9.19.2011

I'd Make a Bad Hindu

Source: New York Times
I had a 10 minute mini-lesson on Hinduism today - a religion I've always been intrigued by (probably from watching the movie The Little Princess far too many times as a child), but know next to nothing about. My religion and political conflict in South Asia class turned to the readings of Gandhi today and how Hinduism inspired his teachings. 

We got on the topic of the Bhagavad-Gita, which is a Hindu scripture that is part of a larger Hindu epic. I found out that the Gita (and Gandhi) both say that "It is better to do your own duty however imperfectly than assume duties of another person however successful; prefer to die performing your own duty; the duty of another will bring you great spiritual danger". Furthermore, I discovered that Gandhi believed that it was better to help your neighbors rather than helping those far away. Now, what does this have to do about humanitarianism and why am I digressing away from my normal choice topics to discuss ancient Hindu scriptures? Wait for it, there is a connection.

After straying onto what I thought was a completely different topic, a girl in my class asked if Gandhi (and the Gita) would disapprove of humanitarians helping in a place like Sudan. Would Gandhi believe it is up to the Sudanese alone to fend for themselves in times of genocide?

The answer: Yes. My professor stated that the Gita would say that it is only the Sudanese that can solve their own problems and that it would be better for the international community to stay out of Sudan's business (and any other country for that matter). Gandhi, she said, would say it is an important lesson for those in Sudan (as well as other oppressed people) to learn for themselves how to nonviolently stand up against oppression. Remember that old addage: Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime? Well I guess this goes along with that. 

At first I was shocked. If Gandhi was so peaceful, why would he believe in letting populations like those being targeted in Sudan continue to perish just to learn a lesson? Then, it made sense: when the international community steps in, we often have little knowledge of the root causes of conflicts. Sometimes our very presence actually exacerbates the problems. By us meddling into other countries' businesses that we know little about, we can do more harm than good despite our best intentions. But as humanitarians, we believe all our actions make any situation better. All things we touch turn to gold. Our intentions are the best intentions. But sometimes, this just isn't the case. For example, say the U.S. shows up in a Darfur refugee camp with a food delivery. The U.S. continues to come for months on end delivering food to this refugee camp, causing the refugees to become dependent on the food. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Bashir decides to be the idiot that he is and ban all foreign aid groups from entering any refugee camp housing any Darfuris. Then what? The Darfuris have grown to be dependent on the food aid, and now they are out of luck - stuck in a worse situation than they were in before.

I guess I see what my professor's point is. Humanitarian presence is not always the best - humanitarian war economies fuel conflict, aid causes dependancy...etc. But when all is said and done, I still have a hard time justifying non-action for fear of misunderstanding a situation. Are countless deaths really worth the value of learning a lesson in sticking up for yourself? I don't think so. 

Moral of the story: I'd make a really bad Hindu. 

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