What Gandhi May Mean to Us

“Staff in hand he goes along the dusty roads of Gujarat… and men of common clay feel the sparks of life.” – Nehru on Gandhi during the Dandi March, 1930.

On the 30th of January, 1948, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was shot dead in cold blood by a man claiming to defend the interests of the Hindus of India. Strangely, the murderer was punished by death penalty – one of the extreme forms of violence and something that Gandhi himself would have surely disapproved of. But India, in its people and also in its politicians, had even before started to diverge from Gandhi’s views. In the decades to follow, large scale industrialisation and later, the invasion of modern culture and the development of nuclear weapons diminished the vision that Gandhi had – India as a conglomeration of self-sufficient village republics, a nation developing organically from its ancient roots rather than adopting the barely few hundred years old Western model of the industrial nation state.

The contrasts between today’s world and Gandhi’s vision are many, but perhaps his death anniversary is best considered a day to remember his own message again. To me, it seems that Gandhi stood for two visions – a social one, and a personal one.

On the social level, this was a time when the World Wars had caused more destruction in the world than ever. The world of realpolitik had left no room for what is moral and just, but only for one nation’s interest against the other. Surely, the more powerful a nation is, the more it can assert its interests. In came Gandhi, having chosen to live as a poor Indian villager. He strove to bring together the enormous population of India to rise against the British rule over the country. The question was not about Indians fighting the British, but that the British rule of India was unethical and unjust towards the large majority of inhabitants of India, and therefore, it had to be opposed.

The opposition was not through guns, bombs and conspiracies, as many of his fellow freedom-fighters would have liked to have it. Gandhi chose to appeal to the conscience of the human being who lived behind the facade of the colonial ruler. A scene in the film Gandhi captures this movingly. It is the time of the Salt Satyagraha and Indians were trying to enter the salt-factories which are exclusively owned by the British. In front of one such factory, groups of 8 to 10 men march, turn by turn, to the gates of a salt factory, only to be brutally – and sometimes, fatally – beaten up with sticks by policemen. They do not try to fight back or defend themselves. They fall down, their bodies bleeding and being picked up and taken away by women waiting for this very purpose. The next group of men proceed forth and the same reaction comes from the police. Groups after groups of young and old men came to the gates of the factory, fell and were taken away, wounded and bleeding. But none of this deterred the courage of the following group, for they knew that they were not fighting for themselves, but for what is right – this was their country and they had the right to make their own salt rather than buy it from foreign rulers. Fear is an element that seeks to protect the self. But when the struggle is not for the self, but only for a moral truth, fear does not rule the heart. On the telephone, an American journalist relayed the news back home, “on this day, the British empire has lost all moral ascendency it had over its colonies.” The non-violent struggle moved the hearts of not just those who participated in it, but of the rulers, and of those who elected these rulers in their home countries in the West. It was only a matter of time that the British would leave the Indians to govern themselves. Gandhi wanted to see off the British as friends rather than enemies, and that is largely what happened a few years later.

In this manner, Gandhi inspired the millions of inert and illiterate masses of India into wise, brave and selfless souls. He took them out of their daily toils for bread and money to toiling for a greater cause in which their entire nation participated. The freedom struggle changed not just the hands in which political power lay, but also the lives of ordinary Indians, uplifting them to a new order of significance.

The experiment was repeated successfully by Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Martin Luther Jr. in the United States and with a great measure of goodwill and popularity, though not political success, by the Dalai Lama in Tibet and Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma. To the perceptive observer, it is clear that non-violent means are the only means by which conflict may be resolved. For violence divides the concerned into the victor and the loser, and to quote Gandhi, “if there is a victor left, that very victory will be a living death for the victor,” a fact that is amply witnessed in the insecurity that the United States faces today, despite being the most powerful nation in the world.

But this political and social outlook is not common and naturally so, for following it is not a matter of intellectual opinion, but great personal dedication. And that, I believe, is the second part of Gandhi’s vision, and perhaps the more important one.

Simple living, avoiding the trappings of technology and city life, establishing relationships of genuine concern with men, women and children alike was part of who Gandhi was. Only through simplicity can there be complete commitment to a cause. For when one is stripped bare of one’s own attachments and ambitions, the psyche and body are free to be implemented for one purpose only. For Gandhi, this purpose went much deeper than purely self-rule for Indians. The deeper issue was the pursuit of a reality wherein life and all its paraphernalia are seen to be wrapped in one single vision that provides meaning and happiness, which goes beyond the ups and downs of everyday existence. Gandhi found such meaning in the religious texts of his own tradition – Hinduism and even wrote a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. It was the call of the timeless that inspired Gandhi and for him, the establishment of an independent India could only be meaningful if it made available this call to the millions of Indians.

This total dedication to a particular cause, a dedication of every act towards the one greater reality that is beyond all political and economic reality, is what characterises Gandhi’s life and makes it different from that of most politicians. Gandhi’s political struggle was not a means to power or even to changing social structures, but a total response to the basic human condition, a means of self-transcendence and meaning. Compassion and truth, the two cornerstones of this response may sound like hollow words to us, but for him they were the pillars on which one man’s struggle led to the revolution of an entire nation, and the world would never be the same again.

It was this total dedication of the entire personality towards one purpose that defined Gandhi. He had relationships, he had a political career, he even made his own clothes, but underlying all this was a orientation towards an ultimate principle, and these activities were means to that principle. How many of us are able to live life with such singularity? This higher, eternal principle to which Gandhi dedicated his life was summed up by him thus:

“”In the midst of death, life persists. In the midst of darkness, light persists. In the midst of untruth, truth persists..”

Perhaps the best tribute to him was, ironically, by a British artist – Sir Richard Attenborough – through his film Gandhi. These last moments of the film capture the spirit of the man.

~ by tdcatss on January 31, 2010.

One Response to “What Gandhi May Mean to Us”

  1. Awesome piece. You write well.

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