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A New Humanism for the Coming Century (Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, India, 1997)

(Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, New Delhi, India, October 21, 1997)

It is indeed both an honor and privilege to be given this opportunity today to speak before this extremely distinguished audience. I profoundly appreciate the invitation extended to me by the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, which seeks to honor and preserve the memory of that great man through its many and various endeavors. I myself cherish sentiments of profound respect for the late prime minister and this intensifies immeasurably my feelings today.

I should like to express my particular gratitude to Madam Sonia Gandhi, chairperson of the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, and Dr. Abid Hussain, vice-chair of the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, as well as all those whose support and understanding have made this occasion possible.

Twelve years ago, in 1985, I had the opportunity to meet with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in Japan. The memory of that brilliant autumn day remains fresh in my heart to this moment.

These words of Rajiv Gandhi, spoken before the United States Congress, express the clear and serene gaze that he directed toward the twenty-first century: “I am young, and I too have a dream. I dream of an India—strong, independent, self-reliant and in the front rank of the nations of the world in the service of mankind.”[1]

Rajiv Gandhi, whose eyes were always set on the coming century, had a profound dislike for the old-fashioned, the outdated, the obsolete. This does not mean, of course, merely that he disdained that which lags behind in terms of material civilization; the old-fashionedness that he hated had rather the opposite sense.

Technology has, of course, made extraordinary strides. It was possible for me to arrive in India the same day I left Japan, a trip that, in days past, would have required months or even years. The great historian Arnold Toynbee, with whom I conducted a dialogue, once described the salient feature of the modern era as that of “annihilating distance.”[2] Over the course of this century, the world has grown steadily closer and “smaller.” Today, communications technologies make it possible to connect instantaneously with the entire world.

Despite greatly increased connectedness of this kind, the twentieth century has seen the unprecedented slaughter of humanity by humanity. In other words, the spiritual distance between human beings, far from being “annihilated,” has hardly been reduced at all. Humanity has not responded to the new realities. It was this, more than anything, that Rajiv Gandhi considered old-fashioned and out-of-date.

We have all the necessary resources and capabilities to eliminate poverty and hunger from Earth. And yet we persist in squandering vast resources on the development of nuclear and other weapons of mass slaughter. Such behavior is also old-fashioned, obsolete.

Humanity is at an impasse. We confront an entirely new reality unrenewed, intransigent. In a world of astonishingly rapid change, we have yet to develop the new ways of living, new ways of thinking, new ways of relating to one another that meet the needs of the new era. This is the central challenge facing the world today. It can be thought of as a demand, a call for action, echoing back to us from the twenty-first century. No one lent a more attentive ear or sought to respond to this clarion call from the future than Rajiv Gandhi.

Today, while recalling the treasured memory of the visionary prime minister, I would like to share a few thoughts on the subject of a new humanism for the coming century.

From the perspective of the present, the future appears obscured in uncertainty. But if we stand back and take a more macroscopic view, we can posit the emergence of three pivotal countries—China, the United States, and India—that will play central roles in the world of the twenty-first century. This might be likened to the design of ancient three-legged kettles, which cannot stand on two legs but attain stability on three.

One of the classics of Chinese literature, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, portrays the attempt to establish peace amidst a conflict between two powers. This is done by establishing a third power to create a new and peaceful balance. Expanding on that ancient lesson, we can see how a world dominated by two great powers will tend inevitably toward conflict, whereas the emergence of a third can open the way for continuous dialogue and contact, moving the entire world toward peace. This kind of order can be thought of as one ideal or vision for world peace. It can also open the way toward the kind of global federalism that would effectively guarantee peace and forestall conflict.

In this sense, India’s continued flourishing and development is of undeniably vital importance to world stability. It is for this reason that so many people—myself included—regard with high hopes the sight of India poised for a dramatic leap into the twenty-first century, supported by market economics and advanced technology. There is a powerful sense of expectation for a brilliant new “Indian Renaissance.”

At the same time, I believe that India’s message of nonviolence is of paramount significance to humanity now and in the future. India is already demonstrating the direction in which the world must move.

One Japanese thinker has described the twentieth century as a century of regrets. Indeed, humanity embarked on this century with gallant stride and filled with confidence in the certainty of progress. What in fact awaited was an era of unprecedented “megadeath,” environmental destruction, and a growing and shameful disparity between the planet’s “haves” and the “have-nots.” Where, one has to wonder, did we go wrong? At which turning did we go so fatally astray?

When I consider the psychic landscape of humanity at century’s end, the image of Ashoka the Great, ancient India’s outstanding sovereign, comes inevitably to mind. Among the countless monarchs our world has known, he was indeed a peerless king among kings. I recall the unstinting praise lavished on him and his achievements by Professor Toynbee and by Count Coudenhove-Kalergi, an early proponent of European unity. I have also had the pleasure of discussing Ashoka’s reign with such leading thinkers as André Malraux, Linus Pauling, and Henry Kissinger. Among the edicts of King Ashoka, there is one in which he expresses his profound remorse and contrition: “That is a matter of profound sorrow and regret . . .”[3] What was the cause of his remorse? What could this most powerful king, who united all India, have had to regret?

It was, needless to say, his conquest of Kalinga. This neighboring state was developing rapidly, emerging as a power in its own right, when Ashoka invaded. His forces won an overwhelming victory; the conquest was complete. But the suffering that accompanied this victory was also overwhelming, the price paid in life and blood entirely too high. It is said that 100,000 died in battle in Kalinga and 150,000 were taken prisoner. Civilian casualties exceeded these several times over. Untold numbers of people were forced to abandon their homeland for wandering and uncertain lives as refugees.

One can almost hear the heartrending cries and lamentation that filled the land as people were torn from one another, separated forever—parents from children, wives from husbands, teachers from their students, friend from friend.

In the face of this portrait of hell, King Ashoka felt the torment of an unendurable remorse. What, he must have asked himself, was the purpose of this conquest? To what end did I expand the territory under my control? For what cause was such force exercised? Isn’t the purpose of life to be happy? Isn’t life precious and irreplaceable? What is war that wreaks such devastation and destruction? Why should people kill one another?

From the great distance of time, I can almost hear the cry of King Ashoka’s soul. And yet our century has seen the sort of tragedy that so profoundly moved King Ashoka repeated a hundred, a thousand times over. It is for this reason, above all others, that we must learn the lessons of Ashoka’s change of heart.

Ashoka’s remorse was not marked by half measures. He reproached himself relentlessly. And it was then, in a moment’s realization, that he knew that the victory of force is not true victory. What it in fact signals is defeat as a human being. It is entirely empty and void of value. The great king realized that it is not conquest by force, but conquest by dharma, that represents true victory.[4]

Let me note that when I speak of force, I am not referring only to military force but also to the weight of superior economic might.

The word dharma of course has many meanings, including truth, justice, and virtue. The poet-sage Rabindranath Tagore said that dharma was the word closest to the real sense of civilization.[5] Mahatma Gandhi, father of India’s independence, used the Gujarati term sudharo, meaning “good conduct,” as suggesting the original sense of civilization. Guided by these insights, I would like to offer my own view that dharma can best be thought of as genuine civilization, as a path of humanity, as true humanism.

Thus, the revolutionary change that took place in the heart of Ashoka the Great transformed the beat of war drums into a symphony of humanism based on dharma. The central theme of my own life is this: That a great revolution in just a single individual can change the destiny of an entire society and even of humankind. King Ashoka is indeed a model of this principle in action.

King Ashoka was not a dreamer, but a man of action. “Passive humanism” is a contradiction in terms.

The great king commenced an unprecedented experiment based on an entirely new philosophy, a completely new vision. His policies focused on the welfare of citizens. Through these policies, he sought to implement the spirit of treasuring life above all else, of according it the highest value. He constructed medical treatment facilities not only for people but also for animals. He promoted the cultivation of beneficial medicinal herbs and the planting of roadside trees, thus preserving and protecting the natural environment. He encouraged the digging of wells and the construction of rest houses for travelers.

He established the post of minister of women’s affairs to respond to the specific needs and concerns of women. While he himself was a devoted follower of Buddhism, he never denied but always respected the spiritual values of all religions. His was an example, rare in the ancient world, of a reign that guaranteed religious liberty.

A strong economic foundation is necessary to support such humanistic policies. To that end, Ashoka improved the transportation network and expanded trade with Greece and West Asia. At the same time, he endeavored to reduce economic disparity by practicing the economic ethic of equitable distribution that had been demonstrated by Gautama Buddha.

Having attained the wisdom to discern the proper ends for which power should be used, Ashoka acted without hesitation or doubt.

He took positive steps to promote cultural exchange with other countries. He pursued a policy of peaceful diplomacy, dispatching emissaries of peace [“dharma ambassadors”] to the rulers of regions such as Syria, Egypt, and Macedonia. It is said that in each of the countries these emissaries visited, their compassionate attitude and behavior enabled them to transcend the differences of language and custom. One scholar has described their activities as the “peace corps of the ancient world.”

Through these and other acts, the humanism of the great king linked the people of the world in friendship and mutual understanding. His achievements stand unchallenged in the annals of history.

The endeavors of Rajiv Gandhi, as the first Indian prime minister to visit China in thirty-four years and as someone who actively sought friendship with Pakistan, are a similarly famous example of an inspired diplomacy of peace.

On a number of occasions, I have had the pleasure of conferring with Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union; the record of our discussions have been published in book form. President Gorbachev has described to me the sentiments behind the Delhi Declaration that he and Rajiv Gandhi issued in November 1986, delineating principles for a world free from violence and nuclear weapons. He recalled the unconditional opposition to terrorism they voiced at their joint press conference following the declaration, and reflected that he considered Rajiv a fine and dear friend. President Gorbachev also expressed his profound respect for India, describing her people as possessing a powerful sympathy for the suffering of others and a strong aspiration toward peace, freedom, and justice.

I consider King Ashoka, Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, and Rajiv Gandhi leaders who sought to implement this aspiration, this yearning for peace, freedom, and justice, amidst the political realities of our world. Rather than adapting the ideals of nonviolence to fit the realities that confronted them, they understood that violence solves nothing and only makes worse and more intractable any problem. Their efforts were based on the realization that nonviolence is in fact the most realistic policy.

In human society, it is the power of humanity, of humanism, that will exert the greatest, most profound force over the long term. What, however, is humanism, which has taken so many different forms?

The evolution of the idea of humanism can be analyzed from many different angles. Here, I would like first to note the tradition of individualistic humanism that developed in the West over the course of the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, becoming the foundational ethos of civil society in the modern era. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the contradictions and limitations of this mode of humanism became more evident, giving rise to the experiment of socialist humanism.

While these different forms of humanism succeeded in liberating humanity from its medieval thralldom to an absolute being, humanity thus liberated found itself trapped by its own egotism, by what Buddhism calls the “lesser self.” Humanity has fallen prey to the fickle dictates of desire. The ills that result take the form of the complex of problems now facing humanity: the unraveling of social and community ties, environmental degradation, the growing gap between rich and poor. . . The depth of the crisis gripping our post-ideological world is powerfully symbolized by the emergence of a wide range of fundamentalisms.

What, then, can provide the motivating energy and inspiration to move beyond the present impasse? How can we initiate the work of creating a vibrant global civilization of peace?

Here I would like to propose a new humanism—one that takes a cosmological perspective on what it means to be human—as a way of transcending the limitations of humanism to date and guiding us out of our current predicament. My reason for making this proposal is this: Ideology, which in one form or another has been at the heart of modern humanism, tends to emphasize dualism and conflict, producing discrimination and rejection of others. Cosmologies, in contrast, tend to include and embrace others; tolerance is inherent in cosmology.

The dharma-based humanism that supported Ashoka’s reign is an excellent example of an embracing cosmology. It is succinctly expressed in the fundamental principles of his rule: non-killing and mutual respect.

While a discussion of the principle of non-killing should really include forms of life other than human beings, for the present instant I would like to assert the minimalist stance that humans should under no circumstance kill other humans. This, I believe, should be in the preambular paragraph of any charter that humanity might choose to adopt in the twenty-first century.

History has been stained by too much blood shed in the name of “justice.” The French Revolution, for example, is a seminal event in the development of the modern tradition of humanism, and yet how many innocent people lost their lives to the justice of the guillotine? Likewise, in carrying out the grand experiment of socialist humanism, its original intent was betrayed as tens of millions of lives were sacrificed. This, again, is one of the immovable historical facts of the twentieth century.

Such suffering must never be repeated. Thus, the first provision of a new humanism must be an absolute injunction against the taking of human life. In whatever logic or rationale it may be cloaked, “justice” accompanied by violence is empty and false. As Rabindranath Tagore declared throughout his life, any god who demands living sacrifice is a false god.

What, then, is the underlying weakness of the kinds of humanism that have prevailed until now?

While this is not the time or place to attempt a complete and rigorous analysis, I would like to state simply that the fundamental failure of humanism to date has been a failure to fully believe in people and to trust them.

Thus, we understand the importance of Ashoka’s second policy, of mutual respect. When mistrust of humanity is directed against oneself, one experiences disempowerment. When directed against others, it takes the form of the refusal of dialogue and, ultimately, violence. Mistrust breeds mistrust. Hatred breeds more hatred. How can this deadly cycle be broken? Here I believe we need to call forth what might be termed a holistic, or even cosmological, humanism, one that regards the life of the individual as extending out to and embracing the entire cosmos, and therefore meriting the most profound reverence.

In India this view has flowered in different forms over the millennia, from the sages of the Upanishads to the teachings of Gautama Buddha.

The Lotus Sutra, which stands at the pinnacle of the teachings of Gautama Buddha, represents the ultimate crystallization of this philosophy. This is because it teaches people to abandon their attachment to difference and urges them to awaken to the “great earth of life” which supports us all. When we stand on that common ground, difference ceases to be the cause of conflict, but instead serves to enrich our experience of life. “The Parable of the Medicinal Herbs” chapter of the Lotus Sutra describes the example of a great variety of trees and vegetation that are nurtured by the same rain, growing luxuriantly from the same earth.[6]

It will not suffice, however, simply to call for a new humanism, or to discuss in abstract terms the possibilities of a cosmologically based humanism. We must discover the means by which to actualize a universal respect for the sanctity of life.

One of the most important supports for such an effort must, I believe, be sought in education. Without the ameliorating influence of education, strongly held beliefs, whether political or religious, can quickly succumb to the pitfalls of dogmatism and self-righteousness.

The trend of the times is clearly for religious matters to be left to the discretion of individuals. This is all the more reason education must ensure that religious sentiment does not become self-righteous or intolerant and is always directed toward the most peaceful and valuable outcome. It was, after all, education and intellect that gave Tagore’s profound religiosity a universal appeal that was accessible to the people of the Western world. Nor did he stop at his own education; he established a university and throughout his life devoted himself to the cause of human development.

Education makes us free. The world of knowledge and of the intellect is where all people can meet and converse. Education liberates people from prejudice. It frees the human heart from its violent passions. It is education that severs the dark fetters of ignorance about the laws that govern the universe. Finally, it is through education that we are liberated from powerlessness, from the burden of mistrust directed against ourselves.

To awaken the abilities that have been lying dormant within, to arouse and extend the soul’s aspiration to become full and complete . . . Can there be any more sublime experience in life?

The individual who has been liberated from self-doubt, who has learned to trust in him- or herself, is naturally able to believe in the latent capacities of others. One becomes able to look beyond the present appearance of another to perceive and believe in the wondrous treasures hidden within. Education enables us to look beyond superficial difference to perceive the great earth, the great sea of life that sustains us all. Such are the gifts wrought by education.

The endeavors of Gautama Buddha can be described as essentially educational. The Lotus Sutra includes the phrase “to open, to show, to awaken and cause to enter.”[7] The ultimate purpose of Buddhism, then, is to open, to show, to awaken and cause people to enter the infinite realms of wisdom they already possess. This accords perfectly with the methods and objectives of education. Buddhism, in this sense, is an endeavor directed toward human education, and for its part, to realize its full value education must be supported by the spirituality that enables us to trust and believe in others.

What our world most requires now is the kind of education that fosters love for humankind, that develops character, that provides an intellectual basis for the realization of peace and empowers learners to contribute to and improve society.

The roots of the Soka Gakkai International (SGI) are to be found in the Soka Kyoiku Gakkai (Society for Value-Creating Education), founded in Japan in 1930. Both the first and second presidents, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi and Josei Toda, were educators. Motivated by the conviction that the goal of education is the lifetime happiness of learners, they sought to understand the actual content of happiness. It was this pursuit that eventually led them to the philosophy of Buddhism, which elucidates the inner workings of life.

At the same time that Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were waging the struggle against colonialism, Toda and Makiguchi were fighting against the evils of Japanese militarism. Their resistance led to incarceration and eventually to Makiguchi’s death in prison at age seventy-three.

Rising above the indescribable grief he felt at the loss of his beloved mentor, Toda discovered, in the confines of his solitary cell and guided by the teachings of the Lotus Sutra and other scriptures, the basis within his own life for a cosmological humanism.

I encountered Josei Toda soon after the end of World War II. Remarkably, the date of our first encounter was August 14, 1947, the very eve of Indian independence. We met on the day that Jawaharlal Nehru called on the Constituent Assembly to realize Gandhi’s dream to “wipe every tear from every eye.”[8]

Unless supported and tempered by the wisdom of education, religious faith is always at risk of becoming blind and undirected. On the other hand, when illumined by the light of wisdom that education brings forth, the spiritual values of religion shine that much brighter.

I thus find it extremely natural, inevitable even, that the first and second presidents of the Soka Gakkai should have arrived, at one terminus of their pursuit of the real meaning and purpose of education, at the practice of Buddhism—carried out for, and in the midst of, the common people.

In a sense, then, our movement has come full circle, as we now seek to promote a universal solidarity of education, culture, and peace among the world’s peoples based on the insights of Buddhism.

During a short period in 1974, I visited both the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, traveling twice to China that year. At the time, relations between the two countries were extremely tense and, from the standpoint of a concerned private citizen, I urged the leaders of both countries to work for improved relations.

Leading up to my visit to the Soviet Union, in particular, I found myself subject to repeated criticism by those who questioned my motive in visiting a country whose ideology fundamentally denied religion. On each occasion, I responded simply “because there are people there.”

Last year, in 1996, after visiting the United States, I traveled to Cuba, where I was able to build firm bonds of trust and friendship with President Fidel Castro.

It is my belief that, when viewed from the higher dimension of our common humanity, even the barriers posed by mistrust and tension between states are not insurmountable.

When I consider this matter, the crisp and courageous tones of the late Rajiv Gandhi reverberate within: “The single greatest contribution of India to world civilization is to demonstrate that there is nothing antithetical between diversity and nationhood. Through 5,000 years of living experience, we have demonstrated to the world that our unity in diversity is a vibrant reality.”[9]

The task facing our planet on the cusp of the twenty-first century is that of realizing the unity of diversity. Now more than ever, it is imperative that humanity learn, with attentive humility, from the invaluable experience and wisdom of India.

India this year celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of independence as the first country in history to be born of nonviolence. In this sense, India is at once the world’s oldest country, and the newest. India stands at the forefront of human progress. The grand experiment that is India has not been confined by your borders, but has offered inspiration to people throughout the world. Martin Luther King Jr.’s fight against racism and discrimination is one example, as is the nonviolent revolution that swept Eastern Europe in 1989.

There is an ancient aphorism to the effect that the deeper the source, the longer the stream. If we wish to see a grand river of peace flow into the infinite future, we must seek out the most profound wellsprings of the human spirit. If we desire an unshakable peace, it must be built on unshakable foundations.

Citing the example of Ashoka the Great, I have sought here to describe the message of peace that I am confident India will continue to broadcast to the world of the twenty-first and twenty-second centuries.

There may be those who say that my outlook is entirely too optimistic. I will not, however, under any circumstance, abandon my faith in humanity. I direct implacable faith toward the inner grandeur of humanity.

When Rajiv Gandhi and I met in Tokyo, we agreed on our common determination to remove the barriers of the heart which separate humankind. When those walls fall, we see before us the vast expanses of life itself. It is on the great earth of creative coexistence that the broad rivers of peace flow, flower gardens of culture bloom, and the great trees of education stretch toward the heavens. In that moment, the prime minister and I found the same melody of peace resonating in our hearts. We felt a connection beyond and unhindered by any superficial difference.

Rajiv Gandhi advanced without fear, toward the realization of his dream. He immersed himself in the midst of his fellow citizens. He offered himself to his dream. He gave everything for the cause of humanism. His example continues to shine brilliantly at this very moment. The light of the magnificent drama of his life and death illuminates the path along which humankind must progress in the coming century.

The Rajiv Gandhi Foundation continues, as heir to his vision, to pursue the realization of his noble dream. I wish to assure you that, as you do so, you are joined by people of goodwill not only in India, but from throughout the entire world.

In conclusion, I would like to recite a portion of Tagore’s “Last Poems,” which I have loved since the days of my youth. For I feel this poem gives perfect expression to my own sentiments: Humankind! Follow the example of Rajiv! There you will find peace!

Now has come Man Supreme
Man after God’s own heart!
The world is a-tremble with wonder
And the grass quivers.
In heaven resounds the conch,
On earth plays the drum of Victory—
The sacred moment has come
That brings the Great Birth!
The gates guarding the moonless night have fallen,
The hill of sunrise rings with the call of “Fear not”
And ushers in the dawn of a new life!
The heavens thunder the song of Victory:
“Man has come!”[10]

Thank you very much! Dhanyawad!

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