Speech by Her Excellency K. Nandini Singla, Ambassador of India to Portugal

Speech by Her Excellency K. Nandini Singla, Ambassador of India to Portugal, during the celebrations of World Philosophy Day 2019, organized by the New Acropolis in partnership with the Municipality of Oeiras and the National Commission of UNESCO.
1 K. Nandini Singla. Embaixadora da Índia em Portugal (centro da mesa)

First of all, as the ambassador of India to Portugal, I’m delighted to be here and to see that the World Philosophy Day is being celebrated by remembering the great soul Mahatma Gandhi. 

I believe it’s a very befitting way of celebrating World Philosophy Day. Why? Because Mahatma Gandhi was not born with any divinity – like the 33 million gods we have in India, or the spiritual figures that we know. We hear that when they were born they had celestial powers, they were special, they were divine. Mahatma Gandhi was like you and me: as ordinary as they come. When he was a child he was afraid of ghosts, he was afraid of thieves, he was afraid of snakes. When he was a young man he was scared to even stand up and speak. And imagine being a lawyer who was afraid to stand up and speak!

He did all the things that we human beings do. He stole money from his father’s pocket. He tried to do drugs. He got angry and hit people. He broke a promise he had given his mother.

But when he was killed by an assassin’s bullet, he died as the ”Mahatma”. As a great soul. And he was a great soul not only because he liberated India from British colonial rule, he was a great soul because he liberated himself… from his human limitations, from his frailties, to become the best possible version that he could become. 

And he said: “be the change that you want to see”, because change begins with you and me – not outside of us. I think that is Mahatma Gandhi’s biggest message to humanity. Don’t blame your genetics, don’t blame your family, don’t blame the traumas of your childhood for what you have created in your life. Take responsibility for the life that you have created because everything that has happened in your life is a cause of your thoughts, your actions, the energy that you are giving out to the world. 

And he said a very beautiful thing: “a man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes”. And I love this particular quotation of his: he said, “As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world, as in being able to remake ourselves. We must become the change we want to see: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow; learn as if you were to live forever.”

So what was his message? His message was, “take charge of your life; take charge of your thoughts; purify your actions; be the best human being that you can be; the world will automatically become a better place.”

And why am I beginning with this? Because today as we celebrate World Philosophy Day, this in essence, was what Mahatma Gandhi was all about. 

When an individual changes himself, society changes itself, and that is why Mahatma Gandhi had these communal farms – you would have heard about the Phoenix farm in South Africa that Tolstoy found – these were experiments in showing to the world that when human beings come together and decide to be the best possible versions of themselves, a community can become a better community. And so, in these ashrams, Gandhi asked everybody to live simple lives. He wanted people to realise how many things they can do without. Austerity; a life of service. It’s incredible! I don’t know how many of you know, but Mahatma Gandhi and his wife actually cleaned manually, the toilets of the people who were in the ashrams – and not the flush toilets that we have today. They were manual, scavenging services that he did with his own hands, because he said: ‘Unless I do it, I have no moral right to ask anyone else to do it.’ 

Sabarmati Ashram. Creative Commons

And then he spoke of love, of compassion. There were hindus and muslims, black and white people in the same ashrams. It was a huge social experiment. And finally, he believed that if an individual changes himself, and the community in which such individuals live changes itself, that is the only enduring path to social change and political activism. 

So if you look at what Mahatma Gandhi achieved, it’s incredible. A small, tiny, brown-skinned man with one shred of cloth around him. He brought down a mighty British empire with thousands of guns. How was he able to do it? Because he believed in one thing: that this universe is ruled by a moral order, not by brute force. He firmly believed that the laws of the universe are as real as the laws of gravity or physics. He believed in karma: you do good, good things happen to you. You have an evil thought, that’s also an evil. He believed in Hinduism, because he grew as a Hindu; many of the things that were taught in Hinduism he believed in them; which was ‘karma’, that is right action without any expectation; bodily/physical discipline, asceticism; and final aspiring for a feeling of oneness with the universe.

But – he also believed in Islam. He read the Quran and was very impressed by the Quaran’s notion of equality. And he knew the Bible by heart. And the idea of suffering, which Jesus’ crucifixion denoted, was tremendously impactful to Gandhi. 

That is where his idea of fasting came from, as a way of purification, penance; atoning for the sins of others too. And he believed in Jainism. In Jainism, which is one of the religions born in India, there’s a belief that the truth has many facets. And you have to understand all the facets to really understand the truth. This is an important message for all times – one that can end prejudicces, bigotry and divisions in the world.

So Mahatma Gandhi was inspired by many different things. He said, “All religions have truth in them. And no religion has all the truth. You choose the truth, and you be true to yourself.”

And when you look at a concept like Satyagraha for example, which literally means “soul force”, it was the single most important weapon with which he liberated millions of Indians from the British Empire. So many people died, they exploded bombs, the British didn’t go away… But this little man, who didn’t even throw a stone at anybody, finally managed to do what others could not. 

Through Satyagraha. What is Satyagraha? It’s fascinating in its simplicity and its profundity. He said that there is always truth in this universe. And it does not change. The truth is the truth. And he said a very beautiful thing which I want to say here: The truth for him was morality. There is a good thing, a right thing, an evil thing, a bad thing. So he said, “morality is the basis of things and truth is the substance of all morality…. The truth is more powerful than any weapon of mass destruction.” “If you are right and you know it, speak your mind. Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is still the truth.”

Why is this important? Because in his heart, in his soul, in his mind, Gandhi believed that truth would eventually always prevail. So if you’re on the right side of truth, victory will always be yours. And that is what gave him the courage to fight the mighty British empire.

And the second part of Satyagraha, which gave him this moral force, this strength, was the notion of justice. And I want to quote something very profound that he said: 

“Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with the good. Non-cooperation with evil is also a moral duty because if you do not stand up against evil, against injustice, against inequality, you are siding with injustice, you are siding with evil, you are siding with inequality.”

So what does it mean? It’s not passive. He said, you’ve got to stand up against injustice because that’s a moral call for every human being. And this came to Gandhi through the Bhagavad Gita. I’m sure many of you have heard about the BhagavadGita. The god Krishna asks Arjuna, who is a Pandava–the good guys… Arjuna is in the battlefield and his cousins are on the other side. And he is a ruthless warrior – he’s one of the most accomplished warriors – and he cannot fight. He has cold feet. He says, how can I kill my brothers? I cannot do it! And then Lord Krishna tells him, “but in this situation, killing is the right thing.” “If you do not kill, you are siding with evil.” So, it’s not the action which is right or wrong, it’s the intention behind the action. It’s the result that is motivating you, which determines whether what you do is right or wrong.

Krishna and Arjun on the chariot, Mahabharata. Public Domain

And he also was very influenced by the notion of doing action without expectation. Which is also one of the key things in the Bhagavad-Gita. He said: Every action you do should be an offering to the universe. An offering to God. You do what Karma demands you to do. You do what your moral duty demands you to do, and then leave the result to the forces of the universe because the universe is far larger, far more complex than you and I know.

But your duty is to do the right action; do the right thing; think the right thought. And I’m saying this because this is what made him work for all his life for a cause that people had almost given up on; they thought it was impossible to throw the mighty British empire out of India. And he did it because the force that animated him was spiritual. It was not political. It was not religious, it came from his soul. And it also came from the belief that there was a force in this Universe – a force that he called God, but he said your God can be Allah, his God can be Ram (inaudible), his can be Jesus, but it’s the same God. And I want to read a few sentences from a speech he gave in 1931 in the US, when someone asked Gandhi “do you think there is a God?” And he said, “There is an indefinable mysterious power that pervades everything. I feel it, though I do not see it. It transcends the senses. There is orderliness in the universe; there is an unalterable law governing everything and every being that exists. That law, then, which governs all life, is God. I see it as purely benevolent, but I can see that in the midst of death, life persists; in the midst of untruth, truth persists; in the midst of darkness, light persists. Hence I gather that God is life, god is truth, god is light. He is love. He is the supreme good.”

And Gandhi believed this so deeply – that there was this force, of purity, of kindness, compassion, brotherhood(inaudible)and it’s what makes this universe work. And he actually saw oneness in everything. 

There is this very interesting anecdote which strikes me very deeply because when the Indians were fighting against the British and towards the end when India became independent, the British decided to divide the country into Muslim Pakistan and a secular India. And there were riots everywhere. Millions of people were brutally killed and murdered in mobs; Muslims were attacking Hindus, Hindus were attacking Muslims; and this was the worst nightmare for Mahatma Gandhi. It was against everything he believed in. And one day, someone came to him and said, “my son was in a Hindu mob that killed a Muslim boy, and I’m not able to sleep at night. Gandhii, what can I do? And Gandhi told him, “go and adopt a Muslim child. And raise him as your own child. But let him go to a Mosque, and let him pray to Allah; and let him learn not to be violent. That is the best way you can atone for what your child has done.” 

There’s a very famous hymn which was Gandhiji’s favourite, which translates to: You may be called (Ram) you may be called Allah, but you are love. You are all that is good and pure and true in this universe. 

And finally, I mentioned about the impact of the Bible (the new testament) on Mahatma Gandhi – the idea that you have to suffer for a good cause. He lived it all his life. When the Hindu-Muslim riots broke out, he decided to fast. He simply said, I’m not going to eat or drink anything until the riots stop; otherwise I die. And I think he went on a fast for 12 days or more. And finally people just said, “he cannot die because of us.” And they stopped rioting. Millions of people; that was the power, the moral power of his penance. And when they said “please eat, we’re not going to fight anymore”, and they came and dropped their weapons in front of him, he broke his fast and then he immediately left for 5 months visiting 49 villages where violence was happening – on foot. He walked, I think, 40 miles a day, worked 18 hours a day, stayed in small huts, barely ate anything; because he believed that this kind of physical suffering was a part of the moral duty that he owed as a human being to his fellow man. And he believed in prayer and meditation, as we know; that was his way of recharging himself. He would meditate in the morning, meditate in the evening. He said “prayer is the key of the morning and the bolt of the night.” which means every day, you open a new chapter and connect yourself with the universal energy, with God, with your spirit, your soul, whatever you want to call it. And in the night, you close the day by once again connecting yourself to this universal energy. Because he believed that, we are all energy, vibrating at different frequencies. 

Gandhi. Creative Commons

And he said, unless you realise this, that you are energy, energy that you share with everyone, you will never be truly non-violent in the real sense of the word. He said it’s hypocritical – if you go to church on Sunday and come out and support war. He said the same thing to Hindus, the same thing to Muslims(inaudible)If you realise that we’re all sharing this universal vibration of energy, as one cosmic consciousness, it’s impossible to hurt you and not understand that I’m hurting myself. It’s impossible to cut down trees meaninglessly without realising that you’re also hurting the ecosystem and hurting humanity in the end.

So I believe that his messages – all these messages – they’re timeless, they’re universal. Because they’re true. And they’ll always be true. Just as Gandhi said – truth will always prevail. And to us today, on World Philosophy Day, it gives us hope. Because this is the truth, this means that the world will always continue to evolve to become a better place. 

And I will end by saying what Gandhiji said: “Never lose faith in humanity. If a few drops of the ocean are polluted, the ocean itself is still pure.” 

With these words I’ll end, but I just want to say one quick thing, because I have all these beautiful Portuguese people in front of me(inaudible)I want to tell you that your Prime Minister, his excellency Dr Antonio Costa, is the only serving Prime Minister who is a member of the Committee set up by our Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi to celebrate worldwide, the 150th anniversary of Gandhiji. Prime Minister Antonio Costa will be travelling to India shortly to attend a meeting of this Committee to meet our Prime Minister, our President, our political parties(inaudible)I think it’s a very special moment and it underscores what I believe: that the people of Portugal have a special sensitivity to these universal truths, to spirituality, to Yoga, to meditation (inaudible) I see a growing interest in Portugal and I believe this is part of your culture, part of your ethos, part of who you are as a country, that has always believed in exploring the unknown. Maybe due to your geographic location, as we were discussing, you’ve always looked inside and outside. And I hope that Mahatma Gandhi will continue to unite our two countries, bring our people closer, and I thank you all for giving me the opportunity to say these few words and share these thoughts.

Muito obrigada!

K. Nandini Singla and José Carlos Fernández (writer and director of Nova Acrópole Portugal)

Oeiras, 21st November 2019, World Philosophy Day

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