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Vedanta Kesary (1992, January p.2-5)
Gratitude is not just a matter of a thank-you or some form of visible acknowledgment of the help we have received. These are outer and usually superficial ways of expressing our gratitude. They may be OK and sometimes even obligatory as a form of social etiquette, but they need not necessarily indicate that we are really grateful. It is possible to say a warm thank-you without being serious about it.
Obviously, real gratitude must proceed from the centre of our personality. How is this real gratitude expressed? Through love and reverence. We love and revere not only the benefactor but also the benefit he or she has bestowed on us. We use those gifts in the best possible manner, for ourselves as well as for others. Making the optimum use of our gifts is perhaps the best way to be grateful for the gifts received. When we use the gifts well, the message is loud and clear: 'I care for your loving presentation. I am grateful to you.
If we look back at our lives we'll be astonished to find what an enormous number of things there are we need to be grateful for. Let us begin with our parents, who were the first human beings we encountered as little babies. We could do nothing on our own then. We were fully dependent on them, particularly on our mothers. Have we cared to pause and ponder over their tireless, selfless labour, the continual sacrifices, and the unending care and love we received from them in those early years? They fed us, clothed us, nursed us back to health when we fell ill, and played with us. When we grew up a little, they arranged for our schooling and other facilities.
In the years that followed our parents were our constant source of support, encouragement, love, and security. How do we express our gratitude for all these things? It might be argued that our parents did everything because that is what they are supposed to do, it was their duty. We may appreciate their conscientiousness, but there is no question of being grateful for it. Now, that is an interesting point and it brings in a host of other related matters.
A group of Sikhs used to visit Sri Ramakrishna at Dakshineswar. They said to him once, 'God is compassionate.' Sri Ramakrishna smiled and asked them, 'To whom is He compassionate?' 'To all of us,' they said. 'But we are His children,' Sri Ramakrishna told them. 'Does compassion to one's own children mean much? A father must look after his children; or do you expect the people of the neighbourhood to bring them up?' Let us apply this insight to our earthly father and mother. We shall return to our Heavenly Father and Mother a little later.
So, then, our parents did their duty in bringing us up and, to that extent, there seems little meaning in thanking them for it. This may be a little difficult to understand for those in the West, for there one says thank-you all the time for every little thing. Their prayers to God are also profusely filled with expressions of gratitude. A day called the 'Thanksgiving' is set apart every year when believers offer special thanks to God for all the bounties He has bestowed on them. But the Eastern tradition is different. In India no thanks are offered to God. No one says thank you to one's parents, teachers, children, and friends. Verbal thanking is considered a very formal gesture, tolerable in official dealings and among strangers, but not expected, even discouraged, in almost all other situations.
Once Sister Nivedita, by force of habit, said thank-you to a young Indian who had brought her a glass of water. She was quick to notice the subtle expression of pain on the young man's face, hurt as he was that the love and reverence with which he had done the little service to her was, so to say, compensated and neutralized by the two words: Thank You. She was careful thenceforth not to let this Western habit encroach on her dealings with those belonging to her adopted country.
About the author
Swami Tyagananda is a monk of the Ramakrishna Order and presently head of the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society in Boston.