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Madiba, The True Sanyasi:
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela





They call him Madiba.

Out of love and respect.

He has struggled. He has prevailed. He has inspired. He will leave a legacy that few in history will ever match.

He was groomed to be an advisor to kings. He rose to be a wise and compassionate king, in the unlikeliest of circumstances. He will be remembered as a revolutionary. As a world leader. As a husband and a father. As a president.

But most of all, he will be remembered as an ascetic: a sanyasi.

In the Shabad Hazare, to the mystical and mysterious strains of Raag Ramkali, Guru Gobind Singh holds forth on the nature of the true ascetic, stressing righteousness over the sanyasi’s traditional accoutrements of matted hair, ash and long nails and emphasizing the detachment of the heart over physical detachment from the world.

When the Guru goes on to emphasize the virtues of tempering the appetites and embracing forgiveness and compassion, one cannot but think of Madiba.

rae man aiso kar saniaasa

Seek not the forest to renounce the world;
Detachment of the mind is true renunciation. || 1||

Scorn the traditional trappings of renunciation;
May restraint be your matted locks;
Alignment with God your ritual ablutions
Righteousness your long nails.
Make knowledge your teacher,
Instruct yourself to eschew false prophets;
Smear not ash upon your body;
Instead cover yourself with the Lord’s Name. ||1||

Practice moderation in eating and sleeping;
Embrace kindness, forgiveness and compassion.
Make your conduct pure and be forever patient;
Divorce yourself from the Three Tendencies*
That all humans exhibit|| 2||

Free your mind of lust, anger, pride, greed and stubbornness;
Thus you shall comprehend the mystery of your being
And become one with the Divine || 3|| 1||

[* Rajas, Tamas and Sattva -- leading to dynamism, obscurity and lucidity respectively.]

The very thought of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela evokes many powerful feelings about his qualities: Steadfastness. Integrity. Humility. Compassion. Detachment. These are foremost in my mind when I think of him.

And then it dawns upon me. These are the very attributes that the Khalsa aspires to embody! Yes, Madiba is many things, but it is a joy to discover that he is a living example of what our Gurus wanted us to be.

Madiba had been in prison for twenty-two long years. Held for the most part in a cold, dark prison cell, eight feet by eight feet. The leader of the apartheid regime, President P.W.Botha, no doubt seeking a public relations victory, offered him freedom, if he ‘renounced violence and illegal activity’ trying to shift the blame upon him for his imprisonment.

Madiba’s response provides a wonderful window into his character :

“What freedom am I being offered while the organization of the people remains banned? ... What freedom am I being offered if I must ask permission to live in an urban area? ... Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts.”

He was willing to spend the rest of his life in the cell, but he was not willing to compromise on his commitment to the struggle for equality.

How many of us would stay true to the principles we profess to live by, if we had to face such a test?

Madiba’s steadfastness was tested again in 1993, after he had been released from prison, when Chris Hani, chief of staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC), was shot in cold blood by a white immigrant, a supporter of apartheid, who was later identified by a white South African woman.

The murder sent shock waves throughout South Africa and ignited widespread protests by blacks that could easily have turned into mass violence directed at whites and the apartheid government.

Once again, Madiba showed what he was made of by putting aside the rancor that he surely must have felt after 27 years in jail, and instead, said:

”Tonight, I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being. A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster. A white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know, and bring to justice, this assassin. The cold-blooded murder of Chris Hani has sent shock waves throughout the country and the world ... Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who, from any quarter, wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for -- the freedom of all of us.”

The ultimate test of Madiba’s compassion and indeed mettle came after he was elected the first black President of South Africa in 1994.

The country was at a historic cross-roads. The white minority, which had oppressed black South Africans brutally for generations, had finally been overthrown. There were many who had tasted power for the first time and had vengeance and redressal on their minds.

This is what Madiba had to say :

“We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation. We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discriminations. Never, never and never again shall this beautiful land experience the oppression of one by another ... The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement. Let freedom reign. God bless Africa.”

Clearly and unequivocally, Madiba rejected the notion that the tyranny of the minority could be now replaced by the tyranny of the majority. The compassion and wisdom of his vision saved the country from an orgy of blood-letting and squarely put South Africa on the path of development and prosperity, in sharp contrast with neighboring African countries which fell into the spiral of revenge and reprisal after shaking off the white yoke.

The setting up of the Truth And Reconciliation Commission (“TRC“), with a mandate to look into apartheid-era abuses with the focus again on uniting the country, will remain one of Madiba’s lasting achievements.

In the words of Bishop Desmond Tutu:

“The TRC was internationally regarded as successful and showed the importance of public participation in such processes. The hearings of the TRC attracted global attention, as it was the first commission to hold public hearings in which both victims and perpetrators were heard. While amnesties are generally considered inconsistent with international law, the South African TRC provided some basis for considering conditional amnesties as a useful compromise, particularly if they help to secure perpetrator confessions. The South African TRC represented a major departure from the approach taken at the Nuremberg Trials. It was hailed as an innovative model for building peace and justice and for holding accountable those guilty of human rights violations. At the same time, it laid the foundation for building reconciliation among all South Africans.”

Mandela had met his destiny. Fulfilled his promises. Made the journey from the depths of despair to the pinnacle of power and glory. Dizzying heights. Adulation.

The kind of reverence inspired by very few in the world. Admission to a select fraternity that included the likes of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Stewardship of a nation, emancipated and reborn.

At the height of his glory, Madiba the King sloughed off his royal robes, cast away the sceptre of power, letting emerge Madiba the Ascetic, for the world to see.

Is it easy for anyone to willingly renounce power?

It certainly isn’t for mere mortals like us!

How desperately do we cling to our fifteen minutes of fame! How eager are we to stop time, to make our ephemeral moments of glory last forever!

I wonder if it was difficult for Madiba to decide to not seek a second term as President, which he was fully within his rights to do. Legally. And ethically. And he had paid his dues for sure!

But then again, it is foolish of me to wonder. For we are talking about Madiba the Sanyasi, who intuitively understands the concept of detachment that is integral to the identity of a Khalsa, better perhaps, than many who carry around the trappings of our faith today.

I salute Madiba.

I salute his values, which are so dear to my heart and the hearts of many like me.

Live on, Madiba.

In this world and in the next ...

And may your ideals flourish, wherever you go.


[Sarbpreet Singh of Hopkinton, Massachusetts, USA, is a writer, commentator, playwright and an executive in the technology industry.

July 15, 2013

Conversation about this article

1: Harmeet Singh (Chicago, Illinois, USA), July 15, 2013, 10:21 AM.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi has no place in this picture. He had a history of prejudice and bigotry towards Black people and remained a supporter of their segregation.

2: G C Singh (USA), July 15, 2013, 2:24 PM.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a racist hypocrite and a collaborator of the British and was hyped up by them since they did not want to deal with the revolutionaries who really fought and sacrificed for India's freedom. Sikhs can never forget about his shameful remarks about Guru Gobind Singh and his broken promises during the Partition of Punjab and India which resulted in the current challenges being faced by the Sikh nation. The treacherous role of the Hindu leadership under Gandhi, Nehru and Patel caused untold misery, death and destruction to millions during the Partition, especially the Sikhs.

3: Hardev Singh (Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada), July 15, 2013, 10:59 PM.

For good reason, Mandela rejected Mohandas Gandhi's version of 'non-violence', as advocated by Chief Luthuli. The limitations of this philosophy also became glaringly clear to Indians in the face of Pakistani and, later, Chinese border aggression. I think Mandela personifies the active saint-soldier rather than a sanyasi with its connotations of detachment.

4: Akashdeep Singh Aulakh (USA), December 11, 2013, 11:34 AM.

Gandhi wanted segregation in South Africa based on color - white, brown, black - in that order. He was not happy that his "brown" compatriots were being treated as badly as "black" inhabitants in South Africa. Why do writers selectively ignore Gandhi's own writings in the "Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi", unabridged/original and his columns written in South African newspapers of that time? How can Nelson Mandela be in Gandhi's fraternity? Mandela wanted equality for all, not based on color or skin or "Varnashrama Dharma"

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Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela"

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