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Beyond social and economic justice

‘Social + economic justice = Peace’ is now an established universal principle. But it banishes the quest for a deeper, more fundamental peace to the personal realm. It’s true that there may not be peace without justice, says Rajni Bakshi, but justice by itself will not ensure peace. Better laws and better social and economic structures can only work if there is a ceaseless personal renewal of the underlying values in everyday life

“True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” -- Martin Luther King (1)

“Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih  shantih”

-- The Waste Land by T S Eliot (2)

It was on December 1, 1955, that Rosa Parks, an African-American woman, was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat to a white person on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Parks’ courageous act triggered a sustained campaign to oppose racial segregation on public buses (3). As the movement gathered momentum, Martin Luther King Jr and other Afro-American activists were accused of “disturbing the peace”. It was in response to this allegation that King pointed out that peace could not be equated with absence of tension -- or visible violence.

Half a century later, King’s sentiment is the basis of passionate resistance to diverse forms of injustice in societies across the world. This quotation is also etched on a stone pillar at the India International Centre in New Delhi.  

The equation ‘social + economic justice = peace’ is now established as a universal principle, however much it might be violated across the world. Creative energy and organisational strength is now focused on the ‘how to’ challenges. Over the last two decades, more and more movements have found answers in a rights-based approach on the assumption that as injustices are eliminated there will be more peace. This has energised campaigns that aim to raise mass awareness in favour of various rights. But the primary accountability for delivering the rights has been reposed in the state. New laws with better implementation are seen as a key instrument for activating the equation.

But will a certain volume and intensity of social, political and economic mobilisation deliver us to the Promised Land in which justice equals peace? Isn’t the striving for peace deeper and wider than the need to create more just structures? Indeed, what are the deeper and perennial challenges in our species’ quest for peace?

Suppose we explore these durable questions by looking more closely at the prayer ‘Shantih, Shantih, Shantih,’ which marked the close of several Upanishads. Peace was invoked three times because suffering and pain are experienced at three levels -- Adhi-Bhautika, Adhi-Daivika and Adhyaatmika. Adhi-Bhautika is the physical realm of bodily suffering -- from lack of material needs to violence or illness. Adhi-Daivika is the spiritual or extrasensory realm of unfulfilled longings for ineffable peace or union with the divine. Adhyaatmika is the mental or psychic realm in which suffering can arise from afflictive thoughts or other mental phantoms. Shantih is invoked three times to seek peace at all these levels.  

What, you might say, does this have to do with the contemporary secular striving for peace in the world -- so that no child goes hungry, no one is ill-treated because of caste-colour-class, no one is driven to becoming a suicide bomber?

It is precisely the urgency of longing for these goals that creates a compelling need to re-examine the nature and causes of human suffering. Contemporary political discourse is sharply focused on what can be delivered through democratic governance. It tends to banish the quest for a deeper, more fundamental peace to the personal realm. This remains true even as more and more people are signing up for a wide variety of meditation courses or connecting with diverse spiritual traditions.

Of course, there is a certain comfort in keeping the struggle for peace close to historical, material factors that we can track and act upon. But to limit our endeavour to these dimensions, and ignore the fundamentals, could mean that we are stuck on a treadmill.

Fixing our gaze on a wider horizon, let us briefly look at two very different expressions of frustration and rage with our collective failures.

T S Eliot’s maddeningly obscure poem The Waste Land appeared in 1922. Eliot, who completed the poem whilst recovering from a nervous breakdown, himself described it as “just a piece of rhythmical grumbling”. In 1999, Time magazine’s profile of Eliot as one of the hundred most significant figures of the 20th century, described The Waste Land as a “deeply unoptimistic, un-Christian and therefore un-American poem” (4).

Drawing on mythic images from various traditions, and placing them beside a desolate depiction of modern times, the poem closes with these lines:

“Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih”

Harvard academic Helen Vendler, along with other literary scholars, interprets these lines as Eliot turning for salvation to the Buddha and his three ethical commandments: Give. Sympathise. Control.

In the Vedic tradition, Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata were the injunctions given by Prajāpati, the creator, to three types of beings -- devas (gods), manushyās (humans) and asuras (demons). Datta means to be charitable. Damyata means to be self-controlled. Dayadhvam means to be compassionate (5).

These injunctions are based on the recognition that desire, greed, anger and the tendency to be oppressive and misuse power are part of the human condition. But our species need not be locked into the miseries that result from these tendencies. We can choose to sublimate these urges through self-restraint, charity and mercy. Only then can we experience peace, Shantih, in all three dimensions of existence. In his extensive footnotes to the poem, Eliot explained the three-time invocation of Shantih as the biblical equivalent of “the peace which passeth understanding”.

M K Gandhi’s angst was expressed differently: “We are living in the midst of death trying to grope our way to Truth. Perhaps it is as well that we are beset with danger at every point in our life, for, in spite of our knowledge of the danger and of our precarious existence, our indifference to the source of all life is excelled only by our amazing arrogance.” (6)

That was a relatively mild version of Gandhi’s sense of frustration about an increasingly materialistic definition of what it means to be civilised. He sublimated this anxiety by trying to refine his own practise of Datta -- as non-attachment to material possessions; Dayadhvam -- as compassionate engagement, even with opponents; and Damyata -- as self-restraint that enables the practise of non-violence. 

Thus, the Truth which Gandhi refers to above is not a lofty state reserved for those at some rarefied level of spiritual evolution but love and compassion that can be practised by everyone -- at least to some degree. This is an essential part of the reaffirmation that James Lawson carried back with him from India in the mid-1950s.

Lawson was an African-American who grew up in Ohio, USA. As a student, he became an activist of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) which advocated non-violent resistance to racism. In 1951, Lawson declared himself a conscientious objector and refused to report for the draft. After spending 14 months in prison he came to India where he worked as a Methodist missionary in Nagpur. There, he met with many of Gandhi’s followers and studied Gandhian non-violent resistance. Lawson returned to the USA in 1955 and met Martin Luther King shortly after the Montgomery bus struggle. He went on to become a mentor and trainer for most of the leaders of the civil disobedience movement that changed the nature of race relations in the USA.

Half a century later, Lawson is still urging people to begin with themselves: “We must take responsibility for our personal, inner work and dismantle in our minds any idea that any other being is inferior. We can work to unlock a vision for a world of love and compassion.” (7)

The imagery of ‘unlocking a vision’ implies a great deal of hard work away from the barricades of protests, campaigns for legislation, dogged persistence in demanding implementation, and efforts to find non-war solutions to conflicts between nations.

It’s true that there may not be peace without justice. But justice will not itself ensure peace -- either in the public or personal spheres.

Social, political and economic mobilisation -- though essential and necessary -- will not in itself deliver us to the Promised Land. Even if it delivers some semblance of justice = peace, these actions may leave us wanting if they are not anchored in the quest for ‘the peace that passeth understanding’.

Being a ‘believer’, or in any known way religious, is not a prerequisite. Generosity, compassion and self-restraint can just as well be secular values. But the obstacle is not between the religious and secular domains. The most persistent enemy of peace might be the assumption that we can depend on laws and governance to do the bulk of the work. This assumption arises from a powerful undercurrent in our times -- namely the conviction that human beings are essentially inclined to be greedy, brutal and unrestrained. It follows then that laws -- with their rewards and punishment -- are the only way to fight injustice and maintain a semblance of order.

The other drag on our longing for peace is the idea that adequately refined structures, with attendant rights, will deliver us to the Promised Land. Better social and economic structures would certainly alleviate avoidable suffering for millions of people, which would be a monumental achievement. But even these structures would only work if there were a ceaseless renewal of the underlying values in everyday life.

Yes, ‘the peace that passeth understanding’ may remain elusive for most. But approximations of it depend on a perennial striving at all three levels of Shantih, Shantih, Shantih.

(Rajni Bakshi is a freelance journalist and author of Bazaars, Conversations and Freedom: For a Market Culture Beyond Greed and Fear and Bapu Kuti: Journeys in Rediscovery of Gandhi)

1 As quoted in Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King Jr, 1982, by Stephen B Oates. http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Martin_Luther_King,_Jr, viewed on July 28, 2011
2 The Waste Land and Other Poems by T S Eliot. Faber & Faber, London, 1972
3 The Montgomery bus boycott was a political and social protest campaign that started in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, USA, intended to oppose the city’s policy of racial segregation on its public transit system. Many important figures in the civil rights movement were involved in the boycott, including Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, Ralph Abernathy, and others. The boycott caused crippling financial deficit for the Montgomery public transit system, because the city’s black population, who were the principal boycotters, were also the bulk of the system’s paying customers. The campaign lasted from December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks, an African-American woman, was arrested for refusing to surrender her seat to a white person, to December 20, 1956, when a federal ruling, Browder v Gayle, took effect and led to a United States Supreme Court decision that declared the Alabama and Montgomery laws requiring segregated buses to be unconstitutional. Source: Wikipedia
4 T S Eliot, by Helen Vendler.  http://www.time.com/time/time100/artists/profile/eliot.html
5 Source: The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad by Swami Krishnananda. http://www.swami-krishnananda.org/brdup/brhad_V-02.html
6 Young India, July 7, 1927
7 http://centerforlivingpeace.wordpress.com/2010/03/19/rev-james-lawson-helps-us-bridge-the-divide/

Infochange News & Features, October 2011