A life to live long in the memory

 

 

Krishna Nath (1934 - 2015) activist, writer and scholar

Krishna Nath (1934 – 2015) activist, writer and scholar

 

I believe the first test of a truly great man is in his humility. (John Ruskin)

References to “great men” or “great thinkers” seem to be distributed quite liberally these days, and the attributes of greatness appear to have been diminished in an age of celebrity. Whilst I have been fortunate to meet many eminent scholars, writers and teachers during the course of my career, I have met very few to whom I might assign a title of greatness. However, I was greatly saddened during my recent visit to Bangalore to hear of the death of an individual who I first met in 2000 and was fortunate enough to spend time with on several subsequent occasions who certainly justified the much overused sobriquet “great man.”

Professor Krishna Nath, who was born in 1934 passed away a couple of weeks ago whilst staying with friends at the Valley School in Bangalore. Born into a family of freedom fighters who opposed British rule in India, Krishna Nath continued a heritage of dissent and protest throughout his life, often adopting the cause of Dalit and Tribal peoples who were oppressed and denied basic human rights. As a Satyagrahi he went to prison on thirteen occasions having taken non-violent action on behalf of people who had been subjected to demeaning actions by various authorities. By organising the occupation of Hindu temples by members of the disgracefully labelled “untouchable” castes, thus challenging the authority of a conservative and extreme leadership of that faith, he placed himself in direct opposition to powerful forces and paid the price with periods of incarceration. His actions attracted a number of critics and bitter opponents, but also won great respect from more liberally minded Indians and a wide range of politicians and intellectuals.

As a young man, Krishna Nath was politically active with the Samajwadi movement, campaigning on issues of social justice and equality, and deeply opposed to the dynastic politics of Congress and the inward looking approach of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Having seen the dawning of Indian independence in 1947, like many other idealists at the time, he quickly became disillusioned by the inability of successive Indian governments to provide greater stability and opportunity in the lives of the country’s poorer people.

It was not only for his work as a social activist that Krishna Nath was held in high esteem. Having spent much of his life studying the culture and traditions of the peoples of the Himalaya regions, he was regarded as one of the leading authorities in this area, and wrote a number of scholarly works that have informed an understanding of the region and its people. The World Buddhist Conference recently honoured him for his contribution towards Buddhist thought and culture. Sadly, very little of this work has been translated into English, though it is to be hoped that a suitable scholar might be found to undertake work that would be invaluable to those who would wish to understand more of the culture and history of this little known region. Perhaps the University of Varanasi, with which he was associated over many years may take on the responsibility of ensuring that his seminal work reaches a broader audience.

I was fortunate enough to engage in conversation with Krishna Nath on a few occasions when my visits to the verdant lands of the Valley School near Bangalore coincided with his. Listening to his profound thoughts on Gandhism, the state of Indian politics, the plight of Tibetan Buddhists and Buddhism, or on many aspects of Himalayan art, music or languages, one was soon aware of being in the presence of a true intellectual who had made an immense contribution to the life of his country. Amongst all of this, his apparent simplicity and humility stood out as a characteristic of a man who was more interested in his listener than in hearing his own voice.

Amongst all his intellectual prowess, there was a  very natural and often humorous side to Krishna Nath. I recall for example crossing a busy road in Bangalore with him on one occasion. By this time he was not terribly nimble on his feet and clearly did not enjoy the chaos of the traffic. Standing between hooting cars, lorries, motorcycles and auto rickshaws (not to mention an assortment of cattle) in the middle of the highway, Krishnaji turned to me and said:-

“Richard my friend, I always feel close to God when I am crossing the roads in Bangalore!”

I knew exactly what he meant and was grateful when we reached our destination in one piece.

On another occasion, leaving the dining hall at the Valley school, I was unable to locate my sandals that had been left outside the door prior to entry. Just as I was about to accuse the local monkey population of yet another theft, I heard Krishna Nath exclaiming that his feet had most certainly swollen as his sandals felt extremely tight! Gazing at his predicament I was soon able to solve the problem by locating his footwear and relieving him of my own.

I could have wished to have spent more time with a man who was a great scholar, and a tireless fighter of injustice and oppression. Listening to him speak I was acutely aware that every word he used was carefully measured and his statements weighed and considered before he proffered an opinion. His life was an example and an inspiration to all who came into contact with him. The Dalai Lama, and numerous Asian intellectuals considered Krishna Nath to be a friend and sound counsellor, and many have good cause to be thankful for his tireless campaigning on their behalf. The memories of the few occasions when I was able to sit and listen to him, are ones that I treasure, and I count myself fortunate to have known him.

Many of the recordings made of Krishna Nath Speaking are not available in English, despite the fact that he spoke the language fluently. This brief recording is one of the few to have English sub-titles and provides only limited insight into his great intellect

 

A film that helps to keep a dream alive

quote-everybody-can-be-great-because-anybody-can-serve-you-don-t-have-to-have-a-college-degree-to-martin-luther-king-jr-290433

I remember many years ago I read Coretta Scott King’s account of life with her husband, Martin Luther King Junior. I recall at the time thinking how hard it must have been, living as a wife and mother to the children of a man who was constantly living under death threats and intimidation. As a man of principle and conviction, King led a non-violent movement fighting against injustice and seeking to secure a better future for an oppressed people, who looked to him to stand up against the racist cowards and bullies, wielding power in the southern states of the USA. Whilst leading the civil rights movement and campaigning for the freedom of black people and other oppressed minorities in America, King committed himself and his followers to non-violent direct action. But as had earlier been the case in a similar approach adopted in India by Gandhi, he and his fellow protesters were often confronted by opponents who saw physical force rather than debate as the means of stating their position.

I have on many occasions listened to King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, made in 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C. I particularly remember hearing a recording of this being played at Coventry Cathedral during a visit a couple of years ago. It never fails to stir emotions and to make one think of the situation in which it was delivered. I suppose it is one of the most quoted speeches of the twentieth century. However, it is the quote from the great man presented at the head of this page, that has always seemed to me to most accurately sum up his life:

            “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve”.

Last night Sara and I visited a local cinema to see the film Selma, released this week in the UK. This powerful drama tells the story of the marches led by Martin Luther King Junior from Selma to the Alabama state capital Montgomery in 1965. At times I found myself struggling to watch this vivid depiction of the events of those dark days in American history, as scenes were enacted in which unarmed men, women and children were attacked, wounded and in some instances killed by men who regarded themselves as law abiding citizens of the southern states. The film’s director, Ava DuVernay, cannot be accused of over emphasising the level of violence for effect, but still I found myself wanting to turn away from the screen as the appalling assaults were so vividly portrayed.

The film has masterful performances from all the cast, but particularly from David Oyelowo who plays King, Carmen Ejogo his wife Coretta, Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson and Tim Roth as the bigoted and somewhat sinister Governor George Wallace, and as with all good films of this nature I found myself immersed in the story line and emotionally drawn in right from the start. Even knowing of the historical events depicted and having read the accounts of the marches as reported by writers such as Clayborne Carson who was close to the King family, I was unable to relax for more than a few moments at a time throughout the film.

Whilst I suspect many other film goers from my own generation will be very well aware of the civil rights struggles led by Martin Luther King Junior, there may well be a younger audience for whom the horrors of this time, perpetrated in a country proud of its constitution and democratic values,  will be a source of shock and disbelief. I certainly hope so, because to simply write this off as a historical account would be to fail to appreciate the important messages within the film.

Two specific themes within this drama seem to me to have been particularly well addressed and might easily have been passed over in a more superficial telling of the story. The first concerned the personal anxieties and doubts of Coretta Scott King, as she feared for the life of her husband and family, and the tensions she experienced in balancing what she saw as her duty to a cause and these more personal responsibilities. Within the depiction of this complex and loyal woman, superbly portrayed by Carmen Ejogo, there was a perpetual nervous frisson that penetrated the film, and conveyed the message that within any struggle for justice, personal sacrifices are inevitable. Sadly, the worst fears of Coretta Scott King were eventually realised in April 1968 when her husband was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee at the age of 39 years.

Equally evocative is a second theme, that of the duty of action, which is referred to several times in the film. The point is strongly made by Martin Luther King Junior and several other leaders, that whilst those who oppress their fellow men and women are guilty of an unacceptable evil, others who simply stand by, refusing to speak out or take action are equally culpable of perpetuating crimes against the oppressed. Throughout the film it appears that a silent majority, including many who were in positions of power and authority, believed that the civil rights campaigners had a just cause, but lacked the moral courage to speak out or stand with them as they were being abused and denigrated. Standing next to Martin Luther King Junior must often have been an uncomfortable place to be, but as he himself said:

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

I can’t help thinking that whilst this film is set within an historical context, the messages that it contains are as important today as they have ever been.

The film link below will enable you to hear the famous “I have a dream.” speech delivered by Martin Luther King Junior in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.