One of the words I’ve loved ever since I first learned its meaning is “magnanimous.” The word is based on the Latin roots “magnus” and “animus” and means “big soul.” The cognate in Sanskrit is “mahatma,” from the roots “maha” and “atman,” and means roughly the same thing.1 So then, what is a great soul? What qualities apply to the attribute? The whole subject remains artfully undefined in both languages.2 But I’ll take a crack at a definition.
I believe the first quality would be generosity. You can’t be a mahatma if you’re a miser, a hoarder, a grasper after advantage, whether in the form of coins or property or a paid-up lifetime address on Easy Street. The prudent man provides for his own future and that of his family, so that they may not suffer and become a burden on society—and there’s nothing against a mahatma being prudent. But prudence extended toward infinity becomes obsessive accumulation, which tends to exclude the interests of others.
The mahatma is generous with more than wealth and resources. He3 also gives freely of his time and attention. You can’t be a mahatma if you don’t occasionally volunteer your services for the benefit of a cause greater than yourself, pay attention to the world around you and heed its voice, and listen when others are talking.
At the root of this generosity of both resources and time lies a personal realization: nothing last forever. The mahatma knows that you cannot hold on to time. You cannot make it your own. You cannot accumulate it, preserve it, bank it—and thereby expect to increase it. You can only spend time, and how you spend your daily allotment of time is a mark of your character. If you put it to productive use—building or making something, improving your knowledge and skills, helping others—you expand the possibilities of the world around you. If you put your time to frivolous use—seeking pleasure, wasting resources, living thoughtlessly—you decrease those possibilities.
Just as he knows a human being cannot make or hold on to time, the mahatma has also come to the personal realization that neither can you hold on to things. Whether your taste runs to acres of property, a garage full of sleek automobiles, a stable of fast race horses, gold and diamonds, rare paintings, or clever investments—you can’t really make them part of yourself.4 These things will always stand outside of your actual life and have a cycle of their own: erosion and spoilage of the land, depreciation of the car’s value, decline and death of the animal, theft of jewels and damage to art, final payout or failure of even the most careful investment.
The best that we can hope for, in relation to the things in our lives, is to be good shepherds and gardeners; knowledgeable appreciators, supporters, and teachers of beauty; constructive users of a craftsman’s tools and materials; and conservators of value. We can make the land bloom or preserve it as wilderness. We can take care of the automobile or the horse or the artwork and appreciate them for their utility or beauty along the way. We can build something that we ourselves and others can use and enjoy and share. We can manage our investments as a matter of prudence. But in the end we all die as naked and unadorned as the day we were born, and the mahatma knows this. Even the right we earn from ownership that lets us say how these things will be managed and distributed after our deaths is illusory. Wills are broken, courts fail to interpret them as we would wish, benevolent foundations forget their sponsor’s charter, children seldom share our enthusiasms, and the lawyers always take their percentage.5
Compassionate and Just
The mahatma treats others with compassion and seeks justice. To be compassionate is to be aware of their situation; sense when they are in distress; and work to alleviate it. To seek justice is to be aware of the balance between advantage and disadvantage among acts of aggression, omission, and preservation; sense when that balance has become lost; and work to restore it.
It is popular these days to advocate for compassion and justice as applied to whole classes and groups of people, and the mahatma is mindful of these widely distributed cases. But it is possible to care deeply in the abstract and ignore the suffering on your own doorstep. The mahatma is most aware of the suffering and injustice of those closest to him and works to improve his own neighborhood. The personal is more deeply felt and appreciated than the abstract.
Compassion and justice are not bred of some kind of goopy sentimentality, the preserve of those with more feeling that brains. They arise instead from the clear-eyed realization that life is impermanent, that every life has its ups and downs. Those who are well off today should be mindful of others in a different situation, for who knows what tomorrow will bring? A reversal in the stock market, a wasting disease, or a false accusation can bring down the most secure person. Anyone who thinks deeply about his own situation must suspect that one day he might be in need of another’s help, concern, and support. Compassion and justice are born of awareness of the wider human condition and the fact that none of us is born to a higher or more secure plane of existence.
True compassion and justice do not smother the needs of the individual. Being aware of his own problematic place in the greater scheme of things and of what he himself might wish for, hope, and expect, the mahatma values personal freedom and the right to choose. He does not limit his compassion to providing the kind of support he would value but extends the kind that allows the recipient to grow, develop, and flourish according to that person’s own desires and goals. The mahatma values education and training over maintenance and support as the way to elevate people (“Teach a man to fish …”). Provide support at first, so that the basics of life are met, but provide education ultimately, so that the individual may have the knowledge and skills to facilitate his or her own choices. The mahatma values each person’s right to control his or her own sphere of action.
While the mahatma tries to be immediate in his effects—relieving suffering, creating understanding, celebrating beauty—he is mindful of the future and its changeable nature. While the future cannot be predicted or controlled, it can be planned for. The mahatma knows that a good thing is made greater by being prolonged. So, while he works for today, he tries to provide the support and planning that will help carry today’s good over into tomorrow.
Thus, while the mahatma is kind to old people, whose time of growth and development has passed and whose future is closing down, he is most caring of children and the young, who still have potential, choices, growth, and possible good fortune ahead of them. Increasing their health, skills, and happiness is a greater and more enduring good than prolonging old age and tending to the passing of the sick and dying. Both need attention, but the needs of the young are more important.
In the longest of views, however, the mahatma knows that all things ultimately end. The sea reclaims the land, and then the ice descends. Fire burns away the forest, and then the sun explodes. Whatever we have built will one day be forgotten, devalued, and allowed to decay. The people we loved and protected, nurtured and supported, will still go their own way and eventually die. Nothing lasts forever.
The mahatma knows this impermanence to be both the secret of life and the feature that makes life so precious. It is the blazing truth of evolution: the universe is in flux; everything within it is subject to change; no successful form or practice endures forever;6 concepts like “growth,” “success,” and “happiness” depend on adapting to change and becoming fit to survive in current circumstances. A small soul might become bitter at these prospects, but the mahatma cherishes them and is glad to open his hand to the future.
If everything tended to continue unchanging, then you might be fearful that any one thing you valued could become damaged or lost. If some things were eternal and others ephemeral, then you might regret the things that will change. But since even the stars will eventually go black and the universe will end, you can only be happy in and celebrate what this day brings, what the next season promises.
My mother used to call this “being philosophical.” The Buddha taught it as refraining from desire—the human tendency to cling to people and things. In either case, it is simply acknowledging that the universe is bigger than any one of us, and eventually it will want back those atoms and energy that currently compose our bodies and minds—which we never really bought and paid for in the first place.
1. In India, a person of great spirit and worthiness is addressed as “Mahatma,” of which the most familiar example is Mohandas Gandhi. The concept is also part of the yoga tradition and is referred to as “great self.”
2. Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography, we know it when we see it.
3. Or she, for of course there are great-souled women. However, their loving and giving are often hidden within their roles as mothers, nurturers, and caregivers. Generosity and sacrifice are too often presumed in a woman’s life, where they are celebrated in a man’s. But wherever I use the non-specific “he” in this discourse, read “she” as well.
4. The one exception is food. You can consume and thereby control and make into part of your physical self the richest and most delicate foods. But the trap here is that they change from a delight to the eye and the tongue into mere gelatinous fuel for the body and, ultimately, noxious wastes. An hour after eating or drinking, all you can have is the memory of the experience and the hunger and thirst for more. The Romans, with their vomitoriums, tried to extend the pleasures of the table into hours of continued gluttony, but I can’t say that the necessity of seeing it all come back up added to the beauty of the experience.
5. Of course, one sure way that a person can make almost anything exclusively and peculiarly “his” is by defacing and destroying it, denying its usefulness or beauty to others. But that is the way of a small and incompetent soul, not a great one. There is no grandeur in becoming Shiva’s personal representative on Earth.
6. Indeed, concepts like “forever,” “eternity,” “absolute,” and “unchanging” are fantasies. They are words that humans use to console themselves when they begin to suspect that life is short and happiness fleeting.