A Morning with Kantidada
As part of our 30-day “in-turnship” a group of us have been visiting different elders and friends in the community to learn about their service journeys, perspectives, and life values and philosophies. Last week, we visited Kantidada, a seasoned yet simple sculptor in his late eighties with glowing eyes, electrifying white hair, and an incredible lightness of spirit.
Born in Indonesia, he was influenced by the values of Gandhi in his early childhood and moved to Ahmedabad at the age of nine. In his adulthood, he created many statues of Gandhi, including one that now stands in New York City’s Union Square. His life carries the rhythm of the clay he molds—grounded in a simplicity that unveils the beautiful “game” of existence, an undeniable sense of oneness, and the ebb and flow of the human spirit.
Today, the path to his studio is bordered by an elementary school on the far side, and a vibrant fruit orchard. You arrive at his doorstep wondering what kind of sanctuary you’ve just entered, in the midst of the bustling city of Ahmedabad. When the door opens and you step inside, towering clay and bronze statues of various figures throughout history instantly greet you.
For two hours, he graciously sat with us, answering our hodgepodge of questions about life and divinity, Gandhi and Vinoba, fear, joy, and many things in-between. Below are some highlights from the conversation, including a catchy song that many of us find ourselves singing throughout the week.
Swara: We’ve only heard of Gandhi. And we’ve read about Gandhi. So how was your experience when you spent your time with him?
I was only 19 at the time, so I didn’t think much about it. But I was feeling very happy to stay with Gandhi. When I saw him at that time, it was in my mind that this man is not moving on this earth. He must have come from somewhere else, like an angel. I have seen many people prostrating as he walked. They would bow on the cement roads, and in the dust. Gandhi would be walking with a stick in hand, and many people would just come prostrate to him.
You can read his life in his autobiography. He made so many mistakes in life to speak his own truth. But for myself, I am very happy to have experienced that. Actually I was born in Indonesia. My father was a doctor there. He used to wear khadi. But when I was 9, he left me at one of Gandhi’s institutions in Ahmedabad. So I stayed there during my school years and learned how to live a simple and self-dependent life.
Rishi: If you could time-travel, what advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
Why should I go back? Go ahead. Whatever mistakes you have done in your life—forget all of them. You are already forgiven.
Meet: How relevant are the values of Gandhi and Vinoba today?
They are eternally relevant. Those who need to absorb them, will. Nobody needs to try anything. Nobody needs to make an effort. But the one who needs to absorb and embody those values will do it anyway, regardless of what anyone does or says.
If you are thirsty and you want to have water, imagine there is one river far away. The river thinks, “Someone is thirsty. I must change my course of direction to quench that person’s thirst and then flow back into the ocean.” Do you believe that this can happen? It does. If you are thirsty for a meaningful path in life, then you will attract people and conditions that will help you. It’s the theory of attraction. But that thirst must be genuine.
Lahar: Can you share some experiences from your life?
I’ve met so many adversities in life. So many. Millions of events. But I didn’t throw these adversities into the dustbin. I utilized them as opportunities for the betterment of my life. So this is the first thing—that we should not blame anything outside. If we are unhappy, it is because of you. If you are happy, it is because of you.
Lahar: Can you share some of your lessons from life?
The element of love is the real sap of life. If we can understand this, we will never hate anyone.
Audrey: How did you learn this?
The Upanishads say, “You are whole.”
We have to realize this. We are whole. Nothing is missing in us. This existence has all different kinds of instruments. There are subtle and gross ones. If we can think without being swayed by feelings of ups and downs, then we can experience some beautiful things.
Lahar: Can you speak about fear and making mistakes?
I had lots of fears in my life. During my teenage years, I used to have dreams of lions and tigers, snakes and thieves chasing me. I was running in my dreams and then I would cry out in my sleep. It happened for many, many years. So one day, I said to myself, “You foolish person! Why do you want to have fear? This will not help you in life.” I spoke to myself in such a way that my heart can go up in the sky and penetrate the sky also. So strongly and bravely. Then what happened? I started seeing my dream. Lions came. Snakes came. Tigers came. Thieves came. And I chased them all out.
So it shows that you can know your real mind. You can make friends with your true mind. Then, it will definitely guide you. When I came here forty-four years back, there were only 1,200 people. It was a small village. I was here all alone. And many villagers thought, “You are living all alone, with no watchman, and you have no fear?”
This is the greatest lesson. Gandhi spoke only the name of God: He Ram. If we collect all the knowledge from our rishis and saints, and squeeze it—if there is one drop that comes out, it is fearlessness.
Gitanjali: When you are in the process of creating something, do you ever become afraid that it won’t end up the way you want it to? That it won’t turn out to be up to the mark that you’d like it to be?
When I make something, I know 100% that this is not my creation. Suppose I made a statue of Gandhi. The first statue of Gandhi I made 45 years back—I got this work from the central government, to make this statue for the capital city of Georgetown. At that time, I only had a photograph of Gandhi and the experience of having seen him. That is all. The first stage of sculpting is clay. My instrument is this mind and these hands. When I finished this clay model—when I saw this statue—I thought, “This is not my creation.” I didn’t feel that I made this.
I learned this from Christianity. There is one book, God Calling. Two men were afraid of their lives and wanted to commit suicide. Then they saw Christ, who told them, “Why do you have this thought to commit suicide? You know why I was upon this earth? I gave my life for you. Do one thing. I will give you a message. Take this message with you for one year: The world’s praises and blames are not mine.”
If you are waiting for praise, then you will also be receptive to blame. The greatest choice is to know thyself—why we are here upon this planet. So your guide is within your own self.
Meet: How can we bring forth the values of Gandhi and Vinoba today?
If we start embodying values within ourselves, regardless of what others are doing, that’s the only way we can bring them forth.
Today, we are exposed to so many things. Even if you step out into the market, there is so much material abundance that it’s so difficult to resist, even for small children. You can test it yourself. Say you are out of sugar in your kitchen, and you want to buy more. When you go to the supermarket, go directly to the sugar. Don’t put your eyes on anything else. Just buy that one item you need and then go home. But what really happens? So many people go to the market, see all these other things, and come home with a lot more than they need. This is one way we can practice—don’t give your eyes to other things.
Pratyush: What can we do as a community—what collective practices can we do—to purify ourselves?
It’s never possible to change society. You can only change yourself. If you look at history, Christ was crucified. Socrates was poisoned. Gandhi was shot. You can never change things on the outside, you can only change what you have control over, which is yourself. As we change ourselves, if somebody chooses to learn from us, they will.
Pratyush: What practices can we do for our own internal transformation?
Ask yourself that. If you ask yourself, you will be able to receive all the answers. Most of us are seeking big things, but we don’t even know ourselves. This body itself is a miracle. We can close our eyes and go to another country, America, and meet anyone.
Just imagine this body is an apartment with five or six stories. The top floor has the tongue, and the ground floor has the stomach. Do you know that they can have a friendship? If you happen to go to a buffet dinner, this top floor—this tongue—has no bone. It will start asking for this and that—lots of tastes. So what will happen in the morning with this stomach? It will get upset and take everything out.
Trupti: You said that the essence of all life is love. Can you speak about that?
Love is very simple. Look at others as yourself. Love yourself. Look for truth within yourself. Don’t tolerate falsities. If you are hungry, then know that someone else may be hungry, so you can feed others.
John: Have water and fire been teacher for you?
The nature of water is that it wants to be with its source—the ocean. Right? And therefore, water does not have its own personal identity. Water only thinks, “I am part of the ocean.” And fire—each person has fire. Without fire, there is no life. We protect our fire by fueling it with food. When a person is dead, the body becomes cold. The fire is lost.
Audrey: What do you think about death?
Death is the greatest friend of us. Think about it—if you have no death, what will happen? After a thousand years of being alive, what will happen? What will happen to this earth? There are certain things that are not in our hands. The lifetime of a person is about 100 years, at maximum, 150. But the length of life is not important. How beautiful the jewels of your life are—that is what matters.