Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Royal Road: Gandhi, Social Activism, and Yoga

Gandhi March by Nandalal Bose
by Nina Zolotow

“It contains the profound idea that nothing done is ever lost, that there is no sin in the path of action. This is the royal road. This path is the path of Truth.” —Mohandas K. Gandhi 

Mohandas K. Gandhi is known worldwide for his work as a social activist and for developing the practice of non-violent passive resistance (satyagraha), which inspired the social activism of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela, among others. However many people don’t realize that Gandhi was a dedicated practitioner of yoga. No, this doesn’t mean that he practiced 108 Sun Salutations every morning or even that he meditated for days at a time. What it meant was that his lifelong work as a social activist was inspired by his practice of “yoga in action” (karma yoga) as described in the Bhagavad Gita: 

II.40 Act thou, O Dhanajaya, without attachment, steadfast in yoga, even-minded in success and failure.
Even-mindedness is yoga. Work without attachment, being firmly established in yoga. —Translated by Mohandas K. Gandhi 

This meant that in all the social activism that Gandhi engaged in, whether he was fighting for the independence of India or working for religious harmony in the country after independence was achieved, he practiced a form of yoga called “skill in action.” Skill in action means accepting both success and failure with equanimity and doing your work without being attached to the results it will bring. As Gandhi put it: 

“He, who, being thus equipped, is without desire for the results and is yet wholly engrossed in the due fulfillment of the task before him, is said to have renounced the fruits of his action.” —from The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi 

This is the “royal road” to inner peace and ultimately to self-realization or liberation. As the Gita says: 

3.19 "Therefore, do thou ever perform without attachment the work thou must do; for performing action without attachment man attains the Supreme.” —translated by Mohandas K. Gandhi 

The philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita was so important to Gandhi that he even did his own translation of it, The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi, which includes a commentary based on lessons he gave to students at an ashram about the Gita. (There are different editions of this, so if you want the one with the commentary, be sure you buy the right one!)

And I believe that this philosophy, which allowed Gandhi to attain some measure of inner peace and supported him as he developed and engaged in non-violent social activism—where he often put his own life on the line—can help everyone who is engaged in social activism or service of any kind. 

Now you might be wondering how Gandhi, who was such a believer in non-violence (ahimsa), could find the story of a warrior being encouraged to fight by Krishna a lodestar in his own life. These types of questions come up for almost everyone who reads the Gita these days: How can Krishna encourage Arjuna to enter a battle where he will surely kill people, including relatives and respected elders? Isn’t an important part of yoga the practice of ahimsa (non-violence)? Gandhi himself saw the war in the Gita as a metaphor:

“Even in 1888-1889, when I first became acquainted with the Gita, I felt it was not a historical work, but that, under the guise of physical warfare, it described the duel that perpetually went on in the hearts of mankind, and that physical warfare was brought in merely to make the description of that internal duel more alluring.” —from The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi 

Yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein supports this interpretation. He says that in the Bhagavad Gita “Arjuna found himself in a significant personal quandary—a struggle between right and wrong that is symbolic of all of life’s great predicaments.” 

So you can think of the impending battle in the Gita as a war in your own mind between good and evil or as any kind of battle you find yourself in in your life. For example, perhaps you are engaged in a fight for social justice for marginalized people, as many Accessible Yoga members are. Or, perhaps you are doing service of some kind, such as volunteering to help those in need. And for all of us, as I said in my post Arjuna is Us, there will come a time in life when we need to stand up for what’s right. For all those battles, the yogic approach—the approach that allows you to achieve some measure of inner peace—is to practice skill in action, doing your work “without attachment” and “even-minded in success and failure.” 

Obviously, it’s hard to remain detached from results when you’re “fighting” for a just cause, working for positive change, or standing up for what is right. But we can try our best and the Gita says those efforts alone will be rewarding. 

II.40 “Here no effort undertaken is lost, no disaster befalls.
Even a little of this righteous course delivers one from great fear.” —translated by Mohandas K. Gandhi

Gandhi explained this passage by saying: 

“A beginning made is not wasted. Even a little effort along this path saves one from great danger. This is a royal road, easy to follow. It is the sovereign yoga. In following it, there is no fear of stumbling. Once a beginning is made, nothing will stand in our way.” from The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi

I hope that you will find these ideas inspiring and that this message will help you find a way to live your yoga through your work in social activism or service. 

However, I want to conclude by saying that I realize some of you may have heard disturbing things about Gandhi, such as that he was a racist, supported the caste system, and engaged in sexually abusive behavior (see A New Biography Presents Gandhi, Warts and All). 

Certainly it now appears that Gandhi was a seriously flawed man. I read his autobiography years ago and even that was somewhat disturbing. Since then I have never called him “Mahatma,” which means “great soul,” for that very reason. But for me, I feel as long as we keep in mind that Gandhi was just a human being and, to be honest, something of a religious fanatic, and we exercise critical thinking as we evaluate his teachings, we can still learn from him. As Georg Feuerstein says about the Bhagavad Gita: 

“We do not have to accept the Gita’s—or any other scripture’s—teachings uncritically. In fact this would prove unhelpful and even adverse for us. The only proper way to relate to this type of knowledge is with an open mind, which is by no means a sieve through which anything can pass freely, without critical inspection.” —from The Bhagavad-Gita: A New Translation

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