Remembering Gandhi: Interpreting the Mahatma
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi has always been an enigma. The Mahatma to some, Mickey Mouse to others. The loin-cloth clad figure has been accepted as the "father of the nation" by a nation exporting nuclear-know. The name of the votary of the idyllic non-industrialised society is invoked before commissioning mammoth structures of concrete and steel.
The problem with Gandhism has been that it has been made into a rigid monument and put on a pedestal. That has made Gandhism immobile whereas its essential strength lies in its mobility, its capacity to expand and change according to the pressures of time.
Is Gandhism really an "ism", or is it the anti-model devised by perhaps the greatest exponent of a new form of agit prop?
Gandhi's greatest contribution was that he spoke with the people. Before him the main emphasis was on speaking for them. In involving the people Gandhi tapped an almost limitless reservoir. Gandhism drew its strength by adding this new dimension to Indian polity. It is Gandhi, who aroused, involved and led the masses. And free India passed almost pointlessly into government by adult franchise - a procedure which took a century in most countries.
Throughout the tenets of Gandhism there is one underlying theme and assumption. The acceptance of social equilibrium as a necessary prerequisite of all action. Added to this was Gandhi's concept of natural harmony based on a step-back into history.
Gandhian action was never a total rejection. It was the much milder non-acceptance. Rejection by itself would mean stepping out of the structure, non-acceptance would imply an effort to change it.
Critics of Gandhi have concentrated on his rejection of industrialization and his harking back to the idyllic Ramrajya as proof of his irrelevance to a modern India
Gandhian thought and ideas can best be understood in the background of Gandhian politics. Essentially Gandhi and his concepts gave a dream to millions of Indians. Against the industrial exploitation of British imperialism, he created the anti-model of Ramrajya. Against the prevalent "constitutionalists" fighting according to the rules laid down by the exploiters, he devised the concept of Satyagraha. Against the terrorist weapons of bombs and guns he called for non-violence.
In all Gandhian concepts, social and class contradictions were resolved by the process of simplifying. Gandhi believed in the equality of all classes but he strived for the unity of all classes. His "theory of trust" simplified the problem by making the rich the "trustees" of the poor. It did not solve it.
In spite of apparent non-modernism in Gandhian thought there were aspects in which he showed phenomenal insight. In an essentially rural society he emphasized the need for adopting the village as the fundamental unit. His concentration of village-level industries in a labour-surplus society has now been accepted. His warnings against the ecological and value damage by unhampered modernism are all the more apparent today. Where Gandhi is usually misinterpreted is in propagating these ideals. He built up the anti-model on the basis of negatives alone.
Nobody can really claim that they can fully understand Gandhism. The enigma which is Gandhi and Gandhism is seen in the following article through the eyes of T.K. Mahadevan who has been actively associated with the Mahatama. In this companion piece he sets down his random thoughts on paper in an unusual style. But then any thought on Gandhi and his "ism" has to be so.
Is Gandhi good for India? How much of his blueprint remains valid in a fast changing world? Must it be all or nothing, or can we pick and choose among his ideas? The question is not how much of Gandhi is good for us, but how much of him we can take. The cuisine is just right. what needs to be improved is our digestion. But aren't we already too pigeon-livered to be able to respond to Gandhi's O'Henry twists?
Instead of this annual ritual of looking for the needle in Gandhi's haystack, let's begin to look for it in our own haystack. We may never find it, but at least we'll have the satisfaction of searching in the right place. In plain words, what I am asking for is introspection and a moratorium on this horrible vivisection of Gandhi year after year.
What Gandhi said is couched in the simplest language imaginable. No jargon. No esotericism. No circumlocution. No prevarication. Why then do our social scientists spend so much of their breath "analysing" him? Shouldn't they rather direct their energies to examining the national psyche? That way they may help isolate the virus of misperception that stood between us-that still stands between us-and Gandhi.
To serve Gandhi, to serve the India that Gandhi fashioned for us, the October jamboree and the beating of breasts which takes place every January won't do. Nor will it do to reaffirm the essential validity of His vision and then start mumbling excuses. If we don't have Gandhi's guts, let's be honest about it. Forget him, put him away in the attic, we have had no dearth of great men in this country. And this is precisely how we disposed of them all. India's rich heritage of wisdom has been her very undoing. When you have wisdom on tap, as it were, you begin to cherish it less.
We took Gandhi for granted. That was our first act of folly. He fought every inch of his way. We have to do likewise. There is no short-cut for a country's growth to full nationhood. The snag is that Indians, as a rule, are the victims of two conditioned reflexes inherited from the past. Let me call them the Karna reflex and the Kumbhakarna reflex. The first is all drive and dynamism; the second all indolence and inertia. Our known history can be summed up this way: long spells of slumber punctuated with short, very short, spells of a sudden awakening.
Currently we are passing through the Karna phase. Nothing short of a miracle that a fighting leader should be at the heart of it all. But the forces of inertia never lie low for long. Such has been our history. When a comparatively unknown, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, swooped on the Indian scene like a streak of lightning, we woke up with a start. But we woke up only to go to sleepsagain. We said yes to whatever he said. We left everything in his hands. And when it was time for him to leave us, what did we do? We did what we have always done to our mentors: with a duplicity hard to match we turned Gandhi into a clutch of epigrams, a repertoire for drawing-room conversation. (By "we", I mean especially the self-professed followers of Gandhi. He had great respect for his critics. He welcomed criticism. But what would he do with the tribe which outwardly said yes and inwardly meant no?)
It is this epigrammatic Gandhi we invoke, whether to deify ourselves or to damn others. The real Gandhi eluded us long ago-and still does. We thought we understood him, but we did not. He spoke on one wavelength and we were tuned to another. Rather like the difficulty Gulliver had in trying to communicate with the Lilliputians.
Let me attempt two things. First, a glimpse of the Gandhi we know. And then, a bit of guesswork about the unknown Gandhi-the one nobody heard nor heeded.
The Gandhi we know is really nothing more than a mirror-image of ourselves. One part fantasy, two parts demonology, the rest ayuapura. Lace it with a bit of reality-and you have the concoction. The fantasy comes in two different packs. The house-hold pack makes the amazing claim that there is a "Gandhian solution" to every conceivable national problem and that its contents do not deteriorate with time. Consumers of this pack are the hardcore Gaodhians. For them time came tg a standstill somewhere in the late 40's.
What does the pack contain? Nostrums of all shapes and sizes. Though Gandhi had no hand in their making, there is no running away from the fact that they all derive their potency from the weakest link in his chain of thought. I have called it the arithmetical fallacy: the notion that what one man can do a hundred can do as well; and what a hundred can do, why not a hundred thousand? All great men have suffered from this infirmity of universalizing from particulars, forgetting that life in the raw is something quite else. Symmetry, equality, predictability-these are man-made fictions. They do not exist in nature.
The other sophisticated fantasy pack is for the exclusive use of politicians and publicists. Its argument runs like this: Had Gandhi survived and been. young enough to head the national government, after the transfer of power, the whole gamut of his revolutionary ideas would have sprung to life and we would all now be living in the Ramarajya of his conception. Sceptical readers may, according to taste, substitute for Ramarajya one of the following: Thomas More's Utopia, Samuel Butler's Erewhon, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, or George Orwell's 1984.
Since Gandhi did not survive Independence, and in any case was no longer in his prime, his dream India was bound to turn to ashes. How cogent it all seems! But look at it closely and you will see how cleverly the argument sidetracks two crucial aspects of the matter. First of all, Gandhi never did want political or any other kind of material power for himself. (He had walked out of the Congress long, long ago) Secondly-and this is much more to the point-his metier was agit prop, not administration. Prime Minister Mohandas Gandhi-I delve into my mind's eye for an image-would have cut as pitiable a figure as a fish out of water.
So much for fantasy packs. The demonology that has grown , ' around Gandhi is a monster of another kind. Its tentacles reach far and deep. No aspect of our life, whether public or private, is a spared. Do you eat beef? Too bad. Do you wear a terene shirt instead of a khadi kurta? Too bad. Don't you ply your charkha in the precincts of Rajghat, when the cameras are clicking? Too bad. It is an endless catalogue of do's and don'ts. What particularly irks me is its rank un-Indianness.
Authentic Indian civilization was not prim and priggish. It was a highly permissive one. To give but one example: the original Ramarajya, as depicted in the Valmiki Ramayan(1, celebrated the safe return of Sita not in prayer but in Bacchanalia. The choicest meats and wines were gunled in delirious joy. Our current prescriptive ethos is an imported graft and it has enfeebled us no end. A pity that Gandhi has lent his weight to this enfeeblement. Now the Gandhi that we buy in these fast-selling packs-and consume in a state of euphoria-is stale stuff. Look at the expiry date before you buy your next pack. The modern acceleration of time and technology overtook this Gandhi long ago.
But the real Gandhi, the Gandhi whom nobody knows, is evergreen. He can never date. Not because, like all great men, he mumbled verities which one can neither accept nor reject. Such as: Do good. Be True. Covet not. Harm none. If I ask: Why the hell should I do good? A deafening silence is all the answer I get. Anyone can mouth platitudes. What makes Gandhi evergreenespecially for us of this last quarter of the 20th century-is that he warned us, at the very beginning of the century, not to give up our rightful place at the steering wheel. Man must remain the chooser or he is finished. Against the fashionable homily of our time: "Technologize or perish", Gandhi warned, "Technologize and perish." Who listened to him? Who even heard him? His was a wail in the wilderness.
Now after we have been thoroughly drenched in the macabre fallout of technology-exploding population, depleting energy resources, threats of instant extinction (nirvana?) in a nuclear holocaust or slow death by asphyxiation in a polluted environmeg-we scratch our heads and wonder: Can't we go back to Gandhi ?
Let's not fool ourselves-seeing that we still have our bullockcarts, our mud huts, our oxen ploughs, our artisans-that somehow India can stop short of the brink and take the big turn. She can't. Third-worlder, nonaligned, or what have you, India is very much a part of the global technological swindle. The megamachine has unmanned us all-for ever. Take the back seat, please. And knit one, purl one...
In sum, our tragedy is that we consumed too much of the wrong Gandhi and too little of the right Gandhi. The result: not cardiac -arrest, but carcinome computeritis. There is no cure.
Poll of the day
UPSC row: Has the government buckled under pressure?
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- Yes. By not including English skills in gradation
- No. The government is safeguarding student interests
- While pacifying students was important, diluting UPSC norms was not a solution