John Steinbeck, in his typical profound manner, tells us: ” the Hebrew word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not’.” (emphasis added). How well this captures the entire journey of our life!! It is always a struggle between “thou mayest” and “thou mayest not” and the final choice that we make in a given circumstance. Truly the choices that we make, make us!!!
Imagine that fateful day, when young Narendra decided that he must meet someone who has “met God” and was in search of such a Guru. On reaching Dakshineshwar he asked “Have you seen or experienced God?”. The fateful reply of Ramakrishna,”Yes, I have seen God. I see Him as I see you here, only more clearly. God can be seen. … If one cries sincerely for God, one can surely see Him.”. Bewildered and puzzled, Narendra returned to Calcutta, but was convinced the words sprung from deep inner experiences. So he returned to meet Ramakrishna again and again; till he was transformed into Swami Vivekanada. Advaita Vedantism owes a great debt to that fateful meeting and of course to Vivekananda’s decision to go to the Parliament of World’s Religions at Chicago in 1893. His speech there ” Sisters and Brothers of America, It fills my heart with joy unspeakable to rise…” changed the course of seeing Hinduism as the religion of true tolerance and universal acceptance.
Or take the case of Gandhi. When travelling to Pretoria, with a legitimate First Class ticket, he was thrown off the train on the instigation of a white man. Instead of fleeing the scene, Gandhi stayed back for 21 years to fight for Indians in Africa. Gandhi’s travails at Pietermaritzburg railway station was akin to a second birth. It was said: “When Gandhi was evicted from the train, an Indian visiting South Africa fell but when Gandhi rose, an Indian South African rose.” The aborted train journey finally took Gandhi far beyond Pretoria!! His concepts of peaceful resistance were born from his choice of not accepting injustice. This in turn would shape his entire Nonviolence and Satyagraha philosophy which gave India its freedom from the British; while till then “Sun never set on the British Empire” The first blow to that superstructure was in Peitermaritzburg; finding its resonance in the birth of India, Pakistan, Australia, Kenya, and so many other countries’ independence. (Sotto voce: we must locate and thank the white man who objected to Gandhi’s presence in the train compartment!!) General Smuts put it well:”men like Mahatma Gandhi redeem us from a sense of commonplace and futility and are an inspiration to us not to weary in well doing”. Truly, to do or not to do: it is our choice!!!
Jawaharlal Nehru’s approach on Article 370 and J&K; his actions and decisions in the China War in 1962 were bereft of his genial Chacha Nehru lover of children and roses image. His choices at that time shape our present day actions vis-a-vis J&K as well as China.
Indira Gandhi’s Declaration of Emergency in 1975 gives many great examples of choices altering the course of history. The split of the hoary Congress that Indira engineered in 1969 – Congress(O) and Congress(R) – were the beginning of her megalomania. Riding on the back of populist measures like Nationalisation of Banks & Abolition of Privy Purses, Indira got a catchy slogan of Garibi Hatao to pilot a thumping majority in Parliament in 1971 elections. This fueled her greed for power even more. Newly anointed with Bharat Ratna, Indira won a war against Pakistan, freeing Bangla Desh. She started dominating the judiciary after the Kesavanada Bharti case and cases against the 24th Amendment not going her preferred way. Challenges began with Nav Nirman movement in Gujarat and agitation of Bihar Chhatra Sangharsh Samiti under the leadership of Jaiprakash Narayan(JP). Ignoring the assassination of Railway Minister LN Mishra or the ruthless suppression of the Railway Strike by Indira only showed her decisions/choices progressively becoming undemocratic and totalitarian. The final straw was the Allahabad High Court decision finding her guilty of misusing governmental machinery in her campaigning, declaring her election null and void, unseating her from the Lok Sabha. When the Supreme Court also upheld the HC decision, strikes swept the country in trade, students and government unions. Indira’s choice and decision was to get a compliant President sign on a Proclamation of Emergency.
Even a simple recounting of these events shows the number of fork points and decisions ingrained in the choices made by all actors in this drama. We can conjecture many, many “what-if” scenarios. There will be no definitive answers to questions like what-if Raj Narain had not challenged her election; what-if the HC judge had not ruled against Indira; what-if SC had overturned the HC decision; what-if JP and Nav Nirman movements had remained dormant; what-if SS Ray had refused to prepare the note recommending declaring Emergency; what-if Sanjay Gandhi had not implemented forcible sterilizations… Questions, questions, questions. But you get the point I am driving at. Our lives are shaped by choices: choices that we make and choices that others around us make.
On a purely personal plane: I was always enamored with English Literature. Wanted to study and then teach English as a career. When I chose Humanities everyone advised me my life would be ruined. I would live to regret the wrong choice I was making. Then came a time when there was a choice to shift to studying Psychology and specializing in Organizational Psychology. After that my career aspiration became teaching Psychology. Soon life presented another choice: IIM Calcutta. Having cleared entrance exams with difficulty, I chose to study Personnel Management & Industrial Relations(PMIR) in IIMC!! Again I faced ridicule and disbelief since my choice was not Systems or Marketing or Finance in the proverbial melting pot of IIMC. I chose PMIR as it would add value to my psycho background. Today my choices have made me: a service oriented professional, happy building other’s careers and coaching them to succeed. I am what my choices have made me.
My final take is destiny is not predetermined; it is a matter of choices we make. Think of Vivekanada restlessly asking to see God. Think of Gandhi emerging stronger from his fall in Peitermaritzburg. We shape and create our life, and our future, through our choices. Indira’s death was also shaped by her choices. Richard Bach put it beautifully: “we are free to choose a different future: or even a different past”. Think about that.
Let me end with the philosopher of philosophers Aristotle: “Excellence is never an accident… it represents the wise choice of many alternatives – choice, not chance, determines your destiny.”
Robert Frost sang beautifully: Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
… long I stood; And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth…
So friends make your choices wisely: and walk the road less travelled: vikas