Archive | September, 2009

Gandhi Inspires Obama

8th September 2009
Wakefield High School, Arlington, Virginia

President Obama went to Wakefield High School in Arlington to give a national speech welcoming students back to school. He called for students to take responsibility and to learn from their failures so that they succeed in the end.

A student asked President Obama:

Hi. I’m Lilly. And if you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?

President Obama replied:

Dinner with anyone dead or alive? Well, you know, dead or alive, that’s a pretty big list. (laughter) You know, I think that it might be Gandhi, who is a real hero of mine. Now, it would probably be a really small meal because — (laughter) — he didn’t eat a lot. But he’s somebody who I find a lot of inspiration in. He inspired Dr. King, so if it hadn’t been for the non-violent movement in India, you might not have seen the same non-violent movement for civil rights here in the United States. He inspired César Chávez, and what was interesting was that he ended up doing so much and changing the world just by the power of his ethics, by his ability to change how people saw each other and saw themselves — and help people who thought they had no power realize that they had power, and then help people who had a lot of power realize that if all they’re doing is oppressing people, then that’s not a really good exercise of power.

So I’m always interested in people who are able to bring about change, not through violence, not through money, but through the force of their personality and their ethical and moral stances. And that’s somebody that I’d love to sit down and talk to.

Source: The White House Press Office

Gandhi in the 21st Century – by Prof. Bhikhu Parekh

The Second Fred Blum Memorial Lecture

If  I were to sum up Gandhi in just one phrase (his phrase) I would say he committed his life, as he called it,

“to grow from truth to truth”.

In other words, as a human being he said he only had partial perceptions of ultimate reality, or what is truth about anything, and life consists in our constantly rising above our limitations, our prejudices, exposing ourselves to others, and – in the process – growing “from truth to truth”.  In fact, I think that sums up the Mahatma’s life, and in my view it also sums up the life of Fred Blum.

Now, what about Mahatma in the 21st century?  I think the best way to approach the topic would be to ask what are the important questions with which the 20th century began, and which will haunt us for the next hundred years, if not more?  And of the many issues I have thought about, I would say four are critically important:

  1. Clash of cultures and civilisations
  2. The role of religion in public life
  3. Is there an alternative to violence ?
  4. Is there a place for personal integrity ?

Clash of cultures and civilisations

Let’s take the first one: clash of civilisations. Thanks to globalisation, different cultures and civilisations come together.  As they do so they encounter incomprehension and misunderstanding.  What do we do about it ?  Although many say a clash is inevitable, Gandhi had a different kind of answer.  When “9/11” happened in 2001, a lot of people said this was due to a clash of civilisations, and what has happened since has gone on to confirm this.  And therefore – they say – all we can hope to do is to manage the world as well as we can, hold on to our values, keep enemies at bay, and try to make sure that the world remains reasonably stable but be prepared for the clashes to occur from time to time.  Gandhi’s arguments were: (a) no kind of clash is inevitable; (b) by believing they are, you are demonising your opponent, turning them into inhuman monsters.  Therefore you put them outside the pale of human community and, because you have dehumanised them, you feel you can do anything with them because they “are not human beings”.  Therefore you can hunt them down.  Many Middle Eastern countries acquire “plus points” for every individual they can lock up or kill, so long as they are described as “terrorist Al Qaida supporters”.  In other words, once you dehumanise people you begin to dehumanise yourself, because that is the only way you think you can deal with them.  Therefore the moral inhibitions and scruples, which normally govern your life, seem to disappear.

I think this kind of Gandhian analysis has come true because if you look at the way, for example, that President Bush talks about Al Qaida, and the way in which Osama bin Laden talks about the Americans, there’s a complete symmetry.  Osama will say “Your capitalist American society in the West is an axis of evil, you are a degenerate society”.  Bush says the same in reverse.  Osama will say: “None of you are innocent because you are all complicit in the guilt and the harm that you are inflicting on us.”  Bush says the same: “You are either for us or against us”.

Gandhi said again and again – in his fights against racism in South Africa, the under-privileged in India or against the British – that he discovered increasingly how you become the “mirror-image” of your enemy.  So that is a no-win situation.  In trying to defeat an enemy, you defeat something very vital within yourself.  So Gandhi’s answer was that what we need is dialogue between cultures, trying to understand each other and in the process recognise that other human beings are not “others” or strangers or enemies – they are “us” in a different form – and we share a common community.

But that’s easy to say, and I want to explore the specificity of the kind of dialogue that is taking place in this and other forums – where you simply talk in a mainly gentle, courteous kind of way: I listen to you, you listen to me – and we go home exactly the same as before !  Mahatma says that that is dishonest.  That is not a dialogue – it’s simply a series of monologues.  We think each other “a nice chap or girl” and we never critically engage with each other’s beliefs.  The Mahatma’s concern was what I talked about earlier – “going from truth to truth”.  Gandhi said true dialogue is important because (a) I want to understand “what makes you tick” – what is the world of thought from within you from which you look at the world ?  and (b) what can I learn from you ?  True dialogue grows out of the desire to grow, to expand one’s universe, to enrich oneself.  Which leads to a further question: Why do you want to enrich yourself ?  Where did that desire come from ?  And Gandhi says it comes from the fact that you recognise your own limitations.  In other words, self-criticism is the foundation of a dialogue.  I, reflecting upon myself, find certain limitations in my own culture, in myself.  I want therefore to open up myself to others and see what they have to tell me; to incorporate those things into my ways of thinking and, in the process, to grow.

Let me give an example of this kind of creative and critical engagement the Mahatma was talking about.  All his life he looked at his own civilisation and was enormously impressed with the fact that of all the civilisations, the Hindus, Buddhists and Jains had been the greatest votaries of nonviolence, ahimsa.  So from his own civilisation he took some of the ideas of nonviolence.  But, as he reflected, he realised that this idea is negative because it is passive.  Nonviolence for the Indian means not doing harm to anybody.  It doesn’t mean going out and helping and, therefore, is passive.  It does not have the active spirit of social service and love. So Gandhi turns to Christianity.  In the 21-odd years he was in South Africa that was one religion that was extremely close to him.  From Christianity he gathers the idea of caritas or love.  Active love.  So he takes over the Hindu idea of nonviolence, combines it with the Christian idea of caritas and arrives at the idea of “active service for the love of human beings”.  But then – as he reflects further – he is slightly unhappy with the Christian idea of love on the grounds that it is emotional, and he was looking for a kind of love which leads to no internal emotional disturbance.  So he turns again to the Hindu idea of “non-attachment” – and arrives at the idea of “detached but active engagement in the world, in the spirit of love for your fellow human beings”.  So what you see here is a man who plays with ideas drawn from different religions.   Added to this are his fasts, which can only be born out of a creative tension between the two traditions.  So this is the kind of thing Gandhi was talking about when he talks about a dialogue between civilisations.

“And this means,” says Gandhi, “that because other civilisations are my interlocutors they are the sources of my inspiration.  I wish them well.  I want them to flourish.”  So this dialogue results in universal sympathy for different points of view and a desire to see them grow and flourish.

The role of religion in public life

The second question – what is the role of religion in public life? Now, many of us are scared when religion is brought into public life ! We know what happens – it can either lead to Ayatollah Khomenei, or to the BJP in India, or to evangelicals in the USA when they tried to persuade Reagan to take on the so-called evil Soviet Union, etc. Religion is frightening. Therefore the liberal impulse is to say “please keep it out of politics”, every time they see a religious figure or hear a religious statement: “You are welcome to live by it but don’t bring it into the political circle Because you will raise atavistic passions, you will be making absolutist demands because religion talks in the language of absolute emotions, like the evangelicals. Which is not like politics. Because politics is about compromise, about what is negotiable, what can be talked through”. Now the difficulty here is that for religious people, religion simply cannot be privatised. It is not simply meant to ensure contemplation between you and the Almighty – religion is a matter of fundamentally held values. You want to live by those values – these values inform you, and therefore they inform the public life. Therefore religion simply cannot be excluded from public life. But at the same time, religion can cross a limit when it becomes a ‘state religion’: then the state begins to enforce certain religious values – as happened in Iraq, Afghanistan and many other places. So the question for us – and the answer I look for from the Mahatma – is, how is it possible to recognise religion as a significant factor in the public and personal life of the religious person, but at the same time prevent it from taking over the state and becoming authoritarian and illiberal?

Here I think Gandhi had some important things to say. First, he says religion has a central place in public life, but should have nothing to do with the state. In other words, central to Gandhi’s religious thought is the distinction between the public realm and institutions of the state. So, religion has a legitimate place in public life, but the institutions of the state should have nothing to do with religion. They should be secular. Gandhi, for example, surprised many people by being opposed to the state funding religious schools or religious organisations, as it is not the state’s business. Any form of religious organisation that cannot be kept going by their own members, is dead. If you are really committed to religion, you raise the funds to keep it going. So his first important argument was that we need a secular state, with religion playing an important part in public life.

The second important thing he was saying is that one must recognise that no religion is perfect – in the same way that no country is perfect. Now, there are highly complex arguments, not to be gone into here, when religions claim to be ‘revelations’, direct from the Almighty – e.g. Allah dictating the Qur’an, Jesus being the Son of God. These religions would claim to be ‘perfect’, so they would have a big bone to pick with the Mahatma when he said that by definition, no religion can be perfect. His argument went something like this: God is infinite: the finite human mind cannot capture the infinite: therefore all our perceptions are inherently limited. Even if there is a direct revelation, that revelation is in a human language, with all its limitations to a human being, a particular human being, a prophet or whatever, who have their own limitations and therefore Gandhi says that every religion captures a particular vision of human life. That is its strength. But, in so far as it excludes other visions of human life, these are its limitations. Therefore every religion benefits from systematic and critical dialogue with God and with other religions. This is because your understanding of other religions, your understanding of the ultimate reality of God, deepens as you engage with other religions in trying to see how they perceive the infinite.

Gandhi would often cite the famous example from the Jain tradition where you have seven blind men trying to describe an elephant. One gets hold of the trunk and says God is this kind of thing, another takes hold of his foot and says an elephant is like a castle – and so on. Gandhi would say each of them captures something, but each of them is limited. Even if you are describing a scene that all of us have seen, we would each describe it differently from our own perspectives – how could it be otherwise in relation to the infinite and in relation to God?

Therefore the proper attitude of one religion to another is not to try and convert people, but rather to engage in a critical dialogue, so that each can benefit from the other. In this way you make a fraternity – a solidarity of different religious believers – rather than hostilities.

The alternative to violence

My third question – does the Mahatma have an alternative to violence? Of course he was totally opposed to violence in principle – although in practice he condoned acts of violence from time to time on the grounds that when human beings were desperate and pressed beyond a certain point, they might react, and that is understandable, although it might be unjustified. We must fight against injustice – of that there can be no compromise. So you can’t be a pacifist in the sense that you are not bothered about the state of the world. Injustices address you, and you must do something about them. But is violence the answer ? Gandhi says no, because violence itself is a form of injustice. It also involves hatred and it can create nothing lasting because its legacy is always going to be of ill-will. Therefore, while violence is not the answer, justice must be fought for.

The only answer is rational discussion. But Gandhi said there is one important lesson he learnt in life and that is that reason has its limits. Reason can take us up to a point, but as he kept saying, when the heart is hard and rigid, reason doesn’t work. What you need is the unity of head and heart. Reason can only appeal to the head – you must find ways of activating somebody’s heart, conscience, his moral universe, so that he is prepared to recognise you as a human being and then a rational discourse can begin to proceed. Reason has its limits and Gandhi says sometimes you can find a strong rationalist becoming a strong advocate for violence. For example: if I am unable to persuade someone then the rationalist would say: “these guys are morally obtuse, no use talking to them, they are not being reasonable, they are not human” – and therefore it is found rationally legitimate to engage in violence against them. And Gandhi’s argument was that the relation between reason and violence is much closer than we realise.

So – what are the alternatives ? You will know about satyagraha – the ‘surgery of the soul’, reason connected with the head and nonviolent resistance connected with the heart. In other words, in the moment, the perpetrator of injustice does not recognise the victim as a human being and the questions are “How can we activate his/her conscience? How can we get him/her to recognise that both are human beings and therefore both have certain rights?” Gandhi’s answer is for you to take upon yourself the burden of other people’s sins and nonviolent suffering. If you look at satyagraha, or the way of engaging in nonviolence, it consisted mainly of three methods or ways of acting, evolved over time:

  1. Non-cooperation. People would see an evil regime, realise their own complicity in keeping it in being, and refuse to cooperate with it.
  2. Boycott. For example, the boycott of British cloth in favour of Indian homespun.
  3. Civil disobedience, where you break the law because your conscience would not allow you to comply, and you would accept punishment but not give in.

It is amazing how this kind of civil disobedience and form of noncooperation is coming back into the 21st century in a big way. I have been involved – not directly, but by passive participation – in many discussions when people have been asking about the Iraq War: over a million people protested in Britain, scores of millions protested all over the world, religious people were against it … and yet the war went on. What could we have done to stop it? And if something like this were to occur again, what should we be doing to stop it? Increasingly people are beginning to say civil disobedience might be the answer: we will not pay our taxes; we will not co-operate with you. And if a million people, instead of marching, had done this, what would have happened?

The same thing is beginning to happen in the States. A fine Gandhian scholar and friend of mine, Professor Douglas Allen, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maine, a few months ago, together with academic colleagues and students, staged a peaceful demonstration outside the office of their Senator. They were arrested, tried and have been sentenced to community service. Douglas was telling me that many people in the US are beginning to feel increasingly that if something like Iraq were again to loom on the horizon, the level of practical action will have to be raised to the next gear – and that’s the sort of thing Gandhi was doing. I think the question for us to ask is are these methods which Gandhi employed the only ones or are there other ways in which we can try to activate the conscience of the opponent, or put pressure on the Government when it is trying to do something which is unjust? What other methods can be added to the Gandhian part of it?

When I was in Israel not long ago I asked several Arab hosts of mine about the possibility of their using nonviolence against Israelis, because they will always react against violence. But what if, I suggested, you were to engage in nonviolent resistance of the Gandhian type – civil disobedience, non-cooperation – telling the Israelis you will not harm them but want injustices remedied: If you want to shoot us, do so. Do you think the Israeli Government would have shot down a thousand people or more? If such a nonviolent movement had been mounted, with the world watching, I wonder what its success would have been? The Gandhian method can be tried in complex intractable situations, which is not to say it would always succeed. For instance, against Stalin’s Soviet Union or Hitler’s Germany, nonviolence would probably not have worked because there were no witnesses capable of reporting to the world. But the point is, this is not the case in the 21st century. Given the fact of the internet with access to almost any part of the world, I think the Gandhian method has a considerable chance of working.

The place for personal integrity

Let’s look at my fourth main question, Is there a place for personal integrity ? We have seen that our values are constantly being revised in the light of what we come across. But once they are revised and you are reasonably satisfied, then you say in the language of the theologian Martin Luther,

“I can do nothing else. This is my life, the values on which my life is constructed, I want to live by it”.

And Gandhi’s point was – and this I think is an unusual way of looking at it – that these values define you. They constitute your truth: the truth of my life is the truth of the values I want to live by. And therefore integrity for him basically means: How can I live by my truth? By the truth as I see it, recognising that I will constantly be going ‘from truth to truth’. Gandhi would say, for example, that both capitalism and communism are evil but there is no use in just campaigning against it – if it is evil does it show in your own life or not? So, for example, he considered the evil of capitalism was the idea of possessiveness, buying property and so on. So he had no private property and when he died all he left behind were his sandals, spittoon and his three monkeys – no insurance policy, writings, royalty or copyright – nothing. Another example was untouchability in India. Gandhi complained about it, fought against it but then asked himself whether he was also living it? So he went and lived among the untouchables and adopted an untouchable daughter.

Being a deeply religious person, Gandhi believed he must ultimately be able to trust God. And therefore he refused to have security of any kind, and no bodyguards. And when there were several attacks on his life, and the Government of India insisted he had physical protection, Gandhi said,

“The day I seek physical protection, I would rather not live”.

At a prayer meeting, when a bomb was thrown and the crowd began to disperse, Gandhi sat unmovingly and said to the crowd,

“Frightened of a mere bomb?”

and carried on with his prayer. This was the integrity of the man. It was such a profound integrity that when India became independent this man was to be seen nowhere near New Delhi. When the Prime Minister of India said that Gandhi should be the President of India in a position of power, he thought it was a joke! He said:

“My place is among the victims of Muslim/Hindu violence”.

This, I think, is the lesson that can be learnt from his life: personal integrity and when he said,

“My life is my message”

I think his life ultimately was the message of absolute, uncompromising personal integrity:

“This is where I stand. This is how I shall live. And unless I am convinced that it is wrong (and I could be convinced that it is wrong), then this is how I shall live”.

I think the different ways I have tried to take you through these four questions, go to show that the Mahatma is not ready to disappear in the 21st century!

A translated version of this lecture is available in Bengali by clicking on the link below. Copyright for this translation is strictly the property of Prof. Anwarullah Bhuiyan, Associate Professor, Dept of Philosophy, Jahangirnagar University, Dhaka, 1342.

Bengali translation of  ‘Gandhi in the 21st century’

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