By Suma Varughese
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 land
The 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.
Gandhi’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.”
”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 value lies in his demonstration of what is possible for human society.
Through his influence and inspiration he engineered a noble independence for India-an independence that was civilized and elevated, leavened by the values of nonviolence and truth. More, he leaves behind the blueprint of a way of life that is truly holistic. A life that is politically, economically, socially, culturally oriented around the larger whole.
He gave the world satyagraha, a practical way in which victims can gain redress without hurting their oppressors. He popularized khadi as the solution to India’s deep-seated poverty. He initiated the concept of trusteeship through which the haves could prevent themselves from exploiting others.
He introduced radical ideas of education and social reform that could transform society. Gandhi was a social reformer, a politician, an economist, a doctor, a nutritionist, an environmentalist, a spiritual master-all rolled into one.
In his autobiography, The Story of My Experiments With Truth, he writes: “To see the universal and all-pervading Spirit of Truth face to face we must be able to love the meanest of creation as oneself. And a man who aspires after that cannot afford to keep out of any field of life.”
How then does one get the measure of such a man? He billows out of any grasp. He is too huge to be contained. So where do we begin?
Perhaps by gauging the wellsprings of his actions, the motivation that moved him. He writes in the same book: “If I found myself entirely absorbed in the service of the community, the reason behind it was my desire for self-realization.”
The goal of self-realization (truth, which to him was God) through the practice of nonviolence stamped his every thought, word and deed.
“This ahimsa is the basis of the search for truth. I am realising every day that the search is vain unless it is founded on ahimsa as the basis….”
If self-realization was the goal, then the whole pageantry of Gandhi’s life was simply a spiritual journey. It also means that the only way to evaluate him is through the spiritual perspective, for there is no other way to understand his experiments, his economic, political and social ideas, and indeed his entire worldview.
Let us now pause and examine.
If Gandhi forged his experiments in the furnace of his own life, if the truths emerged from his single-minded pursuit of self-realisation, does that guarantee that his ideas are true and relevant for all time?
Were his insights into the nature of modern civilisation right? Does his vision of the ideal society stand the test of time? Are his political and economic prescriptions valid today? Should humanity move along the Gandhian route?
A cacophony of opinions answers back. The response is mixed and varied.
Bikhu Parekh, Professor of political theory with the University of Hull, says in his essay, Is Gandhi Still Relevant? from the book Gandhi and the Contemporary World, that commemorated the 125th birth anniversary of Gandhi:
“For some he was a man of action, not thought, and was too hostile to modern civilisation to offer an adequate understanding of the nature of modernity, let alone provide answers to its problems…”
“(His critics) argue that his basically conservative, puritanical, pro-bourgeois and pacifist thought hindered the development of radical political movements, harmed the cause of the Dalits, burdened the Indian psyche with a paralysing sense of guilt about economic development, hampered the emergence of a strong and powerful state, created a national schizophrenia about the need to acquire and exercise political power andperpetuated unrealistic and confused ideas about human sexuality.”
The Marxists have their own reservations. His rejection of a technological society ran counter to the Marxist vision of technological progress.
He said: “Why must India become industrial in the western sense? One would think that a big country, with an ancient rural tradition… need not, must not, copy the western model.”
Moreover, those in favour of today’s consumerist society see little to recommend him to them. Gandhian thought, one could say, is the polar opposite of what they stand for. The basis of all his social and economic solutions was based on the concept of sarvodaya, the welfare of all.
Dr E.F. Schumacher, author of the classic critique on modern economics, Small is Beautiful, who called Gandhi the greatest ‘people’s economist’, says: “Gandhi abhorred the industrial civilisation because it was based on callous exploitation of non-renewable resources. It made bodily welfare the sole object of life, which reduced man to nothing but a clever animal.”
In place of industrialization, Gandhi advocated the formation of village industries and crafts, primarily spinning and weaving of khadi. Spinning would be a way of supplementing the meager income of the villager. It also gave self-determination to one of life’s necessities-clothing.
Far from endorsing conspicuous consumption, Gandhi’s sympathy and support of the suffering masses made it insupportable for him to accept a lifestyle higher than the lowest in the land.
He once said: “Whatever cannot be shared with the masses is taboo to me… My loin cloth is an organic evolution in my life… it comes naturally without effort, without premeditation.”
“Service to the poor has been my heart’s desire and it has thrown me amongst the poor and enabled me to identify myself with them.”
His own experiences in self-control and desirelessness led him to pronounce: “Civilization consists not in the multiplication of wants but in the deliberate and voluntary reduction of wants,” the environmentalist’s favourite anthem today, but hardly likely to sit well with India Inc.
Even Gandhians agree that the tide is not in favour of Gandhi. Kamala Desikhan, secretary, Kasturba Health Society based in Sewagram, Wardha, says: “Today, glamour is blinding people. Multinationals have penetrated our day-to-day lives. The country is going completely against Gandhi’s ideals.”
She adds: “Those of us who believe in Gandhi must protect the flame and take it safely to the next generation.”
Why does Gandhian thinking arouse antagonism? Why are opinions so sharply polarised around the man?
To his admirers, he is one of the greatest saints and visionaries of all time. To his detractors, he is a crank whose outlandish notions are impractical and outdated.
Rex Ambler, in an essay Gandhi Against Modernity, says: “We might still wish to conclude that he was caught in the trap of his own utopianism. He can oppose modern civilisation so totally only because he can seriously believe that his idealistic alternative is possible and feasible.”
“But, since the alternative is constructed on the basis of a purely spiritual understanding of the human and historical situation, it cannot even begin to be feasible.”
Gandhi’s spiritual perspective is at the root of much criticism. He understood what rationalists cannot comprehend, that the universe is founded on moral principles.
His quest for truth was nothing more than the discovery of the spiritual laws of life-the power of love, of nonviolence, the interconnection of life on which he based his life’s work. His rejection of modern society was based on its eschewal of spiritual values.
He said: “Western civilisation assures progress by the progress of matter-railways, conquest of disease, conquest of the air. No one says, ‘now the people are more truthful or more humble’.”
His entire political strategy, satyagraha, ahimsa and fasting was based on the superiority of ‘soul force’ to physical force. He once said: “Nonviolence… means the pitting of one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant.”
His objection to modern science was based on the ground that: “It attaches undue importance to the body rather than the soul, which is infinitely more real than the body.”
That being so, much of his thinking is inaccessible to those who do not share a spiritual perspective. His concept of trusteeship is based on the Isha Upanishad which asserts that God is the owner of the world, and that we own nothing.
His concept of satyagraha, in which the victim steadfastly defies tyranny and force through the practice of civil disobedience while at the same time responding to the oppressor with courtesy and love, is again the expression of a spiritual law.
The seeker knows that what you resist, persists. His concept of equality was based on the interconnection of life, his rejection of force and tyranny was based on respect for the divinity of all things.
His rejection of all institutions, including parliaments, armies and law courts arose out of his conviction that love was superior to force.
He writes: “The individual has a soul, but as the state is a soulless machine, the state can never be weaned from violence to which it owes its very existence.”
Everything he stood for had a spiritual basis to it. There is also the eternal clash between the aesthete and the ascetic, the lover of beauty versus the lover of truth. For many, Gandhi’s vision of a return to subsistence-level village life, bereft of all mod cons, is simply bleak.
Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi’s friend and poet, writes on village communities: “Here was an intimate world of narrow horizons, rotating on its own axis; year to year, generation to generation, its substance was changeless, repetitive.”
Not that all Gandhian thinking is valid. Dhirubhai Mehta, president of the Kasturba Gandhi Trust, considers advocacy of prohibition as controversial. There are others who question his attitude towards sex. Gandhi was convinced that sex was only for procreation and advocated that after giving birth to the necessary progeny, married couple live as brother and sister.
Ahmedabad-based C.N. Patel, a former deputy editor of The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, says: “Celibacy among married people is simply not feasible.”
Rajni Bakshi is the author of Bapu Kutir, a series of essays on individual scientists, engineers, artists and social workers, all of whom vend their way to Gandhian thought in the process of their own ‘experiments with truth’.
She asserts: “The biggest difference my generation has with Gandhi is the issue of sex. In his view sex got equated with lust and not as a glorious expression of love.”
Mahatma’s great-grandson, Tushar Gandhi, questions the relevance of khadi: “Khadi is no longer a tool of self-reliance. It is a parasite surviving on governmental subsidies. It has not been allowed to evolve. What’s wrong with using electricity in production? Or in designing khadi T-shirts, for that matter?”
Not everyone believes khadi is obsolete. Bakshi writes in her book: “For Gandhi, khadi was about food and promoting community values and enhancing the organizational skills of the masses. Gandhi saw khadi not as cloth alone but as a means to create the greatest co-operative in the world, involving millions of people.”
This, she feels, is as valid today as it was in Gandhi’s time. And supporters of Gandhian thought are proliferating. Gandhi’s greatest witness today is the state of the environment. It is jolting many awake to the debilitating effect of modernisation. Gandhi is the patron saint of the Green movement, which is based on many of his ideas.
Robert Hart in his essay, Gandhi and the Greens: Road to Survival, writes: “In today’s world, generally Gandhi’s truest political heirs are the Greens.”
He quotes from the manifesto of the British Green Party: “A Green economy promotes security and cooperation. We want economic policies based on production for human need, not on private profit, regardless of the exploitation of people and the environment.”
The developed world, which has been through the process of high living, is particularly receptive to Gandhian thought.
The editors of the book, Gandhi and the Contemporary World, Antony Copley and George Paxton, write: “Gandhi’s insights have also provided a bitter postmortem on development. At either point, his vision of an alternative society carries conviction.”
They continue, “But …those which have experienced the destructive consequences of this quest are more likely to be convinced of the perceptiveness of Gandhi’s critique. Maybe it is not so paradoxical that Gandhi’s ideas are taken as or even more seriously in industrialised societies as in developing.”
Many believe there is no alternative to Gandhian thought.
Robert Hart writes: “At this lost critical period in the history of the world, humanity’s only ultimate hope for survival lies in a worldwide movement for grassroots reconstruction on Gandhian lines.”
Thakurdas Bang, veteran Gandhian and leader of the Sarva Seva Sangh (SSS), gives the example of an encounter former Speaker of Maharashtra, Madhukar Choudhury, had with some students in Europe.
Pointing to his Gandhi cap, they asked him if he was from India where Gandhi lived. When asked about Gandhi’s significance to them, they said: “He is our leader. There is no alternative to unemployment or the environment problem save through Gandhian ideas.”
Rajni Bakshi emphasizes: “Gandhi understood the maladies at the core of modern times. You cannot understand September 11 without Gandhi. A whole nation built on genocide of the original people can only lead to violence in one form or another. His objection to modern science was based on vivisection.”
She continues, “Let a few frogs suffer so we can have better medicine for asthma is a short step to saying, ‘let a few people die so we can have water’, which is what the Narmada issue is all about.”
Tushar Gandhi says: “We have only two options, nonviolence or non-existence.”
He says that his website was flooded with mail from people traumatised by September 11 who were seeking a panacea in Gandhian thinking. He adds: “Gandhi showed that idealism is practical, which makes him eternally relevant. In the Indian context the most relevant of his teaching was respect for all religions, a must if India is to survive.”
Dhirubhai Mehta says: “Our country has excessive labour, so we must look for labour-intensive modes of production unlike America which has a shortage of labor. Our problem is unemployment. Although khadi makes only 1 per cent of the textile industry, it employs 20 lakh. Everyday, Gandhian ideas convince me more and more.”
He points out that it was the Gandhians led by Jayaprakash Narayan, a communist turned Gandhian, who won freedom for the country for the second time during the Emergency.
Mehta says: “Gandhi said, ‘be fearless’, so I openly opposed the Emergency.”
Although Mehta never met Gandhi, he became a Gandhian in his college years and shifted to wearingonly khadi. In accordance with Gandhi’s wishes he married out of his own community the daughter of a veteran Gandhi family.
Sewagram-based Thakurdas Bang and his family of two sons and wife Suman compose the identikit Gandhi family. Although past 80, Bang is active in SSS, a movement committed to the propagation of sarvodaya.
It is active in over 700 villages in five states, including Maharashtra, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, where it popularises the concept of organic farming, village industries such as the making of soap, and in combating injustices against farmers by traders.
In the wake of the Ahmedabad riots, the movement is focused on eliminating communalism. Bang’s wife Suman and one son work for the Chetna Vikas, an experimental organic farm for the local farmers.
His other son, Ashok, a doctor once based in the legendary John Hopkins Hospital in the US, now works in an Adivasi village along with his wife. The spry khadi-clad Bang, who spent 19 months in jail during the Emergency, spends half-an-hour spinning to produce enough thread for his needs.
“Spinning is a symbol of self-sufficiency and the dignity of physical labour,” he says.
He believes: “There is no alternative to Gandhian thinking to resolve environmental and unemployment issues or even the diseases of prosperity that are rising in India.”
Bang adds, however, that Gandhi was never against technology; his only stipulation was that it had to be holistic. “Gobar (cow-dung) gas is an example of appropriate technology as is sun and wind energy.”
Gandhian disciples, ideas and institutions flourish silently, not just in India but also abroad. Pierre Marchand (Nobel Peace Prize nominee for 2001), who runs an NGO called Pargage in France, bears personal testimony to the power of nonviolence.
The NGO, which works for the welfare of children, ran foul of a guerrilla outfit in Bangladesh, which issued a death threat against Marchand, who had earlier been banished from Bangladesh.
In response to the threat, Marchand wrote to the guerilla leader informing him that since he was not permitted to come to Bangladesh he would be in Calcutta, at a specific hotel, at a specific time and day, alone. The leader was welcome to kill him, but he must first explain his grouse against him.
At the appointed hour, a bunch of the leader’s cohorts arrived at the intrepid Frenchman’s table. “Tell us,” they asked, “why have you come to be killed when others run away when they hear of a death threat?”
Marchand explained to them about Gandhi and his concept of nonviolence over a cup of tea, which stretched into dinner, which stretched into a night-long discussion.
“By the next day, we had become such good friends that they could not kill me, so here I am!”
Marchand, together with S. Loganathan, executive director of the Association for Sarva Seva Farms, (ASSEFA), an institution promoting sarvodaya, was responsible for initiating the United Nation’s International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Nonviolence for the children of the world.
ASSEFA has been working primarily in Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra. The organization promotes Gandhian values such as empowering women, creating a saving scheme for the community, running schools that promote the concept of nonviolence, creation of community assets, etc.
“The initial aim was to bring people together, but that was not enough. We also had to make them responsible for themselves and their community. The final aim is gram swaraj,” says Loganathan.
Dr S. Jayapragasam, head of the department of Gandhian studies and Ramalinga philosophy, Madurai Karmaraj University, Tamil Nadu, refers to nonviolent struggles all over the world as a proof that Gandhian thought continues to impact society.
“Honduras is thinking of picking up salt, Lithuania struggles for freedom nonviolently with the help of Dr Gene Sharp. He is a Gandhian based in the Albert Einstein Institute, Boston, and is now advising the Dalai Lama.”
He points out that a Madurai scholar had compiled 4,000 incidents of nonviolent struggles all over the world in a period of five years. Even the youth, despite being cudgeled by brand names and gadgets, are responsive to Gandhian thinking, though admittedly in the sanctified haven of Wardha, host to both Gandhi’s as well as Vinoba Bhave’s ashram.
The Rashtriya Yuva Sangathan is an all-India youth organisation committed to Gandhian philosophy with roughly one thousand members. A handful of youths sit spinning on the ground of the sparsely furnished office.
Apart from focusing on organic farming and other income generators, the organisation resolves social problems such as addiction. They have also started a janata darbar with the idea of making the elected accountable to the electorate.
Candidates contesting municipal elections were invited on a common platform and quizzed about their manifestoes. The successful candidates were later called again to report on what they had implemented.
The boys chorus: “Gandhian way is the only way, though we agree that it is the hard way, since it asks us to reduce wants. We believe that people should decide by consensus. Even a wrong decision is acceptable because they will learn from it.”
They mention a recent incident in the neighbouring village of Paroda, where a popular teacher was transferred without the residents being consulted. In turn, the villagers locked up the school and refused to have it function until the teacher was brought back. Until then the children are learning in a Hanuman temple.
“We feel the school was started with our money. They should listen to us,” says Suresh Umbarkar, one of the aggrieved residents.
Their spokesperson Nitin Todas says: “The villagers have been weakened by caste and community conflicts.
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