16.04 – Is the knife cutting to heal or to wound?
The scriptures compare the spiritual master’s words with a surgical knife. Those words cut through the misconceptions and illusions that bind materialistic people, thereby healing them spiritually.
As aspiring devotees, we can use this metaphor to understand how unpalatable feedback from our spiritual mentors may be beneficial. But if we use it to justify our own hurting speech towards others, we often disastrously pervert the principle. We become like surgically untrained compounders imitating the surgeon’s cuts.
That’s why it’s vital that we remember an indispensable counter-balancing principle. The Bhagavad-gita (16.04) states that harsh speech (parushyam) characterizes the ungodly. This statement becomes all the more emphatic when contrasted with the Gita’s preceding (16.03) mention of gentleness (mardavam) as the characteristic of the godly. Exalted spiritual teachers are normally gentle; they use strong speech only when it is essential. They are like responsible doctors who use surgery as the final resort, never the first resort.
But when we speak harshly, we may well be continuing our habitual harshness from our past ungodly life. The only difference is that we now get to rationalize that harshness as ‘surgical.’
If we want to actually help others, we need to first cultivate gentleness as the habitual characteristic of our speech. Then we need to honestly evaluate whether we are qualified to ‘operate’ on others. A surgeon has to be benevolent (desiring to do good) and competent (capable of doing good) – and should be seen as trustworthy by the patients. Similarly, we need to by our purity, maturity and authority become spiritually benevolent and competent – and should be seen as trustworthy by others.
Only when we become benevolent in intention, competent in execution and trustworthy in perception can we use cutting words effectively. Till then it is best to stick to gentler methods of communication.