November 3, 2022, was a special day. On that day, Pope Francis began a four-days historic visit to the Kingdom of Bahrain, where he was given an exceptionally warm welcome. From the time he arrived in Bahrain, he set the tone of his entire visit, by asking the government of Bahrain to guarantee human rights to all and to abolish the death penalty.
Bahrain is ruled by a Sunni monarchy, which has been accused of discriminating against the country’s Shiite majority. The words of Pope Francis are certainly music to the Bahraini Shiite dissidents who are harassed and detained, subjected to torture and sham trials. Some of them have been stripped of their citizenship or sentenced to death for their political activities.
Pope Francis, however, kept his best for the pathbreaking address he delivered to a gathering of the Bahraini royalty, government authorities, the diplomatic corps, and religious and civil authorities.
Using the time-tested symbol of Bahrain’s “tree of life” as a metaphor, Pope Francis struck a chord with the august audience.
He said, “Here, where the waters of the sea surround the sands of the desert, and imposing skyscrapers rise beside traditional Oriental markets, very different realities come together: ancient and modern converge; tradition and progress mix; and above all, people from various backgrounds create a distinctive mosaic of life.
“In preparing for my visit, I learned about one outstanding ‘emblem of vitality’ in this country, which is the “Tree of Life” (Shajarat-al-Hayat). I would like to take it as my inspiration for sharing a few thoughts with you.
“The tree itself is a majestic acacia that has survived for centuries in a desert area with very little rainfall. It seems impossible that a tree of this age has been able to live and flourish in these conditions. According to many people, the secret is to be found in its roots, which extend for dozens of meters beneath the ground, drawing from subterranean deposits of water.”
He went on to focus on the need and importance of “rootedness” saying, “Roots, then. The Kingdom of Bahrain is committed to remembering and cherishing its past, which tells of an extremely ancient land, to which thousands of years ago peoples came, drawn by its beauty, due especially to the abundant springs of fresh water that gave it the reputation of being a paradise.
“The ancient kingdom of Dilmun was thus called ‘the land of the living.’ As we ascend from those vast roots – which spread over more than 4,500 years of uninterrupted human presence – we see how Bahrain’s geographical position, the talents and commercial abilities of its people, together with historical events, have enabled it to take shape as a crossroads of mutual enrichment between peoples. One thing stands out in the history of this land: it has always been a place of encounter between different peoples.”
Pope Francis then lauded the composite, multi-ethnic, multi-religious fabric of Bahrain which has overcome the risk of isolation. He added for good measure and very emphatically, “Let us think instead of the Tree of Life, your symbol, and to the parched deserts of human coexistence let us bring the water of fraternity. May we never allow opportunities for encounter between civilizations, religions and cultures to evaporate, or the roots of our humanity to become desiccated and lifeless!
“Let us work together! Let us work in the service of togetherness and hope! I am here, in this land of the Tree of Life, as a sower of peace, in order to experience these days of encounter and to take part in a Forum of dialogue between East and West for the sake of peaceful human coexistence. I thank even now my traveling companions, especially the representatives of the religions.
“These days mark a precious stage in the journey of friendship that has intensified in recent years with various Islamic religious leaders, a fraternal journey that, beneath the gaze of heaven, seeks to foster peace on earth.”
For him then, one has to embark on that fraternal journey for sustainable peace.
One cannot help but draw a parallel with another “tree of life.” In the very heart of the city of Ahmedabad stands the Sidi Saiyed Mosque named after its builder. The most exquisite craftsmanship in stone carving can be seen in this mosque, which was built around 1572. The distinguishing features of this mosque are the ten intricately carved stone windows(jalis), apparently done by a master stone craftsman from Abyssinia.
The 20th-century Indologist and art historian Vincent Arthur Smith described these jalis as the “most artistic stone lattice-work to be found anywhere in the world.” One of the windows depicts the “tree of life” with delicate intertwining of the branches of a tree. For years, this motif was the symbol of Ahmedabad and in fact, of Gujarat. It symbolized and represented all that India meant and stood for: diverse cultures, faiths, languages, traditions, peoples; everything which indeed constituted a great civilization. The idea and the reality of India: very different but deeply united. A unity in diversity. A unique tapestry, inter-woven with multi-color hues as the rays of the sun and the moon pierce the gaps of the window. A delightful experience: a marvel, simply magnificent and without parallel.
Yet on the other hand, some years ago, when the Hindu right-wing government took controls of the reins of power in Gujarat, one of their first decisions was to ensure that this replica of the stone trellis was no longer used as a symbol of Gujarat and of Ahmedabad. They quickly replaced it with the replica of a temple. In one stroke, that move underlined the tectonic shift in the mindset and attitude of the regime that controlled Gujarat: exclusive not inclusive; myopic not visionary; petty not large-hearted. Gujarat gave to the world Mahatma Gandhi and his twin doctrine of ahimsa and satyagraha – was being throttled beyond recognition. The pluralistic fabric, the diversity and the communal harmony which characterized Gujarat, has slowly and systematically given way to bitter division, hatred and violence. Religion used as a tool to manipulate people for petty political gains. The intricacy and the beauty of the “tree of life” was being poisoned at its very roots.
In another recent move that belongs to a realm of tragic irony, the prestigious Indian Institute of Management (IIM-A) on November 3, officially announced a change of its more than sixty-years old logo. The original logo had the famed “Tree of Life” on it. The new logo has some kind of tree, which is “okay;” the word “Ahmedabad” has been dropped whereas the Sanskrit text “‘Vidya viniyogadvikasa (development through the distribution or application of knowledge)” has been retained.
Some months ago, when the changed version of the logo was unveiled, it sparked off a controversy with 45 faculty members signing a letter to the top officials of the institute saying they were not consulted about the new design before it was approved. Over 1,000 IIM-A alumni, at that time, also started a petition to retain the 60-year-old logo that is inspired by the “Tree of Life.” One certainly does not need to be a rocket scientist or for that matter a management guru, to understand why the IIM-A top brass, has calmly succumbed to the political rhetoric currently holding sway in the country and distanced itself from anything seemingly of the minority community. Shame!
Pope Francis has given a road-map, not only to those who listened to him in Bahrain, but to every human on this earth. He strongly said, “Let us return to the Tree of Life. In the course of time, its many branches of varying size have produced abundant foliage, thus increasing the tree’s height and breadth. In this country, it was the contribution made by so many individuals from different peoples that enabled a remarkable increase in productivity. This was made possible by immigration. The Kingdom of Bahrain vaunts one of the highest levels of immigration in the world: about half of the resident population are foreigners, working in an evident way for the development of a country in which, despite leaving their native countries behind, they feel at home.
“At the same time, we must acknowledge that in our world unemployment levels remain all too high, and much labour is in fact dehumanizing. This does not only entail a grave risk of social instability, but constitutes a threat to human dignity. For labour is not only necessary for earning a livelihood: it is a right, indispensable for integral self-development and the shaping of a truly humane society.”
There can be no life on earth, if the culture of death continues to grip humanity. Pope Francis did not mince words as he calls for an end to war and to the building of peace.
“Second, the Tree of Life, whose roots that, deep in the subsoil, furnish vital water to the trunk, and from the trunk to the branches and then the leaves that give oxygen to creatures, makes me think of our human vocation, the vocation of each man and woman on earth, to make life flourish.
“Yet today we increasingly witness lethal actions and threats. I think especially of the monstrous and senseless reality of war, which everywhere sows destruction and crushes hope.
“War brings out the worst in man: selfishness, violence and dishonesty. For war, every war, brings in its wake the death of truth. Let us reject the logic of weapons and change course, diverting enormous military expenditures to investments in combating hunger and the lack of healthcare and education.
“I grieve deeply for all these situations of conflict. Surveying the Arab Peninsula, whose countries I greet with sincere respect, my thoughts turn in a particular and heartfelt way to Yemen, torn by a forgotten war that, like every war, issues not in victory but only in bitter defeat for everyone.
“I especially keep in my prayers the civilians, the children, the elderly and the sick. And I beg: Let there be an end to the clash of weapons! Let there be an end to the clash of weapons! Let there be an end to the clash of weapons! Let us be committed, everywhere and concretely, to building peace.”
The “Tree of Life” is then, much more than an emblem or logo; it is a metaphor and a direction: a way of proceeding. It is a journey: of rootedness to the depths and of branching out, to embrace all particularly those who need to be embraced. It is life in all its fulness – in short, it is “synodality” which needs to be lived today.
Father Cedric Prakash, SJ, is a human rights, reconciliation and peace activist/writer. Contact: [email protected]