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Gandhi At 150: Tracing The Ordinary In The Extraordinary

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This is a talk I delivered at IIT–Madras on the eve of Gandhi Jayanti.

I feel honoured and privileged to address this gathering assembled here to commemorate the 150th birth anniversary of one of the greatest souls of the 20th century.

Gandhi – the name evinces so many feelings that it is difficult for me to articulate myself in this short span of time allotted. Another difficulty to talk about Gandhi is the sheer vastness of how much has been historically written and spoken about him and continues to be.

I thought first of framing my talk around the memory that Gandhi evokes in my generation. To this, I must admit that my generation is largely acquainted with Gandhi through folklore of the freedom movement or through some malicious and outright obnoxious narratives that have been spread gradually over time, about him and his life. What a travesty!

It is most unfortunate for a man to be so misunderstood, who was such a relentless writer, to be precise – 48,000 pages in print running up to roughly 100 volumes of collected works. Therefore, I found it futile to talk on behalf of my unenlightened generation.

Alternatively, I thought about the relevance of his values and methods in present times. Talking on the relevance of Gandhi’s teachings seemed to be an oxymoron. Gandhi’s principles, so widely known and revered as truth and non-violence are eternal human values that will remain relevant as long as humanity exists as beings caught in a perpetual moral conundrum. As for his methods – they are still inspiring activists, dissenters and the oppressed throughout the globe – as a means of passive resistance, to persuade and stir the moral consciousness, if at all there exists any!

On one hand, it is astounding that we have not forgotten Gandhi; on the other, it is appalling that instead, we have reduced him to the level of, if I may say so, ephemeral symbolisms. We have obfuscated, if not totally erased Gandhi as a thought. A thought that bloomed, not in some solitary recess, but amidst the chaos of an active social and political life. ‘The’ Gandhi as a critique of modernity. ‘The’ Gandhi as a moral philosopher. ‘The’ Gandhi as an idea of India.

Gandhi, whose significance will never be lost to the world, especially becomes telling in these times. We are renegotiating and reframing the fundamental ideals on which this nation was built – the ideas that guided our freedom struggle. The ideals shared by so many stalwarts, who occupied the spiritual and intellectual space of that time. In relation to Gandhi, three of them, to my mind, who were also part of Gandhi’s own moral churning, become urgently crucial to be returned to and critically analyzed in the context of nation-building – Tagore, Ambedkar and Savarkar.

I will not mince my words here and make no mistake – the fact is that we are living in the age of Godse and to even attempt standing in the shoes of Gandhi and not only put flowers on his portrait, is to carry the risk of being labelled an anti-national.

Gandhi was a simple man but simplicity has its own complexities. Something that makes it difficult for anyone to understand the ‘man’ in the Mahatma, even though, he himself never made any claims to sainthood. Because of the immense love and respect that he arouses, people on any side of an ideological divide cannot ignore him. That does not mean that their heart is where Gandhi’s was! Therefore, it is convenient for anybody to idolise him as a difficult idealist and shrug him aside. This hypocrisy was never so blatant and explicit as it is today.

Gandhi at the spinning wheel. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Ever since my first reading of his autobiography, Gandhi has meant two things for me – a fearless man and someone absolutely grounded in truth (satyagrahi). This feeling has remained unchanged to this day despite indulging in so many of his critics, who also very often do not shy away from accepting it themselves. Needless to say, Godse too!
Gandhi’s idea of truth is founded on his religious beliefs. Gandhi’s truth is not a truth that corresponds to reality, neither is it one that assimilates into a coherent belief system, nor it is a simple matter of practical means to an end. Truth for Gandhi is an end in itself. One that is an experiential reality, known intuitively in leading a life of pilgrimage.

His truth is transcendental and therefore, he finds no hesitation in equating his truth with God. It might not appeal to many as a secular idea but as a student of philosophy, I can say that at the core of all well-founded belief, lies belief that is unfounded.

The greater paradox is that there is hardly anyone in recent memory, who can be considered so unapologetically and fearlessly secular as Gandhi. Maybe because Gandhi’s religion was esoteric and he understood faith so deeply as to allow space for its plurality in thoughts and ways to exist around him, without a shred of contempt, bitterness, hatred or intolerance – something that made him lovable even to his enemies. To borrow Tennyson’s words – a worthy friend and a noble foe.

Gandhi will, however, always make people in power and those enamoured and obsessed with it, uncomfortable. The irony is that they also cannot let go of Gandhi, even if for mere pretense of it, and at the same time slowly kill him every day, bit by bit, again and again!

Gandhi as a thought must die because Gandhi is antithetical to fascism – fascism in us all. George Orwell, like many of his detractors, would, in his severe critique – Reflections on Gandhi – admits that Gandhi was incorruptible by power and ambition. Gandhi’s own treatise Hind Swaraj is interestingly revealing here, in which he conceptualizes his swaraj as the autonomy of an individual, who dares to create a moral spine of his own and religiously live by it. Gandhi stands unequivocally on the side of people untouched by attraction or adoration of power. Therefore, he will always remain a symbol of danger for fascists.

Gandhi is very often judged and evaluated for certain actions, decisions and preferences. I wish to detest from such wisdom of hindsight. Yet, if I were to put my honest disappointment in him, about which we hardly hear any clamour – it would be his simplistic, rather romanticised sense of India’s civilisational history. Inspired by Puranic understanding of time (yuga), he conjures up an ancient past, which he himself proudly calls ‘Kingdom of God.’

If only he would have even merely taken a commonsensical view that every epoch in history has its own corruptions, turmoil and strife, he would not have had held apologetic views on caste and social and moral adequacy of this civilisation. He would have perhaps not considered fasting unto death in Yeravada Jail in 1932. Gandhi exonerated a whole community, washed their moral conscience and denied any possibility to them of reflective self-critique by establishing, I fear forever – that all corruptions in Indian society are merely aberrations burst upon us because of ‘historical surprises’ from the outside.

Gandhi is, otherwise prophetic in laying down let’s say, seven dangers for the future that he calls deadly sins:

  • Wealth without work
  • Pleasure without conscience
  • Knowledge without character
  • Politics without principle
  • Commerce without morality
  • Science without humanity
  • Worship without sacrifice

However, to think whether solutions to them lie in looking back, that too in a misplaced past, would be making a grave mistake of which Tagore warns of believing that “our ancestors had superhuman vision of all eternity and supernatural power for making provision for future ages.”

Anybody disturbed by today’s socio-political climate needs to go back to Gandhi’s time and engage deeply in the intellectual debates taking shape around the man, not to find solutions but to gain an enlightened grasp on the problem. In this pursuit, Gandhi is bound to remain pivotal, for a very long time, as it seems today.

Featured image for representative purpose only.
Featured image source: Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images.
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