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Race, Caste, Gandhi and King in the 21st Century: A Dialogue With Pandit Dasa

02/09/2015 04:23 pm ET | Updated Apr 10, 2015

The vision and expression of the spirit is the vision and expression of equality. This equality in spirit is not a cliché or a homogenization. It is the honoring of the most fundamental substance, which is life and the presence of life. It is the denial of everything which threatens the integral presence of life. It is the denial of the arrogance and selfishness of what the Hindu tradition describes as maya, or "that which is not," that which is death-dealing to the life of the body and the spirit.

One example of this call for this vision of equality in spirit comes from the classical Hindu text the Bhagavad-Gita, where Krishna teaches that "the humble sages, by virtue of true knowledge, see with equal vision a learned and gentle brahmana, a cow, an elephant, a dog, and one who has been outcast." 

This vision and expressions of equality is a vision and expressions of spiritual integrity, of seeing every living being as an eternal spirit-soul, worthy of all love, respect, friendship, and care. Naturally it follows that this vision of equality is also a vision of material equality, which calls the humble sage to participate in the struggle against injustice, oppression, and persecution which scars the bodies of the marginalized and the body of the Earth herself.

Mahatma Gandhi and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are two of the most radical and enduring examples of people who strove for this sagely vision of radical and profound spiritual and material equality. Their relationship is fervent and wholehearted, with much ground yet to be explored as to the fabric of resistance, defiance, and deep binding love they share together.

In this light Dr. Cornel West and Dr. John Thatamanil, two of our leading contemporary theologians and social thinkers, will be presenting a seminar on Gandhi and King at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. In conjunction with our Gandhi and King seminar here at Union Seminary, I want to offer, in dialogue with some of my closest colleagues, a series of reflections meant to confront, challenge, and transcend the rotten root at the core of race-based and caste-based oppression.

I'm honored to begin this dialogue with my close colleague and friend Pandit Dasa, author of Urban Monk: Karma, Consciousness, and the Divine, and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, who is the Hindu chaplain at Columbia University and the Interfaith chaplain at Union Theological Seminary. 

Christopher: Pandit, as a student, teacher, and practitioner of the wisdom of the Bhagavad-Gita for the last fifteen years, how do you understand Krishna's teaching of equal vision for all living beings? Is the sage with spiritual vision also required to fight against oppression and injustice, to fight for the material equality of all living beings?

Pandit: The teaching of "equal vision" as described in the Bhagavad-Gita suggests that all living creatures are sparks of the divine and must be respected as such. Therefore no one nationality, religion, gender, race, or species should be seen as superior to any other. The soul that inhabits each body is unique and worthy of all love and respect. Discriminating against others based on bodily designations is not only an offense to the individual, but also to God.

There is no doubt that the message of the "single garment of destiny..." by Dr. King and those of the Gita are highly consistent. Krishna explains in the twelfth chapter of the Gita "One who is not envious, but is a kind friend to all living entities...He by whom no one is put into difficulty...is very dear to me."

These passages are suggesting that we have to elevate our consciousness in such a way as to become friendly and cooperative and not behave in a way that might disturb others. Of course, it is understood that we won't always see eye-to-eye with everyone, but we can still function in a way where we remain respectful and friendly.

The sage's duty isn't to fight. However, a sage being compassionate to all living beings isn't afraid to speak up against injustices. A sage also leads by example demonstrating the equal vision paradigm in his or her life, speech, and actions. Thus the sage is able to inspire others to follow the elevated path of peace and cooperation.

Christopher: Your assertion that the sage's duty isn't to fight is interesting in the light of everything else you said, especially your assertion that the act of discrimination and oppression is not just offensive to those who are oppressed, but that it is also oppressive to God.

What exactly defines a sagely person? What exactly do you mean when you say she/he doesn't fight? What, in and of itself, does it mean to fight? Of course, one of the primary controversial elements of the Bhagavad-Gita is that seems to endorse the use of violence.

I consider Arjuna, the great warrior hero of the Gita and the Mahabharata, to be an epitome of the sagely personality. Arjuna embodies so many of the sagely qualities celebrated by Krishna in the first three verses of the 16th chapter: compassion for all living entities, steady determination, fortitude, and even forgiveness, as well as gentleness, austerity, and simplicity as we see in other parts of the Mahabharata where Arjuna is an essential part of the narrative, ethics, and philosophy being presented.

One of the sagely qualities Krishna mentions is these verses of the Gita is nonviolence, and we certainly understand Gandhi and King as being representative of this quality in their own sagely personalities, even as we don't understand Arjuna in this way. I think your assertion that the sage doesn't fight certainly marks the larger tension between the method and choice of nonviolence and the method and choice of violence that marked Gandhi and King's struggle, and Arjuna's struggle as well.

To fight for something doesn't always imply violence, and in this way I think the sage indeed is called to fight for the cause of spiritual and material liberation against oppression and injustice in this world. The question is whether the sagely person can call for and participate in violence, and if so, how do we understand this expression of violence to be right and just both materially and spiritually?

Pandit: Yes, the sage can fight for a cause without being violent. Approximately, 500 years ago, a very prominent Hindu sage and prophet named Chaitanya, spoke up and took action against the non-Hindu governing body in West Bengal that was persecuting the Hindus for practicing their faith. He gathered together thousands of adherents of the Hindu faith and engaged in a non-violent march to confront the leaders of the government. This led to a peaceful resolution to the persecution.

Discrimination, whether raced-based, caste-based, gender-based, or religion-based is just plain discrimination and it springs from ignorance and has no spiritual value. It only serves to distance us from other human beings and from God. It breeds more hatred and disunity inside of the person discriminating.

How to overcome such an oppressive mentality? Once someone is infected by it, it is very difficult to change their paradigm. The roots of hatred go deep. There has to be openness within the individual to want to change. In my opinion, education relating to the equality of all that inhabit the earth, must start from early childhood. This will enable us to develop a future that is built on the foundation of appreciation and cooperation.