Why atonement doesn’t work

(This article was posted in the ?Meditations? column of the Hindustan Times on 8 October 2002.) WHAT?S WRONG with the scent of a lotus, with music, cake, sunset or the softest touch? What?s wrong with an exhilarating risk? Nothing, if we perceive things in the right way, but sought after without discrimination, the results can be disastrous. Desire that exceeds need easily get out of hand and can lead to illegal actions. This is the start of criminality: Unnecessary cravings must be uprooted, but this is only possible if something better is on offer. Ancient texts inform its of something called param dristva or the ?higher taste?, which the Bhagavad Gita says is superior to rasa or ?sense enjoyment.? Rasa is also defined as ?taste?, so what could possibly be wrong with taste? Scriptural knowledge informs us that we will always have a taste for sense objects, even if we compensate for overindulgence with redemptive measures, including punishment. A somewhat extreme illustration of this principle is the criminal activity known as recidivism, or repeated offences. Most toughs know the law of the land and its penalties, but are used to taking extreme risks. They tend to act at night, knowing it?s wrong. They say they?re sorry even confess and get absolution – a partial atonement – before doing it all again. So what would true crime prevention look like? Punishment is inadequate. Reformation requires education. A change of heart and mind is what?s needed. An absence of crime depends on an absolute yet everyday sense of morality; a Godliness that is not pulpit bound, a pervasive righteousness. We need spirituality without blind belief and a strong ethical code, devoid of dogmatism. Even someone as immersed in worldly affairs as Robert Bartley, editor of The Wall Street Journal, once called for a moral consensus. One, ?to which philosophers and lawmakers and judges can repair: A foundation, that is, for saying that some things are right and others wrong… If we are to deal with the issues of crime, welfare, violence. abortion and so on. we need to recover a sense of shared morality As a society, we need to start developing, to start looking for a new establishment to lead us.? (published in The Wall Street Journal, 26 May, 1995) Bartley?s shared morality is another way of saying ?foundational morality?, which must start with education about rediscovering God?s purpose. This mental re-engineering is what gives us the higher taste, a devotion that stills the pendulum of reckless duality.