By Jamuna Rangachari
Mahatma Gandhi is widely recognized as the creator and practitioner of an ideology that honed ahimsa and a staunch commitment to truth into tools of political resistance and activism.
The magic of Mahatma Gandhi is that he defies categorization. Would one call him a saint, philosopher, social reformer, or politician? Actually, he was all of these and perhaps, much more than any of these.
He was a deeply religious person, but which religion could one ascribe his beliefs to? He was greatly influenced by Vedanta, but was not really a traditional Vedantist. Vedantic thought tells us the atman or self in each individual is essentially one, a part of the divine being or Brahman. The traditional interpretation of this principle is an effort to disassociate oneself from the world and its machinations so that one becomes free of maya or the illusion of a separately existing, ego-bound I . Gandhi applied this principle in his unique way, extending it to strive for a better society, free of all divisions. He worked for caste and communal amity and maintained that the service of the neediest people is the worship of Daridranarayan (God in the form of the poor). His life s mission was to work for the betterment of society by affirmative action. For him, India s independence was not merely about wrangling power from the British but about creating a more equitable society or Swarajya, ‘for those toiling and unemployed millions who do not get even a square meal a day and have to scratch along with a piece of stale roti and a pinch of salt’.
The Bhagavad Gita says, ‘You have the right to act, but do so without expecting the fruits of your action.’ From this, Gandhi drew inspiration to persevere undaunted in his struggle, fully understanding that his may be a prolonged struggle which may or may not yield the expected results within a reasonable period of time.
Many attribute his fetish for fasts to the Jain philosophy, which was an early influence on him. However, there was a key difference in the application of this principle by Gandhi. While the Jain concept of fasting is renunciation of action, that of Gandhi was fasting for a cause.
In the Sermon on the Mount, another great inspiration for Gandhi, Jesus says, ‘Resist not him that is evil, but whosoever smiteth thee on thy right cheek turn to him the other also.’ Forgiveness, the central principle of Christ, was embraced by Gandhi, but he did not stop at that. He extended this principle to make non-violent opposition a potent weapon. Fighting against injustice without causing any harm or harboring any ill-feelings towards the enemy came to be his guiding principle.
Hence, though deeply religious, he cannot be categorized as belonging to any particular sect or creed. Like all great messiahs and masters, he rose above the practices of the day and culled the essence from each faith, beautifully interweaving various religious traditions to create a mosaic of spirituality that was uniquely his own. Is it not a mistake to try and bring in spirituality into politics? Isn’t politics, by definition, corrupt and manipulative? An area of life which is made to work on the principle that the end justifies the means? This is precisely what Gandhi did not subscribe to. Principles, to him, were immutable and therefore, universally applicable.
In a fable from the Mahabharata, Guru Dronacharya went on a trip for about 10 days and asked his disciples to learn as many shlokas as they could during this time. When he came back, all his disciples except one narrated many shlokas, and he was pleased with them. The exception was Yudhishthira. He had learnt only one verse. The guru was furious and gave him a whacking. Yudhishthira stoically bore the punishment and did not utter a single word. When his anger had abated, the guru asked Yudhishthira how he could be so irresponsible. Yudhishthira answered, ‘The shloka I learnt asked one to control anger. It took me a full 10 days to do so but finally, I succeeded. I am glad I have truly learnt this shloka.’ Dronacharya was ashamed at his own lack of restraint and realized that true learning is in the application of what one has learnt.
This fable symbolizes the belief of Gandhi, who firmly believed that it is useless to preach something without practising it. To him, practice always came first. Hence, when asked how his principles could be applied to something as complex as politics, his answer was, ‘I cannot isolate politics from the deepest things of my life, for the simple reason that my politics are not corrupt, they are inextricably bound up with non-violence and truth.’
In writing about the need for human relationships for spiritual growth in Sacred Literature of the World, Eknath Easwaran says, ‘Can we practice patience with a deer? Can you learn to forgive a redwood?’ The greatest challenge is in living a life where we apply our spiritual principles in this world each day, every moment.
Mahatma Gandhi took it to a phenomenal level, applying it to his personal as well as political life. He lived a life where his mind, thoughts and actions were always in synergy with the principles he subscribed to, the ultimate goal of spirituality.
It is the view of some that Mahatma Gandhi s policy of non-violence ultimately failed. We may have won our independence through ahimsa, but soon thereafter succumbed to a mad frenzy of violence during the country s partition. This, unfortunately, is the way of the world very often. Christ was betrayed by his own disciple and crucified publicly; however his message is all the more poignant as he prayed, ‘Lord, forgive them for they not know not what they are doing,’ even while he was on the cross. Similarly, even as the flag was being hoisted at Delhi, Gandhi lived in the slums of Calcutta, using his non-violent weapon of fasting to make people see reason.
Is Gandhi relevant today? This is like asking, ‘Is truth relevant today?’
At a lecture by Dr Sandeep Pandey, founder of Asha for Education and a Magsaysay award winner, a young man asked Dr Pandey, ‘I want to do something for India. But what can I do? There is so much corruption, so many problems, one does not know where to start.’ Dr Pandey s answer was, ‘Mahatma Gandhi has given this answer long ago, to all Indians – Look at the poorest of the poor. If you feel what you are going to do would benefit him, then your action is worth doing. ‘
There is no doubt that the politics of today is corrupt and negligent, a constant game of power struggles and vote banks, driven by self-interest. Communal strife surfaces ever so often and is perpetuated by the people in power. That perhaps makes Gandhi s message more relevant than ever before. He crystallized his beliefs into two simple principles, coining the terms satyagraha and ahimsa .
The word satyagraha comprises two Sanskrit words – satya and graha . Satya means that which is, which is indestructible, or truth, and graha means holding on to something. So satyagraha literally means holding on to the truth. This truth is the eternal truth, that which never changes. ‘Truth is God’, was Gandhi s dictum.
Ahimsa, to Gandhi, was not mere physical non-violence, but its higher spiritual meaning which recognizes that all negative action crops from the seed of a negative thought. Hence, the ahimsa he strove to practice was destruction of all uncharitable thought, even in connection with those whom one may consider one s enemies. The core principle, when one offers non-violent resistance, is to oppose the injustice, but without losing sight of the human being inside the aggressor or the opponent.
‘We have to be the change we wish to see in the world,’ he said, firmly believing that through satyagraha and ahimsa, one could achieve anything. If we needed to fight an imperial power then, today we need to fight the evils that have permeated our society. The enemy within us can be overcome only through ahimsa and satyagraha.
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