The Dharma of Lincoln

by Aranyakananda

My wife and I went to see the anxiously awaited (in my household anyroad) “Lincoln” starring Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role tonight. Long admirers of Day-Lewis’s versatility, long admirers of Lincoln’s strength of character (and let’s face it Spielberg has rarely misfired) this film was a no-brainer as or next in-theater view.

Debate abounds as to what Lincoln’s intentions were in freeing the slaves in the U.S. with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. But this film was based on a Doris Kearns Goodwin novel “A Team of Rivals”, and as a history major I have long admired Goodwin’s historical insight on many topics. I can only assume that much of the script was informed by Goodwin’s impeccable insights. I was attracted to this as I know that historical-based films tend to be mired in mythology.

What this film revealed of Lincoln’s thoughts on freeing the slaves was, it’s true, not blatantly humanitarian respect for the lives of those held captive. But a respect for lives no doubt, as it sounded like he always intended to free the slaves. But his reasoning was so incredibly practical you just couldn’t argue with it. He said that had he freed the slaves right at the beginning of the war, more and more states may have seceded from the Union. Which would have made the war that much harder to win, and hence much longer and much bloodier.

The subject of a moral compass came up in the film, and Day-Lewis, as Lincoln addressed it by asking “What good is knowing true north if you follow it straight into a swamp?” Truly Day-Lewis’ Lincoln was a man who knew that moral dogmaticism leads nowhere if not informed by a good healthy amount of dharma, sense of duty.The film painted Lincoln as a man deeply driven and guided by his faith (he quoted the Bible throughout the film) but never dogmatic about right and wrong. His moral compass had situational options

This scene in the film had me musing silently about all of the tough decisions that have been made by President’s Obama and Bush. Though I have not always agreed with the tough calls they have had to make, thinking about this swamp metaphor gave me a healthy respect for those who have to make decisions, like them or not. Sometimes the right is not evident immediately.

In the days leading up to seeing “Lincoln” as I patiently, dutifully, made my way through business hours, I began to muse on Lincoln. Clearly he was a karma yogi. But (and stay with me on this one) does it really matter that it was him doing said karma? Surely he made great moves toward his own spiritual upliftment with his work toward the abolition of slavery. But in the end, he was not the doer. He was but an avatar, as we all are to some degree. He made his choices, to be sure, and nothing can take that away from him. But really he was just historically placed as the man who was going to affect the change that was a long time coming. And I suppose getting that opportunity and accepting the responsibility was a part of his own personal karma and dharma.

My wife and I were both duly impressed with the film and its depiction of Lincoln as a man of conviction, foresight, and understanding of human nature. He seemed to know what others did not. Many times his cabinet would warn him that there was no way he could end slavery AND win the Civil War. He seemed to internally delight at their collective naivete, saying “just watch me” with his eyes. In the end, Lincoln had both the war and the end of slavery.

As the film draws to a close, the war has ended, slavery has been abolished, Lincoln discusses what to do about the leaders of the fallen Confederacy. He says something to the affect that “Let’s say we just turn our backs while they leave the country and disappear?” adding that there is no good to be found in winning peace by hanging the enemy. As this had been tried so many times before throughout history and had failed, Lincoln was not only using simple but right reasoning, he was also taking the high road. They were not criminals necessarily. They simply disagreed with him, and the Union. Let it go. Make peace. Be the change you want to see in the world.

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2 Responses to The Dharma of Lincoln

  1. Dhrishti says:

    You should watch the Lincoln/Vampire Slayer movie. Obviously, far less historical, but interestingly enough still very accurately portrays Lincoln as a man of dharma.

    • treadmarkz says:

      We watched that one too, but I guess I was too en(gross)ed by the silliness of it all to analyze it in such a way, but I suppose you are right.

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