Sharing Dreams: Reflecting on King, Gandhi, and Jainism at Houston's Rothko Chapel

by Katy Dycus

If you have weapons, take them home; if you do not have them, please do not seek to get them. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence. Remember the words of Jesus: "He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword." We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us. We must make them know that we love them. Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries: "Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you." This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love.

--Martin Luther King, Jr. (1956)

As we celebrate the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., this week, I reflect on his dream.

From the outside, Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, is windowless brick. But once inside, you are immersed in light. The light emanates from fourteen paintings adorning the chapel walls. A peaceful serenity stills your mind. The delicate refrains of Mark Rothko's (1902-1970) color palate remind you of the heavens, of all that you cannot conceive but wish to know.

You are invited to meditate on the infinite possibilities of the universe and presence of God. In this space, contemplation and action radiate outward -- from the personal level, to the community, to the world. Founded in 1971, Rothko Chapel was dedicated to people of all religions and beliefs.

The chapel's mission greets you even before you enter. On the plaza, Barnett Newman's majestic "Broken Obelisk" stands in memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. My first visit to Rothko Chapel on August 28, 2013, commemorated the 50th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Sitting inside, listening to King's words with eyes closed, I traced similarities between King and another inspiring leader, Mahatma Gandhi, who died sixty-six years ago this month.

Gandhi first struggled for social justice in South Africa, where he protested peacefully against discrimination against Asians as well as Africans. Returning to India before World War I, he developed a doctrine of satyagraha, a concept rooted in Jain tradition. Although many believed he borrowed from Thoreau's Civil Disobedience (1849), Gandhi offered a distinct meaning based on the principle of ahimsa, doing no harm. He intended satyagraha to mean an elimination of antagonism that did not harm the antagonists themselves, as opposed to violent resistance.

He contrasted satyagraha, holding on to truth, with duragraha, holding on by force, or "a-satyagraha" (anything but satyagraha). A person who subscribes to satyagraha does not seek to destroy or dissolve a relationship with the antagonist, but rather to transform it into something more pure. Translated as "truth force" and "love force," satyagraha acquired the name "soul force" in King's "I Have a Dream" speech. This "soul force" eventually defined the course of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.

From the Salt March in 1930 -- a nonviolent protest against the British salt monopoly in colonial India, famously led by Gandhi -- to hunger strikes and prison sentences, India's years of nonviolent struggle culminated in independence in 1947. King later wrote that Gandhi's teachings -- heavily influenced by Jainism -- were "the guiding light of our technique of nonviolent social change." King carried Gandhi's commitments into the future. And Indians embraced King's social justice, human rights, and racial equality campaigns because of shared values, struggles, and strategies.

Many leaders of the nonviolent movement in India watched King with increasing interest. After visiting the United States in 1956, India's Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru expressed regret that he did not meet King. In January 1959, Harishwar Dayal of the Indian Embassy invited King to visit India on behalf of the Gandhi National Memorial Fund. King accepted the invitation, arriving in India on February 10, 1959.

He declared that he would be a tourist in other countries but in India, a pilgrim. King and his wife Coretta Scott King dined with Nehru, toured the country, and met with political leaders, scholars, and everyday citizens to discuss issues of economic policy, poverty, race, and global peace. In a broadcast on All India Radio, King urged listeners to follow the way of love and nonviolence that Gandhi embodied. This visit reignited a fierce commitment to peaceful protest that informed his later efforts, including the historic March on Washington on August 28, 1963.

On August 28, 2013, sixty people of all ages, religious, socio-economic, and ethnic backgrounds gathered inside Rothko Chapel to engage with the words of Reverend King, which were as resonant and dynamic as they were fifty years ago. Afterwards, diversity trainer and author Tracy Brown moderated a discussion and challenged us with questions:

What do you think of the state of Dr. King's dream for the beloved community? What can we do individually and collectively to support the dream? Do we need a new dream?

I responded: "My dream is for each of us to acknowledge that everyone else's dreams exist." As each person in attendance shared his or her dream, I saw how all of these individual wishes meant something richly important for the whole. Following the forum was a reception on the lawn, where guests sat beneath a canopy of stars and shook hands with strangers.

This evening was a picture of the best dream of all -- that we keep talking to one another in the sharing of our dreams.

Katy Dycus is a staff writer for Mammoth Trumpet. She holds a Master of Letters in British Romanticism from Glasgow University and has worked as a university instructor and freelance editor. Having lived in Scotland, India, and the United States, Katy is inspired by multicultural contexts and interdisciplinary projects. She enjoys playing soccer, cooking meals inspired by her mother's Vietnamese dishes, and playing jazz piano. In a few weeks, she will be moving from Texas to the Netherlands.