13 December, 2013

Mandela, Buddha and the Western Imagination

Watching Nelson Mandela’s memorial on TV, I realized what an extraordinary man he had been, all over again.

Despite the horrors of Apartheid, and the torture and incarceration he faced at the hands of his captors, he never showed any hatred towards them. Mandela's greatest legacy was forgiveness, say commentators.

Then there was the Truth and Reconciliation Committee which looked at the human rights abuses that took place under Apartheid. Both sides were brought together, and amnesties were granted along with reparations. This process, through flawed, was integral to South Africa moving forward as a nation. Mandela could have spent the next thirty years after his release taking revenge on his captors. But he didn’t do that—allowing South Africa to move on as a nation after the end of the Apartheid.

Watching Mandela’s funeral made me think about the Buddha. What are the historical conditions that create certain individuals to be born and shaped in certain times? Buddha was 2600 years ago, in a small kingdom which now falls within the borders of Nepal. At 29, he walked out of his comfortable palace, determined to find the causes of human suffering. His whole life was dedicated to ending human suffering—which doesn’t sound that out of the ordinary, until you realize that most of Western history has been filled with human beings whose sole aim has been to torture, give suffering to, and impose control over other human beings.

The Crusades, the Inquisitions, the Holocaust. All of these have come out of the Western imagination, whose singular drive to control and to subjugate has been responsible for some of the greatest horrors of history, and of the present moment.

How different from people who dedicated their lives to ensure that not even a single thought would harm another human being. How fundamentally different these two approaches to life.

What are the geographical and cultural conditions that give birth to, and nurture, a Nelson Mandela  in Africa, and a Gautama Buddha in Asia? What makes some people spend their entire life in the cessation of human suffering, while others dedicate their entire lives (and national treasuries) in imposing suffering on other human beings?

I can’t really answer that question. All I know is that those whose sole quest has been on the imposition of human suffering eventually fade away. Hitler probably imagined his empire would last for ever. Dr. Mengele probably never dreamt his experiments would become one day known to the whole world. The victims of Auschwitz probably never dreamt that one day the day would come when they would be liberated.

But strangely, the smokestacks of the death camps one day stopped emitting black smoke. To the victims, it may have seemed like this day would never come. But one day, it did come.

Buddha’s greatest teaching was the knowledge of transience. The tortures of the present moment will become history at some future time. The Dr. Mengeles of the present, and their activities, will one day be revealed in the future.

How the world deals with the truth and reconciliation processes of the present may determine how we move forward in the next 2600 years.

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