Sunday, April 27, 2008

Generosity, Non-Violence & Non-Cooperation

Having escaped Bombay I'm now in Rishikesh, where this morning I was listening to an old lecture by Jack Kornfield over a second cup of mediocre coffee.

He was discussing the roots of generosity and what that force looks like when turned loose in the greater world. Specifically, he talked about how at its root generosity requires an embrace of all hardships in this world as well as all joys, and it is only through that embrace that we can see and change the greatest of the world's ills. To quote,
"...abundance means the willingness to open to life as it is, to face injustice and suffering. As Martin Luther King (Jr.) wrote, 'We will soon wear you down with our capacity to suffer in the struggle for the rights of others, and with that suffering we will win our freedom and (yours along with it)."
To wear down an oppressor with a capacity to suffer is something worth considering in the context of our current social struggles - from the protests over Tibet, to the war in Iraq and the reality of global warming. The truth of today is that we blame a complacent public, unresponsive governments and a corrupt media system for turning deaf ears to the troubles of the world while each one of us places the preservation of our own comforts and lifestyles before the suffering of the world around us.

Consider the description below of Indian citizens staring down the barrels of British guns during the Quissa Kwani bazaar massacre of the independence movement:
When those in front fell down wounded by the shots, those behind came forward with their chests bared and exposed themselves to the fire, so much so that some people got as many as twenty-one bullet wounds in their bodies, and all the people stood their ground without getting into a panic. . . . The paper of, which represents the official view, itself wrote to the effect that the people came forward one after another to face the firing and when they fell wounded they were dragged back and others came forward to be shot at. This state of things continued from 11 till 5 o'clock in the evening. When the number of corpses became too many, the ambulance cars of the government took them away.
Can we even conceive of such a whole hearted embrace of a cause beyond ourselves?

The fault isn't our own, it simply points to the next great state of embrace required in order to face the problems of a global community and the global solutions we need. The movements led by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were ones involving nations and race. The challenges of today - from the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the one threatening Iran; to the global issue of climate change - require a new embrace of ourselves first as global citizens and then as citizens of the Earth itself.

Protests of today are seen by the public for what they are, staged events performed for a known audience where all performers - whether activists or police - go home to their televisions and lives after the sun goes down. Our complacency of response is not a social disease. It matches the level of involvement of those who design these displays of non-violence.

We need to understand that in embracing non-violence as our mode of protest, we have abandoned its sibling non-cooperation, and that estrangement is the primary reason for our current failures. At its heart, non-violence smacks of passivity and a passive action can only lead to a passive result. Gandhi himself said that if faced with a decision between passivity and violence he would choose violence every time. Protesting the wrongs of society needs to directly affect the perpetuation of those wrongs. Any action different from that is, by its very nature, passive.

What would happen if the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan government in exile, and the 100,000 Tibetans living in India joined with those who remained in their ancestral home to march upon Beijing itself for the opening of the Olympic games? What if, like that sole protester in Tiananmin Square, they put their lives in the way of Chinese police and guns to peacefully assert their rights over what is theirs?

What would happen if those employed by Exxon, BP and Shell walked out together from their well paying jobs to demand that the people who issue their pay cheques also act in accordance with their desire for a safe and healthy planet?

What would happen if those employed by the US State Department and Defense Department left in unison until the government that offers them the security of employment, also offers their children the security of a safe world?

The answer is that these institutions would be brought to their knees within moments, and it is this power that is the right of all people, that is at the heart of Satyagraha, and forms the greatest fear of the powers that be.

These are not the only possibilities. The solutions for our problems are as limitless as the imaginations of those who conceive of them. However, the common thread is that our actions must match in scope the problems they are meant to solve. Actions must directly affect the problem, those actions must stem from a sense of self and community as large as the challenges they face.

Many will disagree with this, and that is actually a good thing. The difference between the suffering of the world and our resistance in embracing that suffering - that is, to put our own personal safety on the line - defines the growth we need to achieve in order to create the world we desire.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Beleaguered in Bombay

I love cities. Though I profoundly love nature, I'll always choose to live within the human dense drama of the urban landscape. The bigger the better, and since first visiting there two years ago, Bombay has been one of my favorite cities in the world.

With sixteen million people, water in every direction, and all the chaos that India has to offer, Bombay makes the head spin, the heart hurt and has you running for cover or screaming for more - usually in the same 24 hour day. That said, my most recent visit had me doing far more running for cover than rejoicing. The flu, heat in excess of forty degrees, and an overwhelming dose of human misery and cruelty left me suffering and gladly departing town.

On the taxi ride from the airport to my hotel in the southern suburb of Colaba, my busted-up cab rear-ended a brand new Honda. We pulled to the side of to the side of the road and after getting out of the vehicle my nearly destitute and toothless driver was physically assaulted before having his mobile phone stolen from him. I can only guess that this was to ensure that he wouldn't bolt out of the area when the claim was filed; however, it was an unnerving act to witness given that the clothes worn by the other driver amounted to more than two months wages for my cabbie.

A few days later I visited the Buddhist ruins of nearby Elephanta Island, where a crippled dog was wandering in near insanity while seeking food wherever it could, as it's rear leg swung freely from a complete break halfway up. I was a gross disfigurement that could only have been accomplished through human hands. Meanwhile, Indian tourists were teasing monkeys by discarding their used water bottles as food, adding to the already substantial layer of refuse littering the once holy site.

Worst of all was the unknown fate of an infant toddler who had been paraded through a downtown intersection. No more than 2 years of age, she was being carried by a man who demonstrated not a hint of parental care as he thrust the pulsing, bleeding wound of her left hand in the face of every passing motorist. The girl stared on in mute shock as we handed over a stack of rupees while her guardian gripped her arm and waved it in our faces, goading us for more money.

The worst parts of Bombay grind you down and leave you wondering at the ultimate fate of the city. Although it possesses upwards of 40% of India's wealth, 55% of Bombay's residents live in slums. New high rises and renovated flats exist beside shacks of tarp and tin in a third world city where real estate prices rival those of London and New York. The lack of public conscience that plagues Bombay is summed up brutally and honestly by Suketu Mehta in his Pulitzer Prize nominated account of Bombay, Maximum City:
Indians do not have the same kind of civic sense as, say, Scandinavians. The boundary of the space you keep clean is marked at the end of the space you call your own. The flats in my building are spotlessly clean inside; they are swept and mopped every day, or twice every day. The public spaces - hallways, stairs, lobby, the building compound - are stained with betel spit; the ground is littered with congealed wet garbage, plastic bags, and dirt of human and animal origin. It is the same all over Bombay, in rich and poor areas alike.

This absence of civic sense is something that everyone from the British to the Hindu nationalists of have drawn attention to, the national defect in the Indian character.
They are words that are worth considering as India surges towards double digit economic growth. But in this city whose history is painted by commerce and currency there is a more striking example of this problem. In a time of soaring wealth and a growing divide between rich and poor, the image of Mahatma Gandhi has been quietly removed from India's new currency notes.

It would be well to carry his message of care forward, alongside economic prosperity.

More images of Bombay below.


Friday, April 04, 2008

A Morning at Elephant Junction

Although my recent elephant safari was entirely unsuccessful, I was able to spend a morning with several Asian Elephants at the Elephant Junction sanctuary in Kumily.

Throughout the three hour visit I vacillated through a range of emotions. A quiet grief for the confinement and captivity of these intelligent and sensitive creatures gave way to both exhilaration at being in such close quarters with them and optimism for the gentleness with which they were treated by their mahouts, all before feeling my heart spin back again towards remorse.

By all indications the elephants were well treated and looked after. Verbal commands alone were being used to instruct them, and this even applied to the completely unruly 11 month old infant Kanan, who required all the will his mahout could muster just to stop him from eating the thatched shed within a trunk's reach of his enclosure.

The enclosures themselves were immaculately clean. Dung was cleared out regularly, and all of them were layered with thick blankets of maize stalks and palm fronds, which acted as both bedding and a continuous source of food for the elephants' ceaseless appetites.

Some elephants were quite constrained, but in fairness this varied according the manageability of the individual. Some were kept on short chains, particularly the mother of Kanan who could be understandably intolerant of human contact with her infant, but others were left completely free and stood calmly among the visitors and staff. Most importantly, all harnesses are removed each day at 5pm after the tourist hours are through.

However, despite the quality of this particular sanctuary others fail miserably in looking after the needs of their inhabitants. Small pens, lack of contact with the natural world and abusive mahouts are all common. That greater context left me concerned for the future of the species.

The population of wild Asian elephants stands at just 30,000 with about half of those in India. Meanwhile, it's much publicized African cousin boasts a population in excess of 600,000. Meanwhile, while the African Elephants compete for land and resources with about 900,000,000 people across the world's third largest continent, India's 15,000 remaining elephants face the inconceivable population pressure of more than a billion people.

This is the mathematical fact of wildlife conservation in the world's second most populous nation, and until environmentalists address the overwhelming human need of a billion individuals within their calls for conservation, the Asian elephant, tiger and a host of less prominent species won't last the upcoming decades.

I don't have an answer for this one, other than to say that it's my gut belief that there must be a place for elephants in their wild habitats along side our own, for the simple reason that we both come out of, and depend on, the natural world for our survival.

Ultimately, our mutual survival will depend on the preservation of the same natural environment.