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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 6

More to Gandhi and Gandhism

Saturday 26 January 2008, by Abu Abraham


[(On the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary Mahatma Gandhi’s martyrdom (January 30, 1948) we reproduce the following pieces that appeared in Mainstream exactly 20 years ago on January 26, 1988 when both Abu and
N.C. were in our midst.)]

I have just noticed something about the way we Indians have reacted to Gandhiji in the last forty years since his death. I think it’s just like the way we have taken the Fairfax Commission report, or may be like the judgement of the five-member Bench of the Andhra Pradesh High Court on N.T. Rama Rao’s corruption. That is to say, you accept the bits you like and ignore the rest.

I don’t want to mix the sublime with the ridiculous, but I must say that Gandhiji is the one great thinker of our times who, without ever intending to be so, has become the man for all seasons, and all things to all men. So much so that the most fraudulent of our politicians and intellectuals can claim Gandhi for himself at any suitable time and for pushing any convenient theory. The sharpness and the urgency of his teachings have been lost. The problem about Gandhiji is that unlike Jesus Christ, whose thoughts and pronouncements covered only a period of less than three years, Gandhiji’s thoughts range over half a century. During this period he spoke and wrote extensively, and he was not always consistent. The inconsistency came because he was modest, was always learning, and didn’t consider himself to be an envoy of God, let alone His Son.

I have been reading a lot of Gandhi in the last two or three weeks and I must declare it has made me re-evaluate the man. The book that I would recommend for understanding Gandhi is the UNESCO volume, All Men are Brothers, a compilation of Gandhiji’s writings made by Krishna Kripalani, with an introduction by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. It has been reprinted in a cheap paperback edition by Navajivan Publishing House. This is the sort of work which ought to be made a compulsory text-book for schools. This book has been on my shelf for years among a fair collection of Gandhi books but I never got round to reading it. Among all the anthologies made by Indian and foreign scholars, this seems to me to capture the essence of Gandhi, the right balance between his conservatism (traditional thinking) and his radicalism that is truly revolutionary. He was old-fashioned in a way (looking back from 1988), but also utterly modern in so much of what he believed in.

On the surface, he would seem to be a fundamentalist, for instance, on ahimsa, total non-violence. But then, listen to what he said about certain of his followers:

The trouble with our votaries of ahimsa is that they have made ahimsa a blind fetish and put the greatest obstacle in the way of the spread of true ahimsa in our midst. The current—and in my opinion, mistaken—view of ahimsa has drugged our conscience and rendered us insensible to a host of other and more insidious forms of himsa like harsh words, harsh judgements, ill will, anger, spite and lust for cruelty; it has made us forget that there may be far more himsa in the slow torture of men and animals, the starvation and exploitation to which they are subjected out of selfish greed, the wantion humiliation and oppression of the weak and the killing of their self-respect that we witness all around us today than in mere benevolent taking of life.

How telling these words are as a rebuke to Indian society and in particular to all the pious—and superior—people who think that because they are vegetarians they are also Gandhians!

GANDHI was, as I am beginning to understand, a religious person as well as a secularist. In Western terms, this may seem contradictory but in the Indian context and tradition, not so. He says:

After long study and experience, I have come to the conclusion that (1) all religions are true; (2) all religions have some error in them; (3) all religions are almost as dear to me as my own Hinduism.

He went even further. He said on one occasion:

Supposing a Christian came to me and said he was captivated by the reading of Bhagavat and so wanted to declare himself a Hindu, I should say to him: ‘No. What Bhagavat offers, the Bible also offers, you have not made the attempt to find it out. Make the attempt and be a good Christian.’

Which of our “spiritual” leaders would have the courage to say such a thing?

On women, on education, he had views that would be acceptable to enlightened people today. To Gandhiji, “to call a woman the weaker sex is a libel; it is man’s injustice to woman…. If by strength is meant moral power, then woman is immeasurably man’s superior.”

He considered the obsession with the English language (English being used as a medium for all subjects) as a curse. Creativity and originality suffered, cramming and imitation were encouraged. “This English medium created a barrier between me and the members of my family, who had not gone through English schools,” he wrote. But he was never against English literature. “I want the cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible,” he said.

If Gandhiji were alive today he would have surprised many of his devotees. He may not have felt at ease with many of the manifestations of “progress”. But on the other hand he would also have adapted his mind to the advances that have been made in science and technology.

Gandhiji’s life was a continuous search for experience, knowledge, enlightenment, for Truth. He was an intellectual whose ideas and thoughts came from action, from living life to the full.

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