150 years after his birth, relevant or not, Mahatma Gandhi remains the most adored yet highly debated ‘soul’ in the global arena. Most people consider Gandhi to be among the top three greatest human beings, if not the top-most, in the last 150 years. It is likely he will remain so in the next 150 years.
Gandhi is a man of multitudes. For his most adherent followers, he is no less than a Prophet. To his dissenters, his methods seem to be forms of Anarchism. He can’t be owned by anyone completely and at the same time denied by any. He is venerated completely by many and also vilified by many more. There are people who shared a frank friendship with Gandhi and also who advanced forthright enmity to him. A very comprehensive understanding of what Gandhi means to people from different walks of life can be understood from the remarks made by a friend from his London days in 1934 and expanded by a contemporary biographer of Gandhi in 2018:
Gandhi ‘is a problem, To Rulers and Governors he is a thorn in their side. To logicians he is a fool. To economists he is a hopeless ignoramus. To materialists he is a dreamer. To communists he is a drag on the wheel. To constitutionalists he represents rank revolution.’
After 1930s, Gandhi got few other tags, mostly from his political opponents in India, while his popularity has gone up significantly abroad. To Muslim leaders like Jinnah, he was a Hindu ‘leader’ (though he fought for Muslims on equal terms as Hindus). To Hindu groups, he was an appeaser of Muslims (although he tried to bring all the Indian groups and organizations under one umbrella in his fight against British). To the untouchables, he appeared to be a defender of high-caste orthodoxy (despite him being the first individual who said untouchability is sin and that ‘Dalits’ are ‘Harijans’ – children of God). To the Brahmins and Banias, he was a reformer in too much of a hurry (even if Gandhi had proposed and practised gradual progress and was against the rebellions and radicalism).
Gandhi almost touched all aspects of human life, East and West, Charka and Machinery, Hinduism and Christianity, Environment and Economics, Science and Humanity, Religion and Insanity, Celibacy and Passions, English and Native Language, etc. This diversity in his thoughts forms a very complex legacy of this Kathiawar Bania, an unsuccessful lawyer in India, and a popular attorney in South Africa who finally rose to become a Mahatma in India. At the height of Gandhi’s popularity across both eastern and western hemispheres during 1930s, Winston Churchill derogatorily called him a ‘Half-Naked Fakir’ as Churchill couldn’t comprehend how Gandhi could be highly regarded by his fellow English men.
Through his writings, speeches, and conversations, he reached to millions across the world. His collected works published by the Publications Division of India consists of 100 bulky volumes. Gandhi took knowledge from every corner of the world (his major influences include Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, English art critic and political economist John Ruskin, American essayist and poet Henry David Thoreau, Indian philosopher Raychandbhai, and Freedom Fighter Gopala Krishna Gokhale) and gave in return knowledge and wisdom to the world. Gandhi’s contributions to the world are amassing. In this essay, three most significant contributions of Gandhi are highlighted: non-violence, warnings about the satanic nature of western civilisation, and openness to ideas.
More than anything, Gandhi showed to the world that there is a powerful and supreme alternative through which any greatest evil can be fought and won over, the non-violent struggle. This is the single most significant contribution of Gandhi to the world. This message is adopted by movements across the globe that sought to attain emancipation from brutality and discrimination. This message is closely connected with another important Gandhi’s belief that ‘ends don’t justify means’. This anti-consequentialist and the anti-utilitarian assertion are explained in simple terms with an example by Gandhi in his seminal work, Hind Swaraj –
‘If I want to deprive you of your watch, I shall certainly have to fight for it. If I want to buy your watch, I have to pay for it; if I want a gift, I have to plead for it, and according to the means I employ, the watch is stolen property, my own property, or a donation. Thus, we see three different results for the three different means employed. Therefore, it is very clear that the means employed decide the nature of ends produced.’
Gandhi led the struggle against the British with non-violence and with well-thought about ideas. He strongly believed that independence in itself doesn’t lead to wonders; it depends on how citizens of a nation use it effectively. If the ends are attained with incompetent means, the situation can be compared to the ‘sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells’ and that wasn’t the kind of independence he wanted. The fruits of independence and prosperity Indians bore today are fruits of Gandhi’s deeply thought about ideas on non-violence.
Another significant contribution of Gandhi, which is more relevant to the times we live in, is his opinion on western civilization, which according to him is ‘destructive, evil, and satanic’. He said, ‘The tendency of the Indian civilization is to elevate the moral being, that of the western civilization is to propagate immorality’. Gandhi ‘noticed’ the effects of romanticised western ideas had on people across the planet. Western ideas, as Indian Essayist Pankaj Mishra pointed out, sought to create a greater urge for wealth, status, power and to attain a ‘commercial society of self-interested rational individuals that was originally advocated in the eighteenth century by such enlightenment thinkers such as Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Voltaire and Kant in which human beings are programmed to maximise their self-interest’. While the western civilization is undoubtedly the forerunner of (and significantly contributed to) the economic and material progress the world has been, philosophers continue to debate whether it came at the expense of humanity and nature, and they often quote Gandhi in this regard.
It can be clearly seen, universally, that the manifestation of globalisation and individualism is far from the ideals it has set to attain. In contrast, as Walter Benjamin says, they have actually pushed humankind to a stage, “that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order”. Gandhi was prophetic in predicting and foreseeing these effects of western civilization. In 1928, Gandhi warned:
‘God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 millions took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts. Unless the capitalists of India help to avert that tragedy by becoming trustees of the welfare of the masses and by devoting their talents not to amassing wealth for themselves but to the service of the masses in an altruistic spirit, they will end either by destroying the masses or being destroyed by them.’
Gandhi might seem very idealistic when he made the above statement, but he had a vision for the world where there is, ‘an extension from self-interest to group-interest and from acting on the immediate urge of present needs to planning for future requirements’, like honeybees that work for the benefit of many. He wanted to, ‘resist the superficiality of mass produced, pop culture and the way it threatens to displace local indigenous cultural production. We must abandon imitative lifestyles that seek to replicate hedonism, waste and decadence of the West’. Not many paid enough attention to Gandhi’s warnings and his vision. Maybe the world would have been a much better place to live in than it is today if governments, politicians, and public administrators paid attention to Gandhi’s warnings.
The third and significant contribution of Gandhi is having a ‘great openness to ideas.’ In a letter to Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi wrote:
‘I hope I am as great a believer in free air as the great Poet. I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.’
Gandhi was a great proponent of diverse viewpoints. He debated on many issues. He openly changed his views if they are proven wrong by others or if he finds them to be inconsistent. And he did all this openly. He always encouraged criticisms on his thoughts and methods. He published letters which are written criticising him in his journals and replied to them.
India and the United States are the two largest democracies, and they are the torchbearers of freedom and liberty based on how they had created their social fabric. However, over the past decade, the political processes in both the nations have been highly polarized to an extent where the leaders of some political parties don’t see eye to eye with each other. It is high time that the current generation ‘leaders’ look back to Gandhi and preserve, support and debate diverse views for the benefit of their nations.
To conclude, let’s reminisce what J C Kumarappa (arguably the greatest Gandhian economist) said in 1948 while burying an urn containing the Mahatma’s ashes in a pit in Sevagram Ashram – ‘Instead of burying Gandhi deep in our hearts, we are burying him deep into the earth’. Today, the politicians must rethink: Should we leave Gandhi just buried in the earth or bury him deep in our hearts?
-Contributed by Rishvanth Reddy, a Freelancer
Picture: Mahatma Gandhi, in 1931, when he attended the Second Round Table Conference in London to discuss India’s Independence from the British