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Why All This Attention For Nelson Mandela?

By: for ISKCON News on Dec. 9, 2013
Opinion
Photo Credits: dandavats.com

Mr. Nelson Mandela with two prominent ISKCON swamis.

By now, devotees might be wondering why ISKCON, particularly here in South Africa is going to great lengths to acknowledge Madiba, as he is affectionately known.  Did he not appeal to many other people of religion besides us?  Was he an ally of our cause?

As devotees are known for being absorbed in their Krishna conscious practices, matters of world affairs and politics may not be high priority information.  Devotees know that history tends to repeat itself and those leaders, royalty and heads of state come and go.  What is so special about Nelson Mandela?

5,000 years ago,  Lord Krishna actively instigated political change from the prevailing demoniac order to that of righteousness.  Those world shaking events were of great interest to persons living beyond our earthly plane, what to speak of affected earthly residents.  The demigods were just as anxious to see political change on earth.

Those changes dramatically affected the lives of people, and Lord Krishna, although transcendental to all worldly affairs, took great interest in restoring justice and order, for the pleasure of those who worship Him as the Lord.  Does Lord Krishna share the same interest for Kali-yuga politics?  Are we able to attribute major political, religious and social changes  to Him?

On the basis that the Lord indirectly fulfils everyone’s material desires, good or bad, and He wants all beings to be reunited with Him, the Lord can help manipulate world affairs, if it leads to everyone’s spiritual welfare.  But how these workings unfold and the timing of them, leaves many people wondering if God exists or not.

For instance, several decades of oppressive Soviet Bloc communism was not expected to end as suddenly as Lord Krishna’s despatch of King Kamsa.  Yet, in 1989 the detested Berlin Wall did tumble.  The Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev was under relentless pressure to end human repression – and how religion has flourished since then.

This historic time must have inspired other leaders and heads of state.  Just one year later Nelson Mandela was released from a twenty seven year prison term, building up to the now famous “Long walk to freedom.”  The then South African president F.W. De Klerk similarly faced enormous pressure to end decades of apartheid.

Both De Klerk and Gorbahev are to be admired for their courageous crossing “of the Rubicon,” but their fame and popularity is greatly eclipsed by that of Mandela.  Because De Klerk and Gorbachev represented the “old order,” they did not symbolise the freedom that people worldwide aspired for – political pressure forced those changes. 

After Nelson Mandela assumed leadership he had options to violently retaliate against his oppressors and the system that upheld it, but he reconciled.  He was under intense pressure not to share the podium with F.W. De Klerk for receiving the Nobel Peace prize.  His signing of the new South African constitution that guaranteed human rights and religious freedom earned him more plaudits.  He rose from being a perceived threatening rebel to a hero for many who benefited from apartheid.

Terms such as “Rainbow Nation” are synonymous with South Africa.  This is part of the legacy created by Mandela.  He had a vision quite similar to Srila Prabhupada in spiritual outlook.  Just as Srila Prabhupada would say that it did not matter whether one was a Christian, Muslim. Hindu or Jew, people can all unite in chanting the holy names of God,  Mandela had a similar vision of a “Culturally many, spiritually one” concept. 

Nelson Mandela pays his respects before the murti of Prabhupada in Johannesburg ISKCON Temple

Of course, Nelson Mandela was not a saint, but as a politician, and as an individual, his broadness of vision was way ahead of people.  On this basis, he meant so much for people of all religious denominations in South Africa.  He also means a lot for the ‘ethnic minorities’ here who feel secure under the present constitution.  

ISKCON’s “Culturally Many, Spiritually One” outlook is also futuristic and it resonates with many of those in Government leadership.  Although ISKCON does not side with anyone politically, if chances arise of cooperation with powers that be, it is helpful.  ISKCON is also benefitting from this side of Mandela’s legacy.

Srila Prabhupada also said that people who achieve great things in life, or who hold powerful positions in society, should be respected – and Nelson Mandela was no exception.  But there are additional qualities he possessed that caused him to stand out from the rest.  His human ability to cross over political and religious divides – which many people are afraid to do – is again a material equivalent of what devotees do spiritually in order to tell the world that everyone is worshipping the same one God, no matter to what religion they belong.

More recently, we are witness to how great this individual is, in death.  Continually thousands upon thousands of people voluntarily come to the suburb of Houghton in Johannesburg to pay their last respects to Madiba at his home.  This coming Tuesday will probably witness the largest gathering of world leaders for another leader, at Mandela’s memorial.

Nelson Mandela on stage with children at the Hare Krishna Food For Life event in 1997.

Nelson Mandela’s influence had an immediate impact on the sentiments of people worldwide, but his ideals are mostly given current approval, hence his popularity.  This is why leaders now urge people to try and live this legacy.  What Srila Prabhupada and his teachings has done spiritually, will take more time.

The changes we are witnessing from revolutionary scriptures like Srimad Bhagavatam, left remaining after Lord Krishna’s departure, and His words of Bhagavad-gita As It Is, are transforming society in steady and subtle ways.

For example, Queen Elizabeth of England,  is known as “The Defender Of The (Anglican) Faith,” among her numerous titles.  If Prince Charles takes to the throne, he would prefer that same title to be, “The Defender of Faith,” which is a broadminded departure from old-order tradition – he is acknowledging the diversity of religion.

 This, allied with other undercurrent changes such as acceptance of vegetarianism, cultural integration of Diwali and Holi, concepts of soul and transmigration and so on, can all be accredited directly or indirectly to gradual spiritual influence, and Srila Prabhupada’s books and devotees have an unsuspecting role in this.

In a world still divided politically and religiously, hardly anyone will notice progress towards the ideals we cherish.  Peace accords between sworn state enemies are rare and difficult.  But when certain individuals can, on a material level create glimpses of the ideal, they tend to fight shy of normal trends.

It is in this capacity that Mandela is respected by devotees, because he was an ally in our long-term cause.  How that respiritualised world will be, we are not sure.  If it reverberates with the sounds of the holy names and multi-faith worshipers are allowed to pray at any mosque, temple, synagogue or church without hindrance, it might closely resemble “Heaven on earth.”

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