Sunday, January 28, 2007

At war, in peace

Less than a week before the day India celebrates its Republic Day, less than a decade ago, on the 20th of January, 1988, died a forgotten colossus whose legacy remains a valuable key for a world locked in the clash of civilisations.

Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, also known as Frontier Gandhi, was born in 1890, in Hashtnagar in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) of what is now Pakistan, a region that was described by George Molesworth of the British Army in 1919 as one where every stone ‘has been soaked in blood’. I still remember the grainy, black and white images of a tall man with gentle compassionate eyes that flashed across TV screens the day he died. I was told he was a man of infinite peace but it is only now that I realise that he was also a man of infinite courage.

The rugged beauty of the mountains of the Khyber that links the NWFP to Afghanistan is home to the fiercely proud Pashtuns or Pathans. When these fierce warriors are not busy fighting off the British, the Russians or the Americans, they are immersed in their own tribal feuds where blood is the currency and honour the prize. But Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, or Badshah Khan as he later came to be called, had a different vision for his people.

Beneath the veneer of the aggressive, blood-thirsty Pashtun, Badshah Khan saw a race of generous and brave people blinded and disgraced by violence and ignorance. When just 20, he began his mission of uplifting his people by setting up schools for men and women. From that mission evolved the vision of freeing India from British Imperialism and thus was born a lofty philosophy, born as much to faith, as it was to feeling. Khan was a deeply religious man whose interpretation of his faith led him to the realisation that non-violence was a ‘weapon of the prophet’. He started a peaceful movement against the British with 1,00,000 of his followers called the Khudai Khidmatgars (God’s servants), all committed to the principle of non-violence and the cause of the nation. But to the British, the non-violent Pashtun was a confounding anomaly who they brutalised in an attempt to elicit a more familiar and violent reaction. In 1930, in Peshawar for instance, more than 300 Khidmatgars sacrificed their lives when British soldiers opened fire on a non-violent demonstration.

The Khidmatgars, the same Pashtuns who are today vilified as vandals and terrorists, bared their chests to receive the bullets replacing those that fell before them without ever raising an arm in protest (many more would’ve died if elite soldiers of the Garhwal regiment had not refused orders when asked to fire at the unarmed Khidmatgars ) But through the torture, the beatings and the pain, the man, the philosophy and the Khidmatgars endured, mirroring a similar movement in another corner of India led by a man he was to befriend like a brother, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. To Badshah Khan, his chosen path of non-violence was only natural. ‘There is nothing surprising in a Muslim or a Pathan like me subscribing to the creed of nonviolence’ for that, he believed, had been the path of the prophet and the faith, more than 1,300 years ago.

Khan dreamt of a unified, secular India and had spoken extensively against the partition of India. When the Congress, of which he was a senior member, accepted the divisive concept, he expressed his sense of betrayal but maintained his close association with Gandhi. The new regime in Pakistan felt threatened by his ideas and repressed the Khidmatgars ruthlessly. And Khan, who ought to have been a national hero, spent most of his remaining years under house arrest. Abandoned by those he trusted, and persecuted by those who feared him, today Badshah Khan lies in a grave in Jalalabad, the man forgotten, his ideals forsaken. If the Nobel Committee had had the sense to celebrate the contributions of this peaceful soldier of Islam, maybe the afterglow of international recognition would have immortalised his beliefs amongst his people. And that could’ve changed the fate of one of the most volatile regions of South Asia. But that would perhaps be expecting a little too much of a Committee that awarded a foul-mouthed war criminal like Henry Kissinger with the peace prize and forgot about a Mahatma.


Sunday, January 21, 2007

Between odd men and god men

This is a story from a Kumbh Mela long ago. I was, but a mere child then, but had come across the story of a Japanese sadhavi while riffling through a newspaper in search of my daily encounter with ‘Hagar the Horrible’. The name eludes me but if memory serves me right, she had chosen to demonstrate a siddhi as well as perform an austerity by locking herself up in an airless vault that was buried under the earth during the month-long festival and from which she emerged unscathed. At that time I was the proud possessor of legs that could’ve hidden behind a stork’s and the self-esteem of a newly shorn sheep. Night and day I would dream of discovering a philosopher’s stone of sorts or hope to get bitten by a radioactive insect so that overnight, I too could feel what it meant to be powerful.

As the years went past, in the face of all that was logical and rational, the yellowed memory of the Sadhavi shone like a sun on a corner of my mind that still hung on to magical possibilities. Even today, between thoughts that flit between new cars and newer wars, something deep inside still holds on to the possibility of undying youth, everlasting happiness and attaining the power to be the God that every man was meant to be. And this dream was born because of a little Japanese woman in the world’s biggest confluence of rivers, constellations and people - the Kumbh Mela.

And so began my search for and study of the phenomenon of ‘miracles’. The early search was disappointing though, because almost everywhere I would look, I came up against the popular notion that miraculous powers are not desirable and celebrated yogis like Sri Ananda would maintain that ‘supernatural powers (Sidhis) are nothing but the fancies of the human mind’. But the scar ran deep and my resolute quest continues. The resurrection of Christ, the transmutative miracles of Augustya and Vishwamitra and the legendary exploits of Milarepa and Marpa were all fascinatingly inspirational stories but not road maps that one could learn from and follow. But there was hope yet. Every Kumbh, I would hear about the miraculous feats of Sadhus and saints who would dazzle onlookers with their logic and death-defying display of sidddhis, or attainments. I started reading about and seeking these ‘god-men’ and their fascinating world of magic and mysticism – a seductive world, both enchanting and forbidding.

Perhaps the most famous Sadhu of them all is Tailanga Swami, the tantric miracle worker who lived in Varanasi for more than 300 years and was revered by spiritual masters like Rama Krishna Paramhansa. Another great Siddha (enlightened being) was the ageless Bengali Baba, teacher of Swami Rama, the former Shankaracharya of Karvirpitham and author of the great spiritual classic – Living with the Himalyan Masters. Bengali Baba is said to have performed many miracles but the most famous of them all has been the resurrection of the Prince of Bhawal who was brought back to life by the sage from his funeral pyre. Swami Rama himself astonished scientists with his ability to regulate and alter his heartbeat and his blood flow almost at will. His phenomenal abilities were the subject of a long study by the Menninger Institute. There have been many others like Yogi Haridas who had been buried underground for 40 days and Giri Bala, ‘the legendary non-eating saint’ who was an inspiration for Paramahamsa Yogananda. This Kumbh too will have its share of miracle workers, and those who witness them will have a choice to make – watch and wonder or search without surrender.

The latter path is not without its perils though. Scriptures like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Patanjali Sutras promise great powers if, through a meditative practice, one can raise the Kundalini, an energy source that according to Hindu mythology, lies at the base of the spine. But as Gopi Krishna, the author of Living with Kundalini found out to his cost, it’s a slippery path where even the slightest mistake could irrevocably damage both body and mind. But then, every adventure has its dangers, and when the prize is freedom from the chains that shackle the body and anchor the spirit, the journey seems well worth the risk.


Sunday, January 14, 2007

Seremos Como El Che

New York souvenir stores aren’t the most obvious platforms for ideological debates and therefore I let the challenge pass, but the thought stayed with me. “Why do you want a ‘Che’ Tee?” the store owner, an African-American, had asked. “I don’t like him… he was a very bad man. Killed a lot of people” he concluded.

I was taken aback. Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was a man I used to worship as a teenager and even today, though a fi rm pacifi st, still admire. Almost ‘the most complete man of the 20th century’, as Jean-Paul Sartre had claimed. Che memorabilia adorn stores and torsos across the world, from Nairobi to Norway and Shenandoah to Singapore. ‘The Cult of Che’ has inspired a whole generation of global villagers, and while I was told that he was deemed a villain in certain corners of the world, I had not expected it to come from as innocuous a corner as the above. The incident gnawed away at the paradigms I held dear. One of us clearly saw the wrong side of the story and in these times, it is important to establish that not every man unfairly executed is a revolutionary and nor is every revolutionary a power hungry despot in disguise.

Born in Argentina, of Irish and Basque descent, Ernesto had revolution coursing through his veins by sheer virtue of his ancestry. Trained as a doctor, a motorcycle journey he undertook across South America with Alberto Granado was the spark that lit the revolutionary fi re that still burns bright in graffi ti across the world’s walls that scream ‘Che lives!!’ During the journey, as he witnessed the wretched lot of disfranchised South Americans, he became convinced that armed revolt against oppression allied with Marxist principles was the only way out of the squalor. Ernesto could’ve lived a comfortable life in Buenos Aires but instead he chose a diffi cult life and a painful death. What distinguishes him from any other revolutionary is the incredible fact that unlike even the greatest revolutionaries, Che did not fi ght for the liberation of a country or its people alone, but for the liberation of ‘man’. Che was an Argentinian who served Peruvian lepers, actively supported the Guatemalan Arbenz government against a CIA-led coup; without any military training, fought valiantly and successfully as a commander alongside Fidel Castro to liberate Cuba from the violently oppressive Fulgencio Batista and then instead of resting on his well fought-hard earned laurels, he gave up all the privileges of a senior Cuban statesman to chase his ideology of fi ghting for the most oppressed communities of the world in a bid to liberate them and entrust them with the ideological and military wherewithal to defend and further their rights. Leaving his cushy offi ce in Havana, Che led revolutions in the swamps of Congo and the valleys of Bolivia where he was betrayed to the US Special Forces-led Bolivian Army, captured and summarily executed (a phrase that might suffer frequent usage in this unipolar world).

Thousands of passionate young men followed his example and stood up in defi - ance against tyranny and oppression. Most of them died, just like their hero, obviously unsuccessful, apparently unfulfi lled. And yet the romance of the romantic revolutionary endures. Beyond T-Shirts, coffee mugs and bright buttons, the real Che – the sensitive doctor who picked up arms for a cause, the asthma patient who transformed into a daredevil in battle fatigues, the allegedly ruthless military commander who personally treated captured enemy soldiers even before getting his own wounds treated, the intensely committed revolutionist who had committed himself to martyrdom even in the lost cause of the Congolese revolt as an example of revolutionary zeal and had to be literally forced to escape, the man whose just-dead body reminded women of Christ on the cross – though obscured, still breathes in the new found socialistic zeal in Latin America in the form and shape of Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Lopez Obrador, Rafael Correa and now Daniel Ortega gives new hope to an ism that had lost steam. Socialism is a valuable philosophy in this unequal world but history has proven that there are rickety fences that separate revolutionaries from ideologues, and ideologues from dictators. But as long as there are children in schools who take oath and swear ‘Seremos como el Che’ (We will be like Che), dictatorship, whether by a nation or an individual will always, eventually, meet its Waterloo.