The Many Minds of the Mahatma

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the globally celebrated icon of the Indian freedom struggle, would have completed 150 years of his life today. He was a lawyer, saint, freedom fighter, spiritualist, writer as well as a journalist. He had an ascetic lifestyle with the sartorial sense of a monk. He had inspired several key social reformers of the 20th century, including Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. In India, owing to the different strands of interpretation of Gandhiji’s role in the freedom struggle, he has a fair share of detractors who counterbalance his ardent followers. His critics are inclined to believe that his role in India’s independence has been traditionally overstated. But, his contributions can in no way be deemed insignificant. Thought leaders like Gandhi and Tagore perceived India and the world in ways few can contest. Many Indians still owe unwavering allegiance to the Gandhian thought. On the occasion of his birth anniversary, I would like to reflect and expand on five of his thoughts and try to apply them to modern contexts.

“Morality is the basis of things, and truth is the substance of all morality.”

Gandhiji’s staunch adherence to the philosophy of truth being all-powerful, is widely known. Unlike John Stuart Mill who had attached happiness or self-satisfaction to truth, Gandhiji had linked truth to morality. According to Gandhiji, a moral act would be anything which has the objective truth as its guiding star. In this regard, his idea is more similar to Immanuel Kant’s principle of categorical imperatives. In today’s tempestuous world, the importance of morality and truth cannot be overemphasized. Every strand of communication and interaction we partake in, must be driven by a moral obligation to truth and justice, irrespective of our personal vested interests. In the modern world driven by post-truth and ‘alternative facts’, truth has lost definition. Lies and deviousness are often rewarded. This has stripped our society of morality and has blurred the line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’. It is important to realize that rather than harping too much on grand narratives, transformative change needs to come from within. Gandhian philosophy was two-pronged — it advocated the transformation of the self to bring about transformation in the society. The self and the society should be the flag-bearers of morality and truth. It is only by this unflinching commitment to these two principles that one can realise the true potential of goodwill and its bearings on trust-building and global peace efforts.

“An error does not become truth by multiplied propagation, nor does truth become error because nobody sees it.”

A very important principle for self-confidence and sincerity, this thought advocates firmness in your belief if you think it is driven by nothing but the truth. The oft-echoed sentiment by the political minority in any political climate, that majority support for something does not necessarily translate to it being correct, can be traced back to this Gandhian thought. Every belief or opinion should be tempered with the test of Dharma, that is whether it satisfies the conditions of good behaviour, conscience and reason. However, despite the subjectivity that is inherent in Dharma, there are certain things that should be considered objectively wrong to maintain peace in this world. The very obvious things are terrorism and genocide — it is a bad habit of terrorists to sporadically cherry-pick lines from various teachings in order to justify their crimes against humanity. Gandhiji believed that “terrorism and deception are weapons not of the strong but of the weak.” However, because of evolving contexts, nothing in the Gandhian canon should be treated as sacrosanct. One of the several criticisms of Gandhiji is that he was not supportive of people who wanted to espouse alternative ways to attain freedom from the same enemy. He was notorious for not supporting revolutionaries like Bhagat Singh or leaders like Subhas Chandra Bose who had become disillusioned with nonviolence as a way to attain freedom. For him, the means (of agitation, demonstration, hartal, passive resistance and ultimately ahimsa) were perhaps more important than the ultimate objective. Therefore, Gandhiji’s philosophy should be studied in the light of constantly evolving context and not be isolated from it.

“We are all tarred with the same brush ; we are all members of the vast human family.”

This thought borrows from the Upanishadic tradition of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, which means the world is one family. Gandhiji might be considered as one of the foremost crusaders against a foreign power, but he was far from being xenophobic. Throughout his fight, he maintained a rigid adherence to the nonviolent approach. It is difficult to perceive how a person — he was tossed around by the British, charged with sedition, repeatedly put in jail, Churchill hated him with all his heart and wished his death — could stick to nonviolence unfailingly. His staunch loyalty to nonviolence sometimes even came at the cost of weakening the resolve of charged individuals bent on giving the British a taste of their own medicine. Gandhiji had said that he would be as hurt if the St. Paul’s Cathedral in London were to be desecrated, as he would be if the Kashi Vishwanath Temple or Jama Masjid were to be damaged. This was because he did not treat the British to be people outside the global family, despite the fact that they were the oppressors. Here lies the fundamental difference between the British and Gandhiji — the former believed in violent reaction and elimination while the latter believed in nonviolent communication, unity and inclusiveness. Retrospectively, however, whether this particular line of thought advocating harmony with the oppressor, can be considered counterproductive, is a separate debate altogether. But, his virtue of putting all identities and nationalities at an equal footing, cannot be overlooked as the key to contemporary world peace.

“It is not nationalism that is evil, it is the narrowness, selfishness, exclusiveness — the bane of modern nations — which is evil.”

This is perhaps the most important Gandhian thought in the current global political climate. India has been going through a lot of political unrest lately and almost invariably all of the instability can be sourced to one thing : nationalism. Different definitions of nationalism have surfaced in times of polarisation. Moreover, with the world becoming increasingly multipolar, different nationalisms and sub-nationalisms have started to compete for space. It is imperative for world peace and global oneness that the leaders learn from history and address these concerns. Nationalism should begin from humanism. Gandhiji had made it clear that he was a humble servant of India, nothing more. For him, nationalism was like selfless service to mankind. In this regard, he devised the concept of Sarvodaya, which was aimed ‘universal upliftment’, particularly the decentralisation and economic empowerment of villages. Gandhiji practised nationalism with a service motive till the day he was shot. Today, the practice of nationalism should be a means to an end, not the end itself.

The sole aim of journalism should be service. The true function of journalism is to educate the public mind and read the mind of the country and to give definite and fearless expression to that mind.”

Gandhiji was a prolific journalist, editor and writer. The political turmoil he witnessed in South Africa chiselled him into a conscientious journalist. He used to edit three newspapers — Indian Opinion, Young India and Harijan. He was a strong believer in the importance of journalism and communication to spread the message of nonviolence and truth, and considered his newspapers, which he called ‘viewspapers’, to be instrumental in his social movements and discussions of problems which demanded immediate action. Way before Nehruvian India saw the formulation of information policies to educate the public, Gandhiji had foreseen the immense potential of journalism in that regard. Journalism for him had an educational and developmental objective, with the ulterior motive of peace. His newspapers were vehicles in his crusade against poverty and other social ills. He also used these platforms to write opinion pieces against the colonial government, but was ‘no lover of irresponsible or unjustifiably strong criticism’. Gandhiji’s contribution to journalism can be readily evoked today when journalism in India is being redefined with new rules of engagement. Indian journalism especially that of the broadcast media, has hardly retained any Gandhian principle of information dissemination. Fake news, media trials, misinformation, yellow journalism are becoming increasingly common. It is about time that apart from ahimsa, satyagraha and spiritual teachings, we also take cues about journalism as public service from the Mahatma and try to incorporate them in our current media landscape.

The purpose of this piece is not the hero-worship of a historical figure, who was evidently flawed in more ways than one. His critics often describe him to be a ‘frog in a well’ who considered anything which did not fall in his world-view to be inconsequential. He is also criticized for not being interested in modern science and economics (he considered property to be a source of violence, despite Sarojini Naidu having joked that it took a fortune to keep Gandhiji poor). So, reverence for Gandhiji’s wisdom should ideally be accompanied by relevant criticism and skepticism, in order to separate the wheat from the chaff.

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Prantik Sengupta

Prantik Sengupta

Welcome to ‘The India Standard’, a blog on Medium™ dedicated to reflections on all things Indian and everything concerning India.

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