The Meaning of Practicality – M.S. Srinivasan

Our modern civilization and culture is probably one of the most “practical” among world-civilisation, where the highest value is placed on the scientific and technological pragmatism. But to be practical means what? This article examines the meaning of pragmatism in a multidimensional perspective.

The Hierarchy of Practicality

To be “practical” means what? We define practicality as that orientation or activity which produces results or has an impact on life.  But this impact or result can be at various levels. There is the practicality of a labourer who builds a house or an industrial worker who turns the lathe; mason or the foreman who supervises the labourer or worker; engineer or architect who provides the technical knowledge or the blue-print; innovator who brings new ideas or inventions; manager who organizes the resources and gets things done; entrepreneur who builds an industry from scratch and creates wealth for the society; thinker who brings new ways of thinking or better understanding of life or greater clarity to thought; creator of values who provides ideals that give a greater meaning and purpose to life or to a higher evolution of life; and finally the visionary leader in thought and action who builds, shapes and guide nations, civilizations and cultures or the evolution of humanity as a whole.  All these are “practicalities”, with each successive level raising to a higher grade of practicality than the previous one, because of its deeper and broader range of effectiveness.

The Pragmatism of Knowledge

The pragmatism of the labourers and the mason are very much needed.  But from a long-term perspective, the growth or quality of the building industry depends on the work of the engineer and architect.  Similarly practicality of the industrial worker and the foreman are very much necessary.  But the practicality of the knowledge-worker who can generate ideas and apply them to work is much more important for the long-term success and effectiveness of an industry.  This is something, which the contemporary business is beginning to recognize with increasing urgency.  More important than the knowledge-worker, is the work of the entrepreneur who creates wealth for the society and provides a suitable environment in which knowledge-worker to do their work.  What makes a small country like Japan with very limited natural resources one of the largest economies in the world and an economic superpower? It is this pragmatism of “knowledge” or rather applied knowledge in the form of technology, management and entrepreneurship.

The Categories of Knowledge

But there are two types of knowledge.  The first one is that knowledge which leads to greater efficiency, productivity, power or prosperity of the material, economic and political life.  The other type of knowledge is the one which brings the following higher “practicalities” to life.

  1. enhances the inner quality of life through a process of mental, moral, aesthetic, upliftment or refinement.
  2. new way of thinking, and looking at life, what  is now called as new “paradigm” of thought.
  3. better understanding of the eternal and universal laws and principles of life, man or nature, called in Indian thought as Dharma
  4. values and ideals which are in harmony with Dharma and which gives a greater meaning and purpose to life
  5. ways of living which are based on dharma.

It is the work of the Thinker and Sage to provide this dharmic knowledge to society.  The ancient civilizations and cultures gave a much greater importance to this higher knowledge than the purely pragmatic knowledge or action.  For example, Sri Aurobindo writing on the value systems of the ancient Indian culture, states “thinker greater than the man of action, spiritual man greater than the thinker”.  The spiritual man is considered as greater than the thinker because while the thinker creates from the thinking mind, the spiritual man creates from a higher consciousness beyond the thinking mind and which is in more or less in direct communion with the creative source of the universe.  The spiritual man and the thinker are considered greater than the man of action because of two reasons.  Individually and collectively the best condition for wellbeing and progress is that the higher mind and spirit must govern the physical, vital and pragmatic life.  Secondly, the knowledge of the thinker and sage bring a greater “practicality” to life in terms of meaning, purpose, motivation, quality, stability, sustainability and long-range effectiveness.  Some of these thinkers and sages are the builders of great civilizations and cultures.  Can there be a more practical and creative work than building a great civilization or culture which lasts for many millenniums? But the average mentality may find nothing practical in the work of these great civilization builders.

Power of the Idea:

The thoughts of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are the foundations of Western civilization.  The thoughts of Confucius and Laotse gave birth to the Chinese civilization.  The thoughts of Vedic and Upanishadic sages gave birth to the Indian civilization.  The thoughts of Newton, Galileo and Descrates gave birth to the modern scientific civilization.  As we have said earlier there is very little of what is normally called as “practical” in their thoughts.  What then is the source or basis of the tremendous creativity of these civilization-builders? A way of thinking, a vision of life and a system of values.  Socrates taught the western mind how to think in a systematic and logical manner which later blossomed into the scientific mind.  Confucius and Laotse gave the values, ideals and principles which shaped and held together the Chinese civilization and culture for many millenniums.  The Vedic and Upanishadic sages of India formulated a way of life based on intuitive thinking, ethical living, meditative interiorisation and spiritual goals, in other words, the culture of yoga, which was the foundation of Indian civilization and culture. Newton, Galileo and Descrates developed the path of objective observation, experimental testing and mathematical analysis, which is the source of all the scientific, technological and pragmatic achievements of our modern age.

The Inner Pragmatism of Yoga

This brings us to another kind of pragmatism: the psychological and spiritual pragmatism of yoga.  We will not enter into any discussion on the true meaning of yoga.  But we would like to illustrate with an example some of the deeper and higher pragmatism of yoga.  Most of the yogic teachings counsel the seeker to refrain from gossiping, criticism, judgement and negative thoughts and feelings about others and cultivate goodwill and kindness to all.  The average earthly mind tends to dismiss such ideas as impractical.  But if we practice these yogic teachings with a clear understanding of the rationale behind the discipline, we will be inwardly more peaceful and our relationship with others will become more harmonious.  On the other hand if we constantly indulge in harsh judgement and criticism, either outwardly in speech or inwardly in thought and feeling, we will be perpetually in a state of inner and outer conflict with others.  Which is more practical? To be in peace and harmony with others and ourself or to be perpetually in a state of abrasive conflict and friction? This principle applies to all moral and spiritual ideals of yoga.

The Importance of Execution

However this deeper conception of pragmatism does not invalidate or reject the popular conceptions.  The truth behind this popular conception is the importance of execution which has a specific relevance for youth.  The young should aspire for great ideals and mighty dreams.  But he or she should not be exclusively cognitive in their ideals or dream.  Once the ideals are fixed and understood with clarity then most of the youthful energy has to turn towards execution of the ideal in life, work and action.  The youth has to be more of a realiser than a dreamer.

So, to be truly practical two things are needed: first, at the cognitive level, a clear perception of the ideal, vision or goal, where do we want to go and the path to reach it.  Secondly, at the dynamic level, capacity for execution.  These two factors are basis of a successful, effective and organized action.

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