After years of warring between the Netherlands and France, the Dutch emerged triumphant. King Louis XIV of France, naturally upset, reprimanded his ministers for their defeat. Colbert, one of King Louis' leading advisors, retorted politely, "Sire! The measure of a nation lies not in its length and breadth, but in the character of its people."
Nineteenth century American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson echoes this truth: "The true test of a civilization is not the census, not the size of cities, nor the crops - but the kind of men the country turns out." A similar sentiment in different ords is spelled out in, "When wealth is lost, nothing is lost. When health is lost, something is lost. But when character is lost, everything is lost."
What is Character ?
We see that many have realized the importance of a good personal character - but people seem divided when it comes to defining 'good' or 'bad' behaviour. Some have taken good behaviour to mean helping the needy, donating money... Many only go as far as outer appearances - manners, etiquette, hygiene... Few stop at purely physical acts going on a pilgrimage, performing rites and rituals...
True, all these qualities can be part of a good character - but it doesn't end there.
So then what is Character? Is it invisible, undescribable?
No. Look in the Oxford Dictionary and you'll find 'character' defined as: - n. the collective qualities of characteristics, especially mental and moral, that distinguish a person or thing; moral strength.
However, the concise but revealing definition by Dwight L. Mody goes a long way in helping us understand what character really is. He says: "Character is what you are in the dark" - i.e. what/who you are when you are alone!
People may try their best to appear 'goody-goody' in public view, but on closer inspection, their private lives can be a totally different story. Alphonso Karr believes: "Every man has three characters :
one that he exhibits;
one that he has;
and one that he thinks he has."
In the end though, we cannot afford to forget that at least one person will always know what we are really like: our innerself!
The Predominance of Character
There is a beautiful verse in the great Hindu epic scripture, the Mahabharat, that brings character into true light.
Shilam & Pradhanam lokesmin Shilam Sarvam Pratishthatam.
It means: Character is predominant in this world. It is the upholder of all.
Once Lord Indra arrived unexpectedly at the palace of Bhakta Prahlad. Prahlad greeted Lord Indra with according respect. Indra was pleased with the royal reception. When Indra was ready to leave, Prahlad did not forget the customary tradition of offering 'dakshina' (gifts) to a brahmin after feeding him. Prahlad thus asked Indra, "What can I offer you as dakshina? Ask, I shall give whatever you desire, and promise not to go back on my words."
Indra replied, rather shrewdly, "Character!"
Prahlad was taken aback for a moment or two, but bound by his promise, he agreed. "Very well," Prahlad said in return. But at precisely that moment, Prahlad witnessed a strange sight. He saw the personified forms of Dharma (Righteousness), Vartan (Moral conduct), Bal (Power) and Laxmiji (Prosperity) begin to leave.
"Where are you all going?" Prahlad asked hurriedly.
Laxmiji answered: "Without a doubt - Righteousness, Truth, Conduct, Power and I (prosperity) are all dependent upon Character. Therefore, we must follow Character."
Character is the home of all virtue.
Keeping and Losing Character
Nowadays it seems harder than ever to be good - and even harder to stay good. With ever increasing doses of violence, corruption, seduction... being force-fed to us from all sides - be it by a TV commercial, an ad in a magazine, a film or a billboard - it requires an extra concerted effort to stay aloof from bad influences, to stay clean.
A mere splash of bad conduct can leave a lingering stain and spoil an otherwise pristine character. We all know how a blotch of tomato ketchup stands out loud on a gleaming white T-shirt. But as explained by the Japanese proverb: "The reputation of a thousand years may be determined by the conduct of a single hour." A bad impression is harder to shake off than it is to earn a good one .
Thomas Paine's observation rings louder than ever, "Character is easier kept than recovered."
Of all our 'personal' belongings - money, property, health, fame, beauty, knowledge, talent, etc. - character alone is our true, lasting and indispensible asset. It is born from our day-to-day or rather, moment-to-moment actions and inclinations.
"Character is the result of our conduct," says Aristotle.
With our pure conduct as our capital, it seems we have the purchasing power to acquire anything.
In the Mahabharat we find, "With character one shuns all vices and attains Righteousness, Prosperity and Salvation."
Bhagwan Swaminarayan explains in His Shikshapatri that if our actions are in line with the scriptures, then happiness is ours too.
"He who abides by the codes prescribed in the scriptures will find happiness here (on earth) and hereafter (in heaven)." - Shikshapatri 8
Pramukh Swami's Mission
Once Pramukh Swami Maharaj was in the southern Gujarat village of Karcheliya. After visiting 50-60 homes in the dusty, sticky summer afternoon, Swamishri arrived at the house of one Chhaganbhai - dripping with perspiration. Even Swamiji's upper cloth was wet with sweat.
A devotee there told Swamiji about a miraculous laminated photo. "Bapa," he said, "water constantly trickles out of this murti of yours!"
Not the least bit amazed, Swamishri took his right index finger, wiped his brow, and commented, "Chhaganbhai, that water won't do anyone any good. This water (sweat) will!"
It has been Swamishri's ever untiring efforts of going to the people - meeting, talking, listening, counselling, consoling, inspiring, elevating - i.e. his hard work has cleansed the characters of thousands across the world. This is his one and only life mission to see one and all happy by making their lives better.
Once Swamiji was asked for a formula that would help all towards a better life. Spontaneously Swamiji replied, "Develop a good character yourself and help develop a character-rich society." Says Charning too: "The great hope of society is the individual character."
Swamiji often explains, "We believe not in converting people from their religion, but rather transforming their lives for the better." Not brainwashing - but rather washing brains, washing hearts.
Swamishri's mission can be said to be nothing less than the mission of God. As Alexander Pope has said, "An honest man is the noblest work of God." Clearly, this reveals Swamiji as God's 'Character Envoy'.
Finally, let us share the sentiments of a spiritual leader of the Ramanuj Sampradaya, the respected South Indian saint Pujya Chinna Jeer Swami. On December 1995, in his address to the assembly at the Amrut Mahotsav festival in Bombay, he said: "Not only does Pramukh Swami Maharaj turn outer wastelands into wonderlands (referring to the spectacular 70-acre 'Swaminarayan Nagar' township that was once nothing but bog-land), but he does it with people too. I see him as a great sculptor of society, and his every sadhu, every devotee, every volunteer, as pieces of his art, his masterpieces!"