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Gandhism is more relevant today, says Douglas Allen

The fundamental precepts of Gandhism are more relevant today when caste, class and religious differences are so pronounced, said Douglas Allen, professor of philosophy at the University of Maine, US, and distinguished chair in Gandhian philosophy, IIT Bombay.

Prof Allen, who was talking at IIT Bombay on Wednesday on the significance of Mahatma Gandhi in India in 2016, said, “Some might think it’s a rather silly question. He is after all Mahatma, the father of the nation. But it’s equally true that people in India today pay lip service to Gandhiji and use him for non-Gandhian and anti-Gandhian purposes,” Prof Allen said.

He said his concepts and definitions of truth and non-violence as absolutes are values to be aspired for not just for better co-existence but enhanced quality of life for all and a strife-free world. Gandhi may not have the whole answer to today’s world but it can be complemented with other ideas to great success, he said. “One has to approach Gandhi in a dynamic, open-ended, and selective way. We need to reinterpret his basic principles in a new creative voice that speaks to India in 2016.”

Advocating an inclusivist, pluralistic democracy in which you do not just tolerate but also respect others as the Gandhian view of India, Prof Allen said, “Gandhiji learnt from all religions.” The India of today needs a radical paradigm shift to move from its unsustainability towards an enlightened and enriched society. And it is here that Gandhian thought can be hugely instructive.

Overt, physical violence made up a fraction of Gandhiji’s definition of non-violence. Non-violence, to Gandhiji, was deeper and multi-dimensional in its elimination of inner, psychological violence (hatred and negativity), economic violence (exploitation through control of economic resources such as land, water, oil, etc), linguistic violence (used to dominate and humiliate others), cultural, religious, political and social (the traditional hierarchical relationships), educational (Indian models are violent in that they breed self-centredness and greed), and even environmental violence. “Ten years ago, climate change enthusiasts had the confidence that science and technology would give them the answers. Now they talk of the need to change basic value systems,” Prof Allen, who was drawn to Gandhian thought as a 22-year-old in the sixties, said.

The ‘structural violence of the status quo’, when the system is working smoothly and the appearance of functional normality belies the subliminal violence underneath, of injustice, hatred and greed, eventually leads to a tipping point. “India has so much of this kind of violence,” he said.

‘Miseducation’

Regretting that Indian students were no longer clued in on Gandhiji, Prof Allen said, “When I talk of him, students look at me as if I were from another planet. They learn technology, and you would think that makes them more virtuous. But at the end of their education, they are looking at themselves: what they can get out of the education to get wealthy and consumerist.” To Gandhiji, said Prof Allen, that would be ‘miseducation’. Gandhiji envisioned a society where the disadvantaged had the confidence of being counted in and reached out to. “Gandhiji had a holistic view of the inter-connectedness of life,” Prof Allen contended. Violence contradicts the nature of reality, and implies a belief that the other is fundamentally different from us. “Not only does it produce negative consequences, it also separates us from reality. “What unites us as human beings is more fundamental than what divides us. The world needs to focus on basic fundamental unity with respect for differences.”

That would lead us towards a strife-free world, cleansed of external and internal conflicts.

Expounding a novel interpretation of Gandhiji, he said Gandhiji thought of truth as relative and absolute. The relative truth was what we had and the absolute truth was the pure power that we needed to work towards. “All of us are limited and contextualised by our circumstance of body, mind, etc in ways that are very different from others. These are our relative truths. Gandhi worked upon them to evolve a higher understanding and move towards the absolute truth.” That is the reason he discarded some of his early-day experiments. “For him, we are moving from one relative truth to another, greater relative truth that is informed by the idea of absolute truth.

The writer is a freelance journalist


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