Vinay Lal

13 November 2007

The Dalai Lama was instantly recognizable. I had seen his photograph over the years splashed across newspapers and magazines, on posters and flyers, and on television. But I had never witnessed him in person, and when I saw and heard him today, at the inauguration of an international conference on satyagraha and “globalization of the Gandhian way” at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, he came across as a person with whom one had already shared some intimacy. Among his many eminent qualities, I sensed the ability to make everyone at ease, to draw, almost effortlessly, even many of his skeptics into his fold.

The Dalai Lama was asked to speak today about the “relevance” of Gandhi and how far the spirit of nonviolence is still to be found amidst the carnage so freely taking place in so many parts of the world. The word “relevance”, when discussed in relation to the likes of the Buddha and Gandhi, or – in a different vein – Shakespeare and Tagore, does not appear conducive to intelligent discussion, and its only use appears to be to generate conferences that are almost invariably supreme instances of the irrelevant. A large crowd had gathered in an open field on JNU’s sprawling campus, and as the Dalai Lama spoke planes flew overhead – the campus is on the flight path for planes arriving into Delhi’s airport — and very occasionally drowned out his voice.

The Chinese, of course, have been trying to drown out the Dalai Lama’s voice since a little before their invasion of Tibet in 1959, and one might say that over time they have succeeded in very great measure. Whatever opposition to the invasion existed has largely evaporated, and the growth of their economy has emboldened the Chinese into thinking that governments can be entirely suppressed into silence. Moreover, notwithstanding all the public approbations of the idea of human rights, many states and intellectuals hold to the view, not always openly expressed, that a ‘feudal order’ was bound to succumb to the regime of development. So, even in the intelligentsia, the Dalai Lama has much less support than what one might imagine.

Hearing the Dalai Lama speak, it occurred to me that one of the things that stand in the way of the complete success of the Chinese is his infectious laughter. As the Dalai Lama laughs, his face glows up. Quite unlike many of the contemporary Indian gurus, whose beatific look disguises overweening pride and an arrogance born of the feeling that spiritual mastery distinguishes Indians from the West (and the rest of the world, for which the guru like the intellectual has little time), the Dalai Lama’s face sparkles with a wondrous childlike innocence. He laughs at himself, at the ways of the world, at the idea that violence can accomplish good in the world – but never at others. The Dalai Lama expressed sentiments that many others have uttered, but they never seemed like clichés – perhaps for the reason that every thought came from deep within, the critique never laced by acrimony, even the sense of resignation not compromised by capitulation. In his worldliness, the Dalai Lama exuded an other worldliness; in his other worldliness, he nevertheless retained an engagement with the social and political questions of the day.

The Dalai Lama was particularly in his element during the Q & A period. Questions had been jotted down on slips of paper that were passed on to the moderator. When asked if oppressed people have the right to use violence to get rid of their exploitation, he replied wisely that we must be clear what we understand by violence and nonviolence. I didn’t find his assessment of British rule in India altogether compelling, the gist of his argument being that under British rule Indians still had access to a free press, an independent judiciary, and so on. With a laugh he added, “But in China the Communist Party is above everything.” The moderator then read another question, posed perhaps by a young woman: “Do you think that women in India and from all over the world have a special role to play in helping to eliminate violence and bring peace?” There was a long, I should say very long, silence: and then came forth his reply, “I don’t know.” I found that honest, refreshing, even stunning in view of the demands of political correctness: no presumption here that women at the helm of affairs will help to usher in a less violent political order, though the Dalai Lama was unsparing in his critique of patriarchy. He seemed unequivocally clear that as men had failed to solve the crushing problems of the day, women might be given every opportunity to do so.

The Dalai Lama took a deep bow as he prepared to leave the stage. Perhaps, some will say, all that really remains of Tibetan resistance, and of the Dalai Lama himself, is words, empty words. The Chinese themselves do not think so, considering the violent objection they took recently to the conferral of the Medal of Honor upon the Dalai Lama by the US Congress. I will not consider here the fitness of such a body, which has far too often sanctioned funds for illegal wars, to confer any honor on the Dalai Lama. Who knows how all this will eventually be settled, and whether Tibet will be anything more than the name of a memory a few generations from now? But, for my own part, I found the Dalai Lama’s laugh indescribably charming, carrying with it the intimations of some wisdom which is not so easily grasped and which unsettles the Chinese as much as it enthralls others.