March 2014 by Shivi Verma and Suma Varughese When activists operate from a spiritual centre, they not only do a better job but also grow prodigiously and earn the respect and regard of the world, say Shivi Verma and Suma Varughese Activists are compelled conscientiously to fight for the right. We identify them with men and women who passionately espouse causes. Whose hearts scream at the venalities and injustices of the world. Who protest against child labour, human trafficking, land and mine mafia, multinationals, corruption, communalism, capitalism, discrimination, misogyny and support democracy, environment and greater transparency in the ways of the government. The world owes much of its progress to these fighters who have relentlessly and selflessly worked for the good of the weak, helpless and downtrodden. Almost all the big movements of the world that galvanised masses, overturned regimes, and changed the old order are fuelled by activists who decided not to take things lying down any more. In the AAP, India is witnessing the transformation of a social, anti-graft movement led by activists into a political party which promises to change forever the manner in which a country is governed. And yet, the way activism is generally practised, has a high attrition rate. Often, the activist is enmeshed in a web of anger, dissatisfaction, frustration, despair and hopelessness. Making people see reason, changing society for the better, are onerous tasks which involve humungous responsibility, endless struggle, and immense internal and external strife. Activists also suffer from self-righteousness, egotism, and an ‘us vs them’ mentality that causes them to see the world in black and white. Many times what may have started as a noble cause can go astray. The NaxalBari movement of West Bengal was started with the lofty goal of bridging the divide between the rich and poor, but soon became an extremist, violent, and terror-striking outfit. Often too, NGOs fall apart because of internal bickering or disagreements. Many activists also develop compassion fatigue, caused by having exhausted their energies in trying to resolve complicated problems. Can these issues be resolved by infusing their efforts with spirituality? Says Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, spiritual guru and founder Art of Living, “An activist must first be centred within himself/herself. Since activists give 100 per cent to the cause they are supporting, they get emotionally involved in it. There is a tendency to react emotionally to something, rather than respond with a balanced mind. Then mistakes happen, the person feels drained and the cause suffers. Remaining balanced mentally and emotionally in all situations, whether facing praise or criticism, requires a spiritual grounding.” Many activists turned politicians in the AAP have attracted bad press lately because of their immature words and actions. Could a spiritual grounding have made them steadier and better equipped? Does spirituality lend more balance and calm to the person who is trying to save the world amidst destructive forces? A discussion with several spiritual masters on this subject led to the distillation of five principles which would help an activist do his work without harm to himself or others. Begin with yourself When Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” he was underscoring a fundamental principle of spiritual activism. Before we rush out to change the world, it is wise to change ourselves. Only then will we be able to see the world truly, and see if anything needs to be changed at all. For all too often, it is our vision that is faulty, and not the world. Changing ourselves will also change our perspective. It is human tendency to identify the enemy outside, but what about the enemy within? Aggressive activism can fuel hatred and aggravate the social maladies we are fighting against. Extreme self-righteousness can destroy the voices of sanity, balance and appeals for truce and compromise coming from the other side. Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King too were activists; but soon realised that for their voices to be acknowledged they had to remove anger, bitterness, grudges and vengeance in their hearts against their aggressors. They worked on weeding out their own inner vices before asking wrongdoers to change their ways. Their attitude helped them to constructively work for their cause instead of becoming agents of destruction. Not only did they succeed triumphantly but in the process they won the respect and admiration of their opponents. When we change, the world changes. As we work on ourselves we also become more open-minded, have greater respect for the opponent’s viewpoint, and become more flexible in our stand without compromising on our ideals. Cautions Mata Amritanandmayi, the hugging saint of Kerala, “If we are not careful, self-interest and strong likes and dislikes can hijack us. We will lose our viveka – our ability to properly judge between right and wrong – and we can fall victim to people with hidden agendas.” She adds, “In reality selfless service is a reflection of everyone’s true nature. Love is the purest emotion – the purest form of energy. Everyone has love within them, but in most of us that love is mixed with selfishness. We need to gradually, step-by-step, remove that selfishness.” Adds Sri Sri, “In yoga, there are two attitudes – pravritti and nivritti. Pravritti is going outwards and setting things right because they are not. This takes effort and can be quite tiring. Nivritti is going deep within and relaxing with acceptance. This can make one lethargic if overdone. The right attitude is to have both in balanced proportions as they are both necessary and complementary. Yoga bring this balance in life.” Move from anti to pro One of the biggest mistakes that activists make is to be ‘against’ something instead of ‘for’ something. They are againstpoverty, injustice, gender discrimination and so on. This immediately pits them against the other, and limits their goals. What if instead they were to take a stand for prosperity, for justice and for gender equality? Immediately, the enemy vanishes and the activist can instead plan creative and effective measures to achieve his goal. And there is no saying where he will stop, for one step will lead to another, and the activist will find himself moving organically to a larger and larger cause. “Anti’ locks our energies and limits our capacity, while ‘pro’ releases us and aligns us to the Universe. The greatest success stories in activism come from those who stood for something and not against. Our Independence Struggle is a sterling example. The fight was for freedom and not against colonialism. That made all the difference. Says Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, “Often, activists resort to a confrontationist stance in many situations. Our youth must know how to co-operate and confront simultaneously. Getting stuck in predetermined positions will keep us from exploring newer possibilities. Empowerment means the courage to confront and willingness to co-operate. The knowledge of spiritual principles and some grounding in spiritual practise will help achieve this state.” Focus on the means rather than the end Perhaps one of the most common mistakes activists make is to believe that a noble end justifies ignoble means. Most revolutions such as the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution bear testimony to this. In France, in the name of liberty, fraternity, and equality, their former oppressors were killed and routed. The Russian Revolution too resorted to violent means in order to secure power to the proletariat. Governments across the world today routinely indulge in all sorts of chicanery in order to protect peace or secure justice. The truth is that when the means is ignoble, the end too becomes ignoble. Injustice cannot create justice, nor can warfare or oppression bring about peace. Unless one is scrupulous about the means, he or she will sabotage the end. Says Swami Nikhilananda of Chinmaya Mission, “Spirituality lays importance in following the path of dharma at all times. We cannot follow an unfair means even to achieve a fair cause. The path and the goal both should be noble.” Check your motivation The spiritual aspirant knows that it is the motivation that determines the consequences, and therefore one has to be vigilant that one is at all times aware of one’s true motivation. Activism is often corrupted by the wrong motivation, for power is a heady aphrodisiac, and can overcome the most committed. Many leaders have faltered and fallen because they were unable to withstand the lures of fame, money or power. Self-knowledge through a spiritual practice will help the activist weed unworthy motivations from his heart, and steadily stay true to his values. The journey, not the destination Spiritual activists: laying the bricks and mortar to a better world A spiritual activist knows that the primary purpose of his altruistic work is self-purification. All activism is about self-improvement and self-purification. The world owes him nothing and changing it is God’s choice and responsibility. He knows that he is simply an agent of God’s will. By doing what is right, he is responding to his inner call of enjoying a peaceful conscience. He is like Arjuna, internally detached and externally committed. Says Mata Amritanandmayi, “When it comes to action, we can be aggressive, but when it comes to reaping the results of our actions, we need to have the attitude of surrender. This is what Sri Krishna told Arjuna on the battlefield. Results will vary. Sometimes we will succeed, other times we will fail. This we cannot control. All we can control is our eff
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