A Gandhian talisman for Barack Obama

President-elect Obama faces many daunting challenges. Without a doubt the most daunting will be the still-escalating unraveling of the western-dominated financial system.
By the way, yesterday I taped a segment for Press TV’s ‘American Dream’ program. It will air tonight at 7 p.m. EST. At the top of the discussion, we three panelists were asked what the biggest challenge will be for the new president once he’s inaugurated. I said, without a doubt the economy, since everything that’s happening in that realm is unprecedented and fraught with uncertainty as well as risk, whereas the previously existing challenges in the area of foreign policy look, by contrast, much better understood and more handleable.
This morning, I walked in DC past the great, slightly over-life-size statue of Mahatma Gandhi that stands outside the Indian Embassy, near Dupont Circle. In addition to his amazing role “imagining” then organizing tirelessly to bring about the independence of India, Gandhi has also always been an inspiration to liberation activists and social/community organizers around the world.
Including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who is so often cited as a major precursor and path-clearer for Barack Obama.
So I hope that as he makes his plans to deal with all the challenges he will face once he’s in office, President-elect Obama will take to heart the following words, that are inscribed at the foot of Gandhi’s statue:

    “I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]. Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions?
    Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.”

The Gandhian Institute in Nagpur, India, describes these words on its website as “One of the last notes left behind by Gandhi in 1948, expressing his deepest social thought.”
I would just add that, as far as I understand it, the Hindu concept of “swaraj” is not just a sort of anything-goes type of permissive freedom, but really is synonymous with the idea that everyone, even those who are most marginalized or excluded from social, economic, and political power, should in conjunction with her/his fellows start to gain real control over her/his own destiny. So it has to do with self-control and self-empowerment as much as gaining freedom from the constraints imposed by others.
It strikes me that “swaraj” (an Indo-European way of saying “soi-raj”, self-rule) is very close to what Barack Obama has worked for throughout his entire life, from his days as a community organizer until today. Also, he might well have a copy of “Gandhi’s Talisman” framed and hung over his desk in the Oval Office.
Wouldn’t it be great if, in one of his early acts as president, he could come down and lay a wreath at Gandhi’s statue in Washington DC??
However, I have to say that, until now, I don’t see much evidence that, in planning his responses to the financial crisis, Obama is taking into sufficient consideration the effects his actions and decisions will have on the poorest and weakest people in society. Of the “experts” he surrounded himself with during yesterday’s economics-focused press conference (the full roster is given here), I could identify only Robert Reich as someone who has shown he cares deeply about, and understands the needs of, the poorest and weakest in society. The others all seemed to me to be big bankers and people who understand their claimed “needs”, much more than people who understand that the word “economy” is in the end derived from the concept of “oikos”, that is, the maintaining of a steady and sustainable home for all of our country’s families.

2 thoughts on “A Gandhian talisman for Barack Obama

  1. Indian

    The Gandhian philosophy of non-violence, satyagraha and swaraj have never been more relevant. But I’m afraid that very few America leaders understand let alone follow that advice. Nobody talks about poverty as the ‘mainstream’ inevitably blames them for class warfare. Btw, some credit’s due to John Edwards who at least bought it up in his campaign. There is a class warfare in this country but it is waged against the poor and middle class whether they realize it or not.
    I know of one person in Congress who has a bust of Gandhi in his office and several of his books. It’s a pity that people of genuine peace who speak for the downtrodden are seldom given a voice in this country. His name is Dennis Kucinich.

  2. Mildred Seewald

    The corporate press in the U.S. which glorifies Mahatma Gandhi (with
    reason) but does not give equal time or value to an equal peacemaker of
    Islam. There is a book that I highly recommend:
    Nonviolent Soldier of Islam
    Badshah Khan, A Man to Match His Mountains
    Badshah Khan & Mahatma Gandhi Allies in a Revolution of Human Spirit
    Pioneers in a Culture of Peace
    Author: Eknath Easwaran
    Publisher: Nilgiri Press, PO Box 250
    Tomales, California 94971

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