For most of my adult life, I have felt some tension between my political impulses and my sense that the universe is vast and perfect beyond any judgments I may have, or any efforts I might make to change its course. In 1982 I went to India with the intention of exploring this inner conflict. In the midst of all that cosmic wisdom, I thought, maybe there is a secret oral teaching on social action, or a Buddhist brand of liberation theology.
On previous trips to Asia I had carried a tape recorder with me but usually set it aside while I tried to erase the tapes in my head. I once recorded the street sounds of Calcutta’s urban chaos and some wild, devotional chanting in Hindu temples, but on this trip I decided to try some journalism. I got an assignment to do a documentary for National Public Radio on the remaining influence of Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals in the India of the 1980s.
My search for Gandhi’s legacy took me to Bodhgaya, the village where the Buddha was enlightened and where I had first learned how to meditate. It turned out that right down the street from where I had been practicing meditation was an ashram devoted to carrying on Gandhi’s work of ministering to the poor, promoting the Mahatma’s vision for a sane society.
The Gandhi ashram in Bodhgaya was run by a man named Dwarko, a stocky, intelligent Bengali in his late fifties. He had been working for thirty years here in Bihar State, one of the poorest regions in India, and during that time he had supervised the construction of thirteen new villages for peasants who were members of the so-called rat-eaters caste. These people did not even have rice to eat for more than six months out of the year and often were forced to eat leaves and roots, which at other times served as garnish for one of their main sources of protein: rat meat. Almost all of these villagers lived below the Indian poverty line, which is the equivalent of about five dollars a month. “We started from minus zero,” Dwarko says of the people he works with, “and we still haven’t reached zero.”
The villages Dwarko helped build for these people were part of Gandhi’s plan for India after independence, his so-called constructive program. Like most people, I had been aware of the Mahatma’s leadership in the struggle to free India from British rule and his commitment to nonviolence, but I hadn’t known about his program for “village socialism” in India, or his critique of capitalism, or his ideas about education and ecology. In fact, Gandhi had a comprehensive design for a cooperative society, which is not talked about very much in India, or anywhere else in the world for that matter. Neither communists nor capitalists wanted anything to do with the Mahatma’s idea of a decentralized, spiritually based “village republic.” As Dwarko and other Gandhian workers explained it to me, I was amazed at how similar the Mahatma’s ideas were to those of new-paradigm thinkers in the American counterculture. Like Gandhi, they had rejected the twentieth century’s idea of progress.
After gaining independence, India’s political leaders ignored Gandhi’s constructive program. Nehru and his colleagues were infatuated with the West and determined to turn their nation into a modern industrial state. Gandhi had lived in London at the turn of century and seen the slums of Liverpool, and he concluded that industrial capitalism was an evil. He saw that it led to the concentration of wealth and power, the creation of big cities full of displaced people, and a consequent breakdown of ethics, spiritual values, family and community. Gandhi saw the problem as a matter of size and scale. In a small pamphlet that I picked up at one of his ashrams, I read this quote of his:
Society based on nonviolence can only consist of groups settled in small units or villages, where voluntary cooperation is the condition of dignified and peaceful existence. This end can only be achieved under decentralization. Centralization cannot be sustained and defended without force. It is not unreasonable to presume from the state of the West that its cities, its monster factories and huge armaments are so intimately interrelated that the one cannot exist without the other. The nearest approach to civilization based upon nonviolence is the erstwhile village republic of India.
Gandhi was against globalization before the world even realized that it was happening. He was “new age” before there was one. He believed that small is beautiful and advocated appropriate technology as an alternative to large-scale industry and mass production. He also believed that all living beings are equally sacred, making him one of the world’s first proponents of what has become known as deep ecology. His name for it was “biological nonviolence.”
Gandhi knew that we will all have to sacrifice in order to achieve a new society, and he called on people to join him by living more simply. However, Gandhi set standards of simplicity in his life that few people would even attempt to meet. He once visited the King of England wearing only a loincloth, shawl and sandals. Later, when questioned about the propriety of his attire, Gandhi said, “It was quite all right. The King was wearing enough for both of us.”
When he died, Gandhi left only a few personal possessions: a figurine of the see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil monkeys; his spectacles and walking staff; a few pieces of homespun clothing and his spinning wheel. As rural and old-fashioned as his vision may appear to those of us immersed in modernity, we may yet find ourselves asking Gandhi’s advice for ways to get out of the complicated tangles of our global world.
The Dalai Lama shares Gandhi’s understanding of social problems. By chance, I was in Bodhgaya working on the Gandhi documentary when His Holiness arrived to give teachings to the Tibetan people living in exile in eastern India. I wanted to include the Dalai Lama in my documentary, and since this was before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, I was easily able to arrange a meeting with him.
Awed by the prospect of interviewing His Holiness, I crafted my questions very carefully and in a serious tone began the interview by asking, “What do you think Tibetans have to teach us in the West?” The Dalai Lama thought for a moment, and then, eyes twinkling, replied, “We can teach you how to make Tibetan butter tea.” He then burst into laughter. Later in our talk, the Dalai Lama said that he agreed with Gandhi’s ideas, and remarked, “My economics is sufficiency.” Like Gandhi, the Dalai Lama believes that after certain needs are met, true happiness comes not from material wealth but from the cultivation of peace, both inside and outside. That seems to be the bottom line of spiritual economics.
Before I left Bodhgaya, I heard the Dalai Lama conduct a ceremony for thousands of Tibetans, both monks and laypeople, many who had traveled hundreds of miles to see their revered leader. Although they were all exiles, and many were living in difficult circumstances, His Holiness addressed the Tibetans in the simplest of words about the importance of developing compassion:
We bring great troubles to ourselves and others by acting out of selfishness. One can turn these troubles around by considering all others to be more important than oneself. Bugs and animals have no chance to understand this, whereas we are humans and have enough intelligence to realize the value of cherishing others. We need to put this wisdom into practice.
These words point to the core of all liberation theology, and as well to the ingredient missing from all of the world’s failed political ideologies: any real change in politics and government will have to be accompanied by a spiritual revolution.
My last stop in India was at the Gandhi memorial in New Delhi. At the entrance, Gandhi’s favorite talisman was carved in stone: “Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, try the following expedient. Recall the face of the poorest and the most helpless person whom you have ever seen, and then ask yourself if the next step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him.” Gandhi and the Dalai Lama are echoing each other down through the decades.
When I returned from India, I produced a radio documentary that drew on parallels between Gandhi’s vision and that of the new age and environmental movements in the West. The connection had been confirmed for me at a Gandhian ashram in Warda, India, where I found a dog-eared copy of the Whole Earth Catalog on the director’s desk. In my radio program, however, I tried to downplay the fact that Gandhi’s ideas were largely ignored in India. If they didn’t play in the Punjab, then how could they play in Peoria?
Even today, however, when it is so easy to become discouraged by the state of the world, the unwavering commitment and cheerfulness of Gandhi and the Dalai Lama are a great support. They remind me that it takes a long time to shift a paradigm and therefore to take a big perspective and have patience. And I always feel strengthened by something Gandhi once said, probably with a twinkle in his eye, “Truth does not become error just because nobody believes it.”