Letter from Bodhgaya
An Indian monk reflects on Gandhi, Tibetan Freedom,
and the Good Life
Mahatma Gandhi occupies a unique place in the history and consciousness of modern India and the world itself. In Dharamsala recently, I was pleased to see that his portrait shared space on altars in Tibetan offices and restaurants, alongside His Holiness and the Buddha. An oversight perhaps, or a misplaced elevation of a lesser being to such high status, I thought? But then I remembered the link between a seminal work of Gandhi and a no-lesser personage than the present Prime Minister of Tibet’s Government-in-Exile.
Let me explain. In November 1909 we find Gandhi returning to South Africa aboard the S. S. Kildonan Castle, after a frustratingly unsuccessful visit to London to discuss Indians’ rights. In a burst of inspiration, he writes a booklet called Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule) in the space of nine days on the ship. In it he outlines his unusual blend of moral and political philosophy as he explains what is really needed for India to attain a meaningful and just freedom from the foreign yoke, as well as enunciating what true civilization should be. The work has a mixed reception, and even as late as 1945, Nehru, Gandhi’s chosen successor, writes to Gandhi that “even twenty years ago it seemed to me completely unreal.” Modern India openly practices the opposite of what Hind Swaraj advises, the heady mix of ethics and altruistic political theory being too much for our venal and corrupt modern “brown sahibs.” And yet, lo and behold, in the opening year of the twenty-first century, when I attended a short seminar run by an Indo-Tibetan group near Dharamsala, the main speaker, Venerable Samdhong Rinpoche (number two in the Tibetan government after His Holiness) was distributing free copies of this very text by Gandhi and exhorting the Tibetans to read it, stating that if they wanted a free Tibet, they had to read this booklet first! How about that! I don’t think the Tibetans knew what to think or say. Perhaps it merely confirmed what some of them were inclined to impute – that dear Samdhong Rinpoche, however revered and scholarly, was a bit of a cultural dinosaur. I wonder how many read it carefully and took its message to heart? Well, I did and am now happy to report my preliminary findings to Mandala’s esteemed readers, who are groaning under the burden of affluence and civilized discontent.
Hind Swaraj is like a missile aimed at the heart of our self-cherishing, greed, impatience, and predisposition to random acts of violence of body, speech, and mind. Gandhi says that Indians will not be fit to inherit governmental responsibility until they have learned to rule themselves, that is, to engage in voluntary and perfect chastity, simplicity and freedom from possessiveness, following the truth, and cultivating fearlessness. The foundation of civilization is good conduct, and service to one’s country is automatically rendered in the process of cultivating morality. Compassion is the root of religion, and on the question of economic health and political sanity, the answer lies in revitalizing India’s villages and promoting small-scale decentralized industries and government on a human scale – “as if people mattered,” in the words of the compassionate modern economist E. F. Schumacher.
Everywhere Gandhi upholds human beings’ dignity and capacity for courage, his theory and practice of non-violent non-cooperation being the main instrument with which the Indian freedom movement achieved its aims. No doubt Samdhong Rinpoche has pondered these issues very carefully and knows the uselessness of violence and the poverty of affluence, the dead-end of material greed. Modern Indian and Tibetan societies have yet to appreciate this. We seek a sense of self in a parade of images and products, and the more we have, the more we seem to lose in the sphere of human relationships. Gandhi said that to blame the English was useless and that they would leave India or change their ways only “when we reform ourselves.” Have the Tibetans done this? Those who have suffered in Tibet since the 1950s are the main ones who, upon escaping China’s tyranny, help to uphold the vital spiritual culture of the Buddhadharma by ordaining as monks and nuns in India. Those raised in relative comfort in India look westward for salvation, to so-called civilization, where brute force is considered acceptable to further the compulsions of economic growth. This ideal of economic growth is morally and ecologically deeply flawed, and contrasts strongly with what Arnold Toynbee says is the essence of what all religious founders have said “in favor of unselfishness and of love for other people as the key to happiness and to success in human affairs.”
No wonder Samdhong Rinpoche wants Tibetans to read this powerful work written by a man who spent most of his life sincerely seeking the best way to improve himself as well as benefit others and who is regularly criticized these days by trendy intellectuals and historians who have not yet cultivated even a fraction of Gandhi’s integrity and devotion to his fellows. Reading Gandhi carefully is like reading Buddhist ethics, thought transformation, and a practical eightfold path all at once, embracing as he did the theory and practice of the whole spectrum of living, from how to voluntarily suffer in the face of violence to how to educate a generation in good conduct, from achieving balance in health to achieving balance in agriculture and community life. This man was a moral colossus, whom we are ignoring at our peril. No wonder my father, who saw him regularly in his student days in Delhi in the 1940s, wept when he much later described to me Gandhi at his prayer meetings; no wonder the Tibetan government honors him as it does. No surprise that His Holiness saw fit to visit Gandhi’s resting place during his pilgrimage to India in 1956 and describes his deep feelings at doing so in his autobiography. In his last testament, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama had warned the Tibetans what would be ahead of them if they didn’t behave according to the Dharma and didn’t stop deceiving one another, acting out of self-interest alone. They ignored the advice, and the internal corruption grew during the minority of His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso. Disaster clearly followed.
I totally agree with Samdhong Rinpoche in his choice of sadhana for Tibetan freedom, and urge readers who are weary with samsara to study and reflect on this unusual early twentieth-century document by a man who said that his life was his message and who didn’t give up the Dharma, or his concern for others, till his dying breath.