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Journey of the Traumatized Hero: Kerouac’s On the Road and Gandhi’s Railroad Ride

Journey of the Traumatized Hero: Kerouac’s On the Road and Gandhi’s Railroad Ride

The art of living is the ability to use life’s inevitable traumas in some constructive fashion. This occurs on an odyssey that the resilient take that could be termed “the Journey of the Traumatized Hero.”

This is based on comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell’s Journey of the Hero. In this essay I compare the journeys taken by Jack Kerouac described in On the Road to the one of Mohandas K. Gandhi’s, related in My Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth. They are vastly different but in one important respect remarkable similar. It marked a turning point in their lives.


Following it, Kerouac drank himself to death whereas Gandhi formulated two important concepts by which he lived the rest of his life. The turning point for both occurred at the “Abyss” in a schematic representation of the journey Campbell described. Both died, in a figurative sense. Kerouac, unlike Gandhi, was never reborn. The successful completion of the journey of the traumatized hero requires resilience. Their traumas, resilience and journeys are described in this essay.

resilienceGandhi’s Traumatic Railroad Ride and the Concepts of Satyagraha and Ahimsa
After completing law school in London at the age 23-years, Mohandas K. Gandhi (  ) left India once again to go to South Africa where legal work awaited
him. About a week after arriving, he was asked to travel from Natal to the capital of the Dutch-governed Transvaal province of South Africa for his case.

Gandhi purchased a first-class ticket but was told that he couldn’t sit in the compartment because he was a “coolie” (derogatory term for a non-white person) and would have to sit with third-class passengers. When he refused to move, a policeman threw him and his baggage off the train.

“It was winter,” Gandhi wrote, and “the cold was extremely bitter. My over-coat was in my luggage, but I did not dare to ask for it lest I should be insulted again, so I sat and shivered.” Sitting in the cold of the railroad station after being thrown off the train, Gandhi contemplated whether to return home to India or stay in South Africa and fight racial discrimination.

I was afraid for my very life. I entered the dark waiting-room. There was a white man in the room. I was afraid of him. ‘What was my duty?’ I asked of myself. ‘Should I go back to India or should I go forward, with God as my helper, and whatever was in store for me?’ I decided to stay and suffer. My active non-violence began with that date.

Gandhi’s decision was like that of David deciding to confront Goliath, in this case racial discrimination. It launched his campaign for improved legal status for Indians in South Africa who, at that time, suffered the same discrimination as black people in the United States. He used the trauma of the railroad coach for self-transformation, providing himself with a raison d’tre—the fight against injustice.

He spent the next twenty years working to improve the rights of Indians in South Africa. The train journey from Durban to Pretoria that he took is the prototypical journey of the traumatized hero.

Ahimsa and Satyagraha
In the mountains where he was thrown off the train, he decided that he would not express violence of any kind, and the concept of Ahimsa (Sanskrit a, “without” + himsa “injury”) (Non violence) came to him. It means to maintain not to hurt any sentient being, even minimally, through thought, word or act and is based on the premise that all sentient beings are interconnectedness s and that violence entails karmic consequences.

He also evolved the concept of satyagraha (“insistence on truth” from satya, “truth” + agraha, “grasp”). This involves refusing to submit to or cooperate with anything perceived as wrong, while adhering to the principle of nonviolence in order to maintain mindful equanimity required for insight and understanding.

This was Gandhi’s boon:

I have learned through bitter experience the one supreme lesson: to conserve my anger and as heat conserved is transmitted into energy, even so our anger controlled is transmitted into power.

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