FINDING MY RELIGION
Subba Rao has spent his life promoting and living the peace-loving principles of Mahatma Gandhi
David Ian Miller, Special to SF Gate
Monday, August 21, 2006
You must be the change you wish to see in the world," said Mahatma Gandhi. As a young man, Dr. Subba Rao took those words to heart, and he has dedicated his life to bringing people of all religious traditions together.
Rao, 75, grew up in British-controlled India and began to follow Gandhi as a teenager. He studied law at Brown University, worked as a translator for the prime minister of India and founded the National Youth Project of India. Over the decades, he has transformed the lives of hardened criminals, world leaders and children through humanitarian work that focuses on fostering religious tolerance, service to humanity and self-reliance.
I spoke with Rao by phone last week from the Vedanta Society of Northern California's retreat center in Olema, where he was running a weeklong Gandhi Youth Camp -- one of many he runs around the world -- based on the principles of India's famed advocate of nonviolence.
You're teaching kids about Gandhi's core ideals -- truth, tolerance and self-help. What are you teaching them about religion?
Gandhi said that if India was to live in peace we must recognize the value of every religion. India is a nation that has been home to all the religions in the world. Four religions were born there -- Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. And we have many Christians and Muslims, as well as members of other faiths.
More than 100 years ago, Swami Vivekananda said that we have to accept the idea that all religions are different paths leading to the same God. Gandhi accepted this proposition, and in his ashram people recite prayers from all religions. They start with a Buddhist hymn, follow it with a Hindu hymn and then comes Islam, Sikhism, Jainism, Christianity -- all religions, one after another. The whole congregation prays all of these prayers.
If we want a peaceful world in the future, the best thing is for everybody to accept -- not only tolerate, but accept -- all religions as true. And that is what we try to inculcate in the minds of the children who are here.
That's a wonderful goal, but how can you expect people to overcome their religious differences? They're so deeply ingrained.
There are two layers of religion: One is the basic fundamental [ideas], and the other one consists of superficial ritual exercises. If you go to the basis -- speaking truth, being honest, being compassionate, loving thy neighbor -- these are common to all religions. The differences are superficial; one may have a different hairstyle, and one may have some mark on the head. Unfortunately, it is for these superficial differences that people are fighting.
We are all small people, and we have made our gods small. The Christian thinks Christ belongs to him. The Hindus think Rama and Krishna belong only to them, and the Muslim thinks Allah belongs to Islam. And so on. But this isn't correct. Once, when Gandhi was asked, "What is your religion?" he said, "Well, I am a Hindu, I am a Muslim, I am a Christian, I am a Sikh -- I follow the basic principles of all religions."
Do you find that some people have a hard time with this? I mean, if they grew up believing that their religion was the one true way ...
Unfortunately, for their own reasons, people who think they must be loyal to their religion [also] think that means hating the other religion. Hatred is totally irreligious. No religion has a place for it. If you only take a positive look at every religion, every religion has such noble sentiments in it. Everyone has something to teach.
I read a wonderful story about you: It said that you, armed only with a bag of candy, followed 550 bandits to a mountain cave and somehow convinced all of the bandits to put down their weapons and assist nearby villagers with community development work. Can you tell me more about this?
Well, I don't know about the candy. My actual weapon was that I sang devotional songs -- songs where I repeated God's name -- and I would talk to them. And I was not alone. There was a group of about 15 or 20 people with me.
So what happened? How did you get them to listen to you?
First, we approached their friends and sometimes their relations and wives, and we basically said, "There is a better way to live than this." You see, many of these bandits had looted a lot of money but they could not enjoy it. They were always on the run from the law. We told them: "What can you do with all this money? Millions of rupees, but you cannot have a good meal because when you are eating the police come. What is this life? Come back to the mainstream." Slowly they came around. The first installment [of bandits] was only 20 in 1960. Then in 1972 we had a bigger number -- 500. Ultimately, there was a total of 654.
What happened to them after they surrendered?
They all went to prison. Now they are out living normal lives.
The understanding was that they should serve out their sentences, whatever they were, and that the government would be lenient with them because they had surrendered. Most of them came out with confessions. They said: "Yes, I have committed these sins. Please award me whatever punishment I deserve."
So you just told them they can live a better life, and they were willing to give up their freedom?
Well, freedom. You see, what happens in someone's life when he kills a policeman, when he kills his enemy, he has all kind of pride: "Oh, yes, I have achieved something." Then life becomes miserable. He can't come back to the society. He has to go into the jungles, running from place to place. It's a long train of regrets.
I've heard that you still work with people and their families after they leave prison and have a very successful rehabilitation program. What makes your program different?
We ask the government to give them some facility for their lives, some way to support their families. They were earning through the gun, and now they have surrendered those guns to the government. So, on the one hand, they give them land, and on the other they educate their children. I feel very happy when I meet the children of those bandits, who are now well placed in society. One of them, for instance, is a policeman. Another one works for the government.
People have said that you have made a habit of achieving the apparently impossible. Do you have any advice for people who are also trying to achieve seemingly impossible goals?
It may be difficult for a tiger to change its habits, but for a human being it is not so hard to do. I see how many human beings, in this land, are turning vegetarian. They were meat eaters, and now they will not even drink milk.
I like the statement, "Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future." So a sinner need not be a sinner all his life. There is hope for correcting any wrongs in one's life and becoming a noble person.
I know you are a devotee of Mahatma Ghandi. Did you actually meet him?
I just saw him when I was a small child. That's all.
What were the most important things that you learned from Gandhi?
There are many things. I like the saying that you often see on T-shirts: "One man can make a change." And: "When you are on the right course, you are not in the minority." That's what he believed, and he kept persisting through adversity.
Gandhi came from nothing. He was not a bright student. And as a lawyer he failed in India. Such a man, to become what we call mahatma, it's a really significant change in a human being.
Your teacher is Vinoba Bhave, who has been called Gandhi's spiritual successor. Can you tell me about Vinoba's work and teachings -- the ones that have had the most influence on your life?
His achievement was that he walked 50,000 miles across India. What he did on his walk was collect land from the landed people and redistribute it among the landless. It's interesting because he was a very inward, [with]drawn person. He would rarely go anywhere, but when he was traveling through one part of south India he came across a lot of fighting and ill will. He realized that the fighting was over land. At that time, the Communist Party of India was supporting this fighting. They wanted free distribution of land.
So while talking to some people, he said, "I hope that God will show me a new way of solving this problem." Right in that meeting a person just stood up and said, "Sir, I can donate you 100 acres of land. We can distribute it among the poor people." So he said, "God is sending me a message." That is how he started walking, and he did that for 12 years. It became a movement, the Land Gift Movement. It's still going on today.
Did he ever take another pilgrimage?
One of my friends once asked him, "You walked 50,000 miles, and you distributed land. If you walk again, what will be your mission?" And he said: "H2O in science is water. And in spiritual life there is another formula: M2A." So the friend asked, "What is M2A?" And he responded: "'M' is for meditation, and 'A' is for action. My 50,000 miles were for action, and now I must do double the meditation. So that's what I'm doing."
Do you still believe in the same fundamental things that you did as a child and young man, or have your beliefs changed?
My home was such that they would not allow a non-Hindu into our house. This is the worst part of Hinduism, treating some people as untouchables, so that they were not supposed to come in. As I grew up, I thought: "I must expand. I must grow."
There is a beautiful saying from maybe 5,000 years ago: "People with small hearts have small homes with four walls. But people with large hearts have the whole world for their family." I think all human beings must cultivate large hearts and consider the whole world as their family.
Have you yourself ever felt like you had to battle with your own prejudice and intolerance of other beliefs?
Yes. Growing takes time. Luckily, I got into this line of thinking at a very early age. I was only nine or 10 years old when I came in contact with the very kind of thinking taught by Swami Vivekananda. And that thinking was that all religions come from the same source. Just as waters fall from the skies and take different names in the rivers, ultimately they all go into the same ocean. Ultimately, there is only one ocean, or one God. So there should be no fighting at all in the name of religion.
But do you ever look at the world in its struggles over religion and feel frustrated or hopeless -- that people will never learn?
We have to grow. We grow physically. We grow intellectually. We grow mentally. We must grow socially and spiritually, also. According to my definition, spiritual growth is peace within myself, peace with other people and peace with nature.
And how do we grow in these ways? How do we make peace with ourselves and with others?
By clearing one's own mind so that all restrictions, all limitations have been broken. That's what I mean by expansion. Having a heart that can accept the whole world as our home.