By Nishtha Shukla
It must take tremendous strength of conviction and intelligence to influence the mind of one such as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Here’s a look at a few who contributed to shaping the ideals that were to have a radical impact on the world
Certainly no other influential Indian intellectual was as steeped as Gandhi was… in the religious and philosophical texts of the classical Indian tradition as well as the writings of daring western moralists of 19th century,’ wrote Gandhi scholar Raghavan Iyer.
This explains why the autobiography of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is a series of explorations of various complementary as well as contradictory ideas. Early western interpreters thought that Indian ‘intellectuals’ at that time were being exposed to ideas both from the West and India.
Antony Copley, author of Gandhi Against the Tide, holds: ‘Indians are seeking the source of modernity within their own traditions. Although Gandhi can be said to forge his philosophies on these lines, there is room to explore whether western influences overpowered his Indian ideas.’
As Gandhi encountered new ideas, he evolved in thought to work towards national freedom.
In Harijan, Gandhi has said: ‘In my search after truth I have discarded many ideas and learnt many new things… I am concerned with my readiness to obey the call of truth… when anybody finds any inconsistency between any two writings of mine… he would do well to choose the latter of the two.’
Gandhi must be understood in the context of identifying with the self first. His revelations about his influences suggest that he never took anything at face value. ‘He builds an autonomous view of his own political philosophy,’ feels Prof Subroto Mukherjee of Delhi University.
Gandhi even called his autobiography The Story of My Experiments With Truth, as he experimented with various ideologies to derive the best conclusion.
‘His life rooted in Indian traditions was a passionate search for truth,’ Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan mentions in All Men Are Brothers.
It has been stated that Gandhi was influenced by Karl Marx, although Marxists have traditionally denied this because of his ‘bourgeoise’ outlook.
When Gandhi read Marx, he told his biographer Louis Fischer: ‘I could write better.’
Mukherjee believes it was because Gandhi was against any form of determinism. Gandhi’s mother Putali Bai exercised great influence on him as a little boy. It is from her that he imbibed the principles of bridging the Hindu-Muslim divide, condemning idolatry and abstinence from wine and meat.
Also, her association with Jainism had a perceptible influence on him. Ahimsa explains the basis of Jain philosophy, a religion that emphasises the relevance of nonviolence because it believes that the densest karmic defilement of the soul takes place when one hurts another creature.
Ahimsa for Gandhi meant active love, the opposite of violence, as Stephen Murphy points out in his book, Why Gandhi is Relevant in Modern India.
Referring to last Jain Tirthankar Mahavira, Gandhi had said: ‘If anybody developed the doctrine of nonviolence, it was Lord Mahavira.’
Gandhi referred to Shrimad Rajchandra, a Jain householder-ascetic, as his spiritual mentor. Rajchandra asked Gandhi to look within himself when he expressed the desire to change his religion.
It changed his life. He said: ‘I have since met many a religious leader, no one else ever made on me the impression that Rajchandrabhai did.’
Gandhi has mentioned Rajchandra as being one of the three biggest influences in his life. It is believed that Indian texts influenced Gandhi more than western ideas.
His major convictions such as truth, nonviolence and satyagraha were inspired by Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism. In times of crisis, Gandhi sought refuge in the Bhagawad Gita. He read it for the first time in England, while working as a Sanskrit translator for friends from the Theosophical Society.
It provided him with perfect knowledge of truth and selfless action. He derived inspiration from Krishna’s message that a man must not be diverted from seeking the truth. Gandhi’s personal philosophy about duty and service combined with social justice coincided with this aspect of Hinduism.
He also read the New Testament. In particular, the Sermon on the Mount, which appealed to him because of its activist philosophy. Rabindranath Tagore’s correspondence with Gandhi also brought about a change in the latter’s thoughts.
Sabyasachi Bhattacharya points out in her introduction to The Mahatma and the Poet that although they had differences over fundamental philosophical questions, each respe-cted the other’s right to opinion.
According to author Stephen Murphy, Gandhi’s adherence to reason has evolved out of western influences. This began with his contact with the Vegetarian Society in London where he was convinced to turn vegetarian.
He was also introduced to two thinkers who were to greatly influence his life: John Ruskin, one of the great Victorian moralists and social thinkers and Leo Tolstoy, Russian aristocrat and moralist.
Gandhi read Ruskin’s Unto this Last while on a journey. He later mentioned: ‘I could not get any sleep that night. I was determined to change my life in accordance with the ideals of the book.’
He later translated the book into Gujarati and called it Sarvodaya (the well-being of all).
Ruskin’s book influenced Gandhi’s concept of soul-force as a substitute for physical force and changed him as a person.
It brought ‘an instantaneous and practical transformation’ in his life. From Ruskin, Gandhi learnt that the good of the individual is contained in the good of all. That the lawyer’s work has the same value as the barber’s, all have the same right of earning their livelihood. That the life of labour as a tiller of soil or the handicraftsman, is the life worth living.
Of these he said: ‘The first I knew, the second I had dimly realised. The third had never occurred to me. I arose with the dawn, ready to reduce these principles to practice.’
Refinement of ideas before consuming them was quintessential to Gandhi. He distilled Ruskin’s concepts to develop his own, to realise that with creation of wealth, its consumption has to be limited.
Post-Ruskin, he developed the Phoenix Farm at Natal, an experiential community of Indians and Europeans, a precedent to the Tolstoy Farm. Gandhi read Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You in 1894 and turned his attention to the concept of nonviolence. At the age of 25, it made a deep impression on him.
Commenting on its impact, he said: ‘Before the… profound morality and the truthfulness of this book, all the books… seemed to pale into insignificance.”
Gandhi and Tolstoy had much in common. They were no philosophers, but were teachers of humanity and practised what they preached. While Tolstoy is considered a prophet of the latter half of the 19th century, Gandhi belongs to the first half of the 20th century.
Tolstoy manifested independent thinking, profound morality and truthfulness. The ideals of ‘resist not evil’ and nonviolence struck deep chords with Gandhi. He began to mould his life according to the ideas of Tolstoy. It was not blind following though. He did not share Tolstoy’s intense dislike for organized government.
Contrasting the two ‘saints’, George Bernard Shaw said: ‘Tolstoy was of sacrifice, yielding and weakness-of passive resistance or non-resistance to evil. Gandhi was of strength and severity-of satyagraha or firmness in truth.’
Gandhi founded the Tolstoy Farm at Johannesburg that afforded him ‘spiritual purification and penance’ in the winning phase of the satyagraha campaign in South Africa (1908-1914).
Gandhi read Thoreau as a student in London, and learnt civil disobedience from him. But, while Thoreau believed in individual action and protests, Gandhi considered civil disobedience the last resort, and conveyed his respect for law.
Like Thoreau, he believed people had the right to disobey unjust laws. But that they should gladly go to jail when they break such laws. Studying various philosophies, religions as well as contemporary history, Gandhi was exposed to numerous influences.
While he never shied from accepting them, he was not over-awed either. From here developed Gandhi’s concepts that gave a nation the power to fight for its freedom.
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