Ghalib – 21: Heaven Unto Hell

Even as I was writing about Pascal’s wager (On God: Existence and Nature), Ghalib’s words were echoing in my mind:

taa’at meN taa rahe nah mai-o-angabiiN kii laag
dozaakh meN Daal do koii le kar bihisht ko

so that in obedience, the desire of wine and honey may not remain
let someone take heaven and cast it into hell

The question is quite obvious: What is the motivation to do the right thing or to act ethically? But, of course, this begs the prior question: What is right or ethical to start with?

Ghalib’s position on the prior question is well known – he never placed much value on the rituals and gestures of propriety; for him it was always the sincerity of intent that mattered more. There is the constant contrast in Ghalib’s poetry between the genuineness of the Sufi and the hypocrisy of the Mullah.

Here Ghalib is going a step further and saying that even the ethical act devalues itself if it is driven by considerations of reward or punishment. One has to be good out of an inner conviction – that it is right, for example, to stop at a red light even if no one is watching.

And so Ghalib is proposing a thought experiment as the ultimate test: Do away with Heaven (or the Divine Policeman) and then let us see what happens – will we distinguish between the truly ethical and those whose good behavior is motivated only by self-interest?

It would be interesting to discuss why we need the concept of Heaven in the first place. And this raises the further question of whether Heaven has lost its effectiveness as a motivator of behavior? When we see the extent of dishonesty and corruption in South Asian society it suggests that the rewards or punishments of afterlife are not very material in affecting the acts of individuals.

Not only that, but as social systems are getting more religiously inclined the extent of dishonesty and corruption seems to be increasing. Does anyone have good explanations for this trend?

It is hard to disagree with Ghalib. Even in mundane personal interactions, I feel disinclined to ask others to do anything that I feel they ought to do of their own accord. The act loses something if it is done only to please me or to make me happy. It suggests I am responsible for making them do what they would rather not have done and that is a depressing feeling.

Relations at work are of a different nature because the welfare of an organization comes before personal likes and dislikes. So many officials need to be reminded every day that it is part of their job descriptions to actually carry out certain tasks. It is a surprise that they themselves do not see it in the same way prompting the oft-repeated verdict that only authoritarian rule will produce results in South Asia.

Do you agree with that verdict?

As always, a more literary interpretation is presented at Mehr-e-Niimroz.

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