Reverence for Life. Albert Schweitzer’s Exemplary Contribution (The Statesman)

The Statesman (Calcutta)  7 July 2013

Reverence for Life

Albert Schweitzer’s Exemplary Contribution


Every being around us is a piece of God’s creation, infused with meaning and importance by the Creator. Therefore: Don’t kill! Unless totally unavoidable, don’t kill even the tiniest animal. Therefore: Respect and support all life! Allow life to prosper to the same extent as you yourself desire to live ~ martin kämpchen

IMAGINE this: A highly gifted man becomes an acclaimed organ-player at an early age giving concerts in France, Spain and Germany, he delivers lectures as a musicologist, and parallel to this he studies theology to become ordained as a pastor. He writes a brilliant thesis on the philosopher Immanuel Kant and a path-breaking book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus. At the age of 30, he decides to abandon his promising career and returns to university to study medicine. Why? In order to become the physician for several remote African tribes, curing them of leprosy and other deadly diseases and giving them a life worth living. Crazy? This is what Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) was.
A German from the province Alsace-Lorraine, Schweitzer had decided early on that leading the life of a scholar and musician was not enough. He was convinced that our knowledge and artistic visions should flow into a life of practical engagement with the world. It was sanyasa of a special, one may say, European kind ~ the renunciation of a life which pursues merely our personal improvement in order to serve mankind. Albert Schweitzer did continue playing the organ and writing books, but these activities were now subservient to the goal of treating those men and women who had nobody to treat them. It is one hundred years since Albert Schweitzer rejected the fame of a European scholar in order to settle in the African jungle. He had completed his medical studies in February 1913, and a month later he and his wife were on their way to Lambaréné on the river Ogooué. Situated then in a French colony, it is today a town in an independent country called Gabon, West Africa. Schweitzer arrived on 16 April and began building a small hospital immediately.
When the First World War broke out, Schweitzer and his wife who were now the citizens of an enemy country, were put under the supervision of the French military. In 1917, they were taken to the south of France and interned. The war over, Schweitzer’s home province became a part of France, and he was free again and began raising funds by giving organ concerts. He returned to the harsh tropical climate of Lambaréné in 1924. Soon he received the help of doctors and nurses from several European countries, but his efforts to build a hospital and serve the poor and sick amounted to an extraordinarily taxing struggle against difficulties created by the ancient life-style of the jungle people, against famine and leprosy, and against the political élite of Africa. He did not want to turn African village people into “modern” men and women. Rather, he pleaded that they retain their simple and natural life-style; critics in Europe termed this primitive and unscientific.
Ardent in his faith as a Protestant Christian, equally ardent in his belief in humanistic ideals, he never gave up. With his increasing fame, he embraced global problems: He became a harsh critic of colonialism which creates inequality and condescension. He believed that the concept of colonising was adverse to human dignity, as defined by Christian civilisation. After the Second World War, Albert Schweitzer was, with Albert Einstein, a driving force of the opposition to the nuclear bomb. The recent film  Albert Schweitzer ~ a Life for Africa (2009) describes this phase of his life. He was pestered by the CIA, denounced in the USA as a communist, and sabotaged by his overt and secret enemies in Lambaréné. In 1952, Schweitzer was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, but fame did not make his life easier.
Schweitzer’s guiding principle became Reverence for Life. Letting his eyes wander across the Ogooué river, he in an instant perceived that “everything that man is surrounded with ~ plants, animals, fellow human beings ~ possesses the same desire to live as we do. Whoever has understood this cannot but meet all of them with love. Respect of God who gives life to every being so that it may fulfill its responsibility, demands that we give respect to all beings and help them to fulfill themselves.”
Don’t these beautiful lines have some similarity to the core Hindu feeling and the Jaina belief that all animate and inanimate entities are endowed with a soul ~ humans, animals, trees, water, fire, rocks and every blade of grass. Reverence for life expresses and celebrates that every being around us is a piece of God’s creation, infused with meaning and importance by the Creator. Therefore: Don’t kill! Unless totally unavoidable, don’t kill even the tiniest animal. Therefore: Respect and support all life! Allow life to prosper to the same extent as you yourself desire to live.
The fact that there is a food chain which preserves the balance of nature became an agonising ethical problem for Schweitzer. Natural Law and Ethical Law seem to diverge, even clash. For men, compassion is the answer, the participation in the suffering of all creatures. This is reminiscent of both Christian and Buddhist principles. Schweitzer seems to be more radical than most in giving expression to compassion. He wrote, “He who has experienced within himself the misery of the world but once, can no longer become happy in the way men wish to be happy. [...] He cannot forget the poor man whom he has met, the patient whom he saw, the human being of whose sorry fate he has read…”
In another essay Schweitzer wrote, “We live in truth when we experience the conflicts [of other creatures] more and more deeply. A good conscience is the invention of the devil.”
Yet, such radicalism did not make Albert Schweitzer a bitter zealot. Rather, he believed in a “life-affirming” attitude. He noted, “In no way does Reverence for Life allow a person to give up his interest in the world.” From his remote hospital in Africa, at a time when there was no television and no internet, this man spoke to the world and became one of its important conscience-keepers. He often voyaged between Europe and Africa and once to the USA for lectures, to give organ recitals and collect funds, and he always returned to his principal mission of service.
In Lambaréné, he also studied Indian philosophy. It is a pity that he never visited India. Had he done so, his understanding of the holy scriptures would have become more complex.
Basically, Schweitzer asserted that before Rabindranath Tagore Indian philosophy was guided by a “world-and life-negating” attitude. Rabindranath ushered in a fully “world-and life-affirmating” view. Rabindranath’s response was guarded. Praising Schweitzer for his efforts to study Indian philosophy, Rabindranath (in a private letter to Schweitzer written in 1936) criticised him for not doing “proper justice” to the Buddhist concept. “Buddhist monks took a very active part in ministering to the cares and sufferings of the sick and the downtrodden [...].”
Albert Schweitzer and Rabindranath have a great deal in common. They were both deeply committed to the ideals of humanism and anti-nationalism. They both saw their main mission in teaching, directed  to the people locally and in the world at large. Social activism, lectures, essays, philosophical books flowed from this pedagogical impulse. Rabindranath founded his school and university and attempted rural reconstruction, while Schweitzer spent a life-time in Lambaréné. They both combined this with their creative urge. They poured out their heart in poetry, in songs and in music. They struggled to maintain a delicate balance between creative activity, scholarship and work among men.
Since generations Albert Schweitzer has been revered as an ideal man in the West. When I was a school-going boy, my father, then a college principal, wrote a letter to Albert Schweitzer requesting his support for an exhibition of his books. The great man replied with a two-page hand-written letter. After the exhibition, I kept this letter in my desk.
It was the one true treasure I harboured as an adolescent. I like to believe that my admiration for Albert Schweitzer was one of the forces that brought me to India, and his example gave me the strength to serve among people in my modest way. In 2013, Albert Schweitzer’s arrival in Lambaréné a hundred years earlier is being remembered and celebrated throughout Germany and France. Let us join them in India as well.

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