The Mother Divine
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By Jayaram V

Compassion is the culmination of the refinement of human character. It manifests in a person after he attains certain mental and spiritual awareness. It is an integral and important aspect of humanity, divinity and spirituality. The virtue of compassion is practiced in all world religions under different names as an important spiritual quality. It expresses humanity which is natural but mostly remains hidden in most people. The practice of nonviolence (ahimsa), friendliness (mitrata or metta), empathy, charity, selfless service and unconditional love are closely associated with compassion.

Compassion makes people go out of their way to feel for others and help others deal with their problems, help others overcome physical or emotional hurt. It betters us physically, mentally or spiritually to live with increased responsiveness and sensitivity. Compassion arises from openness, sensitivity, attentiveness, sense of justice and fairness. Although it seems to be a matter of heart and an emotional issue, compassion arises from rational thought, knowledge, wisdom, observation, sound judgment and a clear understanding of the ways of the world and the suffering which is inherent in the entire existence.  


The literal meaning of compassion (com + passus) in Latin is suffering together or suffering along with others or for others. In English, it originally meant showing or feeling love or passion to others. It also said to be related in origin to the English word patient (the suffering person), thereby lending credence to the theory that the word originated in relation to sick or ailing people. 

True compassion arises when one genuinely feels for others problems or suffering and makes a genuine attempt to help them. Sympathy, empathy, kindness, concern, consideration are different aspects of compassionate behaviour, with subtle differences. Compassion is not just a feeling. It is a part of a general attitude or mindset of a helping nature, which results in supportive and remedial actions.

Truly compassionate people just do not sit by and watch others suffering. They try to do something about it within their capacity and zone of influence. In some cases, people make great sacrifices, ignoring their interests, and become role models to others. Whether they help others or not, most spiritual people tend to be compassionate and sensitive to the feelings and suffering of others. Sometimes, they give up their own comforts and personal feelings to accommodate others.

The psychology of compassion

Compassion is closely related to love because without love, it is difficult to experience compassion. We experience compassion towards people with whom we have a physical or mental affinity. When we extend that feeling to a great many people and generalize it, it becomes a universal feeling which is exemplified by many saints and spiritual masters.

From an evolutionary perspective, compassion seems to be a part of our survival instinct. It is common behaviour among not only humans but also among many mammals. In nature, it seems compassion, or a similar feeling drives humans as well as animals in the parenting and bonding process, transcending their natural and instinctive desire for self-preservation. Surely, compassion makes people care for their family, friends and children, drives them to live in groups to protect themselves and others from common threats and helps them in their collective survival.

It is not uncommon for people to show false sympathy or superficial compassion to win the approval, appreciation or acceptance of others or gain some tangible benefit. Politicians and people in public life frequently resort to this behaviour to preserve their power and status or to present themselves in a positive light. When such pretences are not matched by appropriate actions, people see through that deception and feel betrayed. Hence, the common wisdom, "A friend in need is a friend indeed." Anyone can speak words of compassion and show sympathy as part of their impression management and social behaviour, but the real test is whether their actions match their words and feelings which they have expressed.
True love and friendship survive on the foundation of compassion. Love brings people together, but it is compassion which sustains relationships and prompts people to make personal sacrifices to adjust, adapt and accommodate according to the needs and demands of the relationship. When it is absent, relationships crumble. Many marriages end up in divorces when the couples stop being sensitive and responsive to each other's feelings and the need for love, support and belongingness. 
One of the commons beliefs about compassion is that it is a variant of love, which makes people empathize with others and feel their suffering and distress. Love itself is a survival instinct which helps beings in the propagation of their species. Just as love, compassion helps humans and animals to live in groups and socialize with others, and to adapt themselves to the group needs and social norms.
Since most human behaviour is common, it is not difficult to sense other peoples’ feelings and see life from their perspective. It also helps detect and discriminate true love and compassion from its pretentious counterparts. In most cases, compassion is a conditional and reciprocal feeling, which one person shows to another when that person meets with certain conditions, obligations and expectations.

Since it depends upon many psychological factors, the intensity of compassion varies from person to person and situation to situation. It is uncertain, unpredictable and less reliable. Hence, all people are not equally capable of compassion, as one can see the evidence of it in personal relationships and on message boards and social networks. As stated above, most people feel compassion for different reasons and in different situations, according to their personal needs, desires and expectations. 

Four factors seem to be at work in evoking the feelings of compassion in people, viz perception, self-awareness, shared identity and imagination. Those who are attentive and good at observation have better chances of experiencing compassion. Secondly, if you have self-awareness and are sensitive to your own feelings and behaviour, you have better chances of being sensitive to other people's feelings. Feeling compassion towards oneself is a desirable virtue which will save us from extreme behaviour and self-destructive habits.

Shared identity is another important aspect. One must perceive a personal connection or a shared identity with others to experience compassion. For example, people tend to show more compassion and sympathy towards those who belong to the same country, culture, religion, ideology or social identity but less towards those who invoke in them the feelings of "them" rather than "us." Compassion for others is also proportionately more intense when the subject is a victim of circumstances rather than his own self-inflicted wounds. Compassion may produce stress in the initial stages when one feels the suffering, but when one perceives one’s own suffering and feels compassion, it becomes deeply relieving and cathartic. 

The spirituality of compassion

From a spiritual perspective, compassion is a form of suffering only. It is suffering which arises at the thought of other people's suffering. It is more acute when one sees one's loved one’s suffering. Compassion as a virtue grows stronger in people, as their understanding of life and human suffering deepens, and as they increasingly transcend their self-centeredness to think of others and feel their suffering as their own. When one sees others as they see themselves, as fellow travellers in the journey of life, having their set of problems and concerns for survival, the feeling of compassion naturally grows. 

However, compassion which is based upon conditions, desires, expectations and attachments, is wavering and uncertain. It is also inferior and rarely benefits people in their spiritual journey or the refinement of their character, behaviour or thinking. People who are engaged in spirituality should aim to cultivate universal and unconditional compassion which radiates in all directions without motive, purpose or agenda. That compassion is superior, which deepens due to inner refinement of character and feelings of universality and which spontaneously arises as a natural expression of oneself.

The idea is one should cultivate universal compassion for all, not only for friends, family and community but also for people across cultures and countries. It should also be extended to include all living beings, not just humans, since they too go through suffering and the harshness of life in their own way. Neither the environmental policies nor government intervention can save this planet from indiscriminate destruction and self-inflicted harm, unless people cultivate compassion and become guardians of the planet and all life. 

Can compassion be cultivated? The answer is: yes certainly. Compassion can be cultivated by focusing upon the four factors we mentioned before, viz. perception, self-awareness, shared identity and imagination or thinking. By closely observing life, by understanding one's own feelings and suffering, by contemplating upon the causes and remedies of suffering and how beings suffer, and by overcoming personal barriers such as selfishness, desire, attachment, expectation, ego, etc., one can certainly intensify feelings of compassion. 

Compassion seems to grow in proportion to our knowledge of the world and our exposure to the various conditions through which we survive and succeed in this unpredictable and uncertain world. Movies, literature and other art forms, which depict human suffering in its extreme form, also deepen our compassion and feelings for the suffering of others. Our knowledge of events such as the holocaust, slavery, colonial brutality, imperialism, the brutality of wars and aggression, genocides, epidemics and endemics, dictatorships, and our exposure to such traumatic events also evoke in us compassionate feelings.