IN DECEMBER 2005, the annual Tricycle pilgrimage to Buddhist India started off in a hotel lobby in New Delhi, where twenty-two pilgrims gathered. Our first destination was Patna, a city in the lands of the historical Buddha, but the bus to the airport stopped at Birla Bhavan, the site of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination. In 1948, after more than fifty years of agitating for change through nonviolence, Gandhi was gunned down by a Hindu fanatic, a member of a group opposed to his sympathetic negotiations with Muslims. Only six months earlier, the Mahatma had led India to its independence from British rule.
As we followed Gandhi’s last steps from his room to the gardens, several of us were in tears. It quickly became clear that the emotional intensity was partly explained by despair about our own country. And images of Gandhi merged with our own memories of Martin Luther King, Jr.—Gandhi’s truest heir—and nowhere on the political horizon could we locate living leaders of the same courage, leaders steadfast enough in their convictions to sacrifice their lives. This was prior to the midterm elections of 2006; the war in Iraq was already a quagmire, and it appeared that the American people would offer no counter to the government’s unholy disregard for truth.
Within days, our spirits soared with visits to Vulture Peak and the Bamboo Grove, and then the cave near Gaya where Siddhartha had practiced the austerities, and across the dry riverbed to Bodhgaya, where he attained enlightenment. Yet Gandhi kept reentering the conversation.
On returning to New York, I rented Richard Attenborough’s 1982 movie Gandhi. India never looked less chaotic or more sanitized. And within the big sweep of an anguished history awash in the politics of race, caste, economics, and religion, the movie offers a simplified version of a very complicated man. Still, the story remains powerfully inspiring: by the sheer force of his convictions, “the half-naked fakir,” as Winston Churchill famously and facetiously called Gandhi, took on the greatest of all empires. He waged his campaign for independence through the nonviolent philosophy and practice ofsatyagraha, literally, “truth-force.”
I then found books about Gandhi that I had kept since my first trips to India in the 1960s. But by the ’70s, my pursuits had become parochially Buddhist, and I lost touch with Gandhi. Discussions of whether “true” Buddhist practice was helped or hindered by political engagement held no consequence. I would continue to vote, read the news, and debate political issues, and whether or not that was “Buddhist” was not an interesting question. There was no urgent need to test, or even examine, the relationship between my own political and spiritual life—or lives, for I had circumvented any inconvenient contradictions between the two.
But all that took a sharp turn during the events that followed 9/11. That’s when I began to grieve for America. The virtue of detachment was subsumed by wanting to know, and to know completely, the full measure of my love and my loss, and of my patriotism, however primitive. Yet what to do? Yes, there were petitions and protest marches. But confronted with the government’s indifference to public opinion, we seemed to have lost the thread of agency. 9/11 had shaken America out of its complacency, but into what? So far, fear has trumped action. Gandhi was fearless. His assassination was the last of several attempts on his life; but he also had a fearless imagination. He imagined peace. He imagined racial equality. He imagined an India liberated from the caste system. He imagined—against all reason—an India liberated from British domination. And most amazingly, he imagined that he could make a difference—he, an unremarkable child, an adequate student, a London-trained lawyer so painfully shy that on trying his first case in a Bombay courthouse he could literally not talk. And he continues to make a difference with what Philip Glass, in his interview, calls “unbending intent.” Never wavering. Never giving up.
Gandhi believed—and believed deeply—in the moral imperative of action. With peerless wisdom he understood the futility of measuring action by its result. The possibilities for realization, for actualization, for transformation lay with action; failed attempts held no less potential for realization than successful ones. Action itself can still nourish the spirit and illuminate darkness.
And Gandhi can still nourish our spirits. In the United States, years before Martin Luther King, Jr., applied Gandhi’s strategies to the civil rights movement, the black leadership had their eyes on Gandhi, intrigued and inspired by the bravery of this slight man of color, armed only with his moral compass, standing up to the seemingly unshakable power of white supremacy. And yet the India that Gandhi gave his life to liberate was born of bloodshed, of savage combat between Muslims and Hindus. Gandhi tried to prevent this, but could not. Yet the attempt had to be made; the attempt itself —not the outcome—became the measure of success.
Some argue that Gandhi was a spiritual leader; others that he was a political figure. To my mind, Gandhi’s special genius was in transcending all of those categories. He never stopped seeking self-realization, yet no one in recent history offers as brilliant a template for the integration of personal, social, political, and spiritual transformation as does Gandhi. Simplicity and sincerity defined his life; as well as sacrifice, that crucible of a life worth living we in America seem to know less and less about, even as the earth demands that we attempt to learn.
The special section that follows was inspired by the new production of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, an opera about Gandhi which will be at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House this April, and by The Satyagraha Fourm, a series of events this spring designed to expand discussions about nonviolence (for more information, visit satyagrahanyc.org.)
In my interview with Glass, he speaks of the sacred Indian text, the Bhagavad Gita, and its teachings on the transformative power of action. Glass explains his understanding of Gandhi through this text, and why he used it for the entire libretto of the opera. Mark Kurlansky, who wrote Nonviolence: Twenty-five Lessons from the History of a Dangerous Idea champions Gandhi as “the most influential political leader of the twentieth century.” Scholar and novelist Charles Johnson writes about Martin Luther King, Jr., who carried forth Gandhi’s legacy and proved the effectiveness of Gandhi’s strategies in the United States. And finally, bringing it all home, Professor Kenneth Kraft, one of our foremost scholars on engaged Buddhism, considers what Gandhi’s continued legacy looks like today.