Courage has normally, and instinctively, been identified with physical courage. Physical courage is more common among people than what I choose to call Social courage. By Social courage I mean the courage to stick by your value systems regardless of the fact that it may cause you to lose the respect of society.
Supposing you see a group of your friends bullying a young boy! Would you join them or stop them? The tamasik person would join them but both the Rajasik and Satvik persons would try to stop them even if that gets them ostracized from their group.
What, then, if your group of friends are engaged in a fight with another group of people? The tamasik person would join them, of course, if he can see no way of escaping the battle unseen. The Rajasik person would join the battle with his friends either because he is bound by personal loyalties or because to not do so would cause him to be labeled a coward and a traitor. The Satvik person would either try to stop the battle or join the side that is fighting for a just cause even if it is the side of the others. Thus, in the Ramayana, Ravan’s brother Kumbakarn fights against Ram, even when he knew it was Ravan who was in the wrong, as an exemplar of a Rajasik person. The Satvik Vibhishan, on the other hand, attempts to stop Ravan from battling Ram, despite being repeatedly insulted, and then joins hands with the just cause.
The fear of Scoiety’s disapprobation is a far stronger fear than physical fear. What armies call esprit de corps is a way of ensuring that soldiers would rather face death or disablement in battle than the contempt of their peers. In fact, many a noble deed as well as many an atrocity has been committed by people – against their own personal inclinations – out of fear of social disapprobation. Social courage is, therefore, rarer than physical courage.
Is that all there is to courage then? Physical and Social courage anchor behavior! It requires what I would call Moral courage to anchor your feelings. To be able to love when love has been repaid with disdain; to be able to trust when trust has been repaid with betrayal; to be able to be compassionate when compassion has been repaid with contempt and to be able to be truthful when truth has been repaid with disbelief requires a far higher and rarer order of courage. Please understand that I do not mean that you should love the person who treated you with disdain, trust the person who betrayed you etc. That is not courage but folly. What I meant was that you need rare courage to still be able to meet other people in life with an open mind and without letting your past experiences embitter you. This sort of courage is exclusively the province of the Satvik person.
Situations in life do not conveniently fall into categories. A physical confrontation may (and probably will) have social consequences – as in fisticuffs with the thug leading to a police case and, therefore, social disapprobation. A social confrontation would probably have physical consequences – as in standing up for a co-worker losing you your job and leading to problems of survival. All confrontations affect the realm of the emotions and, thus, have moral consequences. A good Social system is one where desirable actions by members of that Society do not lead to undesirable consequences and undesirable actions necessarily and inevitably lead to undesirable consequences. Social systems should not operate by depending on individual acts of courage.
People do not slot themselves conveniently into boxes either. Thus, a person with great physical courage may well have little Social courage and someone with no Physical courage may exhibit great Social courage. To know the fears that stop you from doing the right thing is to be able to confront those fears and to win. A good individual is one who stays true to his value systems regardless of consequences and even if the Society he lives in is dysfunctional.
In the past, a great deal of premium was placed on courage. Rightly so, since without courage none of our other virtues would stand the test of Life.