“A Way Out of Hell”

I first watched Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film “Gandhi” when I was a teenager. I’ve seen it several times since, but there is one particular scene that has always stood out. To me, it is as powerful as any film scene I’ve encountered.

For background, the scene takes place during a period of rioting between Muslims and Hindus. Brokenhearted by the violence, Gandhi vowed to fast until the fighting stopped or until he dies, whichever comes first. Due to the reverence that people held for him, Gandhi’s fasting helps to bring the riots to a halt. As he lay in bed, weak from hunger, a group of Hindu men hand over their weapons and pledge not to engage in further violence.

As they leave with Gandhi’s blessing, a solitary man with a crazed look barges in. I don’t think I can do the rest of the scene justice, so it is probably better just to watch.

A few months ago, I finally decided to ask someone well-versed in Gandhi’s biography if they knew whether the events in the scene happened as they were portrayed. Kindly, a historian answered my question, although their response was indirect. Instead, they cited the phrase, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” This is often attributed to Gandhi and can be found on bumper stickers, internet memes, and t-shirts. However, there is no record that he ever spoke or wrote those words. Gandhi did say something along those lines, but it’s not exactly made for a t-shirt: 

If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him … We need not wait to see what others do.”

The historian’s point was that Attenborough’s scene may or may not have taken place, but it was in the spirit of what Gandhi advocated – redemption, overcoming human frailty, human unity. Even if it is largely fictionalized, I think the scene is so striking because it goes against the assumption that anyone who does something as horrific as deliberately killing a child (or perhaps other crimes as well) must automatically be beyond redemption.

I’m not a believer in a literal hell — or heaven for that matter — but humans have the capacity to create hellish conditions for each other right here on earth. The idea that there may be “a way out of hell” for horrific offenses – or, at least some of them – seems hopeful to me. I’m sure there is lots of room for disagreement here, but to me this idea appeals to those “better angels of our nature” that are often so elusive.  

My background in biological anthropology tells me that we’re a messy, evolved species. We are full of traits like empathy and love, but also myopic selfishness and sometimes even cruelty. It seems to me that a Gandhian (or Attenborough-ian?) path, at least every so often, is a way to keep our baser side in check in order to aspire to a gentler future.



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