The Angels keep thou ancient places; –
Turn but a stone, and start a wing!
"Tis ye, "tis your estrangèd faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry; – and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob's ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

Francis Thompson 

My heart has become capable of every form;
It is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks,
And a temple for idols and the pilgrim's Ka'ba
And the tables for the Torah and the book of the Quran.
I follow the religion of Love: whatever way
Love"s camels take, that is my religion and my faith.

Ibn al-'Arabi 

Selfless service is the secret of life.

        Mahatma Gandhi

  Mahatma Gandhi held that all human beings are always responsible to themselves, the entire Family of Man and to God, or Truth (SAT) for their continual use of all the goods, gifts and talents that fall within their domain. This is necessarily true because of his basic assumption that Nature and Man are alike upheld, suffused and regenerated by the Divine. There is a luminous spark of divine intelligence in the action of each atom and in the eyes of every man, woman and child upon this earth. This is the enduring basis of effective self-regeneration at all levels – individual, social, national and global. We fully incarnate our latent divinity when we deliberately and joyously put our abilities and assets to practical use for the sake of the good of all. In this tangible sense, the finest exemplars of global trusteeship are those who treat all possessions as though they are sacred or priceless, beyond any worldly or monetary scale of valuation.

  Thus, it is only through daily moral choices and the meritorious and sagacious employment of our limited resources that we sustain our inherited or acquired entitlements. For this very reason, the divisive notion and dangerous illusion of exclusive ownership is systematically misleading and, at worst, a specious and subtle form of violence. It connotes assertive rights or claims, and even privileged access, that far exceed the legitimate bounds of actual human need – even though protected by statutory law or social custom. It also obscures the generous bounty of Nature and the potential fecundity of human resourcefulness and innovation, which together can readily provide enough for all denizens of the earth, if only each person would hold in trust whatever he has to meet his essential needs, without profligate excess or any form of exploitation. This is the basic presupposition behind sarvodaya, non-violent socialism at its best, which is as old as the spiritual communism taught by Buddha and Christ.

  Ancient Indian thought viewed the entire cosmos and all human souls as continually sustained by the principle of harmony (rita), the principle of sacrifice (yajna), and the principle of universal interdependence, solidarity and concord. This is enshrined in the Golden Rule, which is found in all the major religions of mankind and is mirrored in the codes and norms of all cultures at different stages of development. The Vedic chants portrayed heaven and earth as indissolubly linked through the mighty sacrificial ladder of being, which is found in the Pythagorean philosophy and memorably conveyed in Shakespeare"s Troilus and Cressida. Similarly, Jacob"s celestial ladder of angels between heaven and earth signifies the indispensable linkage or Leibnizian continuity between the universal and the particular, the unconditional and the contextually concrete, the divine and the human, the Logos and the cosmos, the macrocosm and the microcosm. Jacob sensed, in his celebrated dream, that this vital connection provides a shining thread of hope for souls in distress. He also saw that it provides a helpful clue to action by binding together profound contemplation and the apt choice of available means, not because he claimed any supernatural wisdom or superhuman power, but only because he was content to remain an ardent seeker and a constant learner.

  Philo Judaeus saw in Jacob a transparently good man who had gained the talismanic insight that everyone learns best by emulating noble exemplars instead of merely repeating the words of the wise without even trying to enact what they teach. Philo, who also saw the true statesman as a disguised soothsayer in the sense that he could interpret the deepest dreams of ordinary men and women, their irrepressible longings for the greater good, stated in his De Congressu Eruditionis Gratia:

  It is characteristic of the learner that he listens to a voice and to words, for by these alone is he taught, but he who acquires the good through practice and not through teaching pays attention not to what is said but to those who say it, and imitates their life in its succession of blameless actions. Thus it is said in the case of Jacob, when he is sent to marry one of his kin, "Jacob hearkened to his father and mother, and journeyed to Mesopotamia" (Genesis 28:7), not to their voice or words, for the practicer must be the imitator of a life, not the hearer of words, since the latter is characteristic of one who is being instructed, the former of one who struggles through to the end.1

  Jacob was perhaps a karma yogin (or its rabbinical equivalent), who conscientiously sought to translate what he knew into the concrete discipline of moral conduct. He deeply cherished his vision of the celestial bridge between theoria and praxis, the invisible arch (or ark of salvation) linking the rarefied empyrean of scriptural ethics and the actual pathway each human being must trace and tread in his life on earth. To Jacob it was given to discern the divine ladder upon which the angels tread (depicted like a spinal column in the Kabbalistic Tree of Life), and to salute the old men who dream dreams as well as the young men who see visions (Joel 2:28). This is poignantly suggestive of the profound statement of Herzen, which contemporary detractors of perestroika and glasnost ignore at their peril, that political leaders do not change events in the world by rational demonstrations or by syllogisms, but rather by "dreaming the dreams of men". No doubt, this is easier said than done, but it would be an elitist form of defeatism to abandon the attempt in a world bedevilled by obsolete isms and irrational ideologies, yet trembling on the brink of nuclear annihilation and global chaos. As Mikhail Gorbachev frankly admitted:

  The restructuring doesn"t come easily for us. We critically assess each step we are making, test ourselves by practical results, and keenly realize that what looks acceptable and sufficient today may be obsolete tomorrow....
 There is a great thirst for mutual understanding and mutual communication in the world. It is felt among politicians, it is gaining momentum among the intelligentsia, representatives of culture, and the public at large....
 The restructuring is a must for a world overflowing with nuclear weapons; for a world ridden with serious economic and ecological problems; for a world laden with poverty, backwardness and disease; for a human race now facing the urgent need of ensuring its own survival.
 We are all students, and our teacher is life and time.... We want people of every country to enjoy prosperity, welfare and happiness. The road to this lies through proceeding to a nuclear-free, non-violent world.2

Whilst Gandhi was doubtless closer in spirit to Jacob and Philo than to Herzen and Lenin, he would have concurred in the sentiments behind perestroika and glasnost.

  Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi saw himself essentially as a karma yogin, who, without claiming any special or supernatural wisdom, was unusually receptive in his readiness to honour remarkable men such as Naoroji, Gokhale and Rajchandra as rare models of probity worthy of emulation. He showed consistent fidelity to the paradigm of the self-governed Sage3 portrayed in eighteen shlokas which were daily chanted at his ashram. He took this classical model as the basis for assiduous self-study, ever seeking to correct himself whenever he saw that he had erred, especially when he made what he called, with playful hyperbole, "Himalayan blunders". He strenuously maintained the hard-won awareness that sensitive leaders must always share the trials and travails of the human condition, that ubiquitous suffering is the common predicament of humanity, whilst all earthly pleasures and intellectual joys are ephemeral and deceptive.

  Gandhi, like Gautama, did not try to escape the evident truth of human suffering through seeking mindless oblivion or neurotic distractions, nor did he choose to come to terms with it through compensatory spiritual ambition or conventional religious piety. Rejecting the route of cloistered monasticism, he pondered deeply and agonizingly upon the human condition, and sought to find the redemptive function and therapeutic meaning of human misery. Translating his painful insights into daily acts of tapas – self-chosen spiritual exercises and the repeated re-enactments of lifelong meditation in the midst of fervent social activity – he came to see the need for a continual rediscovery of the purpose of living by all those who reject the hypnosis of bourgeois society, with its sanctimonious hypocrisy and notorious "double standards" for individual and public life.

  Gautama Buddha had taught his disciples in the Sangha that bodhichitta, the seed of enlightenment, may be found in the cleansed heart and controlled mind, and that it may be quickened by diligent practice of meditative altruism and honest self-examination of one"s unconscious tendencies and hidden motives. As stressed in the later Mahayana schools of India, China and Tibet, bodhichitta can serve, like the Upanishadic antaskarana or mediating principle of intellection, as a reliable bridge between fleeting sense-experience and enduring spiritual aspiration, as an aid and stimulus to the ascent of consciousness to its highest possible elevation and even to the plane of svasamvedana, universal self-consciousness in the midst of shunyata, the voidness released through persistent philosophical negation.

  Spiritual striving towards enlightenment can help to raise a ladder of contemplation along which the seeker may ascend and descend, participating in the worlds of eternity and time, perfecting one"s sense of timing in the sphere of action. In most people, alas, the seed is not allowed to sprout or grow owing to chaotic and contradictory aims and desires, tinged by vain longings and delusive expectations, fantasies and fears, blocking any vibrant encounter with the realities of this world as well as any possibility of envisioning Jacob"s ladder, "pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross". Gandhi"s own spiritual conviction grew, with the ripening of age, that social reformers and non-violent revolutionaries must repeatedly cleanse their sight and remove all self-serving illusions by placing themselves squarely within the concrete context of mass suffering.

  Gandhi knew that his ideas and ideals were difficult to instantiate precisely because of their inherent simplicity. He recognized, therefore, that he could only clarify and illustrate them to all who sought his counsel. Those others would, through tapas, have to assimilate and apply them for themselves. But the hero and villain jostle in every soul. Morally sensitive individuals must learn to detect self-deception with firmness and forbearance, mellowness and maturity. They must come to know the obscuration of light within before they can ferret out evil at its roots. Eventually, "a man with intense spirituality may without speech or gesture touch the hearts of millions who have never seen him and whom he has never seen".4 Through meditation, man can attain a noetic plane on which thought becomes the primary and most potent mode of action. Gandhi unwaveringly affirmed that living this conviction would bring sacrificial suffering, as well as an inner joy which cannot be conveyed in words.

  On his seventy-eighth birthday in 1947, when well-wishers showered him with lavish and affectionate greetings, Gandhi thought only of the violence and suffering of his recently independent and hastily partitioned motherland:

  I am not vain enough to think that the divine purpose can only be fulfilled through me. It is as likely as not that a fitter instrument will be used to carry it out and that I was good enough to represent a weak nation, not a strong one. May it not be that a man purer, more courageous, more far-seeing, is wanted for the final purpose? Mine must be a state of complete resignation to the Divine Will.... If I had the impertinence openly to declare my wish to live 125 years, I must have the humility, under changed circumstances, openly to shed that wish.... In that state, I invoke the aid of the all-embracing Power to take me away from this "vale of tears" rather than make me a helpless witness of the butchery by man become savage, whether he dares to call himself a Mussalman or Hindu or what not. Yet I cry, "Not my will but Thine alone shall prevail."5

  Gandhi was sometimes apt to speak of God in the language of Christian mystics, despite his explicit commitment to a more philosophical view of Deity, as given in the most advanced Hindu schools of thought and practice. He wavered at times between the standpoints and terminologies of contemplative monists and ecstatic dualists, but he never abandoned his early axiom that Truth is God, which he preferred to the statement that God is Truth, and he also held that Truth is the root of pure love and unconditional compassion.6 His lifelong faith in God as Truth (SAT) implied a concrete, if inviolable, confidence in the spiritual and ethical potential of all humanity, far surpassing the historicist and immanentist beliefs of reductionist sociological doctrines and rival political ideologies. He could, he felt, honestly call himself a socialist or a communist, although he explicitly repudiated their materialistic assumptions, violent methods, utilitarian programmes and totalistic claims. He spoke of socialism of the heart and invoked the Ishopanishadic injunction to renounce and enjoy the world, which nourished his own reformist aspirations, revolutionary zeal, and Tolstoyan conviction that the Kingdom of God is attainable on earth and is, in any event, a feasible, life-sustaining ideal. He knew, especially in his last decade, moods of pessimism and even moments of despair, when his inner voice would not speak, which lent a poignant and heroic quality to his life reminiscent of the passion of Jesus Christ, the psychological martyrdom of saints, and the early strivings of the wandering monk, Siddhartha Kapilavastu, who became the enlightened Buddha. But he returned always to the conviction that it is presumptuous to deny human perfectibility or the possibility of human progress, let alone to take refuge in the fashionable armchair doctrine that Ramarajya is irrelevant to Kali Yuga, that the Kingdom of God is wholly unattainable in the world of time.

  He held firmly to the view which Vinoba Bhave, his leading disciple, made his life-motto, that the social reformer and spiritual anchorite must be committed to the gospel of the Gita and to a life of ceaseless, selfless service of the weak and the wretched of the earth. He must choose to become a satyayugakari, an exemplar and witness of Ramarajya even in the midst of Kali Yuga, the Age of Iron. He could thus serve as a heroic pioneer and a patient builder, contributing bricks to the invisible, ideational endeavour to rebuild Solomon"s Temple, to re-establish the reign of Truth and Love even in the small circles of human fellowship. As a karma yogin, he could yoke a microcosmic approach to social experimentation with a macro-cosmic vision of universal peace, human solidarity and a global "civilization of the heart". This requires a staunch refusal to think in terms of nations, tribes, castes and classes, or the tedious distinctions made by the insecure in terms of race and creed, sex and status. What is needed at all times is a purgation of the psyche, a restoration of purity of the heart, and a release of the spiritual will in simple acts consecrated to the good of all. This was strongly stressed by Soren Kierkegaard and Simone Weil. It was powerfully exemplified by many a legendary hero and heroine of the Indian epics and Puranas, extolled in song and story to this day among millions of impoverished but indefatigable peasants in thousands of Indian villages, and also known to the homeless and the dispossessed exiles and tramps in crowded cities and decaying townships.

  Towards the close of his extraordinarily eventful life, so crowded with petitioners and visitors of every sort from all over the globe and from the farthest corners of rural India as well as from the towering Himalayas, he reaffirmed his inward vision of the "Himalayas of the plains" and the inextinguishable integrity of socialist sannyasa and Bodhisattvic compassion. He ever recalled the formative early influences in his life – the Vaishnava ideal of Narasinh Mehta, The Key to Theosophy of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, and the telling instructions of Bishop Butler, William Salter and Henry Drummond. He evidently knew the vivid encomiums of Drummond to Jesus as the Man of Sorrows, though he never explicitly cited the most memorable of such statements:

  Christ sets His followers no tasks. He appoints no hours. He allots no sphere. He Himself simply went about and did good. He did not stop life to do some special thing which should be called religious. His life was His religion. Each day as it came brought round in the ordinary course its natural ministry. Each village along the highway had someone waiting to be helped. His pulpit was the hillside, His congregation a woman at a well. The poor, wherever He met them, were His clients; the sick, as often as He found them, His opportunity. His work was everywhere; His workshop was the world.7

  In his ashrams and during the periods of abstention from politics, which were longer and more frequent than many imagined, Gandhi was fortunate to experience the secret joy of living in the atman, which he early saw in Rajchandra, the jeweller and theodidact. Gandhi"s demanding conception of his svadharma, his self-chosen obligations, repeatedly thrust him back into the arenas of political conflict and conciliation, as well as into the wider forums of the Constructive Programme, social reform and nation-wide rural reconstruction. Even here his quintessential philosophy of anasakti yoga, the gospel of selfless, disinterested action taught by Krishna in the Gita, came to his aid in distilling non-violent socialism to its irreducible core, as construed by Henry Drummond:

  The most obvious lesson in Christ"s teaching is that there is no happiness in having and getting anything, but only in giving.... And half the world is on the wrong scent in the pursuit of happiness. They think it consists in having and getting, and in being served by others. It consists in giving and serving others. He that would be great among you, said Christ, let him serve. He that would be happy, let him remember that there is but one way – it is more blessed, it is more happy, to give than to receive.8

  This is the secret of sarvodaya, the doctrine of non-violent socialism which Gandhi fused with his alkahest of global trusteeship and his lifelong experience of the reality and continual relevance of radical self-regeneration through selfless service. Krishna"s sovereign remedy of buddhi yoga, the yoga of divine discernment, points to the crucial connection between viveka, discrimination, and vairagya, detachment, between self-chosen duty and voluntary sacrifice, dharma and yajna, individual self-conquest and the welfare of the world, lokasangraha. Even a little of this practice, as taught in the Gita and as realized by Gandhi, is invaluable:

  In this path of yoga no effort is ever lost, and no harm is ever done. Even a little of this discipline delivers one from great danger.9

In the words of Dnyaneshwar, the foremost saint and poet of Maharashtra, "just as the flame of a lamp, though it looks small, affords extensive light, so this higher wisdom, even in small measure, is deeply precious".

  This is the ideal of the suffering servant of Isaiah, the means of entry into the wider human family as shown by Ibn al-"Arabi in his haunting poems, the evocative vision of the monkish revolutionaries known to the Russian Populists, the basis of inspiration of many a Christian socialist and even the Christian Communists of the thirties, the demanding conception of Philo, who concluded from his observation of the Therapeutae and other small communes that "every day is a festival",10 let alone the ancient Hindu ideal of the true Mahatma or self-governed Sage, the jivanmukta or spiritually free man, for whom each day is like unto a new incarnation, and each incarnation like unto a manvantara, the vast epoch of cosmic manifestation.

  Gandhi prophesied that for thirty years after his death, his ideas would be largely forgotten, but that, generations later, the tapas of millions would bear fruit, and that out of his ashes "a thousand Gandhis will arise".11 Even though this is still an elusive hope, it is enormously encouraging that courageous pioneers have emerged from the host of the disillusioned who find the world of today too ghastly to contemplate, a world of mindless mass consumerism induced by the rising curve of shallow expectations, a world in which there is a widespread alienation of lonely individuals from disintegrating societies, of conscience from the intellect, of angry rebels from the agonies of the compassionate heart, of impotent politicians from the global imperatives of radical change and genuine coexistence among all nations and peoples, creeds and ideologies. Ragnarok, the end of the gods and of the world, is the sole alternative in Nordic mythology to the rainbow bridge between heaven and earth, Bifrost, at which crossing many may camp at the boundary of a new land, a new frontier, a new settlement. Whether or not a New Jerusalem is attainable on earth in the lifetime of the humanity of the present, there is much wisdom in Gandhi"s own well-tested message in times of trial.

  In "One Step Enough for Me" he said:

  When, thousands of years ago, the battle of Kurukshetra was fought, the doubts which occurred to Arjuna were answered by Shri Krishna in the Gita; but that battle of Kurukshetra is going on, will go on, forever within us; the Prince of Yogis, Lord Krishna, the universal Atman dwelling in the hearts of us all, will always be there to guide Arjuna, the human soul, and our Godward impulses represented by the Pandavas will always triumph over the demoniac impulses represented by the Kauravas. Till, however, victory is won, we should have faith and let the battle go on, and be patient meanwhile.12

  Those who cannot share this testament of faith, rooted in the spiritual convictions of antiquity concerning the periodic descent of Avatars or Divine Redeemers, the immortality of the soul and the inexorable law of Karma, the law of ethical causation and moral retribution, may yet actively respond to "the still, sad music of humanity". After all, even agnostics and atheists, socialists, humanists and communists, may share a living faith in the future of civilization and hold a truly open view of human nature, social solidarity and global progress. All alike may well ponder upon Mahatma Gandhi"s life-message. Towards the end of his pilgrimage on earth he delivered a deeply moving and testable challenge to theophilanthropists everywhere:

  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 weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [self-rule] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and yourself melting away.13

Hermes, January 1988
by Raghavan Iyer


1Philo of Alexandria (Philo Judaeus), The Contemplative Life, The Giants and Selections, David Winston, trans., Paulist Press (New York, 1981), p. 215.

2Mikhail Gorbachev, Perestroika, Harper and Row (New York, 1987), pp. 253-54.

3The Bhagavad Gita, by Raghavan Iyer, ed., Concord Grove Press (Santa Barbara, 1985), pp. 84-90.

4M.K. Gandhi in Young India, Mar. 22, 1928.

5M.K. Gandhi in D.G. Tendulkar, Mahatma: Life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, V.K. Jhaveri and D.G. Tendulkar (Bombay, 1951-1954), vol. 8, p. 144; reprinted in The Moral and Political Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, by Raghavan Iyer, ed., Clarendon (Oxford, 1986-1987), vol. 1, pp. 10-11 (hereafter cited as MPWMG).

6M.K. Gandhi, "Speech at Meeting in Lausanne", Mahadev Desai"s Diary (MSS); MPWMG, vol. 2, pp. 164-66.

7Henry Drummond, "The Ministry of Christ", in The Jewel in the Lotus, by Raghavan Iyer, ed., Concord Grove Press (Santa Barbara, 1983), p. 201.

8Henry Drummond, "Happiness", ibid., p. 71.

9The Bhagavad Gita, by Raghavan Iyer, ed., p. 79.

10Philo of Alexandria, The Contemplative Life, p. 200.

11M.K. Gandhi, "Message to Students", Harijan, Jan. 16, 1937; MPWMG, vol. 1, p. 35.

12M.K. Gandhi, "One Step Enough for Me", Speech at Wardham Ashram, Navajivan, Dec. 27, 1925; MPWMG, vol. 1, p. 21.

13M.K. Gandhi in D.G. Tendulkar, Mahatma, vol. 8, p. 89; MPWMG, vol. 3, p. 609.