Virtues in Sikhi | 7. Contentment
Contentment (santokh from santosh, Sanskrit root tuś, happiness, calmness) is a virtue which plays an important role in the ethics of the Sikhs:
Sikhism has sought to project a comprehensive approach to life, inclusive of activity. This activism, in harmony with the spiritual ideal of human life, is central to Sikhism:
But activism has some possibility of tiring the man and thus giving rise to occasional frustrations in life. Virtue of contentment, therefore, is integral to this system.
It is possible that when a man has done all that he could, the result of his activity may not be commensurate with his efforts.
This is the critical moment when the boiling cauldron of human activity, faced with an anti-climax, may take recourse to 2 alternatives, in order to re-adjust itself to the situation:
In general Indian terminology, the alternatives, may be called vairāgya (renunciation) or santokh (calmness).
The allurement of renunciation may be more tempting. It ensures, perhaps, better immediate adjustment.
But the choice of the latter is ethically more important and enduring because the person accepts the results with an equipoise without losing the determination to act again, with better physical and mental equipment.
Contentment can thus be defined as a studiously cultivated state of mind, which acts as a safety valve in human personality in contradistinction to the ascetic choice.
Importance of contentment in Sikhism in this sense is stressed by all the Gurus:
The high place accorded to it may be judged from the fact that at times if a Guru mentions not more than 3 virtues, even then contentment is one of them:
The expressions such as sat santokh vīcharo (truth, contentment, reflection) or sat santokh sanjam (truth, contentment, temperance), provide premises for the above inference.
Similarly, the importance of this virtue may be seen from its frequent recurrence throughout the Ādi Granth, conjoined with sat as “sat santokh”.
In Janamsakhi, it is described as one of the aspects of the spiritual progress, namely: society of good people, truthfulness, self-regulation and contentment (“Satsangat, satye, sam, dam, santokh”). This again brings out its importance in Sikhism.
As to the nature of contentment it may be asked what should a person be contented with:
Should he be contented with poverty, hunger and privations without making any effort at their removal? Does contentment mean accepting the status quo?
Is it contentment with evil, lethargy or non-action? Does contentment mean accepting one’s present situation without making any effort towards ethico-spiritual progress?
Certainly all this is not santokh. Contentment does not mean fatalism, defeatism or compromise with evil. Rather, it is directly contrary to any compromise with evil.
A man who refuses to surge forward and is not prepared for some of the frustrations, which may have to be encountered in the process, cannot be called a man of contentment because he is afraid of putting his contentment to test.
The acid test of genuine contentment lies in the acceptance of both success and failure calmly.
Contentment is indicative of the human resolve to act again since a failure does not disturb the equipoise cultivated by contentment.
The cause of absence of contentment in a man may be traced to the presence of fear in him:
Refusal to subject contentment to the above acid test may, first, be due to fear in man that he may not succeed. This fear, and its adjunct complacency, is opposed to the virtue of contentment.
In this connection Guru Rāmdās says, “Make contentment thy father.”
Now, what are the qualities associated with an ideal father? What else, if not the persuasive encouragement to surge ahead? A father is a symbol of the factor which removes fear.
Thus contentment, according to the Guru, is to provide the security of equipoise, both in the event of success and failure.
Second, fear may also be caused by uncertainty of life hereafter:
Guru Arjan Dev says, “The world is contented for the Guru has given the message of emancipation to all.”
Contentment, thus, is also indicative of emancipation from fear or misgivings about salvation. The Guru has given the message of the possibility of emancipation for all.
The man, therefore, need not entertain any fear of having to take some other births in different social groups for attaining salvation. Thus fear about it on this score is also removed. The contented person rises higher and continues making efforts without fear.
Contentment is a disposition born of the honest conviction that one is doing one’s best in a spirit of humility. The virtue of contentment, therefore, accompanies this doing of one’s utmost and leaving the rest to God.
Who are the persons described as contented?
We have already said that they are free of fear or despair. They are men of hope as they have trust in the message of peace given by the Guru, Guru Amardas further clarifies that only a pure person, free from guide and viciousness, can be called the “embodiment of truth and contentment.”
Is there any doubt then that a person willing to put up resignedly with ignorance, dirt, privations, fear and the status quo cannot be called a man of contentment and purity?
But a person who contemplates the ideal, seeks and obtains the guidance of the teacher (Guru) and engages himself in ceaseless activity with the disposition to accept all that he has to confront on the way and still continues the progress in a spirit of hope, will be called a contented person.
In India distinction has sometimes been drawn between vairāgya and santokh:
The former may involve the renunciation of a situation but the latter indicates a sticking on to the effort at surging forward in the promotion of human welfare.
One shall be unmindful of failures because one has trust in the justness of God, which is tempered with grace.
Contentment is the dispositional shock-absorber, whatever be the nature of those shocks. It assists a person in rising above the psychological fret and fury involved in an activity without renouncing the activity. This activity, we presume, shall be a moral activity since only a man free of viciousness and guile can be called contented.
There is, however, the danger of contentment being misunderstood by some.
At times contentment is interpreted in a backward-looking manner:
It is sought to be understood as something which emerges when a person compares himself with those who lack something which he possesses:
For example, let us take a person who has half a rupee but is in need of one rupee. The plain course for him would be that he should work for it.
Now, if instead of working for it, he consoles himself by saying that there is someone who does not even have half a rupee or that poverty is a virtue
and that his working for his needs or for the needs of others will be contrary to his spirituality, should we call such a person as one having cultivated contentment?
The answer may be that such a person could be called contented only through a distorted notion of contentment.
Plainly speaking this attitude may, in the first instance, most accurately be called smug complacency. In the sense that this person says, “I have something in comparison with a fellow being who does not have it.”
Second, this may smack of ego or pride, in which one hunts up for some inferior fellow being than whom one (this so-called contented person) is better off.
In view of the fact that pride or ego is declared to be a great evil in Sikhism and that great stress is laid on the virtue of humility, this backward-looking sort of odious comparison,
of myself having and some unfortunate not having, is downright immoral and can be called a virtue only by someone who has the ethical scale turned around. In view of the unequivocal views of Sikhism about pride or self-glow, we may regard such a view as un-Sikh or anti-Sikh.
When a scholar ventures to interpret contentment in Sikhism in terms of these backward-looking odious comparisons, we can point out to him the above implications of such a view.
We may, therefore, not be in a position to agree with a writer who, while discoursing on contentment in Sikhism, says,
“When one feels that one has not enough, one must compare oneself to another who has nothing. A one-eyed man must thank himself that he is not blind.”
Clearly we may say that a person who indulges in such comparisons suffers from pride rather than saying that he has cultivated virtue of contentment.
We have already pointed out that such a view goes against the spirit of Sikhism because Sikhism is grounded in the forward-looking optimism (chaṛhdī kalā) and “victory for affluence and righteousness” (Degh Tegh Fateh) as the fundamental tenets along with spiritual effort.
In Sikhism the virtue of contentment has to be interpreted in the forward-looking spirit. It may be a virtue indicated after the activity and not a substitute for activity.
Since activity is a continuous affair, the virtue of contentment is also a permanent disposition and has a great moral and psychological value.
At times contentment is subjected to criticism:
One critic, for example, observes that
“fools, rascals and beasts are probably more contented than intelligent men relatively to their expectation but they are less happy absolutely, because they miss delights which are above their perception.”
In a reply to it we may agree with another scholar who points out that it uses satisfied as equivalent to contented, whereas we are using it as inclusive of happiness and equipoise, which is horn of the awareness that one has done his best.
The difficulty of the above position lies, therefore, in the fact that we are isolating contentment as a virtue from the total moral scheme and then seeking to condemn it in the sense of satisfaction.
But we should consider it as a part of the moral scheme of life:
In that case these categories of persons mentioned above and many others of similar nature may not be called beings who have cultivated the virtue of contentment.
Contentment, as understood by us here, is in the sense of forward-looking and is an accompanying disposition to ceaseless activity for ethico-spiritual progress. It is what a person of optimism and hope (chaṛhdī kalā) cultivates.
Is there any necessity for this virtue today? The answer is an emphatic yes!
When the whole of humanity is seeking to work to the utmost to provide mankind with better and more congenial material conditions and higher ethico-spiritual standards,
every person ought to cultivate contentment and avoid despair and slackening of effort in the face of personal failure or any smug complacency born of personal success.
Contentment thus indicates transcendence of ego or narrow self. It is a sign of trust in God and grace. Contentment takes away the tiring frustrations of existential life without slackening the pace of progress.
The gospel of contentment is, therefore, of permanent value. It is not that necessity for it was felt more during the earlier times. It is equally, if not more, needed in the modern technological era of rising human accomplishments.
But it must be understood in the sense of a forward- looking virtue. This is santokh in Sikhism.