One hundred and fifty years ago this month, an Indian boy was born, who would change the course of history and whose message seems ever more relevant today. We’ve come to know him as Mahatma (literally ‘great-souled’) Gandhi, the man who brought the mighty British empire to its knees, and who inspired and fueled Martin Luther King’s non-violent resistance movement, and hence helped shape America’s liberal moral compass.
We’re living in turbulent times, in which these core liberal values are under attack. Hate, divisiveness, and un-truths are tearing the fabric of our society and undermining the foundations of our democracy itself. Perhaps worst still, this tidal wave of negativity is slowly ‘getting to us’, eroding our resilience, leaving us at times overwhelmed by despondency and confusion.
I recently ‘met’ Gandhiji in San Francisco (well, his 1988 statue anyway), ‘walking’ the pier by the Ferry Building, springily as ever, eyes gleaming in a mischievous smile. You can similarly ‘run into him’ in most major cities in over seventy countries. And perhaps like me, you find yourself wondering: what would Gandhi say? This frail-framed man who himself lived through overwhelming hostility, divisiveness, and un-truths – what would he think of our predicament today? This humble anti-hero who inspired millions – where did he get his inspiration from, and is it relevant for us here and now?
GANDHI AND THE GITA
Gandhi would undoubtedly point us to the Gita, a timeless Wisdom scripture, which became his beacon and his hallmark. “My life has been full of tragedies” he once said “and if they have not left any visible and indelible effect on me, I owe it all to the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita. When doubts haunt me, when disappointments stare me in the face, and when I see not one ray of light on the horizon, I turn to the Gita and find a verse to comfort me. And immediately, in the midst of overwhelming sorrow, I begin to smile.”
The Gita is one of the world’s most trusted guides for happiness, meditation, spiritual inner-growth and transformation. Inspired by the Gita, Gandhi learned to focus on the ‘inner work’ of taming his mind, while at the same time actively dealing with life’s external challenges. “If we could change ourselves” he invited his collogues and followers “the tendencies in the world would also change.” And so, his own life became an ‘experiment’ of inner-transformation, and the Gita became his trusted guide and his roadmap on this inner quest. As a Gita verse beautifully puts it:
“Lift yourself by your Self, O Prince,
And let not yourself flounder low;
You, yourself, are your only friend,
As well as your very worst foe.”
TRUTH IS OUR INNER-SELF
Gandhi called his resistance movement Satyagraha, ‘holding onto Truth’. His path was one of overcoming hostility and un-truths by connecting to the deep Truth of one’s own Inner-Self – that quietude within, which is beyond petty ego and endless chatter of thoughts and emotions. The more you connect with this Truth, this Inner-Self, the more you can see your aggressor, without aggressive-response arising in your heart. No longer merely suppressing your own ‘justified’ anger and grievance, rather being firmly rooted in the unshakable Knowing of our unity, aggressor and aggrieved alike. This inner Truth – the Gita tells us – is a light shining within, which not only dispels the darkness of our own Ignorance but also lights up the world around us:
“But when Inner-Self’s light dispels Ignorance,
Then from within, this Wisdom-light shines;
Radiant sun, lighting all that surrounds us,
And all around us we behold the Divine.”
GANDHI’S LEGACY TODAY
Our current time-of-crisis offers an urgent reminder of deep imbalances in our culture, which must be tended to. Our smart science and technology are not making mankind happier, kinder, more tolerant or less greedy. Our connectivity and our unprecedented access to knowledge are not bringing us closer to Wisdom or each other. And our society, and elected leaders – are not always inspiring in the ideals that motivate them and which they manifest.
Gandhi’s beloved Gita is uniquely suited to helping us navigate our challenging times. It provides us with powerful tools for transformation and inner change. Tools, which guide us in the art of living life wisely, transforming the challenges – in both our personal life as well as in our society – into opportunities for inner-growth.
As we face today’s challenges, Gandhi’s words of heartfelt invitation to the Gita, resonate as relevant as ever. “Today the Gita is not only my Bible or my Koran” he once said “it is much more than that – it is my Mother. When I am in difficulty or distress, I seek comfort in her bosom”.