Prof. Rahul Gupta Chowdhury
Specialization: Marketing, Strategy and General Management
It was one fine evening, some twenty years back that a middle-aged man found himself headed out of a vibrant metropolis and the financial center of India to a then non-descript state capital city in Western India. Nothing was fine with him then. He smelled of abject failure and written large on his face was dejection, anxiety, and probably a complete loss of faith in what life has to offer. But then he remembered, whoever said that life is fair? He had then just returned from a three-month stint in the USA, from one of the best Universities in the world. To his complete surprise – instead of life and career taking an upward trajectory – his life turned completely topsy-turvy and he had to take decisions which was beyond his realm of a worst nightmare. As soon as he landed in the city and went to work, he realized that it is going to be a long hard battle ahead of him. He had very little choice and no real opportunities. However, he decided that he will survive – whatever the odds.    ]

He rented an apartment and arrived there on the appointed day and time. Before entering his flat, he was in for another surprise, this time pleasant. Standing before him was an elderly lady with a ‘Diya’ (lamp) and other necessary paraphernalia required for a warm religious welcome. He has never experienced this in his more than ten years of corporate life and continuous travelling and shifting with the transfers. The chimera of universal motherhood personified was like a soothing balm to his aching heart and a bewildered mind. He remembered his mother – wanted to reach out to her, longed to see her, talk to her face-to-face. Circumstances mandated otherwise. In his mind the magnetic north and south poles had converged producing a chaotic field of electromagnetic waves which he could not even begin to decipher. Black hole of the mind? A tiny replica of Sagittarius ? He was not sure. However, one thing he became sure of that morning - the universal mother will separate the magnetic poles and the flow of the waves will regain normalcy. Also, he realized, it is going to happen slowly, painfully slowly. 
Another evening twenty years later, the man – in another non-descript capital city of a state in Eastern India – was ruminating on miscellaneous items, especially that there is now many more yesterdays than there will be tomorrows. The phone rang from western India and no – it was not the familiar soothing voice calling her ‘X bhaiya’ and ‘Y ben’. The voice did what it was supposed to do – oblivious to the devastating effect it was having at the other end of the line. There were no good-byes and there will be no more blessings. When they had talked last time in Diwali she had blessed him with even more ‘shohrat’ – a proud mother blessing her son, uplifting him to another world altogether.

That night the man met his beloved auntie in his dreams. Bless us all for we have sinned, thought the man. Give me your blessings, said the man. The voice said – I will give you something more valuable, something priceless. Take my heart and spread it around your small little world. What does it have, asked the man. Now, Swami Vivekananda appeared and explained that it is the goodness of the human heart that your tiny world requires – and that is the only medicine – the essential goodness of being. The world does not need anything more with so much urgency and with so much importance. Swami Vivekananda disappeared and he then landed straight in to Dante’s Inferno. Divine justice will track our soul’s journey and then, decide the circle to be allotted among the nine circles of Hell as described in Inferno. “In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself within a dark wood where the straightway was lost”. He was on his way to hell, for sure – and then the vignettes of his life, his good deeds, his joys, and his sins clouded his mind. “There is no greater sorrow than to recall our times of joy in wretchedness”. He broke in to a cold sweat and woke up.  

The next few days were one of ruminations, images of the good deeds of auntie and how she spread happiness all over. When a man made calamity struck the city, arrangements were made immediately to drop off the man’s wife to the safety of their metropolitan home town in Eastern India. Now that the man was alone, auntie dutifully took up the task of keeping the man well-fed and well taken care of – and all this, with a smiling face. The man was assured of his supply of food every morning, evening when he returned from office all tired, and then again dinner. This sumptuous feast, amid all the fear mongering and overall climate of hatred and uncertainty in the city at that point in time, went on for full two months. The man had no words to reciprocate the sheer kindness and generosity of this act. Auntie has made a permanent place in his heart – an epitome of love and respect, empathy, kindness, and generosity. When everything was over, and the city had settled down to its normal routine, the man and his wife sat down to understand the life and times of their beloved auntie who by then, had taken the place of their mother in that city. To them, it was an eye-opener they had never bargained for. Auntie’s life, behind her ever smiling face, was that of one way sacrifice all the way. Early death of a husband who did not leave much behind, bringing up two children alone, early incapacitation of her daughter’s husband, wastage of hard earned money by her profligate son and myriad other challenges in her life - which would have cowed down any other woman of her generation. She met all the challenges with her courage and inner strength and came out victorious at the end. This is cause enough for, as Cliff Richard sang, congratulations and celebrations. Above all this, if the man had learnt something from his aunt, it is her sacrifice and endurance that stood out.
The man drew his strength of endurance from auntie and will always remember her for what she represents and the tremendous contribution she has made in his life. She has definitely made him a better person. More importantly, he is now a person willing to become better.
“Auntie, Tujhe Salaam”. Good-bye.
Asato maa sad Gamaya             (lead us or guide us from ignorance to knowledge)      
Tamaso maa jyotir Gamaya     (may the light of knowledge remove the darkness of ignorance)
Mrityorma-amritam gamaya   (from death, lead me to immortality)
Shaanti shanti Om                  (peace)
Shaanti Om, Shaanti Om           (peace)
Hari Om - Tat Sat.               (God in physical form, all that is, absolute truth, the supreme reality)
The demise of auntie made the man think more on the virtues some members of the human race possess – which makes people to respect them much more than they do for others. In this age of people driven by self-interest and power grabbers having a field day, often with the help of their bands of sycophants and flatterers always in the expectation of a quid pro quo, respect is something very rare. Auntie commanded that elusive rare quality with ease. The reason, the man realized, was the sacrifice she made and was always willing to make, for her family or even for other people not at all related to her. An interpretation from Kant seems very appropriate here. The interpretation argues that value is created when sacrifices are made. This value does not exist outside us, but comes to existence only when we give a gift or help others without expecting anything in return.
This Kantian interpretation makes a lot of sense especially when we see that the idea of self-transcendence gets linked with the overall perception of sacrifice. Self-transcendence happens when an individual sacrifices his or her self-interest for the sake of higher values and commitments. So, this concept of self-sacrifice then turns into a moral value which is a virtue which is universally recognized or respected. This idea is also supreme because it is in the domain of moral values and moral values are widely understood to be the values which are above all other values. For example, the sacrifice of a soldier for his motherland is the moral value of a very high order and is thus always revered and acknowledged by the country and its people.
Having said that, we also need to acknowledge that human history has time and again demonstrated that this high potential moral value can be used to justify many brutal acts. The current situation of terrorism instigated by a few rogue countries, thus holding the world peace at ransom, is a good example of that. In his book ‘On Sacrifice’ (2015, Princeton University Press), Moshe Halbertal attempts to find out the relationship between self-sacrifice and violence, arguing that misguided self-sacrifice is far more problematic than exaggerated self-love. He goes on to argue that there are both positive and negative aspects of self-sacrifice and sometimes past self-sacrifice creates an obligation on the future generations. At the political level this can be made a basis for political associations and thus the modern state is nothing but a sacrificial community. Ultimately, in the lives of individuals and that of the country, it is always a matter of balance between who contributes how much and who gets how much in return.
In our personal lives also sacrifice plays an important role. We grow up aware and in acknowledgement of the fact that our parents have sacrificed for us and we all must be able to justify that sacrifice through our thoughts, actions, and achievements. The question is not that whether we would not have done this had our ancestors not made at least some sacrifices for us. The question thus is also not about how much achievement justifies a certain magnitude of sacrifice or is making sacrifice an obligation or a moral duty. Sacrifice here simply means giving up something important for the benefit of others – and the benefit received is of importance to them. That is the looking glass through which we view the sacrifice of the soldier on the battle front or the sacrifice of the parents for their offspring. There is no scope of misunderstanding here that the sacrifices will not necessarily have to be pecuniary in nature. There is a common belief in India that if the parents do not make sacrifices even if they are not required to do so, the child is not going to succeed in life. It is very likely in corporate life in India that executives perceived to have sacrificed a lot for the success of the organization will rise higher up in the hierarchy. Similar is the situation in academia (private). However, there are dissonances when the power broker or the middle agent distorts the process for his or her self-interest.
Connected with the concept of sacrifice is the concept of supererogation which means the performance of more than is asked for and the action of doing more than duty requires. In ethics, an action can be called supererogatory if it is good but not morally required to be done. Supererogatory acts include saintly and heroic acts, but are not necessarily limited to them. Heroic acts may be of high risk for the agent and of great benefit to the recipient. However, ordinary acts of charity, beneficence, and generosity are equally supererogatory in nature. Kant in his hypothetical imperative defines it as a rule of conduct that is understood to apply to an individual only if he or she desires a certain end and has chosen (willed) to act on that desire. So, action committed beyond the call of duty, which is supererogation, will also qualify as sacrifice. This also brings in some more complications. If the two, sacrifice and supererogation, are equalized, then there is the question of how they are going to be compensated. Sacrifice does not expect anything in return whereas supererogation just might. The application of supererogation in practical settings of everyday life like our work lives are not simplistic as the basic issue of measurement of the magnitude of supererogation remains unresolved. For example, the question of whether the measurement should be based on inputs or outputs which are of real value to an organization. However, one thing is certain – supererogation or sacrifice - the act must not be non-trivial in nature.

Some sacrifices at certain stages of life may result in great gains in some other stage of the individuals’ life. A sportsperson who sacrifices a lot of things in childhood or as a teenager may grow up to be a great sportsperson at a later stage. In that case, the returns are perceived to be much greater than his sacrifices at the early stages of his life. But the sacrifices made were real and will surely be counted as great sacrifice. A great and accomplished singer may have had to sacrifice many good things in her life because of her dedication and ambition at a very early stage of her life. Almost all professions call for sacrifices at some stage or other of the individuals’ life. It really matters whether the individual rises up to the occasion and goes beyond the call of duty to make meaningful sacrifices for his country or organization or even his own family. The great sacrifices that all doctors around the world made for the human civilization during the recent COVID pandemic is a bright example of people rising to the occasion and making sacrifices – sometimes and many a times unfortunately, at the risk of their own lives with devastating consequences for their families. Here, it can be safely assumed that sacrifices made when the person making the sacrifice and the beneficiary of the sacrifice are related, it is still considered as sacrifice.

There is also the case of care ethics. There are many mothers, who are accomplished professionals in their own right, and who, in spite of that, have sacrificed their lucrative careers for the sake of their children and family. Sacrifice also has a connection with protests. Jesus Christ knew very well that his teachings were in contrary to the belief of the authorities in that era. Yet he continued his defiance of the establishment knowing full well that the consequences of his defiance will be a severe punishment and possible execution. Possibly, the greater good of the community inspired Jesus to make the sacrifice through protest. Throughout the human history, people have made sacrifices for the larger goal of gaining independence and full freedom for their countries and their fellow countrymen. Torture has not been able to stop them from fighting for their country – an ideal which they never deviated from and was at any point in time much beyond their call of duty. People of Bengal have been at the forefront of the freedom struggle in India and knowingly or unknowingly paid the heavy price of partition – as a consequence of which millions of people in the state are still suffering, and the once beautiful and wealthiest city of India now is struggling on all fronts, especially in terms of its industrial economy.  

It is sacrifice that makes individuals succeed, it is sacrifice that makes individuals happy – and it is sacrifice that builds nations. Stories of devastations suffered by nations in different times of the human civilization and the way the generations have sacrificed to rebuild later on, as well hardships endured by individuals, helps us to understand this better. As they say, no pain no gain.