Author: Maulana Wahiduddin Khan
Published by: Goodword Books, Noida (www.goodwordbooks.com)
Reviewed by Roshan Shah
Almost a century old, New Delhi-based Maulana Wahiduddin Khan is a prolific spiritual teacher and writer. Author of several dozen books and head of the Centre for Peace and Spirituality, Khan is one of the most widely-known present-day Islamic scholars, not just in India but globally, too. This delightful book is a collection of more than 100 short essays (mostly of single page length) by Khan, each of which highlights one or more moral value and indicates the importance of ethics as the basis of a truly meaningful life. Khan has a deep understanding of the Islamic scriptural tradition, but in this book he also draws insights from other sources, indicating a universal understanding of spirituality based on an ethical core which people of all faiths might easily connect with. The spirituality that he espouses doesn’t call for negating the world. Nor does it involve esoteric doctrines and demanding physical austerities and practices. It is simply about leading a God-oriented life, the Art of conscious ethical living day to day, one could say.
Reflecting Khan’s understanding that spirituality isn’t something cut off from daily life, but, rather, deeply rooted in it, this book is framed around anecdotes from the lives of people (famous as well as ‘ordinary’), aspects of Nature, key events in the history of countries, reports in newspapers and so on, through which Khan derives useful moral lessons which we can put into practice in our everyday lives. In this way, he shows us how every experience can be a source of spiritual growth if we care to reflect on and learn from them. From such experiences, no matter how ‘negative’ some of them might seem, one can draw spiritual nourishment, growing in awareness of such values as God-consciousness, forgiveness, patience, compassion, determination and positive thinking. The many little stories that this book narrates strikingly highlight these and other such values, embodied mostly in the form of real-life events and phenomena.
A few examples from the book vividly illustrate this powerful technique. In a story titled ‘Teacher Tree’, Khan tells us that the tree-trunk forms only one half of a tree, the roots being the other half. The top half of a tree can only stand erect and verdant above the ground when the tree is prepared to bury its other half beneath the ground, Khan explains. “A tree stands above the ground, fixing its roots firmly beneath the ground. It grows from beneath, upwards into the air; it does not start at the top and grow downwards”, he notes. “The tree is our teacher”, he continues, “imparting to us the lesson of nature that if we seek to progress outwardly we must first strengthen ourselves inwardly; we must begin from the base of our own selves before we can hope to build society anew.”
In another chapter, showing how individuals can draw useful spiritual lessons for their own lives from the history of entire countries, Khan highlights the case of Japan. In 1941, Japan attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbour, destroying a large number of American vessels. In retaliation, in 1945, America dropped two atom bombs on Japan—on the two major industrial cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima—thus annihilating Japan as a military power. Thereafter, America kept up a tight military and political hold on Japan. But instead of taking revenge on America for the large-scale atomic devastation, Japan responded peacefully positively to the new situation. Before World War II, Khan explains, Japan relied on the power of military weapons. But after witnessing the destruction that these weapons caused, it relinquished their use and set about progressing entirely on peaceful lines, so much so that in a few years it became an economic superpower. Simply by accepting the fact that aggression could not serve dividends and then channelizing its potentials towards the field of industry, Japan reached new heights. It was able to turn its military defeat into an economic victory by abstaining from retaliation, encouraging patience and perseverance, avoiding provocation and focusing on fields of peaceful activity. Khan explains that Japan initially accepted the military and political supremacy of other countries, quickly adapted itself to new scales of values, and then got busy with the task of economic rehabilitation without wasting any time on bewailing lost opportunities, blaming others for one’s misfortunes or engaging in pointless nostalgia. Instead of seeking revenge, Japan focussed on availing existing opportunities. It accepted, Khan tells us, the blame for its destruction, and, once having done so, was able to seriously work for its own economic uplift.
Perceptive readers can draw numerous from this little snippet of Japanese history for their own personal lives. One of these is how to deal with others in this world of competition. Khan notes that one can approach this predicament in two ways: one is to collide with that which obstructs one’s path. The other is to circumvent the obstacle and then go one’s way (the path adopted by post-World War II Japan). The first, Khan explains, is self-destructive, while the second is much more likely to prove advantageous.
Here is a startling anecdote from modern Indian history which Khan uses to highlight a lesson we can profit from in our own lives. Lord William Wintock was the British Governor-General in India from 1828 to 1935. He had the dubious distinction of ordering the destruction of the Taj Mahal at Agra, an order that, fortunately, he was not able to carry out. The East India Company had been facing tough times, and it was suggested to Wintock that the sale of the Taj Mahal would fetch a sum of 100,000 rupees, enough to extricate the Company from its financial losses. When the news of the Company’s intentions circulated, there was widespread opposition to the move. This infuriated Wintock, who apparently now gave orders for the total destruction of the Taj Mahal. But opposition to the command now escalated, with Hindus and Muslims joining in one voice of protest against it. The danger of full-scale rebellion prompted his advisors to persuade Wintock to withdraw the order.
It was not the people who saved the Taj Mahal. Rather, it was saved by its own beauty. Had the Taj Mahal not been beautiful, it would not have won such overwhelming support; Hindus and Muslims would not have united behind it to foil Wintock’s designs. Displaying his wonderful knack of deriving spiritual lessons from every event, Khan writes: “Just as virtue in a thing wins support for its cause, so virtue in humans has the same effect. It wins one friends from the enemy camp, appreciation even from strangers. A virtuous nature is the greatest asset a person can have, for with it comes support from all quarters”.
This book is a precious gem, not to be missed, full of valuable insights on how to live a more meaningful life. The approach to spiritual growth that it articulates, based on deriving and learning from lessons from every event and situation, is a really valuable tool that perceptive readers can use in their own lives with great benefit to themselves and others. Just as scriptures can be a source of moral instruction and spiritual growth, so too can ‘everyday’ experiences—our own as well as others—this book beautifully teaches us.