By Celia Coates
In the most recent J.K.Rowling movie one of the characters says,
“When No-mags are afraid, they attack.”
Because the story is set on this side of the Atlantic, No-mags is an Americanization of “Muggles”, the name used in the Harry Potter books for conventional people who oppose the magical ways of wizards. They cannot see the multiple dimensions of reality (they could never catch a train from Platform 9¾) and they are very alarmed by anything that threatens their sense of security. They often reject new ways of doing things, people who are different from themselves, and ideas that are at odds with what they already believe. They resist change and cling to comforts from the past. There is at least a little No-mag in each one of us.
In our worlds, as in Harry Potter’s, two opposing sides are pitted against each other. The No-mags have been in attack mode. Now that they seem to be winning, the other side feels threatened and is looking for ways to fight back. Of course it’s not a new struggle – humans have fought for power, for control of the means to survive, since the very earliest times. And outsiders, everyone who does not belong, have long been rejected, especially the ones with unwelcome ideas. I recently learned that in the 1790s American immigration policies were being designed to exclude the French because of a fear that they might infect our new Republic with their radical ideas about revolution.
There is another way, other than with destructive battles, to go forward. It has roots that reach back hundreds and hundreds of years: it’s Gandhi’s way of fighting for what’s right without fighting. He believed and acted on “ahimsa” – a Sanskrit word that means “compassion” and “no injury.” Non-violence is a complex concept that includes a belief that all living beings have a divine spark within them, and to hurt another is to hurt the divine in oneself. It’s not pacifism or passivity – at its core it’s about the kind of person we choose to be.
We often look to religion for the rules on how to live but I think Gandhi’s grandson, Arun Gandhi, was right when he wrote:
“Religions today have become far too competitive. Each vies with the other to assert its superiority and proclaim itself to be the only way. Yet, in reality, no religion is perfect. The tragedy lies in our basic understanding of religion. Our attitude is conditioned by whether we believe we possess the truth or we believe the truth. If we accept the premise that we pursue the truth, then it becomes easier to accept and respect different forms of worship and philosophies.”
Religion has become part of the battle.
Gandhi said of himself that he was a man of “persistently strong attitudes”. His pursuit of truth and justice, the way he developed those attitudes, has changed history. He was born in British India in 1869 and one of his early struggles was dealing with the violence he himself endured as a dark-skinned outsider, first in England and then in South Africa. As a small, skinny, and timid young man with ears that stuck out, he did not seem destined for greatness. To be non-violent is extremely difficult when we are frightened. We are animals, hard-wired to defend ourselves, and we fight hard to survive. How did Gandhi transform his weakness and grow to teach the world how to stand up for justice with non-violent strength?
Most biographies of Gandhi describe the events and actions of his life. But Eknath Easwaran wanted to know how Mohandas K. Gandhi had become the Mahatma – the Great Soul. How had he become a man with such deep strength? He traveled to Gandhi’s ashram to see if he could discover the secret of his power. What he saw was described this way by Michael N. Nagler:
“Together with the rest of the ashram, he (Easwaran) returned from the brisk after-dinner walk with Gandhi in the relative cool of the evening and settled down around the neem tree where Gandhi sat. Mahadav Desai, Gandhi’s secretary, began to read out the verses from India’s most treasured scripture, the Bhagavad Gita: ‘He lives in wisdom who sees himself in all and all in him, whose love for the Lord has consumed every selfish desire and sense-craving tormenting the heart….’ As Easwaran watched, the small brown body seated in front of him grew motionless, absorbed in meditation on those verses, ‘I was no longer hearing the Gita, Easwaran recalls: ‘I was seeing it, seeing the transformation it describes.”
Gandhi considered that the worldly fight between violence and non-violence mirrored the personal war within the self. His own first struggle had needed to be with himself, as is true for all of us. We cannot transform fear by a simple effort of will. We cannot work with our No-mag self without pursuing truth as best as we can. As we learn to stand up for ourselves without doing harm, that can become the greater stand we take in the world. We may be able to re-define self-defense and what it involves. It is not just a counterforce, it is an evolved form of force.
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The image at the top of the page is of Gandhi’s seat, desk, and spinning wheel.
The quotes in this post come from: BOOK OF PRAYERS, by M.K.Gandhi with a Foreword by Arun Gandhi and an Introduction by Michael N.Nagler, Berkeley Hills Books, 1999.
And from , GANDHI THE MAN, by Eknath Easwaran, with a Foreword by Michael N. Nagler, Nilgiri Press, 1978.