The American Swami of Peace
By Dr Akbar Ahmed
After 9/11, when American Muslims were still very much living isolated in the shadows of a growing Islamophobia in the land, it was none other than a prominent American Hindu leader who reached out to me and wished to honor my work through her center’s inaugural peace prize.
In January 2004, I was deeply honored to become the recipient of the Inaugural Fellowship of Peace Award presented by the Gandhi Memorial Center of Washington, DC, an award honoring my work building bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims. Initiated and presided over by the Center’s Director, Srimati Kamala, an American convert to Hinduism, the award and the accompanying ceremony, attended by top Indian and Pakistan diplomats, provided an excellent platform for reaching out to both Americans and South Asians. A Special Edition booklet was published of the proceedings.
The two discussants were: Pakistan’s Ambassador, my friend Ashraf Jehangir Qazi who had been my contemporary at Forman Christian College in Lahore, and one of the stars of the Pakistan Foreign Office; and Wajahat Habibullah, a distinguished Indian scholar-diplomat, Secretary of Government and at the time a Senior Fellow at the US Institute of Peace. Both spoke passionately about promoting peace in South Asia. Ambassador Qazi shared his warm memories of his posting in India from 1997-2002. Mr Habibullah discussed the importance of rediscovering the similarities between Hindus and Muslims and Indians and Pakistanis, remarking that, based on the idea of Wahdat-ul-Wujud, a principle which he stated is also at the core of Hinduism, “Instead of looking for differences among us, we must look for the similarities and there are so many. They are not difficult to come by. That, I think, is a trend for the future of Muslims in South Asia.”
In my address, in keeping with the spiritual ethos driving the evening, I spoke of the uniqueness of South Asian Islam, both in its mystic roots and its modernist form, with the aim to educate the American audience on Islam while also providing them the context necessary for bridge building, not only between Islam and Hinduism, but Muslims and non-Muslims. I also discussed the tragedy of the lack of engagement between Indians and Pakistanis on their founding fathers and national heroes – Mahatama Gandhi and Quaid-i-Azam Jinnah. I expressed that in order to build bridges once again in the Subcontinent, Indians would need to understand more about the Quaid and Pakistanis to read up on the Mahatama.
I also predicted in my lecture that, “‘Sulh-i-kul,’ or peace with all, in South Asia will be under challenge in the 21st century from the scourge of global violence or terrorism; from poverty and injustice; from ethnic and religious prejudice and lack of education; from closed minds that exclude compassion and forgiveness; and from the real threats to our global environment.” Regrettably, the past few years have only confirmed my predictions.
Looking back on that extraordinary event, what amazes me is the bold symbolism of Srimati’s action. No Pakistani had ever before visited the center, let alone a high-profile Pakistani, and yet, she decided to honor a Pakistani Muslim with the inaugural Fellowship of Peace award. But then that has been the pattern of her life: President of the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Foundation, Srimati has received prestigious awards and honored by luminaries like the Dalai Lama. She also produced and directed a music and dance drama at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC in 1995, at which then-First Lady Hillary Clinton spoke. Srimati Kamala is supported by Srimati Karuna, the Director of the Center. Also an American convert to Hinduism, Karuna graduated from American University in DC.
As a Muslim scholar engaged in the study of religion, I am fascinated by the impact of eastern religions on the West. It is remarkable to see these two intelligent, blonde, white female Americans embodying their faith not only in the sarees they wear, but in their spiritual approach to the world. They are always ready to welcome the visitor with a smile, samosas and tea. They have bridged the east and the west gracefully through spiritual integrity, scholarship, and compassion.
I returned to the Gandhi Center this past June to celebrate the release of Srimati Kamala’s latest book, The Forest of Forever, published just this year. Aiming to connect some of the fundamental teachings of Hinduism, as revealed in the forests of Vedic Age India, with Srimati’s own life experience, meditations, and time spent learning under Swami Premananda, The Forest of Forevergives a rich insight into the spiritual elements of Hinduism.
Srimati opens her book by explaining the four stages of life as outlined in ancient Indian texts – bramacharya, or “student,” garhasthya, or “house-holder,” vanaprastha, or “reflection and contemplation,” and sannyas, or desire for “total freedom from all personal and societal ties and bonds.” “Flexibility and creative vision are mental powers that come only from self-restraint and self-discipline that strengthen the mind’s greater vision,” she observes.
One of Srimati’s most profound points comes when she states that, once we learn to embrace those not like us, “We can even love people of whom we were previously critical as the boundaries of our hearts expand: There can be room in our hearts even for people we or others found difficult to love!” That, as the great Allama Iqbal tells us in his poems, is one of the surest ways to connect with God himself.
(The writer is an author, poet, filmmaker, playwright, and the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University in Washington, DC. He formerly served as the Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland. He tweets @AskAkbar)
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