“The Egyptians entered into Egypt from a southern country called Punt, across the seas. Some say that that Punt is the modern Malabar, and that the Egyptians and Dravidians belong to the same race. “
“The ship is steadily sailing north. The borders of this Red Sea were a great centre of ancient civilisation. There, on the other side, are the deserts of Arabia, and on this — Egypt. This is that ancient Egypt. Thousands of years ago, these Egyptians starting from Punt (probably Malabar) crossed the Red Sea, and steadily extended their kingdom till they reached Egypt. Wonderful was the expansion of their power, their territory, and their civilisation. The Greeks were the disciples of these. The wonderful mausoleums of their kings, the Pyramids, with figures of the Sphinx, and even their dead bodies are preserved to this day. Here lived the ancient Egyptian peoples, with curling hair and ear-rings, and wearing snow-white dhotis without one end being tucked up behind. This is Egypt — the memorable stage where the Hyksos, the Pharaohs, the Persian Emperors, Alexander the Great, and the Ptolemies, and the Roman and Arab conquerors played their part. So many centuries ago, they left their history inscribed in great detail in hieroglyphic characters on papyrus paper, on stone slabs, and on the sides of earthen vessels.
This is the land where Isis was worshipped and Horus flourished.”
–Vivekananda’s Memoirs of European Travel
This extraordinary man was a Hindu monk of the order of the Vedantas. He was called the Swami Vivi Kananda, and was widely known in America for his religious teachings. He was lecturing in Chicago one year when I was there; and as I was at that time greatly depressed in mind and body, I decided to go to him, having seen how greatly he had helped some of my friends.
An appointment was arranged for me, and when I arrived at his house I was immediately ushered into his study. Before going, I had been told not to speak until he addressed me. When I entered the room, therefore, I stood before him in silence for a moment. He was seated in a noble attitude of meditation, his robe of saffron yellow falling in straight lines to the floor, his head, swathed in a turban, bent forward, his eyes on the ground. After a brief pause, he spoke without looking up.
“My child,” he said, “what a troubled atmosphere you have about you! Be calm! It is essential!”
With the Swami and some of his friends and followers, I went upon a most remarkable trip, through Turkey, Egypt and Greece. Our party included the Swami, Father Hyacinthe Loyson, his wife, a Bostonian, Miss McL. of Chicago, ardent Swamist and charming, enthusiastic woman, and myself, the song bird of the troupe.
What a pilgrimage it was! Science, philosophy and history had no secrets from the Swami. I listened with all my ears to the wise and learned discourse that went on around me. I did not attempt to join in their arguments, but I sang on all occasions, as is my custom.
One day we lost our way in Cairo. I suppose we had been talking too intently. At any rate, we found ourselves in a squalid, ill-smelling street, where half-clad women lolled from windows and sprawled on doorsteps.
The Swami noticed nothing until a particularly noisy group of women on a bench in the shadow of a dilapidated building began laughing and calling to him. One of the ladies of our party tried to hurry us along, but the Swami detached himself gently from our group and approached the women on the bench.
“Poor children!” he said. “Poor creatures! They have put their divinity in their beauty. Look at them now!”
He began to weep, as Jesus might have done before the woman taken in adultery.
The women were silenced and abashed. One of them leaned forward and kissed the hem of his robe, murmuring brokenly in Spanish, “Hombre de dios, hombre de diosr (Man of God!) The other, with a sudden gesture of modesty and fear, threw her arm in front of her face, as though she would screen her shrinking soul from those pure eyes.
This marvellous journey proved to be almost the last occasion on which I was to see the Swami. Shortly afterward he announced that he was to return to his own country. He felt that his end was approaching, and he wished to go back to the community of which he was director and where he had spent his youth.
A year later we heard that he had died, after writing the book of his life, not one page of which was destroyed. He passed away in the state called Samadhi, which means, in Sanscrit, to die voluntarily, from a “will to die,” without accident or sickness, saying to his disciples, “I will die on such a day.”
(From ‘My Life’ by Emma Calve. Translated by Rosamond Gilder)
Bhoomidanam (“land gift”) was a movement led by Acharya Vinoba Bhave, an Indian sage and Gandhian disciple who walked hundreds of miles through India for 13 years with the mission of convincing landlords to renounce some of their holdings, for the social uplift of the poor and downtrodden and in order to promote village self-sufficiency. Chief amongst his many accomplishments was the founding of the Brahma Vidya Mandir, an ashram where women practiced agriculture, prayer, and nonviolence in order to achieve self-sufficiency.
Like Gandhiji, he sought peace, freedom, and self-determination for the Indian people from the tyranny of the British Empire through the method of ahimsa (non-violence). Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. met with him in 1959 during his trip to “the Land of Gandhi,” where he engaged in a deep study of the tradition of nonviolence in Indian philosophy and its practical application in the freedom struggle of his people here in the United States.
I painted this portrait because last year, we undertook a celebration of the 150th birthday of Mahatma Gandhi in the United States in an effort to raise national and world consciousness about Gandhiji, a singular personality whose example of perpetual truth-seeking, humility of conduct, depth of intellect and perception, compassionate action and eloquence of tongue and thought, brought together the starving multitudes of India, who were left destitute by more than three hundred years of British exploitation. Gandhiji taught us that education was not simply the assimilation of books and theorems but cultivation of the human personality, the sum total of a man’s actions which together constitute his character.
It behooves us to celebrate such a world historical personality in the twenty-first century as a new beast slouches towards India, the American Empire, which has arguably caused even more ruinous consequences to Indian industry, agriculture and folkways albeit in a much shorter span of time. Education has deviated from the Gandhian ideal as Indian labor is forced to work for Western powers for a mere pittance, while corporations greedily devour India’s intellectual and physical products, sucking out the very lifeblood of the Indian man and woman.
Central to this terrible saga is the aggressive advance of the Indian elite and petty bourgeoisie in America, which enjoys the fruits of exploited Indian labor along with the white bourgeoisie and indeed, the bourgeoisie of every race. Together they even suppress the working poor here, particularly the black poor, who are exploited in ways quite similar to the poor and downtrodden in India, denied education, housing, and basic civil rights. All the while these personalities claim to be “experts” on India and South Asia. It was for these rights that Dr. King and Vinoba Bhave were fighting.
America, which is presently facing a grave crisis of governance and an even graver crisis of violence, must return to Dr. King’s prognostication that the choice today is not between nonviolence and violence but in fact, between nonviolence or non-existence. As superpowers like Russia and China, along with the fast-failing behemoth of Europe, contend for power with the capsizing American Empire, the masses are once again left floundering and bewildered.
In his report about his trip to the Land of Gandhi, Dr. King observes that “the bourgeoise—white, black or brown—behaves about the same the world over.” He implores the American people to partake of the gifts of Mother India “in a spirit of international brotherhood, not national selfishness.” Herein lies the significance of Dr. King’s two-day meeting with Sri Vinoba Bhave during his trip to Ajmer, pictured below: the desire to join the Satyagraha of African-Americans who had recently desegregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama with the Satyagraha of the Indians, who had newly won independence after having successfully ejected the British from Indian soil.
Bhave was a disciple of Gandhiji who continued to transmit Gandhiji’s message of peace after the physical form of the Mahatma was assassinated. Vinoba ji is said to have been admired by Gandhi, particularly for his strict and sincere observance of brahmacharya or the law of celibacy, which was a key component of the Satyagraha program.
Rev. King visited with Vinoba Bhave for two days on March 2 and 3, 1959. During their meeting, Vinoba referred to King as the American Gandhi; he himself was known amongst followers as the “Second Gandhi.” Sadly in the recent years, the city of Ajmer, where King visited with Vinoba ji has been neo-colonized by the Americans. Thus, whereas Dr. King’s pilgrimage to the city and visit with Vinobaji was an effort to fight Western imperialism through the method of ahimsa, President Barack Obama’s visit in 2010 was its very antithesis–history as a consequence became farce and nonviolence has degenerated into mere rhetoric in the hands of the neoliberal class, who have coopted the language of nonviolence for the perpetuation of war, poverty, and injustice rather than their ultimate eradication.
Obama and his ilk might be best served to remember Dr. King’s advice, to quote an article of his about Gandhiji in an issue of Bhoodan magazine, “Gandhi’s method of nonviolence and the Christian ethics of love is the best weapon available to Negroes for this struggle for freedom and human dignity…His spirit is a continual reminder that it is possible to resist evil and yet not resort to violence.”
Bose was a key figure in the Indian Satyagraha for Freedom, pupil of Abindranath Tagore, and Gandhi’s favorite artist. He also sketched the emblems for the Government of India’s awards, including the Bharat Ratna and the Padma Shri, per Nehru’s request, in addition to decorating the Constitution of India
“In 1935, Mahatma Gandhi stopped over in Port Sudan (on his way to England through sea) and was welcomed by the Indian community there. In 1938, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru stopped over in Port Sudan on his way to Britain and was hosted through a function at the home of Chhotalal Samji Virani. The Graduates General Congress of Sudan formed in 1938 drew heavily on the experience of the Indian National Congress.”
“British Indian troops fought alongside Sudanese in Eritrea in 1941 winning the decisive battle of Keren (Bengal Sappers won a Victoria Cross for mine clearance in Metemma, now on the Sudan-Ethiopia border). The Sudan Block at India’s National Defence Academy was partly funded with a gift of one hundred thousand pounds from the Sudanese Government in recognition of the sacrifices of Indian troops in the liberation of Sudan in the North African Campaign during World War II.”
“At the 1955 Bandung Conference, the delegation from a still not independent Sudan did not have a flag to mark its place. Taking out his handkerchief, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote “Sudan” on it, thus reserving a place for Sudan in the international community.”
Invests one speech with haloed eminence,
Makes it the sesame for all doors shut,
Yet in its like sees but impertinence?
Is it the hue? Is it the cast of eye,
The curve of lip or Asiatic breath,
Which mark a lesser place for Gandhi’s cry
Than “Give me liberty or give me death!” Is Indian speech so quaint, so weak, so rude,
So like its land enslaved, denied, and crude,
That men who claim they fight for liberty
Can hear this battle-shout impassively,
Yet to their arms with high resolve have sprung
At those same words cried in the English tongue?
Today marks the 157th birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda. Vivekananda was only 29 when he gave his address at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. As he put it in his lecture, “I thank you in the name of the most ancient order of monks in the world; I thank you in the name of the mother of religions; and I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects…. I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.”
A staunch critic of Western imperialism, he railed against American Christian missionaries who traveled to India to “convert the heathens”: he remarked acerbically in one speech he gave while in America, “You train and educate and clothe and pay men to do what? — to come over to my country and curse and abuse all my forefathers, my religion, my everything. They walk near a temple and say, ‘You idolaters, you will go to hell.’ But the Hindu is mild; he smiles and passes on, saying, ‘Let the fools talk.’ And then you who train men to abuse and criticize, if I just touch you with the least bit of criticism, but with the kindest purpose, you shrink and cry: ‘Do not touch us! We are Americans; we criticize, curse, and abuse all the heathens of the world, but do not touch us, we are sensitive plants.” Like Gandhi and the vast majority of Indian people, Vivekananda recognizes that Christianity of the West was a bankrupt enterprise, deployed in the justification of slavery and empire.
Well versed in Western philosophy, logic, and science, and the greatest disciple of his master, Sri Ramakrishna, he sought to bring to the Western world the knowledge of the Vedas, the ancient learning of India. Though largely uncredited for his contributions, he, in fact, developed a new science of the mind. It was in America that he composed his major work, Raja Yoga. His role in the founding of modern psychology has been relatively unacknowledged. He had a profound influence on William James, who was one of W.E.B Du Bois’ professors at Harvard University. James met him in 1894 and again in 1896 when Vivekananda gave a lecture at Harvard, on the religions of India and comparative religions. Many of of James’s colleagues at Harvard (and Du Bois himself who drew on Hindu philosophy constantly in his own work) and the wider community of Cambridge, MA were drawn to the truth of Vivekananda’s teachings about religion, science, and the freedom of the soul. One sees the influence of Vivekananda in James’s 1902 work The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, particularly in the connections between religion and neurology, the reality of the unseen, and the fundamental unity of the self and the universe.
Article by African-American theologian William Stuart Nelson on Gandhiji in the Friends Journal: Quaker Thought and Life, October 1, 1969. Nelson was a satyagrahi who marched with Gandhi in Noakhali, Bengal in support of Hindu-Muslim Unity against Western imperialism. He was a very important mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. and played a decisive role in facilitating Dr. King’s visit to India in 1959.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.
I pass before me the mainsprings of my heritage:
The fruits of the labors of countless generations who lived before me, without whom my own life would have no meaning;
The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;
The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp and whose words could only find fulfillment in the years which they would never see;
The workers whose sweat has watered the trees, the leaves of which are for the healing of the nations;
The restlessness which bottoms all I do with its stark insistence that I have never done my best, I have never reached for the highest;
The big hope that never quite deserts me, that I and my kind will study war no more, that love and tenderness and all the inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the children of God as the waters cover the sea.
All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel,
I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,
Our Father, in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart.
I too, hear America singing
But from where I stand
I can only hear Little Richard
And Fats Domino.
I hear Ray Charles
Drowning in his own tears
Relaxing at Camarillo
or Horace Silver doodling,
Then I don’t mind standing
a little longer,
Horace Julian Bond, printed in Morehouse College “Pegasus”