Indian Resources For Establishing Peace

By Joseph T. O'Connell | 1988-12-01 12:00:00

BRINGING ABOUT PEACE AND maintaining it on a sound footing - what Indians would call "establishing" peace - calls for a richness of socio-cultural resources. The traditions of India, especially their religious aspects, embody such resources. These have contributed to "establishing" peace (though not without failures) within India, and to some extent beyond. The effectiveness of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru on both the domestic and the international stages was largely due to the socio-cultural patterns which they shared with their countrymen.

Mutual Obligations

One socio-cultural resource (with a religious bent to it) that is conducive to peace is the notion of dharma - the normative order of the universe, including the mutual duties of human beings. To Hindu Indian mentality, both pleasure and wealth are legitimate pursuits, but only if restrained by the rules of dharma. Any Indian, peasant or politician, may appeal to dharma and expect to receive a serious hearing, though not necessarily agreement. He need not fear dismissal as a "wimp" for basing his claims on such principles.

Sacred Authority and Political power

Dharma also embraces a pair of pervasive notions: brahman, or sacred authority, and kshatra, or military/political power. Brahman is not centralized in a church, but is dispersed throughout society in learned and pious spokesmen. Both types of authority have their legitimate spheres, but brahman supersedes or encompasses kshatra. Brahman (concentrated in a prophetic voice, such as that of J.P. Narayan in his 1975 challenge to the Government of India) may criticize and seriously undermine the legitimacy of kshatra, the political power, or it may endorse and facilitate it, when it is deemed to be within the bounds of dharma.

Common Duty

A related notion, also with a religious dimension, that is conducive to peace is the notion of sadharana dharma, duty common to human beings, whatever their castes or occupations may be. This common duty is a character trait, shaping the attitude with which a person approaches life, be he a loving teacher or a warrior in battle. One noted formulation (Manu VI. 92) counsels:

"contentment, forgiveness, self-control, abstention from unrighteously appropriating anything, (obedience to the rules of) purification, coercion of the organs, wisdom, knowledge (of the Supreme Soul), truthfulness, and abstention from anger."

To the extent that such an ideal is adopted by the populace, it cultivates a citizenry responsive to humane leadership and not readily swayed by appeal to paranoia and anger. The ideal character pattern, it should be noted, is prescribed for laymen as well as for those of more rigorous religious or ascetic discipline. However, in the latter case the same virtues are taught more urgently. Consequently the greater saints of Hindu India, and especially the Buddhist and Jaina saints, are renowned for their self-control, calm detachment from selfish interests, and their nonviolence. Even famous kings tend to be remembered (however much idealized in the remembering) as men who fought only under provocation, who were scrupulous in fidelity to dharma, who were quick to forgive and to reestablish a regime of peace.

Gandhi and Nehru

Given such a tradition, it is not surprising that a Gandhi (outlandish as he seemed to many non-Indians of his day) was seen in India as a leader whose character was filled with the traditional religious culture, however novel his applications of the ideals. Even such a modern and secular man as Jawaharlal Nehru could still be recognized by Indians as a wise and calm brahman in modern guise, a noble ruler humanely controlling the power of the state.

These ideals have been eroded in recent decades by consumer-oriented secular goals and by global and domes-tic military-political threats. But the basic tradition is still common in India, fortifying peace (domestic and international) against chauvinism and communal rivalry. It is heartening to find, far from India, some profound and demanding Indian patterns that are conducive to peace. Not only are these borrowed patterns being directly applied, but other similar socio-cultural resources are being pursued that will help establish peace worldwide.

Joseph O'Connell is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies, St. Michael's College, University of Toronto.

Peace Magazine Dec 1988-Jan 1989

Peace Magazine Dec 1988-Jan 1989, page 22. Some rights reserved.

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