It was a lovely mild evening as the sun set behind the hills which flanked the Belle Fourche River. A light breeze filled the canopy of overarching trees providing shade and comfort for the area in which we were seated.
“Let’s continue our tradition of making the last meeting of the year a question-and-answer session,” the Bhagwan proclaimed. “I know you all have conundrums that need to be resolved. This is your opportunity.”
Someone stuck up their hand and asked, “I’ve done a lot of traveling for my job, Bhagwan. Everywhere I go, whether Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa or South and Central America, everyone in the street says they want to live in peace and harmony. So why is there so much war?”
“I’m sure you think you have asked me a difficult question,” the Bhagwan smiled, “but the answer is not complicated.
When I was a child, a German family moved into our neighborhood. Nobody was happy about it because this was barely a decade after the War and people were still suffering from the misery it created. As kids, we’d march in front of their house with arms upraised hollering ‘Heil Hitler’ in mock tribute.
As time went on, we got to know their kids in school and we liked them. We started to include them in our play sessions, and when they offered their yard as a playground, we got to know their parents. I found them to be patient, loving adults; not genocidal killers as we’d been told.
One day, I had a chance to ask the father about his war experiences. He told me he’d been brainwashed in the Hitler Youth movement as a child. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, the father was conscripted into the army medical corps and persuaded that he was working for the greater good. Once there, he learned Hitler’s real agenda and discovered how badly he’d been manipulated. He was so incensed he decided to emigrate to the States as soon as he’d finished his medical education in Vienna.
When they were eligible, they became American citizens. Eventually, they were even accepted into our neighborhood social group. I remember seeing my father and him sharing a beer at a backyard barbecue as if they were lifelong friends.
How’s this possible? I thought to myself. Before I was born, they’d have killed each other on sight. Now they are sharing a beer. What’s changed? Aren’t they still the same people?
After months of deliberation, I figured it out. They self-identified differently than they had decades earlier. Then, they identified with opposing countries and armies. Now, they identify as neighbors.
It occurred to me that as the world shrinks, perhaps it’s time for all of mankind to identify as neighbors. Perhaps it’s time to set aside the concepts of race, religion, ethnicity, political dogma, and country. We’re not living in tribal societies anymore.”
The crowd applauded.
Someone asked, “How do we bring that about, Bhagwan?”
“As the previous questioner pointed out, the best education is travel. The more you travel, the more you realize that ordinary people the world over are much like yourself. It’s difficult to see them as enemies once they’ve been your friends.”
“What about aggressors, Bhagwan? The world has always been governed through the aggressive use of force. To stop them, we must fight on their terms. How could we have stopped Hitler and Hirohito without violence?”
“Aggressors can’t fight a war without troops. What if they threw a war and nobody came? Had the German and Japanese people refused to fight, they wouldn’t have suffered the devastating consequences.”
“I understand, Bhagwan, but how should we deal with an aggressor who has amassed an army willing to destroy us?”
“Christ said that if a man smite thee on the cheek, turn to him the other also. It’s one of the most ignored passages of the Bible, along with ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If all of mankind took those passages seriously, we’d have no more wars.”
“But ‘all of mankind’ has never taken those passages seriously,” the contrarian continued. “Some may have, but others haven’t. There has always been a Hitler or a Stalin to threaten peace and harmony. Should we treat them as neighbors and open the door?”
“Christ also said, ‘Blessed are the meek, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’”
“That may be so, Bhagwan, but we’re going to get there a lot sooner than we planned if we don’t stand up to aggression. Meek societies don’t survive long enough to pass on their genes to the next generation. Maybe that’s why mankind has evolved to be so aggressive?”
“Perhaps it’s time to transcend our evolutionary inclinations to see the big picture,” the Bhagwan argued, “If we don’t learn to get along as a species, we’re doomed.”
The crowd applauded again.
The Bhagwan continued, “Gandhi stopped British imperialism without revolution, Mandela stopped apartheid without violence, the Soviet Union ended with little bloodshed; it is possible.”
“That’s true, Bhagwan, but millions in those countries suffered for decades before those regimes crumbled. I think many of us would rather fight and risk death than live like slaves or serfs.”
Although I kept quiet, I agreed with the contrarian. It’s fine for the Bhagwan to imagine what should happen in a perfect world, but if his vision of Utopia ignores the imperfect nature of mankind, it can never be. It’ll eventually turn into another Soviet-style tyranny.
Someone else raised her hand and asked, “So Bhagwan, are you suggesting that there should be no borders?”
“There were no enforced borders until relatively recently in history,” the Bhagwan responded, “because there was little economic disparity. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that border security became rigidly enforced.
If the borders were suddenly thrust open today, there would be chaos in the industrialized countries which would cause suffering worldwide. Instead, measures should be taken to improve the economic status of Third World countries so that its citizens no longer need to emigrate to realize a higher standard of living. I already see that happening in parts of Asia and Central America.”
Another student asked, “What is the worst crime anyone can commit, in your estimation?”
“It depends on who we are talking about. The most deplorable crime that leaders can commit is to provoke disharmony. The 20th century was the deadliest in history because leaders succeeded in convincing the public to limit their identity and adopt an us-versus-them mentality.
The most deplorable crime the people can commit is to believe leaders who promote limited identity. There’s always a hidden agenda which never works out for the people in the long run. We must broaden our identity, not narrow it. We have much more in common with the guy we’re shooting at than with our pampered leaders.
Christ said, love your neighbor as yourself. We are all snowflakes sourced from the same ocean, and we shall all return there. Although others may look and think differently, we could have been born as them, and vice versa. When we hurt others, we hurt ourselves. If everyone experienced others as an extension of themselves, no one would go to war, we’d cooperate with one another. It doesn’t make sense to kill tomorrow’s friend because some third party has decided that he’s today’s enemy.
This time, the crowd stood up and applauded.
“I don’t see people cooperating much with one another, Bhagwan,” another student asked. “They seem more to be in competition with one another — everyone trying to outdo everyone else.”
“That is largely the fault of the Western educational system,” he responded, “All that matters is who comes in first. Second place is laughingly termed the first loser. So only a tiny percentage of every schoolyard or campus consists of winners; the rest are all considered losers. For some, this is a crippling handicap which they never overcome psychologically. Others spend the rest of their lives scrambling to prove they are not losers. The cost of such effort is too high in terms of health, happiness, and family.
Instead, we should teach our children that they all have different talents, and that just because theirs is unrecognized or unrealized, it doesn’t mean they are insignificant. History is full of ‘losers’ who’ve made huge contributions to the world. If everyone follows their passion, they’ll eventually be good at it and succeed. First or second place is of no consequence to them. What matters is to enjoy life. People who focus on that don’t over-value competition, and they tend to be much happier and healthier.”
The first questioner raised his hand to confirm, “That’s right Bhagwan, the kids in some of the poorest villages I’ve visited seem to smile a lot more than the kids in wealthy American cities.”
“They live for the moment, like we are meant to live,” the Bhagwan replied “They employ all of their senses to enjoy the world. Western kids are taught to see everything through the lens of their conditioning and education. Their intellect becomes their only tool. That’s fine for solving problems, but if you use your intellect exclusively to experience the world, you’ll miss out on most of its richness – just like if you use your eyes exclusively to experience a concert.”
The contrarian put his arm up once again and stated, “Bhagwan, what you said makes perfect sense in theory, but in practice, I find it hard to believe that Utopian ideology will ever prevail over human nature.”
“I know it’s a pipedream,” the Bhagwan replied, “but one thing is certain, if we don’t believe it’s possible, it will never happen. At one time, manned flight was considered a pipedream. Since then, we’ve landed on the moon. Anything is possible if we have faith.”
Header image: Belle Fourche River, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Walter Siegmund.