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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
JAI SAI RAM.