By Megha Bajaj July 2007 What do great people have in common? Here, in their own words, and through the testimony of their lives, 10 of the greatest human beings who ever lived, share their secrets. Gather around I rubbed my eyes hard. There, sitting around me in cane chairs, sipping coffee from white porcelain cups, were all the people I most revered. History makers who changed the way we lived and thought, artists whose immortal works had inspired and given joy to millions, sages whose wisdom, compassion and love had transformed thousands. Ringed around me, they waited patiently for me to ask, so they could reveal. I was to know the secret to their enormity, the guide to their greatness. There was the great Mahatma Gandhi, wiping his glasses with his white, spotless dhoti, intently talking to Leo Tolstoy, the man whose writings influenced him. Mother Teresa was in deep conversation with the Dalai Lama; so animated were their expressions that it was hard to tell who was more inspired by the other. Ramana Maharshi, the great sage of Arunachala, sat in silence, a soft smile on his face; but around him was a palpable presence of stillness that seemed to pervade the room. Beethoven, with unruly hair and a top hat, drummed his fingers on his chair, lost in the world of music, while Shakespeare carefully observed his antics, as if he were considering him for a role in his next play. Confucius and Einstein were discussing religion, while Rabindranath Tagore, poet, philosopher, philanthropist, and educationist, sat with a gentle smile upon his handsome face, viewing the scene before him with great interest. Ten people. Ten phenomenal lives. Without wasting a second, I took a deep breath and began… Were you born with the mark of greatness? Do we normal mortals, who have shown no indication of greatness yet, stand a chance of becoming history makers? There was silence in the room. A reminiscing chuckle from Mother Teresa broke it, as she revealed that as a young nun with the Sisters of Loreto, an Irish community of nuns with missions in India, she had been called a mediocre nun, withdrawn and quiet, without potential, by a senior. Laughing sympathetically, Gandhiji remarked that he was a late bloomer as well. During his school years, he was so shy and fearful that he would run home as soon as school got over, lest older boys pick on him, and ask him a question or tease him. Einstein then spoke. He shared with a laugh that his problems began right from his birth when he was born, and his mother worried that his head was too large. His grandmother exclaimed that he was “much too fat”. As a child, he had no interest in formal education, and especially in languages. He failed in school, and his teacher allegedly remarked to his mother, “Albert is a dull child.” Tolstoy gave Einstein an understanding smile, and revealed that in 1844, when he began studying law and Oriental languages at Kazan University, teachers described him as “both unable and unwilling to learn.” A loud chortle then came from the Dalai Lama as he shared his mother Diki Tsering’s, recollection of him in the book A Simple Monk. “Would you believe that this peaceful monk was once a one-year-old tyrant? When he toddled upon people quarrelling, he’d pick up a stick, and try to beat them!” I laughed, reassured. These people were born like you and me – human, faltering, even unimpressive. However, obviously something had happened to transform them into super achievers and human beings. So what was the defining moment… how did an ordinary human being end up becoming so extraordinary? Ramana Maharshi, quiet for so long, suddenly spoke: For the first 16 years of his life, he said, he had been an ordinary child. However, at a certain point, he became struck with an overwhelming fear of death. Lying in his own room, he became acutely aware of the inevitability of death, and the mortality of his body. This paralysing fear proved to be only transient. With another penetrating insight, he became aware that “I am not the Body”. The real “I” was beyond matter. He was the spirit. With this glimpse of a higher, immortal consciousness, he lost all interest in his worldly life, and plunged into a period of intense meditation, asking himself the question, “Who am I?” Confucius told us a story. One day, he and his students passed a grave, where they saw a woman weeping at a gravestone. She told Confucius that her husband, her husband’s father, and her son, were killed by a tiger. When Confucius asked her why she didn’t leave such a fated spot, she answered that there was no oppressive government in this part of the country. This made Confucius realise that an oppressive government was fiercer and more feared than a tiger. Many of his theories on ethical government arose thereafter. Gandhiji spoke of his defining moment. He told of the time when he was thrown out of the first-class compartment of a train in South Africa late at night, in the peak of winter, simply because he was a coloured man. He says, “Now the creative experience comes there… What was my duty? I asked myself. Should I go back to India, or should I go forward, with God as my helper, and face whatever was in store for me? I decided to stay and suffer. My active non-violence began from that day.” I realised that although some had become great through some sort of a divine intervention, for many it was simply an instance, a small moment that created a deep impact. I realised that any moment, when viewed with a heightened sense of awareness, can become the defining moment. Whether it is viewing poverty outside her own school for Mother Teresa, or seeing a compass pointing to the north that created the first few science-based questions in Einstein’s mind, awareness, I understood, had been an important cursor in all these great people’s journey. Besides awareness, was there anything else that they believed that helped them in their journey to greatness? Shakespeare seemed to arise out of his world of words, and spoke for the first time. I was amused to see that he still used Elizabethan English to make his point. Greatness required courage, he said, to do that which has not been done before. Through his superb creativity and insights into human nature, he had transformed English theatre, and raised the bar on what could be accomplished through characterisation, plot, action, language, and genre. The success of his plays also helped raise the status of popular theatre. Giving a nod to Tolstoy, Gandiji shared that although Tolstoy had spoken of non-violence extensively, and inspired Gandhiji infinitely, there had never been a civilisation that had practically used the power of truth and non-violence to free itself of a powerful opponent. When he started out, he didn’t know he would reach this far. His ideas were rejected outright by many, he was criticised, and yet he kept faith, and went ahead with his ideals. Beethoven’s loud booming voice was suddenly heard, asking us poignantly if we had ever heard of a deaf composer. I remember reading that this great composer had turned deaf during the later part of his life. Imagine a man whose life revolved around music, condemned to never hear a note. What a terrible punishment! He quoted his letter to his friend, saying, “How can I, a musician, say to people ‘I am deaf’? I shall, if I can, defy this fate, even though there will be times when I shall be the unhappiest of God’s creatures …” But, he says, the deafness brought out the best in him; his indomitable spirit refused to be crushed. A letter he wrote to a friend during that time, said, ‘I will seize Fate by the throat. It will not wholly conquer me! Oh, how beautiful it is to live – and live a thousand times over!’ Indeed, some of his finest works were only created after he became deaf! Confucius shared that at the time when he propounded his theories, collectively known as Confucianism, birth was given more importance than merit, and possessions than people, in China. It was at that time that he began to speak of moral and ethical government, and loudly proclaimed the words, “What one does not wish for oneself, one ought not to do to anyone else; what one recognises as desirable for oneself, one ought to be willing to grant to others.” Rabindranath added, “I have become my own version of an optimist. If I can’t make it through one door, I’ll go through another door – or I’ll make a door. Something terrific will come no matter how dark the present.” Inspiring and so true. If one wants to leave the common herd, and aspire to fulfil one’s dreams and ideals, one must have the courage to go forward – alone, if need be. All these great men had faced rejection and ridicule before being revered. What was the secret of their courage and determination? What made them press ahead when circumstances were so bleakly against them? Suddenly, everyone in the room started speaking. The gentlemen allowed Mother Teresa to get in a word first. She said, simply, “Give yourself fully to God. He will use you to accomplish great things on condition that you believe much more in His love than in your own weakness.” Gandhiji followed suit, and said, “But for my faith in God, I should have been a raving maniac.” He added, “Faith is not something to grasp, it is a state to grow into.” Also remember, “Faith… must be enforced by reason… when faith becomes blind, it dies.” Rabindranath Tagore said, in his unique poetic style, “Faith is the bird that feels the light, and sings when the dawn is still dark.’ Confucius said, simply, “Hold faithfulness and sincerity as
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