is in the mind – controlling emotions helps.
- Patience also helps as Nursi says – “if you have intelligence, grow accustomed to contentment and try to be satisfied with little. If you cannot endure it — seek patience.”.
CONTENTMENT IN GURBANI
At the close of Sikh scripture, Guru Arjun Dev who compiled the holy Sri Guru Granth Sahib summed up the essence of its contents by saying “In this salver are placed three things: Divine Truth, Contentment and Divine Wisdom. Added is the nectar of Lord’s Name, the support and sustainer of all. All who partake of and relish this will get deliverance. So keep it always close to your heart and let it not be forsaken for says Nanak, tied to the Lord’s feet [His Word] you will swim across the vast expanse.”
That contentment is one of the three virtues identified as important is observed in several other verses too. That it occurs in conjunction with truth so often further reinforces its importance in the Sikh thought. Multi dimensional attributes surround the concept of contentment and influence its importance. Guru asks to be blessed with contentment so that his mind thus made receptive lets Lord’s name dwell within and become his support. Thus contentment is seen to have an enabling role for spiritual advancement.
Nanak commends that we should think of contentment as the father and wisdom as the mother– the two relationships that mould, inspire and are role models for the most. The level of appreciation for contentment is further raised when the Guru says that those whom God chooses to unite with Him get immersed in contentment.
Contentment continues in its upward trajectory when Nanak says that the abode of truth, contentment and bliss is beyond the abode of gods and that contentment, faith and tolerance, are the sustenance of angels. At yet another place he says that the creation is held in balance by righteousness, compassion and rectitude [contentment]. Not just that, the bard who sang the Guru’s praises, picked truth and contentmentas defining virtues that made him the Guru– the closest association the concept is given to the Divine.
That contentment is a mark of the person at a very high level of spiritual progression is stressed. Nanak says that the devotion of the contented ones is accepted for they avoid evil ways and live by righteous and honest means. Freed from material attachment and worldly bondage their living is guided by moderation. They remember and reflect on the True Lord alone. Using the metaphor of sati Guru Amardas says that those who live in contentment and modesty and rising every morning remember and serve God, the true consort, are satis – not those who immolate with the husband.
Thus we see that contentment is ranked very high in Sikh values and the attributes associated with it include truth; compassion; faith; tolerance; wisdom; moderation; modesty; heightened awareness; restraint; intuitive peace; righteousness; understanding; contemplation; living by honest means; avoiding evil influences; freedom from attachment; remembering and serving God.
CONTENTMENT – HOW OBTAINED
The Gurus recognize that it is not easy to achieve contentment for it comes at a very high stage of a person’s ethical and spiritual evolution. At the plane of material needs poverty, want, deprivation could be major sources for lack of contentment. The Gurus however say that it is not necessary for a person to be well provided to be content. Verily desire has not been satisfied in even the mightiest kings and warriors. On the other hand one may be able to achieve peace and contentment in a life of penury – grinding corn and wearing coarse garments. As a practical faith Sikhs are enjoined to live their lives as householders. Denials and austerities are not commended but moderation is. The message is that sense of fulfillment comes if one is content.
Be forgiving. It promotes a sense of accommodation for human failings and gives one the sagacity to forgive errors and omissions by others and in fact help them to improve. The forgiving person promotes empathy and understanding – conducive to his own attainment of calm and contented disposition.
The Gurus stress that isolation, asceticism and withdrawal may encourage denial and austerities but association with the virtuous would encourage contentment.
Serving the Lord, which in effect is serving others, is encouraged to achieve peace, tranquility, humility and contentment.
Control over the five evil tendencies – lust, anger, greed, attachment and haughtiness – and over sense organs [aural, speech, vision, touch, smell] will bless the practitioner with virtues of forgiveness, patience and contentment.
Gurus commend gurbani, the Guru’s word as an inspiration for obtaining contentment. The Gurus stress that mere repeated readings of scriptures will not bring contentment for the flame of desire may continue to consume the person’s days and nights. The longings and desires are only controlled when the Word dwells within and one internalizes and lives by the persuasion.
Before summing up I would like us to reflect on what some Sikh scholars have said on the concepts surrounding contentment in Sikh tradition.
Harbans Singh says that an essential feature of Sikh thought consists in reconciliation of worldly pursuits with the higher spiritual values providing a balanced approach. The faith affirms fundamental and necessary material pursuits and calls them pious. Satisfaction of basic needs is even seen as a pre-requisite for spiritual advancement lest they prove a hurdle. In balance the Sikh thought does not favor a life of poverty nor of sensual pleasures though if a choice were to be made, poverty is preferred over unfair and immoral means. The concept is means oriented aimed at harmoniously contributing to well integrated human life consciously directed to the ultimate goal of God realization.
Avtar Singh considers that the socially active and spiritually enhancing way of life persuaded by the Gurus may become demanding and therefore to keep stress and frustrations in balance the virtue of contentment becomes integral to the Sikh moral system. He sees santokh
and vairag [renunciation] as two options to a person when faced with disappointment with the results of effort and considers contentment as the one that though more difficult, would enable renewed effort and continued resolve. He defines contentment as “studiously cultivated state of mind, which acts as a safety valve in human personality in contradistinction to the ascetic choice.”
Mansukhani commends the traditional wisdom of looking at the less fortunate to be contented. [There is a broad spectrum of disagreement with this passive characterization of contentment as not consistent with the activist approach of the Sikh Gurus.]
Wazir Singh sees contentment as indispensable for excellence of individual life and as an enabling virtue for altruistic activity. A contented person, he believes, will choose suffering over dishonor.
CONTENTMENT – IN SUM
Bringing the two visions together, contentment is a calm yet buoyant disposition that encourages belief in progress and motivates a person to strive, with humility, in conviction that one is doing one’s best. The person accepts both success and failure calmly. Failure does not disturb his inner calm – it rather motivates him to strive again and harder.
Attainment of contentment involves transcendence of willfulness and inherent evil instincts. It is morally driven and makes no compromise with evil. Taking away the frustrations of worldly life it inculcates satisfaction, happiness and equipoise.
Contentment does not consist in accepting
present situation without making effort for improvement in human condition. It
is not fatalistic acceptance of poverty, hunger and privations without effort
at their removal. It is not accommodation with lethargy, inaction or defeatism.
The contented are free of
fear, despair, guile and viciousness. They are men of hope and peace
perseveringly continuing effort for human welfare. They have abiding trust in
the justness of God and His grace. They believe in the triumph of God given
bounty and righteousness – degh, tegh fateh – and inspired by
forward-looking optimism – chardi kala – they seek the good of one and
all – sarbat da bhala. They are not content just to be content!
 Qur’an, 7:31
 Letters/Seeds of Reality, 95, p.552
 23rd Letter, p.334
 The Rays/The Supreme Sign, p.195
 19th Flash, p.189/193
 Letters / Twenty – Second Letter – Second Topic- p.322
 The Words / Seventh Word – p.43
 Letters / Seventeenth Letter – p.100
 The Flashes / The Second Flash – p.27
 The Letters/24th Letter, p.338
 Mundavani M V, p. 1429
 deh dan santokhia sacha nam miley adhar – Malar M I, p.1286
 mata mat pita santokh – Gauree M I, p.223
 jin kau tum har melo soami te naey santokh gur sara – Bilawal M IV, p.799
 sat santokh ulas shakat neh seo hai [Bhai Gurdas, Var 3]
 sidak saboori sadhika sabar thosa malaeyaka – Sri Rag M I, p.83
 dhaul dharma daya ka poot, santokh thap rakheya jin soot [Japji Pauri 16]
 gur gam parman the paeyo sat santokh grahaj leyo – Bhat Kal Svaiye M V, p.1392
 sev kiti santokhiyee jinni sacho sach dheyaia, unni mandey paer neh rakheo kar sukrit dharam kamaya, unni duniya taure bandhna an pani thaura khaya [asa di var, pauri 7]
 bhi so satian janian seel santokh rahan, sevan sahibapna nit uthh sanmalan – Var Sorath, M III, p.787
 vadey vadey rajan aur bhuman ki —————————
 peesan pees oadh kamree such man sntokhaey – Suhi M V, p.745
 bina santokh nahin ko rajey ———————–
 khima gahi bart seel santokh – Gauri M I, p.223
 sangat kar santokh man paiya – Ramkali M V, p.889
 indri panch panchey vas aaney khima santokh gurmat paavey, Parbhati M III, p.1334
 sach santokh sehaj such bani poorey gur te pavaneya – Majh M III, p.115
 parh thakey santokh neh aaeo andin jalat vihaey – Sorath M III, p.647
 mansa asa sabad jalaey – Ramkali M I, p.940
 khana pina pavitr hai ditan rijak sanbahey – Asa M I, p.472.
 bhookhe bhagat neh kijey, yeh mala apni lijey – Kabir, p. 656 — maan mangoon taan mangoon dhan lakhmi sut deh – p.1308.
 jis greha bahut tisey griha chinta, jis griha thori so phirey bharamanta, dohi bivastha te jo mukta sohi suhela bhaliye – p.1019
 santan ka dana sookha so sarab nidhan, griha sakat chhatee parkar te bikh saman – p. 811