The Power of Cultivated Beneficence

In September of 1947 Gandhi undertook a fast to address the violence in Calcutta that had killed thousands. It was only a few months before his assassination.

Ghastly communal violence verging on civil war was sweeping across India. On the heels of independence, India was being partitioned into two States, Pakistan and India. Political and social forces were fanning the flames of fear to achieve their ends. Political, social, and religious conflict became violent with some of the worst violence erupting in Calcutta.

GandhiGandhi, who had devoted his life to non-violence, was heartbroken by the bloodshed. He travelled to Calcutta to try and help quell the unrest and violence. Initially, he sought to resolve the conflict by meeting with all the involved parties. Not everyone participated and only a temporary respite from the violence resulted.

When the violence resumed, Gandhi felt that the only response left to him was a fast, unto death if necessary. Fasting was a technique he had used many times before. However, Gandhi was 79 at this point. No longer a young man, people feared for his well-being. Undeterred, Gandhi began to fast. The fast, which lasted only three days, had the desired effect. The violence ceased and did not resume. Gandhi’s fast created the communal peace in Calcutta that the government had been unable to realize through policing.

The Calcutta Fast is one of the most outstanding events in Gandhi’s remarkable life. It is almost impossible to believe that a single person could exert such a powerful pacifying influence on a community engulfed in violence and social enmity. Try to imagine someone of significance today vowing to fast unto death unless we stop spewing partisan hate. The idea is laughable. Yet this is exactly what Gandhi did in the much more volatile political climate of 1947 India.

It is undeniable that Gandhi was extraordinary. He was not born that way. He was an unremarkable, shy child and young man. The Gandhi of the Calcutta fast was created through his lifelong struggle to apply the values of Ahimsa (non-violence) and Satyagraha (Truth Force) to all aspects of life, personal and political. It wasn’t easy. He was not immune to failure, missteps, bad decisions, and ridicule. He suffered and knew the inside of a jail cell.

Mahatma Gandhi believed that his lived values exerted a tangible influence on the world. The Calcutta fast affirmed his belief. It also demonstrates for us the effectiveness of applied love and compassion.

Though we are not Gandhi, we all exert a tangible influence on the world. For most of us, our influence is small. We probably can’t stop a riot. But we have the potential to be a positive influences in our communities. In Buddhism this influence is our field of merit. And yes, there are individuals who have a negative sphere of influence. However, most of us are neutral. We are neither particularly good nor evil. We don’t realize — or don’t believe — that we are influencing and impacting the people around us through our actions, words, and thoughts. Not recognizing the potential of our simple presence, we do not proactively cultivate beneficence through love and compassion.

Gandhi’s fast was an extraordinary reminder of the power of cultivated beneficence. It provides a window onto a world radically transformed by love, compassion, and non-violence. In our cynical eyes, the creation of such a world seems impossible. People were no less cynical in Gandhi’s time. Their cynicism, however, did not stop Gandhi from demonstrating that what others thought impossible was in reality possible. Maybe it is time for us to follow Gandhi’s lead and demonstrate that love can indeed overcome hatred.

Peace, Paul

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9 Responses to “The Power of Cultivated Beneficence”

  1. Pieter Says:

    Very inspiring story Paul. And yes, something to take with me. An extra smile to that one stranger, a simple helping hand, just being present with love and compassion in my heart and mind can make the small changes which can create the big changes.. we do have influence, i agree with you on that!

    • Peace Paul Says:

      Aloha Pieter, I agree we need to practice kindness, love, and compassion in all the interations of our daily life. However, I am also aware that a lot of positive change does not happen because nominally good people and organizations are risk adverse. I do a lot of work around family homlessness. Reducing family homelessness is going involve a willingness to house less than ideal tenants. Sometimes it will involve headaches,repairs and difficult interpersonal encounters. That is the cost of ensuring that no child experiences homelessness. Everyone agrees that family and child homelessness is bad. No church will tell you that children and their families should be homeless. And generally churches will try to provide food, or clothing, or blankets, etc. for homeless families. But when it comes to actually sheltering or housing those families there is a lot of resistance. For me, Gandhi is calling us to “level up” in our willingess to live our values. He is showing us what is possible. But there is always going to be a level or risk. Peace, Paul

      • arvindmavadia Says:

        Mahatma Gandhi was deeply
        shocked by poverty after he returned to India from south Africa , he adopted simplicity for rest of the life ,

      • Peace Paul Says:

        Aloha, Thanks for reading. Gandhi has had a strong influence on my life. We all certainly need to live simpler lives. We also need to find ways to challenge and change the systems and structures that reward greed and avarice. Peace, Paul

      • arvindmavadia Says:

        Yes bro, he was such a unique
        master of truth that he wrote a book ‘my experiments of untruth’
        I know you must have read it,

  2. melhpine Says:

    Reblogged this on Melting-Pot Dharma and commented:
    We are not all Gandhi, says my friend Peace Paul, but we do exert an influence on the world. May it be one of love, compassion, and nonviolence.

  3. Bela Johnson Says:

    Wonderful story about a remarkable man. And the message is clear as well. Thanks for sharing, Paul.

  4. arvindmavadia Says:

    Being born in India , where people believe in peace & brotherhood , following mahatma gandhis principles is
    everyone’s way of life –
    Your blog is very inspiring
    If you wish I would like to share it
    Thanks,

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