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Gandhi For Our Times

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By Dr Satish C Aikant

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden had their first bilateral meeting at the White House, the latter made it a point to remind his counterpart of Gandhi and what he stood for. He also reiterated that, both, India and the USA shared their commitment to liberal democracy. But apart from the fact that Biden’s remark was a subtle comment on how the present-day India had veered away from the Gandhian way, one should not forget that Biden was making a larger point about the pervasive influence of Gandhian ideals worldwide. Gandhi, it must be emphasised, is not only relevant in today’s world, but is actually central to it. Political and community leaders from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi have looked upon Gandhi as the conscience keeper of the world. King never met Gandhi, but he was so inspired by his life and work that when he visited India in 1959, he declared, ‘To other countries I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim. This is because India means to me Mahatma Gandhi, a truly great man of the age.’

‘Mahatma Gandhi cannot die!’ wrote Kenneth Kaunda, first President of Zambia who proudly considered himself a disciple of Gandhi.

Gandhi launched a relentless crusade against the Empire and fought the British successfully with the unconventional weapons of truth, non-violence and civil disobedience. Today, however, a Gandhi statue stands next to the British Parliament, and when visitors from all over the world see it they associate Gandhi not with racial antipathy, or dislike of nations or faith communities differing from their own, but with the idea that humanity is one and indivisible and not divided by narrow domestic walls as Tagore concurred.

Why is Gandhi so widely influential? Because, most certainly he provided a signpost for moral living, leaving us with some valuable insights about the way life should be oriented so as not to become dysfunctional to the self, society or the world at large.

It is rather ironical that in India most of us have conveniently forgotten the Mahatma and his message. When HSL Polak, one of the Gandhi’s closest English associates, made his last visit to India the journalist Frank Moraes asked him how much of Gandhi’s teachings he thought survived in India. ‘Ostensibly a great deal,’ replied Polak, ‘In reality, very little.’ There are those who believe that Gandhi was not assassinated on one specific day; his ideals are constantly being violated and killed. It is often argued that Gandhi is no longer relevant in India. We have given up the charkha, gone in for massive industrialisation, and lapsed into communally charged frenzy on more occasions than we would like to remem¬ber. So what happened to all those Gandhian exhortations to embrace simplicity, truth and non-violence? On the face of it, it might appear that Gandhi was yesterday’s messiah whose band of worshippers is dwindling fast. But we must remember that Gandhi’s legacy is much more than the reinforcement of tradition; or of values and ideals which are impossible to uphold.”

If we still call Gandhi a Mahatma it is not because he was temperamentally an ascetic, or an obdurate spiritual seeker. These qualities may have prompted the appellation at the time when he first earned it, but they do not explain the man’s lasting legacy and his appeal to the modern man living in a crisis- ridden world. Without Gandhi India might have looked like some of the other autocracies and dictatorships that characterise so many newly independent states. If India is a secular state practicing liberal democracy it is largely due to Gandhi. The essential features of Indian Constitution – democracy, equality, secularism and pluralism -had become national pledges before Gandhi’s death. His secularism was even-handed and based on liberal principles and not on charity and goodwill.

The soul of the Mahatma was intensely Eastern, yet his mind was significantly shaped by western ethics. While he was influenced by indigenous traditions of non-violence and universal brotherhood, his ideas were modified and refined through reading the works of the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, the Englishman John Ruskin, and the American Henry David Thoreau. And it was early on in South Africa not India that he carried out his experiments in non-violent resistance. He was Indian to the core, and yet he was deeply influenced by the West. Borrowing as much from the New Testament as from the Bhagavad Gita, Gandhi said of his own faith that he had broadened his Hinduism by loving other religions as his own. Hence his inter-faith prayer meetings, where texts of different religions were read and explained to mixed audience.

In Hind Swaraj, his major critique of western civilisation as it had then developed, he expressed the view that the ‘modern’ western way of life would not be sustainable. He came to this conclusion after a study of western anti-industrial writers like Thoreau, Ruskin, and Tolstoy. For Gandhi, independence was not merely absence of external rule but swaraj in the real sense. He saw a deep link between political independence and personal empowerment. He envisioned a world where every citizen has dignity and prosperity. The art of forging popular movements based on inveterate opposition to injustice, while always demanding the highest moral standards both of the individual and of the collective, is Gandhi’s enduring contribution to politics.

Nelson Mandela referred to Gandhi as ‘the Sacred Warrior’ and wrote, ‘His strategy of non-cooperation, his assertion that we can be dominated only if we cooperate with our dominators, and his nonviolent resistance inspired anti-colonial and anti-racist movements internationally in our century.’

In 1929, shortly before the Salt March, the American thinker, John Mott, asked Gandhi what weighed most on his mind. In his response Gandhi spoke not of alien rule but of ‘our apathy and hardness of heart, towards the masses and their poverty’. Since the early 1990s, India has shown impressive economic progress. Hundreds of millions have crossed from poverty to attain a reasonably decent living standard, but other hundreds of millions still remain in deep distress.

Social scientists and political theorists are trying to draw upon Gandhi’s thought for alternative visions of social movements in keeping with his utopian perspectives. Environmentalists and those most critical of contemporary ‘global’ thinking often draw upon his ideas to meet the challenges of the expansion of state and corporate power. A movement such as the Chipko acquires salience in this context as do a range of citizen protests and groups who drive hundreds of decentralized and locally autonomous initiatives. Gandhi’s espousal of ecologically sustainable and employment-oriented development is all the more significant today as fossil fuel-driven industrialisation and insatiable consumerism engender crisis in resources on a global scale. We, as inheritors of the earth, are responsible for its well-being, including that of the flora and fauna with whom we share our planet.

Gandhi, speaking in 1928 of what human beings unwilling to restrain themselves can do to Planet Earth said: ‘God forbid that India should take to industrialization after the manner of the West. The economic impact of one single tiny island kingdom today is keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of three hundred million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.’

India will remain a crucial site where Gandhi’s legacy is either protected and promoted, diminished or even forgotten. The Great Soul who, born into an orthodox family of privilege and proceeding to command unprecedented stature and influence on the public mind, died with these worldly possessions: a pocket watch, a pair of wooden sandals, a pair of spectacles, a wooden bowl for taking his nourishments, and, gifted by a Japanese friend, three tiny porcelain monkeys who seemed to say, ‘See no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil.’

For someone whose life is his message, it is not a small legacy.

(The writer is former Professor and Head of the Department of English, HNB Garhwal University)