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Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

Indians must unite to dispel the dark light of the Hathras pyre

We need Gandhi’s light of truth and King’s light of love to redeem everyone from this blighted age

Rumi, the redeemer of our hearts and souls, said, “The wound is the place where the light enters you." What if that light is from the funeral pyre of a 19-year old child? With her tongue cut, spine broken, and strangled, after being raped. Why call her “child"? What is your 19-year old daughter, if not a child? What when that pyre has not stopped blazing, from before Kathua and after? Unnao was but one burst of flames in this unceasing conflagration of depravity amid the countless that burn the nameless and powerless. Her pyre was lit on 30 September, the day Rumi was born in 1207 CE. What would have Rumi said to redeem us from this inferno? To her mother and father and sisters?

In another age, with the country aflame, the Mahatma fell, slain with “Hey Ram" on his lips. The light went out—the light of moral clarity and courage. The strongest and tallest of our many leaders then—even one of whom being with us today would have been a lifeline—felt orphaned. They all collected in Wardha for three days, beginning 29 February 1948. From Nehru and Azad, to Kriplani and JP, all of them. To meditate over “Gandhi is gone. Who will guide us? What would he have done?" We can ask the same question of ourselves in this bleakness of dark light.

We know what that man who was born 151 years ago, almost to the day of that pyre, would have done. He would have gone on a fast to heal us. He would have searched for the truth of this never-ending blaze. He would have marched to Hathras, and we would have marched with him. What about his great follower from across continents? What would he have done? Martin Luther King Jr. would have preached love to save us. He would have organized to raise us. He too would have marched to Hathras, and we would have marched with him too. But neither would have let this pass.

They differed in what they invoked as their organizing principle for their work and goals. Love for King and truth for Gandhi. That difference was at the root of my juvenile question one winter day: Who was better, Gandhi or King? That was after she had wounded me by calling Gandhi self-righteous, and I her, by pointing out how flawed King was. It is not for us to judge who is the better of the two. We stand here today because of both; it is for us to carry the flame and pass it on, she said. That was the truth. In the long arc of history, their differences do not matter, each doing everything they could, to bend it towards justice. In action they were one. Against every injustice and for the weakest.

They were also one in prayer. I am not one for prayers. So, it’s from them that I understood a prayer is only that which excavates the deepest wells of your commitment and courage to power ethical action. Anything else is a retreat from reality and humanity. So, I pray at Kalsi, to the words of Ashoka that speak across 2,200 years, with a pledge to uphold a just and humane world, and more. And you have the Serenity Prayer, or, your own Kalsi.

Each one who lives by the Serenity Prayer underestimates herself. Not because she could do more for the good and the just. But because with that commitment, she is doing enough. Enough for the arc of history to bend towards justice and stay bent. Heroes and leaders cannot achieve that. Even if they are Gandhi or King, or the Buddha, or Yugandhar himself. A moral universe needs to be built and upheld by each of us with our Serenity Prayer.

Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the prayer differently from its popular retelling. He wrote, “Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other", and not as he is often quoted, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference."

The original sequence of the words, including the call to courage at the beginning, has the radiant spirit of this prayer. Not fatalism, but a vow to do everything one can. The followers of this prayer live by this spirit, but underestimate their role in cumulative history because of the words of the retelling.

If there were enough of us with the Serenity Prayer in our hearts, there will be no more vile light of such funeral pyres. Because it will be washed away by the light that King prayed for: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that." And Gandhi too, while remaining true to his organizing principle: “I am praying for the light of truth that will dispel the darkness; let all those with a living faith in nonviolence join me in the prayer."

Rumi’s prayer presages all these prayers. For he doesn’t leave us just with that incandescent line of solace and illumination. The redeemer he is, he gently points towards the path to such light, at the very beginning, “I said: what about my eyes? He said: Keep them on the road. I said: What about my passion? He said: Keep it burning. I said: What about my heart? He said: Tell me what you hold inside it? I said: Pain and sorrow. He said: Stay with it. The wound is the place where the Light enters you."

We need both—the light of truth and the light of love. To enter the wounds of this blighted age.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd

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