By Suma Varughese October 2002 In a world increasingly enamoured with technology and good-living on one hand and giving in to violence on the other, perhaps it is time to rediscover the Mahatma In Gandhi landThe Mahatma’s ideas and ideals are alive and kicking in Sewagram and Sabarmati ashrams If one is tempted to believe that Gandhi is irrelevant in today’s times, a visit to his ashrams in Sewagram and Sabarmati disillusion you. Here, Gandhian ideals and ideas are not just alive but active, fertilising measures that improve the lot of the rural poor. Sewagram in Wardha, Maharashtra, is host to a number of Gandhian organizations, apart from the ashram. It contains the massive Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences, originally a guesthouse built by his industrialist friend, Jamnalal Bajaj, to accommodate Gandhi’s visitors, and the Kasturba Health Society, which, apart from running the hospital, also holds an institute to train nurses and a school for children. These apart, there is Yatri Nivas, a cluster of small dwellings for those interested in visiting the ashram; the Centre of Science for Villages; the experimental farm, Chetna Vikas, and an institution run by the followers of J.C. Kumarappa, Gandhi’s economic adviser. In Gandhi land, everyone, from ashramites to doctors to medical students and orderlies, wears khadi. And when opportunity arises, they spin. Here, away from the urban obsession with stock exchanges, one gets a sense of how the years have treated rural India. Post-liberalization, the committed Dr Jajoo tells us, agriculture has become unviable. It is this among other factors, which is persuading some of the farmers to consider organic farming. The ashram, though in many ways the heart of Sewagram, is now but a shadow of the vibrant place it must have been when it was Gandhi’s headquarters from 1936 to the time of his death in 1948. The low roof-tiled mud dwellings must have a charm of their own, but on a cold rainy day, they appear dank and uncomfortable. Each was built with less than Rs 500 and of local material available within a 50-km radius. Yet they are immaculately kept. Among others, there is the large Adi Niwas where Gandhi first lived with his guests and the compact Bapu Kuti where he shifted in later. The aesthetics is pleasing. The cowdung-stained floor is cool to the touch, and the smooth walls hold etchings of Om and a collection of palm trees. Elegant palm-leaf mats line the floor. Gandhi’s corner is characteristically stark, with a white mattress. There are only a handful of residents left in the ashram. We meet them at the evening prayer held on the verandah of the Adi Niwas. The prayer consists of songs and chants from all religions including Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. It ends with a reading from one of Gandhi’s speeches. Shivshankar Pente, Secretary of the Sewagram Ashram Pratishthan, a frail 75-year-old, says: ‘‘I have great contentment in doing this work. I have had the good fortune of working with people like Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan.’’ These two names are brandished like a talisman. It is clear that most of today’s Gandhians have had no direct access to Gandhi. Their source of enthusiasm has been one or other of these two great Gandhians who, in so many ways, carried on Gandhi’s work. Vinoba Bhave translated one of Gandhi’s cherished schemes of persuading rich landowners to part voluntarily with their property to benefit landless peasants in the Bhoodan movement. The Sabarmati ashram, known in Ahmedabad as the Gandhi Ashram, is much more modern looking than Sewagram despite having been set up earlier, on Gandhi’s return to India in 1915. Perhaps because these are pucca settlements, not yet as radically simplified as his later dwellings. The grounds are divided into the original buildings and the beautiful Gandhi Memorial Museum, designed by the well-known architect, Charles Correa. The original buildings are monuments today, but the Museum has extensive reproductions of Gandhi’s life, both in paintings and photographs. Amrutbhai Mody, secretary of the ashram and director of the Museum, also came to Gandhi via Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan. He left his government job in favour of serving humanity soon after attending a camp by Dada Dharmadhikari, a veteran Gandhian. Later, we meet the charming C.H. Patel. An invalid, he claims that his depression was cured by his contact with Gandhi’s thoughts. His daughter Deena admits that Gandhian thinking has helped her along the spiritual path. Next day, we visit the Gujarat Vidyapeeth for morning prayers. The giant hall is filled with students and teachers. The mellifluous strains of the Sanskrit shlokas dying out, there is a small hustle and bustle before we are treated to the fairly surreal sight of 1,000 people spinning away. The Vidyapeeth offers M.A., M. Phil and Ph.D. on Gandhian thought and M. Phil and Ph.D. in science and peace. Living the Gandhian life is supremely hard, for it means stripping oneself of all wants. The people at Sewagram and Sabarmati have made their own uneasy compromises with modernity, but what gives their lives meaning and purpose is that they continue along the Gandhian path. In doing so they remind us that there are higher goals than earning a livelihood, and that in serving our fellowmen, we may best serve ourselves. Ram RajyaGandhi’s vision of an ideal society Gandhi outlined his concept of the ideal society in an article in Harijan in 1946. ‘‘Indian independence must begin at the bottom. Thus every village will be a republic or a panchayat, having full powers.’ ‘It follows, therefore, that every village has to be self-sustained and capable of managing its affairs, even to the extent of defending itself against the whole world.’ ‘It will be trained and prepared to perish in the attempt to defend itself against any onslaught from without.’ ‘Thus ultimately, it is the individual who is the unit. But this does not exclude dependence on the willing help from neighbours or from the world.’ ‘It will be free and voluntary play of mutual forces.’ ‘Such a society is necessarily highly cultured in which every man and every woman knows what he or she wants and, what is more, knows that no one should want anything that the others cannot have with equal labour. ‘‘In this structure composed of innumerable villages, there will be ever widening, never ascending, circles.’ ‘Life will not be a pyramid with the apex sustained by the bottom.’ ‘But will be an oceanic circle, whose centre will be the individual always ready to perish for the village, the latter ready to perish for the circle of villages, till at last the whole becomes one life composed of individuals, ever humble, sharing the majesty of the oceanic circle of which they are integral units.’ ‘‘Therefore, the outermost circumference will not wield power to crush the inner circle, but will give strength to all within and will derive its own strength from it. ‘I may be taunted with the retort that this is all Utopian and, therefore, not worth a single thought.’ ‘If Euclid’s point, though incapable of being drawn by any human agency, has an imperishable value, my picture has its own for mankind to live…’’ ”It is my belief that the problem of bringing peace to the world on a supernational basis will be solved only by employing Gandhi’s method on a large scale.”-Albert Einstein ”Gandhi was inevitable. If humanity is to progress, Gandhi is inescapable. He lived, thought and acted inspired by the vision of humanity evolving toward a world of peace and harmony. We may ignore Gandhi at our own risk.”-Martin Luther King Jr Is Mahatma Gandhi relevant today? One may as well ask, is truth relevant? Is nonviolence relevant? Is peace relevant? Is belief in a higher level of humanity relevant? Is love for the other relevant? These eternal values ran like a fine chain through all Gandhi’s ideas, actions, experiments and ideals. Looking back over the 54 years since his death , one is astounded that any man could aspire to such a high level of ideals, not just for himself but for a whole country. Gandhi made the impossible possible. He made it possible for ordinary human beings to demonstrate the courage and compassion of a sage, to lay down their lives unresistingly before armed police forces, to refuse to submit to injustice and tyranny, to free themselves from under the tyrant’s foothold and stiffen their spines, to rise above feelings of ill-will, spite, hatred and revenge, and regard their opponent if not with love, then at least with forbearance, to overcome the conditioning of centuries and remove the stigma of untouchability and female suppression. To inspire and manoeuvre the whole creaking machinery of a country as huge as ours, to rise above its brute nature, is a feat so astonishing that one can hardly believe a human being did it. American journalist Louis Fischer writes in his book The Life of Mahatma Gandhi: “In South Africa, Gandhi believed that the ordinary, illiterate indentured labourer in a mine or on farm could rise to the purity and restraint required of a satyagrahi.” “He trusted the peasants of backward Bardoli to resist provocation and violence. His trust exalted them. Gandhi did not regard nobility as a monopoly of the great man or the artist or the elite. Gandhi’s uniqueness lay in working with common clay and finding the soul spark in it.” Just as the inestimable value of a Buddha, Mahavira, Mohammed or Christ lies in their demonstration of what is possible for a human being, Gandhi’s
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