Saturday, April 16, 2011

Making a Difference in the Life of Others

A priest recounts his experiences while on a spiritual pilgrimage to India, during which he visited the ashram of Vinoba Bhave (1895-1984) at Paunar.  He remembers Vinoba's room at the ashram as being sparse and simple, similar to that of Gandhi's. Although a Hindu, he had hung on the wall in the passageway in front of his room a crucifix, a reminder of the Christ spirit that Vinoba meditated on and that influenced his life--the same spirit the writer felt in making the rounds of the ashram.

Vinoba was a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi in the Indian independence movement. He was one of his most intimate followers and his spiritual successor. "Love," he said, "is the strongest force there is. What changes the world is not knowledge but love." Love for him meant a life committed to  non-violence, which was the spirituality he pursued throughout his life.                                                                                    
Many considered him the second Gandhi; for 13 years he traveled barefoot throughout the countryside, urging landowners to give some of their land to the poor. "Steeling is a crime but saving up a great deal of money is a bigger theft. If you have five children, consider the poor your sixth child," he said, "and put aside 1/6 of your land for that child." The result of this movement, called the Land Gift Movement, was more successful than any government program that had been tried.

In one of his literary works, Vinoba wrote: "The work of women has not been seen.  We are not able to get peace with only the work of men. In the future women will also have this role; we have to become conscious of women's mental strength." (He was one of the first to have an ashram for women.)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
The priest, along with others on pilgrimage, was able to see the caste system up close by spending time with the untouchables. The guide told the pilgrims that religion made it possible for the untouchables to face death peacefully. It was an expression that stayed with the priest even on his  return to Korea. "Religion," he said, "is what makes them able to face reality and gives them a goal in life.  In this world of darkness, they have hope." Isn't this what we mean by salvation in religion? he asks.  Seeing the faith of these untouchables made him see his own faith life differently.

In a movie they saw at the ashram, Gandhi was quoted as saying that in the beginning he thought that God was Truth; later he came to believe that Truth is God.                                                         

Marx famously said, "Religion is the opiate of the people."  A remark often used to show how religion can turn one's attention from this world to a pie-in- the-sky view of life that makes life bearable for those who live in this 'vale of tears.' In the case of the untouchables, this view of life is easily understood. But for most of us the dignity natural to humankind should inspire us to work to better the lot of those who suffer, replacing the pie-in-the-sky with a down-to-earth understanding of human dignity that religion endeavors to teach us. With this as motivation, we can in some measure do what Vinoba was able to do: make a difference in the lives of those who because of their lot in life find it difficult to experience this dignity. 

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