I attended the Gandhi Foundation’s annual lecture 2017 given by the wonderful Satish Kumar who exuded light.
Satish began his talk by describing the Gandhian ideal of service. This ideal had persuaded him to leave his Jain monastery at the age of 18 and come into the world. Because Gandhi taught that spirituality is not found in rituals but service. We can make our work spiritual by adopting an attitude of service e.g. a teacher serving his pupils, a doctor serving her patients, a politician serving his constituents. In this way we bring together our profession and our vocation. Earning money and making a living is fine, but if we make our work an act of service then it becomes a spiritual practice. Gandhi showed how politics can be spiritual.
The irony is that if we are just trying to looking after ourselves then we will feel miserable, whereas if we try to serve others then we will experience joy. [To quote another spiritual teacher, “if you want to be selfish be wisely selfish”]. The best way we can help ourselves is to help others.
Whereas other political ideologies such as socialism or utilitarianism just think in terms of improving human society and “the greatest good for the greatest number”, Gandhi proposed the ideal of Sarvodaya meaning ‘the upliftment of the whole’. The ‘whole’ includes all species, and all people – we need to benefit all, not just the majority.
We need to benefit all species: elephants, lions, snakes, earthworms. Satish spoke movingly about the work that earthworms perform (without wages, holidays, or going on strike!) of turning the earth, making it soft and friable. Apparently each earthworm turns 6 tons of soil in its lifetime. When he sees an earthworm in his garden he thanks it.
We need an economy that is based on valuing work, on growing food, on community, on crafts, on arts. The word eco- in economy and ecology comes from the Greek word ‘ecos’ meaning ‘house’, and their real eco-meaning is about building and respecting our abode, the earth. However, our current economic system does not do this, instead it is a ‘moneconomy’, all about increasing the amount of money without regard for the creation of actual value. Activities such as prostitution, and police responses to terrorism all add up in the moneconomy but they do not really add value to our abode. The true economy should measure welfare, and there is potentially no limit to this because it is a function of the human soul, individually and communally. There is no real separation between individual and community: “I am because you are”.
How can we distinguish between fatal and liberating choices? That was the question posed this week by Sheikh Aly N’Daw, head of the International Sufi School. He was speaking at his book launch in Westminster, which was hosted by Ian Stewart MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Friends of Islam group. Aly N’Daw is from the Mouride school of Sufism founded by the Senegalese saint Amadou Bamba (1850-1927) who emphasised service to others as the path to God. Sheikh Aly encourages his students to study the lives of great men and women who have bridged the gap between politics and spirituality, and have demonstrated how peace within leads to peace in the world.
Sheikh Aly asked us to consider the choice that Martin Luther King made when he decided not to opt for a comfortable lifestyle in Chicago, but to take his ministry to the South and confront the spectre of racial discrimination. On the surface, it appears that Dr. King made a fatal choice, because his ministry ended with his assasination. However, in reality he made a liberating choice, because he could have suffered spiritual death by taking the easy option of remaining in Chicago, and his sacrifice contributed to the political and social liberation of millions of African-Americans.
Next we were asked to consider Muhammad Yunus, pioneer of micro-credit and founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. A professor of economics, he became disillusioned with academic life and went to live with a group of peasants. Many people would consider this a fatal choice, at least professionally, but for Muhammad Yunus it was liberating because it showed him how small sums of money loaned on trust could yield massive results if targetted at the right people, particularly women. By 2008 the Grameen Bank had loaned US$7.8 billion to the poor.
Ian Stewart MP talked about his own difficult choice, to vote for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He explained that his motivation had been to help the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs, but now that hundreds of thousands of people had died as a result of the war, he could not be sure if he had been right. He described the whirl of conventional political life and how politicians, caught in the maelstrom, are on auto-pilot, without time or space to connect with the spiritual dimension of life. As he is not standing in the forthcoming general election, he expressed the hope that he would now have time to learn more about what Sufism describes as the spiritual heart.
The first two books in Sheikh Aly N’Daw’s series are ‘The Initiatory Way To Peace’ and ‘Liberation Therapy’. If you would like to buy a copy, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org . The International Sufi School’s next event is a conference in Edinburgh in May entitled ‘Nonviolence Within: Peace For All’ (http://www.nonviolence-edinburgh.com/)