Reflections on Being Human
By Roshan Chaddha
1. Thank you
The Hindu tradition of my childhood holds that living beings make a place sacred by their presence. So, my thanks to all of you for gathering this morning, in this room, which has so much significance for me and my family.
Don Hall, a US poet laureate, wrote some time ago that Indians are fond of talking about large issues of life. True! Here we are talking about “on being Human.”
My opening remarks though will focus on my own journey, on my own “shadow” as my friend the Rev. Virginia Jarocha-Ernst might say.
As I near the end of the seventh decade of my life and look back, most of my actions, it seems, have been guided by a desire to connect with others in respectful, intelligent, and creative ways without accumulating or causing regrets.
My family and friends in this room and elsewhere, teachers, professional colleagues, events, and the environments I have lived in, have all shaped my journey.
Except for one or two instances, most of my learning has been evolutionary with small “aha” moments. To grow, I have needed to be both awake and to dream. It has been a journey of constant broadening.
3. Being Human
My evolving perspective “on being human” is informed by the late Vaclav Havel . “It seems to me” he says, “that one of the most basic human experiences is the experience of transcendence in the broadest sense of the word.” And concludes, “The truly reliable path to peaceful coexistence …. must be rooted in self-transcendence.” Self-transcendence for him is to relate the personal self to the whole.
Now, self-transcendence for me is about approaching the “other” with reverence, with open mind and with open heart. It is about Hindu “karuna”, Buddha’s compassion, or Jesus’ unconditional love, or the Unitarian Universalist values which calls upon us to “accept the other” as they are and be of service to them. It is about discovering the whole through the particular. It is about discovering the ocean through its waves. Being human, I think, is about being humane at all times.
My journey to look beyond the personal self at all times has not been easy. “Why, is this so?” I have often asked.
The Zen koan of the “Original Face”, speaks of finding our face before our parents were born. For me it is the most precise statement of our connectedness, our oneness. Frederick Frank writes, “It is as if through this one face, the entire past and present of our species discloses itself; its Original Face, as Zen calls it, its specific humanness mortal yet timeless.”
My early upbringing too points me to this face of “everyone,” this Self, which is not clouded by the various masks we wear as we unfold our lives. Masks frequently narrow our vision, increase our separation and deepen our shadow. Removal of these masks is to rediscover a place of calm and quietness within us. It is to discover our connectedness, our Original Face.
As we proceed, each of us may wish to reflect on our own masks and how we can rediscover our “Original face”, our connectedness.
4. My Indian Heritage
By the time I arrived in England in 1955, my moral compass and outgoing temperament were well set, and my optimistic outlook towards life was in place.
Framers of my moral compass and positive outlook were largely my grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts, and the extended Chaddha family; its religiously diverse friends; my own religious upbringing — in particular the study of the Bagvad Gita as a teenager– and the exuberant Punjabi culture.
I had learnt the three basic elements of the Indian religious and cultural thought. First, that life is “one”, second that selfless action is a noble goal, and third that there are many paths to the same truth. A reasonable beginning as a human, I think.
Images in our home included those of Rama & Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, and the Sikh guru Nanak. I learnt early on, that living in a secular space required openness, mindfulness, and good humor.
From my parents and grandparents I had learnt that being eldest in the family is to place oneself last in benefits. That one’s decisions can have long term consequences. That one has to be intentional to make those decisions happen.
I had learnt that one has a debt to pay to the society which nurtures and educate you.
Being in the midst of both horrific as well as noble events surrounding the independence and partition of India in 1947, was one large event which shaped my view of human relationships. I learnt firsthand that in the midst of human insanity, such relationships can empower some of us to rise above religious and regional sectarianism and transcend the self to save the other.
I am a child of the Indian independence movement. Gandhi’s ultimate sacrifice for non-violence taught me that one can transcend the personal self for the larger good also.
As a mathematician, logic and reason had become important. And as a statistician, questioning, experimenting, learning and changing as new experiences emerged are embedded in my way of life. Going from a set of particulars to the general is embedded in statistical science.
Finally, but most importantly, I had learnt from my father, that in the end, what you leave behind is only your fragrance. That is how he lived all his life. Living was more important to him than worrying about mortality or immortality. And from my youngest uncle who wrote to me two years before he passed away, “I am ready to go, I have no regrets.”
5. My UK and American journey: Practicing and Broadening
Over the next few years, as I first lived in England and then in the US, I had to continuously broaden my Indian outlook.
In both countries, racial discrimination was a significant new experience for me. I strongly disagreed with people with that practice and yet had to partner with them on other issues. I had to learn from them academically.
So, I learnt to approach people openly, patiently, and with humor, and paid attention to their welfare. They reciprocated this approach and new friendships were born. Perhaps some racial barriers were pierced.
Meeting Unitarians at Virginia Tech in 1957 was an important step in broadening my perspective. The Unitarian Humanist Manifesto provided me with the language and reasoning for a broader Humanist framework.
The welcoming nature of the Unitarian fellowship at Kansas State in the early sixties cemented that relationship. And the engaged ministry of my good friend the Rev. Harold Dean and the Monmouth UU congregation in the sixties & seventies, coupled with their openness provided a home for me and my family.
It is here that I heard Harold say, “There are a few opportunities in our lives which inspire us to engage. When that happens,” he said, “We must engage.” The congregation acted with courage and empathy to break down racial barriers, rights of women, and stood up for peace. I grew during this period.
It is also here that I heard Swami Chitrabhanu, a Jain teacher and a guest of the Monmouth Center say, “If at the end of a day you can say that you have helped someone, then you have had a good day.” It cannot get any simpler.
My nearly 50 years of being married to Ellen has confirmed the universality of values of openness, truthfulness, and compassion. All these years she has kept me anchored to those values.
Living with my Indian American friends and bringing up my children in this culture have all helped in opening new windows and broadening my perspective. Observing their paths to connect with the American society without losing their sense of being has been instructive.
Thirty years of work with extraordinarily talented people at Bell Laboratories, and professional travels for Bell internationally, have instilled in me the need of creativity in our lives.
Working closely for over a decade and a half with a religiously diverse group of very graceful people at Monmouth Center for World Religions and Ethical Thought has challenged me to be open at all times. Practice of listening deeply and careful use of language has provided insights into our oneness in the midst of diversity.
6. Reflections On Being Human
I now have a humanist and evolutionist interpretation of Indian teachings of the oneness of all life. This non-duality is non-theological. This interpretation of oneness embraces our apparent diversity. Further, it permits me to become an inheritor of all human wisdom. Barriers and masks recede.
Both India and America are ethnically, culturally, and religiously very diverse. But our (US) history of slavery and racial discrimination, a pervading sense of religious and cultural uniqueness have created distances both within and outside the US. Add to it a culture of individualism and strong dualistic thinking and we have a making of islands of separation.
Building bridges to others and then crossing them are essential to advance humaneness in such an environment. Through such efforts we build relationships and strengthen our inner acceptance of the “other”. American openness is a strong helpful force.
The Indian thought of approaching the other with reverence when coupled with my UU journey calls upon me to function with humbleness and an attitude of deep hospitality towards the “other”.
Building intentional bridges to reach out to others has been a lifelong project for me. Revitalizing the International Club at Virginia Tech; serving the Monmouth UU congregation; being a part of the creation of the Association of Indians in America and of the Monmouth Center for World Religions and Ethical Thought; growing closer to the Earth by becoming a Master Gardener and serving the UU UN Office to advocate Human Rights have all been a part of this journey.
Each of these experiences has taught me that human aspiration to work together for a more humane world is universal. Each of these organizations has provided me with opportunities, to sit at many tables, meet wonderful people and learn to stay open.
As I have said earlier, exercise of both logical and empirical reasoning has been a dominant part of my life. Reason has been preeminent in my professional work and in my relating, interacting, and broadening.
But wonder and awe, reflecting and dreaming, the so called emotional thinking, have also been significant parts. From time to time I have dabbled in poetry.
To act humanely, I need to function holistically using both my reasoning & emotional sides. Through patience and practice, I have tried to be more self aware during my interactions with others. Being self-aware at all times has been very challenging.
I think if I can enhance my ability to look beyond my personal self in all my actions, I would have grown to be more mindful and humane.
I have always lived in respect and gratitude toward my elders, my teachers, family and friends.
In the early fifties, India’s Vice President, Dr. Radhakrishnan, speaking at my BS convocation in India, said that we “owed a debt to the society for educating and nurturing us.” What is the nature of this debt and how do I pay it?
These questions stayed with me until the sixties when I met with some friends to talk about putting together a new organization of Indians in America. I asked about a unifying purpose of the organization. My friend, Professor Dutta of Rutgers, suggested an organization anchored in our “Indian Heritage and American Commitment.”
This vision of dual responsibilities resonated within me. I felt that my being a part of such an organization would be a way to pay my debt to the Indian community and to meet my obligations to America. The Association of Indians in America was born. I think it has met its promise.
In closing let me add that bending the arc of human ethics towards humaneness owes a great deal to thinkers between 5th century BCE and 2nd century CE, the so called Axial age.
The Greeks, the Jews, and the Christians in West Asia; the Hindus, the Jains, and the Buddhists in South Asia; and the Confucians & Taoists in East Asia, all independently contributed to the evolution of human wisdom during this period. They revolutionized our religious thought and “human ethics.” Since then, other religious traditions including the Unitarian Universalists, science, and the age of Enlightenment have moved us further in this direction.
My gratitude flows out to all of the world’s wisdom givers. My hubris of personal accomplishments melts in the face of this sea of knowledge on which we stand. I become a small actor in the flow of time. My gratitude to those who have gone before me grows.
I now try to live in the space of gratitude and thankfulness. I find peace there. I do what I can to move the “ball” along, “just be” as my Zen friend Sensei Merle Boyd says. Just do my share but stay mindful that we are connected, that “you” are “me”; that I do not harm or cause any regrets; and that I continue to both reason and dream. My imperfect journey towards self aware actions continues.
With folded hands, I bow to you. In gratitude I remember Bishop Tutu’s Swahili greetings – Umbutu – I am because you are.
Paulo Coelho suggests that “to realize one’s destiny is a person’s only obligation.” If this is so, at this late date, may I dare ask what has been mine?
The search for an answer has led me to the beginning of my life journey. It began by my spending the first 9 years of my life with my grandparents. “Why so?” I asked my oldest living uncle (Knawar Sain), who is only a few years older than I.
He suggested that while he too was too young to remember, it is both plausible and reasonable to think that my grandparents asked my parents to leave me with them after the loss of their 22 year old son. He went on to add that that loss of a youthful son was very traumatic for my grandmother. Presence of a young child in the house probably took away some of this emotional trauma.
So, it appears that I began my life by serving as a source of comfort to my grandmother after the loss of her beloved son. “Was this path my destiny?” I ask and wonder.
(revised 9/1/2011 from 4/17/11 talk at the UUCMC Dialog)