Sunday, September 16, 2007

Using solitude to rise above …

Ever wondered why Jesus spent time in the wilderness? Or why Muhammad went to contemplate in the cave? Or why so many reformers spend time in solitude before returning to join the fight for social or political reform?

When your community is so corrupted, when paranoia and hatred are so rampant, it is easy to regard the corrupted environment as the norm. Sometimes things can get so bad that you have to get away from it all, to watch it from afar, just so that you can appreciate how bad it is.

Unfortunately, we are living in an age when racial and religious hatreds are being generated and marshalled by leaders bereft of genuine ideas to improve their communities.

Hatred is an easy-to-use tool. It doesn’t take a lot of brains to hate people. You don’t have to use brain cells to try and understand them or put yourself in their shoes. It takes a certain degree of intelligence to befriend someone different to you. It doesn’t intellectual laziness and inertia to only identify people as groups different to your group.

We all have layers of identity. We aren’t just defined by race or religion or colour. We are also defined by language, by profession, by education, by other special interests, by upbringing and a range of other factors.

No two Jews are the same. But it didn’t take an enormous amount of work for Adolf Hitler to convince his followers that Jews are uni-dimensional creatures defined and inspired only by a set of characteristics allegedly tied to their ethno-religious identity. Eventually Jews became the people who wore yellow stars of David on their lapels.

Today’s equivalents of Hitler (such as this mob) are trying to convince us that other people – be they African migrants or refugees or Muslims or Palestinians or other alleged undesirables – are also uni-dimensional.

History has shown that this kind of hysteria spreads very quickly. Even in modern democracies like India, sectarian and communal hatred can erupt into violence. In 1984, following the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her nominally Sikh bodyguard, tens of thousands of Sikhs were butchered in Delhi and other Indian cities.

The terrorist acts of a minority of Sikh extremists were used as a trigger by ethnic and religious chauvinists to slaughter innocent Sikhs whose only link to Mrs Gandhi’s assassination was that they happened to belong to the same religion.

In such an environment, how does one deal with the situation? How can you be effective in achieving positive change?

David Davidar’s latest novel The Solitude of Emperors provides some clues. The novel is in fact two books. There is the story narrated by Vijay, a young man of South Indian background living in a semi-rural town who finds himself in Mumbai working as a journalist for a magazine called The Indian Secularist. Then there is the book within the novel, also entitled The Solitude of Emperors, written by Vijay’s editor and employer.

The latter consists of biographical notes on three great Indian political leaders who used religion as a means to fight religious and ethnic hatred. There is Ashoka, the great Indian king who adopted the message of Gautama Buddha and built an empire on the basis of using peace to keep the peace.

Then there was the Mughal King Akbar who brought the followers of various religions together to discuss and debate. Akbar then extracted the best elements of all faiths ro produce a hybrid faith that he sought to promote in his kingdom.

Finally there was Mohandis Gandhi, known to Indians as the Mahatma (literally “Great Soul”), who adapted sacred Hindu principles to develop his theory of ahimsa or non-violence.

These great leaders all went through periods of solitude, similar to those of Jesus and Muhammad cited above. They had to become intimate with themselves, to discover their own essence before being able to understand the problems facing their communities.

I make it sound like some clinical process. Perhaps I’ll allow Mr Sorabjee, author of the book within Davidar’s novel, to speak for himself …

We do not know what to do with one of our most
precious resources, solitude, and so we fill it with clutter … Perhaps that is
what the one who created us proposed all along, it was never his intention that
every one of us would amount to something or make a difference, if that were so
it would disrupt the natural order of things, which would be intolerable. But
those who are driven enough or bold enough or made enough or exalted enough to
look without flinching into the emptiness within will find in it insights
vouchsafed only to the select few.

The great ones were not afraid
of solitude. All leaders of men know that loneliness is a condition of their
existence, but only the greatest of them are able to transcend mere isolation to
find the solitude in which the worlds of the Gods and men intersect. It was here
that the emperors discovered their most potent ideas, ideas that helped shape
the moral imagination of nations in hitherto unheard-of ways, it was here that
they encountered their destiny.

One of the most interesting and eccentric characters I met during my years in the Liberal Party was the late Jim Cameron. Some years before his passing, he told me that one reason politicians make such poor decisions is that they simply don't have enough time to think things through. Politics has become so cut-throat and politicians are watched and observed so much that they are expected to always say exactly what they think various people want to hear. They are more worried about managing the media or managing staff egos or consulting spin doctors that they hardly have time to think. To use Sorabjee's terminology, they no longer experience solitude.

Is it any wonder, then, that politicians are now so tempted to use racial and sectarian wedges to play politics? What do readers think?

© Irfan Yusuf 2007