The Idea of Activism
“Activism is my rent for living on the planet.”
– Alice Walker
The idea of activism – of being a part of some cause that helps makes things better in the world – is increasingly catching on. It has become much cooler than what it was a few decades ago, when greed ruled the roost.
What has led to activism’s increased appeal? Thoughtful people have started realizing that when we live only for ourselves, for our own gratification, we sink into a black hole of self-centeredness wherein our obsession with our own cravings becomes compulsive and destructive. Today, we are ecologically threatened because of the indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources. We are intellectually adrift because mainstream materialistic culture doesn’t offer our life any meaningful purpose. We are emotionally alienated because our families, communities and countries are becoming increasingly fragmented. This ecological, intellectual and emotional context underlies activism’s appeal.
However, is the notion of paying rent for living on the planet anything more than a quaint image? From the materialistic perspective mainstream in today’s world, the material is the only thing we need, the only thing we can have, the only thing that is real. And the planet we live on is just a blob of stardust in a vast unfeeling cosmos. By some lucky accident, it has somehow provided the conditions for us humans to live. Given that the planet’s human-friendliness is accidental, no one owns it. So, materialism reduces the notion of paying rent for living on the earth to just a cute metaphor.
Some utilitarian materialists may reason that if the notion inspires people to do good, there’s no harm in using it. Maybe. But the notion would have far greater impact if it were appreciated as being not just metaphorical but also metaphysical. What if we could have an alternative vision of reality, a vision that made greater sense of things and brought deeper meaning into our life?
The Bhagavad-gita offers us such a vision wherein it (05.29) states that the entire world, nay all of existence, belongs to the Whole, whose parts we all are. We use the resources of the earth for our sustenance and enjoyment, though we didn’t create any of these resources. Just like some apartments come with the basic facilities for cooking, ventilation and sanitation, so too does our cosmic apartment come with the basic needs for living. And just as we need to pay rent for the apartments we live in, so too do we need to pay rent for staying on the earth – the rent of activism.
People often conceive of activism as anything done for making a difference. Gita wisdom gives such activism a deeper foundation and a more fruitful direction. It explains that we are at our core spiritual beings, parts of a Whole. We are meant to live in harmony with the whole. How? By using whatever talents and interests we have in a mood of devotional contribution.
This holistic vision can spiritualize our specific form of activism. If we feel driven to make the world a greener place, we can become spiritual environmentalists. We can help clean not just the polluted rivers but also the polluted hearts that make people indulge in short-sighted, self-aggrandizing actions that pollute the rivers. If we feel driven to use education as a means to make a difference, we can share spiritual knowledge that equips people to find higher purpose and pleasure in their lives. By thus spiritualizing our educational activism, we help people to counter and conquer the forces that impel them to live disharmoniously.
When we imbue our activism with the inspiration to harmonize with the whole, our activism makes an enduring difference – in our own lives, in our social circle and in the world at large.