September 19, 2008

The Mahatma

Sorrow and suffering make for character if they are voluntarily borne, but not if they are imposed.

Mohandas Gandhi’s example of non-violent civil disobedience has had a profound effect on the world. His life has set into motion other fights for freedom and equality. DH and I recently watched Gandhi, the 1982 award-winning film. And yes, the kudos were a good measuring tool. I was very impressed. I enjoy a movie that gets my wheels turning and leaves me thinking more about it even days later. There were several things that struck me, and I feel compelled to learn more about him and his philosophies.

But, one thing frustrated me. Gandhi united India to fight Britain with non-cooperation and non-violence. He helped his people to see the wisdom in his strategy—to let the British convince themselves of their error by opening their eyes to the injustices they were inflicting on India’s people, by returning violence with non-violence. He believed Britain’s respect could be won by India’s refusal of malice and revenge, and therefore denoting their unbreakable strength. And he was right.

Although Gandhi could unite his people against a common enemy, there were still religious and ethnic differences. These lines were blurred in the conflict, but then reappeared after that commonality was gone. Muslims and Hindus would work together so long as they had the same goal, more or less. Once that goal was won, new problems cropped up, and new hatreds appeared. Or perhaps I should say, old problems and hatreds were renewed. As leaders struggled to know how to govern India on their own, tensions ran high and non-violence was forgotten.

The country was split up into Pakistan (East and West on opposite sides of the nation) and India. Eventually, East Pakistan felt it was not being treated equally with West Pakistan, and after some war, it gained independence as Bangladesh. Violent border disputes still break out today in some areas.

For me, it was frustrating to watch the Indian people fight amongst themselves because of how much they had been through in order to have that right—the right to rule and govern themselves as one people. It was disappointing that they could not agree to be different and to still be one, and that such a disagreement should turn into hate and bloodshed. But, it got me thinking—has it ever been different? Isn’t hatred the natural reflex of mankind? No matter in what time or what age, aren’t we always looking for a reason to position ourselves above others? Or to structure ourselves in such a way that there is a place to slot everyone in, whether it be high or low or somewhere in between? Isn’t every country’s history spotted with shame? What further shames also await us in the future?

As a microcosmic example, in high school I experienced this to a small degree. I was on the dance team, and there were sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Do I even need to point out the hierarchy there? We are all familiar with it, are we not? We had two buses to ride in to football games and local dance competitions. The seniors were the biggest group, so they got one bus. The juniors and sophomores had to share the other. And so, new traditions were formed, and this is how they went. Juniors each got their own benches in the back of the bus. Sophomores (of which I was a part at the time) had to sit at the front of the bus and share benches, sitting two, sometimes three, to a bench. The juniors got to load the bus first, and exit the bus first, and the sophomores had to wait for them. (Oh yeah, I'm all about fringe. . . . Ok, stop laughing.)

Honestly, I was very surprised by this, and looking back, I’m not sure why I didn’t expect something like it. But, frankly, it angered me. I didn’t like being treated unfairly because I was part of the youngest group on the team. It felt humiliating to sit, squished to the edge of the bench, waiting for the juniors to bound through the aisle with all of their stuff, laughing and talking and sneering at us, smacking us in the faces with their bags, inadvertently of course. It was simply a way for them to demonstrate that they deserved better treatment because they were one year older. After a few trips, I decided I’d had enough. As soon as we pulled up to the school after a long night, I got my stuff together and I got off the bus. It turned out to be more of a spectacle than I had imagined. I’ve never, to this day, seen so many dirty looks and wide eyes in my life. Even my fellow sophomores couldn’t believe what I’d done.

It became an issue, and although no one ever followed in my footsteps (being paralyzed by fear), in the end, there was nothing they could do. There was no demerit system for disobeying “social class” seniority rules. As I talked with others about it, they seemed astonished that I wouldn’t just adapt. They kept saying, “But next year you will be a junior, and you can do whatever you want. Why not just wait?” And I was again surprised to learn that things like this went on in every aspect of school, even the band. There were plenty of other advantages to being a junior; I didn’t see treating others on the team like crap being that important to me. The next year, we decided to abolish bus etiquette. We exited the bus the way it was meant to be emptied, and we all shared seats that year, sophomores and juniors alike. And I must say, it made quite an impact, we got along well with the sophomores, and we enjoyed being their friends.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned that this experience wasn’t just the result of silly teenage behavior, as I thought at the time. Unfortunately, it happens all the time, in the workplace, in the community, even at church. And why should I not expect it? It is an innate quality that we are meant to learn to change—to look beyond our own egocentric tendencies and see our neighbors from a heavenly perspective.

And that is why Gandhi is such a remarkable person, to me. From an early age, he knew what it would take to fight for equality of all men, not just better treatment of Indians. He taught himself how to suffer to build his faith, fortitude, and character. Through discipline and spirituality he learned that all children of God deserve equality under the law. His faith was so strongly rooted that even physical pain did not motivate him to obey unjust laws. He would not act by force, coerce those around him, or strike back in violence, and in that way, he was in total control of his destiny—until someone else decided to end his life. I think he was afraid when he saw the staff coming down toward his body or the gun pushed in his face, but this fear did not rule his life. He used those emotions to mold his character and come closer to God because his suffering was voluntary. He decided to suffer. His course was his choice, even in death. It sounds very much like another story I know.
He, who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world. It was a perfect act.
Now, before you believe me blasphemous, I’m not comparing Gandhi to Jesus Christ, I would not want to do that. But, I think I know where Gandhi took his example to follow. I think he followed so precisely that he was able to carefully turn off his natural hatred and turn on the better part of himself—the divine part. He truly became a man who knew God, whose life was motivated by faith and love.

Although things did not end up the way he would have chosen for India, I think he would be happy to know that his people revere him as the father of a nation, a courageous soul, a Great One, and listen to his wisdom, although he is gone—that his influence has reached all over the world.

It’s always hard to witness the frustrating reality of human hatred. And although I’d like to sit back and say with certainty that I’d never do such a thing, the seed of hatred is already planted in all of us, since we drew breath and joined the human race. The potential for inflicting gross cruelty lies in each of us, but our ability to behave that way grows only as we nourish that part of ourselves with bitterness and egotism. It’s repulsive and sobering to think of such atrocities that way, but important at the same time—to know what evil and what benevolence we are capable of, according to what we choose.

However depressing that may be, one lesson echoed so loudly that I could not ignore it: the world will never be overwhelmed by evil, no matter how evil people get. Someone somewhere will listen to that divine portion deep inside and teach others how to transform themselves in the same way, and that influence is so powerful and so potent that no evil can overtake it completely.
Whenever I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There may be tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they may seem invincible, but in the end, they always fail. Think of it—always.

1 comment:

brittani c. said...

I love how thought provoking this post was. I haven't seen Gandhi yet, but have heard many great things about the movie. Our world needs more leaders like Ghandi...perhaps we could tolerate and treat people a little better than we do today.