Print this Page

Musings from Prashanti Nilayam
By Dr. G. Venkataraman

Loving Pranaams at Bhagavan’s Lotus Feet and Greetings from Prashanti Nilayam.

Two anniversaries were observed recently, one with some public notice and the other with scant interest. The first anniversary was the attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11th, 2001, an event which is now simply referred to as 9/11. Shortly after that came October 2nd, Gandhi’s birthday. Hardly anyone took notice of it in India, which is very sad to say the least. But that is not the reason why I am mentioning Gandhi’s birthday. There is another reason to which I shall now come.

Gandhis ambulance brigadeYou see on the day following Gandhi’s birthday, I was casually scanning the headlines of one of India’s leading newspapers. These days I hardly read newspapers since most of them have degenerated into low class tabloids. But on this occasion it so happened that I was waiting to see someone and during that time picked up a newspaper that was lying nearby. I started glancing through it when one headline caught my attention. It said: “The Other 9/11”. I was naturally struck by that headline and asked myself: “What on earth is this?” The newspaper did not give many details but did give me an important clue, and that was that way back in 1906, Gandhi did something important on September 11, when he was in South Africa.

My curiosity was aroused and I made some research. I was astonished to learn that almost a hundred years before the better known and infamous 9/11 that we all are familiar with, on that very date that is September 11th, Gandhi gave a Mantra that was in fact an answer to the violence now sweeping the globe, including terrorism. I cannot go into that history now in entirety, but let me give a gist of it.

It all started in the 19th century, with the colonisation of South Africa in particular. Two European powers competed for control of that part of the African continent. The British defeated the Dutch in the Boer War. South Africa now became a colony under the British Crown, with however, a significant white population of Dutch origin. By the way, it might interest you to know that Gandhi formed an ambulance brigade that helped the British troops during the Boer War. Later the British duly commended Gandhi for his humanitarian aid.

Of course, the country was mainly populated by the indigenous Africans. There were also many Asians mostly from India. These latter belonged to two distinct groups - those employed in menial labour and those in the service sector. To understand why this occurred we have to take note of the following.

We first recall that at its height, the British Colonial Empire stretched from the Fiji islands in the Pacific to Canada and the Caribbean in the western hemisphere. That is why it used to be said in those days: “The Sun never sets on the British Empire”. But it did, and that is how history throws in unexpected curves!

When the British started colonising different countries, they wanted labourers to work on the various projects they embarked on. They realised that India was a land where civilisation had thrived for thousands of years and as such, there were people with all kinds of skills ranging from making swords to sculpturing. The Indians were mostly brought in to work on tea and sugarcane plantations, but in some cases, there were other reasons why Indian labour was imported. For example in Malaya now Malaysia, it was forestry while in East Africa it was laying railway tracks. Many of the other territories colonised by the British were populated for the main by primitive tribes. Therefore, when the colonial masters wanted to develop the land they had occupied and exploit its resources, it was natural for them to tap Indian labour which was ready to be used. Thus is it was that tens of thousands of poor Indians were shipped off to work in faraway lands, and thus it is that today there are over twenty six million people of Indian origin overseas, more than the entire population of Canada today!

The British took tens of thousands of labourers to South Africa and this was, so to speak, the first wave of Indian immigration. These people needed shops where they could buy the things they were used to; they needed many support services, including doctors, barbers etc. This need for the service sector led to the second wave of immigration in many places like Fiji and West Indies; and naturally, there was a second wave in South Africa too. In fact, Gandhi went to South Africa as a young barrister to represent an Indian client there in a court case.

Thus, the Indian community in South Africa was, at that time, made up essentially of two segments – the original immigrants who were brought in as forced labour, and the Indians who came later as traders etc., to offer services to the Indian labourers who were already settled there.

You might then ask: “What about the whites and the native Africans?” Well, the British knew how to take care of themselves. There were service companies from Britain with branches in South Africa and they took care of providing all the major requirements from legal matters to making travel arrangements for going to Europe etc. Where health was concerned, there was the Government Health Service run by whites mainly for the whites. As for the native tribes, they managed the way they had for thousands of years - no organised service really!

In short, the demographic situation in the late nineteenth century was as follows: the Dutch had been defeated no doubt but the Dutch settlers were accepted as full-fledged members of the white community. The dust of the Boer War had settled down and the British rulers took a hard look at the demographic composition of their new colony. There were the whites, a minority but obviously privileged because they were the rulers. The native blacks had to be “suffered with” - but they could be kept in their place. Then there were the Indians; of these, the labourers did not cause any problem, because they had been brought in to do various menial chores that the natives could not do. But the rulers did not see much use for the other Indian immigrants who tended to corner a share of the support services. So a law was passed concerning civic and citizenship rights.

According to this, the whites of course enjoyed first class status. The natives were relegated to the bottom of the totem pole – no problems were foreseen in doing so. The natives were “subhuman” in their opinion, and they had no place except at the bottom. As for the Indians who were seen as troublesome, the law was designed to be highly discriminatory and even insulting. The idea was to harass them to the point of forcing them out of South Africa. This was done by requiring all Indians to carry a permit at all times. The permit rule was designed to be obnoxious from the beginning, and it permitted limitless scope for harassment. For example, newborn Indian babies would be taken into detention because they did not have a permit! Can you imagine anything more horrible than that? But that was the way it was then.

At that time, Gandhi had not yet taken up cudgels against the British Empire and colonialism – that came later, after his return to India. He was then quite prepared to accept British rule but wanted fairness for all within that system. The way the law was passed, it granted divine rights to the whites, condemned the blacks and discriminated against the brown. What was to be done under the circumstances?

Committed as he was to the due processes of law, Gandhi attempted legal redress. He wrote to higher authorities in South Africa and wrote to influential Members of the British Parliament. Among those he wrote to was Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Indian to be elected a Member of the British House of Commons. None of this was effective. Then he decided to take the next step, which was the beginning of a new chapter in the never- ending fight against human injustice.

So that’s it! The famous Sathyagraha movement that was to form the cornerstone of India’s fight for Independence was actually born in South Africa, interestingly enough on 9/11, though of a much earlier era. Just compare the two 9/11’s - what a difference! If one goes by the happenings of today, one would probably jump to the conclusion that the only way to fight violence is with more violence. Well, that is the myth that has been handed down from the ages. And it is because belief in that myth is increasing that we have been having wars, more wars, and still more wars. I wonder how many of you know about the birth of the United Nations in 1944, and the Declaration that is part of its birth certificate, so to speak? Just try to find out how many bloody wars have been fought after World War II and how for decades humanity was shivering about the possible outbreak of World War III.

People say that Himsa is the only workable Mantra and that evil can be vanquished only by a strong physical response – read ‘heavy blows’! OK, a lot of people chant that Mantra and many powerful people and indeed nations also practise that Mantra. But that does not mean it is correct. People tend to forget that Martin Luther King successfully used the Gandhi formula in his struggle for equal rights for the black people in America, and Nelson Mandela too successfully used it in his programme of reconciliation after apartheid was thrown out in South Africa. In fact, the Mandela experience demonstrates that Ahimsa or non-violence should not merely be seen as a weapon of resistance; on the contrary, it is also a powerful instrument for achieving reconciliation.

Mandela did not pull the idea out of a hat – he freely acknowledges his debt to Gandhi. In fact as he often says to India: “You sent us a Gandhi and we sent back a Mahatma!” By the way, when Bill Clinton spoke on the occasion of Mandela’s 85th birthday, he said that the only politician who influenced his life was Gandhi. Note that he mentioned Gandhi in the context of politics, which means that Gandhi is relevant even for politics, something that most people dismiss. In fact, since politics is tied up intimately with Society or Samashti as Swami would put it, Ahimsa is more relevant there than anywhere else.

This brings me to the question: “What really is Ahimsa?” The clearest answer to that was given by Swami one afternoon many years ago in Trayee. It is only appropriate that I conclude with this story. It was the month of March, Swami was in Brindavan and I happened to be teaching there at that time. One evening as the famous Trayee session was under way, Swami asked me to speak. In my talk I made a reference to a speech given by a student that morning in the Prayer Assembly. In that talk, the student referred to the “Naxalite problem”. For the benefit of those who do not know, I must mention that the Naxalites are a group of extremists who, fed up with the slow processes of democracy, have taken to arms as the only solution to the problems of inequality. Essentially they are Marxists who have no use for the ballot box, feeling that bullets will attain their goal.

When I sat down after finishing my talk, which by the way was in good part about why violence does not pay, Swami who was seated on the jhoola slowly asked: “Who was that boy who spoke about Naxalites?” Everyone was looking round to see who would get up and acknowledge himself. The boy in question must obviously have been frozen with fear! After what seemed an eternity, the boy stood up. Swami asked him: “You are the boy who spoke about Naxalites?” “Yes Swami.” “Have you ever seen a Naxalite?” “No Swami.” “Then how do you know about Naxalites?” “I have read about them in newspapers and magazines.” “Oh I see,” said Swami and then asked the boy to sit down. I am sure that boy must have been tremendously relieved. Slowly Swami then said, “All of you are worse than Naxalites!” This sure came a great big bomb shell and a devotee whom we all know very well who was seated right next to Swami exclaimed, “Swami!” Bhagavan looked him squarely in the eye and said, “You are the worst of them all!”

Believe me, we were all completely bewildered and did not have an idea of what Swami was meaning. Swami then stood up and gave a Discourse. In that He said that Naxalites use weapons and cause bodily harm. Injuries caused to the body heal in course of time but injuries caused to the Mind with vicious words never heal. Thus mental violence is far worse than physical violence. From that Swami led on to how violence originates in the Mind and how it is in the Mind that violence has to end. The extinction of violence in the Mind cannot ever be achieved with guns and bombs as people and even countries are currently attempting to do.

The truth of the matter is, and it is a very simple truth actually - violence begets more violence. Maybe in the short term, violence may appear to achieve control; but the wound that it causes will, at sometime or the other rebound – this is the famous law of reflection, reaction, resound. There is no escape from it – whether we like it or not, we will always reap what we sow. Unfortunately, humanity does not want ever to learn this lesson, despite the Declaration of the United Nations. Peace through terror was the philosophy during the Cold War period. Is that real Peace? Peace through overwhelming violence now seems to be the fashion! Can that ever work in the long term? Incidentally, it is worth recalling what Swami has to say about war. This is what He has said in part:

“It is meaningless to aspire for peace in the streets and villages without peace at home. These days it has become a fashion to pray for peace! Meetings are arranged for establishing peace in the world. Keeping the atom bomb in the hand, people shout for peace! Even by journeying to the Moon, man cannot get peace. Peace is within you and not on the Moon! It is better to travel half an inch into the heart than to journey hundreds of thousands of miles to the Moon!”

I do hope you realise how important is the message of Ahimsa that Swami teaches, especially in today’s world. Baba often says: “The earlier Avatars used weapons to vanquish evil but this Avatar will use only LOVE.” Devotees invariably clap but later shake their heads and say, “No, Ahimsa will not work anymore.”

I ask you: “Is it that Prema and Ahimsa will not work or that bigoted minorities of all shades are not prepared to allow them to work, while the rest watch supinely?”

Think about it and do write to us with your views.