Thursday, 25 June 2009


"A realised one sends out waves of spiritual influence in his aura, which draw many people towards him. Yet he may sit in a cave and maintain complete silence." - Ramana Maharshi

Well, I made it. Four months or incredible adventures across the vast landscape of India which took me from such epic sights as the Taj Mahal and the Great Temple of Thanjavur to the natural beauty of Karnataka and the backwaters of Kerala. I saw every religion known to man in operation - Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism, even Bahai (ok so I didn't see Taoism or Shinto, but nobody's perfect) - and drank deep on the mystic wonder of the country. It wasn't all roses. I saw and smelt more shit and faeces than I care to remember, although even that experience came to be an integral part of the whole journey. I remember getting out of a bus to take a photo of the most breathtaking sunset I had ever seen only to be assailed by a wall-like stench of stinking piss... But this was towards the end of my time there and so, almost completely assimilated, I realised then that it wasn't going to faze me anymore. Majestic beauty and utter squalor were all One... India had done its magic...

While I was out there, of course, I couldn't avoid the ubiquitous presence of the Guru. Everywhere you go in India Holy Men and Women abound. While such people barely exist over here, in India they are still very much part of the landscape. Indeed one of them, Sai Baba, claims that India is the last country on Earth where a Guru can completely incarnate. The argument is that the inherent spirituality of the people is still so communally great that, consciously or unconsciously, they can still provide an environment in which the soul of the Guru can fully realise itself. Inherent in this idea is that we are ALL involved in creating a spiritual condition in which things can grow. Thus a genuine Guru is an expression of a collective aspiration towards inner growth... Its a beautiful, anti-elitist idea and says something about how we are all able to make a contribution to the wellbeing of everyone else. But it takes a society which hasn't turned its back on the idea of spirituality to happen en masse. Makes you think about where we are in our part of the world with our rampant materialism and skepticism and what kind of environment that creates for the Spirit to soar....

Cultural comparisons aside (and they are always simplistic), the presence of the Guru is a key element of India. There are many bogus ones, many genuine ones and many scandalous ones with some Gurus, as we shall see, accused of being all three. Not all Gurus have enormous communities attached. Some remain obscure individuals in remote parts of the country with only a few dedicated followers. Others have international organisations attached. I encountered three on my travels, visiting two of their Ashrams and actually staying on one for the greater part of the week. To my delight, it turned out that the three I encountered, two of whom were dead, one living, were three of the most important in India, so I had the chance to encounter the singular power of these three men in person. I thought I would dedicate this post which marks my return to these three men - Ramana Maharshi, Sru Aurobindo Ghose and Sai Baba...

Ramana Maharshi was one of the most famous of all the twentieth century Saints and Gurus of India. So great was his reknown that Carl Jung, when he went to India, made a point of not visiting him. Not only did he not visit him, but he wrote a lengthy article about why he didn't visit him. What is interesting about this article is the fact that he doesn't really explain why he decided not to, except that he felt that India produced Holy Men like Ramana all the time, so there was no real reason to do so. Reading between the lines, one senses that the great man was a little nose out of joint at the fame surrounding Ramana Maharshi. Perhaps everywhere he went everyone said to him 'Oh you must visit his Ashram!' so often that he got a bit fed up with it. A shame, because although the article remains a rather wonderful description of India, it would have been wonderful to know what would have happened had the two men met...

Jung, genius though he was, was always a little suspicious of Indian thought. Although he admired the wisdom of the Buddha enormously, he was not so enamoured of Vedanta and Hindu Mysticism which, to his mind, was the antithesis of his own explorations. For Jung, the purpose of existence was to realise the Self through the Individuation Process. Roughly speaking, this was the evolution of the Self, its development and growth into its fullest nature. It was not the annihilation of the Ego but the transformation of the Ego into something greater than itself, hence his interest in Alchemy with its vision of the transmutation of Lead, the Base Metal, into Gold. For Jung, the goal was to become truly oneself, images of which he included Christ, Buddha and other high expressions of mythic culture such as Mithras, Osiris, Dionysus, Odin and so on. His suspicion, or perhaps wariness about Hindu thought was that to him it was just the opposite, preaching the disappearance of the Ego/Self into the All. Thus instead of realising the Self, in his eyes Vedanta was about annihilating the Self, vanishing it into nothingness. To Jung, this was the antithesis of everything he stood for.

Which is a shame, because the teachings of Ramana Maharshi are not too far from this. His Ashram was the one I spent time on. It was a wonderful experience, even though I was there for only a few days. Had I booked months in advance I could have stayed longer but I wasn't able to even find out where the Ashram was until I got to India, and even then only through the fortuitous event that one of my friends was visiting it while I was in Coorg at the School I was teaching. It is located at the foot of Arunachala, or the Red Mountain, near the town of Tiruvannamalai, a centre of pilgrimage in Tamil Nadu. Arunachala is revered as a physical embodiment of Siva in his guise as the element of Fire (Agni). Legend has it that he manifested as an infinite lingam, or column of flame to prove to Vishnu and Brahma how superior he was to them. Every year in November Sadhus light an enormous pyre there to commemorate this event and, down below in the town, there is an enormous, white-towered Temple honouring Siva as Divine Fire, one of a network of four other Temples in Tamil Nadu which represent his other guises as Divine Water, Air, Earth and Spirit.

Ramana Maharshi didn't found the Ashram, it grew up around him. He arrived at Arunachala as a boy of 16 having had a life-transforming near-death experience which made him understand his existence as Pure Consciousness. I will post his own famous description of the event in the Comments box as a note (1) but, in a nutshell, he underwent a living experience of death in which he felt his body go numb and inert like a corpse. Immediately as this happened, he realised the truth that his body was only a temporary vehicle for something more eternal within - the Higher Consciousness which the Vedantists call the Atman, or World Soul, of which our own individual Atma, or Soul, is part. Suddenly Ramana Maharshi lost all fear of death and from then onwards dwelt in an awareness of this state of Pure Consciousness. He tried to continue life as a schoolboy of 16 and then, thanks to a vision or sense of yearning, found himself leaving his home town of Madurai and undergoing a pilgrimage to Arunachala where he spent the rest of his life, having been guided to the place he needed to be.

Its worth taking a pause here and explaining a little bit about Vedanta and Hindu Mysticism which is the uniting factor of the three Gurus I am discussing here. The word Vedanta stems from the Vedas, the name given to the holy hymns and prayers which form the foundation of Hindu culture. These prayers were 'channelled' by ancient Brahmin Priests of the Aryan conquerors who first poured down into the Indus valley from the Himalayas millenia ago, Veda simply meaning 'Knowledge' (interestingly, the same term for the Western concept of Gnosis and, in a sense, Kabbalah, which means 'received tradition'). Vedanta is the movement or 'Way' which grew out of these divinely inspired hymns and the later Upanishads which supplemented their wisdom. Vedanta, to the surprise of most people who view Hinduism as essentially Polytheistic, is fundamentally Monotheistic. The Vedas and the Upanishads posit the existence of a single Spirit without Form or Limit known as Brahman. This Spirit is universal, omnipresent, immanent and transcendent, containing and sustaining everything, even the Gods. Brahma, Siva, Vishnu, Krishna, Ganesh. Lakshmi, Kali, Durga et al are seen as avatars of Brahman, expressions of this single Spirit which is everywhere. The idea is very much like the Ain Soph of Kabbalah, the One of the Hermetica, the Concealed God of Apophatic Theology, the Tao of Lao Tzu, the Great Spirit of the Lakotah Indians etc etc. Brahman is found in everything, simultaneously everywhere and nowhere and, most powerfully, in the human soul, as the Upanishads reveal. This is the source of their inherent beauty, a beauty which is also sublimely simple, for the Upanishads reveal the essential truth that Brahman is in us just as we are in Brahman. When we know this, and the knowledge is not dependent upon rituals or obedience or penance, 'we go to God' as the sages say.

Vedanta was of special interest to the Quantum Physicists, most particularly Nobel Prize Winners Erwin Schroedinger and Eugene Wigner for a very simple reason: Brahman was defined as Consciousness, or rather Universal Consciousness. The three key terms with which the Vedantists describe Brahman are SAT, CHIT and ANANDA which translate variously as Being, Consciousness and Bliss or Existence, Awareness, Joy (keen syncretists might want to think of the parallels between this trinity and the Trinity of Christianity). The central term, CHIT, is the key one here, as Consciousness is the prime element of Brahman. Given that the Quantum Physicists were keenly interested in the role Consciousness played in the operation and cohesion of the Universe, the Vedantic concept of CHIT was especially important to them. So it was to Ramana Maharshi and, as we shall see, the two other Gurus I encountered.

Ramana's fundamental teaching was that everything was Pure Consciousness. Indeed, Pure Consciousness was the only Reality. Understanding of this was found in the Atma, or Self, also translated as the Soul. If the Seeker could truly understand this, then the antinomies and conflicts of life would come to an end and he or she would dwell in a constant state of ANANDA, or Bliss, as Maharshi himself did. Thus the actual teachings he gave were very simple, often stubbornly so, for Maharshi was very hostile to all esoteric discussion or enquiry which distracted from the pursuit of this knowledge of the Self. Although he knew his way around all the different concepts of Vedanta, he discouraged speculation on Creation, the Nature of Reality, Reincarnation etc, not because he thought they were false, but because he believed what he called 'Self-Enquiry' was the true route to what he was teaching.

'Self-Enquiry' was the exploration of one's own Consciousness. As one's Atma was the seat of this Consciousness and the bridge to the Atman (World Soul) which was One with Brahman, Maharshi urged his followers to ask 'Who is asking the question?' - in other words to go inwards beyond the waking self into the Brahmanic Self which was behind it. Vedanta recognises four levels of Consciousness, each of which is contained within the four syllables of the Sacred Word OM, pronounced AUM. These levels are Waking Consciousness (A), Sleeping Consciousness (U), Dreaming Consciouness (M) and Brahmanic or Cosmic Consciousness (the Silence after uttering the Word). By asking 'How may the Knower be Known', by passing through the different levels of Consciousness, back through all the different illusions which we call the 'I' to the Universal Consciousness, the Seeker would discover the Brahmanic state of Pure Consciousness that each of us truly is. At this moment, Liberation would occur and ANANDA would fill the Soul... As Ramana said, with characteristic simplicity: "Just be the Self, that is all."

Maharshi lived and taught in the Ashram and in two caves higher up on the Mountain where he sometimes retired with only his Mother for company for extended periods of meditation. He never wrote anything and most of the books that contain his teachings were compiled by Disciples who transcribed his different conversations. If one is looking for elaborate cosmological systems or detailed moral teachings, one is likely to be disappointed, as Maharshi tended to turn every conversation back to his central point. Some listeners found themselves baffled as he tried to head them off from fruitless questions about, for instance, how Reincarnation worked. On one occasion, when a listener was expressing frustration that he had not yet had a vision of Siva, he said to him: 'What is more real? The vision of Siva or the person having the vision of Siva? Ask first who is having the vision.' As an example of how he would try to bring back any inquirer to his central truth it is probably unsurpassed.

Even such conversations were rare as more often than not, Maharshi preferred to 'teach' by sitting in silence among his followers, merely emanating his condition of dwelling in a state of Pure Consciousness. To we skeptical Westerners, this sounds ridiculous, mere poppycock designed to dupe the gullible at worst, a way of avoiding doing anything at best. But I can say from experience that a visit to the Ashram reveals the reality of what these silent teachings must have been. Rudolf Steiner, in his writings about Christ and the Buddha, speaks of how when the soul of these individual incarnate in physical bodies, they do important work but the work is, by necessity, impeded by the obviously obscuring nature of human communication. When they die, their physical bodies give way to an etheric presence - ie the earthly Christ becomes the Cosmic Christ or Holy Spirit, for instance - and the work of the former individual takes on a new, more universal, intuitive but at the same time more easily accessible and effective mode. The physical presence gives way to the all-pervading presence. If this is so, it explains the extraordinary atmosphere of the Ashram and its Meditation Room in particular...

The Ashram is approached by a ten or twenty minute auto-rickshaw ride from the bus station of Tiruvannamalai, which, like so many small Indian towns, is a mixture of wreckage, chaos, suffering and squalor but also warmth, vibrancy and life. The road outside the gates are lined by shops, beggars, crumbling temples and the whacked-out looking Sivaite Sadhus who tend them. Inside the Ashram the atmosphere is infinitely calm, as if noise and sound tread respectfully around the trees and buildings within. The only real noise one hears are the sudden, cacophanous outbursts of the many peacocks and peahens that roam freely there along with the monkeys that bounce around regularly. These peacock choruses are such a prominent feature of the place that they even found their way onto the intro of Kula Shaker's first single, GOVINDA, a song to Krishna put to a rock beat ( They roam around the small collection of huts and buildings that make up the Ashram, which include the administrative centre, complete with bookshop, the Temple to Siva, which includes a shrine to Ganesh and a monument to Ramana Maharshi himself, a dining hall, the Samadhis, or mausoleums of deceased Saints and Teachers, some other hust which serve as accomodation for the Priests and elders of the community and the Meditation Room.

In keeping with the spirit of the man, there is no strict regimen to the Ashram. What programme of events there is fits on a single piece of paper, most of which describes meal times and a few Pujas (ceremonies) and daily readings. No compulsory Yoga classes, no doctrines or teachings being pushed. Instead, one is allowed to roam free, respectful of others, to experience the place as one wants. The effect is to plunge you into a wonderfully calm, contemplative mood, in which nothing is expected of you and so everything becomes possible. One can sit in the main Siva Temple, made in exquisite marble, meditate, or simply watch the people coming and going, praying and circumambulating the shrine. It is the same for the monument to Maharshi and the other Temple building. One can listen to the readings, walk the shrine oneself, drink in the Vedic hymns sung by the Priests at key moments (even without knowing the Sanskrit the effect of the sound is incredible) or even, if one is so inclined, stay in one's room, thinking, resting and reading. At the opposite end of the scale, its possible to pass through a gate at the back of the Ashram and walk up the mountain to the two small caves where Maharshi used to live and meditate for years on end. Be warned, its something of a trek, and given the baking sun, make sure you take water. Oh, and watch out for the 'helpful' guides!

Meals in the Ashram are communal. One sits on the floor with everyone else and eats off a banana leaf food which is so delicious it baffles the mind. In fact these communal meals were a highlight of my stay there. The group feeling of equality, friendship, lack of pretention and togetherness was wonderful and gave me an insight into what life in a monastery or special community might have once been like.

But the real sense of presence is felt in the Meditation Room. It is here that the true magic of Ramana Maharshi is most tangible and where one understands what his 'silent sermons' must have been to experience. I went in on my first day, aware of the Room's reputation thanks to a leaflet my friend had given me which described the overwhelming feeling of the 'sense of Presence' there. I still wasn't prepared for the enormous emotional experience of going in.

It is a tiny room. When he was alive, this was where Ramana Maharshi 'held court' as it were, reclining upon the bed in one corner, while his followers and disciples sat and asked him questions. Now he is gone a life-size painting of him in the Room has taken his place. The powerful atmosphere there was indeed as tangible as I was told. As with the Aurobindo Ashram which I will get to in my next post, the silence and concentration there was something I had never experienced before. I can only describe it as a kind of 'negative silence', a silence beyond silence or below silence. The people within were so steeped in their own meditations that the air felt full of a kind of hidden energy, as if the air had been made especially heavy by the collective concentration of the people within. One didn't even have to meditate to have a profound experience and some of us just sat there, looking about us, staggered by the power of the emotions we were having. I have never been very good at mediatating, but here I could do so and the effect was extraordinary.

The sense of Ramana Maharshi being there in some way was absolutely real and didn't diminish each time I returned to the Room. On each occasion I was struck be the power of the presence in the room, which increasingly felt like it was in another world. The people there were often so deep in meditation it felt like they were floating outside their bodies, or at least in a very altered state. The sense of communication with something deep, profound and benign was very moving. I myself felt that some kind of dialogue was going on just below the frequency of waking consciousness. So powerful and real was it that if you asked me today, I would tell you that I had met Ramana Maharshi. I understood easily what the books meant when they said that often he would just sit there giving off his energy to all who were present....

I was only able to stay at the Ashram for a few days but I will always be grateful for the experience. I will never forget it, or the different people and Gurus I met there and around it. Tiruvannamalai is one of the holiest towns in Tamil Nadu and Maharshi's Ashram still one of the most revered and respected in India. Its a place where one feels genuinely welcome, not coralled or patronised or told what to think or do. The people I met there were all very genuine. There was none of the false spirituality I encountered in other places of the dreadlocked, beautiful-body, yoga-on-the-beach type, nothing New Agey or bogus, just something very pure and simple and, dare I say it, humourous, as if Ramana Maharshi's welcoming, slightly wry, crooked smile was glowing in every corner of the walls...

"That pure consciousness which is the reality, and which shines without a break, as "I AM" when the mind becomes calm, is the supreme bliss." - Ramana Maharshi

Friday, 16 January 2009


As of next week, I start my voyages around the world. I fly from London Heathrow to Mumbai via Kuwait (!!!) and will travel from there down to Mysore where I will be teaching homeless kids in a remote village somewhere for about a month. After that I will be journeying around India and possibly beyond...

I will be keeping up this Blog from time to time should some mighty ideas occur to me but will also be starting up a new Blog which will just be about my Palin-like adventures in the Far East (that's Michael Palin, not Sarah Palin). Its called THE FLIGHT OF PEGASUS and will be at:

If I have time and find myself at an internet cafe anywhere I will keep the stories coming!

Hope to see you there! Wish me luck!

Pegasus x

Monday, 12 January 2009


I wouldn't normally do this, but I have been asked by various friends to put this on my Blog. I wrote it a few days ago on Facebook. Well, here goes:

Amidst the chaos and pain of what is going on in Gaza at the moment, surrounded by the shrill horror and outrage being expressed all over the world, its very hard to keep one's feet on the ground, to hold onto one's perspective and to recognise that in this crucial moment, if we do not keep hold of our sanity, all hell might break loose (if it hasn't already). In a decade steeped in violence, in which hate-mongers on every side have pursued their illegitimate goals seemingly with any kind of international pressure or law removed, this event in the Middle East still doesn't feel like one of many. We have had the Second Intifada, Sept 11, Afganistan, Iraq, July 7, Darfur, the Bali bombings, Zimbabwe, 2006's assault on Lebanon, the violence in Tibet, the violence in Burma, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Georgia and Mumbai, but still the conflict in Gaza seems or being made to seem different. The fury is greater than any of the others, the desire to punish Israel greater than ever before, the condemnation greater than before and, dangerously, the determination on both sides to throw out all humanity and drive this violent confrontation to its bitter end worse than ever. I myself have been caught in stupid and futile arguments with pro-Israelis and pro-Palestinians blind to the suffering of their opponents. Cheerleaders for Hamas, cheerleaders for the IDF seem united only in their indifference to the reality of the deaths of innocents on either side. With the world poised so precariously, as we close a decade marked by immense tension between nations who want to identify Islam as the enemy and nations who want to identify non-Muslims as the enemy, this conflict threatens to drive us all mad and push us all into further bloodlust and killing in the deranged belief that somehow this will make the world a better place. So I felt that I, at least, wanted to say something about this present conflict, if for no other reason than to have some kind of personal catharsis of my own. A million words have been spent on Israel and Palestine. A few more won't make any difference. So bear with me, even though it might be long.

Before I start, to pre-empt hysterical attacks by frothing at the mouth nuts who will mistake my argument as anti-Israeli or anti-Palestinian, let me make my position clear. I hate this violence. I want it to end. I want the children to stop dying and I don't want to hear any more justification on either side for killing. I want an Israel and a Palestine living side by side in security and peace. I want the wider 'players' who have spent this decade stoking this conflict and making sure it doesn't get resolved fairly - America, Syria, Iran - to back off and allow a settlement to be forced through. We are all hoping that Obama will make moves in this direction. Alas, the problem seems intractable. But for all the screamers and shouters out there, let me make clear that my position is both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian. So shut up before you even begin to open your mouths. Or at least read the whole of what I have written and think about it before you begin to fire off.

So what do I want to say? I want to say something reasonable about this conflict, to remind us of the bigger picture before we all go mad and do something terrible we will regret for ever. Unless we keep our heads, we cannot expect anyone on the ground to. And we are looking at the consequences of not doing that right now.

First of all, what are the origins of Zionism? And what is Zionism? Well, first of all, the term 'Zionist' simply means someone who thinks there should be a state of Israel, or a state with a 'Jewish character' in the same way that France is a nation with a 'French character' or Japan is a nation with a 'Japanese character'. That's it. Within that definition are a host of shades of meaning. The original Zionists, for instance, were secularists and socialists, who wanted a secular nation with a Jewish character built along egalitarian lines in which Arabs, Jews, Christians, Muslims etc could live together much as the Indian National Congress of Ghandi and Nehru wanted for India. Let us call this Left Wing Zionism. This tradition was the dominant one in Israel until the 70s, when the balance of power tilted towards the Right, with Likud, lead by Begin, took power, ushering in the growth of what we might call Right Wing Zionism, which is inherently nationalistic, often bellicose, and sees the whole of what it calls 'Greater Israel' as the destined property of the Israelis. Proponents of this have included Begin, Shamir, Netenyahu, Sharon et al, men who believe that the West Bank and Gaza is theirs, that the Palestinians are a lesser or at least an 'alien' people and who have always been more prepared to use violence to further their ends. It was Netenyahu who began the process of ruination of the Oslo Accords after winning the election against Peres, following the death of Rabin (an election won with the help of Hamas who shattered Israeli belief in the Accords with a lethal series of suicide attacks during the campaign) and it was Sharon who, in alliance with Bush, sent in the tanks against the Palestinians during the Second Intifada (having triggered it by visiting the Temple Mount), destroyed the infrastructure of the PA, built the Security Wall which snaked into Palestinian territory and did everything he could to bypass the Palestinians in negotiating the future boundaries of the State of Israel.

Oops. Bit of a rant there. My point is that when people babble about 'Zionism', they nearly always mean the Right Wing kind, or their fantasy of the Right Wing kind. All Left Wing Zionist opposition to it - from Labour and Meretz, from the artistic and intellectual community, from the many Human Rights movements within Israel such as Peace Now - is ignored. All Israelis are tarred as would-be Sharonites. But this is simply not true. The word 'Zionism' is an almost meaningless term in telling you what someone believes. Daniel Barenboim, for instance, calls himself a Zionist but was a personal friend of Edward Said and insisted on giving concerts for the Palestinians even during the Intifada. Artists such as Joshua Sobol, the Israeli playwright who wrote the great play GHETTO, has spent his life working with Palestinians and Israelis, protesting against the Zionist Right and even speaking in the Knesset in protest against the violence going on in the Territories. And then there are the Refuseniks, the young Israeli soldiers who will defend Israel but refuse to serve in the Territories. The truth of Israel is intensely complex. It serves no-one to lump every Israeli into the group-all term 'Zionist' as if this word effectivly means 'Jewish Nazi Who Wants To Kill Palestinians'. And yet so often this is what happens.

Where did Zionism come from? Well its founding father, as it were, was Theodore Herzl, an Austrian Jew who kicked off the dream of a Jewish homeland as a political reality in the 19th Century. Zionism is so often viewed in isolation that it is almost always forgotten that it emerged in a climate where movements for national self-determination were gathering ground all over the world. In Europe, movements of national unity and independence were gaining ground in Germany, Italy and what was then the Austrian Empire. 1871 saw the founding of the unified states of Germany and Italy, four years after the political campaigns of Ferenc Deak had negotiated the double-monarchy of Austro-Hungary. After the failed rebellion of 1848, the Hungarian leadership had been agitating for equal rights within the Empire and, rather than lose everything, the Austrian Imperial family agreed to the compromise of a dual administration. Thus all over Europe formally oppressed or divided people were demanding representation. And not only in Europe. In India the Indian Mutiny/First War of Independence rocked the British establishment to its core and forced it to reorder its rule of the country. People wanted freedom and nationhood. It was in this climate that Herzl found himself inspired to agitate for a Jewish nation. Zionism didn't just sprout out of nowhere. It followed a logic. If a lot of other stateless or disenfranchised people could have a nation, why not the Jews? It kind of makes sense. And indeed its still a question I would like to hear a satisfactory answer to from those who call themselves anti-Israeli!

Nor was Zionism initially violent or aggressive. At the time of the beginning of Zionist immigration to the Middle East, there was no Israel or even Palestine. The region we now refer to was a backwater in the sprawling Ottoman Empire. The early Zionists hoped that as they appeared in the region, developed it and helped it to prosper, the indigenous Arabs would see the benefits and let a Jewish state take form. Deeply naive, perhaps, but it was what they told themselves. Violent Zionism didn't begin until the interwar years, when a Zionist settler called Jabotinsky developed the Iron Wall doctrine in reaction to the attacks Jews were experiencing at the hands of Arabs throughout the 20s and 30s. The official Zionist leadership - Weizmann etc - didn't like Jabotinsky because of his miltancy and still sought to find a way of co-existing with the Arabs and winning a state through careful development and negotiation. Jabotinsky' s view as one of those who took up arms to protect his fellow settlers, was that the Arab world would, quite understandably, never agree to a Jewish state and would oppose it militarily. The only way to force them to come to an accomodation with the Jews was to present an 'Iron Wall' - in other words to make the Jews so invincible that the Arabs would eventually realise that they could not be defeated by violence and would have to come to the table. What is significant about Jabotinsky, however, is that, unlike his successors such as Netenyahu or Sharon, he didn't believe in perpetual war. At some point negotiation would happen, even after a lot of fighting. At some point the time would come for a settlement.

At first Jabotinsky was expelled from the official Zionist movement who saw him as a violence- monger and an enemy to their efforts to develop peaceful relations with the Arabs. But inevitably as the violence escalated, even the official movement began to take on board some of his ideas. They never allowed the extremist parties such as Irgun and the Stern Gang to be part of the fold (something anti-Zionists ignore or forget when they attack Israel's history) but the Iron Wall doctrine still became a central part of Israeli policy. From 1948 to 1973 and, theoretically throughout the 90s, Israel's Labour Party operated in the belief that the day would come when no more wars would have to be fought and a peace could be made with the Arab world. Indeed, the peace treaties with Egypt in 1977 (sealed by Likud but prepared by Labour) and with Jordan in 1994 suggest that their belief might have been within reach - as were the optimistic days of the early Oslo Accords. But since the Second Intifada, the possibility of any kind of peace must seem so remote now. But its worth knowing about this Iron Wall policy when evaluating the Israeli 'disproportionate response' to Palestinian and Arab attacks. Israel operates with the belief that it is a tiny nation surrounded by enemies. It can only keep its position in these circumstances by maintaining total miltary superiority. If it shows any weakness, it opens itself up to attacks. Thus retaliation has always been a key element in Israeli foreign policy. Negotiations will only happen when they feel secure and in a position of strength, which is why the failure of the 2006 Lebanese War was so disastrous for them and why they are going all out against Hamas. Once the Myth of Israeli invincibility is lost, they believe they will be wiped away. This is not a justification for Israel's actions, its an explanation of the psychology behind it. Expecting the Israelis to operate along the standards of European nations who have lived in peace for 60 years is a hiding to nothing and a hypocrisy. They live under immense real and imagined pressure. Unless they are handled with this awareness, nothing will move forward. The Israelis will not negotiate unless they feel safe. And they don't.

The source of this 60 year problem is, of course, the famous (or infamous, depending upon your view) Balfour Declaration of 1917. In this Declaration, the Zionists secured from Balfour an expression of support from the British Empire for the establishment of a Jewish homeland so long as the religious or political rights of the Palestinians were protected. The British made this Declaration for two reasons. Firstly, they needed the Zionists' support in the region in their campaign against the Ottoman Turks, who were then allies of Germany and Austro-Hungary in the First World War. Secondly, because they never thought they would have to keep it as a promise. At the same time as the British were promising the Zionists a nation, they were promising the Arab tribes self-determination and nationhood if they agreed to help them against the Ottomans as well. Who cam forget the famous scene in Lawrence of Arabia in which Lawrence demands of Allenbrooke assurances for the promise he has made to the Arabs that they can have independence after the war? Allenbrooke hesitates for a moment, his face drops and then suddenly he remembers himself, smiles and then says enthusiastically 'Of course'. In the end, Britain never kept any of its promises either to the Arabs or the Jews. Instead, after WW1, France and Britain carved up the Ottoman Empire into protectorates and client states. Britain got Egypt, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Jordan while France got Syria and Lebanon. The aims of Arab Nationalism got nowhere and the Zionists got nothing. At the root of this conflict, then, lies the duplicity of the British Empire.

And it doesn't stop there. Britain held onto Palestine as a Protectorate until 1947 when the Arab-Jewish violence became too much. At the same time, the Zionists ,driven to desperation, had embarked upon a campaign (yes, a terrorist campaign) against the British authorities to force them to keep their promise in some way. All this came to a head in 1947 when Britain threw up its hands and passed the problem onto the UN. Its a common lie that Israel was created out of the world's desire to make amends for the horror of the Holocaust. This simply isn't true. If this was true, why didn't it happen in 1945 or 46? In actuality, the Jewish refugees from the Holocaust were being kept in camps all over Europe, with no-one willing to take them in - not America, not Britain, not anywhere. Most of them were told by the Allied authorities to go home to the countries they had come from - Poland, Russia, the Baltic States etc - the very populations which had enthusiastically collaborated with the Nazis to have them exterminated. Attempts by Jewish refugees to get to Palestine were blocked by the British. Driven mad by desperation, the Jews in the region embarked on the campaign of violence against the British authorities, a campaign not, alas, that different to that waged by Palestinians in the Territories over the last two decades. It was when all this became unmanageable that Britain gave up and, as with the issue of India and Pakistan, pulled out unceremoniously without ensuring a clean or just handover behind them.

The UN came up with an utterly unworkable plan which created a binational Israeli-Palestinian state in the region divided up like four quarters of a single state with Israel taking the top left and bottom right parts and the Palestinians taking the top right and bottom left. There were hopes that this would force the two communities to work together economically and politically. Some say that the plan was deliberately set up to fail. It was expected that the Arab states would reject the plan (which they did) and invade, driving the Zionists out. Indeed, the Arab armies were largely armed by the countries which had drafted the UN Declaration, while an arms embargo was put on Israel. The Jordanian Army was led by British officers (the famous Gen Glubb Pasha was head of the Jordanian Legion). The only nation to supply Israel with arms was, you will be surprised to learn, the Soviet Union under Stalin, who hoped it could be used as an ally against America in the region. Alas, this plan failed, although contrary to popular belief, America only became a staunch ally of Israel in 1967 after it defeated the Soviet-backed Arab states. Before then, it had remained either neutral or hostile, as in 1956 when it opposed the British-French-Israeli campaign against Egypt over the Suez Canal. From then until 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the region was another Cold War battlefield, just like South Africa, with Israel backing Saudi Arabia and Israel and the Soviet Union backing Egypt, Syria and Jordan at different times. Its no coincidence that the Oslo Accords happened at the same time as Apartheid had come down. The PLO and the Arab states no longer had the USSR behind them and America no longer saw itself as needing to support an ally in its struggles as it had done now that the old enemy had disappeared. George Bush Snr pushed forward the peace in South Africa, Clinton went for a peace between Israel and Palestine. In a time when there was no Big Bad Guy waiting in the wings, peace seemed in reach. Again, its no coincidence that, under Bush and the so-called 'War On Terror' support for the Right Wing in Israel from Washington has been unquestioning. Maybe without a wider peace, a specific peace in the region will not happen.

There is, then, a history to this conflict. One which we forget (or don't know about) but which the people on the ground do not. Indeed, it informs everything they do. The chaos of the 1948 War, in which there was an exchange of populations similar to that between India and Pakistan over Partition, is surrounded by claims and counter claims of ethnic cleansing and duplicity. About 300000 Jews were driven out of their homes by the Arab armies at the same time as 300000 Palestinians were driven out of theirs by the Israelis, a fact almost wholly forgotten, largely because the difference was that the Jewish refugees had a home to go to while the Palestinians didn't. Since then, after 60 years, the Palestinians remain far away from their dream of a homeland. Even their fellow Arab nations have not allowed them self-determination. Between 1948 and 1967 the West Bank and Gaza were annexed by Egypt and Jordan. Palestinian refugees in all the neighbouring states are not taken in or given citizenship, with the exception, now, of Jordan. Instead they languish in camps every bit as squalid as those in the Occupied Territories. Wars have been conducted against them by Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, often because of Arafat's attempts to overthrow the governments of those countries. In the Territories, the Palestinian people have been bombed, shot at, starved, imprisoned, blockaded, bulldozed and had settlement after settlement built on their land (this is an inescapable and unjustifiable fact even for those who are pro-Israel). They have been allowed precisely two elections - one in the 90s which Arafat won, cancelling any others which he thought he would lose, and one in 2005 which Hamas won. Even if one is a supporter of the state of Israel, it is hard to look at videos of the living conditions of the two peoples and not be disgusted by the disparity in comfort. What the Palestinians have had to put up with is hopelessly unfair to say the least. It is no wonder that the population has been driven almost mad with fear, suffering, pain and rage.

At the same time not a day or week has gone by in the whole history of Israel without some kind of attack across their borders. They have had to fight four wars against their neighbours - in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 - all against overwhelming odds (there were more tanks on the Syrian Border in 1973 than on the entire Russian front when Nazi Germany invaded in 1941) and have become embroiled in Lebanon again and again since the 80s. Meanwhile they have had to defend themselves against constant border attacks over the years from the PLO, Hizbollah and Hamas and relentless suicide attacks throughout the 90s, especially during the period of supposed negotiations during the Oslo Accords. Meanwhile on the airwaves, threatening proganda pours their way from Iran, Syria, Lebanon and God knows where from. Land-grab or not, the Security Wall is a symbol of how terrified and despairing the Israeli population is, however tough and defiant they may appear to the world. Nobody stops to think about the fact that unique among the nations of our planet, Israel is the only country which has some form of security wall around all its borders. It is totally encased in defences of concrete or barbed-wire and wood, protecting it from attacks from Hizbollah in the north, Hamas in the south and suicide bombs all along the border of the West Bank. If Israel do end up holding on to the Palestinian land west of the Wall, it will come at a cost. People often liken Gaza to a prison. Israel is destined to become one big bunker or fortress, or, dare I say it, one big concentration camp. It was Begin, I think, who described the borders of Israel as the borders of Auschwitz. Seen from an Israeli point of view, it is tragic that, having escaped the original borders of Auschwitz to found their own state, they find themselves hunkered down behind another military boundary, a terrible physical symbol of how the Jewish people still see themselves in the world - friendless and needing to defend themselves at all costs as no-one else will do it for them.

None of this is a defence of Israel or justification for 300 dead Palestinian children. What it is is an attempt to get into the heads of the two communities, to try to understand where they are coming from and why they do as they do. Because if we don't, if we go on thinking that the Palestinians or the Israelis just wake up every morning deciding, without any cause, to be violent, we will get nowhere. If we continue to believe that all Palestinians are rabid, unnegotiatable-with lunatics bent on killing or all Israelis are jackbooted racists barely restraining themselves from massacring all the Palestinians, we will go on lying to ourselves and justifying any act of terror and violence. One of the ugliest elements of arguments over this issue is the tendency of otherwise rational people to pick over every death and give it a relative value. Israelis should put up with rockets and suicide bombs because they are an evil country. Palestinians should put up with their schools being blown up with their children in them because they voted for Hamas. Its no good. In all the hysteria and condemnation over this issue, the calls for economic blockades, for punishment of the Rogue State of Israel, for support for the wiping out of Hamas, the marches for Israel and against Palestine or for Palestine and against Israel, where are the voices which are calling for peace, for negotiation, for a condemnation of violence on both sides? In short, where is the march in favour of BOTH Israel and Palestine?

Why is it impossible to recognise the legitimacy of both peoples' calls for justice, security, honour? Why should the Palestinians have to live in squalor, their rights taken away, with no home? Why should the Israelis have to live in a constant state of readiness to protect themselves against threats from Hamas, Hizbollah, Iran and Syria? When the Saudis pushed forward their Peace Plan again last year, Iran wasted no time coming forward to say it wanted no part of it. We all want a solution, but it will not just depend upon Israel and Palestine. The wider players will also have to agree to stop using the conflict as a way of increasing their control of the region.

What no-one seems to understand is that whatever the outcome, security and justice for Israelis and Palestinians is going to involve them having to find way to get on with each other. A military solution is impossible, as everyone knows but will not accept. The short-term catharsis of violence gives both sides the illusion they are doing something when in fact they are not. Hamas and Hizbollah's dream of destroying Israel and creating an Islamic Republic is never going to happen. Likud's dream of a Greater Israel without any Palestinians is never going to happen. Besides all that, there is absolutely no way that an Israeli and a Palestinian state existing side by side will not find themselves intimately interwoven politically, culturally and economically. The two sides are never going to get away from each other. The only way is to find some means of living together. But while we wait for Hell to freeze over before either side realises it, we will just go on seeing this futile carnage and have to endure the hysterical and hypocritical bleating from supporters of both that they are the real victims, that their acts of violence are justified while the other's is not and that, somehow, a dead Israeli child is more or less important than a dead Palestinian one, depending upon which set of killers you are waving a flag for.

The problem is that for anyone other than an Israeli or a Palestinian, this conflict is a kind of abstraction or political game. For the protagonists, it is real. Everyone enjoys getting on their high horse about this issue, demonstrating their indignation, thrilling themselves by their moral righteousness about their anti-Imperialist stance against the Zionist Entity or refusing to back down in front of 'terrorists' and the Axis of Evil. None of it does a shred of good. The only way is going to be negotiation. We know its hard. After almost a decade of knife-edge wheeler-dealing during the nineties, with the uselessness and corruption of the Palestinian Authority's leadership on one side, and the capriciousness and impossibility of the Israeli electoral system on the other, the Oslo Accords dissolved into disaster and the Second Intifada. People wanted violence more than they wanted accord. The tragedy is they were very close. I have read the documents on the Taba negotiations and they were a breath away from sorting it out. But violence won. The Israelis blame Arafat, the Palestinians blame Barak. We know negotiations are hard. But they are the only way.

Here is what I want to happen:

1) A ceasefire now in Gaza, before either side can claim a victory. That way neither side can lose face. If Israel get bogged down and cannot defeat Hamas, it will be a disaster for them as everyone will know they can be beaten. If they wipe out Hamas and flatten Gaza, it will never be forgotten or forgiven by the Palestinians. Stop the fighting now. Israel lets humanitarian aid in and lifts the blockade while Hamas agrees to cease firing rockets. All hostilities will cease. If need be an international force polices the borders, as Israel has asked for.

2) Once a ceasefire has been established the main international powers involved, or the Quartet as we call it, pushes forward with a non-partisan plan to bring both sides to the table for negotiations. This will involve Israel recognising Hamas as a democractically elected government and Hamas recognising Israel's right to exist. People tend to forget that Israel has been asking Hamas to do that. If Hamas are a democractically elected leadership and so should be recognised, so should Israel be recognised by Hamas, as it too has a democratically elected government.

The Palestinians should be represented by a power-sharing Government consisting of Fatah and Hamas, as was possible a while ago. Unless the Palestinians are united, they will never hope to get anywhere with Israel.

3) Taking either the Taba Negotiations of the Saudi Peace Plan, negotiations need to begin involving all the regional players - Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Egypt etc - to create a comprehensive and just peace for all parties. Incentives MUST be given by the international community to both sides to compromise and find a way towards common ground. If need be, threats of economic sanctions will have to be used to gain leverage, although it would be great to avoid this. George Bush Snr managed to force Shamir to the table with the Palestinians in the 90s by threatening to freeze the US subsidy to the country. If any party - and I mean ANY party, not just the Israelis if anyone thinks that is what I am saying here - refuses to cooperate, such leverage will have to be used.

4) All violence will have to cease on all sides - Hamas, Hizbollah, Israel etc. Both Israelis and Palestinians must be enabled to live without the threat of death coming through their door at any moment.

The only way in which there will be a solution is if this concerted, unified effort takes place. Everyone is hoping that Obama will embark on such a process once he is in power. But no-one knows if this will happen or if a settlement will be possible. All we do know is that there is no other way. The signs are not terrific. The arch-revenant of the Right, Netenyahu, the architect of the destruction of Oslo (and, some say, one of the voices which helped lead to the atmosphere of extremism that lead to Rabin's death), looks like returning like some creature from the Living Dead. Clinton couldn't make him play ball. Obama will have a real struggle to bring him to the table. On the Palestinian side, there are only signs of disarray, despair and disunity, with no clear, strong, pragmatic leader to unite their people. But if we don't do it, the pain will go on, the violence will go on and the conflict will continue to serve as a means to polarise the world community, to inflame passions and encourage extremists to further war and bloodshed. Other than a new push for peace, what alternative is there?

One thing we can all do is refuse to give in to hysteria and refuse to shout loudly for the punishment of one side or the other. We are not there. We are safe in our homes. Taking sides, while emotionally satisfying in the short run, will not help any more. We have to aim for something else - the reconciliation of the two peoples. If we can't do it from this distance, how can we expect them to?

And if we don't, we could find ourselves bearing witness to an even greater catastrophe, one which will devastate both communities. Its unthinkable. Ask yourself: do you really want that?