Mahatma’s big strides

Gandhiji walked all his life, made others walk with him, and also had the courage to walk all by himself

Published - December 15, 2019 12:11 am IST

Some of the most iconic images of Gandhiji are those of him walking. Reflecting on the images of his walking during the Dandi March or through riot-affected Noakhali, one cannot but think that walking and Gandhiji were inseparable. Walking for miles each day was an integral part of his ethos and his graceful gait was part of his charisma.

Walking reflected some deeply held Gandhian beliefs and philosophies. At one level, it was an attempt to disrupt, if not deconstruct, the mechanical rhythms of industrial time and reconnect with natural time. It represented forward movement, progress and the onward march of the satyagrahi. Walking was an essential component of many Gandhian movements, the Salt Satyagraha being the most prominent.

Gandhiji built an entire political praxis around walking, developing an entire philosophy of walking.

As a mode of thinking, it enabled him to navigate through complex problems and questions, and as a mode of being, it enabled his body to connect with its natural rhythms and with itself. It is while walking that the body becomes a witness to its own motion and its limits. It is like a conversation the body has with itself and nature.

Gandhiji walked all his life, made others walk with him, and had the courage to walk all by himself. Walking for him was a way of conditioning the body and subjecting it to rigorous practice. Bodily rigour, he believed, was necessary for disciplining the mind. Apart from walking, some of the other practices he used for conditioning his body included abstaining from sex and and observing fasts and silence.

Gandhiji’s emphasis on subjecting the body to harsh discipline finds echo in the Indic traditions, which are in a way wary of the deha or the body. Subjecting the deha to rigorous discipline was like practising tapa , which in this tradition is recognised as a way of gaining control over oneself and the surroundings.

Channelling the libidinal energy for the larger cause of the national movement was a recurrent concern through Gandhiji’s political life. He subjected his deha to all kinds of austerities, which thus became the site of most Gandhian experiments.

Gandhiji always believed that his personal experiments had larger implications.

He had a unique way of bridging the personal and the political. Faced with communal riots in Noakhali, he camped in the area to douse the flames.

An everyday grammar

Gandhiji’s genius lay in his ability to convert everyday acts into deeply political activities. The grammar of his politics drew on the everyday. He developed a unique political vocabulary steeped in the wisdom and traditions of the land.

Like walking, his spinning sought to question the foundations of large-scale industrialisation and the caste system. By this logic, his silence was a call to the alienated man to connect with himself and be attentive to the rhythms of his own body and mind. Each of Gandhiji’s everyday activities had deep political implications. But it was a political vocabulary and repertoire accessible and available to all.

Even the weakest and the poorest could resort to civil resistance to oppose unjust laws. But the practice of civil resistance or disobedience required rigorous training of the body. The Satyagrahi had to be a disciplined soldier, who would not resort to violence under any circumstance. The very impulse towards violence had to be eliminated. Conditioning or training the body thus constituted the bedrock of Gandhian politics.

To attain Swaraj, one had to first master the swa or self. In other words, attaining political sovereignty required one to first attain sovereignty over one’s own self. This sovereignty of, and over, the self is essential for understanding Gandhiji’s conception of Swaraj.

For him, we are never truly free till we master and understand our own selves. Political sovereignty for Gandhiji was a corollary to this individual sovereignty.

Satyagraha, too, at one level, was a relentless pursuit of truth by an individual. If we were to go by its literal meaning in Hindi, then it is a “struggle for truth”. It was as much spiritual as it was political. The individual self and its mastery over its body and its spiritual self thus constituted important elements of the Gandhian discourse on politics.

If we want to walk on the path set out by the Mahatma, we must first know and understand what walking actually meant for him.

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