US President Barack Obama can thank the Upanishads in part for his November win.
According to an exhibition at the American Center in New Delhi, a distinct line can be traced from Vedic philosophy to the 44th American President, as the idea behind civil disobedience travelled back and forth between India and the US.
Wall of inspiration: Obama in his Senate office with photos of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP
The exhibition is just one of a series of events through February and March celebrating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s visit to India.
Anne Lee Seshadri, the director of American Center, says, “The big thing is that if you look at the history of the relationship of India and the US, there has been a flow of ideas that’s gone back and forth between the countries.” The exhibition, she says, conveys how close the two countries are in thought and purpose.
It showcases photographs of King’s trip to India in 1959, a documentary film on his life, audio recordings of his interview with All India Radio (AIR), and a series of interactive displays, including inspirational sayings that visitors can peel off the wall and take with them!
The thread of thought begins in 1849, when American writer Henry David Thoreau penned On the Duty of Civil Disobedience—an essay on using non-violent measures to resist and protest against the government. Thoreau famously wrote about refusing to pay taxes as a means of protest in his book Walden. He was influenced greatly by Vedic writings, quoting them in his work and disseminating their ideas on governing responsibility.
Mahatma Gandhi first read Thoreau’s essay in 1907 and often referred to it as one of the main influences in his fight for Indian independence. In 1935, a group of American civil rights activists came to India to meet Gandhi. These men returned to the US and started teaching young black leaders about the struggle against the caste system and the British empire. One of those leaders was a young pastor from Alabama—King. In 1955, King spearheaded the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which led to the end of the practice of assigning seats in front of the bus to whites. Seshadri says that the bus boycott is viewed as King’s “moment of truth”, just as Gandhi’s moment of truth came when he was thrown out of the first-class compartment of a train in South Africa. Coincidences such as this are emphasized in the exhibition.
After the success of the bus boycott, King journeyed to India to pay homage to Gandhi and his teachings, as well as to meet with Indian leaders and continue his education in civil disobedience. At the end of his visit in Kolkata, King said in an interview with AIR: “Since being in India, I am more convinced than ever before that the method of non-violent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity. In a real sense, Mahatma Gandhi embodied in his life certain universal principles that are inherent in the moral structure of the universe, and these principles are as inescapable as the law of gravitation.”
King’s son Martin Luther King III and a delegation of US congressmen are currently in India to commemorate the anniversary. Former senator Harris Wooford has returned to the country he first visited in 1935 as a young civil rights activist. Also here is representative John Lewis, who was with King in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, which was inspired by Gandhi’s famous Dandi March.
Besides opening the exhibition in New Delhi, the delegation conducted a round table on interfaith issues and will attend a concert in Chennai, where A.R. Rahman and his choir are to perform a song based on King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
The exhibition will run until 13 March at the American Center on Kasturba Gandhi Marg, New Delhi. For the dates of the exhibition in Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata, log on to http://newdelhi.usembassy.gov