Guest Presentation at "Religions in the City" Class at Union Theological Seminary

On October 26th, 2016, Sadhana co-founder Sunita Viswanath delivered a guest presentation at Union Theological Seminary's "Religions in the City" class. The following is her presentation:

 

 

Reflections of a Humble Karma Yogi

Guest presentation by Sunita Viswanath in

“Religions in the City” class at Union Theological Seminary, October 26, 2016

(I am Sunita Viswanath, cofounder of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus. I am honored to be here today and especially thank Professor Thatamanil, Jerusha Lamptey and Chris Fici for inviting me.  Chris is a board member of Sadhana, and Prof Thatamanil is our newest Advisory Board member.)

My life’s work has been in women’s rights, but like most left-leaning social justice-oriented Hindus, for most of my life, I kept my work very separate from my religious life.  I am not a scholar practitioner, but an ardent activist practitioner, and it is with great humility that I share my journey.

I know that you’ve been reading Wendy Doniger’s Norton Anthology of Hinduism, and you know just how vast and varied Hinduism is. I can’t possibly represent all aspects of Hinduism in this talk, but I can explain the stories and and key concepts that guide my life.

I. Dharma:

Dharma is often translated as “duty” or righteous action. Swami Bodhananda, a Vedantic teacher and monk who sits on Sadhana’s advisory board, defines dharma as justice.  

I was raised to understand dharma this way:

You are the sum total of all your previous lives, actions, experiences, obligations, inclinations. So in any given situation, there is something that you in your entirety, after thinking hard about it, know you must do.  Your dharma is to figure out what that is, and no matter how difficult, you must do it with all your heart, never looking back or regretting it.  You mustn’t think about whether you will succeed – you just act. The rest is not your concern.

This, for me, is the heart of the Bhagavad Gita.  In the Gita, Krishna is trying to get Arjuna to get up out of his depression, paralysis and moral crisis – and do his dharma as a warrior prince, and fight. Krishna tries many different strategies to get Arjuna to fight.  These are just a few:

 

     The Philosophical Argument: This life is impermanent. Our atman (individual self) does not die when we die. Na hanyate hanyamane shareere. Krishna is saying in essence – Everything that is alive will die anyway, and will then be reborn. It makes no difference whether you fight or not, in the grand scheme of things. So you may as well just fight.

 

     Dharma as Justice: You were raised to be a warrior and your dharma is to fight for your people. The entire nation and your army are counting on you. It would be unfair, unjust, to let them all down.

 

     Caste dharma: Arjuna is a Kshatriya, warrior caste. Krishna appeals to his loyalty and duty according to caste. But what many people don’t know if that Krishna also makes the argument strongly and repeatedly that a true Brahmin is not born a Brahmin but is a Brahmin by inclination. So long as a person has a heart full of bhakti and love, Krishna will accept them.

 

The four social orders are sent forth by me, with divisions based on qualities and actions. (Ch 4) (NOTE IT DOESN”S SAY BY BIRTH!)

 

And

The humble sage, by virtue of true knowledge, sees with equal vision a learned and gentle brāhmaṇa, a cow, an elephant, a dog and a dog-eater [outcaste].

(Ch 5)

 

 

     Bhakti argument: (The kind of tactic that my parents might have used with me, and that I sometimes use with my kids.)  Just place your trust me Arjuna, and love me. Surrender to me and do as I say.

 

     Karma Yoga argument:  This is the argument which speaks to me the most powerfully.  No matter what you think Arjuna, however sad you are, however confused, and no matter what you end up doing, you must do. You must get up and act.  Inaction is not an option.

 

This describes my every day – as I stumble along in my path, I may be confused. I may be sad, angry, unsure. But every single day, I figure out what it is I am to do – even if I may be making a mistake – and just do it. Wholly, with no hesitation. With all my heart.

 

Pandit Manoj and his wife Ravina Vibart, also a Sadhana Advisory board member, run a temple in Queens, the Shanti Bhavan Mandir, Their youth group have embraced these words from Satya Sai Baba as their motto, “The hands that serve are holier than the lips that pray.”

 

And if all my actions, my life, are conducted in this way, then my life itself is my puja offering. (Puja is a Hindu worship ritual.) I need not pray in a temple or meditate under a tree.  I just need to live.

 

II. Ekatva.

I was taught that the divine -- whatever we think of as God – is in every single one of us and in every part of the universe. In every tree and river and animal and mountain and even every book, stone and pillar. I am picturing a frightening Amar Chitra Katha image of Lord Vishnu emerging from a pillar! (Amar Chitra Katha comics are where most Indians first learn religion and history.)

 

In the story of Hiranyakashipu and Prahlada, Hiranyakashipu wants Prahlada to revere him, but Prahlada loves only his Lord Vishnu. 

“Where is he?,” Hiranyakashipu asks.

Prahlada says, “everywhere.”

“Is he in this pillar?”

Prahlada answers, “He was, he is, and he will be.”

Hiranyakashipa is furious. “If he is in this pillar, why can I not see him?”

He smashes the pillar with his mace, and Narasimha (Lord Vishnu in the form of half man and half lion) emerges from the pillar.

 

There are several Hindu mantras and sayings that mean the same thing to me: ekatva, oneness, we are one with the universe.

     Tat twam asi – from the Chandogya Upanishad. Means you are that.

It means that your own individual self is – not is part of, but IS – the eternal unchanging self.  Not just we are connected to each other; but we ARE each other.

 

     Ekam Sat viprah bahudha vadanti – from the Rig Veda. Means The truth is one, sages call it various names. This erases the sense of separateness we might feel from people of different races, faiths, beliefs. Truth is one.

 

     Vasudaiva kutumbakam – from the Maha Upanishad. Means The world is one family. A very commonly used phrase.

 

I teach Bala Vihar in Brooklyn every Sunday morning – that’s like Hindu Sunday school. And when the kids ask me if I believe in God, or what is God, I answer that God is the most beautiful, kind and fair part of each of us.  Some people believe that God exists, like a magical and powerful person in heaven. And some people don’t believe that. In Hinduism, you don’t have to believe in God.  But Hindus do believe we are all one. So hurting one of us hurts all of us; chopping down the trees hurts Prithvi Maa or Mother Earth; my acting out of malice is as damaging to me as it is to you.

 

III. Ahimsa: The concept of ahimsa or nonviolence is very closely related to ekatva. It isn’t so much a moral or dogmatic principle of pacifism as much a true deep understanding that we’re all in it together, and any pain in the world will be shared by all of us whether we like it or not. Swami Prabhupada, founder of the I Krishna consciousness movement known as ISKCON, defined ahimsa as never doing that which “prevents or arrests a living being’s spiritual progress.”

 

 

In “A Hindu Theology of Liberation,” Anantanand Rambachan describes

Gandhi’s understanding of non-injury (ahimsa) as “negatively implying abstention from injury and positively requiring the practice of compassion and justice.”


Rambachan goes on to say, “The degradation of others is violence,” and he quotes Gandhi’s words: “No man could be actively non-violent and not arise against social injustice no matter where it occurred.”

 

IV. Yoga or union:

There are four paths to the same truth: raja yoga (meditation); gnana yoga (knowledge); bhakti yoga (devotion); and karma yoga (path of action, seva or service). And they’re all equally legitimate. One text or tradition will say gnana yoga is the highest path; another will say bhakti yoga is the highest path. In the Gita, Krishna at different points gives this highest status to different paths. Most people live a combination of paths. My path is definitely that of karma – doing, acting, serving.  But I see my life as infused with bhakti, and as an offering of bhakti, and for me, there is really nothing as ecstatic and peace-bringing as the feeling I get I get when I visit Shanti Bhavan Mandir in Queens and all the youth are singing a shanti mantra, or peace prayer. Or when I am at the Hanuman Mandir in the mountains of Taos, NM, and all the devotees are chanting the Hanuman Chalisa with deep devotion.

 

B. SADHANA

 

I. My Journey

 

The most liberating part of being a Hindu, for me, is the intimacy that we are encouraged to feel with God or the divine. I have been as close to my mother’s sister, whom I call Amma, as I am to my mother.  My Amma always told me I am Krishna because he too had two mothers. She didn’t say I was like Krishna, but that I “AM” Krishna.  Krishna is a God we adore as a cute baby, a naughty toddler, as our charming lover, and as our highest teacher. We are taught that the earth, Prithvi Maa, is our mother, and that our teachers and even unexpected guests are God.

 

In my family, we have a tradition of hair sacrifice when a baby is about one year old. I gave my first child’s hair at the Veera Raghavan temple near Madras.  I asked a priest how old the stunningly beautiful temple was. He said in Telugu, “velisinadhi.”  Or, “it was always here.“  The story the priest told me goes like this: In the time of Rama, Sita was already kidnapped by Ravana, so Sita could not be here by Rama’s side. The Goddesses on each side of Rama do not include Sita.  Ravana realized how powerful and true Rama was when he saw how much Sita loved him, and the image in the temple is of Rama in that moment when Ravana worshipped him completely. That is, the temple embodied the point of contact of the most just and loving parts of Rama and Ravana, arch enemies, negating the idea that they are polar opposites, pure good and pure evil respectively.

 

I then looked closely at the small shrine of Goddess Andal away to the right. There was a mirror next to her. The priest did aarthi (offering a flame to the deity, and then to worshippers so that they can receive the blessing) to the mirror first, then to Andal, and only then brought out the aarthi to the worshippers.  I had never seen such a ritual. The priest explained that Andal was the daughter of a Brahmin who fell in love with Lord Rama. Every morning, when she made the flower garlands for her father’s puja, she would adorn herself with them and admire herself in the mirror before setting them in her father’s puja tray. One day her father caught her in the act and forbade her from ever making his puja garlands again. That day The Lord did not accept the puja without flowers that had adorned Andal.  He came down and revealed himself to Andal’s father, saying he only wanted flowers that had been in Andal’s hair because her devotion was pure. And this was why in this temple aarthi is done to the mirror before Andal’s image.  We can know God in many ways, through prayer and devotion, meditation, service (seva), or through the senses – by imagining God to be our own preferred deity – ishta devata – with whom we have our own personal relationship.

 

Even as a child I knew that God wasn’t something outside me, certainly not something above me. better, the stories teach me that God strives to be better.

 

I was taught that every single aspect of the universe – me, you, all matter, even our thoughts and prayers, and even God – are made up of the same aspects or “gunas.”  I am made of the same stuff of God. It is mind-blowingly empowering.

 

Sadhana is a word that means praxis, a word I like to translate as “faith in action.” I see my work as my dharma, my sadhana. I work with Afghan women because I don’t see them as different from myself. The organization I cofounded fifteen years ago, Women for Afghan Women, is today the largest women’s organization in Afghanistan and we run more women’s shelters than any other NGO. In 2002, a year after the organization was founded, I edited a book of essays, Women for Afghan Women: Shattering Myths and Claiming the Future.  I co-wrote the introduction with my colleague Homaira Mamoor,  and it begins this way:

“As we write this introduction, Ahmedabad, in Sunita’s country, India, is ablaze. Hindus are burning Muslims alive and torching their property -- this in response to (their belief that) Muslims had set on fire a train full of Hindus. This same week, as we huddle over a laptop computer in Brooklyn, Hamid Karzai, interim Prime Minister of Homaira’s country Afghanistan, is visiting India and spreading rose petals on Mohandas K. Gandhi’s memorial. According to Karzai, Gandhi was an apostle of peace. Homaira has been leafing through the Hindu text that guided Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance to the British, the Bhagavad Gita, as Sunita looks through the Qur’an to find references to women’s rights. We are a Hindu Indian and an Afghan Muslim banding together not only to fight for Afghan women, who have been so harshly treated by history, but to challenge the extremists within both our faiths with the simple act of working together.“

 

My religion doesn’t require me to be particularly religious. It’s okay if I am agnostic or even atheist. My religion does require me to embrace a sense of oneness in the universe – but this isn’t a problem because every fibre of my being resonates with the notion that true justice is in the inclusion of everyone. My religion, the way I understand it, is extremely progressive on all the social issues I care about: women’s rights, the rights of LGBTQ people, race and the environment.

 

I always knew that the reason I was doing this human rights work was connected to the values and teachings with which I was raised. I knew I was Hindu and doing my dharma.  But I never talked that way. I never made the connection publicly, explicitly.

 

This may have been because the women’s movement was largely secular. To be a person of faith meant you weren’t seen as rational or smart. It took great courage for faithful feminists to enter that largely white, straight and secular space and insist that it be broadened to include everyone.

 

Then over the years I became connected to women and men of faith (other faiths) working on all kinds of urgent social justice issues. I attended innumerable interfaith rallies and vigils on all manner of issues. It pained me that there were almost never any Hindus among them. 

 

Those same years saw the rise of the right-wing Hindu nationalist movement in India and in the diaspora—this is what is called Hindutva. There was a long tradition of social reform based in Hinduism throughout the years: from Shankaracharya to Ramakrishna Paramahamsa to Swami Vivekananda to Mahatma Gandhi. But this tradition seems to be severed at India’s independence, and what instead gains strength, is a Hindu nationalist movement which is popular/religious, ideological and political. Hindutva is militant and Islamophobic at its core. It was a member of this movement that shot Mahatma Gandhi because he was seen to have been too lenient to Muslims during partition. Today’s ruling party in India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is a relatively moderate political arm of this Hindutva movement. Prime Minister Narendra Modi cut his teeth in the ranks in the far more extreme, militant and fascistic Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

 

Today, the only people talking about social issues and politics as Hindus are people whose Hinduism is diametrically opposed to the teachings of oneness and justice.

 

II. The founding of Sadhana

 

I’d like to tell you about how Sadhana, our organization, came about.

Rohan Narine is an Indo-Caribbean Hindu from Queens. His father and uncle run one of the most established Hindu temples in that community – the Shri Trimurti Bhavan.  Just over five years ago, during the summer, I was far from NY in New Mexico, reading the New York Times online.  Rohan had wanted to screen the movie Sita Sings the Blues – a beautiful animated movie about the Ramayana created by a Jewish American woman -- but received death threats from right wing Hindus who were offended by the movie. Rather than shrink back, he screened the movie in his own house with a panel discussion that made it into the New York Times. He spoke as a fearless and devout young Hindu who believed in freedom of thought and expression. I had met my first progressive Hindu. Together with a few other progressive Hindus, we would co-found Sadhana that fall.

 

There was one more incident that moved me to action. It was September 2011, and I was standing with a group of Afghan Muslim women in an interfaith rally in support of Park51, the Muslim Community Center that was being planned at a location about a mile from Ground Zero. The vision was for a Center which celebrated Islam and inspired interfaith dialogue, an important healing space for all New Yorkers after the horror of 9/11. Anti-Islamic individuals and organizations undertook a robust campaign to prevent Park51 from ever coming to fruition.

As was usually the case, the interfaith rally had speakers and participants from every religion except mine. I was taken aback though, when I heard a Hindu prayer being chanted loudly. A man was chanting the prayer into a megaphone, and for a moment I was elated, but then I realized that the prayer was coming from the a saffron-clad Hindu in the counter-rally across the street. The view of the counter-protesters was that Islam was a religion of hatred and terrorism and that to allow Park51 to be built would dishonor those that lost their lives in the 9/11 attacks at the hands of Muslim terrorists.

 

I was here, a Hindu on this side of the police line. If no one else was speaking up, then I had to do it. There was nothing else for it. 

 

And Sadhana was born.

 

III. Five Years of Sadhana

 

We are small group of volunteers, and we have done quite a lot considering our small capacity. We’ve worked hard on social justice issues including: environmental justice, gender justice including women’s rights and LGBTQ rights, Islamophobia and caste.  All the work we’ve done combines grassroots work within community with advocacy through writing and speaking out.

 

We’ve had many successes – a wonderful partnership with the National Parks Service called Project Prithvi which has won us awards.  We go to temples and mobilize devotees to come out on a monthly basis to clean up a beach where Hindus worship. Most of what we clean up is non-biodegradable puja offerings. Priests help us spread the message that if we worship Prithvi Ma and Gangaa Maa (the earth and her rivers), it makes absolutely no sense to pollute the very land and water we consider divine. The prayer we sing is:

 

Samudra Vasane Devi

Parvatha Sthana Mandite

Vishnu patni namasthubya

Paada sparsha kshamasva me


O! Mother Earth, who has the ocean as clothes and mountains as jewels on her body, who is the wife of Lord Vishnu, I bow to you. Please forgive me for touching you with my feet.

 

IV. Ekalavya and Sadhana’s Work on Eliminating Caste

 

Chris invited me to sit in on the incredible seminar a year ago on Gandhi and King taught by Cornel West and John Thatamanil. In that seminar we met Dalit activists who told us about their people’s struggle for self-determination and their challenges with Gandhi and Hinduism. Chris and I spoke up: we said that we were progressive Hindus who stood against caste and were committed to the movement to eradicate caste. We were told that Hinduism was casteist by definition, and there was no possibility of solidarity between Hindus and Dalits.  We’ve been given this strong message by other Dalit activists at other times.  Our response to this is, of course deep sadness and pain. But there is no option for us but to be who we are – Hindus that reject caste.

 

Yuddhishtra, the eldest of the Pandava brothers who is also known as Dharma, was another Hindu who rejected caste. He argued, just as Krishna does in the Bhagavad Gita, that a Brahmin is known by his actions and not his birth or education.

 

 

Several of the Dalit activists we met gave the example of Ekalavya to demonstrate how entrenched casteism is.

 

The story, in synopsis, is as follows:

Dronacharya was a Brahmin archery tutor, and Arjuna was his favorite pupil. Ekalavya, a boy from the tribal community called Nishadas, wanted to study under Dronacharya. Dronacharya refused, citing Ekalavya’s caste. Ekalavya made a clay image of Dronacharya and studied intensively before the statue. He became a highly skilled archer. When Dronacharya learned that Ekalavya had studied before a statue of himself, he asked Ekalavya for his gurudakshina (the gift that a guru receives from his pupil). Ekalavya was prepared to give anything, and Dronacharya asked for Ekalavya’s right thumb. Ekalavya, without any hesitation, chopped off his thumb for Drona.

What the Dalit speaker in class did not add was that in spite of this, Ekalavya went on to become a great archer, and Dronacharya eventually repented his treatment of Ekalavya.

Sadhana has a progressive, non-casteist reading of the Ekalavya story:

* Dronacharya said he rejected Ekalavya because of his lower caste, but a stronger motivation was likely to have been been Drona’s fear that Ekalavya would become a better archer than his favorite student Arjuna. 

* If the purpose of this story was to assert the superiority of Brahmins and Kshatriyas over lower castes, then Ekalavya would not have emerged as morally and physically superior in the story. 

* Ekalavya cuts off his thumb at Dronacharya’s request because Dronacharya is the Guru that Ekalavya has accepted in his heart. It is an act of submission based not on the caste system but on the relationship between teacher and student (guru-shishya parampara), a supremely important tradition in Hinduism.

In that moment, Ekalavya shows such humility and integrity that he is elevated above Dronacharya. Even without a thumb, Ekalavya goes on to become a better archer than Arjuna. And the clincher is that Dronacharya repents. I would argue that Ekalavya’s triumph and Dronacharya’s repentance mean that if anything, the story teaches us that caste discrimination is wrong.

There is one more observation to be made in this story. Ekalavya learns all the skills of archery before a statue he fashions of Drona. So technically, Dronacharya hasn’t taught Ekalavya anything — the knowledge was revealed to him through his own devotion, his own sadhana. This is perhaps the strongest statement against reading the story as solely about Dalit subjugation.

The story of Ekalavya is a popular one among Hindus, and the take-away is rarely an affirmation of the caste system. Ekalavya is a far more celebrated character than Dronacharya, who is often criticized for his moral failures. When people read the story, they grapple with moral and ethical questions: Was Dronacharya right in asking for this extreme gurudakshina? Is Ekalavya’s act of submission to be admired? By thinking through these questions for ourselves, we come to discover our own principles, and we learn how to live our lives based on our own convictions.

Hindu scriptures, like all religious texts, can be interpreted to support whatever worldview one chooses. The fact that they are constantly retold shows that Hindus have a time-honored tradition of scriptural debate and reinterpretation. We in Sadhana search for interpretations of scriptures that uphold the highest expression of equality and justice for the universe and for all people. We reject any Hindu teachings which teach prejudice and the superiority of some over others, in favor of teachings which are based on love, oneness and justice.  We’ve been accused of “scriptural cherry-picking,” but we reserve the right to accept and interpret the texts as we choose.

This is exactly what Krishna teaches in Chapter 18 of the Gita.

 

Krishna describes at length the three “gunas” or qualities of all matter: tamas, rajas and sattva. Tamas is lethargy and confusion; rajas is attachment and desire of fruits such as wealth and pleasure; and sattva is steadiness, calmness and truth. Krishna goes on to say that:

 

There is nothing either in this realm or in the divine realm, even among the divinities, with an existence that is freed from these three “qualities” born of primordial nature.

 

Among Brahmins, rulers, tradespeople, and skilled workers, Oh Scorcher of the Enemy, actions are determined by the coming forth into being of their particular natures, according to their “qualities.” (Ch 18)

 

Krishna then describes the “qualities” that are the traits of each group.  Brahmins have the following traits: calmness, restraint, purity, patience and sincerity.

 

And then, he goes on to say:

Better is one’s own dharma even if imperfect, than following another’s dharma perfectly. (Ch 18)

 

All this can be, and has been, interpreted as an explicit scriptural codification of the caste system, with its inherent hierarchy. But I don’t agree with this interpretation.  I believe Krishna is saying we are all made of the same qualities in different quantities. Some of us are more tamasic (lethargic, unmotivated , some more rajasic (driven by desires and attachments), some more sattvic (anchored in serenity, calmness). And we should all pursue actions and vocations that are true to our natures.  And furthermore, I read this chapter to say something even more powerful: Krishna does not want us to follow a vocation because of our birth caste, because this may go against our true nature.

 

Anantanand Rambachan, in his “Hindu Theology of Liberation,” sets out a logical argument for why one must not take scripture at its word without empirical justification:

Scripture is not authoritative if it reveals anything that is contradicted by the evidence of other valid sources of knowledge, and it is clear that the fundamental premises of the hierarchical ordering of human beings, exemplified by caste, have no empirical justification. From an Advaita perspective, it is not good enough to cite scriptural verses to justify social systems. For each verse cited, we are obliged, following the definition of scripture as a source of valid knowledge (pramana), to ask at least two sets of questions: First, does the passage reveal something that cannot be known otherwise? If so, what is it, and why cannot it be known otherwise? In relation to caste, we must ask: What specifically does the scripture reveal that is not otherwise knowable? Second, does the text contradict anything known through other valid sources? If it does, it is not an authoritative revelation. The fundamental assumptions of caste are refuted empirically and so cannot be justified by appeal to scripture.  

Here’s the conundrum for Sadhana.  And really, there’s nothing to do but to live our way into the answer.

     Left-leaning, progressive South Asians who were born Hindu don’t tend to take us seriously. This group tends not to identify as Hindu: either because they are secular and have no use for any religion; or they are indeed Hindu but uncomfortable identifying as such because Hinduism is seen as casteist and right wing; or they have actively rejected Hinduism because they believe that Hinduism is casteist at its core and it is impossible to reform it.

     Most temple-going, Diwali- and Holi-celebrating Hindus aren’t interested in Sadhana because they don’t want to connect their religious/spiritual life to politics and their engagement in the world.

     And of course, conservative and right wing Hindus think we are fake Hindus. We’ve been called Christians in disguise and undercover Marxists.

 

Why does the lineage of Hindu social reform stop at Indian independence and partition? I am intrigued by the anti-caste Hindu organization, Jat Pat Todak Mandal. The name literally meant, “Forum for the Break-up of Caste.”  It was this group that invited B.R. Ambedkar to speak in 1936, and then uninvited him because of internal tensions.  Ambedkar, I think many of you know, is the Dalit leader who wrote the constitution of India.  He also devoted his life to the struggle for Dalit rights and ended up abandoning Hinduism and becoming a Buddhist, taking about 500,000 other Dalits with him. Ambedkar published the speech he was to have given before being uninvited as a pamphlet, the now famous “Annihilation of Caste.” I often wonder what would have happened if Ambedkar hadn’t been uninvited.  Maybe he would have had more optimism for reform within Hinduism.  Perhaps Sadhana can pick up where Jat Pat Todak Mandal left off.  There just isn’t a modern tradition of progressive activism in the name of Hinduism.  We are making the road by walking.

 

V. Conclusion: My Liberation is Bound Up With Yours

 

In that seminar on Gandhi and King, Dr. Cornel West said (and I am paraphrasing):

 

“I am a Christian but let me make one thing clear. If my religion requires me to go against my beliefs, for instance if my religion requires me to place the value of an Israeli baby above the life of a Palestinian baby, or the worth of Hindu lives above Dalit lives, I will leave my religion. My religion is revolutionary love. My work is in the eye of the storm, where justice is denied and people are powerless.”

 

As he spoke, I realized that this was my religion too – revolutionary love. Sadhana’s work is pointless if it does not take place in the eye of the storm, where justice is denied, where people are powerless and their voices unheard. Whether Dalit activists welcome us or not, our place is in the struggle against caste.

 

In one of the last notes he left behind in 1948, Gandhi wrote, "I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away."

 

Just a few days ago, I met Rev angel Kyodo Williams, author of“Radical Dharma,” and I’ve been profoundly moved by her message.

 

She said, "We belong to each other. My liberation is bound up with yours."

In other words, I can't be liberated if you aren't included. So - whether it's how I feel about Trump supporters or how Dalit activists feel about me, we can't really do anything without each other. We belong to one another. And everyone's liberation requires the inclusion of everyone else.  And we’ve come full circle to “ekatva” or oneness.

 

Ekam Sat Viprah Bahudha Vadanti