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My Friend, the Landlord

November 23, 2008
Somik Raha

In Chapter 6 of the Bhagvad Gita, Krishna tells Arjuna, "O Arjuna, that yogi is considered the best who judges what is happiness and sorrow in all beings by the same standard as he would apply to himself. (32)" Further, in Chapter 14, Krishna expounds the qualities of those who are not deluded by their own nature. Among the many listed, here are a few, "one who is the same under honor and dishonor, who is equally disposed towards the friend and the foe; who has renounced all (selfish) enterprise - this one is said to have gone beyond nature. (25)"

While it is one thing to philosophically parse these words and ponder on its meaning, it is exhilarating to find a living example, without which such ideals would be relegated to the ivory towers of impractical high philosophy.

In this series, I will share stories of living examples, who can still be met by the interested reader with a little effort. But first, let us set up a contrast. We are all too familiar with the jholaawaala brigade that is ready for "andolan" any given time of the day. Such people take up worthy causes and often dedicate their lives to it. When they speak, they usually train their guns on an "enemy" and spew venom. No matter how noble the cause, readers are burned by the vitriol that comes out and are unable to move beyond the venom. The powers that be ridicule such activists and if they ever give in, it is usually out of frustration and irritation, without any sense of compassion or restitution.

The activists themselves have a career that looks like a bell curve. Their ego rises with their career, and after a certain point, they are so consumed by their self-importance that they cannot see beyond themselves and are blind to the good in those they oppose. And so begins their descent, as they get deluded by their own nature. Their co-workers end up parting ways, frustrated and dejected by the ego-centric leadership that manifests itself in many ways in their movement. At the end, we have a lot of angry people - angry at the "enemy," angry with each other, angry with themselves.

And then, right under our noses, we find the exact opposite - people who are terribly active for a cause, but are not consumed by it. Their intellect and intuition are synchronized, each guiding the other. They find divinity in those who others might call the "enemy." The laws of human nature as we know it collapse and we start witnessing changes in attitude of their opponents, some of which might be termed "miracles." Perhaps, Swami Vivekananda's observation that "what goes around comes around" is true after all.

It is time to meet Krishnammal Jagannathan, fondly referred to as Amma. Amma was born in a harijan community and was very rebellious during her childhood years. She remembers that if her brother hit her once, she would hit him back three times. As she grew older, she had the good fortune of meeting Mahatma Gandhi, and remembers being very deeply touched by that meeting. She noticed a young man who was controlling the crowds during that meeting. They met later and the young man was of Brahmin birth. Influenced by Gandhiji, he had determined that he would only marry a Harijan, and as she puts it, "In his eyes, I was that girl." She was not interested in marriage but finally, they both agreed to only get married in free India, which they did.

She completed her university education but did not wait to get her degree, she felt that the certificate was a useless piece of paper, and she would rather prefer service through Sarvodaya (which means "Welfare of All"), a movement started by Gandhiji. She and her husband walked with Vinoba Bhave in the Bhoodaan movement, a walk that should be in history textbooks all over the world. In 1968, 44 Dalit Christians were burned alive by the landlord over a land dispute. Heartbroken, she rushed to the spot and remembers that she couldn't stop crying for three days. She resolved to bring justice to these families. But not in the usual sense of litigation and punishment. Instead, she started a non-violent movement where she would plead with landlords to share their land with the less fortunate landless tillers, in the same style as the Bhoodan movement, under the banner of LAFTI (Land For Tiller's Freedom).

What is unique in her approach is that she believes there is a great light within her and in all beings. She considers the landlords who commit injustice as sick people, those who cannot see their own divine light. The language she uses to describe her encounters with the landlords is comic and tragic at the same time. She recalls, "I went to meet my friend, and he attacked me." A perplexed listener asked her, "Amma, why would a friend attack you?" And she replied, "Oh, the friend was a landlord." Another time, the moment she walked in, the landlord got so enraged that he went inside to find a stick to beat her with. Her response: instead of being angry or upset, she goes to the local temple and decides to pray for her sick friend without food and water. After three days, her friend is unable to take it anymore and comes to the temple to tell her, "Amma, please stop the fast. Let us eat together and we'll discuss this land issue." And invariably, she would get land to redistribute to the landless.

Another time, when she was on her regular morning walk, goons from her landlord friends surrounded her and poured kerosene all around. Her reaction: she sat down calmly and started singing her favorite bhajans, ready to die. This enraged the goons and they started abusing her loudly. The villagers woke up and came to her rescue. On seeing them, her attacker friends ran away.

While she walks through dangerous situations all the time, what makes the retelling so funny is the complete absence of any anger or hatred. Amma believes she lives in a world of friends and her experience confirms her belief. She also is in no hurry - she does not manage by objectives and annual performance. She says that this July (2008), a landlord involved in the massacre of 1968 told her that he was wrong and he wanted to give away his land to Amma for whatever purpose she had in mind. The indefatigable Amma is already making plans - she will start a school for Dalit children to help them come out of their condition.

Her focus has been on the empowerment of Dalit women. She claims to have an "army of women," whom she trains in non-violence. She finds that less people have, the more they have to give. She is often invited home by the women, and she will sleep on their bed, where a pillow is made for her comfort by tying the household clothes together. Lying down in that condition, she cries for these women - how hard they work, how much they sacrifice and how much they are willing to give. And yet, our society engages in exploiting them. She identifies so much with their suffering that their pain is her own. Her material needs are so few and she will be considered penniless for tax purposes, and yet she lives, walks and talks like a queen.

I met her two weeks back at Stanford and then in the Bay Area, before proceeding on to Seattle to receive the Opus Prize (as a finalist). She has also been awarded the 2008 Right Livelihood Award (also known as the Alternate Nobel Prize) in Stockholm. In her funny style, she told us that she tried to find Seattle on the map but was unsuccessful. When she went to the airport, they wouldn't let her board because she didn't know where she would stay in the US. She called up her daughter and finally got an address. Even after arriving, she was unsuccessful in locating Seattle on the map, but believed that she would be taken care of wherever she went, which is true for such human beings.

Here is a video made by Seattle University on her work.

You can also read about her on Wikipedia.

The interested reader should be able to meet Amma easily in Tamil Nadu.

Somik Raha is a Ph. D. student in the field of Decision Analysis. He believes that you can believe what you like. So he believes that people in this world are good. He believes that in a free society, peaceful and honest people should be left alone.
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#1
temporal
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November 23, 2008
11:11 PM

somik:

thanks for bringing this remarkable person here...look forward to meeting others

thanks:)

#2
blokesablogin
November 25, 2008
06:04 PM

Hi Somik- Aren't you the one who wrote an essay in India Currents some months back on Hinduism? I even sent you my lnks! Nice piece here on Amma. My husband met her in Santa Clara at Nipun's. He was telling me that we should meet her when we go to Madurai next time!

#3
Somik Raha
URL
November 26, 2008
12:22 AM

Hmm.. I don't remember writing any essay on India Currents. Do you have a link?

Didn't realize you are also in the bay area - I was at Nipun's when Amma gave a talk. Thank you and temporal for your comments and do share your stories if you get to meet Amma.

#4
prabhuraj
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December 9, 2008
12:38 AM

great effort.

Amma the Great inspiration

#5
David Albert
URL
December 14, 2008
03:11 PM

Thank you for the wonderful essay! Friends can learn more about our efforts to aid Krishnammal in her work at www.friendsoflafti.org .

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