Mahatma Gandhi, the out-of-the-box thinker

Since Gandhiji does not fit into any hard and fast category, he continues to disturb us

Updated - January 31, 2022 12:38 am IST

Published - January 31, 2022 12:02 am IST

"GANDHI LANDS IN ENGLAND". Gandhiji, walking along the quay at Folkstone, with a stalwart escort, including a stolid British policemen.

"GANDHI LANDS IN ENGLAND". Gandhiji, walking along the quay at Folkstone, with a stalwart escort, including a stolid British policemen.

The 74th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s death provides us an opportunity to think about his character and contributions as an important figure of world history. Usually, to praise a historical figure, one tries to enumerate on their qualities to show how marvellous they had been in all areas of life.

But Mahatma Gandhi was both an enigmatic and disturbing figure. He used to think out of the box. He was an open-minded soft reader of concepts and categories . In this regard, he saw his place among the weakest and the poorest. His notion of a just and truthful politics was that in such an environment, the weakest should have the same opportunities as the strongest. It would, therefore, be suspect to see Gandhi being celebrated by the powerful and the victors and not by the weak and the defeated.


If Gandhi continues to disturb the powerful and the victorious, it is because he does not fit in the victors’ histories and narratives.

Why do we continue to read Gandhi and to admire him? Not because he is the Father of the Indian Nation, but because he disturbs us. He was a chief doubter of oppressive systems and a rebel against all forms of hidden and open authority.

An example of simplicity

It is also because in an arrogant and unchecked civilisation like ours, Gandhi is a great example of simplicity and transparency. Gandhi’s simplicity was reflected in his deeds and acts, but mostly in his mode of life. Unlike most of us, not to say all of us, Gandhi had more joy and fulfilment in pursuing less in life than in pursuing more. The corporate mindset — that of being successful — which dominates all aspects of our lives, did not exist for him. And maybe, it is because of his pure simplicity that we continue to have so much trouble in understanding Gandhi. Naturally, corporates, even when they use him as a logo or an emblem, fear him. Maybe because Gandhi, like Sisyphus, continues to roll the rock up to the top of the mountain. With Gandhi we are never confronted with absolute Truth. Gandhi is a perpetual truth seeker. In fact, Gandhi is victorious through his effortful trials. His position remains ambiguous and disturbing.

Assuredly, Gandhi was an ambiguous personality, but he never wore a mask. He neither masked himself nor put a mask on the face of Indian history.

Rather, he challenged Indian history by asking lucid and limpid questions from it. As such, in practically all of Gandhi’s historical actions, there was moral or spiritual interrogation. He, therefore, led Indians to a historical and civilisational awareness that went as far as a spiritual conversion to non-violence. That is to say, the Gandhian maieutic completely reversed the relationship between a leader and his people.

Like Socrates, Gandhi was a midwife of minds (Gandhi was very much influenced by Socrates and his method of thinking). He reversed the guiding values of Indian life. His philosophy was that of a spiritual exercise, accompanied by an active reflection on truth and a lively awareness of all walks of life. Gandhi believed that the true test of life for the individual can be summarised in two principles: self-discipline and self-restraint. In this relation, he observed: “A self-indulgent man lives to eat; a self-restrained man eats to live.” His vision of community goes in the same direction and Gandhi gives ethical and political primacy to the two concepts of self-realisation and self-rule. For Gandhi, a self-realised and self-conscious community is a society of citizens who reconcile the self-determination of the individual with the recognition of the shared values in the community.

Point of self-transformation

Interestingly, in a very existential way, Gandhi believed in the interrelated nature of human existence. In the same manner, what interested him in a democracy was neither representation nor elections, but the self-transformative nature of the citizens.

But we can go even further and say that for Gandhi, this process of self-transformation should influence not only the inner life of the individual but also public life. So, what seems important is the upholding of the ethic of human action. And of course, solidarity is the advancement of that very ethic. However, what Gandhi taught us is that solidarity is not just a promise of compassion; it is actually what we can call the wake of responsibility. Undoubtedly, Gandhi knew well that global responsibility is nothing but an overriding loyalty to mankind. It goes without saying that remembering Gandhi could be a way for us to be reminded of our global responsibilities and our loyalty to mankind. Without it there would be no solidarity and no universal harmony among the peoples of the world.

Need for moral leadership

The pandemic shows us clearly that our world is in lack of a moral leadership which can evolve through experiments of empathy and by redress of the sufferings and grievances of humanity. Even if Gandhi is no more among us, his spirit has been with the great transformative leaders of the 20th and 21st centuries like Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Václav Havel and Pope Francis. As a global thinker with a transhistorical and transgeographical influence, Gandhi was a moral and political leader who stayed out of the box. We continue to wrestle with the radical parts of his vision.

Ramin Jahanbegloo is Director of the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Non-violence and Peace Studies at O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana

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