Toward a World without War: Gandhism and the Modern World (National Museum in New Delhi, India, 1992)
(National Museum, New Delhi, India, February 11, 1992)
It is indeed a great honor to have been invited to address such a distinguished audience here at Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti, which represents and symbolizes the great spiritual heritage of India.
I would like also to express my deep and abiding respect for the important work carried out at Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti, through which the immortal spirit of Mahatma Gandhi is being transmitted from the site where he lived out his life on into the future and to the entire world.
When Dr. Radhakrishnan visited Japan last autumn [in 1991], our talks at one point turned to the memory of our respective mentors and to the spiritual inheritance which is passed from mentor to disciple. It happens that today, February 11, is the birthday of Josei Toda, the second president of the Soka Gakkai and the man to whom I look as my personal mentor in life.
Born in 1900, Toda was some thirty years younger than Mahatma Gandhi. During the Second World War, at the time when Gandhi was engaged in his final struggles in prison, my mentor was also imprisoned for his opposition to the Japanese military authorities. Like Gandhi, Toda was a pacifist of profound conviction. He was also a leader of the people inspired by a deep sense of compassion. Finally, like Gandhi, he was a creative reformer who changed history. All of our activities for peace, culture and education stem from President Toda's efforts and from the spirit which we have inherited from him.
My mentor deeply loved and respected India. I know that it was his dream someday to visit India and hold in-depth discussions with the philosophers of your land. I am therefore overcome by the sense that, as I speak today, I am here together with, and on behalf of, my late mentor.
It is undeniable that our world has entered an age of momentous change--a period of transition on a scale that occurs perhaps once in a century, if that. We have seen the historical forces unleashed by the process of perestroika which Mikhail Gorbachev initiated surge forth, like waters bursting a dike or dam, to inundate and swallow their original impetus. And while it might be said that upheaval has characterized the final years of other centuries, the changes we have witnessed these past few years--from the collapse of the Berlin Wall to the dissolution of the Soviet Union--have far outstripped the expectations and predictions of any historian.
On the one hand, these events have lent credence to the idea that no form of authority or authoritarianism is capable of smothering the voice of ordinary citizens who aspire to their freedom. The other, equally undeniable aspect of these changes is that they threaten to set us adrift in new and uncharted regions of history, bereft of any guiding ideology or principle. The deeper the chaos that threatens, the more strongly I feel the need for us to lend our ears to the voice of Mahatma Gandhi, which quietly addresses and appeals to us, as if from the still depths that lie below the angry billows roiling the surface of history's current.
The following are the words that Gandhi addressed to Romain Rolland in December of 1931, when the latter was convalescent near Lac Leman in Switzerland:
"What is happening in Russia is an enigma. I have not discussed Russia very much, but I have a deep mistrust of the ultimate success of the experiment being carried out there. It seems to me that it is a challenge to nonviolence. It appears to be succeeding, but behind its success lies force, violence . . . When Indians are exposed to Russian influence, it leads them into extreme intolerance . . ." 1
For many of their contemporaries, sensing the approaching threat of fascism, the communist experiment in Russia appeared as a beacon of hope for humanity. At this time, the dark side of Bolshevism--its propensity to violence and terror--had not yet been exposed to the world; it is therefore not unnatural that even such an ardent pacifist as Rolland should see it as his mission "to be a link between the two Revolutions, Gandhi's and Lenin's, so that the two may come together at this hour to overthrow the old world and found a new order." 2
Given the historical circumstances and the limited information available to him, it is indeed remarkable that Gandhi should have been able to perceive, almost solely through the unique clarity of vision that was the product of his experience, the violence and intolerance which have since proved to be the inveterate afflictions of Bolshevism. Last August [in 1991], immediately following the failed coup attempt--the decisive event that led to the final collapse of the Soviet Union--the world saw the enormous statue of Feliks Dzerzhinskii, the founder of the KGB, being pulled down and trampled by the citizens of Moscow. As I watched that extraordinary image, I was once more struck by the sureness of Gandhi's vision which, unclouded by prejudice, enabled him to directly discern the essential nature of events.
As we approach the end of this century of unprecedented war and violence, we seek as our common goal the creation of a world without war. At this critical juncture what can we--must we--learn from this great philosopher--a man whose spiritual legacy could rightly be termed one of humanity's priceless treasures, a miracle of the twentieth century? Today I would like to offer my personal reflections on Gandhism, focusing on these four aspects--his optimism, his activism, his populism, and the holistic nature of his vision.
I would like first to address the matter of Gandhi's relentless and unshakable optimism. Optimism has been the mark of virtually every outstanding personality, whether philosopher or statesperson, since ancient times. It is, however, perhaps impossible to find an example that compares to Gandhi, of a person whose every action and accomplishment bears the mark of a pure and refreshing optimism, untainted by the slightest hint of showmanship.
As he himself said: "I remain an optimist, not that there is any evidence that I can give that right is going to prosper, but because of my unflinching faith that right must prosper in the end." 3 And on another occasion, this "irrepressible optimist" stated: "My optimism rests on my belief in the infinite possibilities of the individual to develop nonviolence." 4
As these passages suggest, Gandhi's optimism was absolute and not relative. It was never contingent on his analysis of objective conditions or a prognosis derived therefrom. His belief in nonviolence and justice grew out of his absolute trust in humanity. This was an unconditional faith which he came to through a rigorous process of introspection, probing the very depths of his being. The indestructible conviction which he thus gained was something which not even death could take from him. In this I observe what I would term the true essence of Oriental deductive thinking, which always begins from a reflective return to the self.
Because it is unconditional, his optimism knows no deadlock or impasse. So long as one adheres to conviction, one's optimism holds out the promise of unbounded hope, vision, and victory. He taught us that there is no such thing as defeat in nonviolence, but that violence inevitably ends in defeat. In the quietude of his words, we sense an indomitable self-confidence, the triumphant cry reserved only for the soul that has achieved true self-mastery.
I believe that his state of mind, forged in the crucible of so many trials, was like the perfectly pure blue sky that spreads unhindered above the dark and heavy clouds. I believe that he maintained this state of mind throughout--even as he fasted in prison; even as he was forced to face the difficult question of whether to confront the fascist threat with violence or with nonviolence; even as he sought resolution to the tragedy and horror of communal violence in Bengal and Calcutta. It was this spiritual condition that sustained his optimism as he attempted to share with the Indian people, not the cowardly or servile nonviolence of the weak, but the "nonviolence of the strong," which is based on courage. It is on this spiritual plane that we find the true essence of Gandhism.
Even if one were to garner some immediate success by deviating from this basic principle, succumbing to the temptation either of human weakness on the one hand, or of violence on the other, one would have adulterated Gandhism, and would end up with something no longer worthy of the name. Nonviolence was the very lifeline of this man who was, in Rolland's words, "religious by nature; a politician of necessity."5 To him nonviolence constituted proof of our humanity; the question of worldly failure or success was always of secondary importance.
At times, this intensely philosophical way of life was a source of perplexity for comrades and sympathizers such as Nehru and Rolland who were unable to attain such heights. And indeed, when viewed over the short-term, his advocacy of nonviolent resistance to the Nazis might seem idealistic to the point of being unrealistic. From the longer perspective, and looking back over the history of the postwar period, I think that we must acknowledge the truth of this "voice in the wilderness"--which he continued to cry out even during war--that nonviolence represents the only means by which liberty and democracy can be "truly saved." The mistrust and pessimism which beset our age make even more urgent the need for Gandhi's brand of optimism, for his kind of proudly declared faith in humankind.
The next aspect of Gandhi's legacy which I would like to discuss is his activism. Throughout his life, Gandhi was a man of action. Once, when a Brahman suggested that he enter a life of meditation, Gandhi is said to have replied that while his days were devoted to efforts to attain the spiritual liberation of enlightenment, he felt no need to enter a cave for that purpose. The cave, he said, was something which he carried about with him. The quintessentially Gandhian humor of this episode gives us a wonderful portrait of the barefoot saint. In terms of the range and scope of Gandhi's activities, they are incomparably greater and wider than that of other advocates of nonviolence, such as Tolstoy.
His activism, however, should not be confused with mere action, something of which even animals are equally, if not more, capable. His activism, which contains many aspects of a spiritual "practice," is inspired by the inner urging of conscience. It is to do what must be done, and then to examine, with love and humility, one's accomplishments, to see where they have fallen short or gone too far. While he was a man of courageous and resolute action, he had the humility always to recognize reality and was entirely free from the kind of arrogance that seeks to monopolize all legitimacy. And although he was a person of unshakable conviction, he never sought a basis for that conviction in mere theoretical or logical consistency. He sought its basis in the depths of his own soul; thus the generosity of spirit and tolerance that enabled him to embrace all people.
"Good " he said, "travels at a snail's pace."6 On another occasion he wrote: "Nonviolence is a plant of slow growth. It grows imperceptibly, but surely." 7 The weight of these words, the profound impression which they leave with us, derives from the fact they are the quiet expression of the credo of a man whose beliefs and actions were in complete accord.
The image we have of Gandhi the activist stands in marked contrast with that of the revolutionary, the child of the radical ideologies that have held sway over so much of the twentieth century. Bolshevism, for example, has produced in great quantities the kind of hot-blooded revolutionary who, while dedicated and idealistic, has been given to narrow-mindedness and dogmatism. All too often such revolutionaries have not hesitated in their resort to violence when they have felt that it was required to realize their beliefs. In his most well-known work, Doctor Zhivago, the Russian poet Boris Pasternak denounces the apostles of this kind of radical ideology saying that they "have never understood a thing about life . . . have never felt its breath, its heartbeat." 8
Saumyendranath Tagore, nephew of the poet, was apparently a tragic example of this malady. Although originally an adherent of Gandhism, he later became a communist and came to criticize virulently, and work against, Gandhi. In his diaries, Romain Rolland describes the young man who had visited him thus: "He is without doubt a generous idealist, very sincere and ready to sacrifice everything for his faith. Which makes it all the more sad to see these fine forces, intelligent and pure, hurling themselves against the greatest and purest of Indians. The fatal madness afflicting the souls of individuals swept up in the whirlwind of revolutions! "9
There are those who, observing the process of the Soviet Union's dissolution, remarked that the Russian people had brought the process that started with the French Revolution to its conclusion. And in a certain sense, the death of communism can be termed the death of the ideology of radical rationalism which began with the French Revolution and was inherited by the Russian Revolution. Gandhi was quick to see the underlying weakness of this kind of ideology. "Rationalists," he wrote, "are admirable beings; rationalism is a hideous monster when it claims for itself omnipotence."10 Against this background, we are all the more struck by the deathless nobility of Gandhi's life of gradualist activism.
The third point I would like to discuss is Gandhi's populism, his extraordinary communion with the masses of so-called "ordinary people." In our increasingly democratic world there are great numbers of leaders who invoke the name of "the people." How many of them, however, could be truly said to be working on the side of the people and for their benefit? It is not going too far, I think, to say that the greater part of these leaders are in fact merely "playing the crowd," whom they secretly despise and whom they seek to use for their own purposes.
Gandhi, in contrast, was a genuine friend and father to the common people. His selfless and devoted life, lived in the very midst of the Indian people, whose joys and sorrows he made his own, his perfect and natural grasp of the popular mind--all these earn him the title of "saint." He asked himself: "Why should He have chosen me, an imperfect instrument, for such a mighty experiment? I think He deliberately did so. He had to serve the poor, ignorant millions. A perfect man might have been their despair. When they found that one with their failings was marching on towards ahimsa (nonviolence), they too had confidence in their own capacity."11
The overflowing love and willingness to suffer with the people which this passage gives voice to provokes in me a powerful emotion which I find impossible to restrain.
Nichiren Daishonin, the founder of the Buddhism which we practice, was born the unknown son of a fisherman. It was rather, however, with pride in his origins that he raised aloft the banner of his Buddhism of the common people. Gandhi's attitude toward the common people strikes me as bearing a profound relation to the Bodhisattva Way that forms the core of Mahayana Buddhism.
And yet, Gandhi's relationship with the people was not limited to what might be termed the "maternal" aspects of affection, love and compassion for the suffering of oppressed people. We cannot ignore the sternly paternal love with which he recognized the need for training and discipline to enable the people, by truly understanding nonviolence, to overcome their weakness and realize their own strength. This was no doubt the conviction which sustained him as he unhesitatingly committed himself to the oceanic masses of the common people.
"I have all along believed," he wrote, "that what is possible for one is possible for all . . . My experiments have not been conducted in the closet, but in the open."12 What he here refers to as "possible for one" is, needless to say, the nonviolence of the strong, a practice which, as he said, "implies as complete self-purification as is humanly possible."13 His struggle was always to make the lofty ideal of nonviolence "possible for all," and he ceaselessly urged and encouraged the people to be strong as he organized them into a mass movement without precedent or parallel. Einstein praised him as the greatest political genius of our age. But I think that it would not be excessive praise to substitute the words "human history" for "our age." His remarkable gifts were fully demonstrated in the brilliant success of the Salt March, carried out despite the skepticism and doubts of many. Underlying his political genius was his unique and penetrating understanding of the people.
One of those closest to Gandhi, and thus most able directly to observe these qualities, was his friend and ally Jawaharlal Nehru. In The Discovery of India, Nehru describes Gandhi's advent as "a powerful current of fresh air," "like a beam of light." The dramatic transformation which Gandhi effected in the public consciousness merits our particular attention. In Nehru's words, Gandhi "pierced the darkness and removed the scales from our eyes, like a whirlwind that upset many things, but most of all the working of people's minds."14
If the people were to be strengthened and reinvigorated, the first step must be to liberate them from the fear of authority created by long years of colonial rule, as well as the accompanying weaknesses of cowardice and resignation. Gandhi offers the following encouragement as to how the people are to gain and maintain their true strength. "Goodness must be joined with knowledge. Mere goodness is not much use. One must cultivate the fine discriminating quality which goes with spiritual courage and character."15 Goodness and strength must be joined to wisdom and intelligence if they are to have their full effect.
Nehru termed Gandhi's simple injunction "Be not afraid!"16 his greatest gift to the Indian people. It is the act of ordinary citizens freeing themselves from the fear of power and authority that heralds the dawn of a truly democratic era. In this sense, Gandhi's message will continue to illuminate future centuries as a gift not only to the people of India, but to all of the world's peoples.
Finally, I would like to touch on the holistic nature of Gandhi's thought and its larger significance for civilization. If one were to attempt to express in a few words the central flaw of modern western civilization, one would have to cite the sense of isolation and fragmentation which it has introduced in all areas of life and society. By this I mean the lines of separation that have been drawn between the human being and the universe, between humankind and nature, between the individual and society, between different peoples, between good and evil, between means and end, between the sacred and the secular, and so forth. In the midst of this ever greater fragmentation the individual human being has been forced into a state of isolation. Modern history, which on the one hand has been marked by the pursuit of human equality, freedom and dignity, has at the same time been the history of our increasing alienation.
It goes without saying that what Gandhi advocated throughout his life--and what he manifested in his character--stands as an antithesis to these aspects of modern civilization. Although there is a certain extremity in his critique of civilization, symbolized by his famous charka, which may make it difficult to accept without reservation, what I find to be invaluable is the global--even cosmic--sensibility which informed, in the most natural way possible, his every word and action. His was a holistic approach to life that, turning away from fragmentation and isolation, aspired to integration and harmony.
The following passage expresses Gandhi's holistic approach quite succinctly. "I could not be leading a religious life unless I identified myself with the whole of mankind, and that I could not do unless I took part in politics. The whole gamut of man's activities today constitutes an indivisible whole. You cannot divide social, economic, political and purely religious work into watertight compartments. I do not know any religion apart from human activity. It provides a moral basis to all other activities which they otherwise lack, reducing life to a maze of 'sound and fury signifying nothing.'"17
His point here is perfectly clear. And it is, I believe, consistent with the outlook of Mahayana Buddhism which stresses that life and religion are an indivisible whole, and views religion as a source of energy and inspiration for human activities. While separation of church and state is an immutable principle of modern politics, this should not be construed to mean that religion must restrict its concern to the private, inner life of the individual. What Mahatma appealed for was a world in which essential religious values would enrich and enhance all aspects of human society.
I recall the occasion, some thirteen years ago, when I visited India and had the occasion to meet with Jai Prakash Narayan, one of Gandhi's closest comrades. Our dialogue of almost an hour, conducted at Narayan's country residence in Patna on the middle reaches of the Ganges River, remains with me to this day as a vivid memory. I remember being greatly impressed by Narayan's concept of "total revolution." I told him that I had for some time been advocating a similar kind of revolution, and asked if he agreed with me that the basis for this would have to be first a "human revolution"--the inner spiritual transformation of each individual--and that this in turn would generate reformation in the respective fields of politics, education, and culture. It was with great pleasure that I received his unhesitating concurrence with this view. Although he was battling illness at the time, there was a firmness and strength in his voice as he spoke that belied the seriousness of his condition. Our meeting had a profound impact on me, as I had a distinct sense that here was the unbroken heritage of Gandhi's living, breathing spirit which, despite the many trials and ordeals to which it had been subjected, was being passed on into the future.
One author who more than thirty years ago predicted the arrival of our present "post-ideological" age is the American sociologist Daniel Bell. In The Winding Passage, Bell wrote, "Will there be a return of the sacred, the rise of new religious modes? Of that I have no doubt."18 What Bell indicates finds remarkable correspondence in the kind of open religious temperament or spirituality for which Gandhi appealed when he wrote, "Religion does not mean sectarianism. It means a belief in ordered moral government of the Universe."19 Gandhi believed in the immense spiritual and religious potential that resides equally within all people. He believed that we must not allow this inner source of energy and strength to lie dormant. We must, he insisted, rouse and awaken it.
Recognizing "no other God than Truth" 20 and resolute in his rejection of sectarianism, the "sacredness" that Gandhi personified was just this kind of spiritual strength. It is this same spirituality, I am convinced, that will heal and revive human hearts and minds deeply wounded by violent ideologies and open the way for a new chapter in human history.
It was at the age of nineteen, in the days immediately following the end of the Second World War, that I learned this noble way of peace from my mentor, President Toda. For forty-five years I have devoted myself to our movement among the common people, a movement that has been marked by great challenges and vicissitudes. It is my desire and determination to continue to develop a magnificent global network of spiritual solidarity towards the goal of a world without war. In this endeavor, I trust that I will have the company of my esteemed Indian friends; the image of Gandhi, playing beautiful resonant melodies of soul-to-soul communication among the people, will be always in my heart.
In closing, I would like to share with you a passage from Rabindranath Tagore who as we know gave Gandhi the title of Mahatma (The Great Soul). This poem is a paean to the eternal rhythm of life that permeates all people, society and the universe.
The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures.
It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.
It is the same life that is rocked in the ocean-cradle of birth and of death, in ebb and inflow.
I feel my limbs are made glorious by the touch of this world of life. And my pride is from the life-throb of ages dancing in my blood this moment.21