Chapter 7 – The Tao of Mirabehn
Heaven and Earth are Eternal
because they do not live for themselves.
This is the reason
they exist consistently through time.
The sage puts herself last and ends up first.
She identifies herself with the Universal Self
and thus remains constant.
Isn’t this so
because she lacks personal self-interest?
This is why she will succeed
in all of her personal endeavors.
Every system of philosophy or belief has its own tao or way that coincides to a greater or lesser extent with the “True Tao” to which Lao Tzu has tried to point us. Each society, each community, each family and even each person follows his, her or its own tao. For this Tao Te Ching Tuesday, I would like to look at the way of one of those people. Out of the billions available for consideration, I have chosen a woman named Madeleine Slade.
Ms. Slade was born to an upper class British family in 1892. Her father was a naval officer who served for a time as commander of the British East Indies Squadron in Bombay. Madeleine spent only a small part of her childhood in India, but the sub-continent did make an impression upon her young mind. For the most part, though, she experienced a traditional, privileged English education while living on her grandfather’s large country estate. She showed a healthy intellectual curiosity and developed a passion for the life and music of Beethoven.
In the mid-1920s, as she was in her early 30s, Madeleine became fascinated with what she had heard of the non-violent revolution being waged in India under the leadership of Mohandas Gandhi (who had been named “Mahatma,” or “Great Soul,” by India’s Nobel Prize winning poet Rabindranath Tagore and others). Her fascination became so great – especially after reading a biography of Gandhi by Beethoven biographer Romain Rolland – that she traveled back to her one-time home to meet the great leader.
That meeting changed her life. She very quickly joined Gandhi’s ashram, shaved her head, learned Hindi, wore traditional Indian clothing and took up spinning and weaving cloth.
She did not do these things so much for herself but to enable her to help the poor and uneducated around her to improve their lives. She was out each morning by 5:00 a.m. to serve those in the area and teach them simple principles of hygiene. She and her fellow disciples spent hours each day destroying class distinctions by cleaning the latrines and mud-thatched houses of members of the “untouchable” caste who were illiterate and needed to be taught by example.
She adopted a strict vegetarian diet and slept each night on the floor. After a short time, her talents led her to the position of Gandhi’s personal assistant. She accompanied him to peace conferences with the British, and she traveled abroad to make the case for India’s independence to such notables as Winston Churchill and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Madeleine – who had become known as Mirabehn – was arrested on several occasions and spent years in prison for her support of the Indian movement for independence.
She was overjoyed when India became a free state in 1947, but moved quickly into the next phase of her life. With Gandhi’s blessing, she established two ashrams in the foothills of the Himalayas and began helping and teaching those who flocked to her. The following year, her joy turned to profound shock when she learned that Gandhi had been assassinated; though she continued her new work unabated.
Mirabehn’s autobiography, The Spirit’s Pilgrimage, was published in 1960. The book was written following a major change in her life. Apparently inspired by a book she had been given nearly 30 years earlier by Romain Rolland, her passion for Beethoven again became paramount and she left India, shortly taking up a cloistered residence near Vienna, where she spent the rest of her life in prayer and solitude, accompanied only by the brilliant music of her favorite composer.
Mirabehn passed from this life just before her 90th birthday in 1982. India offered its respects by conferring on her one of its highest civilian awards and issuing a stamp with her image. A few months later, a whole new generation learned of this remarkable woman as she was portrayed by Geraldine James in Richard Attenborough’s award-winning film, Gandhi.
If one were to draw Venn diagrams of personal “ways,” I think that Mirabehn’s might intersect that of the Tao Te Ching somewhere around Chapter 7.