May Peace bring Peace
December 25, 2016
This Shanti-Mantra of the Yajur Veda (chapter 36), which I see quoted often, has always fascinated as well as puzzled me: “By this invocation of peace may peace bring peace!” What is the text of the invocation? “Peace be to the earth and to the airy spaces! Peace be to heaven, peace to the waters, peace to the plants and peace to the trees! May all the gods grant to me peace!”
By implication, peace itself may not be peaceful; it needs to be purified to possess the unalloyed qualities of peace. The cosmos, nature, our daily environment and finally our hearts must be sanctified by invocations, by rituals, or by good, beneficial thoughts and actions in order to be made ready to receive peace. Unprepared, that peace will not be effective, or, will not be real peace at all.
The year that ends has confronted us with a horrible scenario of terror, war, brutality and other dehumanising behaviour. Look at Syria, at Iraq, at Afghanistan, and look, yes, at the United States of America. I stayed in Shimla as Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study when Donald Trump was elected President of the USA. I visited two Guest Fellows who are teaching at American universities early that morning when the results were pouring in on the New York Times website. Hillary Clinton first had a slender but comfortable lead. She was computed to have a 55 per cent chance to win, and the percentage rose by the minute. Then came the reversal. Trump drew even, he overtook his opponent, he marched ahead in percentage points and by 9 am the game was over: Trump had won the required number of Electoral College members without any possibility of a late redressal. The American professors were gaping, they fell silent, and we all went for breakfast with the gnawing, awful feeling that we just had witnessed the beginning of a new era of terrible uncertainties, an era which might alter the face of the earth.
One man is about to cause a paradigm change to global politics and a leap back to a Cold War atmosphere in which I had grown up. We realize that one man can change the moral landscape of the world. That one man did not even gain the popular vote in the United States; he did not have his party united behind him. The causes of Trump’s victory have been discussed ad nauseam in the weeks that followed, and my aim is not to write on politics, but to understand the phenomenon Trump.
True moral heroes like our very own Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama, like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, yes, like Barack Obama and his wife Michelle and many lesser known personalities have, even as a combined moral force, not been able to build up as much as this man will be able to pull down. All of us had thought that certain kinds of behaviour are no longer possible — like openly exhibited racism and anti-Semitism, like sexism, like unabashed glorification of wealth and a brash exhibition of narcistic self-love, and like a public, unqualified denial of climate change. That man touches all these issues approvingly which so far had not only been politically incorrect, but it was, in the public domain, considered despicable.
Until recently, lying in public about verifiable facts and events and situations was frowned upon sternly and not condoned in the USA or in West European countries. With this year, lying has become a publicly tolerated matter. A convenient new term has been created — the post-fact-era. For some the creation of a new vocabulary may have a soothing effect. As long as we can have words available to name a new situation, time, we feel, is not yet “out of joint”, to say it with Hamlet.
In India, we have become used to corruption as an everyday, “normal” occurence which has deeply penetrated the texture of our contemporary life. Let us stand back and contemplate how this has damaged not just political activity, but ripped into almost every sphere of life, and how we become guilty of being silent and compliant participants in crime often without wanting to and even without being aware of it. How this threatens the educational life of our children, the professional prospects especially of poor and lower middle-class aspiring young women and men, how it has made us distrustful of health care, of security services, and even of the sacred spheres of family, of worship, of the judicial courts and so on!
The same blurring of the dividing line between truth and lie is going to become commonplace in public life in the United States and, by extension, in global affairs. What and who is left to rely on when a new vocabularly is constructed around a cocoon of deliberate lies and fake facts?
As a German I am reminded of the time of Hitler’s Third Reich which evolved into a “world of its own” with its terms and images and concepts which all served to make unspeakable brutality and inhumanity a commonplace, convenient social event serving a “higher purpose”. Since that time, we as intellectuals must be totally alert at how and which words are being used to depict reality.
I have been in conversation and in correspondence with numerous people about the Trump phenomenon. A Sri Lankan musician friend who has spent many years in the USA responded that the jolt Trump gave to the social fabric would result in a “moral revolution” against the onslaught of Trumpism.
Do we see such a revolution coming? The party Trump belongs to has, so far, not launched one; the protests after Election Night have not been able to launch it. The movement hoping for the Electoral College to vote against Trump and secure a late victory for the Democrats has been unsuccessful. Will such a moral revolution build up and fight for the values of democracy in a country that takes pride in its democratic traditions and institutions? Even if he, as some oped columnists in the USA predict, miserably fails within a few months after his ascension to the President’s post, the moral degradation will remain a fact.
This teaches us that social peace is never secure. And here we return to the Vedic invocation: “Peace be to the earth and to the airy spaces! Peace be to heaven, peace to the waters, peace to the plants and peace to the trees! May all the gods grant to me peace! By this invocation of peace may peace bring peace!”
Social peace begins not within society, but it is in need of an atmosphere of peace which nature, the cosmos, the spiritual realities, the good intentions of human beings alone can prepare — not only politics and institutions. That is why the Vedic seers wanted first to sanctify the atmosphere and the environment in which we human beings live, from which we draw daily emotional sustenance and moral strength. Conversely, the power of one man over society is not created by the sole effort of that one man. Rather, it is society and its environment of emotions, values and ideas which has propped him up and allowed him to wield power. As a first step, this environment needs cleansing.
If anything, the mantra “May peace bring peace” tells us that if we bemoan the state of affairs in the world, we must begin with ourselves to change it. The moral revolution must begin within us. This is not pious prattle worthy of a preacher’s sermon during Christmas service and soon to be forgotten over an opulent meal and a lovely fruit cake. The Yoga-Sutras of Patanjali tell us that he who has peace within will radiate it outside and transmit that peace all around. That internal peace can never be taken for granted. It must be constantly rehearsed, regained, and polished like a brass bowl. Otherwise we slip into a conventional “peace” that is a mere stupor, a lull, at best a truce, a “peace” that makes us intellectually and emotionally complacent and dull.
That complete honesty in our thoughts and actions and a silent wakefulness alone can be our response to a person who constantly blows his own Trumpet because he only loves to listen to his noises and to watch others listen to it.
The writer is a Tagore scholar based in Santiniketan. He recently edited the book, Gitanjali Reborn. William Radice’s Writings on Rabindranath Tagore (Social Science Press, New Delhi).