How to read Gandhi today?

There is a need to understand the Mahatma today, through the lens of what was happening in his times ...

October 31, 2021 01:15 am | Updated 01:15 am IST

“Men reject their prophets and slay them, but they love their martyrs and honour those whom they have slain.”

— Fyodor Dostoyevsky

These words of Dostoyevsky, Russian novelist, applies to Mahatma Gandhi more than anyone else. As 20th century witnessed many events which changed the future course of the world, such as two World Wars, revolutions and freedom movements in many countries, the phenomenal scientific inventions, large-scale industrialisation and globalisation, spread of socialism and democracy, parallelly, a unique phenomenon blossomed in India in the name of Gandhiji, who responded to these global events through his own unique philosophy of life.

In this context, there is a need to read Gandhi today, through the lens of what was happening in his times and how his philosophy of life shaped up in response to them. Moreover, as 21st century is witnessing a magnification of the problems inherited in 20th century, Gandhian philosophy is the right remedy, if one explores it closely.

First, what are the major challenges of our times? To name a few, man’s insatiable hunger to hoard things for unseen future usage; irreversible destruction of environment in the name of development; the threat of nuclear or biological warfare; rapid extinction and suffering of non-human beings; disillusioned and disoriented youth of today; and increasing violence against women. How did Gandhiji respond to them?

It has remained a mystery since the times man has evolved to be civilised, why is he preoccupied hoarding things for a future which no one is guaranteed of, that too, at the cost of the unprivileged of his times? This voracious greed has led to overuse of natural resources and has threatened the future of the planet. Thus, Gandhiji rightly said world has enough to satisfy a man’s needs, not his deeds. Also, he emphasised that we have the responsibility to hand over this planet safely to the future generations. More than his words, his life demonstrated how one can live with bare minimum needs, quite happily and meaningfully. Significantly, for all his global stature and popularity, when Gandhiji died, his belongings were as follows: his watch, spectacles, sandals, eating bowl, a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, a statue of three monkeys and a spitting bowl.

In response to mass industrial production, consumerism and related environmental issues, Gandhiji emphasised the need to revive small-scale production and self-reliance of villages. He sensed that massive industrialisation led to economic inequality among the people and it benefited only a few big business empires.

Likewise, when Gandhiji faced pressure from reactionary leaders to make the nation’s Freedom Struggle aggressive through violent means and also speed it up, he remained steadfast with his principles of love, peace and non-violence. Even the violent resistance movements of his times at the global level, did not change his conviction in non-violence.

As we witness arms race among the countries in the name of safeguarding national boundaries in our times, but at the cost of the basic facilities for their citizens, it is high time to explore the origins of this fear factor. In fact, the superpowers manufacture these war materials at a large scale and force the poor countries to buy them by infusing an atmosphere of fear and suspicion between neighbours, with an eye on their market interests. In contrast, Gandhiji believed in transparency in all personal as well as public affairs. So, he said, if we can’t win anything through love, we can’t win by any other means as well.

Gandhiji practised tremendous love and compassion for all life forms. So, he said, if vulnerable beings did not feel protected in a country, then it could not be declared a truly independent country. Similarly, he internalised a minimalistic approach in his daily life, by simplifying his basic necessities and focusing mostly on higher explorations of the world. So he could detach from a rich lifestyle to the most simplistic form of existence.

The man who led his countrymen to freedom from the British was devastated to see his people behaving like hooligans in the name of religion at the time of Partition. Surprisingly, these were the same people who fought together for freedom under Gandhiji’s leadership, but now filled with the venom of communal hatred.

Perhaps, it dented the pride and arrogance of the white men to see Gandhiji, their opponent, successfully resisting their colonial rule, through a never-heard-before concept of non-violence. So, they left their colony of 200 years, with no other choice left, but by turning its citizens into violent individuals. A completely devastated Gandhiji took it as his personal defeat, tried to appease both communities, travelled across the country, ordained fasting to death, but without much success. For a man who was a symbol of love and peace until then, he appeared like an enemy to the people whom he loved the most. For, Muslims called him a Hindu leader and the Hindus considered him a traitor. So, he had to die a martyr, in the flame of communal hatred ignited by the British to defeat his principle of non-violence. Interestingly, Gandhiji’s continuous appeal to calm down, fell on deaf ears of violent mobs, but his martyrdom shocked them into silence and ended violence.

Among the many experiments that Gandhiji imposed on himself to test their significance and also to give a message to the human world, the most controversial one, but hardly discussed in public, is testing his celibacy in public view. Perhaps, we need to explore more on, why he did what he did, risking his public stature? What was his intended message? Gandhiji strongly felt that unless one conquered excessive sexual urges, one could not explore higher possibilities of human life. So, he insisted both men and women practise celibacy. As a man, he believed in self-restraint, which is badly needed among most men in the contemporary world, where sexual violence against women is an everyday common phenomenon.

Thus, Gandhiji remains ever contemporary, beyond his time and space. Revisiting his philosophy of life, helps us to understand our times better with new insights. Moreover, we need him to make a sense of this rapidly changing world and how to lead a fulfilling life amidst too much noise and glamour around.

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