For a long time I have believed in a set of principles that I have called My Four Humble Truths. Over the years I have spoken about my Four Humble Truths to many people; but only in private conversations and interviews. I have never had the occasion to mention them in any formal public address and I have not put them into writing.
Before I say anything else I would like to make it absolutely clear that my Four Humble Truths are not a reaction to The Four Noble Truths taught by the Buddha. In fact, if I were asked to recite the Four Noble Truths I would be hard put to do so. My humble truths are in reaction to the fact that, when we generally consider our basic needs, we think only in terms of our physical needs — the need for food, shelter, air and water. But these are the same needs that we share with even the lowest animal — yes, with every living creature. What about our basic needs as human beings? Are there, is there any basic need that is specific to us as human beings?
I believe there is. And that this basic need that we do not share with animals is freedom. And I must hasten to add here that by freedom I mean national political freedom and not “freedom” simply in the sense of being in the wild and not in a cage or in chains. In my view there is a fundamental difference between the two — the “freedom” of animals in the sense of being in the wild and not in a cage or in chains and the national political freedom of human beings. This difference is best illustrated by comparing the condition of a bird in a cage or a tiger in a zoo on the one hand, with the state and status of an exile and a refugee like myself. In the case of the bird in the cage and the tiger in the zoo, their condition does not make other birds and other tigers (except perhaps their immediate mates — and even this for only a limited period of time) behave as though they are not free. At the same time, both the bird and the tiger will be free the moment they are released from the cage and the zoo regardless of whether or not there are other birds in cages and other tigers in zoos.
But in the case of human beings we know — or I hope we know and recognise — an individual may live in freedom without feeling and without being free simply because their country is not free. I know this from personal experience. Although I live in free India — and enjoy many of the freedoms of living in a free country — yet I do not feel free and I know I am not free because my country is under China’s colonial and military occupation. I feel forever indebted to the people and Government of India for the unending kindness, generosity and hospitality that has been shown to every Tibetan seeking refuge — and today there are more than one hundred thousand Tibetan refugees in India. The same must be said about Nepal and Bhutan, who together shelter thousands of other Tibetan refugees.
However, what we desire most is to return to a free Tibet. This is because, however painful the physical condition, homelessness, like hunger, is essentially mental — not physical. People who decide to skip a few meals or even not to eat for a few days will not, indeed cannot, understand hunger for the simple reason that they have food stored in their refrigerators, or else they can walk down to their favourite restaurant and eat whatever they want to eat as and when they want and decide to eat. Hunger is not just a question of not eating. Hunger is the condition of not having anything to eat. And you can feel this kind of hunger on a full stomach when you do not know when or where your next meal is coming from. I can say this with confidence because I have known and experienced this kind of hunger. At the same time I have also experienced the state of not eating because I have participated in a number of hunger strikes — ranging from just one day to eleven days. At the time I did not feel hunger. This is because it was a decision not to eat, not a state of not having anything to eat.
The same can be said about homelessness. Again, like hunger, homelessness is mental and not physical. A home is not just shelter — it is where you belong. At the moment I have a house, and I call it Exile House. I do not have a home — that, the Chinese have occupied and destroyed. A number of people have told me I should not feel the way I do. They tell me that they have not seen their country in months — some even for years — and that everywhere is home to them. It is easy to say this when you have a passport in your pocket and a country to return to. It is like the food in your refrigerator and the restaurant down the road. These are choices that the stateless and the hungry do not have. So far the best definition of a refugee I have come across is the one given by Czeslaw Milowz. He wrote that “a refugee is a person who does not belong where he stays and cannot return to where he belongs.” This state of feeling homeless even when one has shelter is like the state of living in freedom and enjoying many freedoms without being Free — the condition when one does not belong where one stays and cannot return to where one belongs. This brings me to my Four Humble Truths.
The Four Humble Truths: By now I hope I have made the case that freedom is a basic human need. And, I would like to emphasise that I am not using “need” in place of “right”. I am aware that there is growing recognition of basic human rights everywhere. I am also aware that Articles 1 and 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights state that “all human beings are born equal in dignity and rights” and are entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in the Declaration “without distinction of any kind such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”. But I consider “needs” even more basic than “rights” and, therefore, that meeting our basic “needs” is more important than fulfilling our “rights”.
Briefly stated, my Four Humble Truths are:
- Freedom is a basic necessity
- Freedom will not come by waiting
- Freedom must be fought for and won
- Freedom is not free
To state that freedom is a basic necessity is to say that, unlike brute animals, for human beings it is not enough simply to have food and shelter. We need something else called dignity. And dignity can only come with freedom. I believe it bears repeating that by freedom I mean national political freedom. When human beings decided to walk on two feet it was not simply a matter of pragmatism — to free our hands from the single function of providing locomotion to do other things. And we have done a great many things with our hands. I believe the decision to walk on two feet was also a decision to have our head held high. Therefore, for human beings to live with dignity, freedom is a basic necessity.
The national political freedom I am referring to being man-made, and not a part of our original natural state; it cannot and will not come without direct human effort and action. And, unlike the morning sun or the evening star, unlike the summer’s rain or the winter’s snow, this man-made national political freedom will not come by waiting.
Since freedom will not come by waiting, it follows that freedom must be fought for and won. As Tagore once wrote in one of his letters to Gandhi, “… we have to win our freedom before we can own it.”
Finally, to say that freedom is not free is to say that there is a price for freedom. The price for freedom is not paid in dollars; it is paid in the currency of life and blood. And, until and unless this generation is willing and able to pay the price for freedom — the next generation will not be free.
In short, we cannot and we will not regain our lost freedom simply by talking about it or even by praying, hoping and waiting for it. We must rise up and fight for freedom.
This article was originally published in Design & People.