Mumbai attacks survivors preach forgiveness

The group of Mumbai 25 Members of the Mumbai 25, who look for a positive outcome to the negative events

On the third anniversary of the start of the deadly attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai that left 165 people dead, the BBC's Rajini Vaidyanathan reports on some of the survivors who are preaching forgiveness in a newly published book.

The Mumbai 25 - as they were known - were in Mumbai on 26 November 2008 as part of a meditation retreat.

Two members of the group were killed in the attacks, but the survivors hope that showing compassion will bring something good from a terrible tragedy.

It was a last-minute cancellation that led Linda Ragsdale to travel from the US to Mumbai in November 2008.

She was part of the meditation retreat with 24 others from the US, Canada and Australia - on a programme organised by the Virginia-based Synchronicity Foundation for modern spirituality.

Start Quote

Charles Cannon

We are not condoning terrorist activity. It's really compassion; compassion for those human beings that you encounter who are so full of hatred that they have to be violent and act out their hatred”

End Quote Charles Cannon Synchronicity Foundation

What happened during that trip will stay with Ms Ragsdale for the rest of her life.

"I was shot in the back. The bullet travelled almost three feet, entering above the heart and following my spine, until it dipped into my stomach cavity, nicked my stomach and then exited out the top of my thigh," she says.

Ms Ragsdale was one of more than 300 people who were injured during the co-ordinated attacks.

She was having dinner in the Oberoi hotel, one of the targets for the attackers, when gunmen entered.

"My doctor in the US told me I was a miracle. One quarter inch down and it would have hit my heart, one quarter inch to the left and it would have hit my spine," she says.

The bullet may have left her with permanent scars, but she shows no anger towards those who fired it.

"The consequences of their actions was death. How does a young man of 20 think that dying is living? I cannot do anything but forgive the view this child took. Forgiveness is the gift you give yourself."

'True forgiveness'

Forgiving the perpetrators of the attacks in this way is the theme of a new book to which Ms Ragsdale and other members of the retreat have contributed.

Bonnie Sullivan, Survivor

We had just completed a meditation session and wandered into the Tiffin Restaurant in the lobby of the Oberoi hotel. Just as we finished our meal, we heard a loud bang echoing down the corridors. We quickly paid the bill and headed out to the lobby towards the elevators.

Bang! Another shot rang out as we got to the elevator. A large group of Asian tourists stood a little away. They seemed to have just arrived. I wondered about them then. And I wonder about them now. As the elevator doors were closing, the gunmen entered the lobby, firing. There was chaos all around. I went up to my room on the 10th floor and double-bolted the door.

Soon, the room began to fill with smoke and the fire alarm began to blare loudly. I wasn't sure what to do. Stay? Leave? I wet some towels, placed them under the door and lay down on the floor. When the smoke subsided, I turned on the TV with the audio off. I was hoping for some news of what was happening. Of course, it was all over every channel and I finally knew what was happening.

Forgiving the Unforgivable charts the stories of the survivors and also calls for "true, deep and unqualified forgiveness".

It was written by Master Charles Cannon, the founder of the Synchronicity Foundation, who led the retreat.

Mr Cannon says the book was penned in response to the "thousands and thousands" of people who contacted him after the group appeared on international media calling for forgiveness for the attackers.

"They told us they were inspired by what we did. This book is in response to these people."

On 26 November 2008, Mr Cannon and his group had visited an ashram in Mumbai.

After returning to the hotel in the evening, he was having dinner with two friends in his room on the 12th floor when he heard gunfire at around 21:30.

"We heard these crackling sounds, which we now know were gunfire but it was so foreign in that environment that we didn't know what it was.

"We thought it was fireworks because they are often used in Indian weddings.

"One of my friends ran out down the hall to look over the atrium and into the lobby and came running back telling us he saw two men in the lobby with AK-47s shooting and killing people."

'Living in the moment'

In the face of all of this, Mr Cannon said his meditation practice kicked in.

The cover of the book

"We were all long-term meditators, so that's how we spent our time. We remained as focused and as balanced and as calm as we could, not knowing if the hotel would explode all around us and we would all die. We were living moment by moment."

Having hidden in his room for the duration of the attacks, Mr Cannon and his companions were eventually rescued by commandos, but he faced the grim task of identifying the two members of his retreat who lost their lives.

"The hotel was like a war zone, you couldn't recognise it, it was so bloody. We walked through, stepping over bodies and debris. Two members of our group, Naomi and Alan Scherr, were in the table in the farthest back part of the restaurant."

Naomi, 13, was the youngest of the group. She had come with her father, Alan. That evening they were dining with a group which included Helen Connolly.

"When the gunfire erupted in the lobby, Alan shouted for us all to get under the table, where I remained while the gunmen swept through the restaurant with their gunfire," says Ms Connolly.

"We dived under the table, along with another Indian couple who were dining at a small table nearby. Alan, Naomi and the couple were all killed, I received only a superficial injury," she says.

Ms Connolly shares the group's sentiments in seeking a positive outcome from a negative chain of events.

"Our experience might be helpful to show that there is an alternative, conscious response that is available, rather than an unconscious knee-jerk reaction," she says.

This way of thinking is the overarching theme of the book, but for many it will be difficult to comprehend.

"You never know in advance whether tragedies are going to happen and what's important is how you meet them when they do happen," Mr Cannon says.

"We offered a different perspective on the terrorist experience than many people were accustomed to.

"We are not condoning terrorist activity. But it's really compassion, compassion for those human beings that you encounter who are so full of hatred that they have to be violent and act out their hatred."

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