Tag Archives: nonviolence

Avian Nonviolence, Gandhian Gimmicks and Simple Inspiration

I have pity on birds and respect for Gandhi; I query his quirks and ponder his paintings, follow his final steps and lament his lost legacy.

India is 75% Hindu.  Businessmen chant mantras with prayer beads on the Delhi metro, worshippers bow and ring bells at temple entrances, everywhere you look are roadside shrines and colourful pictures of diverse deities.  But I’ve been in surprisingly few temples here, as Delhi’s main monuments are mostly Muslim.  An acquaintance who moved up from south India said he missed the towering gateways and huge complexes of Hindu temples in his birthplace.

I’ve had a taste of Jainism, a much older faith that stresses non-violence to all living things (see my post on Jainism here).  Jain monks wear gauze masks and sweep the path to avoid breathing or crushing little insects, and to enter their temples leather objects like belts must be removed.  Opposite the Red Fort in the heart of old Delhi is a Jain Charity Birds’ Hospital.  A corridor was lined with cages full of pigeons, peacocks, parrots, finches that were suffering with broken wings, splinted legs, bloodied heads.  Above the cages were cartoons of birds caught in fans, power lines or kite strings; attacked by crows, cats or hunters.  A poster told of a brave and merciful divine king who gave pieces of his own flesh, and finally his whole life, to save a pigeon from a hawk.

jain-bird-hospital-delhiThe nonviolence of Jainism strongly influenced Mahatma Gandhi, whom I’ve long admired.  As a science graduate I love the title of his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth – I introduced the book and the man here.  At the National Gandhi Museum I was again inspired.  I wish I could truthfully say, as Gandhi did, “My life is my message”, or, “My life is one indivisible whole, and all my activities run into one another”.   Gandhi went one day per week without talking and again I was challenged by his emphasis on silence.  So much of my speech is empty chatter and self-seeking aggrandisement.

A plaque outside had Gandhi’s “Talisman” that shows his compassion for the poor.  It was some of the last advice he gave:

Recall the face of the poorest and the most helpless man whom you may have seen and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him.  Will he gain anything by it?  Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny?  In other words, will it lead to swaraj or self-rule for the hungry and also spiritually starved millions of our countrymen?  Then you will find your doubts and yourself melting away.

Gandhi spent his last 144 days at Birla house.  It’s now the “Eternal Gandhi Multimedia Museum”, which presents “a spectrum of information technology visions inspired by Gandhian thought”.  Pluck a harp string to hear a recorded national freedom song, or press a harmonium key for an interfaith hymn.  Pick up salt from an urn to play a presentation on Gandhi’s Salt March, hold up your hands to activate lights on the Pillar of Castelessness, or turn a train cab’s steering wheel to select video clips on Gandhi’s train journeys around India.  A little quirky, but fun for the kids and designed with high ideals: “Each object in the Museum, whether a pixel of light, a bit-map on the screen, an animation, a circuit or a handcrafted object is a living prayer.”

gandhis-roomI wondered how well it all fitted with the stark simplicity of Gandhi’s life.  In his bedroom his few possessions were on display, almost untouched since his death: a mattress on the floor, low writing desk, spinning wheel, staff, sandals and Bhagavad Gita on his pillow, and a small wooden sculpture of the three monkeys who see, hear, and speak no evil.  Through the French doors, low hedges lined his final path. 182 footsteps set in concrete lead to a small shrine in the garden where he was shot on 30 January, 1948 by a fundamentalist Hindu.  A video counted down the minutes to 5:17 as he went to morning prayer.  A 1968 cartoon sent a shiver down my spine.  Gandhi speaks to Martin Luther King: “The odd thing about assassins, Dr King, is that they think they’ve killed you.”

I farewelled Gandhi at Rajghat.  On a black marble plinth where he was cremated are engraved the last words he is said to have spoken, “Hai Ram”, invoking the god he loved.  A small group of Buddhist monks sat with a turbaned Sikh and a western woman, chanting together for peace.  They reminded me of paintings in the Gandhi Museum.  In one, Buddha, Christ and Gandhi tread a shining path to rescue the suffering masses from demons.  In another, rivers flow from a church, temple and mosque to unite in a blue shawl draped over Gandhi’s shoulders; with blood dripping from three bullet wounds in his bare chest, he embraces four figures: a Christian, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim.

The site is near the Yamuna River.  The shoreline is hard to access, but I got a distant glimpse, or rather a pungent smell: in effect it’s an open sewer.  Gandhi’s ashes were scattered where the Yamuna meets the Ganges downstream in Allahabad.  I’ll be there next week!

Gandhi was a man of incredible integrity who always practised what he preached.  A woman once asked him to tell her son to stop eating sugar.  Gandhi requested she return in a week.  She did so, and Gandhi asked her boy to abstain from the sweet stuff. Mum asked why he didn’t say so the first week.  A week ago, Gandhi replied, I still ate sugar myself.

Heros of nonviolence who inspired Gandhi, Gandhi Museum, Delhi
Heros of nonviolence who inspired Gandhi, Gandhi Museum, Delhi

The character of such founding fathers of India has sadly not endured.  A newspaper article on India’s culture of hypocrisy had a cartoon of a pious haloed bureaucrat in traditional white shirt, with a photo of Gandhi and his slogan “high thinking, simple living” on the wall.  Below his desk, he is in jeans and sneakers, with a box for bribes and the floor littered with cigarettes, alcohol bottles, meat bones and a rifle.

I’ve seen estimates that India’s black economy is one third of the official one or even as great – bringing the statistical consolation, quips writer Shashi Tharoor, that India’s GDP is twice the official figure so the average Indian is only half as poor as he thought!  A friend told me this story.

An Indian Member of Parliament visits an American counterpart and admires his luxurious private home: “How did you afford this?”  His Yankee friend points upstream: “See that bridge?  10% cut.”  Next year the American MP visits his Indian pal and is speechless at the palace where he lives, his fleet of antique cars, his stable of racehorses and army of retainers: how could a lowly back bencher pay for all this?  The Indian takes his friend for a stroll to the river that flows past his estate.  “Do you see that bridge downstream?” he asks.  The American looks, rubs his eyes, looks again – he can’t see a thing.  The Indian grins at his friend and winks.  “100%”.

I can understand why Shashi Tharoor writes with admiration, “we were not led by a saint with his head in clouds, but by a master tactician with his feet on the ground”, but regretfully defines Gandhi as:

A legendary, almost mythical figure, shrouded in the mists of history and the masks of textbooks, whose precepts, like God’s, are cited more often than obeyed.  The father of our nation, with a billion children and no followers.

I’ve seen signs that some people may be getting fed up.  In the Gandhi Museum a young man wore a T-shirt proclaiming “India Against Corruption”, and there is an official website based in Bangalore to report it: www.ipaidabribe.com.



Mangos and Elephants: Bailing out Karma with Jainism

Sticky karma and sinking dinghies, straining out gnats and debating elephants; finding victory through three aims of Jainism.

Two days after learning how amorphous Hinduism is (see here), we discovered a more defined offshoot faith that most of us had hardly heard of.  Dr Priyadarshana Jain, a lecturer in the Department of Jainology at the University of Madras, has been teaching Jainism since her teenage years and was delighted to enlighten us.  For her Jainism is not a religion, but a way of life; not just a subject, but “my work, my hobby, my passion”.

Jainism traditionally began with Mahavira (599-527 BC), the last of 24 “ford-makers”.  He renounced the world to become a monk at the age of 30 (similar to Buddha and Jesus), attaining enlightenment at 42, and complete liberation at 72.  Mahavira was a near-contemporary of the Buddha.  Both new faiths reacted against an increasingly complex Hinduism, dominated by upper caste Brahmins who alone could perform the intricate rituals.  Many Hindu idols brandish fearful weapons in striking, sexy poses, and nearly all wear colourful garb, but Jain idols are unadorned white stone, standing or sitting alone in meditation.

“Jaina” literally means Victor or Conqueror – one who has overcome internal enemies like anger, conceit, deceit, greed, delusion, ignorance, and fear.  These cause karma that sticks to the soul like sand on an oiled wrestler’s body and enslaves us in the cycle of birth and death.  To attain liberation, we must first stop the influx of negative karma by renouncing harmful practices, before draining off existing karma by austerity – just as rowers in a sinking dinghy first plug the gaping hole before bailing out the water.  Jainism has no creator God and no source of grace.  As a Jain text teaches, it’s all up to us: “You are your own friend; why seek a friend beyond yourself?”

Dr Priya summarised Jain ethics, the path to such liberation, under the headings of “three As”.

The prime Jain virtue is Ahimsa, which means nonviolence or compassion.  She said that Muslims show compassion to fellow Muslims, Christians to all people, Hindus to all animals, but only Jains care about all forms of life.  Jain monks wear gauze masks to avoid breathing small insects, and carry a mesh to filter bugs from their drinking water, which is best boiled, so fewer microbes are killed than if they’ve multiplied at room temperature.  They sweep the path ahead as they walk, lest they tread on a tiny life.  Agriculture is forbidden, as ploughing kills small creatures and insects.  Suicide is also taboo, but the ideal death is with complete nonviolence by starvation.  I was surprised to later read that abortion of girls is high among Jains – after straining out a gnat, it seems some swallow a camel.

Dr Priya  liked telling stories, like about six men lost in the forest, to show increasing degrees of nonviolence.  Growing hungry, they spy a mango tree laden with delicious fruit.  The first wants to uproot the whole tree, the second to chop it down at the trunk.  The third advocates sawing off a large limb, the third cutting off a thinner branch.  The fifth suggests simply plucking the fruit, while the sixth picks up fallen mangos from the ground, doing no violence at all to the tree.  He understands that everything is one beneath surface differences, so by hurting others, one really hurts oneself.

As you might expect, Jains are committed to environmental protection and vegetarianism.  Unlike most of our speakers, Dr Priya wouldn’t join us for lunch, because meat and eggs are cooked in the kitchen.

The second “A” is anekanta, meaning non-absolutism or relativism.  Realising that everything can be seen from different perspectives, she said, promotes tolerance or nonviolence of the mind, avoiding the conflict of dogmatism.  In other words, post-modernism isn’t so modern!  The classic story of anekanta features six blind men who try to describe their first elephant.

The first touches the leg, declaring an elephant is a pillar.  The second grasps the tail, concluding it’s a rope.  The third feels the trunk, rough and thick like a tree branch.  The fourth fondles an ear, which resembles a hand fan.  The fifth knocks against the belly, obviously a huge wall.  The sixth rubs the smooth tusk, evidently a solid pipe.  The poet John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) retold the tale and concluded with the moral:

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

The third “A” is aparigraha, which means non-possession or non-attachment.  What is the difference, asked Dr Priyadarshana, between a beggar and an ascetic?  Both possess nothing, but the beggar is still attached: he still wants things.  At the other end of the scale, one can possess all things and still be free.  It doesn’t matter if the boat is in water, as long as water is not in the boat.  So it is with the mind in the world.  Indeed, the Jain community has many wealthy businessmen.  (Many years ago, I was pleased to read that my Myers-Briggs personality type has the capacity to enjoy without having to possess.)

I found a story from Antony de Mello that I think Jains would appreciate, as it somewhat combines non-absolutism and nonattachment:

A disciple said, “I am ready, in the quest for God, to give up anything: wealth, friends, family, country, life itself. What else can a person give up?”
The Master calmly replied, “One’s beliefs about God.”

As she finished, Dr Priyadarshana asked how a psychiatrist can tell whether patients are cured.  Place a bucket under a running tap, and ask them to empty it.  The healthy will first turn off the tap; the insane would endlessly bail – as do most of us all our lives.  She exhorted us to study Jain philosophy, and challenged us to turn off the karmic tap by taking a vow: for the rest of our time in India, stop eating meat, or don’t kill bugs in our room.  I admired her eager commitment (she was one of the liveliest speakers we had), and the consistency of Jain ethics with its philosophy.  I question the latter, however, so am still slaying any mosquitoes I catch – out of compassion, of course, to save the dear creatures from violently biting me and earning bad karma themselves.