The most powerful way to transform people is not through violence or punishment or sanctions, but through patient personal example.
By Eknath Easwaran
Surely there is no spectacle more tragic than the one described by Abraham Lincoln as “a house divided against itself”—civil war. As I write this book, dozens of countries are being torn asunder by it, with untold cruelties being inflicted upon men, women and children. Many other countries are suffering from ethnic and racial tensions that flare into violence between neighbor and neighbor, family and family. Even the “first world” countries of America and Europe are not immune. In our highly armed, high-tech world, such conflicts pose a threat not just to our society, but to the earth and future generations.
As discouraging as they can be, we should remember that these are not clashes
between armies, but people, and that the most powerful way to transform people is not through violence or punishment or sanctions, but through patient personal example. Everyone of us has a role to play in this great task, right in our home and community. It doesn’t require speaking or writing or political skills. It requires ideals and the desire to live by them. I can illustrate with an incident from my own life.
In the early days of my academic career, India was undergoing the agony of civil war between Muslims and Hindus. On the eve of the Partition of Pakistan and India, I was posted to a college in central India, not far from the University of Nagpur where I had studied.
When I arrived on the campus, I went to the office and signed my contract. I knew nobody there, nor did I know the language, and I was wondering where on earth I would stay. I headed outside to a horse carriage which was waiting with my luggage. I planned to return to town and look for a room in a hotel.
My Muslim Friends
As I climbed into the carriage, I was surprised to see one of my dearest Muslim friends from college running towards me. Naimuddin and I had attended post-graduate school together and had lived in the same dorm. A gracious and modest man, he was a much better scholar than I, at home in Urdu, Persian, Arabic and Turkish, but when I praised his linguistic and research skills, he would simply say, “ I rob dead men’s graves. You’ve got the living touch. Don’t ever lose it.”
So he jumped into my horse carriage and told the driver to go to his home. I was puzzled. “You’re coming with me,” he said, and “you’re going to stay with me.” That was all.
We arrived at his residence, a big medieval mansion entrusted to him by a Nawab, a Muslim aristocrat, who had gone on a pilgrimage to Mecca. I accepted his generous invitation and stayed.
But those were difficult, dangerous days for Hindus and Muslims. In some cities, terrible violence had been unleashed, and on our campus, the spirit of unity had received such a setback that Hindu and Muslim students used to sit on opposite sides of the classroom. Even the faculty was becoming polarized.
We had Ideals
I should mention here that Naimuddin and I were not brave people. In fact, he was even less brave than I was, which is saying a good deal. But we had ideals, and we were prepared to stand by them. So we said, “Why shouldn’t we stay together?” It was summer and we decided to sleep in the open, so that anybody who wanted to attack might get the chance. Many of my friends warned us, “You’re both going to get hurt. Being idealistic is one thing, being practical is another.” I disagreed then and I still disagree. Experience confirmed our faith in human nature. Not a single person caused us trouble.
Encouraged, Naimuddin and I undertook an experiment. In the evening, sitting together with a few other junior faculty members, Naimuddin would recite the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in the beautiful Persian original. I would recite FitzGerald’s excellent English translation. These great verses are irresistible to any poetry lover, and there were many poetry lovers in my classes, both Hindu and Muslim.
It was only a matter of time before the news spread. One by one, students began to wander by and stand in the door, then step in, then sit down. Eventually, a good crowd of Hindus and Muslims were gathered there every Saturday, sitting side by side, listening to the verses.
During our tenure at that college—even when tensions were very high—Naimuddin and I persevered. We shared the mansion. We walked to campus together. We recited poetry and staged plays together. And just because two people carried their ideals into practice, the atmosphere of the whole campus changed.
It is my prayer that, through such cooperation, seemingly insignificant people like you and me will be able to dampen and eventually extinguish the fires of hatred which now trouble so many communities and countries […] It doesn’t take large numbers to change human relationships in any country, even today […] It takes dedication, determination and a certain amount of faith in the goodness hidden in our hearts.
It takes you.
(Extracted from Eknath Easwaran’s Your Life Is Your Message. The author (1910-1999) was a spiritual master and author of numerous books.)