Following a short lecture on the subject of conventionality, given on Saturday, July 21st, 1923, Hazrat Inayat Khan answered questions from his students. The general idea of social convention has also been discussed in this letter to mureeds.
Q: Will you tell us which has the most influence on the individual, heredity or environment?
A: The heredity is the foundation of the house, and the environment is the building. And from this you can understand what is more useful and what less, and what has greater influence and what has less.
Q: The most civilized have been the most conventional people. How does it come that the artist generally is not conventional at all?
A: The artist lives in his own world. The greater the artist, the more his own world he has. He does not live in the world. All those who live in their own world, they are out of the world, they have a civilization of their own. But when it comes to the question of the worldly life, life in the midst of the world, there comes the question of conventionality. He cannot ignore conventionality, and at the same time live in the midst of the world.
Paderewski* did not have time enough to comb his hair. That is another thing. But I do not think that he could have come as a president without brushing his hair. As an artist it is all right, but as a man in the midst of the world, he has a world to face.
Q: Is not conventionality very often the result of personal taste and habits? How would it be possible to know what to change and what to keep, when the conventionality of each person depends upon his environment; there would surely always be people who disagreed in this?
A: Of course, this necessitates the exclusiveness of environments. Also this is the cause of divisions of humanity. And yet no civilization can avoid it very well, however greatly advanced in its thoughts. The progress will create necessities of such kind; they will not admit it, but they will live it just the same. But I should think that the best way of understanding conventionality is the spiritual. Once a person understands the spiritual moral, he does not need to learn man-made refinement. It will come by itself, as soon as man begins to regard the pleasure and displeasure of God in the feeling of every person he meets, he cannot but be most refined, whatever be the position of his life. He may live in a cottage, but his manner will surpass the manner of palaces.
Another thing, when man has begun to judge his own actions, the fairness will develop in his nature. And therefore everything he will do will be just and fair. He does not need very much the study of outer conventionalities; he naturally will become conventional. And the third thing is that Sufi conception of God as the Beloved. When this conception is practiced in everyday life, and one regards it in dealing with everyone, that in everyone there is the Divine Spirit, more or less, one would regard everyone with that devotion and respect, with that thought and consideration which one would give to the Beloved God. And in these three ways this spiritual life teaches man the very depth of conventionalities. And if a civilization was built, which no doubt will be built one day, on a spiritual basis, the conventionalities of the world will become genuine and worth having.
Q: Do you think that conventionalities are fundamentally based on common sense?
A: Sometimes based on common sense, sometimes on the super sense, and sometimes beneath it.
Q: How can one make people who are lacking in education see a thing that does not exist in their eyes, where they think there is no such a thing as what the aristocratic people feel as necessary for their happiness?
A: Civilization means progress. Those who are not educated, they must be educated to understand life better. There are only two things; either go forward, or go backward. Either begin to think as everybody else without education thinks, or take the one who is not educated with you, and go forward. One thing or the other. As the inner inclination is to go forward, and to take the one who cannot understand just now gently… that the beautiful things are for the benefit of humanity.
I should think that an ordinary man in the street, he is neglected, man turns his back to him. If he was taken closer to oneself, if he was taught with simplicity and good will, not showing that he was ignorant of beauty or culture, but showing him that in this is his real benefit, I am sure that the conditions, as bad as they are now, will not be. And there will be a better understanding between the classes as they are just now.
I will tell you a little example. When travelling in India, I was staying in a place near a Hindu temple. And there were two porters who took care of that temple. They were of Afghanistan, proud and stiff, rough and rigid in their manner, and yet in their expression there was honesty and goodness. As I passed through that way I saw them ignoring, so to speak, my entering and going out, lest they may have the trouble of observing any conventionalities. One of them came to me with a message from his master. I got up from my seat, and I received him most cordially. And since that time, every time I passed, even if five times in a day, I was very well-received with smiles, and with very warm welcome, and there was no more ignoring, because education was given to that person without hurting his feeling. That gave him the pleasure; certainly he thought that he can give to another also.
To force a virtue upon a person is pride, but to let him see the beauty of a good manner, that is education. The condition today would become much better if we would take that to heart, and know as our sacred task to approach the people who need ripening, in such a gentle way, with such sympathy and love, and to develop in their spirit that culture and beauty which will then be shared between us and them.
*Ignace Paderewski (1860-1941) was a Polish composer and pianist with whom Hazrat Inayat Khan had personal contact. Paderewski interrupted his musical career to work for the re-establishment of an independent Polish state after World War I, and in 1919 became its first President.