On every visit back to India, my grandparents shower me with the stories of old, served hot with a little bit of spice to taste. Usually, the stories follow a predictable pattern, trying to teach us a lesson about our own morality.
My patti (grandmother) begins, “In those days, in the town of my patti, and my patti’s patti, people lived god-fearing lives. They adhered to the rules laid out for them in Hindu scripture and rarely deviated from their entrenched value systems.”
“One day, my patti (your great great grandmother) received a letter in the mail. Inside was a slightly faded yellow parchment:
‘Next week, at dusk before the new moon, we will come to rob your house.’
In those days, honesty was a rule that no one dared cross. Even the thieves would go about their trade honestly. As paradoxical as it seems, they too would try to abide by the principles set forth in Hindu law.”
Patti continued, with a look of wonderment in her eyes, “In those days, people were very intelligent. Even though they often did not have a formal education, they knew how to use the rules of dharma strategically. So, the night before the new moon, my patti spent the whole evening cooking up a storm. She sweated and stirred until she was satisfied. She lined traditional delicacies out row by row, the colors glistening with oil and ghee. Scripture had taught her to treat her guests akin to God. In the night, she sat waiting, honoring her role as a host, even to the thieves.”
“That night, the robbers crept in. There were three imposing men, with menacing faces and sharpened knives. They were fully equipped to rob my grandparents. Slowly, they jumped through the gate and made their way into the house. Famished, they were unable to resist the aromas of oil, spice, and sugar that welcomed them. So they sat and ate, licking every last drop of my patti’s special payasam (sweet delicacy). But now, they could not rob the house. The Vedas say that no one can bite the hand that has fed them. So they went away, thanked my patti, and never returned. She was left unharmed.”
“The next month, Pongal (a South Indian harvest festival) was around the corner. Patti went about her way, preparing for the holiday: cooking, cleaning, and praying in honor of the auspicious event. As she received the mail for the day, she saw a curious-looking green envelope, stamped from the bank. It was a receipt for mail-ordered cash, sent alongside a fond note:
‘Akka, please accept my humble gift to you this Pongal. I hope to reciprocate your unparalleled kindness.’
“The note was unsigned, but Patti knew that the handwriting matched the letter she had received from the thief the first time. Regardless of what we perceive people to be, living a life of dharma will only ever be rewarded. Follow your values, and your life will be filled with supreme meaning.”
As I reflect on this story, I don’t marvel at the irony of the outcome. I don’t speculate about the tale’s reality, which for the purposes of this exercise, doesn’t really matter. What is called into question is the very composition of our own value systems, where they stem from, and how we choose to execute them.
In a society that prioritizes liberty and independence, there seems to be no role for a life of duty and obeisance. A Western progressive emphasis on equality is at odds with the karmic argument that we deserve our relative positions in the world. A secular structure does not see the merits of ritual practices, prayer, and worship. Reconciling where each one of us stands on these issues, what constitutes our personal value system, poses a challenge that acts on each one of our daily interactions. When push comes to shove, can we always abide by the set of rules we have adopted?
Sitting outside Valluvar Kottam, a monument in Chennai, I was presented with the spitting image of irony. The monument is dedicated to the poet who composed the Thirukkural, a treatise that describes the moral codes relevant to all human beings through all of time, summarizing the essence of the Vedas. Each granite block in the monument was inscribed with a Hindu rule of righteousness. The architecture was devoted to propagating the instructions for a life ruled by a code of values. And yet, the edges of the walls were stained with urine. The eyes of the construction workers renovating the monument lingered on me for an uncomfortably long time. The outside of the monument was a gathering spot for corrupt politicians delivering empty lies to a charged public. Although these ancient rules for living had a utopic societal system in mind, they produce an insurmountable chasm between the few who live a life of values and the many who spit in the face of the rules.
I haven’t called into question my own values in quite a long time, but I know I live in hypocrisy. I demand honesty though I can slide through lies like a hot knife through butter. I care about my family, though I deem it impossible to make the kinds of sacrifices that I have seen my relatives make to care for each other. I believe in progress, but sometimes I don’t know if a system really needs the kind of change I prescribe for it. My own values are loose, unrefined, and malleable. While I criticize the rigidity and ostentatious moral purity of the Indian system, I don’t have the fortitude to lead my life by commandment, nor to derive happiness from that.
Our world might objectively function better if we each stuck to a set of values. But agreeing on what makes up those rules is a challenge that millennia of war and discussion have not been able to reconcile. But what we can do is ask ourselves what types of lives we want to lead and what value systems matter to us. And though we don’t realize it, personal values are difficult to articulate and even more challenging to truly execute.
As we prepare for a new year with resolutions, introspection, and evaluation, it makes sense to come back to the big picture. Who are we, what do we care about, and how are we going to define our own morality?
Swathi Ramprasad is a sophomore at Duke University studying Public Policy and Computer Science. She hopes to continue to learn through the lens of her Indian-American heritage.